Monday, June 26, 2017

6-25-17 "Summer of Love" Series - "The LEGACY of Love"

6-25-17 Sermon “The LEGACY of Love”

   “So what are we going to say about these things,” Paul asks. That’s a great question isn’t it? What ARE we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? That is, with God on our side, who can possibly think they can stand against us? Who is going to bring a charge or accusation against God’s people when God is both judge and jury? 

   This passage, more than any other, has been the formational passage of Scripture in my call to and practice of ministry. It is the passage of scripture I chose to go on the banner that was created for me when I was ordained several years ago. To me, this passage sums up the entire gospel, perhaps even all of scripture in one fell swoop: NOTHING, NO THING, nothing we can say, nothing we can do, nothing we don’t say, nothing we don’t do, nothing AT ALL, can separate us from God’s love. Period. Stop. This is the overarching message of love that God has provided for us, as revealed to us in scripture from the Creation stories of Genesis to the revealing of a New Jerusalem in Revelation - God loves us so much that there is NOTHING that can separate us from that love. Put another way, God loves YOU, and there’s NOTHING you can do about that!

   But not just us, all of creation. You’ll remember from the creation story in Genesis 1, that each day, as God created, God declared that that day’s creation was “good.” The light was good, the dark was good, the fish were good, the birds were good, it was all good because it was all God. God’s creation of all things out of nothing was the first incarnation of God into flesh, into physical being. It was God’s first revelation, God’s revealing of God’s self to the world. Before there was ever any kind of fall, before there was any idea of sin or a doctrine of “original sin,” there was “Original Blessing.” God’s original blessing on all of creation, God’s declaration of the sacredness of things, all beings, is that first revelation, that first incarnation of, first testament tos God’s love. As Father Richard Rohr writes, this is the  “foundation for understanding the sacredness of everything and our connection with everything. 
We are already connected to everything—inherently, objectively, metaphysically, ontologically, and theologically. We don’t create the connection by going to church or reading the Bible, although we hopefully enliven the connection [there].”   Rather, it’s in the original blessing, the declaration by God at Creation that all creation was good, even very good, that we become acutely aware of our “divine DNA,” our creation in the image of God, what’s called the imago Dei.

   And the imago Dei, being made in the image of God, is not about our physical appearance, it’s not about gender identity or even right belief, it’s not about what nation we live in or what religion we practice, it’s about God’s presence within all of creation. It’s about our implanted, deeply-rooted connection to God, our divinely established relationship as beloved Children of God. 
It’s about our legacy, as Paul says, as heirs of God with Jesus Christ. It’s what Jesus means in John’s gospel when he talks about “abiding” in God and God “abiding” in us. The divine DNA that is within us is not something we earn any more than we earn our genetic DNA, it’s not something we receive by saying the right prayer or speaking the correct words or even believing a certain set of doctrines, it’s that part of us that comes from God and in turn seeks out God in the first place, so that we CAN recognize our place as beloved children of God, so that we are drawn to pursue relationship with the God who planted that divine DNA within us in the first place. You see, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God because the love of God is built right into us - it’s original equipment. It’s part and parcel of who we are and how we are. It’s what John Wesley called “prevenient grace,” the grace that goes before. It’s like a GPS chip, God’s Positioning System, that God planted deep within our core that causes us to naturally seek to know and love God as God knows and loves us. As Rohr says, “There has to be a little bit of something inside you for you to be attracted to it; like knows like. You are what you are looking for.” 
That is, the divine in you seeks out the divine in the universe. And it can be found everywhere if our eyes are open to see it. 

   I’ve shared with you before that the place where I 
feel most closely connected to God is at the ocean.  
It’s certainly not the only place, but it’ a primary place 
for me to feel that divine DNA surging within. 
There is something, a homing signal if you will, that God has planted within me that sends me regular signals to come for a family reunion with God along the shore. Maybe that place of divine homecoming is in the mountains for you. Or maybe the GPS homing signal that God planted in you calls you to your back porch, or to walk through Big Darby park, or wherever your kids or grandkids are. It’s different for each of us because we’re all uniquely beloved children of God. 

   But, and here’s one of the coolest things for me, this connection extends beyond just us sentient, thinking, reasoning, human beings. A heart and life transformed by the realization of our oneness with God in all things knows that only love “in here” can spot and enjoy love “over there.” And one way to think about what I mean by that is in terms of what I preached to you almost a year ago now, in the series we did last summer, “Rock of Ages.” 
You’ll remember that the primary message of that series was that there is no separation of sacred and secular, or more precisely, of sacred and what is called profane. All of creation, regardless of how it is used, is created as sacred, is of God, and is, as God declared, “good” or “very good.” We may not ultimately use it to sacred ends, but in its being, it is sacred, it is of God. And the means of conveying that message in that series last summer, and in our series this summer to a lesser extent, is that God’s message of love is present in more than just the songs of the hymnals or the traditional music of the church. So putting it into the framework of our Summer of Love series this year, celebrating the 50th anniversary of a gathering in San Francisco in 1967 built around music and the messages of love, God’s message of unconditional love is as much present in the words of Grace Slick as they are in Amazing Grace; 
that God’s inseparable love as expressed in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is equally as present in the words of John, Paul, George, and Ringo; 
that our theme song for this series, “Get Together,” carries as powerful a message of God’s love and transformation as any specifically religious song ever written. Unfortunately, not all people can see or recognize God in other music, in other stories, in other people, or even other religions. Let those who have ears, hear, and those who have eyes, see.

   Often, we are blind to God’s presence outside of those things we consider “religious.” It’s as though we’ve somehow jammed or disrupted the God signal that is planted within all of us. 
That signal loss leads to fear, to a constricting or limiting of our perception of God’s kingdom, even to resentment of others who also lay claim to the mantle of beloved child of God when we think they are not. 
True spiritual teachers, though, see this fear, constriction, and resentment as blindness that must be overcome. These emotions impede our spiritual growth in and towards God. They block the signal that God sends to pull us toward God and instead, send us on endless detours, goose chases, and snipe hunts through life.  
That’s why all mystics are positive people—remember, mystics are people who have had a spiritual and emotional encounter directly with God - or they are not mystics. Their spiritual struggle is precisely the work of recognizing and then handing over all of their inner negativity and fear to God. 
The great paradox here is that such an experience is a gift from God, and yet somehow you must want it very much (Philippians 2:12b-13). While God is present everywhere and abides in all things, God, like love, does not insist on God’s own way. God, like love, is patient, God is kind, God bears all things and endures all things. Because, as John writes, God is love.

   Saint Francis of Assisi, more so probably than any other follower of Jesus in all of Christian history, recognized that fact and responded to it. 
Born into a life of wealth and prosperity, he gladly gave up all of the riches, security, and comfort that was his to receive in order to live a life of poverty devoted to loving and serving others, the least, the last, and the lost.

Francis recognized the presence of God in all things, in the animals of the forest, the birds of the air, even in what he called brother sun and sister moon. 
That’s why, as Richard Rohr suggests, 
“The central practice in Franciscan mysticism, therefore, is that we must remain in love, which is why it is a commandment (John 15:4-5), in fact, the great commandment of Jesus. Only when we are eager to love can we see love and goodness in the world around us. 
We must ourselves remain in peace, and then we will see and find peace over there. Remain in beauty, and we will honor beauty everywhere.” This command given us by Christ is the same idea found in the concept of Namaste found in eastern religions: The divine in me acknowledges, recognizes, honors, the divine in you.

   And Rohr goes on to offer that it is the idea of remaining in or abiding in Christ that the Gospel writer John describes when talking about the connection between the vine and the branches (John 15:4-5), that moves religion away from being merely some doctrinal loyalty oath for a select group of people on the inside, where it has been lost or held hostage for too long. 
There is no secret moral behavior required for knowing or pleasing God, or what some call “salvation,” beyond becoming a loving person in mind, heart, body, and soul. Then each of us will see all that we need to see, because that is how God created and indwelled us to be in the first place. First and foremost, this suggests, the salvation we are most in need of is to be saved from ourselves and what we allow ourselves to become when we deny the divine seed of God’s goodness planted within us and within those we would deem as other or not “us.” 

   John affirms this in his letter that we read today when he said: 
“God is love” - not just that God loves, but that God IS love..
 “and those who remain [or abide] in love remain in God and God remains [or abides] in them.”
   “This is how love has been perfected in us,” he writes,…”because we are exactly the same as God is in this world.” That is, God’s DNA is our DNA.

   “There is no fear in love,” John writes, “but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. 
The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.” What have we to fear, Scripture asks us again and again. 
From the admonition throughout scripture to “fear not” or “be not afraid,” given 365 times from cover to cover, to Paul’s letter today telling us that NOTHING, NOTHING, nothing we can do, nothing we can say, nothing we can think, nothing we can comprehend, nothing can separate us from God’s love. How much more clear do we need it to be?  
   “We love because God first loved us,” John writes. 
“If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.” 

   John simply restates what Jesus already has commanded: Love God and love your neighbor. 
When we love another, even those we consider the most unlovable among us, then we are loving God. 
And when we don’t love another, when we hate or despise another, whether in thought, word, or deed, then we do not love God, because love of God IS by definition, love of neighbor. The message is, I believe, really that simple. 
   You see, the Legacy of God’s love, is good news. When we love God and love one another, then we are being and doing what we were created to do and to be. When we take the time, when we make the effort, to get to know our neighbor, to express God’s love for our neighbor - in the actions of love, whether or not we have that emotional feeling of warm and fuzzy love that we talked about last week - when we do that, it is God’s divine DNA within us that becomes the light we shine. 

   It’s easy to read some of these passages of Scripture about the loving nature of God and simply pass over them, not thinking about the ramifications of what they’re truly saying to us. It’s also easy to overemphasize the few passages that describe an angry or wrathful God and make too much of them. The overarching message of scripture, from beginning to end, is not a message of anger, wrath, judgment, and eternal damnation, it’s a message of God’s love for all of God’s creation. 
It’s a message of divine grace for all of God’s children. It’s a message of giving and forgiving as modeled in the stories of Jesus. It’s a message of perfect love, PERFECT LOVE that casts out fear, but that has often been twisted and distorted into a horror story of perfect fear that casts out love - a message that is definitely NOT the good news of the gospel.
   Rather, the Legacy of God’s Love is summed up in these words from Paul: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39, NRSV)
   “Love of God, and love of neighbor,” Jesus commanded, “on these hang all of the Law and the Prophets.” 
This is the legacy of love we have inherited, this is the legacy of love inherent in the divine DNA with which we were created and declared to be “very good.” This is the kind of love that, if embraced by all but particularly by disciples of Jesus Christ, would truly make a difference, would truly transform the world for Christ. 
That is what we are called to, that is the legacy passed on to us. Let us go and do likewise. Amen. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

6-18-17 in "The Summer of Love" Series, "The ACT of Love"

6-18-17 Sermon “The ACT of Love” in “Summer of Love” series

   What does it mean to be a friend these days?
When we were kids friendship seemed so much simpler, didn’t it? Oh, it had its ups and downs, sure, and maybe I’m just romanticizing the idea of friendship, but it just didn’t seem so complicated back then. I had lots of kids I hung around with in my neighborhood as a kid who were my friends at that point in my life - but we’re not friends now and haven’t been for 50 years. So, were we friends then or just acquaintances?

   In the era of Facebook we’ve both broadened and, I think perhaps, cheapened what it means to be a friend. On FB we can be “friends” with people we’ve never even met; we can be friends with people we don’t even really like! In fact, I have interactions with some Facebook friends that are more congenial than those I have with other “friends” that I’ve known or been acquainted with for decades - so what exactly does it mean to be a friend?
   And what does all this say about the nature of “friendship?” I have a clergy friend, or should I call her a colleague since we don’t generally get together outside of clergy or church gatherings…whatever, but her husband limits himself to 40 Facebook friends at a time.He won’t have more. If he feels pressure to add someone as a Friend then he feels compelled to go through his list of existing friends and delete someone.

   Depending on how you think about it you might have many friends, or just a few. I have some long time old friends, I have some really close friends, I’ve had friends I was close with for a season in my life but that I haven’t seen or interacted with in years - are we still friends or did we just know each other for a period of time long ago? One of the benefits of Facebook, I will say, is that allows us to reconnect with some of those people in ways that might not have been possible otherwise. I’ve had close, personal friendships with people who later threw me under the bus, and with others where I’ve done the same to them. 

   Friendship is messy business. And then we come along to today’s scripture and hear Jesus define “friendship” as being a willingness to lay down one’s life for another. In fact, more than friendship, this is how Jesus defines love, and then goes on to say that he considers the disciples his friends and that “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” 
And that should give us pause…
   Indeed friends are one of life’s greatest gifts. They accept us, care for us, make us laugh, challenge us, listen to us, steady us, help us pick up the pieces, and even inspire us to be better. They represent some of life’s best relationships. Yet Jesus didn’t lightly say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends.” What is the purpose of friendship in the Christian life? What is the significance of Jesus, on his last night, no longer calling his disciples servants but calling them friends?

   Jesus directs his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” The passage begins and ends with this instruction. While modern conversation about love and friendship can tend toward being cozy and sentimental, Jesus issues a radical call. It’s perhaps the most radical call of the gospel, because his words indicate that the kind of love Jesus embodied is to be reproduced by Jesus’ followers: “Love one another as I have loved you.” That is, with a love that goes all the way. It gives all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. It doesn’t necessarily go looking to lose one’s life, but if that’s what love requires, it doesn’t flinch. This is love in action and is not unique to Jesus, but is to be characteristic of all of Jesus’ friends. 

   Now, often when we think of friendship with Christ, we focus on how good a friend Jesus is to us. “What a friend we have in Jesus,” we sing. John goes rapidly to the flip side: to being a friend of Jesus and to the fruit that friendship with Christ bears. Jesus’ proclamation of friendship is a call to action. As we have come to understand, I hope, throughout this series, love is an action, and in this passage - a really difficult action. The definition of love here is a radical willingness to die - not for your child or your spouse, but for the fellow follower of Christ. If we bring this down to the most personal and individual of levels, if we look around the congregation, for whom would we be willing to die? For what reason would we die for a fellow follower of Christ? This is how Jesus describes an expression of friendship: to give up everything for the other. For Jesus, in this text, friendship is obedient action, the obedience of Jesus to God first, and in response, our obedience to Christ. “Do what I tell you,” Jesus says, which is altogether different from what our contemporary ears would hear in the offer of friendship, and is perhaps more than what we would be willing to take on.

   21st century readers can’t help but read the language of love and friendship psychologically. We’ve been steeped in the language of individual psychology to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine there is any definition of love other than a warm and fuzzy feeling, or friendship as companionship and compatibility. 
   More difficult still for the modern mind is the notion that God’s love for us through Christ is not a feeling, at least not a feeling to which we mere creatures can have access. The definition of God’s love is found in God’s actions. In the beginning, God does not think or feel, God creates. So it is with God’s love: it’s defined for us by what it does. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him.” 
   So doesn’t God, we wonder, in God’s very being, feel tenderly toward us? That’s an interesting question, and when we consider that we are made in God’s image then it might logically follow that the way we love must be the way God loves. But we also must consider that in thinking of God’s love in human ways, we might actually be trying to remake God in our image. We assume that God’s love takes the form of what we want it to be, what we humans have come to call “love” in the present; but in reality, the definition of God’s love that we have access to are results: it creates, it redeems, it bears fruit, it lays down its life.

   Let’s be clear: mandating physical death as the mark of love is problematic and I don’t think that’s what Jesus is calling us to. But it does present us with a challenge. If we agree that the potential for abuse of this equation are unacceptable, what does that mean for us? Good news and bad news. The good news is that we don’t have to feel any particular way to get on with the practice of friendship. This is good news, because if we would, say, look around the congregation, there are probably very few people about whom any of us feel warm and fuzzy enough to give our life for, but for whom we can and certainly do practice friendship. 
   The bad news is the same, but with a different emphasis: we’re to get on with the business of friendship without waiting to feel or expecting to feel anything in particular for one another. It’s almost the “fake it until you make it” idea. It’s in the “actions” of friendship, the giving, the doing, the sharing, that love is shown to another, and maybe even grown with the other, even if the warm and fuzzies feelings aren’t apparent at first. That is, friendship can grow out of simple relationship. 

   If you follow Christ, you’re ready to die for him, as God in Christ died for us. “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.” To lay down one’s life might well be speaking of physical death, but it doesn’t have to be limited to that understanding. It could mean our dying to a way of being. Or it could be allowing an attitude or fear of another to die, to allow to die a feeling, a memory, or a bit of guilt, that keeps us from acting in love. Forget about laying down one’s physical life for a moment - who would you give a kidney to? Who would you serve a meal to? Who would you do yard work for? Who would you give a ride to? Who would you be willing to pray with? It’s not about whether you feel love for them, if you even like them, or think they deserve it! But those are the actions of love, for God and for neighbor that Jesus calls us to. Those are marks of friendship, and I daresay, discipleship, at it’s core, with our brothers and sisters, and with Jesus Christ. “Whatever you did for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”

   In the twenty-first century, there is anxiety about friendship. Once upon a time, friendships were a staple of American popular culture - but not so anymore. The late 20th century bridge clubs, bowling leagues, and TV shows like Friends, and Seinfeld have given way to slot machines, mobile phone video games, music listened to with ear buds, bowling alone, and shows about modern angst, reality TV, and various ways to lose weight or become a millionaire. As workers log longer hours, as people relocate, and as technology changes the contours of relationships, deep meaningful friendship is often among the first things to be sacrificed. There are lonely people out there who live with feelings of failure when it comes to friendship. Others do not grasp what they are missing.

   Friendship is one of life’s greatest gifts. Friendships go far beyond being a blessing and sign of how much God loves us, though. Friendships serve as training grounds. Our best friendships teach us how to love. 
Day by day and year after year, enduring friendships are places in which we practice patience forgiveness, kindness, and justice. Friendships can be where we learn hospitality, mercy, generosity, and compassion. 
To be sure, not all friendship accomplish such lofty goals, but it is often through friendship that we learn to love and that we catch glimpses of what it means to radiate the goodness and holiness of God in the world.

   In telling his disciples that he no longer calls them servants but friends, Jesus is suggesting that even as he leaves, relationship matters and friendship is a primary setting in which we love one another and grow in the skills needed to transform the world with our way of life. Jesus as friend models the best of human love, not in how he feels or makes us feel, but in what he does, and what he calls us to do as friends. Amen. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

6-11-17 “Summer of Love” series, “The LAW of Love”

6-11-17 “Summer of Love” series, “The LAW of Love”

   We all recognize, I believe, that there are some names in Scripture, either of people or of groups, that can be difficult to pronounce. They aren’t names that are common today. And names in the Hebrew language often have the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle for us.  Kim D., when serving as our liturgist, for some odd reason that I can only credit to the Holy Spirit has drawn readings that are full of challenging names several times and we’ve all sat here and urged and supported her on in her reading. It’s for that reason that I always meet with the liturgist prior to worship in order to go through the service, and particularly the scripture readings, to make sure that if there are any difficult names or words, we work on them together before worship begins. 
I have always done that since I began ministry because 
I know how it feels - I’ve been there. 
I learned a lesson though, a few years ago in a previous church that I served, to “trust and verify” as they say, because sometimes a reader thinks they know how to pronounce a name, when in reality they do not. You see, one of the readings on that day in that church was one of our same passages from today, and the liturgist was a woman from the church who had served in that capacity many times before but apparently had never come across the name, Sadducees before. And as she began to read, she moved smoothly and confidently into telling of the encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees and the Seducees. 
Yep, she said “Seducees.” 

   I have to tell you, it took everything I had in me to not laugh out loud, because that mispronunciation of Sadducees seriously changes the meaning and hearing of that passage. The only mispronunciation of scripture I’ve ever heard of that is perhaps funnier than “Seducees,” might be one that a clergy colleague told me about, when the liturgist in his church announced that she would be reading from Paul’s Letter to the Fallopians. 
Those Fallopians and Seducees will get you every time!

   Despite that memory, or maybe because of it, I’m particularly fond of this section of the gospels of Mark and Matthew. The two gospels parallel one another very closely, but there are distinct nuances to each that really help us to understand more clearly what’s going on. In a nutshell, Jesus is having a tough day, you know? He’s being challenged at every turn by either Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or by some legal expert, for the express purpose of trying to catch him in a misstatement, or some form of blasphemy that they can then turn into a chargeable offense against him. In this same section, told as though these events seemingly occurred one after another, we have in Mark’s gospel the story of a vineyard owner who sent his servants to collect the harvest from the tenants only to have them beaten and turned away, in response to which the vineyard owner then sends his son, whom he expects will be treated with great respect. When the son arrives, rather than respecting the owner’s son, the wicked tenants, thinking that they can somehow get their hands on the son’s inheritance, kill the son. 
And hearing Jesus tell this story, in this way, the Pharisees, shrewd listeners that they are, understand that Jesus was talking about them and are not too happy. 

   Now, also in this section is a story that I like to call, borrowing from the famous play and movie, “One Bride for Seven Brothers.” Here, instead of the Pharisees being frustrated and embarrassed by Jesus, it’s the Sadducees who end up with their tails between their legs. The Sadducees, among other things, didn’t believe in resurrection, so they proposed a question they thought was scripturally sound but that would be a real gotcha for Jesus. They asked him, if a man is married to his wife but has no male children, Jewish law, as given in the book of Deuteronomy, requires that if the man dies his brother must take the widow as his wife in order to produce a son, an heir, for the deceased brother. Well, they propose, that brother dies without giving a son, and the next brother marries the widow, but he dies without producing a son, and so on and so on until all seven brothers have married the woman and died without producing a single son. Whose wife, they want to know, will the woman be in heaven? 
   Now, before we get to Jesus’ response, I think I know what at least some of you are thinking, depending on whether you’re a man or a woman. The men are likely thinking she’s not going to be anyone’s husband because if all seven of her previous husbands died nobody’s going to be brave enough to take the chance. Am I right? On the other hand, the women are likely thinking that if this woman has to have possibly seven husbands in the afterlife, then it’s certainly not heaven - am

   But Jesus, the passage says, points out to them that there is no marriage in heaven - that marriage is for this earthly life - and that they don’t know their scriptures as well as they think they do, both embarrassing and silencing the Sadducees. Jesus, you’ll note, is not heeding Dale Carnegie’s advice on “How to Win Friends and Influence People” here. Nevertheless, all of the stories in this section are told in basically the same way, if not in exactly the same order in both Matthew and Mark. But our passage for today featuring the legal expert gets a little more detailed and extended treatment in Mark’s gospel than what we heard Bob read for us from Matthew. In fact, Mark, the shortest of the four gospels, gives twice as many words to this story as does Matthew. And while this is not one of those passages that Matthew basically copies and pastes from Mark, the first parts of the readings are very similar. But where Matthew stops after the line “all the law and the prophets depend on these two commands,” Mark continues on, taking this story even deeper.

   So we’ll go deeper as well, because it’s in Mark’s gospel that the legal expert, rather than challenging Jesus’ teaching, as did the Pharisees and Sadducees, affirms it. “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.” Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees who attempt to disgrace or trap Jesus, the legal expert, this keeper and interpreter of the Law, affirms Jesus’ teaching that all of the Law - from the Ten Commandments to the 613 Laws in the Holiness Code - comes down to the twin ideas of loving God and loving neighbor. At the same time, in saying that these are more important even than the sacrifices required by the Law, he affirms what Paul said in his letter to the Galatians that we looked at last month, that the Law of Love wins out over the moral legalism that the Pharisees and their predecessors had insisted upon as the only way to salvation.

   So, the Law of Love that Jesus states very clearly in this passage, reads,  “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”

   So, what does this Law of Love look like for us? 
What does following Jesus’ Law of Loving God and Loving Neighbor look like in practice? As I shared before, “Love” in scripture is about more than just an emotional attachment, regardless of how deep that attachment is, it’s about action. Love is an action, Love is a verb. Loving God is something we do in response to the fact that God first loved us - so much so that God sent Jesus. Sent - another action verb; God sent Jesus and Jesus sends us. So the question is, as sent disciples, how do we love God? And the answer according to Jesus of course, is by loving our neighbor, by doing good for our neighbor, by caring for our neighbor. We do it when we put the needs of our neighbor ahead of our own desire for comfort. German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “We’re not the church unless we’re being the church for others.” 
And Christian theologian Leslie Newbiggin suggests that “the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
   So, what might THAT look like? Well, it looks like feeding people at the homeless camps and food pantry and the free store and the free meal. And it looks like clothing people in the free store, visiting people in hospital and in jails, and supporting the children in Freedom School and tutoring third graders and hosting Vacation Bible School for youngsters and also ministering to seniors and older adults in new and exciting ways as well. 
That’s ALL “love your neighbor” kind of stuff, and it’s all good. But if we look closely, only a couple of those things require us to be sent, to actually go to our neighbor. Everything else requires our neighbor to come to us. 
Most of these very good ministries don’t ask us to leave our own comfort zone in order to love our neighbor. Rather, they come with the expectation that our neighbor will leave THEIR comfort zone and come to us in order for us to love on them. And, I don’t know, when we think about it that way, it just doesn’t sound as “Jesusy” does it? I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind, when, in the Great Commission in Matthew 28, he says “Go and make disciples.” It doesn’t say “stay and wait for people to come to you,” or “if you build it, they will come.” That might work in Hollywood, but it’s not how the Kin-dom of God functions.
   So, to that end, I’m inviting as many of you as will come, to be here Wednesday morning at 10:30 for a time of prayer. 
During this time we’ll pray together for our members, for our mission and ministries here at Crossroads, pray for our community, pray for our neighbors, and see if we can’t hear God more clearly and more specifically about what it looks like to love our neighbors, particularly the neighbors who live in the 24 houses that immediately surround the church. What does loving God by loving our neighbor look like in relation to THOSE 24 families? 
What would sharing the love of God look like if we asked THEM the question of how we could be good neighbors instead of assuming that we already know? 
What would it look like for us to say yes to Jesus’ Law of Love, by showing our love of God in how we share God’s love with our closest neighbors. 
If we can detach our ideas about what it means to love God from being a mere emotional expression (which, if you think about it, is much easier on us and requires little in the way of action) and into an act of love, what would we have to do differently, as a church and as individuals? What comfort zones would we have to cross over? 

   During the original Summer of Love in 1967, those who descended on San Francisco, did so out of a strong desire to be in a community based on love and not of fear; on love and not war; on love and not hate. 
So they did things like community clean-up projects that turned abandoned lots into community gardens. They set up a free health clinic for the people in the neighborhood long after the last of the so-called “long-haired-hippie-freaks” had gone back home - a clinic that, as I shared with you last week, is still in operation today. They fed the already existing homeless community that they encountered when they got there. You see, the Summer of Love was about more than just sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It was about “making love” - figuratively as well as literally - and not war. It was about reaching out to the marginalized in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, and saying, as our song “Get Together” invites, “Come on people now smile on your brother, Everybody get together try and love one another right now.”
   That’s the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he sent out the apostles, when he went out and fed the thousands who were hungry, when he traveled from village to village and healed the sick, when he made the lame walk, and when he raised the dead. 
And that’s the kind of loving action that Jesus calls us to today. 
That’s the kind of ministry that Jesus’ Law of Love calls us to share with our neighbor as sent disciples. Amen.

So, with that in mind, I invite you to pray with me please.
   Yes, God! We want to love you by loving our neighbors, by being the church to them in your name. 
Yes, Jesus! We want to love you by being sent BY you, as the disciples were, to the neighbors you’ve surrounded us with, instead of passively and fearfully waiting for them to come to us. Give us the fearlessness of the faithful, Lord, that our acts of love might be sign and symbol of our love, not only of our neighbors, but of you. Lord, we ask your blessing on these your saints within these walls, that we might be a blessing to our neighbors outside these walls.
Open our eyes and our hearts, God, to each of the 24 homes, families, neighbors, with which you have surrounded us, and bless them, Lord. Help us to reach out in your name to them in order to show our love to you in how we love the neighbors you’ve given us. In Jesus’ most holy name we pray, Amen.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

6-5-17 "The GIFT of Love" from the "Summer of Love" series

Play video of song, "San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)”

   That song  was the theme song, if there was a singular theme, of what became known as “The Summer of Love” in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1967. When we think of the the 1960s in general, and when we think of the turbulence of that decade it’s often 1968 that comes to mind, not 1967. 1968 saw the assassinations 
of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. 
It witnessed, as played out on national TV, a Democratic National Convention in Chicago that turned into hand-to-hand combat between anti-war and anti-Lyndon Johnson protestors and the Chicago Police Department. 
But before all of that chaos, prior to all of that violence, there was 1967.

   I don’t know about you, but in 1967 I was only 7 years old. My father had died the year before, in 1966. 
My brother was in the army but had not yet shipped off for the first of his three tours in Vietnam, where the presence of American troops had increased to over 475,000 in that small southeast Asian nation, while back home the peace rallies were multiplying as the number of protesters against the war increased as well. 

In 1967 the boxer, Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, was stripped of his boxing world championship title for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army. In the middle east, Israel also went to war with Syria, Egypt, and Jordan in what would become known as the Six Day War, through which, when it was over, Israel controlled and occupied a lot more territory that it did before the war. 
In England, a new type of fashion model emerged and became a sensation, by the name of Twiggy, and mini skirts continued to get shorter and even more popular for a time. 
   Also in 1967, discotheques and singles bars appeared across cities around the world. The movie industry moved with the times and produced movies that would appeal to a younger audience including "The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde" and "Cool Hand Luke.”  TV shows of that year included "The Fugitive" and "The Monkees" and color television sets became popular as the price came down and more programs were made in color. 

And in the music world, the Beatles continued to reign supreme with the release of their “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. 
And this year was also what became known as “The Summer of Love,” when young people in droves got friendly and smoked pot and grooved to the music of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and The Byrds.

   But in San Francisco, something new was happening. 
A utopian community of sorts was growing in Haight-Ashbury, where the first “free store” in the community was established - completely frustrating would-be shoplifters. A free medical clinic was also created that, 
50 years later, still serves the people of that community. Food was donated by grocers and farmers alike to provide free meals for the thousands of free spirits who came to the Bay area, and free and reduced cost housing was provided for those who needed it. 
There were also different kinds of music and musicians coming to the fore as what was to become known as 
the Hippie movement was taking shape. 
Experimentation with marijuana and the newly discovered psychedelic drug, LSD, was taking place as more young people took psychologist Timothy Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” 
Over the summer of 1967, it is estimated that some 75-100,000 young people converged on San Francisco, in part to find out just what all the buzz was about, in part to become what was fast becoming a counter cultural movement against the government and big corporations who profited from war, and also to attend the inaugural Monterey Pop Festival, where heretofore unknown musicians such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and others would hypnotize an audience estimated to be 90,000 people.

   At about the same time, further down the coast in Hollywood of all places, another movement was developing as a countercultural movement against traditional institutions who were aligning themselves 
with the war machine, called the Jesus Movement. Pushing back against institutionalized religion and their support of what President Eisenhower had called the “military-industrial complex,” the original followers of the Jesus movement, while also claiming to “counter” the  countercultural movement taking place in San Francisco with the hippies of the day, actually emulated them as much as anything. 
The earliest followers of the Jesus movement gravitated toward communal living and the sharing of food and clothing, like their hippie counterparts up the coast. 
And it was the Jesus Movement that introduced guitars and drums into the music of their worship. And while neither the Hippie Movement nor the Jesus Movement had staying power on their own terms, we can see some of their combined influence in the portrayals of Jesus in two very different films that came out just a few years later: Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.

   This utopian vision of living together freely, sharing all things, and loving one another was not original to the 1960s though. Acts 2 records this same idealized type of living having taken place in the first century, albeit without the “free love” aspect that 1967 San Francisco brought us. 
Acts 2:42-47 tells us
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

    In fact, the community Luke describes in Acts might have been among the last of these types of communities, because as we read in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, many communities were struggling to get along. Paul’s letter, written at least 2 decades before Luke wrote Acts, describes a community in chaos and conflict. As described earlier in the letter and in other places, there were various gifts of the Spirit that were present in the community; the gifts of speaking in tongues and of interpreting tongues, the gift of prophecy, the gifts of healing, of teaching, of knowledge - as the song goes, “many gifts, one spirit.” But there were other spirits running amok in this community, the spirit of jealousy, the spirit of rivalry, the spirit of rancor and discord. 
Why so much conflict? Because some thought that their particular spiritual gift made them what we might call a “special snowflake.” 
That is, they thought their gift more important, more special, more Godly, that those of others so they thought they should have more power, more influence, more prestige, more whatever. So it is to address this situation that Paul writes.

   Now, 1 Corinthians 13 is most often heard, or misheard, in the context of a wedding and is used to describe the “perfect relationship” within the framework of a marriage. What is often missed, and perhaps actively ignored, is that this text was first written to a community that was having a very difficult time staying together. With that thought in mind, maybe that makes it a perfect text for a wedding! It is in the difficult realities of relationships and communities that the love described by Paul needs to be lived out in costly ways, and because of that dynamic this text holds promise for the gathered people of God this Sunday. But that said, against all popular opinion, this is not a passage about romantic love, but about a radical communal love that enables individuals to imagine life in a community where unity and difference can co-exist. So the task today is to offer a corrective to the common experience of this text, but more importantly, to help us envision a kind of love that can have such extraordinary power so as to create, sustain, and build Christian unity.
   In his commentary on this passage, theologian Brian Peterson writes, The Corinthians were actively pursuing some of the things that Paul mentions in the opening verses of chapter 13 such as speaking in tongues and knowing “mysteries.” There may be nothing wrong with such things in themselves, but if in the process people forget about loving their brothers and sisters, such things end up being worthless. 
Without love, it does not matter what budgets, buildings, or missional strategies we have. Such things do not give the church the shape that God desires. We may pursue various forms of spirituality, or proper doctrine, or activism in the name of justice. However, in our pursuit of these otherwise fine things, we must not forget that the church is called to be a community that practices love.”
   “The church is called to be a community that practices love,” he writes. And what does it look like to practice love. Paul suggests that IF we do all the right things or say all the right things, but we do it without a guiding sense of love, then we’re just more noise in the world. 
All the skills, all the gifts, all the knowledge in the world is empty if we don’t use them, share them, in the power of and pursuit of love. Even, he offers, if I give away everything I have, everything I own, total divestiture, in order primarily to feel good about myself - “look what I’ve done!” - rather than as an act of love - it’s all just meaningless showboating.

   Peterson points out that “love,” as used by Paul in this letter, “is the subject of 16 verbs in a row; it happens in every phrase. That may not come through clearly in English translations, where love is described by some rather static adjectives (“love is patient, love is kind”). Instead, Paul’s claims, [more clearly understood as it’s written in the original Greek,] are that love “shows patience” and “acts with kindness.” Here, love is a busy, active thing that never ceases to work. It is always finding ways to express itself for the good of others. 
The point is not a flowery description of what love “is” in some abstract and theoretical sense, but of what love does, and especially what love does to one’s brother or sister…”
   Love is….this is an action, not an emotion. 
This isn’t about the romanticism of a wedding or some other notion of romantic love - this is about doing something.
   Love is patient…a hard message in a world where instant gratification isn’t fast enough
   Love is kind…a message often lost in an online social networking world where kindness is often the first victim of our “right” to express ourselves or our freedom of speech, regardless of who or how it hurts someone else.
   Love isn’t rude, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t seek its own advantage…all of these speak of ways of being that seem to fly in the face of our modern “me first” society in so many ways.

   Paul writes to a congregation in Corinth that is tearing itself apart over what they believe are the most important gifts of the spirit, who has them, and what that means. It’s a power struggle within the church between those who speak in tongues and believe that’s the most important gift, those who have the gift of prophecy and think that the most important, and so on. 
It’s as though the UMW and the Choir went to war over whose work in the church was the most important. 
And Paul’s word would be that none of it is important at all if it isn’t done in a spirit of love.

   And we see this same idea play out in John’s gospel, written later still than Paul’s letter or Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. Here John quotes Jesus as saying, 
“IF you love me you will keep my commandments.” 
This is a conditional, defining statement by Jesus - it is an identifying mark of those who want to claim to be followers of Jesus. Again, Jesus ties the idea of love to an action - keeping his commandments. Now, you’ll remember last week when we talked about moral legalism in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, that in John, the only commandments Jesus gives to his disciples to follow is “love one another.” So later in John he writes of Jesus saying, “whoever loves me will keep my commandments…” The commandment Jesus gave in John’s gospel was simple - “Love one another as I have loved you.” In the synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we hear a more expanded version that comes down to “Love God and love neighbor.” 

   Heard then, within our 1967 setting of the “Summer of Love,” The Beatles’ words “All You Need is Love” sounds so simple on the surface, maybe even simplistic or naive. First Jesus and then Paul make clear to us that this “love” thing is not simple or easy at all. To love another requires not a hormonal emotional connection, but a physical, visceral action as sign of love - it requires us to DO something rather than to only FEEL something. 
And it requires us to do something for the other first, putting their needs ahead of our own. Free love in this context, unlike that of the Hippie movement, is not understood as a carnal exchange among strangers, but as the freely given love of God for all God’s children, shared within the community of God. 

   The last element that Paul describes in this litany of love’s activities is that “love never fails.” 
And as Peterson points out, “Paul names 3 things which are of central value to the church: faith, hope, and love… Faith will one day become sight, and hope will end in fulfillment. Love will still remain, however, because God’s love will not fall, fail, or falter. We are drawn into that love of God, and we are remade by that love so that we become lovers.”
   And he continues, “Paul never says that such love feels good, and this is where the typical use of this chapter goes off the rails. Such misunderstanding creates trouble not only for expectations regarding the day-to-day realities of marriage, but also for the realities of the church. Because of our disordered assumptions about what love actually is, we often act as though the mission of the church is to gather like-minded and likable people together. We think that in such a community it will be easy for us to love or, more honestly, to “feel the love.” But true love is not measured by how good it makes us feel. In the context of 1 Corinthians, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.”

   This letter, then, rather than a peaceful, poetic ode to the charms of Cupid’s romantic love, is a call to action. 
A call to work for, strive for, yearn for, a love that bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, is patient, kind and all the rest. This is not a message to be cross-stitched and hung on a wall to be dusted off when company comes, this a message to be taken to the streets, to the alleys, to the parks, to the underpasses, to the homeless shelters, to the food pantries, to the free meals, to the free stores. 
This is a message to be lived out, practiced, demonstrated, failed at and tried  and again. 
This is the gift that is given by the God who gives gifts, the gift of life and the gift of love. 

   One of the little known but enduring things that came from that first Summer of Love 50 years ago was this simple phrase, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”  And love asks of us, what will you do with this day? Will this day be just another day of competing, of debating, of scratching and storing up for yourself, or will this be the day you act out of love for another and feel the love returned? Will this, the first day of the rest of your life, be a day when you bemoan the requirements of love, or will it be the day that you open your heart, your mind, and your life to receive and share the gift of love we are given by God through Jesus Christ? The choice is yours - choose love. Amen.