While in Stellenbosch, South Africa, we learned about the Sacrificial Rose (see this post to learn more). It reminded me of the Sacrificial Anode a friend in Annapolis, Maryland told us about.
Here is a sermon Joe preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, often called Good Shepherd Sunday, a few years ago at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis. In the sermon Joe talks about the Sacrificial Anode. The sermon is called, We Know Love by This . . . In addition to the anode illustration, Joe shares a beautiful story by Mike Yaconelli.
Recently, someone told me about the use of sacrificial anodes on boats. Now, I don’t know anything about boats, so please forgive me if I get the details wrong. I found their use really fascinating. Sacrificial anodes are highly active metals like zinc that are used by saltwater boat owners to prevent the less active metal surfaces of things like shafts and rudders from corroding. So you attach sacrificial anodes to your boat and when it is submerged in saltwater you’ve essentially created a battery with the electric current flowing between the different metals. Because the sacrificial anode is made of a metal that gives up its electrons faster, it will be corroded in place of the metal it is protecting, which is why it is referred to as a “sacrificial.”
I find this really interesting, and, it, of course, reminds me of Jesus! Okay, I realize, a lot of things remind me of Jesus, but you have to admit it is pretty interesting. In our Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Sacrifice right! Here, Jesus is contrasting himself with all those bad shepherds out there, the hired hands, who when they catch sight of a wolf coming, cut and run. In Jesus’ day, the hired hands were all those phony baloney religious leaders who tried to usurp his place as the true shepherd of the flock: you know folks like Pharisees, scribes, priests. In our day, they would be all those phony baloney leaders who try to usurp Jesus place in our lives: you know folks like self-help gurus, social media experts, and, God help us, priests. When the wolves begin to howl and the going gets tough, these hired hands abandon us. However, Jesus our Good Shepherd, does not cut and run. Rather when the wolves attack, he lays down his life to save his sheep.
Now I want to take a moment to reflect on what this passage is saying about Jesus’ death. It’s pretty clear that Jesus’ death is saving and that he chooses to lay it down to save his flock. So far this is just basic Christianity. But notice the reason Jesus’ death is saving is that it protects us from the wolves. So step back for a moment. For many people in the church, the reason why Jesus’ death saves us is that it appeases the anger of God. The idea here is that because of our sin we have offended God’s honor and that Jesus restores us to God’s good graces by suffering and dying in our place. For many people this has been a saving and life giving message, and, quite frankly, I’m all for people knowing Christ’s salvation in any way they can. But for many other people the idea that Jesus’ death appeases an angry God is problematic. In the 12thcentury, Peter Abelard wrote: “how cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain – still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world.”  Now I raise these different views of Jesus’ death not to get into a long discussion of different theories of the atonement – join my class in the fall for that – but rather to point out something about the story of the Good Shepherd. The reason Jesus lays down his life is to save us from the wolves, not to appease an angry God. The wolves may represent many things – any power that opposes Christ and destroys the soul – but they can in no way represent God. And, in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death is very clearly spoken of in terms of God’s love, not in terms of God’s anger. John says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
So the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus’ death is indeed saving and it is indeed a sacrifice. But his death and sacrifice are an expression of God’s self-giving love for us, not an expression of God’s anger. Jesus’ death saves us from those ravenous wolves that seek to devour us and to scatter the flock.
So what are those wolves that threated to snatch the sheep and scatter the flock? Well lots of things actually. Sin, death and evil to name some traditional ones. But I think we could also add many other things that seek to devour us: greed, anger, fear, loneliness, hatred. But this morning I want to focus on just one these wolves and that wolf is the lack of compassion that seems to be eating us up these days. And I want to focus on this because that is what our Epistle lesson points us to. First John says, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother and sister in need and yet refuses to help?” This ties right into the story of the Good Shepherd. Out of love, Jesus laid down his life for us. Therefore, out of love, we ought to do the same for one another. And the opposite of this self-giving love is the lack of compassion that sees someone in need and refuses to help.
This wolf, this lack of compassion, does seem to be on the prowl these days. A recent edition of Scientific American reports on a study that looked at empathy in college students. It relies on a questionnaire that measures empathy by asking whether responders agree to statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.” Since the creation of this questionnaire in 1979, tens of thousands of students have filled it out. Looking at the data was startling: almost 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago, and the total drop in empathy is 40 percent.
Now, I don’t think this lack of empathy is limited to college students. It’s just an example. Many folks have commented on the lack of empathy, the lack of civility, and the rise in narcissism in our world today. It’s hard to pinpoint the causes. People try to blame technology, social mobility, social media. But as the Scientific American reminds us, you can’t control for a generation. We can measure things like the decrease in empathy, but figuring out the causes of this decrease is not easy.
Whatever the causes may be, this wolf, this lack of compassion seems to be consuming us these days. It has also given rise to a lot of studies about how important empathy is and how we go about being better at it. David Brooks has a nice article on this where he mentions the following book titles: “The Empathy Gap,” “The Empathic Civilization,” “Teaching Empathy.” But, as he also wisely points out having empathy isn’t enough. He says, “People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.”
Mike Yaconelli tells a story of Christian compassion:
Every month the youth group at River Road Church visited Holcomb Manor, a local nursing home, to do the church services for the people who stayed there. Daryl Jenkins, a reluctant youth group volunteer and former alcoholic, didn’t like nursing homes and had avoided the services. But because of a flu epidemic, Daryl was asked to join a depleted group of sponsors to help with next month’s service. He agreed to go as long as he didn’t have to be part of the program.
The day of the service, Daryl felt awkward and out of place. While the service was in progress, Daryl leaned against the back wall, between two residents in wheelchairs. Just as the service finished and Daryl thought about a quick exit, someone grabbed his hand. Startled, Daryl looked down to see a very old man in a wheelchair holding on to his hand tightly. The man was very old, frail, and obviously lonely. What could Daryl do but hold his hand back? Oliver Leak was his name, his 91-year-old frame bent and twisted, his face covered with deep wrinkles, and his mouth open most of the time. Oliver’s face was expressionless, and Daryl doubted whether the man could hear or see anything.
As everyone began to leave, Daryl realized he didn’t want to leave the old man—he’d been left too many times in his long life. Confused by his feelings, Daryl leaned over to Oliver and whispered, “I’m…uh…sorry. I have to leave, but I’ll be back. I promise.” Without any warning, Mr. Leak responded by squeezing Daryl’s hand and then let go. Daryl’s eyes filled with tears, and he grabbed his stuff and started to leave. Inexplicably, Daryl heard himself say to the old man, “I love you.” (Where did that come from? What’s the matter with me?)
Daryl came back the next month…and the month after that. The routine was the same: Daryl would stand in the back, Mr. Leak would grab his hand, Daryl would say he had to leave, Mr. Leak would squeeze his hand, and Daryl would say softly, “I love you, Mr. Leak.” (He had learned his name, of course.) Soon Daryl would find himself all week looking forward to visiting his old friend.
On Daryl’s sixth visit, he could tell something was wrong. Mr. Leak wasn’t at the service. Daryl wasn’t too concerned at first because it often took the nurses a long time to wheel everyone out. But as the service went on, Daryl became alarmed. He went to the head nurse. “Um, I don’t see Mr. Leak here today. Is he okay?” The nurse asked Daryl to follow her, and she led him to Room 27 where Oliver lay in his bed, his eyes closed, his breathing uneven. At 40 years of age, Daryl had never seen someone dying, but he knew Oliver was near death. Slowly he walked to the side of the bed and grabbed his hand. Oliver was unresponsive, and it didn’t take long for the tears to come for Daryl. They had never spoken, and Daryl knew he might never see Oliver alive again. So much he wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t come out. They were together about an hour when the youth director gently interrupted Daryl to say they were leaving.
Daryl stood to leave and squeezed Mr. Leak’s hand for the last time. “I’m sorry, Oliver, I have to go. I love you.” As he unclasped his hand, he felt a squeeze. The tears were unstoppable now. Daryl stumbled toward the door, trying to gain his composure.
A young woman was standing at the door, and Daryl almost bumped into her. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t see you.”“It’s all right, I’ve been waiting to see you,” she said. “I’m Oliver’s granddaughter. He’s dying, you know.”“Yes, I know.”“I wanted to meet you,” she went on, “When the doctors said he was dying, I came immediately. We were very close. They said he couldn’t talk, but he always talked to me. Not much, but I knew what he was saying. Last night he woke up. His eyes were bright and alert. He looked straight into my eyes and said, ’Please say goodbye to Jesus for me,’ and he lay back down and closed his eyes. I whispered to him, ’Grandpa, I don’t need to say goodbye to Jesus. You’re going to be with him soon, and you can tell him hello.’ He struggled to open his eyes again, but this time his face lit up with a mischievous smile that he only gave to me, and he said as clearly as I’m talking to you, ’I know, but Jesus comes to see me every month, and he might not know I’ve gone.’ He closed his eyes and hasn’t spoken since.“I told the nurse what he said, and she told me about you coming every month, holding his hand. I wanted to thank you for him, for me, and…well…I never thought of Jesus being as chubby and bald as you, but I imagine Jesus is very glad to have been mistaken for you. I know Oliver is. Thank you.” She leaned over and kissed Daryl on the forehead.Oliver Leak died peacefully the next morning.
First John tells, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Brothers and sisters, we have Jesus and his love. Let the wolves howl.
See Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000).
The sailboat picture is by Daniel Olah on Unsplash.com. The anode photo is from wikipedia.