Living in Love

We’ll start this morning with three verses from John’s gospel, chapter 15, starting at verse 9. Listen to the word of God

9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (NRSV)

That ought to sound a little familiar…
we heard echoes of those words in the first chapter of 1 John.
There is a deep connection between our joy and God’s joy
There is deep connection between our love for God, for Jesus and for one  another, so much so that love is the key to our abiding in God.

Living in Love, remaining in love…
This is how we keep the commandments
This is how we show the world who God is.

Our final passage from John’s first epistle takes this idea and runs with it. Listen again for the Word of God to you today… this time from 1 John 4:7-21

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.

16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.

20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.   (NRSV)

If you asked me what the Bible – in particular the New Testament – has to say about what it means for us to love one another, I would probably point you to 3 passages…

Paul’s “most excellent way” of living as the Body of Christ, which he outlines in the 13th chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth.

The back half of the letter to the Ephesians, in particular where the household structure is described in terms of mutuality, rather than hierarchy.

And of course, I would point to this exhortation from 1 John, starting with beloved, let us love one another…

I know… those just scratch the surface of what we might say about love.  And if you asked me to choose another three from the gospels, I don’t know that I could narrow it down that far.

After all, Jesus tells us over and over again what the kingdom of God looks like.  And over and over again, it looks like grace, forgiveness, healing, hope… all stacked up on a foundation of love.
Love for God.
Love for neighbor.

The law of love, we call it.
The first and greatest commandment and the second, which is like it.
And which – according to our letter – flows directly from the first

…those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.  

But let’s back up just a bit.. I want to look again at a couple of segments closer to the start of this letter that will help us see more clearly what John means when he speaks of abiding in God’s love.

First, we need to recall how John summarized God’s commandments back in chapter 3, verse 23.
1- We are to believe in Christ
That Jesus lived, died and was resurrected
That this man Jesus was and is the Christ – the Messiah.

And 2- we are to love one another.
In ways that reflect and honor the light of the world,
rather than remaining in darkness of the world

We are to love one another
In ways that reveal the power of resurrection in us
In ways that show that we are alive in the love that Christ has given us…
Rather than living as though our hearts are dead, as if Christ remained in the tomb, and love died with him.

Those are pretty high expectations for what love looks like, if I’m honest. And yet, I don’t hear any doubt in this letter. I don’t see any reason to think this sort of love is unattainable.

Beloved, he writes…  Dear ones…
Let us love one another because love is from God;
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

And in fact, my friends, my siblings in Christ…
God is love.
God is love.

God’s very identity.
God’s very being.
Is.
Love.

And here’s the what John has been building to in the letter:
Because we are from God.
Because Christ is in us.
Our love is from God.
Our identity is in God and from God

Therefore, because God is love, our identify ought to be expressed in ???
Yes.  LOVE.

When we abide in God, we are abiding in love,
Steeping in love, marinating in love.

And when we are living in love, sharing that love,
When we are embodying that love, we are abiding in God.

Yes, it is our duty.
You could say that love is the work to which we are called, and you’d be right.
You could say that love is the work for which we were claimed, and you would not be wrong.
The bigger truth, dear ones, beloved ones, is this:
Love is the work for which we were made.
It is who we are.  

if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

When we love one another, we are transformed
The one who loves, AND the one who is loved.
BOTH are changed.

It is how we reach our potential… how we are perfected…
Yes, perfected, though not in the sense of being flawless.

There’s not a great English term for the original word here… telos.
Telos is more like a goal… or like a fervent hope.

When the Apostle Paul speaks of Christ as the telos of life.. .that to which he aspires, but has yet to attain,  Paul is saying that to be and live more like Christ is his greatest desire.   

God’s greatest desire for us… that which would bring the greatest joy…
God’s telos for us, God’s beloved…
we humans who bear the image of our creator

God’s greatest hope… God’s goal is for you and I to know how deeply we are loved,
To know that same love from one another, and then to proclaim and extend love ever outward, so that all the world might wake up to who they are.

Beloved, we are to love God and love one another,
Not because God needs more people loving and worshiping for the sake of being loved and worshiped…
But because our love for one another, our love for our fellow travelers on this planet, that is how people come to know and believe.

I’ll tell you, I’ve spent enough time with evangelical folks and missionaries to have heard every version of every argument and logical case for the existence of God and the claims of Jesus as Christ.

I have all manner of apologetics from Augustine to CS Lewis to Timothy Keller.   

I have read way too many tracts and answered plenty of knocks at my door that led to plenty of long conversations on my front porch.

And you know how much of that helped me to believe in God?
None of it.
Not one bit convinced me they had proof of God’s existence.
Or Jesus’ divinity.
And I am, really, a pretty logical kind of gal.

You want to know how I came to know that God is real?
Love.
Being loved by another.

Being loved by a family of faith way before I could contribute anything of value… nothing but some noise in the sanctuary and a dirty diaper in the nursery.

And being loved by that same community of faith when I was old enough to understand how to  withhold what I could have given in return.

Being loved by those who knew and know me at my least loveable.

The proof of God’s love came in my being loved and being told that I am loveable when every voice in the world… including my own inner critic… was shouting otherwise.

In being told often enough, loudly enough, from deep enough in the heart…
that I am beloved…

And eventually, the proof of God’s existence came from my loving others loudly enough, often enough, exhaustingly persistent enough from the very depths of my own heart…  

Beloved, let us love one another…
Because love is from God.
Because opportunities to love are from God.

You know… this time last week we were praying for the soccer team that was trapped in the cave in Thailand. The boys and their coach were all rescued, thanks to the efforts and expertise of thousands of people, including many divers who risked their lives, and one who died, as the team prepared and then worked the plan that eventually brought them home.   

I was fascinated by a story in last Sunday’s Washington Post.  Shibani Mahtani wrote the piece about the assistant coach who had taken the boys into the cave.  It was the title that first caught my eye: He Loved them More than Himself.  

Ekapol Chantawong  joined the Wild Boars soccer team as an assistant coach about three years ago. But before that, he was a Buddhist monk. See, Ekapol was orphaned at the age of 10.  He went to a monastery, where he trained as a monk for about 10 years. But then had to leave when his grandmother fell ill. He moved to northern Thailand to help care for her, spending part of his time working at a local temple.

He also started working with the soccer team part time. Many of the young men he mentored were poor or from minority groups that left them cultural orphans. A friend of Ekapol’s told the article’s author that “he loved the boys more than himself.”

His love for them led him to help the head coach find ways to use the boys’ passion for soccer as motivation for academic work. Good grades might mean new soccer gear. Opportunities to experience a different life. His love for them led him to spend time beyond soccer, getting to know their families, their hopes, their sorrows.

As the world became aware of the boys and their coach, trapped in a cave, friends grew worried for Ekapol.  His love for them had earned the boys’ complete trust.  That trust is what allowed them to follow him into what turned out to be a life-threatening adventure. His friends knew that he would blame himself for the mess they were in. That his love for them would break his heart, if any of the boys were injured or worse.

But the complete trust that he had earned… this is also what allowed the boys to follow his lead when they needed help staying calm.
When they needed to conserve energy.
When they needed to stave off hunger and fear.

Ekapol was able to teach them how to meditate and slow their breathing to conserve oxygen.  He sacrificed his share of the little food they had among them, so that the boys would have more.

It isn’t hard to see why this young coach was and is seen by many in his country, and especially in his community as an almost divine force, sent to protect the boys in their ordeal.

Someone created a cartoon drawing of Ekapol. It shows the coach sitting cross-legged, as a monk would do in meditation, with 12 little wild boars in his arms.

It’s a just lovely, isn’t it?

You know, when I read his story and saw this image, I couldn’t help but think of the drawings on the covers of some of our children’s Bibles – and even in the stained glass right over there – depicting another divine force. The image of Jesus, inviting the young children to come to him.

Whether Ekapol would use the same language for the divine or not, I do believe he was the love of God made flesh- not only in the cave, but as he cared for those boys, saw their potential and worked to give them hope through something as simple as soccer.  

He loved them enough that he would have laid down his life for them.
Just as he loved his grandmother enough to lay down his vocation.

He loved them enough to want to keep them whole,
Just as he will be loved back to wholeness by the boys he loves, by the parents of his players and by the community members who know that he is more than one bad decision during an afternoon out with the team.

Beloved, let us love one another,
For opportunities to love are from God

Including opportunities to love people who are not our people… at least not on paper. People like Jim. If you were to draw diagrams of our interests – from sports to pop culture to politics or theology, you would see a really interesting trend. There are probably twice as many areas in which we are polar opposites as there are areas that overlap.

And when there are differences between us, they are in those HARD areas.  You know the ones. The ones that can tear families and churches and feels like maybe even can tear a whole nation apart…

But the thing is, Jim and I love each other.

We took the time to get to know each other. To hear each others’ stories. To be part of each others’ lives. So now, it’s not hard to love Jim. And it’s not hard to be loved by Jim, to share concerns and joys, to pray with and for one another and our families.

We love one another, not in spite of our differences.
And not because we ignore our differences.
But because we honor our differences and trust in the love of Christ that binds us together as children of God.

Now – I do think we can make it hard to love one another. We can make it hard to love and to be loved. I think that’s because there are times that we aren’t ready to enter into a relationship wholeheartedly… open heartedly.

Sometimes because of past or recent hurts.
Sometimes because of spiritual immaturity, which has little to do with age, by the way.
Sometimes we aren’t ready because we have found ourselves in a spiritually dry season

For whatever reason, these are the times that our hearts are not open to the kind of vulnerability and courage that living in love requires.

Those are the very moments we need to recall that
we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

We need to recall that
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, [and with shame and embarrassment that feels like punishment] and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

We need to recall that
19 We love because he first loved us.

And we need to recall that
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, [or short of hatred, choose to withhold love and acceptance of their brothers and sisters] are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

Beloved, we need most of all to remember that we are capable of love
We are called to love
We were made to love.
Just as we have always been loved.

If God is for us
If Christ is with us
If the Holy Spirit is in us
Then we can trust that the God of love is coursing through our veins and energizing every molecule of every cell in our bodies.

Beloved, let us love one another… just as God first loved us.

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Living in the Light

Today’s text from the gospel of John describes John the Baptist’s response to seeing Jesus the first time. Remember this took place along the Jordan, near Bethany, where John was calling folks to repent and baptizing them. Just the day before, he had told his own disciples that he was awaiting the one who would baptize with the spirit, rather than the water John used. Listen:
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1: 29 NRSV)

And now we turn to our selection from 1 John.  We continue on from the first four verses that you read last week.  Listen again for the word of God:

1:5 This is the message we have heard from him [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (NRSV)

Sunday morning worship in the Disciples of Christ congregation that formed my faith as a child and young person was pretty similar to our presbyterian way of worshiping.  I mean- I still miss celebrating communion every time we open the church…

But there’s one I part of our order of worship that I don’t recall hearing back in the day.  Not until I started attending a Presbyterian church. And now it is – apart from communion – the portion of our worship that carries the most weight for me as a worshiper.

I remember the first time I heard a worship leader invite the congregation to pray and confess our sins together… It piqued my curiosity, for sure. Partly because they incorporated these words from 1 John:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  

Now- I’m not sure how many times I heard that invitation before I realized it was a direct quote from the Bible.  Honestly, it just sounded like deep truth about my reality… our human nature… and our need for the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Oh, how we need that grace.
Not just the saving grace that justifies us once and for all.
But the sanctifying grace that reconnects us day by day, moment by moment, thought by thought…  to the truth of God’s love for our fickle and wayward human hearts.

Given the apostle Paul’s statement that all sin and fall short of the glory of God…
And given the fact that just about every theologian since Augustine agrees that humankind is capable of great depravity…
I feel fairly confident in saying I am not the only one in this room who stands in need of that grace.  

But here’s the thing that I had to learn about these prayers of confession.
They aren’t about me. I mean, they aren’t entirely about me.
They are about us.
Even when they aren’t literally about the “us” that is currently gathered in this space.

These prayers of confession are about our connection to all of God’s children.
Those we know and love,
those we sleep with in the same house,
those we greet in this place,
those we wave to in the neighborhood.

Prayers of confession are about all God’s children… the ones who live and work and play in cities and towns and villages all over this country and around the world.

Whether they call themselves Baptists, Presbyterians, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, humanist, unitarian, or spiritual but not religious.  

All God’s children.

You see, John isn’t talking primarily about individuals confessing individual sins.
Oh, we can and must confess the sins that we commit on our own.
That is a given.

But let’s think again about what prompted this letter from John. This letter was written to a community of faith, a collective of souls.  And unlike the gospel attributed to John, which was focused on the divinity of Christ, this letter is written to a community that needed to recall the humanity of Christ.

Why?  Because Jesus – the person, the man who walked and talked and ate and slept right here on earth, wrapped up in human skin – Jesus is the way God encountered humankind. God encountered us in a particular human being at a particular time. **

Which means that the love of God, the living out of the love of God is more than a mere concept, more than a nice idea.
The love of God has been and can be fully embodied.
The Word was and can be made flesh.
Right here.
In this messy and chaotic and – yes, dark and sinful – world.

John is saying to his readers, and to us –
that the Word made flesh is what it looks like to love God and love our neighbors.
The Word made flesh is what it looks like to keep God’s commands.. All 10 of them.
And that we – the followers of that Word, the followers of that Jesus who was the Christ, are the embodiment of God’s love in this current age.

John wrote this letter to a community of faith, a household of siblings in Christ, whose fellowship was broken.  

They had broken fellowship with one another, and thus with God.
There was disunity in the house, and thus their joy, John’s joy, God’s joy…
all that joy was incomplete.

And so, he reminds them, there is need for confession, for forgiveness.
There is need for truth-telling.

You’ll note that there was not a call for finger-pointing
Nor was there a call for blame-laying.

But there was a call for telling the truth about ourselves.
To ourselves.

To bring into the light those things we do “in the dark.”
Those things that we’d just as soon leave hidden.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me more than a little squirmy. You know… that squirmy feeling down in your gut…  you know the one? Yeah… I’m not a fan of that feeling.

So I would just as soon not go back and look at things I’m ashamed of.  Much less take them out of their little boxes that are tucked back into those dark hidey holes of my heart and name them.

Even when we do so in silence… when it’s just between me and God. I mean, that’s why I need longer silence in our prayers of confession… so I’ve got time to work up the courage to go into those hidey holes and open those boxes.

And that’s when it’s just between me and God.
Except… it really rarely ever is just between me and God.
And that’s the whole point.

That thing about broken fellowship?
That’s not about taking God’s name in vain…
That’s about the ways we fail to love one another

That thing about broken fellowship?
Sure, it’s partly about the community that gathers here.
But it is also about many ways the church has failed to be God’s love to and for our neighbors out there in the world.

Broken fellowship is all about about not quite living in the light… in truth…
The difference between fellowship and broken fellowship?
That’s all about integrity. And the lack thereof.

That’s about living the words of scripture that we say we hold dear…
In ways that allow the world to see and believe we are followers of Jesus.

It’s about taking seriously the work God requires of us…
“to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”

Jesus prayed that the world would know his followers by our love.
Our love for God, yes,
but Jesus made clear that the would ought to know us by our love
for one another and for our neighbors.

So… how’s that going?
No really… how do we think that’s going?

Based on your faces, I know you and I could could swap some anecdotes about ways we’ve gotten it wrong.

And if we take a look at what public interest researchers like the Pew Forum and evangelical pollsters like the Barna group have to say…  You’re right… Not so great.

Year after year, a growing number of people identify as de-churched (meaning they have left church for the forseeable future). The same is true for those who have never been members of a church, or would claim a connection to God but have no desire to be part of organized religion.

Many of these folks point to what they see of the church – whether in their own communities or as represented in the media – as the problem.

There are “too many Christians doing un-Christian things”, and “organized religious groups are more divisive than uniting”. According to Pew, large numbers of these folks believe that while churches do good works, faith communities can also be too concerned with money and power, too involved in politics and too focused on rules.  

Chances are good that you know at least one or two folks, maybe even in your own family, who have opted out of church. They probably have a story to tell about why. And it likely has to do with something other than Sunday morning worship being scheduled at an inconvenient time.  

The stories I have heard from unchurched and dechurched folks are not mine to tell, but I will say this: Now, more than ever, people are watching the church.  This church and all churches.

They are watching to see how we respond to the cries of the marginalized and oppressed.  To see whether we will advocate for and serve the least of these. Because they know that this is what Jesus commanded.

They are watching.

They are watching the church, and I can assure you that they have come to trust these words from Maya Angelou:
When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

This is one reason I put on my clergy shirt, grabbed my rain jacket and headed downtown for the Families Belong Together rally yesterday.

I spotted a couple of other presbyterians there, but no other clergy in a collar or stole. Perhaps the raincoats hid them, but I made sure mine was visible, even in a downpour.  

Because people are watching.
And the church needs to be seen living in the light,
being a physical manifestation of the love of God for our neighbors.

The coalition of neighbors that organized yesterday’s rally includes groups representing the minority and immigrant communities directly affected by recent policy changes and rulings.  

Being love to our neighbors sometimes means standing in a downpour, giving away your umbrella and praying for speakers who are sharing their stories of fear and grief through tears in front of a huge crowd of strangers.  

Offering light and love to our neighbors also means thanking police officers who are out in that same rain to assure that everyone is safe.  

Loving our neighbors means showing up.
I believe this with all my heart.
Because I have seen that loving our neighbors has ripple effects we might never expect…

Which leads me to a story that Jan Edmiston shared last week.  Jan was elected co-moderator of our denomination at the 2016 General Assembly, sharing the duties with another minister, Denise Anderson.  They both participated in the protest march that took place in St. Louis.

I was also among the several hundred of our commissioners joined with local activists and pastors in their efforts to end an unjust cash bail and work house system in the city. While GA offerings typically will go to support a local cause, this was the first time we added voice, hands and feet to the effort. And we were quite noisy walking from the Convention Center to the courthouse.

But that isn’t the story I want to share… just the background. Listen to what Jan wrote on her blog about her ride to the airport:

I took a Lyft to the airport last Friday, leaving General Assembly early for a wedding in Philadelphia. It had been a great week for a long list of reasons and I was staring into space and relishing the memories when this conversation happened:

Lyft Driver Kevin:  Were you here for a conference?

Jan:  Yes, the Presbyterian Church USA.  You might have seen us on the news Tuesday night.  We were on the local Fox channel.

LDK: Why were you on the news?

Jan:  We marched from the Convention Center to the Courthouse with $47,000 to bail out some people who couldn’t pay their cash bail.  It was our worship offering from Saturday.

LDK:  Your church did that?

Jan:  Well, it’s not just my church.  But yes, we did that. We paid the bail to release about 3 dozen non-violent offenders.  It was pretty great.

We got to the airport, pulled over, and when we went to his trunk to retrieve my luggage, Kevin said, “I feel like I’ve met a friend today. That’s the best thing the Church has ever done.”  

And he hugged me good-bye.

This is what the world is looking for, my friends:  less talking, more concrete ministry that helps those in need here and now.  It wasn’t the very best thing the Church has ever done, but – like I said to Kevin – it was pretty great.

It was pretty great because the church was being the church.  And I can assure you that among that crowd of commissioners and delegates marching, there was a lot of diversity of opinion.  When we got back to our meetings, there was plenty of debate and plenty of contested votes. But trusting that Jesus would have us fight this injustice, were were out there- together- being love for God’s children in the city.

Living in the light, building koinonia.

It was a really just a drop in the bucket, when you look at all the work that our siblings in Christ are doing up there.

Much like Orlando, St. Louis proper is fairly small, with lots of cities and municipalities squished up against each other.  There is a lot of history there, much like there is here, some of which has remained unconfessed, unrepented and unresolved.

The events surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson – no farther from the Saint Louis convention center than this church is from downtown Orlando-  those events laid bare some of that history, some of the sin that needs confessing by our churches and the civic structures that Jesus followers have been part of.

And so much has happened since… in Baltimore, Dallas, Baton Rouge, New York, Detroit… even here in Orlando.

A lot of folks would like to pretend that racial injustice doesn’t exist.
That strongly held religious beliefs are fine reasons for refusing to treat all people with the same dignity.
That talking about loving everyone
is all that Jesus requires of us.  

But when I read this first letter from John, I see a call to the church that says exactly the opposite.

I see a call to integrity.
A call to a life in which our words and actions are a coherent whole.
A call to make sure that people really can know us by our love…
Because they see us doing exactly that – loving.  

I hear in this letter a call to community,
A community of relationships in which we confess and trust that we are forgiven… and not only by the one who embodied the amazing grace of God by taking on flesh.
We are also called to be a community in which WE are the embodiment of that grace and love for one another. Right here in the flesh.

Becoming that community – that church… living in the light together?
That is walking into hard stuff… making yourself vulnerable stuff.

Because what we’re talking about is the kind of work that requires spiritual courage and maturity.

Confessing the sins that have held us captive:
Sins of our own and those who came before us
Sins of commission and omission

Approaching those who have been sources of pain,
Opening up about wounds kept hidden and fighting the urge to lash out.   

Listening to those who were wronged.
Listening with hearts that are open to confession and repentance,
even as we fight the urge to reframe or tuck our sins back into those dark hidey holes.

We’re talking about a pathway to letting go of the past and
trusting God for a future in which we are truly being the Body of Christ

It can be hard work, learning to live in light.
No… not can be.
It is hard work, learning to live in the light and persisting against all the ways that the world would have us go back to old patterns.  

But it is only when we commit to that hard work that we can experience the truth of this invitation:

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  (Matthew 11:28-29, NRSV)

What a paradox:
Committing to the hard work of living in the light of Christ… That is where we will find rest

Laying down the burden of sin, our shared sin, our common separation from God’s love and from the depth of love we can offer one another.
Laying down the burden of conflict.
Laying down the burden of shame.

That is where we will find rest

Living in fellowship – community – family – that is built on a foundation
Of mutual care,
Of Confession and forgiveness

That is where we find rest, dear friends.
Rest for our souls, weary with trying to find our way in this present darkness…

Let us pray…  

** I am deeply grateful for the written commentaries and podcast for the 1 John series posted at Working Preacher for articulating some of these big themes with great clarity.

An Invocation for a New Mayor & Commissioners

Today, I had the honor of opening with prayer the ceremony at which the newly-elected mayor and city council members were sworn in.  I can’t say that before this invitation I had given much thought to what one might pray for on such an occasion.  But as I thought about the work they have in front of them and the demands that would be placed on them… here’s what God laid on my heart.  And thus what folks heard me pray this afternoon:

Holy and gracious One, we give you thanks for a moment to pause and reflect on what is a really momentous day.

Looking back, we can see the many ways you have prepared these leaders to answer a call to this work in this city in this moment.  We give you our thanks. 

As we pause, we can begin to see how their work will intersect and weave into the work of all the men and women who have come before, and for all of their efforts and passion, we also give thanks.  

And on this day of official new beginnings, we look forward to the ways you will lead and guide commissioners Smith and Nolan, Bankson and Becker, as well mayor Nelson 

Answering a call to public service, putting your family’s name and reputation out for a vote, braving the fickleness and divisiveness of public discussion of your work…  these things are not easy.  For our leaders or their families.   

We ask then, for you to fill them with the humility, courage, faithfulness, persistence and sense of humor they will desperately need in the days, months and years to come. 

Be with the family members of our commissioners and mayor, as this work means missed mealtimes or ballgames, interrupted and delayed vacations, and errands that take forever between conversations.  

May these leaders never take themselves too seriously; may they never take the work home too consistently, and may they never take the word on the street too personally.  

Instead, give them ears to hear the stories that get to the truth of the needs of our city, and the excitement of the opportunities that the people of Apopka are exploring. 

Give them eyes to see the little things that make the biggest differences in peoples lives, and to look past the distractions that make real progress impossible. 

Give each of them minds that are sharp and eager to learn from one another, as well as the wise counsel you provide in their colleagues, staff and support teams, city employees and outside experts.  

Lord, give them hearts that are full of compassion for those whose voices have too long been silenced and whose access to power has been limited.   

We pray this day for all who work to make Apopka the kind of place you want to raise your kids, open a business, visit for a festival or maybe even retire to.  And we lift up all who live and work in the bounds of the city.

It goes without saying that aligning all the wants, needs, expectations, hopes, and dreams of those who voted to bring this group together…. is nigh unto impossible.   Mixing in the reality of time and budgets and process… it would be more than one miracle to make everyone happy.  

Rather than ask for that particular miracle, God, I offer up a simpler request…

May grace abound from above and below
May grace abound from within and without
May grace abound from this moment onward
In ways that offer healing, reconciliation, inclusion, empowerment and unity.

May our mayor and commissioners remember always that
it is in your children coming together and working to make the world and its people whole that the desires of your heart and the truth of your glory are revealed.  

May that be true of this council, of this city and all who call on your name, this day and always, Amen. 

God, Improv, and the Art of Living – Book Review

When I was offered a chance to check out a preview edition* of MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s new book, of course I said “Yes!”   And not just because I knew enough about improv to know that Yes is an important part of the process.

MaryAnn’s first book about pursuing Sabbath in the Suburbs was such a great mix of solid theology, accessible writing and truly do-able suggestions, that I knew a book exploring the intersections of improvisation and lived-theology would be worth a read.

God, Improv and the Art of Living definitely did not disappoint.

Like all of MaryAnn’s writing, this book is accessible, yet invites a deeper dive.  Chapter by chapter, she introduces the key concepts of improv.  Using stories and examples from her own study of the craft and others who inspired and challenged her, these concepts come to life.  End notes and citations offer a trove of resources for further digging and exploration.

If you’ve followed her blog, you would expect the God content to be straightforward invitations to ponder the ways that our sacred text challenges and comforts, confronts and encourages.  And to honor the reality that people of all kinds of faith backgrounds and depths of faith can find themselves struggling to say Yes to the thing God is asking of them.   Again, MaryAnn does not disappoint, in her telling of stories and choices of scripture and authentic wondering aloud.

As a person whose need to play has often been diminished (or even disapproved) in churchy circles, it was a joy to find my way of seeing and being in the world and faith communities described in hopeful and even encouraging terms.

I read the book in 3 sittings (a couple of short flights and part of a layover), which makes me think a book club might be able to do a couple of chapters at a shot, depending.

As I put the book down to ponder this review, I found myself wondering who I needed to gather to read and discuss (yay for group discussion prompts) and try some of the improv games (even more yay for even more adventurous prompts).

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*Disclaimer: I received a free advance copy of the book in return for a review.  No compensation for me, no promises of kind words for the author or the publisher.  

Living Generously

This week and next, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the meaning of stewardship in our lives as followers of Jesus and in our shared life as a community of faith. Before we dive in, though, I want to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Or maybe the herd of elephants in the room. 

It’s no secret that our American culture is steeped in capitalism. And as consumers, we are trained to measure our success by comparing our stuff (clothes, car, electronics, jewelry… toys of all sorts) with others.

We may or may not measure up to some, but we can usually find at least one person to place ourselves above. And even as we make clear how much we have, we tend to want to keep how much we make and how much we give a secret.  We go well beyond privacy about money and giving…We flat out don’t want to talk about it…

And that paradoxical thinking about money that most of us grow into means the mere mention of stewardship can cause even the most mature Christians to reflexively cover their wallets and hold their purses a little closer.

That reflex has led many churches to instruct their pastors NOT to speak about money and generosity and how those relate to a life of faith… except when the church needs to ask for money.  And then, because we don’t like to talk about money, we need to cushion the blow by including an out.  Usually in the form of giving of our time and talents.

It’s getting a little crowded in here, but let me add another elephant to the herd…

We pastors are not immune to the money paradox. And we get to add a layer of awkward to the whole thing, given that a good chunk of any church’s budget goes toward …yep… the pastor’s salary.  

Oh, and then there’s the pressure not to preach about anything remotely controversial or uncomfortable for a few weeks before or after talking about the budget and giving… so that people don’t protest by withholding their tithe.

So, here we are, approaching the fall, the time of year when the session puts together the budget for next year, the time of year when my contract needs to be reviewed… the time of year when it would really help for us to know what folks anticipate giving.

Which means it is definitely the time of year when all of us would really just like to talk about something else.
Anything else.
Like the start of football season.
Or the Nelson’s new dog.
Or pretty much anything but money and what God wants us to do with it.

It really doesn’t have to be that way.
No really, it doesn’t.

In fact, I suspect Jesus would be mightily surprised at the church’s squeamishness over stewardship, given the number of references to money we have in the gospel accounts of his teachings and his conversations with the disciples. And the story of the early church, as well as the letters we read from Paul and other early church leaders indicate that finances were anything but a taboo topic.

So… why not just take a leap of faith and join them?

Let’s all breathe deeply and offer up a prayer before we read our scripture lessons for the day…   We’re going to start with a portion of Paul’s letter to Timothy.  1 Timothy 6:6-19

And now we’ll turn to a brief snippet of Luke’s gospel.  A scene with Jesus and his disciples that should sound familiar from earlier this year. Luke 20:45-21:4

—-

If ever the word of God was a rejoinder against a pastor standing in her pulpit wearing a long robe asking her parishioners to give until it hurts… so that she might live all the more comfortably… there it is.

To be honest, this passage makes me think of my grandmother, who gave generously to her church, but then would set aside change in a jar that eventually went to at least one of the evangelists she watched on tv. All of whom had more than enough money for their ministries, for their homes and for their sometimes bizarre projects. In the meantime, my grandmother had no choice but to live quite frugally until she died.

To this day there are plenty of famous ministry leaders or pastors we can point to who fly around in jets and live in mansions. It’s not difficult to find stories – even right here in Central Florida – of ministers worth millions whose parishioners give above their means in the hopes that God will bless them with the same sort of prosperity they see their leaders enjoying.

Let’s just say that you will never see this pastor in a Lear jet.  Or making promises that increasing your giving to the church will lead to an unexpected cash windfall for you. That’s not the way God works and it is certainly not what Jesus taught.

Now, Jesus did say at one point that we must be willing to give away all we possess if we want to truly follow. He told the rich young ruler to do just that… and the man couldn’t. Few of us could.

I do know of a few Christian monastic communities that have been founded in the last several years.  One is called the Simple Way, and each of its members take a vow of poverty. They have a common purse, into which any earnings go, and from which all their needs are met. And then the rest is given away. While I admire that level of faith and community, it’s hard to imagine taking on that call myself. And I honestly don’t know that all believers are called to that kind of living.

So I have to believe that somewhere in between running after wealth in the name of a God of Prosperity and running toward poverty in the name of the God who had compassion on the poor… surely we can find a sweet spot… a faithful way of living in relation to money?

That, actually, is where our conversation around stewardship needs to start.  As followers of Jesus, what is our relationship with money meant to look like?  

There are a couple of commonalities between Paul’s words to Timothy and Jesus’ observation about the widow.

The first is that our relationship with money is rarely neutral.  Money – wealth – can be used for good or evil. It has utility…  particularly in a market-based economy.

As I mentioned before, our society teaches us from an early age that our level of success or failure is in large part judged on how rich and/or how powerful you can become.  Just look at the most powerful people – in politics, in business… they are the ones with the money.

Yes – we can point to some exceptions…. But think about the influence of people who own billion-dollar corporations. And now think about the influence of people who work in the minimum wage jobs.

Still not sure this is true?

In July, Forbes Magazine estimated that the members of the President’s cabinet had a combined worth of at least 4.3 billion dollars…
Yes, I said billion.  With a B.

Fewer than 20 people in that room, all sitting around a table, holding the power to change the nation’s laws and to shape the policy direction of every government agency.
For good or for evil.
And they got there because of their wealth.

In the United States in 2017, clearly, money is power.

And yet, we are here to worship a man who never had his own home. We have gathered to worship a man who never even took up a collection, unless it was food to feed the people around him.

So it makes sense that the Christian tradition would have us reframe this notion that money IS power.
Our tradition points to the truth that money HAS power.
And thus, that money can have power over us.

When we allow money to take a place higher than its proper order, it begins to define us, it begins to shape who and what we value, and we can begin to measure our own self worth based on our possessions in ways that are really unhealthy. Our relationships are affected, including our relationship to God.

Our possessions can come to possess us.

In the end, stewardship is less about managing our money… Less about being wise about spending and investing… And more about understanding our relationship with money.

Like any relationship, this one needs tending and awareness. I mean, if the love of money is, indeed the root of all kinds of evil, it makes sense that we need to pay attention.
Really close attention.

And not just personally…  As a body of believers, we must tend to our relationship with our gathered money.

In what ways might spending or saving or tracking or investing our money distract us from our other relationships?

Does anxiety and conflict over finances come between couples?
I’ve seen it… in my own house.  

Or between members of the church?
I’ve seen that too, in more than one house of God.

Can we have conversations about money without fear of fighting, and if conflict happens, without the threat of someone leaving?

These are important questions… And the answers help us to understand our unspoken priorities.

Priorities that need to be spoken aloud.
Honestly and openly.

See, we need to be honest about our priorities because… any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol, breaking the very first and greatest commandment.

And any relationship that keeps us from loving our neighbors… Well, that would be the second half of the law of love broken.

Whether we’re talking about a relationship with food, a person, sex, sports, some other possession,  or money, any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol.

And because of its connection to power and influence, even within the sacred community of a church, our relationship with money is the one most likely to get out of alignment.  The root of all kinds of evil, indeed.

Thankfully, Paul provided Timothy with some relationship advice for people who have money.   Let’s look again at the end of that passage, starting at verse 17:   

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

Step 1….
Make sure your trust is where it ought to be. Not in money, but in God.
God has and always will provide for us.

This idea runs against our culture, which tells us to place our trust in the goods and systems and financial reserves that we’ve created.  But even as we trust them, we know in our hearts they can fail us.  We don’t have to look back but a few years to see the widespread consequences of systems crashing.

So what do we do?  We worry and work to amass even more, so that we might feel safe again. So that we might trust the numbers in our account statements and investment portfolios to cover our needs.

In a recent essay on trust in God as a key to stewardship Marcia Shetler wrote,
Trusting in God is part of our responsibility as followers of Jesus. It allows us to joyfully and generously let go of what we think is ours and release it for God’s use. Those acts of generosity are our witness to the world, sharing God’s abundance as channels of God’s love.

She went on to share a few examples from scripture….
Elijah asked the widow of Zarephath to be generous by sharing her last meal and trust that she and her son would not go hungry. …A small boy gave his lunch of five loaves and two fish, [trusting he would not be left hungry] and more than 5,000 people were fed. Moses’ mother trusted God with her son’s life. Twice.

The first time she placed his life in God’s hands when she put him in a basket in a river, Moses was returned to her and she was able to raise and love her son while he was young. Later, she gave him up again, and Moses ultimately fulfilled God’s call as leader of the Hebrews.

And then Ms. Shetler turns to the widow’s coin, saying
…there have been numerous interpretations of this incident. But perhaps what was most important was not only the widow’s ability to give to God totally, but to trust God completely.

Truly, the only explanation for the widow’s generosity is that complete trust.  She had faith that the God who had faithfully provided for her in the past would continue to do so.

When we truly trust God to provide for us, we are free to give as lavishly and generously as God. Not because by giving we have earned a prize, but because God has promised to care for us, and we believe – we trust – that God is faithful.

In verses 18 and 19, Paul encourages Timothy to see all that God provides, not simply as the means by which we survive, but the means for us to do good in the world.  Speaking of those who have money, Paul says
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

This is the sort of giving that moves us beyond a transactional, quid pro quo understanding of stewardship into a life that is marked by generosity.  

When God gives to us, when God provides for us, and when we acknowledge the gift, there is no transfer of ownership. No paperwork to be completed and filed and accounted for. Instead a link, a bond is established between us. Gifts connect the giver and the receiver.

This bond is what makes a really good gift, really special. And why a really bad gift can make you question a relationship.  I mean, think for a second… I bet you’ve gotten a gift that made you scratch your head more than a little. 

INSERT STORY ABOUT REALLY BAD GIFT….

It made me want to ask… Do you even KNOW me?  Why would you think I would enjoy/want that??

But think about a time someone gave you the perfect gift.
You know… something that was exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time.  

That kind of gift makes you feel known, loved, truly cared for by the one who gave it. 

Theologian Miroslav Wolf reminds us that no object on its own is a gift.  Not until the act of the object being chosen and given. Like this pen.  It’s just a pen.  Until I look at it and think, you know who could use this even more than me?  R.  

Here, R, I want you to have this…

Now the pen is a gift. I gave it to R and now he has something he needed because I saw that need and met it. The pen, now a gift, is also a social relation, an event between us.

This happens to us regularly, as God continues to offer the gifts of grace, of life, of air and all that we see around us. The more aware we are of these gifts, the more aware we are of the bond those gifts create between us and the God who loves us.

Wolf says it this way – “To live in sync with who we truly are means to recognize that we are dependent on God for our very breath and are graced with many good things; it means to be grateful to the giver and attentive to the purpose for which the gifts are given.”  

In other words, God gives to us, not only so that WE might enjoy God’s gifts, but so that we might know the joy of giving as we pass them on to others. As people who have received from God, we need to give to others. It is vital to our identity as humans. It is at the core of our identity as image-bearers of a gift-giving God.

Living a generous life requires an awareness of all that God is doing in our lives, all that God is providing.  Thus generosity begins with a heart of gratitude for a relationship that is not contingent upon us  and our ability to reciprocate God’s perfect love.

Generosity begins with a heart filled with gratitude for grace. Gratitude which leads us to love and serve and give in return. It leads us to live the life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

Generosity leads us to use the spiritual gifts, the skills and talents and passions within us – all to the glory of God wherever we go… at work, in the community and in our homes… and at church.

Living generously means sharing from our abundance and even from our scarcity with those who are in need. It means taking the time to care for our own bodies and minds, taking a Sabbath rest away from the busyness our society worships.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires taking time as a body to look around, to take a fresh inventory of all that God has given to us.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires being grateful for the past and trusting God for a future.  And then following Jesus out into a world that needs the gifts we’ve been given to share.

Living generously requires us to receive new gifts with open hearts and open hands… courageously letting go of those things we’ve protected by holding them tightly…  So that our hands are able to gather up today’s blessings with gratitude and joy, offering them in turn to whomever might need them.

Living generously and boldly means trusting God enough to hold today’s blessings loosely so that we might open our hands and hearts to receive and give away God’s gifts again tomorrow…. and the next day… and the next.

Until one day we realize that our receiving and giving are a single inseparable stream, a river of life and love and grace flowing into and through us.

Next week, we will talk in more detail about some of those other aspects of our lives that are gifts from God which allow us to live and to love generously. And in the coming weeks, we will be talking about budgets and our household contributions to our shared life as a church.  

I ask that you would join me and our church officers in prayer for wisdom and clear guidance for our church as a whole and for each household…  That we would discern together what God is calling us to do with the gifts God has already given and those we trust God will give in the years to come.

Let us pray.   

Breaking Down the Walls

Primary readings are from Ephesians 2, the Belhar Confession (as embedded below)

Ephesians 2:1-10

I want to pause here…  because this is such a beautiful distillation of the gospel.  

You were dead.
Alive in the flesh, sure, but dead in spirit
All of us once were, because all humans sin.  All fall short of the glory of God.
We were dead.

But God.  Such a phrase of promise, of hope…
But God – out of love – made us alive.
Alive in Christ and through Christ
Children of God, Siblings of Christ, worthy of sitting right there next to God at the dinner table

We were dead, but by grace we have been saved.
Made into something new.
Made for a purpose, for the work God has set before us.
Made one, because that work is more than any of us can ever do on our own.

And that is the hard part, isn’t it?  That “being one” part.
Hearing the word “You” – not as a personal encouragement or admonishment
Not as a bunch of you’s who happen to be near one another, hearing the same thing

Not you each
And not You every

You all.  All of you, together.

The same you as in “all of you” that Jesus used in almost every command he gave,
And when he said “my peace I give to you”
which is why the church must always think of you in terms of an ever-expanding we.

We are what God made us and is making us,

We are the church that was formed and reformed and is always reforming as we come to understand more and more about the height, depth, breadth and width of God’s great love for us in Christ Jesus.

We were dead

But God brought us to life, so that we might know life in the spirit, and so that through our way of living – the Jesus way of living – others might come to know the way, the truth and the life.

In Ephesus, part of the learning to live in the way of Jesus was reconciling two very different communities  into one community of faith. This is hard but sacred work, as we see in the next segment of the passage.

Ephesians 2:11-22

By the time this letter was written, there were probably more gentile Christians than those of Jewish heritage. The Jewish Christ-followers would have been accustomed to separation from their gentile peers. Gentiles were not allowed into the inner portions of the temple, so they would have remained physically separated in worship.  

Gentiles were not circumcised, so they would have been physically different as well. Not visibly in the course of most interactions, obviously, but identifiably different. The Jews had come up with a pretty inappropriate nickname based on that fact.

The truth is, gentiles were often seen as a separate group within humanity. The Gentiles were the outsiders, aliens and strangers in the land of the insiders – the Jews- the chosen ones in covenant with God.

But this Jewish-Gentile enmity wasn’t all on the Jews

Through the lenses of Gentile life and religiosity, Jews were seen as equally ignorant of God as defined by Gentile history and traditions. The separation between the two groups was not limited to theological disposition — to “belief”; it played out in very real ways in terms of human social relations.

I wouldn’t say that these groups of people had no interaction, but it is important to understand that they did not sit at the same table together; they were not interested in sharing life. They were in many ways in opposition to one another.

But God…  those words that promise good news…
But God brought these opposing groups together into one.
Even better news – God’s unification of the two groups did not mean “uniformity.” One group did not fall under the power of the more dominant group.

Instead, we see that God in Christ has made one humanity of the two. Gentiles do not become Jews; Jews do not become Gentiles. Rather, both Jews and Gentiles become united in Christ as Jew and Gentile.

In Christ, all believers are welcomed into the story of God  – a story that yes, first played out through the people of the covenant, but then was opened to all. A story in which they all play their own part in God’s continuing story of redemption.

We are separated from one another
But God, in an abundance of love, made a way for us to come together

Christ was and is in the business of knocking down the walls that divide us –
Like the great big old wall between republicans and democrats right about now.

Christ was and is knocking down walls between people who are well fed and living in homes with air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter….  And their neighbors who aren’t sure where they will sleep when rains or find their next meal.

Christ was and is knocking down the walls between immigrants and those who would prefer to see longer and higher fences on their countries’ borders.

Christ was and is knocking down the walls we keep stacking back up between us over gender identity and sexual orientation, and what all that means in the church

Christ was and is knocking down the walls that divide us by the most insidious of divisions – race.

 

I graduated high school in 1984. I remember it being yet another turbulent time in history…not unlike today.

  • US and Soviet relations were awful and the nuclear arms race had me terrified. I laid awake at night wondering who would press the button first, us or them. 
  • Indira Ghandi was assassinated
  • The AIDS virus was finally identified, but precious little was being done about it
  • The Solidarity movement was gaining power in Poland, miners strikes in England led other workers to rise up
  • Lebanon, Syria, and Nicaragua were among the countries in political upheaval
  • The famine in Ethiopia extended into a second year, prompting musicians to raise money via LiveAid concerts

And I remember the growing opposition to the system  of apartheid in South Africa.

Growing up in a fairly segregated town (even though our schools were integrated), I imagined that South Africans were separated like we were… mostly by self-selection.   After all, people tend to gather with others like themselves.

What I didn’t understand was that the political, legal and social structures in South Africa were built on the framework of Apartheid, a framework of separation and hierarchy that allowed a small white majority to assert itself over the rest of the population.  

(following facts shared from Wikipedia)

  • The leaders who developed this system determined that South Africa was not a single nation, but was made up of four distinct racial groups: white, black, coloured and Indian. These groups were further split into 13 nations or racial federations.
  • The Population Registration Act of 1950 formalized racial classification and required everyone over 18 to have  identity cards specifying their racial group. Boards were established to assign race for those people whose race was unclear. Sometimes different members of the same family were assigned different races.
  • There was a law that prohibited marriage between persons of different races, and another that made sexual relations with a person of a different race a criminal offence.  
  • The Group Areas Act put an end to diverse neighborhoods and determined where one lived according to race. The Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act  allowed the government to demolish black shanty town slums and remove residents.

We can certainly see some parallels here in the US, especially prior to the Civil Rights laws enacted in the 1960s. But bear in mind that the Apartheid structure was built to support the will of the minority in South Africa, not the majority as it is here.

That kind of rule requires even greater shows of force and power, as well as work to demoralize and separate those who – if united – might rise up to take back their freedom. It was in this millieu that the South African church found itself in the mid-1980s.   

South African churches confessed – proclaimed – the same truth that we just read today…
God, in the form of Jesus, has not only made a way for us to reconcile ourselves to our Creator – Jesus is our peace. Jesus has made all of us one – we share one baptism, one bread, one cup, one Lord, one Father, one Spirit.  Jesus has brought us from death to life so that all might live in freedom and peace, so that all might know justice

And the reality in South Africa?
No justice, no freedom, no peace.
Not for the vast majority of the people.

The church had reached a status confessionis.  A moment at which the church must stand and confess- proclaim what the church believes- to itself and to those in power over the land. In these critical moments, as in the quotidian moments, the church confesses what it needs to remember.

Each week, we confess- we affirm – the promises of God; the identity of God. We confess the actions of God. As we confess our faith, our identity is re-forged. Because… what we choose to remember and speak aloud together – in doctrine and history, in faith and belief, all serves to inform who we are.  

It was with this understanding that Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared a state of status confessionis for the church under Nazi Germany. For Bonhoeffer and others, the Nazification of the church was an issue so threatening to the truth of their confession of Christ that no compromise, no coexistence was possible.

Bonhoeffer also recognized that the Nazi persecution of Jews demanded a serious response from the church. But more so, he recognized that the church was called “not only to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke into the wheel itself” and bring the engine of injustice to a halt. The resulting document was the Declaration of Barmen, which is part of our Book of Confessions

Under the leadership of Allan Boesak, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa drafted what is now known as the Belhar confession in 1982. This  “outcry of faith” and “call for faithfulness and repentance” was the church declaring that apartheid constituted a status confessionis in which the truth of the gospel was at stake.  

According to the Belhar Confession, unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church. This unity originally referred to non-segregation between Christians of different races. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church formally adopted the Belhar Confession in 1986. Belhar’s theological confrontation of the sin of racism has made possible reconciliation among Reformed churches in Southern Africa and has aided the process of reconciliation within the nation of South Africa.

We’ve used some of the words from the Belhar Confession already today, in our Call to Confession.  And we’ll read another portion in a few minutes as our Affirmation of Faith. Right now, I’d like to share with you a video that was shown at General Assembly as they were preparing to cast the final vote which added the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

You’ll hear a variety of voices reading the full text of the confession.

I believe that much of the unrest we are experiencing in our country right now is a direct result of our willingness to remain segregated.

We are ok with allowing people who are not “us” to remain very much “them.”  And sometimes, we take that willingness a step further, not just leaving people be, in hopes that they let us be.

We also allow those others to be pressed down, pushed aside or worse.

We choose not to speak on their behalf.  

We choose not to act justly, to love mercy.

We stop looking across the divide and begin to rebuild the walls that serve not only to protect us from danger, but also separate us from our siblings in Christ. We build walls so that we can’t even see the neighbors we are passing by as they lay dying in the street.

I wonder what it would take to change things just enough that we could feel safe enough to stop building walls.  

I wonder what it would take for us to feel safe enough to attempt to embody the wall-toppling Jesus that we follow…

Michael Kirby – a PCUSA pastor in Illinois was sharing some thoughts along these lines yesterday.  He asked (as part of a much longer post on Facebook)…

What if we made it a priority to create a world where fewer people could be convinced that their lives have so little value that they could only achieve “greatness” through a death that brings death to others?

What if we assessed our individual and collective economic, political, social and military policies and practices to see where we contribute to people feeling that their lives, or the lives of others, have so little value?

What if we collectively said that hate disguised as zealotry was no longer welcome in our religious, political, social and other affinity groups, even if it meant some of our most influential and/or engaged compatriots lost power?

I would love to say that I have easy answers and steps to take

But I don’t.

Loving is hard
Reconciling is hard
Trusting is hard

Confessing the fullness of the gospel, from salvation to action, is hard
Confessing the call on the church – on us – to be the good news of liberation, healing, hope and yes, salvation, for people from whom we have long considered ourselves separate?
That’s even harder.

But God…
But God, the one who started a good work in you and me and all of us together, will be faithful to complete that work, through Christ Jesus, to the glory of his name.

Amen.

No, Really. Be My Witnesses

In its original context, its first hearing, this passage (Isaiah 43:1-21) was the Word of God, spoken to the people of God through the prophet Isaiah. Many many generations ago, before the gentiles  – people like us –  were folded into the tribes of Israel, made one family as adopted children of God through Jesus, the Christ. It was the Word of God, given to the people of God, so that they might bear witness to God’s goodness.

Did you catch that reference in there?  About halfway through… You are my witnesses, says the Lord.  Jesus used very similar words to prepare the disciples for their work to come.  You will be my witnesses.  The work that we continue in this generation…

The request that prompted this week’s sermon asks the question that Peter, James, John and the others must have wondered.  How do we answer that call? How exactly do we – today – carry the good news to our Jerusalem, Judea Samaria and beyond?

How do we become witnesses and bear witness?

The classic answer to this question flows out of the topic that we looked at a couple of weeks ago:  How do we get to heaven? And its corollary concern about avoiding hell.  

Back in college, when I spent a summer working as a youth minister for a Baptist church in a tiny town in Central Arkansas, we did what these folks called “witnessing.” This activity consisted mainly of walking around the neighborhoods where my youth group members lived, knocking on doors and then feeling like an absolute idiot for having done so.

I mean seriously… what did the church leaders really expect these people at home in the middle of the day on a Wednesday to say when I asked if they knew Jesus?   

Of course they said yes.  And of course they had a church home.  

Even if they didn’t, they knew to say yes! Otherwise, they would have had to listen to me attempt to tell them how to get saved. Or get invited to a Bible study at First Baptist that night. So mostly we walked and sweated for a couple of hours, then went back to the church for cokes and Bible study.    

I don’t remember what tracts we always had on hand, just in case someone didn’t know Jesus and wanted to. But I can tell you that most of them follow the same basic outline that we teach students who are involved in the high school or college ministry.

Way back in the day, our founder came up with what came to be known as the 4 Spiritual Laws. These four principles offer a clear expression of what most Christians believe about connecting our stories to the story of God, about understanding God’s grace.

  1. God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life. Pretty straightforward John 3:16 stuff, right?  The love of God in Christ is the offer of eternal and abundant life. But we don’t experience life that way because…
  2. All of us sin, and sin separates us from God.  There is a gap between God, who is perfect, and imperfect humans like us. There is nothing we can do on our own, under our own power, to bridge that gap.  But God has a solution.
  3. Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for our sin. Through Him we can know and experience reconciliation with God.
  4. We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord;  then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.

Now, as I said a couple of weeks ago, there are some nuanced theological differences among Christian denominations and traditions when it comes to describing that last principal.

We say that we are saved by grace, through faith, then it is sufficient to acknowledge the truth  of who Jesus is (the Son of God) and what that means for us (he came to save the world, not condemn the world).  And we believe that humans are incapable of choosing God on our own. The grace of God through the work of the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to these truths, and enables us to profess our faith in the saving work of Christ.

But truly – whether we pray a prayer or talk about receiving Christ, or affirm the promise made by the community at an infant baptism, the work is already done. By coming, living, dying rising, ascending, the reconciliation between God and humanity is complete and real and whole.

This means that God’s full force of love is available to us, even us.
God’s kingdom could be on full display, even now.
And all we have to do is show up, let the Holy Spirit speak through us…
So that the power of resurrection is made known, pointing the Christ, glorifying God, and transforming the world.

But the truth is, we falter, we fail to love ourselves, and we forget to love or choose not to love God and our neighbors.

Sometimes we get lost in striving or surviving in this hectic and complicated culture of ours. The buying and selling, saving and spending. And the inevitable comparing and judging that happens among friends and neighbors. We hold tight to our own stuff, the resources, power and privilege we have amassed, and we become unable or unwilling to trust that God’s generosity can overcome the scarcity that fear tells us is coming.  

Sometimes the surviving and striving find their way into the church, and faith gets pushed to the edges. We become comfortable swimming in a shallow pool of religiosity and forget the joy of spiritual disciplines that take us into the deep waters of relationship with the divine. Powerful worship  and earnest prayer get replaced by disconnected habits and rote patterns, mostly void of meaning.  

Part of the problem is cultural… We are coming out of an era in which Christianity enjoyed so much privilege that showing up took very little effort.  We could assume that the vast majority of people around us believed essentially the same things we did. Witnessing to the work of God in our lives was like, well, preaching to the choir.  And in an era of relative prosperity in the most prosperous country on the planet, it was easy for churches to send missionaries and ministers into the field, asking for reports in return for money.

Somewhere along the way, the good news got bifurcated, chopped into two ideas: Evangelism and Social Justice, creating a paradigm in which making disciples has nothing to do with meeting human needs.  

Here’s where that can get sideways…

When the church – the Body of Christ- becomes focused on salvation as the means to a heavenly afterlife, or as some form of eternal fire insurance, members of the Body forget their function in the world here and now.
Why work toward reconciliation with our neighbors?
Why work for peace in the world?
Why advocate for those with little or no influence over the systems and structures that leave them poor, sick or oppressed?  

There are other organizations, non-profits, even government programs to handle those things. The church’s work is to be sure they know about Jesus – Our version of Jesus, and baptism, and what a good Christian man or woman does or doesn’t do.

This privileged Christian culture we’ve created and inhabited is dangerous territory…

Over and over, in every one of the gospel accounts,  we see Jesus reminding the leaders and influencers in the synagogues and the temple that knowing the law is not the point. Parsing the people’s sins and doling out punishment or shame is not the point.

When we consider what we know of God’s faithfulness,
when we consider God’s great love for us,
when we go back to the story of Zelophehad’s daughters, petitioning Moses for a place in the promised land, and God’s huge, unexpected YES…
We see God’s desire is to bring everyone into the family.

We should be able to see that shaming and ostracizing others based on legalism to the exclusion of grace… is so not the point. In fact, it is so far from the point, it threatens to make us unrecognizable as followers of Jesus, witnesses to God’s love.  It threatens to keep us from recognizing Jesus among us, in the faces and lives of our neighbors.

The passage from Matthew 25:31-46 is a familiar one– but listen again

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry  and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then the portion we don’t like to hear…. That we don’t want to believe can apply to us

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then, as if they had been in a sound-proof booth while the other conversation happened…

…they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

If we want to be witnesses for Christ, bearing witness to the work of Christ, we need to be able to proclaim the good news. Yes – In words… even paraphrases of scripture work…

God so loved that world that God sent Jesus, the one and only son of God, into the mess that is human existence. The good news is that he did not come to condemn the world, to condemn us, but to save us in all of our messiness.

God sent Jesus in human skin, with human hands, walking around on human feet.  Jesus was more than a prayer, more than a good idea. Jesus was a walking, talking, eating, sneezing, preaching, mourning, laughing and healing declaration of God’s desire to see ALL people experience love and grace.

All people, even the ones we are not so sure about, Even the ones we have been taught are somehow unworthy, unclean, or less than. Even people like me.  

That is the good news we are sharing, the gospel to which we are called to bear witness, the good news isn’t just that “Jesus paid it all”, but that Jesus made a way for all.    

My friend Martha reminded me yesterday:

“Jesus went to places and ate and drank with people who the religious authorities disapproved. We’ve got him all wrong if we try to turn him into some kind of elitist priss-pot. We’ve got him wrong if we prioritize any characteristic above his love for humankind, for all kinds of humanity.

When we are ready to condemn others for their differences, to define them as outside the circle of human consideration and divine love, we create a climate in which hatred and prejudice seem natural and sensible.

When we combine this evil spirit of condemnation with the ready availability of semi-automatic weapons, we sentence ourselves to the kind of fearful scenes that played out in Orlando and the aftermath of suspicion and despair that continues.”

(paraphrasing) Now – It’s really tempting to pretend that the evil, hateful spirit that was on display is confined  to one particular religion. The truth is, we can find it in any religion and we can find it among those with no religion. We can even  find it in the Central Florida churches suddenly expressing sympathy for the very lives they preached virulently against in the not so distant past. We can find it closer to home, too, anyplace we convince ourselves that we are the only ones Jesus would care about, the only ones Jesus would want to save.

But the good news to which we bear witness is for all people, and binds us in love to all people, love for all of creation,  and for our loving Creator.

We proclaim our faith in the one who came to save us from our hunger and our worry that sharing might leave us hungry.  Because people need bread and the bread of life.

We bear witness to the one who came to save us from our thirst and our willingness to poison our rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers in the name of progress and profit. Because people need clean water and access to streams of living water.

We proclaim our faith in the one who came so that we might know what it means to be claimed,  and to save us from our willingness to exile the ones Jesus would join for a meal. Because people need community and need to hear that they are God’s beloved children

We bear witness to the one who clothes us in righteousness and saves us from the shame that we would heap on ourselves and others. Because people need shirts and shoes and need to know that a heart can be made beautiful again.   

We bear witness to the one who touched the untouchables, and who loves the unlovables, including us. Even on our worst days…. We are loved. Because we are all more alike than we are different, all worthy of hope, all worthy of the faith in God.

It takes more than words to bear witness in this way, more than claiming membership in a congregation or a faith tradition, It requires so much more of us than saying to Jesus, I know who you are.  I want to be part of the family.  

We bear witness to the risen Lord by showing up.

The Christian response to the broken-ness, death and evil that still obscures the Kingdom of God here on earth is the same as that of the Christ we follow. We embody the love of God and put ourselves physically among the ones suffering because of brokenness, death and evil.

We lived out here when my dad died back in College Station, Texas.  My team at work was just 2 weeks away from hosting a major conference near San Antonio. I was trying to keep up with at least some of my responsibilities for the event and help with funeral arrangements and be a wife and mom, and begin to grieve.

A lot of people came to the service later that week, including 2 of the guys on my team here in Florida, who were doing their work and picking up some of mine to get ready for this event. They flew from Florida to Texas and back again… Just Days before we would all be in San Antonio… Because they wanted me and Paul and my whole family to know that community matters, friendship matters, being the Body matters. They were good news and God’s grace for me.

They showed up

At Sandy Hook. At Charleston. Here in Orlando.  Fifteen times President Obama has met with families whose lives were altered by mass shootings.  In quiet, hard, private conversations, he offered what solace he could, and he listened to their pain. He held hands and prayed with them.

He showed up.

If you want to bear witness to what God can do. You show up.

You bring casseroles and comfort food without worrying about the cost, without asking first. You show up and ring the doorbell.

You come by on a Friday and sit with our lunchtime regulars, and you eat out of a styrofoam container. You have rambly conversations and build relationships because everyone matters.
You show up.

You take a moment to ask the people who worship alongside you week after week, if they are doing ok,especially those whose hearts have been broken by grief, those who might feel a little less safe about living proudly just as they are and being open about who they love. Because children of God are children of God, created, claimed, loved and saved, every single one of us.
You show up and offer your love.

You go to a vigil, you attend a memorial service knowing you might be the only person there who doesn’t know the victim, doesn’t know the family.  You go, not because it makes you feel good, because it actually feels pretty awkward. You go because one more lit candle brings 100 more lumens into the darkness. Because when one part hurts the whole Body suffers.
You show up

You show up.
Like the women who showed up at the tomb to finish their work and came running back to say He is risen!
Like Peter showed up to preach when that first sermon started flowing from his heart and out of his mouth.
Like the brave souls who welcomed Paul in those early days following his conversion, even at risk of their own lives.

You show up
And you bear witness
You tell a story.
You sow a seed.

You show up because… how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14-17)

Because I have only been here a short while – a year and a half, maybe-  when I look at the empty spaces in our pews, I don’t fill them with the same people that many of you can recall, friends and loved ones no longer in town, no longer on this earth…  

But I can fill this place with faces I wish were here.  And it breaks my heart to face the truth that many of them will probably never voluntarily cross the threshold of that doorway or  the door of any sanctuary.

Because far from being a sanctuary where they could worship and grow as disciples, in a community of people aware of and working on their own sins that separate them from God, too many sanctuaries have become places of judgment and rejection.  Even rejection of the children baptized in their fonts.

The faces I long to see in any sanctuary (here would be great, but truly anywhere) are those children of God, as well as their parents and friends who left when they no longer felt safe offering their dear ones welcome and support in their faith community.

I fear that sometimes, in our zeal to be the best we can be for Jesus, we lose sight of the best ways to show up and be Jesus for one another.  We create a gap that was never meant to exist.

And the only way to bridge that gap, is to show up.
To show up humbly aware of the ways we helped create it,
To show up willing to have all the conversations and do all the work that reconciliation requires.
To bear witness to the perfect love that drives out all fear.
Those are some feet I’d really love to see show up.

For the National Day of Prayer

Many people have gathered for Prayer Breakfasts, others will meet for afternoon prayer huddles or evening prayer services.

Some of us are at offices and other places of work, at school, volunteering, or caring for others in myriad ways. Our calendars are full, too full to make it to a formal prayer gathering.

Know this… Wherever you are today, you can join in prayer for our church, the larger Body of Christ, for our community, the nation and the world.

God already knows that we are overwhelmed with the pain and difficulties in our own lives and in all of those widening circles.  And God knows the many things that bring us joy, which we sometimes forget to include in our Thank You’s.  But when we take a moment to engage our hearts with our Creator’s heart, we are choosing to return the love which God has poured into us.
When you have a moment, step away from your task list and try this breath prayer:
Breathe in deeply, aware of the Spirit filling your heart as the air fills your lungs.
Breathe out slowly, making space for still more.
Breathe in the goodness of God’s grace.  Then breathe out a prayer of gratitude.
Breathe in the wideness of God’s love; breathe out a prayer for the people and places in need of healing.
Breathe in the steadfastness of God’s presence; breathe out a prayer of awe and wonder.
Breathe in, breathe out, and know that you are a beloved Child of God
Breathe in, breathe out, and let the words fall away.
Amen.

You know you’re a meeting junkie when 

I was asked to offer the invocation at today’s city council meeting. Apparently out church had dropped out of rotation at some point, and someone in the city office noticed last month. I said “of course” since I am always looking for opportunities to connect with the larger community. 

I made my way over to City Hall a little early, met the council members and mayor, got my instructions and found a seat. I offered my prayer (below) and sat down to watch the proceedings. 

There was a long discussion around the city recreation department’s proposed fee structure for youth sports. So long and robust, in fact that I had to leave at the break and didn’t see the vote. 

As I drive back to the church, it struck me. I was really enjoying that meeting. Just like I enjoy a session meeting or a Preabytery meeting. There is something about the energy in a room where people are working to find a solution to a problem that affects a community- whether municipal, ecclesiastical or organizational. Then there is the opportunity to collaborate with people beyond your usual area, like the folks I met today who are leading a task force in a part of town just south of our church. 

Yes, I am that meeting nerd. God help me. 

Anyway, here’s the prayer: 

Gracious God, 

We give thanks today for men and women who answer the call to public service, taking on the mantle of leadership beyond their own families and bearing responsibility for the community at large. 

We give thanks as well for the model of leadership and the teaching that you provided through your own Son, Jesus. 

Throughout his ministry, he made clear that the way of leadership is the way of love, of self-sacrifice, of compassion. Through his teachings, he made clear that your commandment to act justly and love mercy is still very much in effect. Through his obedience, he modeled what it means to walk humbly in your pathways. 

We ask Lord, that you tune the hearts of these leaders to yours, that their eyes would be open to the needs of every neighborhood in this city, and that their ears would hear the voices of all the households they represent, including those at the margins, the youngest, the oldest, and the most vulnerable among us. 

We ask you to pour out your Spirit in this place, drenching us all in your grace, that we might know what it means to love our neighbors in word and deed, even in the process of governing. 

In the name of the one who healed the lame, gave sight to the blind, fed the hungry and set captives free from all manner of bondage, Jesus the Christ, we pray. 

Amen.   

Most Excellent

Primary Scriptures 1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 4:7-21

Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth give us a glimpse into a culture that is at once very distant from us in time and geography, and yet somehow remains oddly close and familiar.

Corinth was a city built on business – almost capitalist, in a way. Diverse cultures collided as they traded goods and services. There was a wide gap between those with plenty of wealth and those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.  

The church was diverse as well… This gathering of people definitely transgressed most of the traditional boundaries of ethnicity, gender, age, status and life situation. You would find among them both married and unmarried men and women, as well as widows and children. You would meet more converted Gentiles than Jews, although some of those Jewish members would have served as leaders in the synagogue previously.

You would be worshiping alongside many more people from the lower economic classes than from the elites. And yet at least one of the members had enough resources to meet Paul’s needs and support the church – all on his own.

That sort of diversity is beautiful.
That sort of diversity is also challenging.  

A variety of perspectives can enrich a community, adding depth to conversations with the wisdom born of broader experience.

A variety of perspectives can also become a breeding ground for jealousy, distrust and conflict.

In the church at Corinth, the latter took hold. They had a tremendous capacity for discord and division.  Boy could they argue.  

They argued about sexual morality; they argued about eating meat sacrificed to idols. They argued about eating practices at the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, how to interpret the resurrection of the dead… They even argued about baptism. And they formed allegiances to different church leaders based on their teaching on such topics.  And maybe a little by which was their favorite preacher.

We don’t have to do a lot of adapting for those arguments to sound familiar…

The church still has differences about how healthy sexuality
And whether to offer wine or only juice for the Lord’s Supper.
We are still arguing about who gets into heaven – and if there will be any Jews there from before Jesus’s time.

Schisms have erupted over questions like
How should we decide what to pay the pastor?
What color should we choose to paint the wall or carpet the sanctuary?
Can we do music that isn’t in the hymnals?  Or bring in drums? 

In the opening section of his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul asks a very pointed question in light of all these disagreements – Is Christ divided?

This question leads him to the metaphor we continue to use when we describe the church today: We are the Body of Christ, made up of many members.  Paul’s greatest concern isn’t the theological arguments, so much as the division he sees, the disconnect between the members of that body.

Paul’s letter to the church is a call to unity.  Not uniformity, but unity.

You see, after 18 months among the Corinthians, Paul knows – there truly is no way they will ever be a homogenous group. God has drawn together an amazing group that represents the beautiful  – if chaotic – nature of God’s creativity.  They are multi-lingual, multi-hued, multi-cultural, and multi-opinionated, thus multiplying the frustrations and conflicts they experience.   

What’s a pastor to do? Especially when writing from another city?

First, Paul points to Christ, using the dispute over baptism. It didn’t matter who did the baptizing, the One in whose name that sacrament happened…   Jesus, the Christ, that’s who matters. All of them had been baptized in the name of the Son of God who lived, died and was raised to life again.   

Then Paul lays out what scholars call an ecclesiological ethic. Most of us would say something more like…Paul tells them what it’s going to take to be the church together.

He lets them know that he is aware of what they’ve been up to. He points out the ways that they’ve allowed conflict to seep into their community in ways that keep them from bearing witness to their faith in Christ and bearing witness to the power of the resurrection.

Paul acknowledges that they aren’t all bad, that there are lessons they have locked onto and that some of what they seek as they live in the Spirit is good. Then he sets them up for his exhortation by saying, keep at it… keep doing all those good things.  AND I will show you a still more excellent way.

Love.

Love is the greatest power that humanity can bring to bear in any situation.
Love is the ultimate ethic.
Love is the only way to survive the disagreements that threaten to overwhelm a community made up of people with fundamentally different lives, values and experiences.

Love.

Love is the only hope for breaking apart the contentious groups that have taken sides against one another.
Love is what can reunite this fragmented community and allow them to enrich, rather than alienate one another.
Because in God’s Kingdom, diversity is non-negotiable, which makes love the most precious commodity.

Paul’s language is undeniably beautiful here. Poetic even, especially for Paul.  But we are not doing justice to his passion if we read this as poetry. He’s not happy. He’s not celebrating a lovely moment in the life of this church family. He’s angry… spitting mad, you might say.  

This is probably how it went down… Paul has an a scribe… a guy sitting near him with his writing materials, trying to keep up with Paul as he paces around and alternates between encouraging and chiding his friends.

When Paul thinks about the ways that the gifts of the Spirit, the elements of worship, have divided them.  When he describes as good and helpful those things God has given the community to build them up and empower them to be Christ’s witnesses in Corinth – he gets more and more fired up.  

Paul realizes that he needs to paint a picture of what could be. Not a tribute to what is, but a picture of what could be… what should be. Paul is laying out a new action plan, a strategic plan, even, that will assure the community’s survival in the future. He is emphatic about making sure they get it.  

Listen again- this time in the plain language of Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message… I think you’ll hear some of that passion shine through a little more clearly.

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

Without love, we are Bankrupt. Flat broke.  Nothing and nobody.

Most of our English translations lose their steam as we move into Paul’s descriptions of what love looks like in this imagined world. They turn into passive sentences – a subject connected to adjectives that describe what love is or isn’t. In some ways it gets a little too touchy feely.

Paul’s not talking about feelings here, though. He is talking about the actions we choose when we choose love.  

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,

Paul says that love…
Isn’t always “me first,”  My way or the highway
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, and whether or not we’re even
Doesn’t revel when others grovel and beg
Takes pleasure in the blossoming of truth,
Love puts up with anything,
Love trusts God always…. always,

Love always looks for the best, and believes the best of others
Love never looks back,
Love keeps going to the end.  (italicized phrases from The Message)

The work of love is the work that is missing in the church in Corinth.
Because it is work.  

We have a choice, in Paul’s view. And when we choose love, we choose the way of Christ. We choose to speak and act in ways that are counter to a culture that fears those who speak or act or dress or love differently. When we choose love, we choose to affirm the humanity of every person, including those who are not like us.

Love is the only means by which we have any chance on this earth to live fully and completely in the knowledge and fellowship of God.  

Love leads us into unity without requiring uniformity.

Too often, we churchy-folk act as if the mission of the church is to gather up a bunch of other people who are like-minded – people who think the same way we do – especially if they are likeable. Perhaps because we think or hope that it will be easier to love one another if we’re enough alike. Or at least to feel like we are loving people.

Then the disagreements come.

We stumble onto something that reveals how differently we think.  No longer like-minded, no longer unanimous. We begin to lose trust. And it doesn’t feel like love when we argue.

But You know what Paul doesn’t say in this chapter about love?
Paul never says that love feels good.

The love Paul describes requires work. It requires being vulnerable and flexible. It requires being adaptable. It requires admitting that we don’t know everything about everything. It requires admitting the times we pretended to know everything and got some of it, maybe even a lot of it, wrong.

Love takes risks that logic never would.

All of which leads me to wonder…

What if the measure of how well we love isn’t how often we agree or  how often we convince others to pretend to agree with us?

What if the truest measure of love was how well we maintain unity in times of tension and disagreement?

What if we lived like we believed that love makes room for faithful and faith-filled disagreement.

What if we lived like we believed that love doesn’t play zero-sum games, the kind of games where winners take all and losing feels like you’ve lost it all.

Love reshapes us individually and together into whole and holistic people, people who are anchored in the well-being of others. I don’t know about you, but I’ve rarely experienced being reshaped and transformed as being easy or pain-free. Unless I am willing to release my fear of being changed and allow God’s perfect love to cast out my fear.

The second most beautiful passage on love, in 1 John 4:7-21, reminds us that love is of God. And that GOd’s love reaches its intended purpose, not just as we each come to love God in return for the gift of love in Christ Jesus.  

God’s love reaches its intended purpose when it creates a community of continuing love, love that is among us and extending out beyond us.

Love of self, love of being right, love of power and privilege… These are, more often than not, the fruits of fear. Fear of loneliness, fear of shame, fear of oppression and loss/

God’s love for us through Jesus the son,
God’s love for us through the empowerment of the spirit,
that love sets us free from pursuits fueled by fear.

Dear ones, we are to love one another. Not in spite of our differences, but in light of our differences.

Love is of God – who was and is, and who ever will be.
And thus love never, ever, ever, ever…
never ever…
ends.

We know love only because God loved us first, and made that love known in Jesus, whose obedience and saving death we recount and proclaim at the Lord’s Table.

We remain in God when we remain in love.  And God remains in us.

God’s spirit will continue to send dreams and visions.
We will speak and be given wisdom beyond our own capacity.
We walk by faith today, but it will one day be sight.
Hope will end in fulfillment when God’s Kingdom finally comes as we pray it will.
But even on that day at the very end of this age, love will abide.
Love will remain.
Because God’s love will never falter or fail.

That is the love that we are drawn toward,
It is the love that we are shaped by,
the love for which all people hunger and thirst
The love in which we are drenched by grace
The love to which our lives must bear witness today and every day

That is the love with which we are filled – God’s love – the most excellent love of all.