the Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10. 22-30
Jesus loves and we love, not in return, but in turn!

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a week. For some reason, it feels a lot longer! But last Sunday, things went well for Sherice and me, at Christ’s Lutheran over in Odessa. From what I heard, it went well for you, here at Midland Lutheran, as well. I’d been invited to preach and, afterward worship, had the chance to lead a short workshop. The same one, actually, that I’d led at the synod assembly, a couple of weekends ago. A Place without Lutherans, I think I called it. The goal was to imagine your “place” – wherever that “place” might be – without an ELCA congregation. What would it lose? What would be missing? What would it do without? Not you as a church, but them as a community! And like I said, things went well.

But I have to say, the best part came on the way back to Midland, as Sherice and I talked about the morning. Because, once again, I was struck by the gracefulness of this church! That ended up being the bottom line of all four workshops! Five, if you include the dry run with our adult class, before the assembly! Grace, charity, love, was the one thing every group decided people would miss the most about us! No one else proclaims good news quite like us! Love without exception! Love without apology! Love without excuse! Over and over! Again and again! Time after time after time! That’s who we are! Not just as a congregation, but as a denomination!

We believe in love! Not just love-in-general, but grace – charity – in particular! We believe in it! We stake our loves on it! Just as Lutherans have done for twenty-five generations! I was struck by the gracefulness of this church! And I was struck by something else! Not something I haven’t thought about, before. Not something you haven’t heard me talk about. But this time, I was struck by the height and the depth and the breadth of it. Like I said, we believe in love! But as Americans … as West Texans … as people living on the buckle of the bible belt … nothing could be further from the truth. Out here, love is nothing more than a four-letter word. In the oil patch, it’s a word that leaves a bad taste in our mouth. Sure, it’s fine to love god. To love god and to love country. But other than that, we don’t trust it. Instead, we believe in person effort. We believe in hard work. Nothing is free. Everything comes at a cost. And we have to be willing to pay the price. The sweat of our brow! That’s what we believe in! The sweat of our brow and the strength of our own two hands! That’s what we stake our life on! Even more, that’s what we stake the lives of the people around us on!

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day! Teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. That’s our motto. Unfortunately, we never stop to consider how he lives until he learns. How he lives and how his family lives and how his neighbors and friends get by. We are a real-shoulder-to-the-wheel, nose-to-the-grindstone, pull-ourselves-up-by-our-own-bootstraps kind of people. And love, charity, grace, only causes problems. We believe that love spoils us. We believe love makes us weak, makes us needy. We believe love makes us less. You’ve heard it before! Like me, you, probably, have said the same thing, a time or two. That’s the problem with the younger generation! They’ve had everything given to them! They haven’t had to work for anything! Blah, blah, blah! Yada, yada, yada!

According to the world around us, love isn’t the solution! Work is! Work harder! Work longer! Good hard work! The kind that only makes you stronger, if it doesn’t kill you! It’s not the dreams that matter! It’s the effort and the energy you put into the dreams! That’s what makes they come true! The blood and the sweat and the tears! If there’s love, at all, it’s gotta be the tough kind! Rigid! Inflexible! Demanding! The kind of love that expects you to do it yourself. After all, god helps those who help themselves! But just to be clear, that isn’t what the church believes. We believe in the total and complete opposite of all that!

We believe that love doesn’t make us weak; it makes us strong! Love doesn’t make us needy; it makes us generous! It doesn’t make us less; it makes us more! More than we could ever imagine! Love isn’t the problem; it’s the solution! Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works, out there! On the other side of these walls! Through these doors! Beyond these windows! That’s not the way it works for John Wayne or Gary Cooper! For Clint Eastwood or for Charles Bronson! For Arnold or Sylvester or Stephen or Chuck or Bruce! That’s not the way it works for the self-confident or the self-sufficient or the self-reliant! For the armies of one who need nothing, who need no one! No, out there, the problem isn’t too little love. The problem is too much. And on the way back here, last Sunday afternoon, I realized that, all over again.

But we’re not here because we believe what the world believes. That’s not who we are. That’s not what we’re about. Take that popular religion, what the world believes, turn it inside-out, flip it upside-down, and you begin to understand! That’s what we believe in! Love without limit or measure! Free, unearned, undeserved! Never-ending! Everlasting! We believe love creates us! We believe love saves us! We believe love makes us new! We believe that with all our heart! With all our mind! We believe it with every cell and every atom of our being! You want to know why the church is having problems? The church in North America? The church here in the United States? Why we’re shrinking? Why we’re growing old? It’s because we’ve given up on love! We’ve buckled! Caved! We allow this world to speak on behalf of our god! We’ve allowed this world to say things our god never said! To say things our god would never say! We try to be the church – to be god’s very own – but without the grace! Without the charity! Without the love!

That’s what the gospel, this morning, is about! “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.“ We’re all sheep! And one flock looks, pretty much, like any other! Looks like! Sounds like! Smells like! But the thing that makes them different, that distinguishes them one from another, is the voice! The shepherd speaks; and the sheep recognize it! The sheep respond to it! They hear me, Jesus says! And they know me! They know the patience! And the gentleness! The kindness and the compassion! They know the humility and the modesty and the respect! They know the love! They know and they trust! And, then, they follow! I love, says Jesus! And, then, they love, as well! They love … just like me!