Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was young, it was said that talk was cheap, until you were making a long distance telephone call. Today, we might say talk is cheap until you hire a lawyer. After all, who else can write a 10,000 word document and call it a brief. Surprisingly, former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot captured the sentiment best when he said, “Talk is cheap. Words are plentiful. Deeds are precious.”
Words are powerful to be sure. And as a preacher, I hope that my words may at times comfort and console, and at others times, inspire, motivate and move men and women into action. But I know there are times when words, and my words included, are empty and cheap. It is good to talk about what you believe, but it is even more important that you do something about it. Saying you believe in Jesus and that he is your Good Shepherd is the easy part of the Christian faith. It’s the “living it” that proves it. As American Poet Laureate Edgar Guest once added, “Talk is cheap. I would rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” Yes, “Talk is cheap. Words are plentiful. But… Deeds are precious.”
That is the challenge for you and me and the entire Christian church. We live in a world where a new generation of cautious, yet curious observers sees faith as nothing more than cheap words. They do not what to hear what you believe and how faith is important to you; they want to see that what you believe is important and inspires and causes you to act.
Of course, ours is not the first generation to question the truth of the Christian faith. St. John the Apostle understood our present generation’s struggle with words. According to tradition, the beloved disciple John was the only one of Jesus’ twelve who lived unto old-age. All the other disciples died as martyrs early in life. In spite of persecution by both the Roman and Jewish authorities, he witnessed the church’s growth in vitality and numbers. When Jewish converts to Christianity were driven out of their communities, St. John observed them being welcomed into the arms of diaconal ministers who offered them renewed strength. Around the Mediterranean Sea, John watched as Christians were blamed for political insurrections- even the destruction of the city of Rome. But it didn’t stop Christians from proclaiming Jesus as Lord. It was said that the blood of the martyrs nurtured the growth of the church. And so the communities of faith gathered financial resources to take care of those who had been left abandoned. But in his old-age, St. John observed a change. The beloved words of Christian confession were becoming cheap. Believers were being tempted to fall away, and were deserting the community of faith. Tragically, persecuted Christians were being neglected by their own people and were left to find their own strength and means.
And so St. John challenged the men and women who called themselves Christian to live by a different standard and ethos. It is a call and challenge to our generations as well, and to everyone who knows Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Most of us know John 3: 16 by heart, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son .” But for those who know these words, the apostle writes, it would be good to learn 1 John 3:16 as well. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Apparently, even in the 1st century, “Talk was cheap. Words were plentiful. Deeds were precious.”
The world still needs such a shepherd who is willing to lay down his or her life for the sheep. Simply look around you. In the past year, the Kurds who were once living in peace in northern Iraq, were suddenly pushed up against the mountains, driven like a herd of sheep, being shot at like lambs being led to the slaughter. This week, nations around the world, marked the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide where millions of people who were feared would side with the enemy, were methodically relocated to desert areas to perish. There was no good shepherd to bring them to a place of still waters and green pastures. 70 years ago, the concentration camps of Nazi Germany were liberated. Neighbors had shied away from the responsibilities of leading other on the paths of righteousness. And today, innocent families are again being pursued and persecuted by wolves across the Middle East and are fleeing in boats across the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, there are hired hands and shepherds, helping them to flee, but where is the good shepherd who has come to bring them abundant life? Yes, we live in a world where “Talk is cheap. Words are plentiful. Deeds are precious.”
That is the way of life is in our own backyard as well: infinitely, delicately fragile. The balance of life is easily shattered. Suddenly, it is a car accident. Suddenly, it is cancer or another debilitating disease that strikes you or a person living in your home. You are told, “Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry; God never blinks.” But that’s not how you feel. Everything was going so well last week, and this week it has all changed. Yesterday was glorious and today is tragic. In such a world, God calls and challenges us to live out our faith in deeds, and not simply in words. But how do we dare?
Now you may be wondering: So what does suffering and pain have to do with this joyous Eastertide, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and the Good Shepherd? Everything, I would say. And that my friends, should delight and comfort your heart as well. You see, it is because we have a Good Shepherd who laid died his life for you and me and rose again, that we can dare to act. Every Sunday, as I stand in this pulpit, I look up at the stained glass window of Jesus the Good Shepherd holding a lamb in his arms. It is in that portrait that I am reminded time and again, that because I have the Lord as my shepherd, I need be afraid of the present for the future. It is because the Lord is my shepherd, that I do not need to worry about my own earthly, physical needs. He will guide me to the places where he will provide my daily bread. It is because the Lord is my shepherd, that I know that even though evil seems to have the upper hand, it is just a momentary illusion. The shepherd will accompany me in the paths of righteousness.
God’s love for us became tangible in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ and his laying down his life for us. Just as God became your good shepherd so that you could live life abundantly, he has invited you to become a Good Shepherd to those around you. So often we think Christian love and faith is about emotions, feelings, and sweet words. At some point, however, if faith is to be perceived by others as real, it must become tangible, revealed not only by words and feelings but by actions. We too must learn to be like the Good Shepherd. That is what our sons and daughter, friends and neighbors want in their lives. They want to see and touch a living shepherd. And they are looking to you and to me, God’s Easter people.
Whenever you lay down your life for another, whenever you suffer with another, whenever you accompany someone in need, and defend the rights of those oppressed, in deeds and not simply words, you proclaim that Christ’ resurrection is not just an event of the past. It is a present reality. Laying down your life makes Jesus’ resurrection tangible and real. The only reason we can ever lay down our life for another is because know and trust that Jesus first laid down his life for us. The shepherd never takes his sheep somewhere he is unwilling to go. He never asks of his sheep something he is himself is unwilling to give.
And the opportunities for a laying down life are everywhere. You don’t have to go far. They are the acts of selfless love that you do for the family and friends we see every day. They are for the people in this city. They are for the strangers who pass through our lives. They are the anonymous ones we talk about as issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, education. The opportunities for laying down your life are not just circumstances. They are for people, human beings created in the image and likeness of God.
Truthfully, most of our memorable acts of shepherding and laying down our life go unnoticed. And yet these are the good things that ultimately will last. They are not words, but they are precious deeds. Mary Rita Schilke Korzan, in a poem entitled, “When You thought I Wasn’t looking,” captures the good things that last in the work of teaching.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you displayed my first report, and I wanted to do another.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you fed a stray cat, and I thought it was good to be kind to animals.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you gave me a sticker, and I knew that little things were special things.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you put your arm around me, and I felt loved.
When you thought I wasn’t looking I saw tears come from your eyes, and I learned that sometimes things hurt–but that it’s all right to cry.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you smiled, and it made me want to look that pretty too.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, you cared, and I wanted to be everything I could be.
When you thought I wasn’t looking–I looked…and
Wanted to say Thanks for all those things you did when you thought I wasn’t looking.
My friends, laying down your life and offering yourself to others, is not the end of life. It wasn’t the true for the Good Shepherd Jesus, nor will it be for you. It is, rather, the beginning of a new life, a more authentic and abundant life that looks and feels a lot like Jesus’ life. It is the life in and by which you hear the voice of the good shepherd call your name and you follow where he leads. And it is this life, this wordless confession of faith, that gives hope, to those who those who are curious and skeptical. “Talk is cheap. Words are plentiful. But “Little Children,” as St. John would remind us, “Deeds are precious.”
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.