Sermon for April 26, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Texts: Psalm 23 and I John 3:16-24


Harder Than It Looks

You may have heard the story of The State of Massachusetts who faced a unique and rather agonizing court case involving the family of a man who drowned and another man who refused to save him.

“According to court evidence, the deceased and his friends had been at the lake for the afternoon when he accidentally tripped on a rope, lost his balance, and fell off the dock into the water. He couldn’t swim.

He surfaced, flailing his arms wildly as he sputtered and cried for help. He did this a few more times before finally sinking beneath the lake’s surface.

“His friends were standing on the adjacent dock and saw what was happening, but they couldn’t get there fast enough to save him. When they pulled him onshore, he couldn’t be revived . . . it was too late.

“Their grief and anguish was compounded by the fact that, just a few yards from where their friend had fallen, a man was sunbathing in his beach chair. Even though he had heard the splash and the cries for help, and even though it would later be proven that he was an excellent swimmer, he had chosen not to go to the man’s rescue.

“When the dead man’s family heard this news, they were beside themselves with anger. They took the apathetic sunbather to court to sue him for negligence. The case went all the way to the State Supreme Court, where strong arguments were made on both sides. The court’s decision was rendered, and the grieving family lost their case.

It was decided that the young man on the dock had no legal responsibility to try to save the drowning man’s life.  He had the right to choose whether or not to help.

Perhaps there is no clearer image of our fallen world than this. We wrangle over whether we have the right to endear ourselves to women in their 80’s and at the final hour inherit their wealth. We get caught up in the lurid details of information shared through hacked e-mails and security breaches about who is doing what to whom. Most television programming from cop shows to reality television to our favorite drama, positions us, as bystanders in a world we believe we aren’t in a position to change and probably wouldn’t if we could.

Our reality as Christians is different than this. We love in truth and action. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, but to lay down his life for his friends.” The writer of this letter from one of the earliest of Jesus followers wrote these words today. “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

The gospel of John, one of the other assigned readings for today parallels this teaching. Jesus said again, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And then Jesus said a radical thing for the umpteenth time. “I am the good shepherd, I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me an I know the Father, I give up my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be on flock, with one shepherd.” God gave up his son for all people. Jesus lay down his life for his friends and his enemies. Jesus loved his neighbor as himself, and then showed us that our neighbor is everyone and commanded us to do the same.

      We hear these words: “But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care- how can the love of God remain in him? Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with actions and truth.” Love in truth and in action, not with words or speech.

What would compel us to do such a thing? Why would we get up off of the safety of the dock where we are sunbathing and risk our lives to save a drowning man? We can all well imagine that we would run into a burning building to save our own child. We wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice whatever it takes to the sake of our dearest friend. What could possibly motivate us to lay down our life for the neighbor we don’t know, the stranger we don’t trust, or the enemy we don’t like?

            Jesus’ commandment to love in truth and action harder than it looks. Apart from God, we can’t. Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches, whoever abides in me and I in them will bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. Our human love is always partial and imperfect. Rather than loving our neighbor, much of the time we resent our neighbor, or judge our neighbor or take pleasure in talking smack about those with whom we do not agree or who disappoint us, or we turn a blind eye towards the need of our neighbor as if their problems have no claim on us. This is the way of the world, and it was the way of the world into which Jesus was born. To become a people who do what Jesus did and love as Jesus loves requires a transformation of being, a conversion, a re-generation, the power of the Holy Spirit. Call it what you will. We love as Christ loved us when Christ is in us and the spirit works through us and we can’t make that up or create it by ourselves.

            We love in truth and action because we remember the awestruck wonder of that moment when we knew without question that God is God that Jesus is who he says he is, and that the Holy makes possible all things, though we cannot. When we experience the holy, we are changed by it. Then our patience for a spectator life disappears. We simply can no longer abide sitting on our hands while the world burns.

            One of the tests for our willingness to respond in such as way as this is to listen to our young people. Our youth in this church, in every church, in our culture at large become the barometer for the authenticity of our faith and our willingness to risk it all for God’s glory.

Many parents and church leaders wonder how to most effectively cultivate durable faith in the lives of young people.

A five-year project culminating in 2011 headed by Barna Group president David Kinnaman explores the opportunities and challenges of faith development among teens and young adults within a rapidly shifting culture.

The research project was comprised of eight national studies, including interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth pastors, and senior pastors. The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15.

No single reason dominated the break-up between church and young adults. Instead, a variety of reasons emerged. Overall, the research uncovered six significant themes why nearly three out of every five young Christians disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.

            One of those six reasons comes into play with our teaching this morning. The second reason cited that teens and twenty-something’s pull away from church is that they find Christianity shallow. They want to do something significant. Young people depart church as young adults because something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said that “church is boring”.  One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough”. Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said, “God seems missing from my experience of church”.

            At the same time, a secular website called DoSomething.org has nearly 4 million young adult members. Why? It invites them to do something with their lives instead of just talk about it. It creates a pathway for them to love in truth and action instead of giving lip service to ideals. It asks them three focus questions around their passion, their time and their interest, and then steers them towards a project that matches it. DoSomething.org asks:

            What are you passionate about?

            How long do you have?

            What would you like to do?


Wouldn’t it be great if we invited people to join the church at lovesomeone.org? By the grace of God, we can.

            The great teacher and monk Thomas Merton wrote these words of invitation to new life, a poetic invitation then elaborated by writer Annie Dillard.


 “Thomas Merton wrote, “there is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.” There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

“I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”

Jesus came to the disciples after his death as Jesus comes to us through those moments when the veil lifts, if only for a moment.  When we encounter or experience the presence of God, when we glimpse the holy face to face, we’re forever changed. With Thomas we touch Jesus’ wounded hands and feet. With the two disciples, we hear Jesus’ voice while walking along on the road to Emmaus. With his friends deep in grief out fishing on the lake, we receive from Jesus’ hands a breakfast of bread and fish. Once we’ve been changed, we never forget what happened to us. We’re caught up in the mystery of the Holy, in wonderment of this God who through us has the power to transform our lives and the world.

For the sake of the youth, for our sake, for God’s sake,

“Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth…I am the good shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Amen