What Can Love Do?

Holy Eucharist for Sunday, Proper 25, Year A
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI

Matthew 22:34-46

The culture of Jesus’ time and place, much like our own, was no stranger to the perils of partisan conflict. Today’s gospel opens in the middle of an argument between two established schools of Jewish thought: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

These two communities offer alternative interpretations of Judaism, in much the same way that different denominations offer alternative interpretations of Christianity today. Additionally, because there was no “separation of church and state” in the ancient world, the Pharisees and Sadducees also functioned as something like political parties in Judea. Imagine, if you will, a messy situation where The Episcopal Church functions as the primary meeting of the Democrats, while the Southern Baptists set the platform for the Republicans.

The Sadducees were a smaller group of wealthy elites who centered their worship on the sacrificial rituals of the Jerusalem Temple. Theologically, they accepted only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, as divinely inspired and authoritative. They did not believe in destiny, angels, or an afterlife. Politically, they sought friendly and peaceful relations with the occupying Roman government.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a somewhat larger group of the lower classes. Their worship emphasized the study of the Torah in synagogues under the tutelage of learned rabbis. In addition to the five books of the Pentateuch, Pharisees also accepted the oracles of the prophets, collections of wisdom literature, and the oral interpretations of rabbinical scholars. They believed that moral purity would reform their national life and convince God to send the Messiah, an anointed king who would liberate their people from foreign occupation and influence. The Pharisees went on to form the foundation of Judaism, as it is practiced today.

Together, the Pharisees and Sadducees were both thoroughly Jewish movements. As joint religious denominations and political parties, they advocated competing agendas for “God and country” in Judea during the time of Jesus.

Our gospel reading for today begins as Jesus is ending a debate with one member of the Sadducee party. A nearby Pharisee, a legal scholar, listens with great interest to this argument. “If Jesus is obviously opposed to the Sadducees,” he thinks, “then maybe he is a member of our party?” With this question in mind, he decides to put Jesus to a little theological test about the Jewish Scriptures.

“Rabbi,” he says, “which mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah is the greatest?”

Jesus responds by ushering his interlocutor into the heart of their shared tradition by referencing the Shema.

The Shema, in Judaism, is the foundational faith statement of monotheism:

“Shema Yisrael:” (Listen, O Israel:)

“Adonai Eloheinu,” (The Lord is our God,)

“Adonai Echad.” (The Lord is ONE.)

This declaration of oneness represents not only the heart of Jewish tradition, but the heart of reality itself, as Jesus and his fellow Jews understand it: That, beneath the unfathomable diversity of beings and events in the universe, is Sacred Oneness.

Mystics, from many different religious traditions, affirm this Oneness in ways that are remarkably similar to one another. Lao-Tzu, the Buddha, Rumi, and Meister Eckhart all describe a state of Non-Duality that includes and transcends all separations: self and other, left and right, light and dark, spiritual and secular. Spirituality, it seems, is the art of unifying opposites in transcendent wonder.

Neurologists have identified those parts of the human brain that allow us to lump together separate objects as parts of a unified whole. Their studies of dedicated monks and nuns have demonstrated that those parts of the brain are particularly active during periods of intense meditation, thus explaining those experiences of peace and unity that mystics have tried to express for millennia.

Physicists, in their study of the beginning of time, have likewise affirmed that the universe seems to have had its beginning in a Singularity of time, space, matter, and energy that exploded some 13.8 billion years ago in a cataclysmic event to which we now refer as the Big Bang.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisee in today’s gospel makes reference to this same Sacred Oneness at the heart of reality itself. The only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness, Jesus declares in the words of the Torah, is Love.

The greatest commandment in the Torah, according to Jesus, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” These words, adapted from Deuteronomy 6:5, appear in the Torah immediately after the verse which lays out the Shema for the first time. “The Lord is one,” Jesus says in effect, “and the only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness is love.”

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. For Jesus, love is not just the sappy feeling sensationalized in pop songs and rom-coms. For Jesus, love is not something you feel, but something you do. Love is action. Love is a verb.

This creates a problem: How does one show love to Love Itself? What could mere mortals possibly offer to a God who, by definition, already has and holds everything in the tender embrace of the Divine Self? The answer, according to Jesus, is simple: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This commandment comes from the Torah as well, from Leviticus 19:18. It comes on the heels of Moses’ teaching about vengeance: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This commandment to love one’s neighbor speaks directly to the problem of partisan conflict, which was as active in Jesus’ day as it is in our own. Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.” Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa (who has worshiped in this very church), said similarly, “There is no future without forgiveness.”

The commandment to love receives its most explicit and biting explication later in the New Testament, in the first epistle of St. John, chapter 4:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… 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. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Brothers and sisters, I put it to you today that the commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor are not separate, but a single commandment from our Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Way of Love moves at heart of everything Jesus said and did in his life on Earth. In the venerable words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, “If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.”

Notice that neither Jesus nor John, neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Archbishop Tutu, neither the Torah nor the Presiding Bishop puts any provisos or exceptions on their joint commandment to love.

I am as aware as each and every one of you that we have the misfortune of living in a moment when love seems more powerless and the people of this country seem more divided than ever.

What can love do when our elderly and most vulnerable neighbors are being stalked by an invisible predator that steals the air from their lungs while their families watch in horror from the other side of a reinforced glass window?

What can love do when the beautiful bodies of our black brothers and sisters are left bleeding in their beds and on the streets, full of bullet holes?

What can love do when temperatures rise and songs of praise to the Author of Life are silenced at the rate of a species every single day? What can love do?

Brothers and sisters, this is the very question that I put before this morning: What can love do?

The answer we give to this burning question is the only response that God is interested in hearing from us. It is the only offering we can make that is worthy of the name Worship.

Love, in all its living and active forms, is the embodied reality that has the power to overcome all the partisan divisions of Jesus’ day and our own. Love is the only appropriate response to the Sacred Oneness that gave birth to the universe.

Let us return to the biblical exhortations of St. John the Beloved, in chapter 3, verse 18 of his first epistle: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we go out into the world this week, let us honor that Sacred Oneness. In the words of St. John, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we catch ourselves in the mirror while shaving or brushing our teeth, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we relate to family and friends, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we interact with coworkers and classmates, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we converse with neighbors and enemies alike, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we read the news headlines and prepare to head to the polls next week, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

I close, once again, with these memorable words from Presiding Bishop Curry, which he borrowed from Jesus, who borrowed them from the Torah of his ancestors: “Brothers and sisters: love God, love your neighbor, and while you’re at it… love yourself!”

God is a Relationship

Click here to read the bulletin, including Scripture readings

Whatever else we want to say about God, we can at least say this:

God is all about relationships.

We can see that in the natural universe:

The relationship between our planet and our star is so finely tuned. If the earth were just a little closer to or farther out from the sun, or if it was just tilted a little more on its axis, life as we know it would be impossible.

The biosphere is so delicately balanced, the extinction of just a few species from the food chain can upset an entire ecosystem. A pastor friend tells me that, if bees continue to disappear (as they have been doing), we humans have only two years of life left.

We humans can share a special relationship with each other, when two people can come together in a special, intimate way that actually creates life.

We can see that God is all about relationships by looking at our Scriptures as well.

We can see it in today’s gospel: in the relationship between Christ and St. John the Baptist.

In the very first sentence of this reading, we see that Christ takes the initiative:

“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan”

And then the text says that John, after a brief conversation, gives his consent. This is very important because real relationships can only exist where consent is freely offered between two parties.

After that, the baptism takes place and something amazing happens:

“just as [Jesus] came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him”

I take this to mean that Christ could see into eternity, into the heart of everything; he could see how it all hangs together. And in that vision, Jesus sees the Spirit descend upon him like a dove and hears a voice say, “This is my Son, the beloved”.

Note the three figures in this vision: First, there is Jesus, the Son of God. Then there is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. Finally, there is the voice (presumably God the Father), saying, “This is my Son”. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is the first place in Scripture where the Holy Trinity appears.

For Christians, the Trinity is our core concept of God. The word itself never appears in Scripture (that was worked out a few centuries later by the Church Fathers and Mothers), but here is where we see the three persons together for the first time. We believe in one God who is three Persons. Not three Gods, not one God known in three ways, but one God in three Persons. The relationship between John and Christ actually opens a window, through which we can see the relational, Triune nature of God.

I know this sounds rather abstract, but let me bring it down to earth: God is a relationship. As St. John the Beloved put it in his first epistle, “God is love”. Relationships matter to God because God is a relationship. God is love itself.

This is good news for us in this world, where our relationships are in such trouble. Our broken relationships, at the personal and political levels, are often characterized by exploitation, manipulation, oppression, poverty, and violence.

There is nothing new about this. We can see it plainly on the news and in many of our families. It didn’t begin with Twitter, or the internet, or television, or the 1960s, or the sexual revolution. It began all the way back at the beginning, when our relational God created us to be in relationship with God and each other. But we withheld our consent. We broke relationship with God, and soon our relationships with each other began to break down as well.

But God never broke relationship with us. God came among us in the person of Jesus Christ to redeem the world and restore us to right relationship with God and each other.

That is why the Church today, as Christ’s Body on earth, calls Christians to tend to our relationships with family, neighbors, strangers, and even enemies. We are called to live the truth that relationships matter because God is a relationship.

God is love. This is why Jesus sums up all the commandments of the Bible in a single word: Love. Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. Likewise, St. Paul writes, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

St. John again:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16)

In other words, where there is love, there is God.

Whenever we swallow our pride and say “I’m sorry” to the spouse we’ve been fighting with, that is an act of worship to God. Whenever we are at a restaurant, and the waiter comes by with a refill, and we look up to meet that person’s eyes and say “thank you”, that is an act of worship. Whenever we march for justice and listen to the voices of the poor and oppressed, that is an act of worship.

Whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, or visit the sick and incarcerated, we are not just serving our neighbors, but Christ himself. Christ was very explicit about this:

“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.” (Matthew 25:40)

God is a relationship, therefore relationships matter. God is love, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. This is the truth that Christ and St. John the Baptist are driving home to us, through their relationship, in today’s gospel.

May we be the Christians who honor our relationship with God by honoring our relationships with each other in the world.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux on Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself


‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.

And this is right: for the one who shares our nature should share our love, itself the fruit of nature. Wherefore if people find it a burden, I will not say only to relieve their brother or sister’s needs, but to minister to their pleasures, let them mortify those same affections in themselves, lest they become transgressors. They may cherish themselves as tenderly as they choose, if only they remember to show the same indulgence to their neighbors. This is the curb of temperance imposed on you, O mortal, by the law of life and conscience, lest you should follow your own lusts to destruction, or become enslaved by those passions which are the enemies of your true welfare. Far better divide your enjoyments with your neighbor than with these enemies. And if, after the counsel of the son of Sirach, you go not after your desires but refrain yourself from your appetites (Ecclus. 18.30); if according to the apostolic precept having food and raiment you are therewith content (I Tim. 6.8), then you will find it easy to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, and to divide with your neighbors what you have refused to your own desires. A temperate and righteous love practices self-denial in order to minister to a brother or sister’s necessity. So our selfish love grows truly social, when it includes our neighbors in its circle.

But if you are reduced to want by such benevolence, what then? What indeed, except to pray with all confidence unto the One who gives to all people liberally and upbraids not (James 1.5), who opens the divine hand and fills all things living with plenty (Ps. 145.16). For doubtless the One that gives to most people more than they need will not fail you as to the necessaries of life, even as God has promised: Seek the Kingdom of God, and all those things shall be added unto you’ (Luke 12.31). God freely promises all things needful to those who deny themselves for love of their neighbors; and to bear the yoke of modesty and sobriety, rather than to let sin reign in our mortal body (Rom. 6.12), that is indeed to seek the Kingdom of God and to implore God’s aid against the tyranny of sin. It is surely justice to share our natural gifts with those who share our nature.

from On Loving God, Chapter 8

(Reblog) Book Review – A Time to Embrace: Same-Sex Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics (second edition)

Saints Sergius and Bacchus, companions and martyrs. Click the link on the picture to learn more about their lives.


Reblogged from the Presbyterian Outlook:

A Time to Embrace by William Stacy Johnson

Reviewed by Melissa Kirkpatrick

Johnson lays out the historical context of same-sex relationships from what we know of the practices in Rome and in Greece at the time of Paul, when such relationships were hardly consensual, to the scholarly work of the Middle Ages, where there is much evidence that profoundly close same-sex relationships (which may or may not have been sexual) went unquestioned by the church. What is clear in this history is that there was never a single way of approaching or dealing with same-sex relationships across time or place or faith.

Click here to read the full article


God is a Relationship

Dorothy Day. Image is in the public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

I hear a lot of folks talking lately about how the world isn’t what it used to be.  They’re worried about the decline of human society, the decay of public morals and values, and the emptying of mainline Protestant churches.  For many of these folks, these three series of events are related.  They say, “People just aren’t coming to church anymore, so society is going to pieces.”

A lot of people wonder why this is the case.  There are a lot of theories.  Some say it’s because of the cultural changes that happened during the 60s.  Some say that our country’s tolerance of religious diversity has left people in a state of moral and spiritual confusion.  Others say that our society’s addiction to busy-ness and constant entertainment has distracted people to the point where they just don’t even have time to think about church anymore.

Personally, I think some of these theories have valid points.  And I think the whole truth about the matter is probably bigger and more complex than any single theory can fully explain.  But there’s one theory that stands out to me more than the rest, if only because it’s the one I hear most often from people who don’t come to church.  And here it is (the number one reason most people give for not coming to church): “It’s hypocrisy of Christians who claim to believe that God is love but do not extend that love to other people.”

Isn’t that interesting?  When you actually go and ask people why they don’t come to church, they tell you: it’s not because of diversity, and it’s not because they’re too busy, and it’s not because of the 60s.  It’s because of Christians.  The author Brennan Manning once said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

As Christians, it seems that we don’t take our theology seriously enough.  We think we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength without loving our neighbors as ourselves, but Jesus calls FOUL on that play.  He says you can’t have one without the other.  If you try to separate them, you end up with something other than the God revealed in Jesus.

Central to our Christian faith is the belief that God is love.  Did you get that?  God is love.  Most people breeze right by it without thinking and end up with the wrong idea about who God is and how God works in the world.  What they tend to hear is “God is loving” (i.e. “God is basically a nice person”).  In other words, they think that the Old Man in the Sky (who made the world and controls everything that happens) is a nice guy.  But that’s not what the text says.  The text is taken from 1 John 4:16 and it says, “God is love.”

There’s a big difference between being loving and being love.  God is love itself.  God can be found in the dynamic interchange of energy between people who care about each other: family, friends, lovers, even enemies.  Wherever there is love, there is God.  In fact the full text of 1 John 4:16 reads, “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”  The Creator of the universe is not separate from it.  God is not “out there,” floating on a cloud or in some alternate dimension.  No, God is right here.  As the apostle Paul says in Acts 17, “In [God] we live, and move, and have our being.”  God is within us and all around us, wherever love is found.  God is love.  God is a relationship.

Our ancestors in the early Christian church came up with an interesting way of expressing this truth.  They left us with a kind of puzzle that could never be solved.  And they called it the Trinity.  According to the doctrine of the Trinity, we Christians believe in only one God who eternally exists as three persons: traditionally called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is both three and one, one and three.  Each person in the God-head is co-equal and co-eternal with the others.  There is no hierarchy or pecking order among them.

The doctrine of the Trinity has always been controversial.  In ancient times, Jews and Muslims accused Christians of being polytheists.  In more recent years, people have identified the sexism inherent in using exclusively male terms to describe the Father and the Son.  In any age, the Trinity comes across as confusing.  Many have tried to solve the puzzle, but all have failed.  So, this morning, I won’t even try to offer an answer to its question.  We’re going to let the mystery stand and focus instead on the implications of that mystery for our lives as Christians.

And just what are those implications?  Well, according to the mystery of the Trinity, our one God exists in a state of relationship between three persons.  In other words, God is a relationship.  God exists, not as an individual entity, but as the dynamic exchange of perfect love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Because of this, it suddenly makes sense to say that “God is love.”  God is love because God is a relationship.  Wherever love and compassion are established on earth, God is present.  “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”  That is the practical application of the theological doctrine of the Trinity.  That is where we begin to live what we believe and show ourselves to be either followers of Jesus or just another group of hypocrites.

The only way to faithfully testify to the presence of the Triune God in the world is through acts of love, not supposedly infallible announcements of dogma.  If God is a relationship, then we usher and invite people into greater spiritual awareness by being in relationship with them, regardless of whether or not they ever darken the door of our church.  Moreover, if God is a relationship, then we come close to God, not through dogma and rituals, but by intentionally engaging in relationships with the people and planet around us.

Jesus spoke about this very clearly in Matthew 25 when he said, “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.”    Offering food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, shelter to the homeless, friendship to the lonely, and justice to the oppressed are not simply good deeds that improve the reputation of the church in the community, they are our best way to participate in relationship with the Triune God.  God is a relationship, so relationships are the places where God is most fully known and experienced.

There is no one I can think of in the last one hundred years who lived this Trinitarian theology more fully than Dorothy Day, a Catholic activist who opened homeless shelters and soup kitchens for the unemployed workers of New York City during the Great Depression.  So remarkable was this woman, she was not content to simply found and fund a charitable agency for the poor, she moved into the shelter and ate the donated food with her clients, who she simply regarded as friends.  In them, Dorothy Day was seeking and serving the Triune God.

She wrote in 1937:

Every morning about four hundred men come to Mott Street to be fed. The radio is cheerful, the smell of coffee is a good smell, the air of the morning is fresh and not too cold, but my heart bleeds as I pass the lines of men in front of the store which is our headquarters. The place is packed–not another man can get in–so they have to form in line. Always we have hated lines and now the breakfast which we serve, of cottage cheese and rye bread and coffee has brought about a line…

The [Pope] says that the masses are lost to the Church. We must reach them, we must speak to them and bring them to the love of God. The disciples didn’t know our Lord on that weary walk to Emmaus until He sat down and ate with them. ‘They knew Him in the breaking of bread.’ And how many loaves of bread are we breaking with our hungry fellows these days–‘ 3,500 or so this last month. Help us to do this work, help us to know each other in the breaking of bread! In knowing each other, in knowing the least of His children, we are knowing Him.

This morning, I want to urge you toward similar action in your own life.  I invite you to participate in the life of the Trinity, to get caught up in the infinite whirlwind of perfect love that flows between the persons.  In that Great Love, incarnated in the myriad little loves that surround us every day, may you find God: not the monolithic “Old Man in the Sky” but the dynamic energy of love that pulses through all creation.  And, through you, may others come to believe in the God who is love.  May they find that God here in our church as they enter into relationship with a community of Christians who really do live as if they believed that “God is love, and all who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”  May it be so.

The Great Ends of the Church: Love Conquers All

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster): a distant relative of the legendary Phoenix? Image by Pierre Dalous. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster): a distant relative of the legendary Phoenix? Image by Pierre Dalous. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons,

Before I say anything else, I think it would be appropriate on this particular Easter morning to express thanks for the brave work of the men and women of the Boonville Volunteer Fire Department in their handling of the fire that destroyed part of downtown Main Street this week.

I don’t know if you heard, but there was a class of kindergarten students that was looking at a picture of a fire truck with its crew and trusty Dalmatian close at hand.  One student asked the teacher why fire trucks always traveled with Dalmatians.  The teacher didn’t know, so the kids began to speculate.  One said, “Maybe they help control the crowds.”  And another one said, “Maybe it’s just for good luck.”  But in the end they all agreed that the best answer came from the third kid who said, “They must use the dogs to find the fire hydrants.”

Like Dalmatians on fire trucks, there is so much in this world that we simply accept as present without asking why it’s there.  Take the church, for instance.  A lot of people go to church their whole lives without ever really asking why.  What is the purpose of the church?  Why is it here?  Is it just to keep the pipe organ and stained-glass window companies in business?  Is it just to give our pastor a place to bring all his corny jokes that no one else will laugh at?  Is it a civic organization where people can gather as a community to reflect on their beliefs and values?

According to our ancestors in the Presbyterian tradition, the church does have a particular purpose.  Actually, it’s a six-fold purpose.  It was most clearly delineated and written down a little over a hundred years ago by the United Presbyterian Church in North America, one of the predecessor denominations to our current national church: the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The statement written by our forebears is called The Great Ends of the Church and it reads as follows:

The great ends of the church are:

  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world

Now, I don’t expect you to remember all of these points at once.  But starting today, we’re going to spend some time with the great ends of the church over the next several weeks (not including next week, when I’ll be away from the pulpit).  One by one, we’re going to look at these related ends and ask ourselves why we are here.  My ultimate hope is that our discussion of the great ends of the church might lead us to explore questions about what it is that God might be calling our particular congregation to be and do in this community and the world at large.

Today, we’re going to look at the first great end of the church: The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

Now, that’s a mouthful of theologically loaded terms that don’t always conjure up the most positive mental images of the church.  When the average person hears church-folks talking about “proclaiming the gospel” and “salvation”, the first thing they tend to think of is proselytism (the active recruitment of converts to one’s religion).  In other words, they think of people going door to door with Bibles in hand, winning converts for Christ and saving souls for heaven.  At best, people see this kind of activity as misguided and self-seeking.  After all, aren’t these people just trying to grow the ranks of the church and fill the offering plate?  Most folks (understandably) would much rather be left alone from this kind of “gospel”.

So what else might we mean when we say that the first great end of the church is the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind?  Well, we’ll have to take a closer look at the words “gospel” and “salvation” in order to get a clearer picture about that.  The word “gospel” simply means “good news” and the word “salvation” comes from the Latin word “salve” which means “to heal or make well”.  So we’re really talking about some piece of good news that has the capacity to bring wellness to the entire earth community.  When I let that definition roll around in my head, I imagine a TV news bulletin interrupting regularly scheduled programming in order to inform the public about some momentous discovery, like a cure for cancer, for instance.

For Christians, we see the life of Jesus as representing just such an occasion of good news.  We see in him a way to heal the darkness, chaos, and brokenness of this world.  We hear it in his teachings.  We see it in his actions.  Most of all, we believe this good news to be embodied in the stories we tell about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Whether or not we take these stories literally, we see them as expressions of truth: the truth that the pure Love living in Jesus could not be silenced or held back by the hateful, violent, and power-hungry forces of this world.  No, this Love that he revealed to us is more powerful than all the crosses, all the bombs, and all the schemes of all the nations of the world.  Death itself is not strong enough to keep this Love down.  This Love is so powerful that we would even call it divine.  We would go so far as to say that the Love revealed in Jesus pulses in the nucleus of every atom, in the core of every star, and in the heart of every person.  No matter what you try to say or do to it, the divine Love of Jesus lives.

In other words: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

That’s it.  That’s the message of resurrection.  That’s the story of Easter.  That’s the gospel: the good news that brings wholeness and well-being to all.

The first great end of the church, the first reason why we exist at all, is to make this good news known to as many creatures as possible.  The Love we see in Jesus should be apparent in our words and deeds as well.  Our lives, as Christians, should make it easier for others to believe that Love does indeed conquer all (even death).  Every service, every prayer, every hymn, every sermon, every building, every service project, every committee meeting, every rummage sale, and every dollar raised or spent should be directed toward making this one truth more clear and visible to the world:

Love conquers all.

God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Can we say that our church currently embodies this truth in everything we do?  If not, how do you think we can do it better?  What concrete steps can we take toward that end?

How about your individual life?  Do people ever look at you and say, “Wow, that person’s life makes me want to believe that Love really does conquer all”?  If not, then what concrete steps can you take to make the reality of Love more apparent in your life?  Maybe it’s even something as simple as learning the name of your server in the diner where you eat lunch today?

There are bigger ways we can do this as well.  This Easter morning, our congregation is collecting the One Great Hour of Sharing offering, which will go to support national and international organizations that provide, disaster assistance, hunger relief, and self-development resources to people all over the world.  Grants funded by One Great Hour of Sharing go to support initiatives like the Water for Life project in the African country of Niger.  Since 2006, Water for Life has dug six large wells for drinking water, 85 small gardening wells, and ten water-retention pools.  “As a result,” according to the website of the Presbyterian Hunger Project, “19,892 people in 3,292 households, as well as 28,000 livestock animals, have benefited from improved access to potable water for drinking and food production.  Additionally, over 853 acres of land have been cultivated with food crops and over 4,942 acres have been reforested.”

This is Love in action, embodied at a distance for people we’ll never meet.

On a more local level, I’d like to draw your attention to the post-fire recovery effort currently underway at the Boonville United Methodist Church.  From the very beginning of this crisis, before the buildings had even stopped smoldering, the Methodist Church opened its doors as a command and resource center for victims.  Donations of food, clothing, and supplies have poured in from all over our community.

Rev. Rob Dean tells me the one thing they need most right now is people who can come down to help sort and distribute donations.  Starting Tuesday, I’ll be spending most of next week over there as well, lending a hand and assisting Rev. Dean with any pastoral care needs for the families.  You’re invited to come along as well.  We could really use the help.

I spent yesterday afternoon over there.  When we sat down to dinner last night, we had more food than we knew what to do with.  In that upper room together were displaced families, dedicated volunteers, exhausted firefighters, and two bewildered pastors who still had services to lead and sermons to write for Easter Sunday.  Looking around the room last night, I discovered this sermon.  I realized that I was witnessing resurrection in action, right before my eyes.  In the midst of these people: suffering, hugging, laughing, and eating together.  Within them and among them, new life was rising up from the ashes and taking flight like the Phoenix of Greek legend.

Friends, this is not just charity, nor is it simply a worthy cause.  This is the good news that brings wholeness and well-bring.  This is the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.  This is the first great end of the church.  It is why we are here.

The Greatest of These is Love

I’d like to tell you a story I heard several years ago about a church in crisis.  They were a relatively small church in a large, cosmopolitan city.  They were a young church, having only been planted a few years before, but had been around long enough to enter their second generation of leadership as their founding pastor moved on to another call and was succeeded by a popular, charismatic preacher.  The members of this church came from all across the ethnic and socioeconomic spectrum.  From the perspective of church growth marketing analysts, this place was set to be a gold mine!  They had everything: a prime location in a major urban center, a diverse membership, and a popular, dynamic preacher.  What could go wrong?  Well, as it turns out, there was a lot that could go wrong… and it did.

Now, my first thought would be: It must have been the pastor.  What did he do wrong?  He must have become embroiled in some kind of public scandal involving money or sex.  That’s all you really hear about from ministers in the media these days.  But no, it wasn’t the pastor.  In fact, their charismatic clergyman hardly shows up in this story at all.

In spite of everything they had going for them on paper, this church was struggling in reality.  In fact, things were going so badly, this church’s founding denomination was thinking about pulling the plug on the entire operation.

The reality was that this church was tearing itself apart from the inside out.  What started out as groups of like-minded friends had become rival factions in an all-out war for power and control of the church.  Their pious posturing was a thin veil over blatant hypocrisy.  This ongoing dispute between cliques became so all-consuming that the real problems facing the church couldn’t be addressed.

Newer members of the church were struggling with various spiritual and theological questions, but there was no one to help them search for answers.

Wealthy members of the congregation, primarily concerned with keeping up appearances, would intentionally schedule church suppers during times when they knew that the poorer congregants would still be at work.  By the time the latter group arrived at the suppers, there was often no food left for them.

At one point, it became publicly known that a prominent member of the church was tangled up in a scandalous affair (with his own stepmother, no less), but so much energy was being spent on dealing with the rival factions that the affair went unaddressed and this family was unable to receive the kind of attention and pastoral care they so desperately needed.

Outsiders and other church leaders were aghast when they heard about how bad things had become.  Some wondered whether this sorry mess of humanity could even be called a church anymore.  They were beginning to think that closing the church might even be the most compassionate option.

Instead of closing it down, the denomination decided to send in another pastor to help.  As it turned out the pastor they sent was the church’s founding pastor, who had left for another call some years before.  He had several insights to help them deal with their various crises, but the best thing he did for them was trace all their little problems back to a single big problem: Love, or the lack thereof.  The main problem was that these people just hated each other.

It was their mutual hatred for each other that consumed the members of this church from the inside out.  They couldn’t function as a church.  There was nothing anyone could do to fix that problem.  They had everything going for them: a great urban location, a dynamic super-pastor, and several wealthy financial supporters with deep pockets, but none of those things could make the church grow or stop it from dying if the members didn’t embody that single most important core value: Love.

None of it meant anything without Love.

Now, I want to pause for a moment and pull the curtain back on this church that I’ve been talking about.  I haven’t told you the church’s name or who the pastor was.  It’s not a church in our area or our denomination.  In fact, it’s not even a church that exists in our century.  The church I’ve been talking about is the first century Christian church in the Greek city of Corinth, founded by the apostle Paul himself.  He was that founding pastor who returned to help his former congregation in crisis.

The letter of advice he wrote to them is what we now call the book of 1 Corinthians in the New Testament of the Bible.  The most famous part of that letter is the section we read this morning: the Hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians 13.  This passage is most often read at weddings, where everyone looks great, music is playing, and love is in the air.  Most of us probably heard those words this morning and let them breeze right past us because they are so familiar and so associated with saccharine euphoria that we miss their real meaning completely.

These words, when lived in reality, are radical and revolutionary.  They have the power to transform the way we interact with one another and rescue the future for a community that most people have simply given up on.  This beautiful love poetry was not written for a wedding.  It doesn’t spring up from the same part of human experience that inspired Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.  There is nothing sweet or saccharine about these words at all.

These words about love arose out of conflict within a church that was bitterly divided against itself.  These words are Paul’s challenge to every rival clique’s claim to superiority over others.  Listen to his words again.  If you’ve heard them before, listen to their meaning for the first time:

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. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Can you hear the urgency in Paul’s voice?  He’s telling the Corinthians to stop acting like children and grow up.  These little spats that their cliques are having over church power simply don’t matter.  At all.  All their theological knowledge, their faith, their pledge cards, and their volunteer service to the church are rendered meaningless if they don’t know how to love each other.

Love and love alone makes a church.  And this love isn’t just some warm fuzzy feeling they get when they sing Amazing Grace or Kum Ba Yah.  This isn’t some hippy flower fest; this is the church of Christ.  In here, love only counts as real when it takes on flesh and blood in the actions of those who claim to possess it.

Love is patient.  Are you patient?  Love is kind.  Are you kind?  Love is not irritable or resentful.  Are you?  Love is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude.  Are you any of those things?  Love does not insist on its own way.  How often do you insist on getting your own way in a church conflict?

Is this making you uncomfortable?  It should be.  What Paul is talking about here is nothing less than a complete reordering of our priorities.  He’s not just trying to change the way we live, he’s trying to change the way we fight.

The Corinthian Christians had a rather skewed perspective on the fight that was tearing them apart.  They all saw themselves as heroes defending a battleground (i.e. the church) from dangerous enemies (i.e. their rivals).  In reality, they were not the heroes: they were the battleground.  God was the hero defending them.  And their so-called rivals?  They were not the enemy.  They were actually God’s allies in the fight for each other’s souls.

In truth, the Love that Paul wrote about was already present in each one of their hearts.  They were members of the same body: the body of Christ.  What was good for one was good for all.  There was no point to the rivalry then, because they were trying to divide something that couldn’t be divided.  The sooner they realized this truth, the sooner they would get over their petty little squabbles and get back to really being what a church should be: a community of people so full of love that it just naturally spilled over and into the surrounding community.  That’s how you define a healthy, growing church.  The pastor, the size, the building, and the budget are all completely secondary concerns.  Our first job is always to embody the love of Christ within our own lives, amongst each other, and eventually flowing out into the larger community.  When the people in this lonely world see that, they will be naturally attracted to it and will come from all over to see what it is that we have here.

What might that transition from hate to love look like?

It’s hard to say. “Love,” as Han Suyin said, “is a many splendoured thing.”  Love looks different when it takes on flesh and blood in the lives of different people.  I can tell you the stories of a couple of times in my life when I had to make that transition from hate to love.

Hate is a strong word, and I don’t use it lightly.  But in these two cases, I can honestly say that I really, actually came to hate my enemy.  The first was one of my seminary professors.  The second was a co-worker at my first job after seminary.  In both cases, I was the one in the right.  My enemy had hurt and offended me with words and deeds that I found demeaning and humiliating.  Time after time, I tried to reach out in friendship, but was repaid with cold indifference.  Eventually, I stopped trying.  I left them to their miserable little worlds and went on with my life.

But they didn’t leave me.  Their hostile presence was still firmly lodged in my mind, even though we managed to avoid each other most of the time.  I learned what it felt like to grow hard and bitter inside toward another human being.  All of our public interactions were polite, but I seethed inwardly with a hot hatred I’d never felt before.  Mutual acquaintances quickly learned to never mention their names in my presence because of the sharp reaction it would provoke in me.  I had a problem: a problem with hatred.  Jesus said that to hate another person is to murder that person in your heart.  I get that now because I’ve felt it.

But the irony is that my enemies weren’t being hurt by my hatred, I was.  That fire inside was burning me alive without ever touching them.  My hate was keeping me from fully becoming the person I was meant to be.  Even though I knew I was in the right, that knowledge gave me no relief from the bitterness.  Something had to change.

I thought, at the time, that what I needed to do was forgive my enemies, just as Jesus had done to those who were crucifying him.  I tried and I tried hard, over and over, again and again.  I didn’t want to be a person who wallowed in hate.  I kept telling myself, “I need to forgive him… I need to forgive him…” but I just couldn’t.

And then, one night, it hit me.  I was standing on the balcony of my apartment in Vancouver, seething with more bitter thoughts about my enemy.  I said to myself again, “I need to forgive him.”  And then, it felt like I heard a voice whisper to me from the very back of my mind, “No you don’t.  You need to ask forgiveness for yourself.”  I believe now that what I heard was the voice of God, speaking wisdom to my heart.

The fact is that I was the one who had let my righteous indignation turn into bitterness, not my enemy who had hurt me.  I was the one who had allowed hatred to change me into the kind of person I didn’t want to be.  I had tarnished my enemy’s reputation with harsh words spoken behind the back.  I wanted the whole world to know what he had done to me.  I wanted him to pay.  But the irony is that I was the one who was paying the price and reaping none of the benefits of vengeance.  Beneath my anger, I was just as scared and hurt as ever.

After that initial insight on the balcony, I quickly realized what my next step needed to be: I had to face my enemy and ask him to forgive me.  I had to let go and throw myself upon the mercy of the person I hated.  It wasn’t fun, but it was the only remedy that could ease the searing pain in my heart.

When the deed was said and done, in both cases, relief came.  I never became close friends with either of the men I previously hated, but the war was over.  I found peace within myself.  More importantly, I discovered that an internal blockage had been removed from my heart and I was able to love much more fully than before.  I wasn’t just able to love my enemy more fully, I was able to love myself and world more fully as well.  Love was taking on flesh and blood in me, transforming me into Love’s hands and feet in the world.

Asking my enemy to forgive me, even though I knew I was in the right, is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but it was worth it.

I think that’s the truth that Paul was trying to get across to the Corinthian Christians, who were so divided and hateful toward their fellow church members.  Paul wanted them to know that love is worth it because love is what lies at the center of reality.  God is love.  Therefore, our efforts to love one another are what make God’s loving presence more palpable to the rest of the world.  That’s our mission, as Christians.  That’s our church’s reason for existing.  If we’re not doing that, then we’re not a church, no matter how nice our building, how big our budget, or how handsome our pastor is.  Those things don’t make us church.  Love makes us church.

That’s all I really want to tell you today: Love one another.

Because I love you, because God loves you, and because there’s nothing you can do about it.

The Power of Love

Image is in the public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Image is in the public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

How do you know when you’re on a bad first date?

  • When you’ve been waiting at the restaurant for half an hour and she still hasn’t shown up yet.
  • When she pulls out a newspaper and starts reading it.
  • When she pulls out a cell phone and says, “Let me call my husband…”

Each and every one of these things happened to me at one point or another when I was still single.  Looking back, they’re kind of funny, but they didn’t seem so at the time (especially the last one).

There is something especially deflating about a first date that does not go well.  It takes the wind out of your sails in a way that few things can.  You put on your best clothes and your best behavior in an attempt to ultimately convince another person that you are worth loving.  When it doesn’t work out like you had hoped, it’s hard not to take that personally.  Your self-esteem usually needs some time to recover.

This doesn’t just happen in the dating world either.  Job interviews can be just as brutal in their own way.  You’re putting yourself out there, your future is on the line, but nobody wants to take a chance on you.  That kind of rejection stings to the core and leaves a mark on the surface.

Rejection is probably the most disempowering and disheartening experience a human being can go through.  It hits us right where we live and makes us feel like we aren’t worth anything.  No matter how old we are or how successful we appear to be in life, each and every one of us carries inside of us the pain of past rejection and the fear of future rejection.

This is true of everyone: from the washed-up wino under a bridge to the pop-star princess on TV.  I remember learning this as a teenager when I overheard a conversation one day with a girl who I thought was the prettiest and most popular girl in school.  She was telling someone how she would sometimes just sit in front of her mirror at home and cry because she felt so ugly.  I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  I thought for sure that this girl, of all people, must know what it’s like to be beautiful and loved by everyone, but I was wrong.  The pain and fear of rejection is universal among humans.

Saddest of all are those who experienced rejection so many times that they start to really believe that they’re not worthy of love or happiness in life.  These folks have started to internalize that message of rejection.  They think that’s who they are.  They think that’s what they deserve.  They think they’re nothing and that their lives are worth nothing.  So they treat themselves and others accordingly.

Personally, I can’t help but wonder whether this kind of broken heart might lie behind some of the many incidents of mass murder and random violence that have become so epidemic in our society?  If so, then I would humbly suggest that an effort to include the outcasts and befriend the loners might be more effective in preventing violence than our repeated (and unsuccessful) efforts to “watch out for those maniacs” or “keep an eye on those weirdoes.”  Internalized rejection is disempowering and dehumanizing to people.  There eventually comes a tipping-point when a rejected person becomes the kind of monster that others have made them out to be.

Rejection is powerful, but then again so is love.  Knowing that even one person cares is sometimes enough to make all the difference in the world.  It can even save a life.

I’ve seen what love can do in my life.  Having already mentioned some of my bad experiences in dating, I’d like to share one good one.  This single, ongoing good experience has been enough in my life to outweigh all those other bad dating experiences put together.  I’ve been married to an amazing woman for eight years.  We have laughed together, cried together, encouraged each other, and challenged each other.  Loving her and being loved by her has changed the way I live in this world.  I carry myself differently, I see myself differently, and even though Sarah and I might set each other off sometimes, we usually manage to somehow bring out the best in each other.  That’s what love can do.  That’s the power of love.

Jesus understood that power.  He had experienced it directly, in an ultimate sense.  When he was about thirty years old, he got involved with a radical movement started by his cousin, John.  Cousin John, who we all now know as John the Baptist, was a kind of revival preacher who lived a simple life in the desert and made extensive use of a Jewish practice known as tevilah (ritual washing).  Tevilah was (and still is) used for all kinds of religious and sanitary reasons in traditional Judaism.  John used it as a ritual sign of for Jews who wanted to recommit their lives to following the Torah.  John intuited that big changes were on the way for his people and he wanted them to be spiritually ready.

Jesus himself appears to have been attracted to John’s renewal movement.  Like many of his peers, he participated in the tevilah ritual (which our Bibles have conveniently translated baptism, from the Greek word for “immersion”).  But then something happened to Jesus that didn’t seem to happen to the others.  Luke tells us,

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.””

This ritual washing seems to have been a significant spiritual experience for Jesus.  It was the catalyst that set the rest of his life in motion.  This is the point where Jesus’ work of healing and teaching really gets started.  In a sense, Jesus’ baptism was the moment when he was ordained and commissioned to his ministry.

The part of this story that really stands out to me is the voice from heaven.  This voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This message is addressed directly to Jesus himself.  The voice calls him “Beloved,” which I take to be significant.

I think about those times in my own life when I faced a scary challenge and my wife said to me, “I love you, sweetheart.  I have faith in you and, no matter what happens, I promise we’ll get through this together.”  I can tell you that, when I hear that from her, I find an inner strength I didn’t know I had.  Love is empowering, no matter where it comes from.  Spouses and partners can affect each other in that way.  We can do the same as friends, family, parents, teachers, and bosses.  We encourage each other.  Have you ever thought about that word?  Encourage.  It comes from the Latin en (into) and cor (heart).  We “put heart/strength into” one another.  When Jesus was baptized and heard that voice from the sky saying “You are my Son, the Beloved,” I believe he was being en-couraged: the very heart of who he was and what he would do was being put into him at that moment.  I believe it was then that Jesus discovered the depths of inner strength that would allow him to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and speak such bold words of truth to power.  Whatever else we might believe about him, we can say that Jesus was a person who felt himself to be empowered by the ultimate Love that springs up from the very heart of reality: the sacred energy that we Christians name God or Holy Spirit.

The same Spirit that empowered Jesus also lives in us.  The same energetic force that catalyzed the Big Bang also animates our brains and bodies.  The flame that burns in a hundred million stars is also shut up in our bones, sparking our creativity and setting our hearts on fire to imagine what might be possible.  After 13.75 billion years of preparation, fine tuning, and evolution, the universe has finally given birth to us: you and me.  We have been gifted with unprecedented knowledge, opportunity, resources, and power to shape the future of the world.  Life itself has placed these gifts into our hands as if to say, “You are my beloved sons and daughters.  I made you, I love you, and I believe in you.”  No less than Jesus, you and I are empowered people.

We call it a miracle when we read about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with loaves and fishes, but we have that power too.  According to the World Food Programme, one dollar will feed four children for a day in a developing country.  This means that we could feed 5,000 people for only $1,250.  Even our little country church could manage that much miracle.  On Christmas Eve 2011, our congregation answered a cry for help from Thea Bowman House, an affordable daycare center in Utica whose funding was being slashed by the county government.  Closure seemed imminent.  This would have forced dozens of parents to leave the workforce and go on welfare because they couldn’t afford full-time daycare without assistance.  People from our church raised $1,000 that Christmas Eve and sent it to that program.  I ran into their director several months later, who told me that, thanks in part to our contribution, they managed to weather the storm without closing their doors.  What’s even more amazing is that they did it without having to drop services to a single family.  I call that a miracle!

We call it a miracle when we read about Jesus healing the sick, but we have that power too.  Our congregation recently finished paying off a $4,500 pledge to Presbyterian Homes & Services in New Hartford to help build the new Parkinson’s Residence.  We’ve been told that this program is the first of its kind and will lead the nation in the fight against Parkinson’s disease with state-of-the-art technology.  Just a few weeks ago, at our most recent Christmas Eve service, our little congregation took up a special collection of $1,420 that was sent to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to help with the cleanup effort in New York and New Jersey after the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy.  Immediately after the storm, PDA set up emergency shelters and food distribution sites for the victims.  Since then, PDA has continued to work with churches and send down teams of volunteers to help with the long-term cleanup and recovery.  I call that a miracle too.

These are your miracles.  This is the power of what Love can do.  It causes us to think outside the box and reach deep down inside to find resources of strength and generosity we didn’t even know we had.  It’s true that the sharp sting of rejection and the dull ache of loneliness can be felt in all corners of this hurting world, but the caress of love can be felt as well.  The same Spirit that empowered Jesus’ ministry inspires ours as well.  The same voice from the heavens that spoke to Jesus still whispers in our hearts, calling us beloved children.  I pray that our lives will continue to echo the sound of that loving voice to this lonely world, saying to it: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Be blessed and be a blessing!

And I just couldn’t resist adding this video to the blog post:

Seeing With the Eyes of the Heart

Morpheus, a character from ‘The Matrix’ who introduces people to “the real world” by inviting them take a red pill. “If you take the red pill,” he says, “you stay in Wonderland and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Genesis 50:15-21

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

Excerpt from God Has A Dream

Dear Child of God, I am sorry to say that suffering is not optional.  It seems to be part and parcel of the human condition, but suffering can either embitter or ennoble.  Our suffering can become a spirituality of transformation when we understand that we have a role in God’s transfiguration of the world.  And if we are to be true partners with God, we must learn to see with the eyes of God—that is, to see with the eyes of the heart and not just the eyes of the head.  The eyes of the heart are not concerned with appearances but essences, as we cultivate these eyes we are able to learn from our suffering and to see the world with more loving, forgiving, humble, generous eyes.

I have to confess that I really get a kick out of those movies and TV shows whose plots are built around the premise that the everyday “normal” world we all inhabit is a hollow fantasy and the “real” world is way more intense and exciting than most people can imagine.  I went to college in the late 90s and the movie that most exemplifies this idea for people my age is The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves.  In this movie, the “normal” world turns out to be a computer simulation used by evil robots who are trying to control the minds of the human race.  The main character, a regular guy with a boring job in the beginning, turns out to be a hero with super-powers who is destined to save humanity from the robots.

Another example is the TV show Weeds.  This show takes place in sunny, suburban California, where a soccer mom named Nancy is trying to make ends meet for herself and two kids.  But the deep, dark secret is that Nancy is actually selling marijuana.  The show follows Nancy as her life drifts farther and farther away from the world of PTA meetings and white picket fences and into the criminal underworld of gangsters and drug dealers.

What all of these movies and shows have in common is the idea that the “real” world is somehow darker and seedier than the “normal” world.  Wesley Snipe says it like this in the movie Blade: “You better wake up. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it – the real world. And if you wanna survive it, you better learn to pull the trigger!”

Sounds pretty intense, doesn’t it?

I think these stories tend appeal to people because they reflect, in a metaphorical way, the experience of disillusionment that everyone goes through in the process of growing up.  When we were young, our parents tried to shelter us from the harsh realities of life.  We do the same for our kids and grandkids.  Are there any good parents who don’t worry about the amount of gratuitous sex and violence their kids see on TV?  I doubt it.  We instinctively want to protect our kids from being exposed to those realities too soon, even though we all know our kids will eventually see them anyway, in spite of our best efforts.

So, why do we try to shield them?  Why, instead, do we bring them to church and enroll them in Sunday school where they can learn the stories of the Bible and the basic beliefs and values of our faith?

There are many out there who argue that we are simply trying to delay the inevitable.  They would say that we are trying to keep our kids locked up in a fantasy world that’s “just a sugar-coated topping” in the words of Wesley Snipe.  They would say that we parents are pining for our lost innocence and therefore trying to prevent that loss from happening to our kids.  Afraid of reality, they say, we try to keep ourselves and our children imprisoned in a fantasy world where everything is fine and everyone is happy all the time.

Religion, according to these folks, is the ultimate enforcer of the fantasy world.  Karl Marx, the philosopher who founded the idea of Communism, called religion “the opiate of the masses.”  Faith in God, he said, was part of the fantasy world.  The real world, according to Marx, was a struggle to the death between the haves and the have-nots.  Religion, he said, was one of the tools that the haves used to keep the have-nots in line.  Similarly, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously declared that “God is dead,” considered virtues like compassion and humility to be part of the morality of the weak.  According to Nietzsche’s thinking, might makes right.  The only real winner is the superman who rises above the masses and imposes his will upon his fellow human beings.  Power, according to Nietzsche, is the only real morality.  It should come as no surprise then, that Nietzsche’s number one fan in the twentieth century was a man named Adolf Hitler.  Nazism was basically just Nietzsche’s philosophy in practice.

Both Marx and Nietzsche (the founders of Communism and Nazism, respectively), as materialist philosophers with a cynical edge, believed they had found the real world beneath the surface of everyday “normal” reality.  Each one thought he possessed the secret knowledge that held the key to history.  And you know what?  They were right… to a point.

They were right in observing that the happy world of easy answers, black & white morality, and “happily ever after” fairy tale endings is ultimately a fantasy constructed by people who want to shield themselves and their kids from the harsh realities of real life.  They were right in observing that many people use religion as a means of enforcing belief in the fantasy, threatening hellfire and damnation to those who question or doubt the fantasy’s validity.  They were right in guessing that truly mature people are those who can face the darkness of reality and see this complicated world for what it really is.  They were right in those things.

But they were also wrong.  They were wrong insofar as they believed that they had fully sounded the depths of reality.  They were wrong insofar as they presumed that this new level of consciousness they had uncovered was the final one.  They were wrong, not because they went too far in their quest for the truth, but because they didn’t go far enough.

As a person of faith, I believe there is another level of reality, of which Marx and Nietzsche were apparently unaware.  The existence of this level of reality can be neither proved nor disproved by philosophy.  Reason can lead us only to the point of possibility, at which point each of us must then freely choose for ourselves what we will accept as the more probable truth.

The world I see beneath the so-called “real” world of harsh realities is characterized by the presence of justice and compassion.  Hindus call this reality “Brahman.”  The ancient Greeks called it “Logos.”  Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout history have traditionally identified this reality as personal and called it “Adonai,” “Allah,” or “God.”

God, so we say, is the one “from whom, through whom, and to whom” all things come.  It is in God that “we live, move, and have our being.”  For us, God is the mysterious “all in all” at the heart of the universe.  And what is the character of this ultimate reality?  We say that it is love.  “God is love,” as it says in the Bible.  How do we know this to be true?  We don’t, in an absolute sense.  We trust it to be true, however, because of what we have experienced in and through the person Jesus of Nazareth.

Looking at the life of Jesus, we experience something that Christians for millennia have chosen to accept as a revelation of God, the ultimate nature of reality.  Because of Jesus, we choose to believe that God is love.  We see it in the way that he drew our attention to flowers, birds, sunshine, and rain as evidence of God’s providential care.  We hear it in the parables he told about the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  We feel it in the way he touched the unclean lepers and welcomed outcast sinners to dine at his family table.  Above all, we encounter it in the way that he died: forgiving his enemies and entrusting his spirit to God’s care.  Because of this, we say, “This is love.  This is ultimate reality.  This is what God is like.”  Because of this, the cross of Christ has become the central symbol of our faith.  And, because of this, we refuse to believe that death can have the final word over such love, so we celebrate Easter, the central holiday of our faith.  We tell stories of how, after Jesus’ death, some women came to his grave to pay their respects.  Upon their arrival, they found the tomb empty and the stone rolled away.  Then an angel suddenly appeared and asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He is risen.”

Can we prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that these things actually happened?  No.  But we believe them to be true because the love we see in Jesus leads us to believe that “love is strong as death” and is the creative power that gave birth to the universe.  The belief that “God is love” is the ultimate truth that “was from the beginning, that we have heard, that we have seen with our eyes, that we have looked at and touched with our hands” in the person of Jesus.  We can’t prove any of this.  The truth of it can’t be forced on anyone.  It must be freely chosen.

We are free to choose whether we will confine Jesus and his message of love to the annals of history or see him as our living window into the ultimate nature of reality.  This is what Desmond Tutu means when he talks to us about “seeing with the eyes of the heart” in this week’s chapter of God Has a Dream.

This new way of seeing, Tutu says, changes things.  It changes the way we look at Jesus, the way we look at others, the way we look at ourselves, and the way we look at the world.  Archbishop Tutu says:

Many people ask me what I have learned from all of the experiences in my life, and I say unhesitatingly: People are wonderful.  It is true.  People really are wonderful.  This does not mean that people cannot be awful and do real evil.  They can.  Yet as you begin to see with the eyes of God, you start to realize that people’s anger and hatred and cruelty come from their own pain and suffering.  As we begin to see their words and behavior as simply the acting out of their suffering, we can have compassion for them.  We no longer feel attacked by them, and we can begin to see the light of God shining in them.  And when we begin to look for the light of God in people, an incredible thing happens.  We find it more and more in people—all people.

There is another story in the Bible of a person who was able to look past his own disillusionment and “see with the eyes of the heart.”  I’m talking about the story of Joseph, from the Old Testament book of Genesis.  Joseph, you may remember, was his father’s favorite son.  This fact made his brothers green with envy to the point where they faked his death and sold him into slavery.  Later on, Joseph was falsely accused of rape by his boss’ wife and ten thrown into prison to rot.  Much later, after a few providential run-ins with royal officials, Joseph was freed from prison and appointed to what we might call the Vice Presidency of Egypt.  It was at this point in the story, in the midst of a severe famine, that Joseph’s brothers show up again, this time groveling and begging for food, not realizing who they were talking to.  This would have been the perfect opportunity for revenge.  No one would have blamed him for holding a grudge, but that’s not what happened.  In this story, after telling his brothers who he was, Joseph wept with them and forgave them.  He said to them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”.

Joseph knew all about disillusionment.  His fairy tale dreams were shattered at an early age.  He was well aware that, beneath the world of his childhood dreams, reality was a lot more complicated.  However, unlike Marx, Nietzsche, and the producers of those movies I mentioned, Joseph never stopped searching for that presence of justice and compassion at the heart of the universe.  I think it’s pretty clear that he must have found, or at least glimpsed, what he was looking for.  Somehow, he was able to look past the darkness and into the light beyond.  This way of seeing with the eyes of the heart brought Joseph to the point where he was able to forgive those who had done such unforgivable things to him.  He was even able to see the hand of providence at work at work in his circumstances, saying, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

Desmond Tutu tells us the story of another modern-day Joseph who was able to overcome injustice and let it shape him for the better.  He writes:

Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison, eighteen of them on Robben Island breaking rocks into little rocks, a totally senseless task.  The unrelenting brightness of the light reflected off the white stone damaged his eyes so that now when you have your picture taken with him, you will be asked not to use a flash.  Many people say, “What a waste!  Wouldn’t it have been better if Nelson Mandela had come out earlier?  Look at all the things he would have accomplished.”

Those ghastly, suffering-filled twenty-seven years actually were not a waste.  It may seem so in a sense, but when Nelson Mandela went to jail he was angry.  He was a young man who was understandably very upset at the miscarriage of justice in South Africa.  He and his colleagues were being sentenced because they were standing up for what seemed so obvious.  They were demanding the rights that in other countries were claimed to be inalienable.  At the time, he was very forthright and belligerent, as he should have been, leading the armed wing of the African National Congress, but he mellowed in jail.  He began to discover depths of resilience and spiritual attributes that he would not have known he had.  And in particular I think he learned to appreciate the foibles and weaknesses of others and to be able to be gentle and compassionate toward others even in their awfulness.  So the suffering transformed him because he allowed it to ennoble him.  He could never have become the political and moral leader he became had it not been for the suffering he experienced on Robben Island.

All of us are bound to become disillusioned in the process of growing up.  That much is inevitable.  What is not inevitable is how we will respond to our disillusionment.  Will you halt your search for truth with those cynics who say “God is dead” and “might makes right”?  Or will you continue to follow the living Christ ever deeper into the heart of reality where you can experience firsthand the love of God giving birth to the universe?

My prayer is that we would all choose to see with the eyes of the heart, that we would all come to know this eternal love for ourselves, and that we would all be forever transformed by that experience.