Sunday, December 22, 2013

Love All

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This was the concluding message on the Advent Conspiracy.

Several years ago there was a survey done of parents of teenage children who were attending church.  There were asked a series of questions, but one of those was what events in the lives of their children might make it likely that they would stop attending church.  The number one answer of parents of teenage girls, was for their daughter to become pregnant, and the number one answer for parents of teenage boys, was for their son to be arrested.  I can understand the sentiment behind those answers as they are both less than ideal situations, ones that leave at least a hint of embarrassment and shame.  I can remember that what most struck me about those poll results was how incongruous those results were with the God we worship.  I know that there are churches in which if that was to happen, that many members of the church would turn on those parents or shun them, because that’s just not what happens in the church, but what they have forgotten was that Mary was maybe no older than13-14 when she became pregnant and married Joseph, in other words she was a teenage mother.  I am sure that was shame and embarrassment in Mary’s family, and perhaps some shunning as well.  For a young girl to become pregnant outside of marriage, or for any girl, was a violation of Jewish law, punishable by death.  We are told that when Joseph found out she was pregnant that he wanted to put her away quietly, that is not bring her to public shame, but instead married her after being told what to do by an angel.

So we worship Jesus the son of a teenager mother, and we also worship Jesus who was arrested, tried, found guilty and executed by the state, that is he was a criminal in the eyes of the state and all those who were concerned with upholding law and order.  And so it makes me really wonder about us as a church, about us a Christians, about us as disciples, especially at this time of the year, that parents of teenage children might not feel welcome if their daughter were to become pregnant or their son was to be arrested  Have we so boxed in and constrained the gospel message that it’s become too safe, too palatable?  Have we made Jesus like this this bendable figure, lovely to look at and delightful to play with, but no longer dangerous or radical?  The very symbol we use, that we look at every Sunday, that we wear around our necks, is the means of execution.  Have we sanitized the cross, or lost the scandal of the cross, as Paul said?  And then I wonder, what is the gospel, the good news that we are proclaiming if that is the case?

Today we complete our discussions about the Advent Conspiracy with our concluding session on loving all.  But like the other areas, this requires some unpacking about what that means, before we can talk about what it looks like.  So first what is love?  That’s one of those words we like to throw around, some of us have probably used it some already today, “oh, I love this song,” maybe, “I love Christmas,” or “I love Christmas cookies.”  This week when I was picking up the poinsettia, the woman at the nursery was talking about how much she loved veal, and she said, and I couldn’t make this up if I tried, “I know I’m not supposed to because it’s little calves, but I can’t help it, I just love veal.”  Some of you might even be saying, “I would love it if John would stop talking about the advent conspiracy.”  Love is one of those words we use a lot, but maybe not necessarily the way we want to use it, or not based on what it actually means.  A number of years ago, a book came out that listed answers that children gave when asked to explain what love is.

“When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That's love."  Says Rebecca age 8.   “Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs,” says Chrissy age 6. Mary Ann, who was 4 said, “Love is when your puppy licks your face even when you left him alone all day.”  I’m much more of a cat person, and don’t really like don’t licks especially on my face, but I understand the sentiment.  This is one of my favorites, “Love is the most important thing in the world,” says Greg, age 8, “but baseball is pretty good too."  And then there are the ones from the mouths of babes that give you pause.  “You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget,” says Jessica, age 8.  “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different.  You just know that your name is safe in their mouth,” Billy age 4.  "If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate," says Nikka age 6.  “Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen,” Bobby age 7.  I don’t think I could have said that any better.  But really as it turns out that defining love is not easy, because we more define it by how we see it or don’t see it in the world, rather than words to describe it, and perhaps for us as Christians the best definition comes from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.   Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end….  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Some scholars argue that love here is actually not the right translation; instead it should revert to the old King James version that uses the word charity, because when we think of love we often only equate it to emotions or feelings, and that’s a portion of love, but not love in its entirety.  This love, the love that Paul is referring to is a love of action, of being in the world.  That is the love of Christmas.  It is what love looks like.  For God so, what?, loved the world, that he sent his only son to us.  It wasn’t just a feeling of emotion for the world, but God did something about it, this is love at action in the world, but this too is a special kind of love in how it manifested itself.  Going back to a passage we heard from Philippians a few weeks ago, Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”  So what does love look like for God?  It’s humbling yourself; it’s thinking of others, it’s giving of yourself.  It’s patient and kind, it is not envious or boastful or arrogant it rude, it does not insist on its own way, nor does it rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things; love never ends.

But what is most amazing about this love is not only how it came into the world, but why it was given, and that is because the world was broken and needed to be redeemed.  What we see time and time again in scriptures, in both the Old and New Testaments, is God telling, asking, commanding people to do things, and then having them go in exactly the opposite direction.  We are a stubborn and hardhearted people, and God could have easily said, as the famous scene with Peter Finch in the movie Network said, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.”  That would probably be our response.  I know that’s my response when Samantha or Abigail misbehave, I have a tendency to yell and send them to their room, not really the love that Paul is talking about, or the love that God demonstrates, and it’s probably a lot more like all of us.  But what is God’s response?  It’s not to punish or to scream and yell, it’s to send Jesus and hope for the best.  Jesus tells a parable commonly known as the parable of the evil tenants, in which an owner plants a vineyard and then loans it out to tenants, but when he sends his servants to collect the rent, some are beaten and some are killed, but none of them are given what is due to the owner, and so the owner decides to send his own son, saying maybe they’ll listen to him, but of course they don’t.  what kind of owner would do that?  What kind of owner knowing what has happened in the past would continue to extend grace and mercy and forgiveness?  God who demonstrates to us what this love looks like, and it’s not the love of a feeling, but the love of action.  That’s what God is doing for us at Christmas.  So we are to love like God, and whom are we to love?  We are to love all.

And this might be even harder than simply loving, because when God says that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, God extends that to the widest group of people as possible, and our understanding of who is our neighbor includes not just the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which we have to remember that the Samaritans were enemies of the Israelites, it’s Jesus affiliating with a syro-Phoenician woman, another enemy, it’s Jesus associating with Roman soldiers and tax collectors, it’s Jesus associating with prostitutes and lepers, it’s Jesus associating with sinners and others who are clearly outside the bounds of acceptability by Jewish law, and it’s Jesus being worshipped by shepherds and magi, the rabble and the foreigners.  What we are told, more importantly what we are shown, is that we are to love those that God loves, which is everyone, and let’s be completely honest that’s hard to do.  In the Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima says that it’s easy to love people in general, in the abstract, but it’s impossible to love them in the concrete.  Well maybe if some were in concrete it would be easy to love them.  Let’s be honest it’s hard to love people that we don’t like, and yet that is what God is calling us to do.  It’s not enough to love God with all that we have and all that we are, but we must also love each other, everyone, with all that we have and all that we are.  We are called to love all.  And why are we called to love?  Because we were loved first.  To live out the Christmas story, we have to live out love to the world.

People tend to know church’s for what they do or what they don’t do.  It’s not enough for us to be sitting here on this corner oblivious to the world around us, who and what is God calling us to be?  If we were to go around the neighbor and asked people what they know about this church, what would they say?  What would we like them to say?  What do we want this church to be?  How do we want to be known?  Those are the questions that we not only need to ask, but that we need to answer.  How are we going to understand what God is calling us to be?  How are we going to worship fully, spend less, give more and love all, not only at Christmas, but throughout the year?

What Christmas should remind us is that God’s ways are not our ways.  God conspired to subvert what the Roman empire said was important, that the emperor was not savior, that the emperor was not Lord, that the empire did not bring peace, but that Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, saves, is Lord and brings not only peace, but hope and joy and love, and that God offers this not just to some, that God gives this gift not just to some, but that God gives it to all, to the world and to you and to me.  We are called not just to tell the story of Christmas, but more importantly we are called to live the story of Christmas.  We are called to live it today, we are called to live it Christmas Day, we are called to live it every day.  Ralph Waldo Emerson was reported to have said that he couldn’t hear what people said because their actions spoke too loudly.  We are called to proclaim not the kingdom of can I have just one more, we are called to proclaim the kingdom of God, the kingdom of love and peace which shall be for all people.  We are called to receive the good news of the angels, to come and worship at the foot of the manger and then, like the shepherds, to go and proclaim it to the world, rejoicing and singing, Glory to God in the Highest and on earth good will to all.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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