Truth and Action
Truth and action - there is a relationship between truth and action. You’ve heard this said a thousand times in just as many ways. People say things like, “The proof is in the pudding, actions speak louder than words, or practice what you preach.”
There is another phrase that involves another phrase that my mother taught me not to say, and especially not from the pulpit (my kids will never let me hear the end of this). The phrase is, “Shut up and dance,” and it has shown up in pop culture repeatedly over the last decade as song titles, band names, and blatant challenges to act. It’s a challenge to act on opportunities, and it is a challenge to stand up and demonstrate what you believe in.
In fact, Shut Up and Dance was even the title of a recent fundraiser in New Jersey held by the Pennsylvania Ballet netting $150,000 for a group called MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance). MANNA is similar to our Meals on Wheels program, except that they serve people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, or other life-threatening illnesses.
And so the author of 1 John challenges us to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And although we receive this as an invitation, it is at the same time both a commandment and a description of who we are and what we do as followers of Jesus.
For those of us who have grown up in the tradition of following Jesus, we sometimes forget what it means to truly follow Jesus. We hear these words about the love of Jesus - having laid down his life for us - and we are comforted with the expectation of salvation. We hear the words of the 23rd Psalm, and we are comforted with the expectation of providence. We hear Jesus proclaiming his title and nature as the Good Shepherd, and we receive them like a cold drink on a hot afternoon.
All of these perceptions are true and good and lead to certain actions. The trouble is - we tend to see the claim of salvation and the expectation of providence and restoration as an end in and of themselves. The action they lead to is - more often than not - complacency. We stop with, “Jesus loves me this I know,” and we forget that there are other people who need to hear that - other people who need to sing that, other people with whom we do not want to sing it with, and other people who cannot hear it because they do not believe it.
And so, again, the elder who wrote 1 John confronts us by saying, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Before wallowing in the guilt such a scripture text can dish out, I think it is important to note where this came from. It came from an early tradition in the church that was defending against schism and separation. The tradition it represents was probably more gentile than Jewish, and the members were part of a caste society. People were born into roles and classes - although there was the remote possibility that you could buy or slave your way into a position of higher influence.
So, the suggestion - or rather the expectation - of Christian love that is being described here is far more radical than any other kind of social reform. Expressing God’s love by helping someone in need is not a description of government (although I would argue that challenging those systems that create or engender need is an equal expression of that same love). However you do it - be it personal or political - expressing God’s love is not easy. It is not simple, and it is necessarily costly.
Now, this is about the part where most of us start trying to figure out how to change the channel. That’s what we do, is it not? We are so accustomed to having an endless supply of media to consume. The internet is a boundless playground for the pursuit of information with the intent of procrastination. One could spend days on end (and some frequently do) just forwarding emails that range from the sublime to the ridiculous!
But what about just sticking to scripture. Let’s bring back that 23rd Psalm in the KJV. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Sadly I must confess that this line always reminds me of a camp game called “Surely, Goodness, and Mercy Tag.” It starts off with three people tagging others within a confined space until it becomes one big amoeba-like blob consuming everyone.
The thing is - as trite as that sounds - there is some truth to that. A literal interpretation of the word for follow is to pursue. Why would God do that? What is so special about me or you that the Creator of all that is might pursue us? Truly it is not so much that God is chasing us so much as God is simply already there. In the game I just described there comes a point where you can’t really run without bumping into the massiveness of God’s unchanging and never failing love!
And so it is with us as followers of Jesus. As familiar as this Psalm of David is for those who follow Jesus, I imagine it had to be even more familiar for Jesus himself. Consider, for a moment, what this Psalm may have meant to Jesus.
Maybe the claim of being God’s anointed, the promise of restoration, and the promise of God’s never failing presence comforted him in Gethsemane. One thing is for sure, knowing that Jesus prayed this prayer faithfully changes my perspective on the idea of being led “in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.” For Jesus knew that the path of righteousness was not a path of personal comfort - but rather a path to death and resurrection.
Jesus knew that his followers would understand what he meant when he called himself, “The Good Shepherd.” It would have been clear to them that he was claiming to be the one blessed by God to restore Israel. It also would have been clear to them that he was willing to die to make it happen.
You see, a shepherd during those times would find an enclosed space for his sheep and make his bed at the entrance - literally becoming the gate. The sheep became aware of his voice and presence in such a way that any other voice or presence would become a threat. Trust between man and beast was built on the experience of sacrificial love, and the sheep felt safe because of it.
Or so we assume. Sheep are not entirely rational beasts, and I would bet it had more to do with not being afraid than understanding sacrificial love. I would also bet that the ones who heard Jesus claim to be the good shepherd had no clue what he meant about “taking his life back up again.”
We, on the other hand, live after the resurrection - and now is a particular time in the life of the church ask ourselves, “So what?” So, what does it mean that we have a good shepherd - AND - we are called to love as we have been loved? Are we the sheep or are we the shepherd?
And the answer is... YES! We are a priesthood of believers. We are a congregation of ministers, each seeking ways to employ our gifts and talents. We are committed disciples and generous givers who love dangerously and passionately! We are a congregation of believers that has been moving around this community playing “Surely, Goodness, and Mercy Tag” for over 135 years, and we are a group of sheep that know where to go when we fall short, when we find ourselves in need of grace, and when we realize that we are best when we recognize that we have been at our worst.
The best part of that is knowing that none of this is a means to an end - self sacrifice, confession, and following the lead of the Good Shepherd are simply part of the reality we enjoy as followers of Jesus. They are signs in the road that point to the kingdom that is both present and yet to come, and they are experiences of God that require a response. I could also say that they are an invitation to “shut up and dance,” but I think I would rather say, “Tag - you’re it!” But don’t worry. We are all “it.” So, Beloved of God, I look forward to finding ways that have yet to be revealed that our hearts will convict us to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And to God be the glory for that - now and always. Amen.