Monday, June 19, 2017

Love, Laugh, Live (Gen. 18:1-15; 21:1-7)

The story begins with the phrase: “The Lord appeared to Abraham.” But what is not clear is how the Lord appeared. The text says that Abraham saw three men standing near him. Three strangers wandering over to his tent in the heat of the day. Three travelers. But then when Abraham speaks the text says “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.” Then he proceeds to offer the strangers rest and refreshment. He welcomes them and extends hospitality urging them to stay for a while and be refreshed, which hospitality they accepted.

There is a lot of ambiguity here. Three men show up in front of his tent and in this encounter Abraham experiences God. Maybe so much is left out because when any of us experience God it is always a matter of faith. Such encounters are always ambiguous. Such encounters only make sense to the one who has the experience and can always be interpreted in other ways. Stories like this prepare us for the Christian teaching of incarnation where we meet God in flesh and blood, in human lives and experiences, just as Abraham meets God in the lives of these three men.

Thomas Merton had an experience that changed the way he looked at others. It was 1958 (the year of my birth). He had been in Louisville meeting with a publisher. Afterward, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, as he walked through the shipping district of the city, he was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that he loved everyone around him. In his words, he came to the realization “that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” He said that he saw the “secret beauty of their heart.” He wrote, “It was if they were all walking around shining like the sun.” That was his experience, and it had a profound transforming influence in his life.

The writer of the Gospel of John in his prologue says that the true light which shone so brightly in Jesus, the Word made flesh, is present in all of us. The Gospel writer says the true light is the light of all people and enlightens everyone. There was a window in time when the veil was lifted for Merton and he could see the light of God radiating from each person. Merton wrote, “If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty no more greed . . .  I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

That last line of Merton’s is intriguing. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. In John 10 there is a passage that Richard Rohr suggests may be the most highly enlightened text in all the Bible. Jesus is being accused of blasphemy by the Jewish leaders because he claimed to speak and act on behalf of God and thus in their minds was making himself equal with God. In rebuttal Jesus quoted the Psalmist in Psalm 82. In that Psalm the Psalmist hears God say to God’s people: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan (notice – not just show them mercy, rather, give them justice. Fix the system) maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” But someone might say, “By what authority do we do these acts of justice?” The Psalmist writes “I say, ‘You are gods.’” Who are gods? The Psalmist says, “You children of the Most High, all of you.” The Psalmist then clarifies: Even though you will die like mortals, you are nevertheless gods. We have the authority to represent God in doing mercy and contending for justice.

Lest we think the Psalmist has lost his marbles Jesus quotes this very Psalm in John 10. To the Jews who were accusing him of blasphemy because he claimed to speak and act for God Jesus says, “Your own scripture says that all children of God are gods. So how is it that you accuse me of blasphemy simply because I claim to speak and act on behalf of God as God’s Son?” Let that sink in for a minute. Yes, we are mortal, but we bear the image of God. The light of God dwells in us. So yes indeed, we can speak and act on behalf of God who seeks justice for all people and calls us to be his representatives and agents to enact justice and do mercy.

Abraham seems to be aware of the Light, the Divine Presence in the three strangers. It’s quite fascinating how the storywriter describes the actions of Abraham. Abraham “hastened” into the tent. He told Sarah to prepare some bread cakes “quickly.” He then “ran,” not walked, but ran to the herd to find a calf, not just any calf but one “tender and good.” (Reminds me of the father in Luke 15.) He took the calf to his servant who “hastened” to prepare it. This is the language of urgency. It’s as if Abraham knows instinctively or intuitively the sacredness and fullness and momentousness of this experience. So everything is done with haste, with a sense of urgency, as if he knows this is a window of time for a revelatory encounter with God.

When was the last time you felt such an urgency of the moment as if a window in space and time had opened up for you to experience some new revelation from God? Or maybe you have never had such an experience. Abraham was awake to the moment. He was not going to allow this moment, this experience to pass by. That’s the expression he uses in the text: “My lord, if I have found favor with you (if I have truly met a God of grace), do not pass by your servant.” He seized the moment. He redeemed the time. He laid hold of what was before him. This was a time to act, and he sensed that it would be through an act of hospitality and welcome that he would encounter God. (And that is a theme that runs through scripture. We especially see it in the life of Jesus.)

Are we open and awake to such experiences? Do we live with any sort of expectation that we might have a life transforming encounter with God today? And I wonder how many windows have opened in time that we have failed to even notice? I wonder how many burning bushes we have never turned aside to see? Many of us tend to spiritually sleep our way through life. No wonder the biblical writers tell us to “Wake up” and pay attention. Paul or whoever wrote Ephesians said, “Sleeper, awake. Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” I wonder how many possible resurrections in our lives we’ve missed because we were asleep?

I love to tell the story of the monk who was away from the monastery on a pilgrimage. He was making his way through some wilderness and could see in the distance a huge, mammoth tiger. He could tell the tiger had his eyes on him as prey. So he picked up his pace and went he did the tiger made its move. A little ways in front of him was a steep cliff. He ran to the cliff, pulled out his rope and tied one end to a stump close to the cliff, and then managed to leap over the side just as one of the vicious paws of the tiger swept pat his face. His rope was not very long, so he found himself dangling about one third of the way down. At the basin of the cliff were large boulders and jagged rocks. As he hung there he managed to get his feet lodged into the side while he tied the rope around him. Then immediately in front of him he noticed growing out of a little dirt patch on the side of the cliff the largest most luscious strawberry he had ever seen. He reached out and touched it. He then plucked it from the vine. He turned it around in his hands. He brought it up to his nose. He took in the sweet aroma. And then he bit into it savoring the bite. He then said to himself, “Without question this is the most delicious piece of fruit I have ever tasted.”

Now, how many of us would have missed that moment. We allow our fears and worries and insecurities to so get to us that we tend to miss these revelatory moments in our lives that might just make all the difference in the world.

Maybe Abraham’s actions hold the key to opening our hearts to receive God’s word to us. Abraham acts in love. He bestows welcome and hospitality. He gives them rest and nourishment and refreshment. He cares for them. He acts in mercy and grace. If we will be quick to respond in mercy and grace to those who need our hospitality and welcome perhaps then we will be ready to receive a word from God. Then, we too, like Merton, might see the light within every child of God. We might know that we all belong. We might just see how great and inclusive God’s love really is.

Love is at the heart of who God is and what God is about. For us Christians Jesus’ death has redemptive power in our lives. The reason it has redemptive power in our lives is because we see Jesus’ death as Paul describes in his letter to the Romans as a revelation of God’s love for all of us. This is not love we have earned, but love we are freely given simply because God loves us. Because Christ was committed to God’s cause and lived for God’s kingdom on earth, because he acted on behalf of the needy and powerless, because he did works of mercy and justice, because he broke down boundaries and crossed lines of separation, the wrath and violence of the powers that be was poured out on him. Nevertheless, he bore their wrath without returning it and thus revealed to all who have eyes to see the all-inclusive, all-embracing, magnanimous love of God.

If we will walk in love as Christ has loved us, if we will engage in acts of mercy and justice, if we will welcome and show hospitality to the stranger, then our hearts will be open to receive God’s word, to see God’s light, and to hear God’s voice. By the way, we can’t just show hospitality to the neighbor down the street and then support policies that turn away helpless refugees who need hospitality and welcome from our country. I can’t imagine how God would approve of that can you?

It is Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality and welcome that paves the way for the revelatory word that catches them both by surprise. One of the guests says to Abraham, “Your wife is going to have a son.” Sarah was listening at the tent entrance and found this quite amusing. Sarah and Abraham are really old folks and Sarah says, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” She is saying, “We have no potency and no competency in what it takes to make a baby. Look at us for heaven’s sake.”

The Lord asks Abraham why Sarah laughs. (We assume that God is speaking through these three strangers.) I don’t read this as a rebuke. I read this interchange in a playful kind of way. This is holy laughter and sacred surprise. In chapter 21 when their son is born Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” I think God loves our laughter. Especially when we can laugh at our humanity. I have a saying on my desk, “Laugh often and much.” Then this wonderful question is posed, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord.”

When was the last time God surprised you? If you say you can’t remember, then I would ask, “Why not?” Maybe we have forgotten how precious life is. Brother David Steindl-Rast tells about visiting in Africa a place that had been through the horrors of war. In his visit he came across groups of children gathering on busy street corners after dark, setting up small alters to pray. The children were completely undisturbed by the hustle and bustle of adults all around them. Steindl-Rast was told that children started this custom during the bloodiest weeks of the war. One generation of children had handed it on to the next generation for more than a decade. He says it dawned on him that “only a heart familiar with death will appreciate the gift of life with so deep a feeling of joy.” We should do whatever it takes to nurture in our minds and hearts an awareness of just how precious life is.

Mary Oliver is an award winning poet. She offers I think a beautiful formula for living with surprise, laughter, and gratitude. She says: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: To love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it, and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

Can you love what is mortal? Can you see the light of God within what is mortal? Can you see the stranger as your brother, as your sister? Can you welcome them and make them feel at home? Can you offer them hospitality and refreshment? Can you accept them as your own? We all belong. We are all one. If we could just see the light in the stranger.

Can you hold on to them with the love of Christ? Can you hold on to the hope of God’s kingdom? Of a world of mutuality and equality, of mercy and justice. This is a real challenge today isn’t it? When we see people in power abuse it over and over. Can we hold on to God’s dream of a world where everyone has enough to thrive, not just survive, when we see how the system is rigged so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Can you hold on to love, to peace, to faith and hope?

And when the time comes to let go, can you let go?

Our good and gracious God, let us wake up to the light in all of us, and wake up to the grace and goodness all around us. Let us wake up to your love so that we might be channels through which your love can flow to others. Let us not give up on doing good, doing acts of mercy and justice. Let us forgive and seek forgiveness for wrongs done. So that we might live fully, so that we might know laughter and surprise, and be filled with gratitude for all the wonders of this life. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Beyond Who is Within (2 Cor. 13:11-13)

Not all churches who follow the lectionary observe Trinity Sunday. And I have to admit I have avoided this too. Today, however, I have decided to focus my sermon on it.

The word Trinity does not appear in the New Testament and there is no attempt by any biblical writer to try to define or describe the Trinitarian language that they utilize as in the passages we read today. Which makes sense, because how can you explain what is unexplainable. This is why so many churches avoid Trinity Sunday. Let me offer a caveat as we begin. God – the Divine, Ultimate Reality – is beyond language and beyond our limited, finite capacity to understand. So whenever we attempt to define God, we automatically limit God.

Trinitarian language is a way of talking about the God – the Divine Reality – that we have experienced through Jesus and the Spirit. When we start to literalize these images, as many Christians tend to do unfortunately, is when we start edging up to idolatry. Here’s the problem: When we literalize an image of God, any image, we then limit and confine God to that image. But God is so much more.

Why do you think Christians whose governing image of God is Father get so upset with other Christians who call God Mother? Why is that? Because they have allowed their image of God as Father to become literalized in their thinking. And so they actually start believing God is male. So if God is Father, then God cannot be Mother. Such thinking is actually idolatrous, because it confines God to an image.

When Israel concocted the golden calf as an image of their God and bowed before the image, the problem was not the image itself. What made that so idolatrous is that they turned their dynamic, ever-growing relationship with the God of all reality into a single, limited, finite image. They said, “Now, this is what our God is.” And whenever we limit God to a single image and say, “Now, this is what God is” we are guilty of doing the same thing. There are Christians who do that today with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Now listen sisters and brothers, this is important: All God language is symbolic language. Trinitarian language not excluded. Trinitarian language is the language of experience, it’s the language of encounter. For these early Christians this is the language they used to talk about their experience of a God who acts on our behalf to redeem, heal, and liberate us from our bondages. It’s not a precise language by any means; it’ not the language of science; it’s the language of spiritual experience. In other words, we employ this language to talk about the manner in which we Christians experience God. People of other religious traditions will use different language. But this is our language. This is our experience.

The image of God as “Father” is a frequently used image to speak of God, which is all quite natural, considering that Jesus often used this image. What we need to remember though, is that it is just an image.

Why this image? Clearly the fact that the world of Jesus was a gender segregated, patriarchal world has, no doubt, much to do with it. However, the Aramaic word Jesus used speaks of a loving, personal, caring Parent. It might have even been used to speak of a loving father or mother the way “mankind” was used to speak of humankind in general.

Is God literally a human father? Of course not. And while Jesus used this image frequently, he did not do so exclusively. Jesus also pictured God as a mother hen gathering her chicks. In his parables Jesus would sometimes balance male and female images. God is the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep; but God is also the woman who searches for the lost coin. The kingdom of God is like a man who plants a tiny mustard seed in his field; the kingdom of God is also like a woman who mixes up the leaven in the bread. These are all just images. Theologians Jurgen Moltmann and Leonardo Boff speak of the motherly Father and the fatherly Mother. Always remember sisters and brothers, all God language is symbolical language.

This motherly father or fatherly mother who is the source and creator of all that is, we have experienced through the man Jesus, through his life, teachings, works of mercy and justice, and through his death and resurrection. In the Trinitarian language of Paul’s benediction he is called “Lord Jesus Christ” bringing together the man Jesus with the risen Christ. It’s reflective of the language of Luke in Acts 2 where Peter says to the Jewish leaders and people gathered at Pentecost: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders and signs that God did through him among you . . . this man . . . God raised . . . and made him both Lord and Christ/Messiah.” The first Christians simply connected the pre-resurrection man with the post-resurrection titles – the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, it’s the language of experience. We have encountered God – the Ultimate Reality – in the man Jesus of Nazareth whom God raised up and appointed Lord and Christ.

Next Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is given other names in the NT. John’s Gospel while using the adjective “Holy” to describe the Spirit, also calls the Spirit the Spirit of truth or simply the Advocate (sometimes translated as Comforter or Counselor). In John 4 the writer says, “God is Spirit.” Spirit is another image for God. Paul calls the Spirit both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ and sometimes uses these terms interchangeably in the same passage.

Again, this is the language of experience (I can’t say this is often enough). This is how we encounter God right now. We encounter God as Spirit or in Spirt. We encounter God as the living Christ, as the cosmic Christ, in the Spirit of Christ. The One who is beyond all of us is all also within us as Spirit. So, the great Mystery we call Father or Mother or simply God has made himself or herself known in the man Jesus of Nazareth whom God raised and made Lord and Christ. This God comes to us right now, today, this very moment as Holy Spirit, as Advocate and Comforter, as the living Christ. Now if you try to define or label or categorize or propositionalize what I just said then you are chasing a rabbit that will get you lost and may just lead you right up to the golden calf.

Now, what I think is significant in the Trinitarian language of Paul’s benediction in the text today are the ways the Trinitarian God is referenced, which captures the heart of our experience of God.

Paul wishes upon them and us the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. How do we know God as a God of grace? Well, there are a number of ways, but the most definitive way we Christians know God as a God of grace is through our encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospels. The man Jesus we have come to love in our Gospels is a Jesus who speaks and acts in grace on every page, in almost every encounter, in every healing work, and in every work of mercy. Every time Jesus sits down to eat with tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and prostitutes, Jesus becomes our living model and incarnation of divine grace.

As you are well aware I often begin my formal prayers with: “Our good and gracious God.” How do I know God is good and gracious? Because that has been my experience of God as I have encountered God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the lens through whom we Christians see God and experience God.

Next, Paul mentions the love of God. That should be no surprise since for Paul the very heart and essence of God is love. Love is at the core of who and what God is. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he argues for the superiority of love over all other virtues and realities: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three [more Trinitarian language, but in this Trinity there is a clear superior]; and the greatest of these is love.” Again, sisters and brothers, this is the language of experience. The church that gave us the little epistle of first John says that wherever love is God is. Why? Because God is love. (If you want to read that argument read 1 John 4.)

I love the story about this rough, tough mountaineer who was known for his quick temper and his readiness to fight. He was very skilled with his hands and could do carpentry and mechanical work very well, but did not finish high school, though he eventually got his GED. Some think he was resentful that his circumstances were such that he was not able to pursue his education. (Of course, some of us have an education, but we can’t do didly, right?)

Well, it seemed like the tiniest spark could set him off. Then one day he accompanied his young nephew to a school function because his nephew’s parents had other obligations. He met his nephew’s teacher and at first sight just fell head-over-heels in love. It took him a long time to get up the nerve to even ask her out. How could such a woman so knowledgeable and sophisticated and articulate love the likes of him? But, you know, love is a mysterious and wondrous thing, and she returned his love. The day they were married at the reception a friend who had noticed that he never seemed to get angry anymore asked what why this was the case. His response was simply, “I don’t know. All I know is that I ain’t got nothin’ against nobody.”

How do you explain it? He encountered a deeper love that changed him. This is what we have encountered through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and as Paul says here, through the communion of the Holy Spirit. The love of God and the grace that the historical Jesus so beautifully incarnated, we experience right now through the Holy Spirit or we might say the living Christ. (The Holy Spirit and the living Christ are not two different realities, just two different ways of talking about the same reality.)

The word communion emphasizes relationship; it points to a deep spiritual and emotional connection. Paul in other places talks about the “fellowship of the Spirit.” Again, it’s the language of experience. We call the Divine Reality that we encounter in the heart and soul of our being Spirit or Holy Spirit. It’s just another way to talk about this great Mystery. We experience the One who is Beyond as Within through the communion of the Holy Spirit.  

In my Sunday School class we are working through a book by Brother David Steindl-Rast on the Apostle’s Creed. He expounds on the symbolism of each phrase in the creed. He tells about a childhood game that he played once with a cousin. They had a staring contest. They were young children laying on a blanket on the lawn bored and resentful that they were still required to take an afternoon nap even though they felt so grown-up now. It started as a contest about who could look into the other’s eyes without turning away. Turn away and you lose. But then, says Bro. Steindl-Rast, it became more than a game. Maybe this was the result of seeing their own image mirrored in the other’s pupil. Who knows? But what happened after that cannot be put into words. He says, “We fell into each other’s eyes. Like children in a fairy tale who fall into a magic pool.” They were two and yet one. He says, “When our eyes began to water, we both closed them at the same time.” They tried to laugh it off, and yet he says, “We knew we had somehow glimpsed the real world . . . at that level of intense awareness, all is love.” Though at the time neither had the vocabulary or the understanding to describe it this way, but what they had really encountered was the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Trinitarian language is not the language of facts or history or science; it’s the language of spiritual experience. As we join together as the body of Christ to share the bread and the cup I hope and pray that all of us here might experience something of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

What the Spirit wants to do? (1 Cor. 12:4-13, also Acts 2:1-21)

Writer Robert Roberts tells about a fourth grade class that played “balloon stomp.” In “balloon stomp” a balloon is tied to every child’s leg, and the object of the game is to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting your own. The last person with an intact balloon wins. It’s a game rooted in the philosophy of “survival of the fittest.”

In this particular fourth grade class balloons were relentlessly targeted and destroyed. A few of the less aggressive children hung shyly on the sidelines and, of course, their balloons were among the first to go. The game was over in a matter of seconds. The winner, the one kid whose balloon was still intact was the most disliked kid in the room. 

But then, says Roberts, a second class was brought into the room to play the game, only this time it was a class of mentally challenged children. They too were each given a balloon. They were given the same instructions as the other group, and the same signal to begin the game.

This time, however, the game proceeded very differently. The instructions were given too quickly to be grasped very well. In all the confusion the one idea that stuck was that the balloons were supposed to be popped. But instead of fighting each other off, these kids got the idea that they were supposed to help each other pop their balloons. So they formed a kind of balloon co-op.

One little girl knelt down and held her balloon carefully in place while a little boy stomped it flat. Then he knelt down and held his balloon still for her to stomp. On and on it went, all the children helping one another, and when the last balloon was popped, everybody cheered. They were all winners. No one was put out of the game.

What this version of balloon stomp pictures for us is a vision of the world radically different than it is now. Right now the world operates on a system based in comparison and competition – and by the way, this is true in democracies as well as dictatorships. It’s the way almost all of the social systems operate that we are part of – in business, education, sports. Can you think of a system that you are a part of that does not to some degree function on the basis of comparison and competition?

Paul has a completely different vision for the church and for the world. Both Paul and Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, believed that the church is called by God to give the world a foretaste and preview of the kingdom of God and in a sense, be the first installment of God’s vision and dream for the world. A world that does not organize and operate on the grounds of comparison and competition, but rather, a just world of equality and mutuality where all are included and no one is tossed aside. A world where exceptionalism does not exist. There is no exceptionalism in God’s just world. It’s hard to even imagine such a world isn’t it? And yet, here’s the kicker, we who are the church, representing the body of Christ in the world, are called to model God’s dream for the world and give the world a taste of God’s new creation.

Paul described the Spirit of Christ who indwells the church and to whom the church belongs both as a “deposit” and “first fruits” of what is to come. Paul believed the church should be living now what God wants for the whole world – God’s dream for the world. Paul wanted the church to be a microcosm of God’s macrocosmic dream and will for the whole world. What I mean is: Paul believed that the local church, a local gathering of Christ followers could live out in a particular place in a particular community what God wants and wills for the world globally and universally.

In his letter to the Corinthians Paul emphasizes that every member of the community is gifted and while the various gifts serve various functions all the gifts are for the purpose of the common good: “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Paul even goes on to argue in this passage that those who seem to be of lesser value in the functioning of the body, God deems of utmost importance and bestows the most honor. God turns our value system upside down. This is why Jesus gave special preference to the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the mentally and physically challenged, and those excluded and put down by those in power.

Luke apparently shared a similar vision of the church. In the account in Acts the Spirit of Christ fills this gathered group of Christ followers and enables them to communicate the good news in the various languages of the known world. Everyone hears the good news in their native language. Luke interprets this event as the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s dream for the world, when the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, all humankind. In that day the Spirit empowers everyone – young and old, men and women, people of all nationalities – everyone drinks of the Spirit and is filled Christ’s Spirit, which is the Spirit of love, the Spirit of grace and truth. It is the Spirit who empowers works of mercy and works of restorative justice. 

Now, I think we have to be honest and admit that the church has not done very well in embracing this vision and being an example for the world. And this is nothing new. I suspect Paul even wondered at times whether the communities he was forming could ever arise to such a vision. For the most part we have letters from Paul because the churches he formed and worked with seemed to be plagued by one problem after another. There are forces at work from both within and without the church to thwart this vision of a compassionate and just world.

And yet still, it is the church, or faith communities like the church that gives hope to the world that we might become a more merciful, compassionate, loving, and justice seeking people.

Fred Craddock tells about the time when he was a kid, and the family lost their farm and they 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. 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 and all that. Fred was worried, all choked up; he didn’t know what to say. 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, “She asked you what? What you did on vacation? Obviously your teacher is asking you for a lie, so give her one?” And he did. When it was his turn he told the class, “We went up to New York and Washington and on an 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?” He said, “Because I am embarrassed.” “Why were you embarrassed?” He said, “Because I worked on the farm all summer before we lost it and had to move here.” That put an end to all stories.

Fred goes on to tell about 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. Someone would ask what he did on his vacation. But they didn’t ask. Fred says that he was never embarrassed in church. He says he didn’t ever remember feeling any different, any less, any more, any different from anybody else in church. Fred says that from the age of nine he has had this little jubilee going on in his mind: There is no place in the world like church.

I believe this is what God wants for the world. And we are called to live into that vision. We are called to be a people who gives the world a taste of what can be, of what is possible, of a world where all people are valued and honored and loved. A world devoid of places of privilege. A world without exceptionalisms.

In order to do that most churches will have to leave behind their pride of privilege and dig themselves out of the shell where they have buried themselves. Instead of circling the wagons and digging in, instead of preaching a message and practicing a religion of exclusion and exceptionalism, we should be modeling to the world how a Christ led people can work with all people of all faiths or no faith all for the common good of society. And especially for the good of the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged, the ones that Jesus gave special preference too.

And so I say to our graduates who are here: A healthy church, a church that has this wider and deeper vision of a good, loving, compassionate, and just world, could help you immensely in your spiritual life find purpose and meaning and joy as you participate in God’s will and work in the world.

It is not likely that you will be able to break away from your own ego, your own agenda, your own pride and sense of privilege on your own. It’s the way almost all of us are socialized into the world that makes it so difficult. We need the help and grace and truth-telling and empowerment that we receive in a healthy faith community that is committed to the work of the kingdom of God, which embraces the earth and all that inhabit it.

It was hard for the first disciples. Before the experience of Pentecost in Acts 2, the disciples ask the risen Christ in Acts 1: “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel.” They were still locked in to their own group, their own glory, their own pride of place in the world. Are you now going to make Israel great? I wonder how many Christians are asking that today? I wonder how many Christians are praying that God would make their group or denomination or church great? I wonder how many Christians are praying that God would make their nation greater than all other nations? “God bless America first, then if you have anything left God, you can spread some blessings to those other folks. But we know they are not as special or exceptional or worthy as we are.” That’s what we are up against. And there are a lot of churches that have become cheerleaders of American exceptionalism. I think one of the reasons Jesus overturned the tables and staged a protest in the Temple of Jerusalem is because he knew that God wanted the temple to be a house of prayer for all nations, for all peoples. But the Temple gatekeepers had turned temple religion into a worthiness system rooted in a system of meritocracy and privilege.

I don’t want to downplay God’s love for the individual – of God’s love for you. God loves you with an eternal love, but God does not love you more than God loves anyone else. We are all God’s children. I can’t tell you how often I have heard a preacher tell a congregation to personalize John 3:16. Instead of saying, “God so loves the world” insert your name in place of the word “world.” I suspect that anyone struggling with low self-esteem or a diminished self-image or feeling such guilt as to think God couldn’t possibly love them, will find great comfort in knowing God loves them personally. But I think we have to be careful as well. Balance is everything. God loves you, but God also loves the world. God doesn’t love Americans anymore than God loves South Africans or Asians or anyone else.

How do we nurture a wider vision? How do we let go of our sense of privilege and exceptionalism? How do we cultivate a large, big, God-like dream of a just world? That’s where a healthy faith community is needed. You can’t do it on your own. We need the Spirit of Christ who is present and at work in the church, Christ’s body to move us and empower us. It is in the church gathered, as in this first community in Acts 2, where the Spirit gives dreams and visions to young and old. In the Christ community gathered the Spirit raises up men and women to prophesy – to tell the truth and challenge the domination system and call us to be faithful – to be loving, compassionate, justice-seeking people. An inclusive, grace-filled, justice-seeking, mercy-doing faith community can guide you into the work of the Divine Spirit in the world.

O God, may each one of us open our lives to you so that our lives become a manifestation of your Spirit. Open our eyes that we share a bit of your vision for a just world. Open our hearts that we might feel the hurt and pain that so many of your children feel who suffer from the injustices of life. Let us trust in your Spirit to guide us and fill us with the compassion, motivation, courage, and the spiritual and physical strength necessary to make a difference. In the name of Christ. Amen.   

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Resisting and Loving the World (a sermon from John 17:1, 6-19)

Did you notice how often the word “world” appears in this passage?

v. 6: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.”
v. 9: “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world.”
v. 11: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. . . . protect them in your name that you have given me”
v. 14: “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.”
v. 15: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”
v. 16: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
v. 18: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

That last statement is the one I want to focus on today. Luke says the Holy Spirit will turn Jesus’ followers into witnesses. Here in John we are told that as the Father sent Jesus on a mission to the world, so the Christ sends us to continue his work.  

I have said on a number of occasions that words and phrases and stories in the Gospel of John are multi-layered and often convey several different meanings. “World” is a key word in this Gospel that has both positive and negative meanings. John says that God sent Jesus into the world to save the world – that is, to heal and liberate the world, to restore and transform the world. God so loves the world and that includes the people who make up the world and the systems that operate in the world.

What do I mean by “systems?” A system is a collective and corporate network of individuals and organizations that are formed for some purpose. We are part of numerous systems – business systems, educational systems, economic systems, political systems, religious systems, and various other types of social systems. A system becomes 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 a predominantly evil or unjust system has some good. For example, even in the pervasively evil system of Nazi Germany there were some good people who secretly tried to save lives.

In his award winning book, Engaging the Powers, the late Walter Wink describes how blacks struggling against apartheid in South Africa realized that freedom could not be gained simply by replacing the white leaders with black leaders without changing the system. They named the evil and injustice at work in their society “the System.” So when the police, who were instruments of the unjust authorities, were at the door, those on the inside would warn, “The System” is here. When they watched the evil propaganda on television they would say, “The System is lying again.” Walter wink calls this “the domination system.”

Now, what I am about to say is important so please hear me. Regardless of whether we are talking about individuals in the world or the systems that make up the world, God wants to save the world. God wants to heal and transform individuals who live in the world and make up the systems of the world, and God wants to heal and redeem the systems themselves. God cares about the systems that operate in the world as well as the individuals who make up these systems.

So how does God do that? How does God go about saving the world? God calls out a people to be Gods ambassadors and agents of redemption and reconciliation. Jesus says, “As the Father sent me so I send you.” God sent Jesus to save the world and now the living Christ sends us. This is why Paul calls us Christ’s body. We are called to be the body of Christ whom God speaks through and works through to save the world.  Paul clearly understood the implications of this when he wrote to the Corinthians and said, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews . . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law . . . so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:19, 21-23). Are you hearing what he says: “that I might save some.” He didn’t say, “So God might save some.” No, he says, “So that I might save some.” Now, I know Paul can seem a bit-over-the top and sometimes he is. He was over-the-top religious even before he met Christ. He was over-the-top in a destructive way. And it may sound a bit arrogant for Paul to claim to be some kind of savior. But I think Paul clearly understood that if God was going to save anyone, if God was going to heal and restore and transform anyone, God would have to do that through human agency. This is why he calls the church the body of Christ. Paul understood his role. Do we?

We are called to save the world – to heal and redeem the world. I know that’s pretty heavy stuff but there is no getting around it really. Jesus left and the Holy Spirit is sent to empower us to be his witnesses – to do the work of Jesus and be the body of Christ. So how do we function as Jesus? How do we serve as God’s prophets, God’s teachers, God’s reformers, and (Are you ready for this?) God’s saviors? How do we go about saving the world?

The biblical tradition emphasizes two major approaches. First, as representatives of Jesus we engage in works of mercy like Jesus. Sisters and brothers, I think that for the most part you do that as well as any church I know. You work in the soup kitchen. You volunteer to build habitat homes. You volunteer and donate to the women’s shelter. You work in the food pantry. You care for and help neighbors in your community who need assistance. We have a great reputation in our community for engaging in works of mercy.

But, did you know that we also engage in works of mercy when we help people discover who they are in God and in Christ and when we help them become who they are through their discipleship to Christ. We are doing works of mercy when we invite people to become connected and committed to Christ through our church community. A lot of Christians call this evangelism, but I simply call it a work of mercy. And we could stand some improvement here couldn’t we? I am preaching to myself as well as you as I always do. We all could be better at inviting others into discipleship.

Now, why is this a work of mercy? When a person is connected and committed to a healthy faith community like ours that person is more apt “to experience and express God’s unconditional love” which, according to our vision statement, is what we are all about. When a person is connected and committed to a church family like ours in discipleship to Jesus that person is more apt to move beyond his or her little self and become part of a larger story and work, which Jesus called the kingdom of God.

The late Fred Craddock told how his mother was the one who took him to church, and how his father wouldn’t go. His father complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home. Sometimes the pastor would call, and his father would say, “I know what the church wants.  The church doesn’t care about me.  The church wants another name, another pledge, another name, another pledge.”  That’s what he would always say. Sometimes they would have a revival.  The pastor would bring the guest preacher to visit and sic him on his father.  His father would say the same thing, “The church doesn’t care about me; it just wants another name and another pledge.”  Fred said he must have heard that a thousand times.

But then there was the time when his father became seriously ill. He was in the veteran’s hospital and was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat and said, “It’s too late.”  They put in a metal tube, and X rays burned him to pieces. Fred flew in to see him. His father couldn’t speak and couldn’t eat. Fred looked around the room. There were potted plants and cut flowers on the windowsills, and a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. Even his food tray had a flower on it.  And all the flowers and cards were from the folks from the church—the very church of which his father use to say, “They don’t care about me; they just want another name and another pledge.”

Fred read one of the cards. His father couldn’t speak, so his father took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side a line from Shakespeare.  He wrote: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”  Fred said, “What is your story, Daddy?”  His father wrote, “I was wrong.” We are called and sent to engage the world in works of mercy in order to heal the world, redeem the world, and liberate the world, in other words, save the world.

That’s the first thing. That’s one side of the coin. We engage in works of mercy, because works of mercy are works of Christ. But there is another side to the coin. And this second type of engagement and involvement with the world is just as important as works of mercy. We represent Christ in working to save the world by engaging in works of mercy and we represent Christ in working to save the world by doing works of justice. By justice here I mean restorative justice, redemptive justice, social justice, not retributive or punitive justice. I think it’s very clear from the biblical tradition (and many others have pointed this out as well) that doing works of justice involves three primary tasks.

The first task is to resist the domination system. Resistance is the first task. Resisting evil. Resisting conformity to unjust systems. Paul told the church at Rome: “Do not let the world, the domination system, the unjust systems of the world, squeeze you into its mold.” Even though every one of us is part of the system and to some degree complicit in the system, we are called to resist the system when the system is characterized by injustice and evil. This can take many forms.

We might joint an action group. We can march. We can write letters and make phone calls. We can write a letter to the editor. And something that all of us can and should do is be  informed about political candidates so that our vote is a vote for justice.

Resistance can be as simple as refusing to allow the system to name us and tells us who we are. The late William Sloan Coffin in his book Letters to a Young Doubter, says that when he was chaplain at Yale it was natural that seniors bound for graduate school would come to him for letters of recommendation to such highfalutin schools as the Harvard Law School or the Columbia Medical School. He might write something like: “In all likelihood, this candidate will be in the bottom quarter of your class. But surely you will agree with me that the bottom quarter should be as carefully selected as the top. And for what should you be looking in the bottom quarter if not a candidate who will seek the common good rather than personal gain; who will strive to be valuable rather than successful, and to make a difference, not money?  As this candidate embodies these virtues, I consider him or her eminently qualified for admission to your outstanding school. Do take her/him?”

Coffin says that invariably when he would show this letter to the student the student’s feelings would be hurt? The student would say, “How do you know I’m going to be in the bottom of the class.” Coffin would say, “Well, all the evidence is in isn’t it?” And the student would say, “Yes, but you didn’t ‘have to tell them.” 

Coffin writes, “You see what was going on? Never mind that I enumerated some sterling extracurricular qualities. Never mind that in order to be accepted into Harvard Law or Columbia Medical you had to be in the ninety-seventh percentile and to graduate in the ninety-eighth. Just because I didn’t say they would be in the ninety-ninth percentile, they felt they had somehow failed.” Then he says this – the clincher: “Such is the power of higher education to tell you who you are!” That is the power of the system to tell us who we are and to control our lives. The system can be a college or school, a political party, or a religious group, or some professional agency, or even a club or organization. Who are we listening to? Who is telling us who we are?

So the first task of engaging the world with works of justice is to resist the domination system. The second task which is inseparably connected to the first task is to confront and challenge the domination system. Clearly these two tasks go hand-in-hand. In the era of civil rights led by Dr. King resistance and confrontation took the form of nonviolent civil disobedience. And those who engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience were prepared to suffer for their resistance, and often did. This work can be dangerous

The Hebrew prophets often spoke truth to power. Remember Nathan confronting David, “you are the man.” Sometimes the prophets even performed dramatic symbolic acts to challenge the powers that be. Did you know that Isaiah walked naked and barefoot through the streets of Jerusalem for three years preaching against entering into military alliance with Egypt. He warned that Assyria would conquer Egypt and carry them off barefoot and naked as prisoners of war. Jeremiah shattered a clay jug in the presence of the leaders of Jerusalem warning them what lie ahead if they continue their present course. On another occasion he wore a wooden yoke around his neck warning Israel not to join a military alliance against Babylon. When Jesus cursed the fig tree Jesus was performing a dramatic symbolic act warning Israel of what was to come from the powers that be.

Jesus was, among other things a prophet in the Hebrew tradition. He was more than a prophet, but he was clearly a prophet. He confronted and challenged the falsities and untruths of the powers that be. His many healings were certainly works of mercy, but when he did these works of mercy on the Sabbath they also became works of justice. By healing on the Sabbath Jesus challenged Sabbath law and a religious system that favored rules over mercy. When Jesus led a rag-tag bunch of his followers into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he was in essence leading a peace march. This was no spontaneous happening. If you remember, when he sent his disciples after the donkey he would ride into Jerusalem he gave them very specific directions where to go to find it and what to say. This was all pre-arranged and planned. This was a staged peaceful procession into Jerusalem intentionally coinciding with a very different kind of procession entering from the opposite side of Jerusalem. At the very time Jesus led his peace march into Jerusalem Pilot would have been leading a pompous and powerful march of Roman soldiers into Jerusalem to reinforce the Roman garrison on the Temple Mount in order to curtail any thought of uprising or insurrection during the Jewish festivities. What a contrast. Jesus was declaring God’s kingdom to be a kingdom of peace, not violence – a different kind of kingdom.

And then, of course, when Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple, an act, which according to Mark’s Gospel, sealed his death, Jesus was protesting Temple religion. Scholars debate exactly what about the Temple religion Jesus was protesting, but no Jesus scholar doubts that it was a planned protest, not a spontaneous expression of anger. Jesus clearly confronted and challenged the domination system of Judaism, and in more subtle ways, the domination system of Rome.

This brings me to the final task in doing works of justice, which the first two tasks of resisting and confronting point to. The third task is to heal and redeem the unjust systems of the world which we are part of. This is important. Because it’s not just about resisting. And it’s not just about confronting and challenging. The resisting and confronting is for the overriding, overarching purpose of saving. Deconstruction prepares the way for reconstruction. We don’t overcome the world by destroying the world. God doesn’t overcome the world by sending the world to hell. God overcomes the world by saving the world, by healing the world, by redeeming the world. God overcomes the world by redeeming the world from the “hells” we have created. God doesn’t create hell, we do – by our lust for power and position, by our pride and ego, by our prejudice and violence. We create the hells, God saves us from them by means of human saviors, human agents and ambassadors. As Dr. King said, we don’t want to destroy our enemies, we want to turn our enemies into our friends. This is what God wants and God sends us out to do it. Let that sink in for a second or two. For whatever reason, we are God’s plan to save the world. Can you believe that? What was God thinking? In light of everything I can see, it’s a pretty pitiful plan. But that’s it. There is no other.

When Jesus said to Pilot, “My kingdom is not from this world” he was not saying that his kingdom is in heaven and not on this earth. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” Heaven is doing great. Here on earth is where we must pray and work to see God’s will be done and God’s kingdom come. What Jesus was saying to Pilot is that his kingdom, God’s kingdom does not partake of the violence and greed and lust for power that characterizes earthly kingdoms like the one Pilot was part of. God’s kingdom is a kin-dom pervaded by mercy and justice.

So then, are we up to it? Did you realize that when you joined the church you were joining an effort to save the world? Probably not. If the world is going to be saved, we will have to do it. Certainly with the grace and love and compassion of God. Certainly with the Spirit of Christ. But the works of mercy and the works of justice required to save the world has to be done by you and me.

Our good God, we are not up to it – this extraordinary thing you have asked us to do. In fact, if we are honest and courageous enough to face our own demons, we have to confess that we ourselves still need saving in so many ways. We need a Christ size vision and a Christ like compassion and love. We are going to need a lot of courage and hope and inner resolve. Fill us with the grace and truth of the Christ that we may be his voice and his body in the world. Amen.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What the world needs now (A sermon from John 14:15-21 and Acts 17:22-31)

It’s a refrain we all know: “What the world needs now / Is love sweet love / It’s the only thing / there’s just too little of.” It’s not the only thing there is too little of, but it’s the most important thing there is too little of. I think all of us would agree that we could stand for some more love – of the kind that is healthy, honest, redemptive, restorative, and transformative.

In John 13 Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In his book, If the Church were Christian, Philip Gulley tells about accepting a call to be the pastor of a Quaker meeting in Indianapolis when he was beginning his ministry. The small congregation was deeply loving and compassionate, primarily due to Lyman and Harriet Combs, who had helped to start the congregation years before. Both were retired from their secular vocations when Gulley came as pastor.

Lyman volunteered almost daily at a homeless shelter, and Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported people to appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so with such transparent joy and good humor that to be in her presence was a healing and redemptive experience. And over the years the fellowship took on their demeanor. The church was incredibly generous and because of its close proximity to several resources for the homeless, was often visited by mentally ill persons, all of whom were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home in their church.

As gracious as the people were it frustrated Gulley that for the most part they seemed to be indifferent when it came to reaching more people in their community. On one occasion, frustrated that they weren’t gaining new people, Gulley asked Harriet why that was. She said, “Well, I guess that was never our goal. Gulley responded, “Then why are we here?” Harriet smiled and said, “To love.” That’s why we are here: To love.

Other things are important. I don’t think we should downplay the importance or need to incorporate new people into the life of our congregation. But it is true that everything else takes a back seat to the primary objective, which is: To love.

And that’s because love is the essence and core of who God is and what God is about. “So,” says John, “we have known and believe [that is, we trust in and are committed to] the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 3:16-17).To abide in love is to abide in God, because love is the essence of who God is. Wherever love is God is, and that’s true whether people realize it or not. When a person expresses love to someone else, even though that person may not consciously connect the love he or she feels and expresses with God, nevertheless, it is God within them who is loving through them. Healthy religion will always help us connect love with God. Richard Rohr likes to say that transformative religion is about falling in love with God. There have been times in dialogue with others I have asked: Is the God you believe in a God you can love with all your heart? If not, then maybe it’s time reimagine God.

In our Gospel text Jesus tells them that when he leaves the Father will send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth whose primary work is to convince us that we belong and that we are loved with an eternal love. In the passage Jesus says, “On that day [any day really, any day God’s love is revealed to us] you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Then he says, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” What this text is saying is that “We all belong. We all belong to God and to one another. And the Spirit of Truth will help us to see this, to know this, to claim this, and to experience this oneness and belonging.”

Maybe the greatest need for some folks who have been hurt and broken by life is to know first of all that they are loved. Michael Yaconelli shares a story about a lady we will call Margaret who lived with the memory of one soul scaring day in the one room schoolhouse she attended as a child. From the first day Margaret came to class, she and Ms. Garner, didn’t get along. Her teacher was unusually bitter and harsh towards her and the animosity between them grew until one day it spilled over into an experience that altered Margaret’s life from then on. Ms. Garner spurned Margaret for being late for class one morning and Margaret made some spiteful comment.  The teacher made Margaret come to the front and face the class as she told the class what a bad girl Margaret was. “So we must teach her a lesson,” said Ms. Garner.  She said to the class: “I want each of you to come to the front of the room, take a piece of chalk, and write something bad about Margaret on the blackboard. Maybe this will help Margaret become a better person.” 

Margaret stood frozen and one by one, the students came to the blackboard and wrote things like, “Margaret is stupid,” “Margaret is ugly,” “Margaret is selfish,” and on and on it went.  Twenty-five sentences that became indelibly written on Margaret’s soul. Forty years later, slumped in the chair in the psychologist’s office, Margaret is still living in the shadow of that nightmarish experience. With the help of a caring psychologist, a loving church family, and a growing relationship with God, Margaret is healing and is ready to move on. Her psychologist is also her spiritual director and is helping Margaret find resources in her faith. She tells Margaret that it is necessary to go back and relive this tragic experience one more time. She trusts her counselor, so she does; she can hardly bear it. Then her counselor tells Margaret to imagine another person in the room. He’s walking to the blackboard and he erases everyone of those ugly sentences the students wrote. She says to Margaret, “Now, he’s turning and looking at you. See his eyes. Look at his eyes.  They are full of compassion. It is Jesus. And now he is writing on the blackboard, new sentences—“Margaret is loved”; “Margaret is beautiful”; “Margaret is kind”; “Margaret is a child of God.”

You know sisters and brothers, maybe the greatest thing we can do for someone else is help that person discover how loved and valued he or she really is. And we do that, not be preaching at them, but by showing them through our words and deeds, through our caring and helping, through our encouragement and support that they are loved. We love them and thus reflect God’s love. This is why the passage that I quoted earlier in First John concludes by saying, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars.” Why is that so? Because we all belong. We are one family and one people in God. And if we are not loving others then we are not loving God. We may claim to love God. We may be very religious. We may participate in numerous religious activities. But if we are not loving others we are not loving God no matter how religious we appear to be.

This passage begins with Jesus saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (10:15) The passage ends with Jesus saying, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (10:21). Jesus clearly equates the experience of divine love with keeping his commandments. And what are his commandments? The premier commandment which is the foundational commandment, the well-spring from which all other commandments arise is the new commandment he gives to his followers: That we love one another as Jesus has loved us (13:34). All Jesus’ other commandments are expressions of this one essential and central commandment.

In John 13 Jesus picks up a water bowl and towel and washes the feet of the disciples, then he commands “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). He commands them and us to serve one another in simplicity and humility. This command to serve in humility is simply an expression of the foundational command to love others the way Christ has loved us. We experience divine love – the love of God and Jesus, by loving others the way God loves us.

There are no exclusions or exceptions in terms of who we are to love. We don’t get to pick and choose. We don’t get to carefully define our group and the people we will love. We don’t get to condemn or exclude or marginalize the folks who don’t see life or God the way we do. In fact, since we all belong we should be looking for some common ground where we can work together to effect positive change.

In Acts 17 Paul speaks to the philosophers in Athens of the God they worship in ignorance. Paul found among their objects of veneration an alter with the inscription: “To an unknown god.” Paul starts here and then proclaims to them the Christ, who Paul believed and we believe is the definitive expression and revelation of who God is like. Even though they had not heard of Jesus, Paul calls them “God’s offspring” and  proclaims that the God of Jesus is the Spirit who pervades and sustains our lives. He says that “in him [the God we all belong to] we live and move and have our existence.” In other words, to use the language of John’s Gospel, we are in God and God is in us, even though we may not consciously be aware of it like the philosophers in Athens.

This is why we must love one another no matter what. Because we are one family, one people; we all belong to one another. We are all God’s offspring. We are all God’s daughters and sons. We all are alive due to our connection to God – physically as well as spiritually. We are physically alive because God is in us and we are in God. The divine Spirit gives us life and breath; the Divine Spirit animates and gives life to the human spirit. This truth is conveyed in the creation story where God breathes into the human creature and the human creature becomes a living being created in the image of God. We live in God and God lives in us. The challenge we face is to live out this reality in ways where we experience and express our oneness and belonging to one another and to God.

What if we allowed these truths to inform the way we treat one another? What if we actually allowed them to guide our civic policies and responsibilities? What if we took seriously Jesus’ commandments to love others in the way we form immigration policy or our tax system. What if we allowed them to guide the way we operate our criminal justice system? What if they informed the way we go about caring for and empowering the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable in our society? What if we allowed these commandments to sustain all our relationships and guide the way we treat one another – at home, at work, in the church, and in all the groups and organizations we are part of.

We don’t like thinking about this because it’s so challenging? Loving others is hard work. Think of how Jesus loved and responded to the ones who orchestrated his death. He bore their hatred and animosity without returning it. Forgiving those who have offended or hurt us is also at the heart of diving love, and that can be a real struggle and challenge.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the horrendous genocide  there. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine or don’t want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.” Now the very fact that she is able to recognize this and acknowledge her struggle says quite a bit about this young woman doesn’t it?

What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? Her problem, wrote Vanier, was the guilt she felt because she didn’t know how to forgive. So she was caught up in a world of hate and depression.

Vanier said to her: “Do you know that the first step towards forgiveness is ‘no vengeance’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness.” I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons this young lady had to contend with. But she decided “no vengeance” and she took the first step toward forgiveness and finding peace. Even though she had experienced such hate and terror, she decided to love. And I would bet that to the degree she is able to love, she will have some peace of mind and heart.
Are we willing to take that first step? Are we ready to acknowledge that while we are special to God we are “no more special to God” than anyone else. We are all God’s offspring. We all live and move and have our existence in God. If we are to actually live as one family, someone has to say, “I forgive.” No more hate. No more killing. No more vengeance. Let’s learn to live in peace.”

What the world needs now is for you and me, and everyone else to love one another the way God loves each of us. And by following Jesus we learn how to do that. This is why we invite people to be disciples of Jesus. It’s not because there is no other way one can know God or they are going to hell if they don’t. It’s because we have come to know God’s love through our relationship with and discipleship to the Christ. It’s because we have learned from Jesus and continue to learn from the living Christ how to love one another with the love of God.

Our good God, may we learn from Jesus and from one another how to allow your love to flow through us – what we might be healed and changed by your love and that your love flowing through us might heal and change others. Amen.