Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Breaking Free to a Better Life


In John 3, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a religious leader, comes to Jesus by night. He comes by night, no doubt, because he doesn’t want to risk his reputation, position, and standing with his group who has a very negative view of Jesus. Such is the power of the group (family, church, denomination, political party, social group, country, etc.) to tell us who we are and keep us in the dark.

Night is also symbolical of where Nicodemus is at this stage in his life journey. He is in the dark – blind to the truth of God. However, and this is the really important thing, he senses a need to know beyond what the other Pharisees are saying. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be taking this risk to talk to Jesus. Unlike so many of his colleagues, who see in Jesus only a threat to their power and place, Nicodemus sees in Jesus a man who radiates something special. A person who is authentic and compassionate, honest and courageous, and who seems to really know God.

Now, let’s be clear on this. We are all like Nicodemus. We are all in the dark to some degree. There are shades and degrees in our experience of darkness and light. We are not all in the same place. We are all blind in some area of our lives. I’m sure I am. Of course, I can’t tell you exactly what I am blind to, for if I could, then I wouldn’t be blind to it would I?  

In the final book of “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis there is a scene where a group of dwarfs are huddled together in a tight little knot thinking they are in a pitch black, smelly hole of a stable. In reality, however, they are out in the midst of an endless, grassy green countryside with sun shining and blue sky overhead. Aslan, the Christ figure, is present with them, but they are not able to see him. When Aslan offers them the finest food, they think they are eating spoiled meat scraps and sour turnips. When Aslan offers them the choicest wine, they mistake it for ditch water. Lucy, the youngest and most tenderhearted of the Narnian children, feels compassion for them. She tries to reason with them, but to no avail. Finally, frustrated, she cries out, “It isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs. Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers.”  

Why are the Dwarfs so blind? Why can’t they see? The one constant refrain on the lips of the dwarfs is: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. They lived by that mantra. They could not see beyond their group. It was all about the dwarfs.

One of the main reasons we cannot see is because we get stuck in the limiting, confining views of our ego and our group, and are therefore blind to our own and our group’s faults, biases, prejudices, and self-interests. The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. Christians are for Christians. Southern Baptists are for Southern Baptists. (Recently, the Kentucky Baptist Convention voted to de-fellowship all churches who support the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. It’s hard to believe a Christian group can be so fearful, insecure, and threatened by another Christian group, which provides a vivid example of just how exclusive, narrow, and blind groups can be). Americans are for Americans. Our self-idolatry and group idolatry, which we often mistake as loyalty or faithfulness, keeps us stuck in the darkness and prevents us from seeing the beauty, wonder, mystery, and immensity of God, and from experiencing the truth that could really set us free.

For the first part of my life and ministry I was as blind as these dwarfs. I carried my New Scofield Reference Bible into my first college Bible class, and was determined the liberal professor who taught it wasn’t going to change me. My mind was made up. I had the truth and all the answers. I was arrogant, but couldn’t see my arrogance. But I was loyal to my group of dispensational, premillennial, biblical inerrantists. Then, during a later stage in my life journey I had some experiences that opened up a crack for the light to get in (I will share these experiences in a later article sometime) and I encountered a fresh wind of the Spirit that set me free from my ego attachment and my group idolatry.

Until a person is willing to concede that he or she could be wrong, and is ready to listen to voices and seek truth beyond one’s particular group, that person will remain trapped in the darkness of one’s group biases and rigidity, blind to the beauty, bounty, and bigness of God.

But once a crack opens and a ray of honesty and openness breaks through, once the fire of the inclusive Spirit of Christ is ignited in one’s heart, one is “born again” – and again and again and again, because there is no end to the possibilities of new life. 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Breaking Free to a New Beginning (A sermon from John 3:1-10 on a day we honor graduates)


Our story begins with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a religious leader, coming to Jesus by night. He comes by night possibly to avoid being seen in the day. He is a Pharisee, and the official Pharisaic position about Jesus is very negative. I suspect he doesn’t want to risk his reputation and position and standing with his group, where he is recognized as a leader, where he has status and clout. The power of the group to tell us who we are and keep us in the dark, in the night is powerful.

In his book, Letters to a Young Doubter, the late William Sloan Coffin says that when he was chaplain at Yale, he would sometimes get requests from seniors to write a letter of recommendation to some highfalutin school like Harvard Law or Columbia Medical School. He mostly wrote about their character and integrity rather than their academic achievements or potential, which to some students was not totally satisfactory. Coffin describes it this way: “Never mind that I enumerated some sterling extracurricular qualities. Never mind that in order to be accepted into Harvard Law or Columbia Medical School you had to be in the ninety-seventh percentile and to graduate ninety-eight. Just because I didn’t say they would be in the ninety-ninth percentile, they felt they had somehow failed.” Coffin ends by concluding: “Such is the power of higher education to tell you who you are!”

I would say, “Such is the power of the group to tell us who we are.” Nicodemus was fearful of being judged by his group. We all struggle with those fears. What gives us the courage and the spiritual, moral strength to pursue what is good and right and just and loving regardless of the pressures to conform to the group is the mysterious power we call Holy Spirit. It’s the power and grace of God that supplies us with the courage we need.

Before Jesus began his healing, preaching, and teaching work he heard the voice of God say to him when he was baptized by John, “You are my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” That’s the voice Jesus heard and heeded. Jesus faced all kinds of accusations and criticisms and charges of condemnation from the Jewish leadership, but Jesus kept listening to the voice of God, and his life and work were shaped by that voice – not group think, not the expectations of others, not even his family or his church, but his God. The Spirit of God formed Jesus’ life and values. I pray that our graduates and all of us here would be shaped and led by the Spirit of God, rather than fear, or group pressure, or ego, or the need to be honored or recognized, or anything else.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Night is a reflection, too, of where Nicodemus is at this stage in his life journey. He is in the dark. He is blind to the truth of God. However, and this is the really important thing, he comes seeking truth. I doubt if he knows at this point how blind he is, but he senses a need to know. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be coming to Jesus. And, unlike many of his colleagues, who see in Jesus only a threat to their power and place, Nicodemus sees in Jesus a man who radiates something special. A crack has opened somewhere. He sees in Jesus a  person who is authentic and compassionate, honest and courageous, and who seems to really know God. So Nicodemus may be thinking: I don’t know God the way Jesus knows God. So he seeks Jesus out.

Now, let’s be clear on this. We are all like Nicodemus. We are all in the dark to some degree. There are shades and degrees of darkness, as is true with the light. There are degrees in our experience of darkness and light. And all of us are blind in some area of our lives. I’m sure I am. Of course, I can’t tell you what it is at this  moment that I am blind to. If I could tell you, I wouldn’t be blind to it would I?

In the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis there is scene where a group of dwarfs are huddled together in a tight little knot thinking they are in a pitch black, smelly hole of a stable. In reality, however, they are out in the midst of an endless, grassy green countryside with sun shining and blue sky overhead. Aslan, the Christ figure, is present with them, but they are not able to see him. When Aslan offers them the finest food, they think they are eating spoiled meat scraps and sour turnips. When Aslan offers them the choicest wine, they mistake it for ditch water. Lucy, the youngest and most tenderhearted of the Narnian children, feels compassion for them. She tries to reason with them, but to no avail. Finally, frustrated, she cries out, “It isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs. Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers!” But they can’t see. I remember a time in my life when the college professor who taught my New Testament Introduction class tried his best, through reason and logic and common sense and theological reflection, to get me to see. But I couldn’t see. I was not in a place where I could see.

Why are the Dwarfs so blind? Why can’t they see? The one constant refrain on the lips of the dwarfs, their incessant cry is: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. They lived by that mantra: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. They could not see beyond their own self-interests; they could not see beyond their group. It was all about the dwarfs.

Now, one of the main reasons we get stuck in the darkness and cannot see, is because we get stuck in the limiting, confining views of our own ego and our group. The group can be our family of origins. It can be the religious group (church, denomination) we were converted into later in life or indoctrinated into as a child. It can be a social group. It can be a political party, or even our country. Sometimes what we label as patriotism is simply blindness.

We remain in darkness as long as we can’t see beyond our group’s limitations, biases, prejudices, and self-interests. The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. Christians are for Christians. Baptists are for Baptists. Americans are for Americans. Our group idolatry, which we often mistake as loyalty, keeps us stuck in the darkness and prevents us from seeing the beauty, wonder, mystery, and immensity of God, and the truth that could really set us free.

For the first part of my life and ministry I was as blind as these dwarfs. I really was. I carried my New Scofield Reference Bible into my first college Bible class and was determined that the professor, who I had already labeled liberal, wasn’t going change me. My mind was made up. I had the truth. I had the answers. I was certain. Actually, I was arrogant and didn’t know it. I was blind to my arrogance. But I was loyal to my group – of dispensational, premillennial, biblical inerrantists.

So what happened? What prompted change in my life? As I have reflected on my journey, I have come to the conclusion that God used three sets of experiences to get through to me, to open a crack for the light to get in. And please don’t misunderstand. In no way am I implying that God caused these experiences. God used these experiences to break open a crack in my ego. One set of experiences had to do with the birth of our second child, another set of experiences around the same time as Julie’s birth involved an advanced level Greek class that dealt with New Testament textual criticism that sparked all sorts of questions for me. And the third set of experiences occurred during my first three years of ministry post seminary teaching High School Bible and being a mission pastor at a very conservative Baptist School and Church. Those experiences opened the door of my heart and mind, and prompted me to pursue truth beyond my group. And once the crack opened, light flooded in.

New beginnings are possible for all of us, no matter what age we are, if we are open to change and growth. New beginnings are possible if we are willing to let go of our pride and certitude, and seek truth beyond our group, beyond our loyalty to family of origins, or our religious group or church or denomination, or political party or social club or pier group. And until we are willing to pursue truth beyond our ego and beyond our group, like Nicodemus was willing to do, we will remain in darkness. It is our stubborn ego that is the real obstacle to growth.

Quaker author and educator, Parker Palmer explains how he took a yearlong sabbatical from his work in Washington to go to Pendle Hill, outside of Philadelphia, as dean of a Quaker living-and-learning community of some seventy people. During Parker’s tenure as dean at Pendle Hill he was offered the opportunity to become president of a small educational institution. He visited the campus, spoke with administrators, trustees, faculty, and students, and had been basically told that the job was his if he wanted it.

Initially, he felt certain this was the job for him, but in the Quaker tradition, he called upon a few trusted friends to form a “clearness committee” to help him with his decision. In this process the group, though refraining from giving advice, asks open, honest questions to help the seeker discover his or her own inner truth. The process is that the clearness committed helps clear away the obstacles so the person who called the committee can hear God’s voice and discern God’s will.  

Parker said that at first the questions were easy: What is your vision for this institution? What is its mission in the larger society? And so forth, which questions  he handled with ease. But then about halfway into the process, someone asked him a question that initially sounded simple, but then turned out to be very difficult: “What would you like most about being president?”

In Parker’s words, the simplicity of the question loosed him from his head and lowered him into his heart. (By the way, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit and often the Holy Spirit has to do this through the words and deeds of other persons.) Well, Parker thought about it for a full minute before he could respond. Then, very softly and tentatively, he started to speak and launched out into this litany of what he would not like about it: “Well, I would not like having to give up my writing and teaching. . . . I would not like the politics of the presidency, never knowing who your real friends are. . . . I would not like having to glad-hand people I do not respect simply because they have money. . . . and on and on. Finally, the person who had posed the question gently, but firmly interrupted Parker to remind him that the question was about what he would like about the job, not what he would not like. Parker said that he was working toward an answer, but then resumed his litany of things he would not like: “I would not like having to give up my summer vacations. . . . I would not like having to wear a suit and tie all the time, and so forth. Once again the questioner called him back to the original question. And this time Parker felt compelled to give the only honest answer he possessed. In a low voice he said, “Well, I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it.” He was finally honest enough to speak the truth.    

These seasoned Quakers knew his answer was laughable, but they didn’t laugh. Because they also knew this was serious stuff. So after a long and serious pause, the one who posed the question broke the silence and evoked laughter from the group when he said, “Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?” Of course, by then it was obvious to Parker that his desire to be president had much more to do with his ego than what he calls “the ecology of his life.” So often, it is our ego that keeps us stuck in the darkness and prevents the Spirit from forming Christ in us. The way we break free from our ego is by admitting we have one and owning up to the desires the ego generates. And like Parker Palmer sometimes we need the help of others to get to that place.

I want to conclude with a word directed particularly to our graduates. In order to find your way through the night out of the darkness, there are two things that are absolutely necessary. First, you have to come to the place where you realize that  life is not just about you – your group, your plans, your agenda, your interests, your happiness. Those things are important, I know, but if you never develop a wider interest in the good and well-being of others and the common good of society, you will be trapped in your own ego and will remain in darkness, blind to the truth. And second, when you realize your need for change, you will need to listen to some voices outside your group. So these two things are necessary. You must nurture an interest in the well-being of others and the common good. And two, you must be willing to seek truth beyond the limited confines of your group. If you can do these two things, then you open your life to the transforming grace, truth, love and compassion of the Spirit of Christ, and you can be born again and again and again and again. You can experience many new beginnings in your life.

Our good God, be with our graduates today as they begin a new chapter in their lives. I pray they will experience many new beginnings as they open their lives to your grace and truth. Help all of us, Lord, to seek truth wherever truth can be found, that our lives may be changed by the power of your Spirit. In Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Pentecostal Spirit, fall on us! (A sermon from Acts 2:1-21)


According to John’s Gospel, when Jesus appeared to the disciples in an Easter epiphany, he said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Then the text says that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Only a literal reading of the text would regard this as the first connection the disciples had with the Holy Spirit, who is also called the Advocate or Comforter and the Spirit of Truth in John’s Gospel. The language of “Holy Spirit” is just another symbolical way of talking about God and God’s relationship to the world. One of the key things the Gospel of John teaches about the Holy Spirit, I believe, is that present day disciples of Jesus experience the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. The Christ image is the Christian’s dominant image of God. We understand the Spirit of God as the Spirit of Christ.

When John says that Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” he wants his readers to recall the creation story where God breathes into the human creature the Spirit of life and the human creature becomes a living being – a living being that reflects God’s image, as the first creation story emphasizes. All human beings by virtue of being alive due to the Spirit of God have a connection to the Holy Spirit whether they realize it or not. Our very existence is due to the Holy Spirit.

When the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples gathered on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, as in the Gospel of John, this does not mean that the Holy Spirit literally comes down from heaven or that this is the first connection the disciples have with the Spirit of God. The imagery of the Spirit descending, as when the Spirit symbolized by the dove descends on Jesus at his baptism, is simply meant to emphasize a new vision or new experience coming from God.

In reality the Spirit is already with us, among us, and in us. The experience of the Spirit of Christ at Pentecost points to a new vision, a new revelation, a new awareness that comes from God. The language of the Spirit descending, or falling upon the people of God in our sacred texts, is the way sacred language highlights a new experience or new revelation or new understanding or new vision that comes from God.
So, what is the new thing that the Spirit of Christ wants us to know and realize and do? It’s what Jesus did. It’s to continue the work that Jesus began and called disciples to do. Last week I talked about doing works of mercy and works of justice. Here the point is made that these works of mercy and works of justice are not to be limited or confined to any particular group of people. Of course, I’m talking about the church at large. Individuals may indeed be called to minister to a particular group of people, but the church at large is called to love the world.

We know from the Gospels that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were persons despised by many fellow Jews because they collaborated with the Romans against their own people and contributed to their oppression, while they personally benefitted from their collaboration. They were regarded as traitors who cared only for their own well-being, and it’s very understandable why they were so regarded. Sinners was a semi-technical word used to refer to all persons who disregarded, or for whatever reason, did not keep the law as applied by the Jewish religious leaders of the day. Jesus, in violation of the Jewish holiness code, welcomed all such persons to table fellowship. Jesus’ inclusive practice of table fellowship is a sacred symbol that beautifully and powerfully conveys what God’s kingdom is like.

What Acts 2 teaches is that the spirit of Jesus is the inclusive Spirit of Christ who is now working through Christ’s disciples just as he worked through Jesus of Nazareth to break through barriers, tear down walls, build bridges, and bring all people together to eat and fellowship at the same table.

Practically everything in this passage points to this. When the Spirit of Christ makes itself known it takes the form of tongues of fire. Luke is careful to emphasize that the tongues of fire rests on each of them – that is, everyone present. No one is excluded. Sinner or saint. The Spirit rests on them all. Good Jew or bad Jew. They, of course, were all Jews because this is how it had to start. Jesus was a Jew, and his first followers were Jews. Pentecost is a Jewish holy day celebrating Israel’s liberation from Egypt. So this inclusive message had to first go out to the Jews, before it could go out to the uttermost parts of the earth.

To emphasize the inclusive nature of the Spirit of Christ Luke says that when they were filled with the Holy Spirit they began to speak in other languages and those present who came from different parts of the Roman world heard the message in their own native tongue – that is, native to their particular context in the Roman world. What did they hear? Luke says they spoke about “God’s deeds of power” – deeds of mercy and justice, deeds of healing and liberation, as when God liberated an enslaved people from the power of Pharaoh. There are Pharaoh’s everywhere. There are Pharaoh’s right here in the United States of America in the halls of power.

But then, as now, there are people who don’t get it. Luke says that all who heard the disciples speak about God’s deeds of power in their native language were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Peter goes on to tell them just what it means. He says, “This is what was anticipated by the prophets, such as the prophet Joel who said, “In the last days God will pour out God’s Spirit on all flesh.” Do you hear that sisters and brothers – all flesh – Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, all flesh. Sinners and saints, the good and the bad, the liberated and the oppressed – all flesh. The old and young alike, both women and men will have visions and dream great dreams of what God’s world of peace and righteousness will look like. And everyone, every single one, who opens their heart. Every person - every Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist. Everyone – straight or gay or transgender. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. Everyone – dark skinned or white skinned. Everyone – educated or uneducated. Everyone – physically fit or physically unfit. Everyone – mentally brilliant or mentally challenged. Everyone who responds to an open invitation to have a seat at the table of fellowship is welcomed and embraced with loving arms. Everyone who opens their heart to the Spirit of inclusion, the Spirit of forgiveness, the Spirit of mercy and grace – will be saved – will be healed and restored and liberated and reconciled and made whole.

So, in light of the inclusive nature of the Pentecostal Spirit some tough questions: Where is the Pentecostal Spirit of Christ in Christian groups today who want to make everyone into their own image and are unable to recognize the image of God in those they think they have to convert? Where is the Spirit of Christ in churches that exclude and reject and condemn our LGBTQ sisters and brothers? Where is the Spirit of Christ when Christians scream “Send them home” and want to separate children and parents and deny the undocumented children of God the only home they have ever known? Where is the Spirit of Christ in the Kentucky Baptist Convention who wants to defellowship all Baptist Christians who support the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship? Such a spirit is the very opposite of the Spirit of Christ who invited all to table fellowship.

May the Pentecostal Spirit of the Christ who is Lord of every human being fall on all who think they alone are God’s chosen ones and have a corner on the truth. And may the Pentecostal Spirit of Christ fall on all of us progressive Christians who take pride in our progressiveness and look down on the unenlightened and who don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. That about covers all of us doesn’t it? How long will it take for us to see that we all are connected by the Holy Spirit, that we all belong to God and one another, and that the only thing that will ever matter to God is how well we love one another? I’m pretty sure that’s what God ares about – how well we love others.

John Philip Newell tells about the time he and his wife lived in community with ten others in an Edinburg slum. Newell was a student working on his Ph.D. These young students rented six apartments on a common stair at the heart of one of Edinburg’s worst pockets of social and economic deprivation. The idea was simply to be in a part of the city that had been forgotten and neglected. Their commitment was to live there and engage the neighborhood. Their only rule for community life was to meditate and pray together every evening and to share a common meal on Sundays.

Since most on the stair were young couples, it was here that they began their families. They produced so many babies in the first couple of years that the rumor was that they were a fertility cult. It was the children of the neighborhood who were the first to get to know them. Others were cautiously perplexed as to why these young families would want to live there, but the children took immediate interest and enjoyed their presence.

They would knock on their doors after school. Sometimes it was just to have a word – someone to speak to, someone to listen to them. Other times it was to come in for a snack – a quiet place, a type of sanctuary in their often chaotic lives.

The problem, however, was that they had other things to do as well. Newell was trying to write his Ph.D thesis.  Others were hoping that their baby’s afternoon nap would not get interrupted by children knocking at the door. So they came up with the bright idea of placing a star on a different door in the stair. The children were told that they could knock on that door with the star but not the other doors. By the third day of the experiment word had got around at the local school with its hundreds of children that they were running an afterschool club. Go to the apartment with the star! Hordes of children came.

They had to downscale the operation. Over the years there were quite a few children who became close to them. Some of them would even join in the evening prayer. The most regular visitor for evening prayer was James. He was an unusual looking boy. His eyes were crossed, which always made it difficult to know where he was looking. His face and hands were unwashed, and the smell of his clothes from a household full of cats and dogs made it difficult to be in close proximity to him.

One evening James arrived late for community prayer. They would often have some sort of icon they used as a way of meditation. That evening it was a copy of a famous painting of Mary and the child Jesus that had been placed on the mantelpiece above the hearth. The community was seated in a semi-circle and the only remaining seat for James was a little stool in front of the fireplace. But when he sat down, he did not face the icon, he faced the group. Perhaps he did not know what they were doing or maybe his eyesight was not good enough to see what their focus was on.

But as he sat there facing the group as the group focused on the icon, James began to smile at them. And the more he smiled at them, the more the focus of the group shifted from the icon to James. Finally, James became the icon. James became a window into the face of God. James became a vessel full of the Holy Spirit.

How long will it take for us to shift our eyes from all the things that make us different to see all the things that make us alike? How long will it take for us to stop judging and condemning and excluding, and open up our little circles? When will we stop trying to control God and stop projecting on to God, who is far more gracious than most of us we want God to be? Maybe if we could just open our minds and hearts just a little bit it might just be enough for the Spirit of Christ to plant a little seed that will grow into a beautiful tree, like the mustard seed that becomes a great tree where all the birds of the air can find shelter. Then, maybe we would see that the fire of God’s Spirit rests on everyone. The more we gaze into the eyes of the broken and the hurting, or even the arrogant and self-righteous who we have allowed into our circle, the more we might realize how much alike we all are – that we are all broken and hurting, we are all arrogant and self-righteous. We are all human after all and we are all loved with a magnanimous, magnificent love.

Oh God, I pray, I long for the Pentecostal Spirit to fall on us, to rest on each one of us so that we might see that we are no better or worse than anyone else – that we all belong, that we are all your offspring, that we are all both sinners and saints. Let the fire of your Spirit who lives within each of us ignite a passion in our hearts to spread your loving kindness, your gentle mercy, your humble goodness, and your passion for fairness and justice everywhere we go. Amen.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Practicing love is far more important than believing doctrine


Dr. Albert Schweitzer was an amazing man. He was a renowned theological scholar, a concert pianist, and a medical doctor. The second half of his career was devoted to serving a medical mission in Lambarene, Africa. He could not get missionary support because his theology was suspect, so he performed concerts in order to raise money to support his work. In the first half of his career as a theological scholar he wrote several books, one of which launched a major theological movement that has now went through several phases. The title of the book describes the movement, "The Quest for the Historical Jesus." The late Fred Craddock, who taught at Candler School of Theology for a number of years, tells about the time he first read the book. He was in his early twenties, just getting started in his theological career. He thought Schweitzer’s Christology was woefully lacking. 

Fred was in Knoxville and read in the news that Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio to give a concert at a church dedicating a new organ. The article reported that there would be refreshments afterward and that Schweitzer would be around for conversation. Fred was so passionate about his views of Jesus that he bought a greyhound bus ticket to Cleveland, hoping to have an opportunity to drill Schweitzer with questions on his doctrine of Christ. He reminds me of myself in my twenties. 

After the concert Fred was one of the first persons to get a seat in the Fellowship Hall. He plopped down in the first row armed with his questions. After a little while Schweitzer came in – shaggy white hair, big white mustache, sort of stooped over, with a cup of tea and some refreshments. Fred was waiting for his chance to hammer him on his theology of Christ. Dr. Schweitzer thanked everyone: “You’ve been very warm and hospitable to me, and I thank you for that. I wish I could stay longer, but I must get back to Africa, because many of my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station at Lambarene.” Then he said, “If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me.” 

Fred said that he looked down at his questions and realized that they were absolutely stupid. Fred remarks, “And I learned, again, what it means to be a Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.” 

I suspect that experience was a life changing experience for Fred. I love that story because it reflects my faith journey. I used to spend hours studying theology. I thought it was critical to get my theology right. 

Now, don’t misunderstand. I still think there is a place for theological study, discussion, and debate. But I was into it for all the wrong reasons. I thought I had all the truth or at least most of it. I wanted to argue others into my version of the truth. I wish now I spent half the time I invested in studying theology doing more for others – being a better father and husband, being a more caring person, and doing what I could to instill a vision of a just world. I wish now I spent more time accepting people and listening to their stories, rather than trying to get them to conform to my beliefs or expectations. I wish I spent less time trying to get people to believe like me and more time enjoying life and being grateful for every moment. I should have went fishing more. 

I now know that God cares about what we believe only to the extent that it impacts how we actually live. As James says, “faith without works is dead” (2:17). The works James is talking about are works of love and compassion, such as caring for orphans and widows (1:27), who were the most vulnerable and disadvantaged ones in his society. James says that’s what “pure and undefiled” religion looks like. 

Many Christians and churches today put most of the emphasis on believing the right things. The question we should ask is: “How does believing these things empower us to be more loving, caring, and compassionate?” Personally, it’s hard for me to imagine how Christians can actually love a God who they believe tortures people, nor can I imagine how that belief could make one more loving. I know Christians who are more loving than the God they believe in (that is, the God they have imagined God to be). 

I don’t know how it happened, but somewhere along the way a crack opened in my mind and heart, and the light broke in. I came to realize, like Dr. Craddock, what Christianity is really all about. I wish more Christians would have this kind of “born again” experience.    

(This was first published in the Frankfort State Journal)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The disciple’s paradoxical relationship to the world (a sermon from John 17:6-19)



 This passage in John 17 is part of a larger passage that is presented by John as a prayer of Jesus for his disciples. Jesus had been preparing them to continue his work when he was gone. He knew his time was short. John, the writer, uses this prayer format as a means of continued instruction. The dominant theme seem to be the paradoxical relationship the disciples of Jesus have with the world.

John speaks of the world in several different ways that appear contradictory. In one sense the disciples are part of the world and belong to the world. We are all part of God’s good creation and the human family. John says in his prologue in chapter one that the light of God enlightens every person coming into the world. As Paul says in Acts 17 we are all God’s offspring and in God we all live, move, and have our existence. So in one sense the world is God’s. We all belong to one another and are all connected by the Divine Spirit.

There is also a sense in which disciples of Jesus do not belong to the world and must face the animosity and hatred of the world. Here John is talking about the “world” as a domination system. John is here speaking of the world as a system whose values and practices are different than the values Jesus embodied. So, in one sense disciples of Jesus belong to the world, because the whole world belongs to God and we are all sisters and brothers. But in another sense, disciples do not belong to the domination system, which John also calls the world.

A system is more than just the individuals that are part of it. A system takes on a persona of its own. And no system is absolute. A predominately good or just system has some corruption and injustice in it, and a predominantly evil or unjust system has some good in it. For example, even in the pervasively evil system of Nazi Germany there were some good people who secretly tried to save lives. What John is saying is that disciples of Jesus do not belong to the unjust system. So when John uses the word “world” it can have varied, even contradictory meanings. The tension that is inherent in the very use of the word “world” in this passage points to the tension that all disciples of Jesus face when we engage, serve, and minister to the world.

The late Dr. Fred Craddock tells about the time when he was a kid and they lost the family farm and had to move into town. The kids dressed in what was given to them by charitable organizations. The first day of school the teacher said, “Let’s get acquainted and start our school year by everyone telling what you did on vacation.” Fred felt so out of place and embarrassed to talk about it. One girl reported that she spent a week in Florida. Another had gone to Niagara Falls. Another kid said their family went to Washington and seen all the historical sites. Fred was embarrassed and didn’t what to talk about what he did. Well, time ran out and the teacher said, “We’ll continue tomorrow.” 

Fred didn’t want to go back to school. His father asked him why and he told him.  His father said, “Obviously your teacher is asking you for a lie, so give her one?” That was what his father told him to do, so he did. When it was his turn he said to the class, “We went up to New York and Washington and on and on.” Somewhere this side of Niagara Falls the teacher called him out of the room. She said, “You didn’t do all that.” Fred said, “No ma’am.” She asked, “Well, why then did you say that?” “Because I was embarrassed.” “Why were you embarrassed?”  “Because I worked on the farm all summer before we lost it and had to move here.” That brought an end to all the summer stories.

Fred goes on to tell how a group of women from a church brought the family clothes for the kids. There was a pair of Buster Brown shoes just his size. His mother said, “Good, you will go to church on Sunday.” Fred didn’t want to go because he figured it would be the same; that someone would ask what he did on his vacation. But they didn’t ask. Fred says he was never embarrassed in church. This is what he says, “I don’t remember ever feeling any different, any less, any more, any different from anybody else in church. And from the age of nine until now, I have had this little jubilee going on in my mind: There is no place in the world like church.” Church being, of course, community – a community of disciples of Jesus. A community that lives by the values of inclusiveness, grace, and commitment to the good and service of others. That is, if the church is being the church it will live those values, which were the values of Jesus.

Sometimes the clash in values and practices between disciples of Jesus and the world system is sort of like what Fred experienced at school and what he experienced at church. Other times the clash can be more intense. Selma, Alabama was ultimately a clash between the values of the kingdom of God and the values of the domination system of this world.

Some Christians see themselves over and against the world. Their strategy is not to engage the world, but to withdraw and retreat from the world. But I don’t know how we can ever be the salt of the earth and light of the world as Jesus said, unless we mix and mingle with the world. We are called to engage the world because there is a sense in which we do belong to the world. Now, our mission in the world and to the world is primarily twofold: to show mercy and to do justice. To give the world a taste of what God wants the world to be.

I have a story I like to tell that illustrates the difference between mercy and justice. Once there was a town built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the river. One person was dead, so they buried that one. One was alive, but very sick, so they put that person in the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child, who they placed with a family that cared for the child as their own. From that day forward, a number of bodies came floating down the river and every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them—taking the sick to the hospital, placing children with families, and burying those who were dead.

This went on for years. Each week brought its quota of bodies, and the townsfolk not only came to expect a number of bodies each week, but also developed more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some even gave up their jobs so they could devote themselves to this work full time. The townspeople felt good about their ability to give and care for these people in great need.

However, during all those years and despite all their generosity and mercy, no one journeyed up the river beyond the bend in order to find out why all those bodies kept floating down the river. Why was that? Did they just not think too? Were they just too busy caring for all the people in need who came floating down the river? Or did they know that if they did, things could get real messy? Maybe even threatening. Herein is the difference between acts of mercy and works of justice.

Mercy is about giving a hungry person some bread, justice is about trying to change the system so that no one has excess bread while some have none. Mercy is about helping the victims of war, while justice is about peacemaking and eliminating the conditions that lead to war. Mercy responds to the needs of the homeless and the poor, but to pursue justice is to get at the reasons why there are homeless and poor people in the first place and offer constructive solutions. The work for justice is ever bit as important as works of mercy, but has unfortunately been greatly neglected by many Christians.

The prophets are clear about this. Justice and mercy go hand in hand. Isaiah asks, “What kind of fast is acceptable to the Lord?” (Isa. 58:5). He answers: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke?” That’s justice. Then he says, “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (vv. 6-7). That’s mercy. The prophet Micah asks: “What does God require from God’s people?” His answer: “To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk in humility with God” (6:8).

Justice is not about partisan politics, but anyone who cares about justice will confront issues that are indeed political and social and cultural. It’s inevitable. The work for justice addresses and confronts such issues as poverty, inequality, war, racism, sexism, heath care, violence, criminal justice, immigration, and the environment. It confronts systems that dis-privilege some even as they unduly privilege others—systems, by the way, in which we all are complicit in.

It is easy to understand why many present-day Christians have relinquished this responsibility and redefined the gospel so that it’s not about justice at all. Justice work is challenging, difficult, risky work. It wasn’t Jesus’ acts of mercy that got him killed. It was his commitment to justice and the ways in which he provoked the religious and political establishment that got him killed.

And while many Christians have completely relinquished any involvement in the great justice issues of our time, the church at large has a history of engaging in  justice. In our country Christians played a large part in the acquisition of voting rights for women, the overthrow of slavery, the abolishment of segregation laws and the passing of civil rights legislation. Of course, we still have a long way to go and that is particularly evident today isn’t it.

Today is Mother’s Day, which is a civic holiday, not a religious one, and we structure our worship based on the church calendar not the civic calendar. But it surely is appropriate for us to celebrate how far we have come in recognizing the rights of mothers and women in general in terms of equal pay in the workplace and empowering mothers and women in general to speak their truth. Today, it’s important to value mothers who choose to work at home, as much as we do those who work outside the home. It’s the reversal of what it was years ago. I know mothers who would love to be able to be a fulltime mom, as my wife was before our kids started school, but impossible financially. And while we have made progress, there is still much inequality in pay and other inequalities in certain structures within our society. Maybe you have read recently about Paige Patterson’s instructions to mothers and wives physically abused by their husbands. He councils them to avoid divorce, to focus instead on praying for their abusive husbands, and, in his words, “to be submissive to them in any way they can.” That comes from a president of a Southern Baptist Seminary, who is still president even after he said all that, and is being defended by Southern Baptist leadership. Sometimes churches and church leaders not only are silent on justice issues, they themselves are perpetrators of injustice.

So this is our work as individual disciples of Jesus and it is our work as a church, as a community of disciples of Jesus – namely, to engage the world, to be the salt of the earth and light of the world, to be the body of Christ, by doing acts of mercy and pursing works of justice. It’s not easy work, but that’s are calling.

In one sense we do not belong to the world. In another sense, we do. As long as we live here this world is our home, and we are called to work and pray that the kingdom of God, God’s just world of peace and righteousness, will come and God’s will for mercy and justice for all will be done on earth as it is heaven.

Our good God, help us to realize what we are called to be and to do as disciples of Jesus. – that in one sense we do not belong to the world, but in another sense we do. You love the world and want to heal it. May that be our passion too. As we now share in the cup and bread and celebrate our brotherhood and sisterhood as disciples of Jesus, help us see that in a larger sense the whole world is connected by your Spirit, and our calling is to engage the world with mercy and justice and give the world a taste of what you want for everyone. Amen.  



Sunday, May 6, 2018

The gift and burden of friendship (a sermon from John 15:9-17)


Almost everyone who has been in church is familiar with the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” It was written by a son to comfort his mother whom he had left behind in Ireland when he came to the United States in the 1850s. It reflects the sentiments of a Victorian age, but it is a much beloved hymn. According to the hymn, Jesus is our friend because he bears our burdens and sorrows. The hymn was written to assure his mother, that though he couldn’t be there with her, Jesus is with her and he is a friend like no other. He asks, “Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share?” The hymn presents Jesus as a faithful friend who helps us to carry the load of our personal sorrows and burdens. Friendship is presented as gift and blessing. Who can argue with that? Who would want to argue with that?  

The subject of friendship is introduced in our text today, but it is presented from a different angle. Jesus contrasts servanthood and friendship, calling his disciples friends. Now, it’s important to understand that in this particular passage servanthood takes on the meaning of servanthood as practiced in their social and cultural context, not servanthood as presented in the biblical tradition. In fact, in the very next paragraph Jesus identifies his disciples as servants and speaks of them in a completely different way. He says, “Servants are not greater than their master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” Here he is preparing his disciples to face the kind of opposition from those in power that he has faced. Jesus’s disciples are indeed servants.

To be a servant of God is a high and holy calling. Jesus understood himself to be a servant of God. And being a servant of God meant being a servant of others. Two chapters earlier in John 13 Jesus takes a basin of water and a towel, and washes the feet of his disciples. He says to his disciples, “You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example . . . I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” Later, Jesus will tell them that as the Father sent him, so he sends them. Jesus, the Servant of God, is sent by the Father, who then, in turn, as God’s Son, as God representative, and with God’s authority, sends the disciples to love and serve as he loved and served. Jesus is the Servant of God par excellent, and we, who are his disciples, are called to be servants of God like Jesus.

In the Synoptic Gospels there is a passage where James and John come to Jesus requesting positions of honor and authority in God’s kingdom. Jesus rebukes them and reminds them that God’s kingdom is not about aspiring for positions or power, but is about being the servant of others. And in Mark’s version of that story, the emphasis is not on serving fellow disciples, but all people. Jesus instructs them to follow his example as here in John, because he did not come (he was not called or sent by God) to be served, but to serve, and to give his life up in the service of others, for the cause and will of God in the world.

So being a servant of God is a high calling and honor in the biblical tradition. Jesus regarded himself as a servant of God. And the early followers of Jesus applied the Servant Songs in the book of Isaiah to Jesus. So as followers of Jesus, Jesus is our example and model for serving God and serving others.

In this passage in John 15 where Jesus contrasts servanthood and friendship, Jesus is speaking about servanthood in a very different way. In the social world of that day and time people of power had servants. These servants were often from people groups who had been conquered by those in power. Servants in a household are not privileged to know the plans or intentions or passions of the master of the house. Their job is to do what the master says – period. Friends, however, are equals and partners, and are privileged to share in the thinking, the motivations, the passions and interests of their friend.

In this passage John puts into the mouth of Jesus the words where he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” What we do as friends of Jesus we do as partners with Jesus, in co-operation with Jesus. Jesus serves God and others and we learn from Jesus how to serve God and others. Jesus makes known to his disciples all that he has learned from his Abba. This is why John calls Jesus the Logos, the Word made flesh, because Jesus embodies God’s will. Jesus knows God intimately. Jesus knows God’s will and makes God’s will known to his disciples, whom he calls his friends. Now, this seems like a wonderful gift and blessing, and it is, but that is not all it is.

The late Fred Craddock tells about a sermon he heard some years ago that presented this prospect of being a friend of Jesus in a way that he had never thought of. A combination of misfortunes led to Craddock hearing the sermon: A cancelled flight; a last minute reservation in a motel near the airport; a search for a church within walking distance, since the next morning was Sunday; and then a  housekeeper at the motel pointing in the direction of a church six blocks away. All of that lead Craddock to a cinder block building where a few tired souls had already started singing gospel songs.

The preacher was a large man, with poor eyesight. He spoke in a kind of crippled speech that reflected his appearance. His text that morning was James 2:23 where Abraham is called the friend of God. His opening words were: “Abraham was a friend of God. I’m sure glad I’m not a friend of God.” And then his sermon was an explanation of why he was glad he wasn’t a friend of God.

Craddock says that he cannot recall any time when he was as engaged in a sermon as he was that Sunday. The preacher’s delivery was without animation; his physical condition denied him that, says Craddock. Craddock says that all of those who were there in the service wanted to help the preacher get his words out. But still, despite all of that, he was captivated by the message.  

The preacher recalled the story of Abraham, who as a pilgrim and wanderer was homeless for years and was buried in a land not his own. “Abraham was a friend of God,” the preacher said, “I’m sure glad I’m not.” He then spoke of others who had been friends of God who were faithful in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword. He concluded with a story of Teresa of Avila, who is remembered by the church as a friend of God. He recalled her begging in public in order to raise funds for an orphanage. After a series of misfortunes where flood and storm and fire repeatedly destroyed the orphanage, she said in her evening prayers to God, “So this is how you treat your friends; no wonder you have so few.”

The preacher closed his sermon with the admonition: “If you find yourself being drawn into the inner circle of the friends of God, blessed are you.” Then he said, “But pray for the strength to bear the burden of it.” Pray for the strength, he said, to bear the burden of being a friend of God. Have you ever thought about bearing the burden of being a friend of God?

Tony Campolo tells the story of being on a landing strip just outside the border of the Dominican Republic in northern Haiti. A small airplane was supposed to pick him up and fly him back to the capital city. As he waited, a woman approached him holding her child in her arms. The baby was emaciated – his arms and legs were like sticks and his stomach swollen from lack of food. She held up her child to Campolo and began to plead with him, “Take my baby! Take my baby!” she cried, “If you don’t take my baby, my baby will die. Please take my baby! 

Campolo tried to explain why he couldn’t take her baby, but she would not listen. No matter which way he turned, she was in his face, crying, “Please, mister, take my baby!” She kept saying, “Take my baby to a hospital. Feed my baby. Save my baby. Please take my baby!

Campolo breathed a sigh of relief when the Piper Cub airplane came into sight. The minute it touched down he ran to meet it. But the woman kept running after him screaming, “Take my baby! Please, take my baby!” Campolo boarded the plane as fast as he could. The woman ran alongside the plane as it started to take off, the child in one arm and with the other banging on the plane. 

Halfway back to the capital, Campolo says it hit him with a great force. He thought of Matthew 25, where Jesus says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . in as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” Then he realized that the baby was Jesus.

Being a friend of Jesus means that we share the heart of Jesus, and that can be as much of a burden as a blessing. There are days I think I’m the friend of Jesus, and then there are days that I’m not sure, and even other days when I don’t want to be the friend of Jesus at all. Jesus gave his life, not just for his friends, but for the world – this crazy mixed up world – because God so loves the world. To what degree am I willing to love the world? Some days I feel like that old preacher, “I’m glad I’m not the friend of Jesus.”

Now, the servant that Jesus is talking about in this passage does not really know what the master is up to. He is not obligated to share the passion and heart of the master. He does his work and goes home. And maybe that’s not so bad. The servant doesn’t have all the worries and anxieties the master has.

Now, if the servant were to become the friend of the master, the servant would have to share the burden and passion of the master. Jesus says to his disciples, “I have chosen you to be my friends. I have called you to bear the fruit that I bear – to love one another the way I have loved you, to love the world the way God loves the world.” To be the friend of Jesus is to bear fruit like Jesus.

A lot of jokes and stories involving heaven begin with Saint Peter at the gates of heaven or in heaven. Well, in this story Peter is invited into the heavenly house of many rooms. He is given a room all to himself. The angel who shows him to the room says, “Sleep well” and then leaves. Peter’s bed is a cloud and Peter drifts off to sleep with the sound of soft music playing.

But then sometime during the night Peter is awakened by sounds coming from the next room. Clearly, someone is having a bad night. It isn’t snoring or sleep-talking. It’s more like groaning or even moaning, accompanied by tossing and turning. Peter is tempted to go over and knock on the door, but is afraid to. So Peter lies there and tosses and turns himself, only getting little snatches of sleep.

At daybreak Saint Peter hears the door open and someone step out into the hall. So Peter does the same, wanting to see who it is that had such a restless night. Peter is shocked. It’s God. The God of peace who gives peace beyond all understanding. God is the one who had such a restless night and couldn’t sleep. Peter is speechless – he doesn’t know what to say. God says, “I’m sorry if I disturbed your sleep. I know my groaning was a disturbance, but I just couldn’t get my mind off all my hurting children down there.”

When I think about having a friend in Jesus, all my sorrows and griefs for Jesus to share and bear – that sounds like such a blessing. But when I think about being the friend of Jesus, of sharing his passion and longing and burden for peace and justice and the healing of the world, I’m not so sure I want to be the friend of Jesus at all.

You know, I don’t have to be the friend of Jesus to be a good pastor to all of you good folks. Feeling the pain and burden of a broken world, of sisters and brothers beaten down by the powers that be. Feeling for the victims of mass shootings and children dying from chemical weapons. Grieving the moral sickness that pervades society, beginning with those in power. That’s not really in my job description. And it’s clearly not in our church constitution and by-laws. I don’t have to be a friend of Jesus to be a good pastor and you don’t have to be the friend of Jesus to be a good church member. Now, I know some friends of Jesus. I have no doubt that Lonnie and Fran Turner are friends of Jesus. I know some others too. So, I’m torn. I’m kind of on the fence about being a friend of Jesus. And I have to admit there are days when I just don’t want to be the friend of Jesus at all. And what about you? Do you want to be the friend of Jesus? And I would say too, that if you can’t live with this kind of tension, if you can’t live with paradox or contradiction you won’t make it as a friend of Jesus. The old preacher was being truly honest with his congregation when he said, “I’m glad I’m not a friend of Jesus.” And to be honest, I don’t know if I’m the friend of Jesus or not. Some days I think I am. Other days I know I’m not. What about you, friend? Are you the friend of Jesus?

Lord, I have to be honest with you. I’m not really sure this morning I want to be the friend of Jesus. I’m not sure anyone hear wants to be the friend of Jesus. We like the blessing, but we sure don’t care for the burden. When we hear you say to us in our hearts that you have chosen us to bear fruit like Jesus, it doesn’t take  a whole lot of smarts or theological knowledge to figure out where Jesus ended up by preaching truth, crossing bearers, breaking down walls, and welcoming all different kinds of people to the table of fellowship. Most of us, Lord, were just told how wonderful it is to have a friend in Jesus. We weren’t warned about the burden of being a friend of Jesus. Lord, be patient with us, because we are going to have to give this some serious thought. And help us, Lord, at least to have enough courage to ponder the implications of what it might actually mean if we were to be the friends of Jesus. In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen.  

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Abiding in God’s love (1 John 4:7-12, 16-21)


To love God is to love who and what God loves. The deeper we grow in God’s love the more connected we become to everyone and everything else. And this love comes to fruition and expression in how we treat others and care for others. John makes it very clear in this passage that loving God and loving God’s world, loving our sisters and brothers in the human family are inseparably tied together. Because God dwells in every human being and every human being is sustained by the Spirit of God, every human being has a bit of God in them. Every human being bears God’s image, no matter how marred that image may be. When we love others, we are loving God.

God is Love, says the writer of this passage. Most of our beliefs about God are like fingers pointing at the moon. The moon is so much bigger than what we see with our eyes from this vantage point, from this earth looking up. It’s even more so with God. When Jesus talked about God he used images and symbols and told stories. How can any human know fully or completely what God is like? So we use images and stories to try to see a particular aspect or characteristic of God.

But the writer here is bold enough to say, God is Love. For this biblical writer and his faith community love is not just one feature or characteristic of God. For this community love is the essential thing – the essence of God, the heart of God, the soul of God. Love is the power of God that motivates us and empowers us to be better persons – to overcome our negative attitudes and habits, to be less selfish and driven by our ego, and to be more compassionate and merciful and gracious. 

God’s love is an all-encompassing, all-embracing love and it always moves us outward and beyond the limits that we tend to put on it. Of course, none of us will ever love perfectly, nor can we possibly express our love to the degree that God loves each of us. We are all God’s children and God’s love is a first love. The late Henri Nouwen puts it this way: We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved us or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. . . . That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved.” I think the major theme of most of Nouwen’s writings is about helping his readers learn how to hear that voice. 

God loves all God’s children unconditionally and eternally. None of us can love like that. As a human being not even Jesus of Nazareth could love to that degree, though he clearly was far more advanced in loving than we are, and his life as portrayed in our scriptures becomes for us the definitive human expression of God’s love. But all of us are limited in how we express God’s love, and we are simply not capable of loving everyone in equal measure, nor are we capable of completely grasping and experiencing God’s love. And when you read all of 1 John where these wonderful passages on God’s love are found, it is clear (at least to me anyway) that even John and his church who had such insight into God’s love struggled with this too, because John says some other things in this short letter that seem like a contradiction of what he says here. We all struggle with trying to understand and live out God’s love.

Maybe it will be possible in the next life to more completely experience and incarnate God’s love. Jesus, on one occasion, seems to suggest that in the life or age to come we would not have the same kind of possessive relationships we have in this life. Maybe you recall in the Gospels the time when the Sadducees (the priestly party of Judaism) attempt to trap Jesus by describing a scenario where a woman marries seven brothers in succession. The question is asked: Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Now, the reason they asked that question is that they were trying to refute the idea of resurrection. Jesus says in response that in the resurrection we “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:35). Jesus seems to be saying that in the state of resurrection, at the next level of consciousness, in that advanced state of reality there will be no possessive, exclusionary relationships. Our experience will be more inclusive and unitive. We will be more deeply related and connected to everything and everyone.

Maybe this was what Jesus was getting at in his response to his mother and brothers who tried to coercively get him to drop his mission and come home. We can’t blame them for trying. They knew the Jewish authorities had already started plotting how they could get rid of Jesus. They feared for his life. Do you remember Jesus’ response? When Jesus was told that his mother and brothers and sisters were seeking him he asked, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?” Then, looking around at everyone present he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers and sisters. Whoever does the will of God is family.” I don’t think Jesus was being disrespectful. I think he was operating out of a different level of consciousness than most everyone else. I think he knew and experienced at a much deeper level than any of us here today just how all-embracing and all-inclusive God’s love is.

In this life we have to have some boundaries. There are limits on the degree to which we can love. But the Spirit of God is always compelling us to be more embracing, more encompassing, more inclusive and less possessive. And the Spirit does this “nudging along” in whatever ways the Spirit can use to move beyond us where we are, so that we are growing and enlarging in our capacity to love. 

In the film version of the story The Great Gatsby, Gatsby goes to great extremes to prove his love for Daisy. The narrator tells us that everything he did—the house, the parties, all of it—he did for Daisy. His love for Daisy was a great love, it was an enduring love, but it was a tainted love and a possessive love. It was a love born out of fear and insecurity and mixed with greed and selfish ambition. He didn’t think she would truly love him unless he proved himself, unless he was rich, powerful, and successful. So his love was a very skewed love.

God’s love, on the other hand, is pure; it’s not tainted or twisted by ego. All human love has some measure of possessiveness and exclusion attached. It’s inevitable. In marriage, for example, we pledge loyalty and faithfulness to our spouse. We become bound by a covenant that excludes others. The marriage covenant is an exclusive covenant right? It is a necessary exclusion; necessary for a healthy, flourishing marriage. But this can turn dark and go awry.

There is a scene where Gatsby and Daisy confront Tom. Tom was married to Daisy. And Daisy doesn’t want to do this, but Gatsby is pushing and demanding. Gatsby, fueled by his ego, presses Daisy to tell Tom that she never loved him, that she only loved Gatsby, that even when she was married to Tom she never loved him. But she did love him. So she could not do that.

By contrast, God’s love is an infinitely expansive and deep love that extends to all God’s children equally. Anytime we think that God loves our group more than others we have seriously misunderstood and misinterpreted our experience of God’s love. We project our limitations on to God. And often what we project is rooted in the ego. We want to think that we are more special than others. But when God’s love fills us and flows through us it always moves us outward, breaking down walls and barriers, leading us to be more hospitable, accepting, welcoming, and affirming, more open, receptive, self-giving, and attentive to others, which, of course, is how the Spirit led Jesus.    

John tells us that God’s love dispels fear.  John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love cast out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.” You don’t need to be afraid of God. One might interject here: But what about all those texts, particularly in the OT, that admonish us to fear God? Well, you know the biblical writers struggled to put all this together just the way we do. They were just as human as we are. But that said, some of those passages that admonish the reader to fear God are talking about reverencing or respecting or trusting God, rather than being afraid of God.

John says that fear has to do with punishment, and when we are abiding in God’s love we don’t have to fear being punished. But in another sense, even if we are punished, we don’t have to fear it. And the reason we don’t have to fear it is because God’s punishment, whatever that may be, would not be for the purpose of condemnation, but restoration and reconciliation and redemption. God will never abandon any of God’s children. The door is always shut from our side, not God’s side. God is the waiting Father of Luke 15 who runs to embrace the child the moment he sees his child coming home. And God never ever withdraws the invitation to come home. I would bet my very life on that.

Wendell Berry’s novel, A World Lost, is the story about a family coping with the death of one of their own. In the final chapter, Berry reflects on the manner of man he was. This meditation gives way to a reflection on death as a pathway into the light. Berry writes, “I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet,” says Berry, “in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely . . .” What Berry is saying is that the light of God is a blinding light before it is an illuminating light. Berry is saying the fire of God can be painful, but it is a purifying fire.

Berry says it’s only hell until it is heaven. Hell, however we may experience it, is not forever. Heaven is forever. Heaven is where we are going. Think how this understanding of God’s love casts out all fear. You don’t fear God’s punishment, because you know that whatever it involves, it will make us a better person. If we accept this understanding of God’s love then some of these biblical images that preachers have used for years to instill the fear of hell in people take on a completely different meaning. The furnace of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth becomes a furnace that does not burn up the person, but burns up the greed and hate and selfish ambition that has been consuming the person. The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is the temporary struggle and suffering we go through that is the prelude to the joy and gratitude that comes from God’s healing and redemption. John says, “There is no fear in love, and perfect love, mature love casts out all fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection/maturity in love.” Can we trust in the greatness of God’s love that frees us from all fear. None of us need to be afraid of God. Fear of punishment will never heal or liberate or transform a person. As John suggests in another passage it’s only when we can see how beautiful and immense God’s love really is will we be changed by that love.

What will it take for you and me to see, to experience, to enter more fully into the unconditional love of God? Perhaps the story of Philip and the Ethiopian we read earlier is suggestive. In that story Philip is led by the Spirit into an encounter with this brother who is traveling a wilderness road. The wilderness road is symbolical of the journey that we all must take. Every spiritual journey involves the wilderness road. The man is reading the Hebrew scriptures but he does not understand what he reading. And he doesn’t pretend to. That’s important. He is seeking truth and understanding, and ready to admit he has a long way to go. He is seeking God. He is open and ready to learn and to become more than what he is.

To experience God’s love we must want to experience God’s love. We must realize our need to be changed by God’s love and desire to become more loving like God. We must be honest enough to admit how unloving we sometimes are. And we must be willing to walk the wilderness road. We don’t need to know where it will take us. We only need to trust that as we walk this path God will lead us into those experiences and encounters that will help us to see more clearly just how great and liberating God’s love is. We must be willing to be immersed in the healing, purifying, life-giving waters of the Divine Spirit who will lead us into the transforming reality of divine love, which is what baptism symbolizes.

The wilderness road is not a safe road. There’s a lot of uncertainties and dangers on the way. There are places where the terrain is treacherous and the journey difficult. There are times when you will question whether the journey is worth it, because you don’t even know where you are going. There are places on the wilderness road where you feel lost and alone. But deep in your heart you know that it’s the only road that will take you home, even though you don’t even know what or where home is. But something in your gut tells you that on the wilderness road you will find it – it will lead you there. Are you ready sisters and brothers? Are you willing to trust God and trust the journey?

O God, we know that the many experiences we have had in our lives – in our families, our relationships, our opportunities or lack thereof – both negative and positive – have had a profound impact on where we are right now. Some of that we have had no control over. In order to experience your love more fully there are things we need to unlearn and let go of. We know we can’t hunker down where we are, where we feel safe. We have to explore, we have to venture out, we have to take a journey that will lead us into some unpleasant and difficult places. Help us, O Lord, to take that leap of faith. To trust that you will be with us. Growing in your love is not an easy thing, but it’s what we are all made for. And we know that we will never find meaning and joy apart from your love. Give us the courage to say “yes” to that journey this day and every day. Amen.