I love the story that I have shared a few times before that author and pastor Philip Gulley has shared about a time when he was much younger and called to pastor a small urban congregation in Indianapolis. The congregation was extremely caring and compassionate, taking on the demeanor of their two most active members, Lyman and Harriet Combs. When Gulley came to know the couple they were retired and had devoted their remaining years to caring for others. Lyman volunteered amost every day at a homeless shelter, and Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported the elderly to their appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so with such joy and good humor that being in her presence was an uplifting and inspiring experience.
What bothered Gulley, though, as a young minister was the church’s seeming indifference to numerical growth. He wanted to build the institution. One day when Gulley was particularly frustrated he asked Harriet why that was so. She said, “I guess it was never our goal to have a large church.” Well, that was not what he was wanting to hear as a young, ambitious minister. So he asked Harriet, “Then why are we here?” Smiling, she said, “To love.” Gulley says that while he was busy trying to attract the right kind of people – families with children, the influential, the gifted, financial donors, people who could grow the institution – Harriet was busy caring for those in need, never judging, never trying to gauge their worth, just accepting and loving them.
I will tell you, as pastor of this church, I care about the institution. And some of that, I will admit, is ego and self-preservation – because after all, my vocation and livelihood is tied to the institution. I will certainly not pretend that is not important to me. I want our church as an institution to thrive. There are better reasons, though, for the institution to thrive. I hope you give generously to the institution. Because the more you give, the more ministry and service in the community we can do. We want to be able to send our young people to camp. We want to be able to support our ministries here and support missions abroad. We want to be able to keep up our facilities in good condition, not just for our own benefit, but also for community service and use. We should all want the institution to thrive. And if you know people who have given up on church because of what most churches believe and practice these days, then tell them about our church, because we are certainly not like most churches are we. They might find a home here.
But as much as I want the institution to thrive, and hopefully you want this as much as I do, we can’t lose focus about what our primary task is – and that is, to love. There is a lot about the church as an institution that we cannot completely control. But we all can love. In his prayer in chapter 3 of this letter the writer prays: I pray that you may have the power to comprehend (that is, understand), with all the saints, what is the breath and length and height and depth, and to know (that is, to experience) the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” Then, says the writer, you will “be filled with all the fullness of God.” Because God is love. When we are filled with love, we are filled with God. Our vision statement as a church is a simple one: To experience and express God’s unconditional love. The unity, the common good, the oneness that the living Christ wants for all creation will only be brought about through love.
I would like to hightlight three ways that our writer says is critical to this process of living out our calling to love and to bring everyone together in Christ. First, we must bear with one another in love. And the way we do that, says our biblical writer, is by relating to one another with humility and gentleness and patience. Some people need time, and we can’t force them to grow when they are not ready to grow. It’s taken me a long time to learn this, but I think I understand now.
Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, once wrote about a time when he came upon a cocoon nestled in an olive tree. The infant butterfly was just starting to break through when Kazantzakis decided to shorten the natural process. He moved up real close and breathed on it. The warmth of his breath caused the butterfly to prematurely emerge from the cacoon, and when it did its wings were not adequately formed. So, unable to fly, it struggled and died. The young Kazantzakis learned a lesson that day. He had impatiently intervened and interrupted a process that he did not fully understand, and as a result of his intervention, he prevented life from fully forming, and did great harm to a living thing. I wish I had learned that lesson at the age when he learned that lesson.
Sometimes sisters and brothers we just have to back off, be patient, and wait. Sometimes we have to give people space to develop. Our part is to let them know we love them and care about them, but they have to work through their stuff. We can’t force them to become what they are not ready to become.
Now, this brings me to the second way we live out our calling to love, which is going to seem like a contradiction to what I just said. Everything depends on context. Situations are different. There are times when we wait too long, or times when we wait, when we should be speaking and acting and doing. There is a time to wait and be patient, and a time to act. There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak. There is a time to speak the truth in love.
When it comes to the big social and restorative justice issues of our time, now is not the time to wait. We live in a democracy, at least for now, and it is our responsibility to speak up. How can a follower of Jesus not be angry and outspoken about the way our government is treating refugees? I read the other day that some children may never be reunited with their parents. We are complicit in that injustice, because these are our elected representatives who are letting this happen. People who have come here fleeing violence and danger, looking for a safe place to live, we are treating as criminals. If we love God, and care about what is right and good and just, if we care about the well-being of our country, and if have just a little of the compassion of Jesus, how can we not speak up and speak out, and not confront this injustice.
Now here’s the catch. Speaking the truth in love, I believe, means taking on the demonic policy and practice, without demonizing the people who support it. And that, sisters and brothers, is a delicate undertaking. Everyone who is committed to speaking truth in love struggles with this. Just as humility is important in bearing with others patiently and in longsuffering, so humility is just as important when we speak the truth in love. In love we confront the unjust and demonic policies, without demonizing and treating unjustly those who enforce and support those demonic policies. This is where prayer is so important, because prayer helps us to attend to our own inner life and keep our ego in check.
So, we live out our calling to love, to bring all things together in Christ, by bearing with one another in humility, gentleness, and patience. And by speaking the truth in love. The third way our biblical text emphasizes, is by using our gifts and abilities to work for the common good. When it comes to specific beliefs about God or anything else, we will never have unity. That’s not the unity we should be striving for. The unity in Christ that we should be striving for is a unity in love, where we work together for the common good, whether that common good is for our families, our church, our community, our country, or our world.
Serving one another and our larger society for the common good has the potential to bring us together like nothing else. The newscaster Charles Kuralt, tells a beautiful story in his book A Life on the Road. It was the spring that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and several American cites erupted in flames. In June, Robert Kennedy was murdered. Kuralt had known them both. He was feeling depressed about the future of the country, as some of us are today. Then, in July, in Reno, Nevada, he ran across a woman named Pat Shannon Baker. Pat was a young white woman, the mother of three children. The night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, she sat up late thinking she had to do something. But what could she do? She remembered a vacant lot she passed every day in the city. It would make a nice park, she thought. She went to see her councilman, who talked about their strained budget and the difficulty of passing a bond issue. So Pat Baker went to see people in the African-American community around the lot, and she went to see garden supply companies and cement companies and the heads of construction and contracting companies. Pretty soon, her idea was their idea too.
At seven-thirty on a Friday morning, a time when many
residents had not yet stirred from their houses, a crowd began gathering on
that vacant lot. By eight-thirty, 2,000 tons of topsoil was being spread by
front-end loaders operated by heavy-equipment operators not used to working for
free. Kuralt stood and watched them. He could hardly believe his eyes. He
watched a school custodian, a roofer, a garage mechanic and an unemployed
teenager digging a ditch together. A junior high school boy assigned to saw
two-by-fours to serve as cement forms sawed all day in the hot sun as if his
life depended on it. A little girl carried water to the workers. Some
Coastguardsmen, Marines and Seabees came by and helped. By noon, cement was
laid for a double tennis court. A basketball court had been made by the time
the sun went down. Dozens of people worked through the night. Reno
On Saturday morning, a crowd of several hundred people showed up for work, black and white, young and old. An eighty-four year old man who came to watch spent the entire afternoon helping to plant trees. By Saturday night, the lawn had been sown, and on Sunday morning a sprinkler system was turned on. By Sunday afternoon, the park was finished, complete with walks and benches and trees and playing courts and grass. They named it the Pat Baker Park and asked her if she would like to say something. She said, “This was a great, big, black and white thing.” Kuralt went back twenty years later. He said the grass was neatly trimmed and the trees had grown tall and leafy. People were sitting on the park benches in the shade of the trees. Kids were playing on the basketball court. He thought back to the weekend the park was built. He remembered an elderly African-American, leaning on his shovel, looking around at what they had done and said that this was the best thing that ever happened since he had come to
. Not just the park itself. That was good, but he was talking about the building of it. The coming together
for the common good. Reno
I guess there is one belief we have to share if we ever hope to come together in unity. We have to believe in love – the kind of love that we see incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, who for us is the Christ. Perhaps this is how we should understand the biblical writer when he mentions one faith and one baptism. We must share a living trust in the transforming power of love and be immersed in such love. We have to believe that loving one another and building up one another is what we are called to do. And if we believe that, then we will want to patiently and gently and humbly bear with one another. If we believe we are called to love all people, then we will refuse to be silent in the midst of injustice. We will speak the truth and not be deterred by deceptive and deceitful religious and partisan arguments. And we will do something. We will use our gifts and time and abilities and energies to work for the common good in our families, our church, our community, our country, and our world.
O God, I pray, like our biblical writer, that we may all come to understand just how big – how wide and deep – is your love for all of us. And more than understand, I pray that we might experience this love first hand so that it takes root deep in our hearts and souls. So that we might be committed to your plan for the world. So that we might do what we can do – in bearing with one another, in speaking your truth, and in working together to see our families and our church and our community and our world come together as one people. Inspire us and empower us to be instruments of your peace and channels of your love. Amen.