God Loves You As You Are

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.

We’re in week 3 of our summer series: God Has A Dream

based on the book by Desmond Tutu

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

I John 4:7-21

Excerpt from the book:

Dear Child of God, in our world it is often hard to remember that God loves you just as you are.  God loves you not because you are good.  No, God loves you, period.  God loves us not because we are lovable.  No, we are lovable precisely because God loves us.  It is marvelous when you come to understand that you are accepted for who you are, apart from any achievement.  It is so liberating.

We too often feel that God’s love for us is conditional like our love is for others.  We have made God in our image rather than seeing ourselves in God’s image.  We have belittled God’s love and turned our lives into an endless attempt to prove our worth.  Ours is a culture of achievement, and we carry over these attitudes to our relationship with God.  We work ourselves to a frazzle trying to impress everyone including God.  We try to earn God’s approval and acceptance.  We cannot believe that our relationship with God, our standing before God, has got nothing to do with our performance, our works.

Someone has said: “There is nothing you can do to make God love you more, for God already loves you perfectly and totally.”  But more wonderfully, there is nothing you can do to make God love you less—absolutely nothing, for God already loves you and will love you forever.

I’ve been told more than once that, practically speaking, every preacher really only has one sermon inside of him/herself that gets preached over and over again from ordination until retirement.  I don’t know if that’s actually true, but if it is, and if I get to pick what that sermon is, then I think would pick something like this: “God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Those of you who worship with us regularly are probably chuckling to yourself right now, because that’s how we end our sermons here every week.  I don’t mind admitting that it’s almost like a kind of slogan.  Hey, if you’re gonna have a slogan, it might as well be something like that, right?

But sometimes, I get a little scared that we use it so much that it loses its meaning for us.  God’s love is probably the single most overlooked of all the divine attributes.  It’s usually the first thing that kids learn in Sunday School: “Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so.”  We hear it so often at church that we take it for granted as a basic part of our theology.  We never let the truth God’s love seep into us and soak us to our very bones.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we took showers in the same way that we reflect on the love of God?  We’d step behind the curtain and turn the water on for all of five seconds and then get out to dry.  If a person just did that every day, could he or she honestly say that he or she had “bathed” and was “clean”?  No, we wouldn’t say that.  Would you want to sit beside that person at church?  No, I wouldn’t either.  But, if that’s the case, why then would we expect people to want to come and sit beside us in our churches when we Christians, who claim to believe that “God is love”, don’t ever give that love more than five seconds of tacit consideration in our weekly liturgy?  Can we really say that we’ve “soaked” our souls in God’s unconditional love?

This morning, I want to invite you to go deeper with me into this mystery.  I want us to spend some time kicking back together in the Jacuzzi of divine grace.  We’ll know that we’ve been in there long enough when it starts to change us.  In the same way that soaking in water wrinkles our skin and makes us smell like soap or chlorine, soaking in God’s love changes the way we “smell” to the world.

As Archbishop Tutu points out in the book, we live in a society that thinks of itself as a “meritocracy”.  The American Dream says that anyone who works hard and does what is right can reach the top of the ladder of success.  To be fair, there is something very liberating in this ideal.  In ages past, you had to born into an aristocratic family in order to have access to resources and opportunities.  There are some who would argue that we still live in such a society.  But, in a conscious philosophical sense, America refers to itself as “the land of opportunity”, where anyone can potentially become the President or an astronaut, if they want it and work hard for it.  This is a good ideal to have.  It speaks volumes about the American commitment to liberty and equality.  As my dentist once observed, “The United States is the first country in history to be founded on a philosophy rather than an ethnicity.”

However, even when this philosophical system is functioning properly (which isn’t all the time), it can still leave us with a conscious or subconscious disdain for the “losers” and “failures” of the world.  Even though we know better, we often assume that those who are poor must somehow deserve their suffering.  We don’t like handing out our spare change to homeless people because we think “they’ll just spend it all on booze or drugs.”  We don’t like hearing about people on welfare because we think they might be somehow “cheating the system” while the rest of us subsidize their laziness.  Well, I’ve spent lots of time with people who are homeless or on welfare.  Yes, some of them do abuse drugs and others do stay at home when they are physically capable of working, but not all of them do so.  Many really need the extra help that they receive.  In fact, most of them actually need a whole lot more help than they’re currently getting.  I’ve also discovered that even those who are “abusing the system” in one way or another are doing so for reasons that are more complicated than mere laziness.  Having listened to their stories on more than one occasion, I cannot say with any degree of certainty that I would not being doing the exact same thing that they are doing, given the right circumstances.

Our American meritocracy inclines us to look down on those who fail in life.  “They made their own bed,” we say, “so let them lie in it.”  But I don’t think we often stop to think and realize that, for many of them, that bed is a deathbed.  Many of them are so caught up in cycles of poverty or addiction that they can no longer “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”  When we dismiss them as worthless, we are functionally taking away their basic human dignity and saying to them, “You don’t deserve to live.”  These children of God, our brothers and sisters, are being given the death penalty for their mistakes.  Those who snort, “Just get a job, you lazy bum” as they pass by are casting themselves in the role of executioner.

I recently heard a rant by a popular figure whose name I will not mention.  This person says:

“There comes a time when compassion can cause disaster. If you open your home to scores of homeless folks, you will not have a home for long…

…Personal responsibility is usually the driving force behind success.

But there are millions of Americans who are not responsible, and the cold truth is that the rest of us cannot afford to support them.

Every fair-minded person should support government safety nets for people who need assistance through no fault of their own. But [some people] don’t make distinctions like that. For them, the baby Jesus wants us to provide no matter what the circumstance. Being a Christian, I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive.

The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?”

“The Lord helps those who help themselves” could be the unofficial motto of our American meritocracy.  Many people think this proverb comes from the Bible.  Let me assure you that it does not.  Believe me, I’ve looked.

These words from this contemporary public figure strike me as eerily similar to the words of another passage that I came across while I was studying for my ordination exams in the Presbyterian Church:

“We know something of Christian duty and love toward the helpless, but we demand the protection of the nation from the incapable and inferior… We want [a] Church which roots in the national character, and we repudiate the spirit of a Christian cosmopolitanism.”

This passage comes to us from the so-called “German Christians” who ardently supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and subsequent dominance over Germany during the Nazi era.

In this week’s chapter of Desmond Tutu’s book, our friend the Archbishop shares with us a passage from Harald Ofstad’s book, Our Contempt for Weakness:

If we examine ourselves in the mirror of Nazism we see our own traits—enlarged but so revealing for that very reason.  Anti-Semitism is not the essence Nazism.  Its essence is the doctrine that the ‘strong’ shall rule over the ‘weak,’ and that the ‘weak’ are contemptible because they are ‘weak.’  Nazism did not originate in the Germany of the 1930s and did not disappear in 1945.  It expresses deeply rooted tendencies, which are constantly alive in and around us.  We admire those who fight their way to the top, and are contemptuous of the loser.  We consider ourselves rid of Nazism because we abhor the gas chambers.  We forget that they were the ultimate product of a philosophy which despised the ‘weak’ and admired the ‘strong.’

The brutality of Nazism was not just the product of certain historical conditions in Germany.  It was also the consequence of a certain philosophy of life, a given set of norms, values and perceptions of reality.  We are not living in their situation but we practice many of the same norms and evaluations.

This passage literally scares the hell out of me.  I’m not just swearing here.  When I look at my own culturally shaped ideals and realize that they might lead me to one day condone in my country what happened in Germany during the Third Reich, I want to tear them out.  I wish I could go through some kind of exorcism that would protect me from that demonic and infernal part of myself.  I feel motivated to look deeper into myself and hold tighter to what I believe is the heartbeat of the universe: the biblical truth that “God is love.”

Friends, the Lord does not help those who help themselves.  The Lord helps the helpless.  The Lord helps those who have made such a mess of their lives through their own fault that they cannot put themselves back together again and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  The Lord helps the undeserving, the losers, the failures, and the washouts.  The Lord helps the cowards, the deserters, the deniers, the betrayers, and the sinners.  The Lord helps the lost, the lonely, the losers, the left-out, the lazy, the let-down, the lustful, the lascivious, the lecherous, the lushes, the loveless, the lackluster, the lame-brained, the listless, and the low-down.  In short, brothers and sisters, the Lord helps us.

As Archbishop Tutu tells us, “None of us meet the norms or standards for success in all ways… we all feel inadequate in some way.”  He says elsewhere that we are all subsidized by God’s free grace.  He continues:

At the risk of getting myself into trouble, I will say that in a sense it actually doesn’t matter what we do.  For nothing we can do, no matter how bad, will change God’s love for us…

Just like a mother loves her child no matter what, so god loves you even if you don’t succeed, even if you don’t win.  Our capitalist society despises weakness, vulnerability, and failure, but God knows that failure is an inevitable part of life and that weakness and vulnerability are a part of creaturehood.  They are part of what makes us human.  It is through this weakness and vulnerability that most of us learn empathy and compassion and discover our soul…

When we begin to realize that God loves us with our weakness, with our vulnerability, with our failures, we can begin to accept them as an inevitable part of our human life.  We can love others—with their failures—when we stop despising ourselves—because of our failures.  We can begin to have compassion for ourselves and see that even our sinfulness is our acting out of our own suffering.  Then we can see that others’ sinfulness is their own acting out of their suffering.

As you can see, friends, our soaking in God’s love changes the way that we look at the world.  We are tempted to breeze past these simple words like, “God is love”, and take them for granted because they strike us as so irrelevant to what we think of as “the real world”.  We think of compassion as weak and useless.  Our culture teaches separate our lives into these semi-schizophrenic categories of the public and private spheres.  In the private sphere, we’re supposed to tell our kids that compassion is important and that they are loved unconditionally.  In the public sphere, we’re supposed to live by the principles of “winner take all” and “survival of the fittest”.  And because our culture measures “success” (and, by extension, the total value of our lives) by what we achieve in the public sphere, we tend to think of those cut-throat values as the way we should live in “the real world”.  So you see, our tendency to dismiss and ignore God’s unconditional love for us is not simply a slip of the memory.  I would go so far as to say that it is the result of a spiritual conspiracy that is currently choking the life out of our civilization.

If we are to live the kind of “abundant life” that Christ tells we are meant for, the main thing we need to do is turn our attention, in an intentional and extended sense, toward the truth that God loves each one of us unconditionally and without proviso or qualification.  That, my friends, is the truth that can set our hearts on fire and change this world forever.

God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it.

May this truth never become so routine that it loses its meaning for you.  May it soak you to the bone, cleanse your soul, and change your world from the inside out.

Be blessed and be a blessing!

Sometimes, God Calms the Storm; Sometimes, God Calms You

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian Church.

Click here to listen at fpcboonville.org

Mark 4:35-41

I’m normally suspicious anytime someone tells me that there are “just two kinds of” anything in this world.  I find that reality rarely lends itself to such neat and tidy categories.  At no time is this suspicion more likely to be true than when we are talking about relationships.  There are all kinds of relationships in this world.  Probably about as many different kinds as there are people who have them.

Now, having said that, I’m going to break my own rule.  I’m going to look at two different kinds of relationships that people can have with one another: conditional and unconditional.

Conditional relationships are based on something outside the people involved.  Something is usually expected of each person involved in the relationship.  For example, if you were a boss with an employee who didn’t do the job right and repeatedly showed up to work late with a consistently bad attitude, you probably wouldn’t be inclined to say, “Golly, I bet you’re a nice person with a good heart.  This relationship means so much to me, I just can’t fire you!”  Would you do that?  Of course not.  That would be ridiculous.  In employer-employee relationships, there are certain expectations that have to be met in order for the relationship to continue.  It’s conditional.

But, on the other hand, imagine that your teenage son or daughter comes to you after a bad breakup.  “Mom & Dad, so-and-so dumped me and I’m really down about it.  Is there something wrong with me?  Could anyone ever love me for who I am?”  In that moment, no parent in his/her right mind would say, “Golly, I’d really love to be here for you right now, but I am just not impressed with your report card from last semester.  Why don’t you bring that C in Chemistry up to a B?  Then we’ll talk about who can love you.”  Would you do that to your child?  No, that would be equally ridiculous (not to mention heartless).  Your love for your child is unconditional.  There is nothing that child did to earn your love and there is nothing that child can do to lose your love.  It’s not based on anything.

We need both kinds of relationships in this world.  They’re both good.  But it’s really important that we not confuse these two kinds of relationships with one another.  A friendly boss is still your boss at the end of the day.  That’s just how life works.  Likewise, you parents have to help your kids grow up to be healthy and successful people, but that’s still your child at the end of the day (and no bad grade will ever change that fact).  We can’t treat our conditional relationships like unconditional relationships.  We can’t treat our unconditional relationships like conditional relationships.

Our consumer-oriented culture only knows how to deal with one kind of relationship: the conditional one.  Everything comes down to some kind of quid pro quo contract.  Most of us believe that unconditional relationships exist, but we don’t have any way understanding or categorizing them in our heads.  Our society’s economic style of thinking doesn’t give us the kind of conceptual tools we need to form a mental picture of what unconditional love looks like.  The results of this kind of relational confusion are obviously disastrous when we start “keeping score” with our partners or our kids.  It starts a never-ending competition where no one wins and everyone loses.  The very essence of the relationship gets lost because we’re not thinking of it as the right kind of relationship.

The same thing can happen with our spirituality.  A lot of folks in our society tend to look at their personal relationship with God as a kind of quid pro quo contract (i.e. a conditional relationship).  They think they can offer God moral obedience, dogmatic belief, or church attendance in exchange for the benefit of answered prayers or an afterlife in heaven.  Almost everyone has prayed a prayer like this at some point: “Dear God, help me pass my math test and I’ll promise to stop swearing for a month.”  On the one hand, these prayers are great because people are reaching out to connect with God in moments of stress and crisis, which is exactly what we should be doing.  On the other hand, they turn our relationship with God into something it’s not: a conditional contract.

We end up with a God who looks more like Santa Claus than Jesus: “he’s making a list, checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”  This kind of God brings us toys in exchange for good behavior.  That’s not a very healthy idea of God for us to believe in.  We’ll end up fearful of God, nervously glancing over our shoulder, wondering if we measure up to the standard or if we’ll be sent to hell with coal in our stocking.

Another problem with this way of thinking is that it makes the success of our spiritual lives dependent on the success of our material lives.  What happens when we pray for a miracle and don’t get the one we wanted?  I’ve known many sincere believers who have prayed fervently for the recovery of a loved one from a serious illness, only to watch that person die.  “Dear God, heal my wife of cancer and I promise to quit smoking and go to church more often.”  What happens to that person’s faith if his/her wife dies anyway?  It’s sad to think about, but it happens in the real world.  I’ve seen it.  Our faith is what we depend on to carry us through these horrible tragedies, so we had better make sure it won’t collapse under the weight of unanswered prayers.

There is a story of a time when Jesus’ disciples missed an opportunity to learn what real faith is all about.  This is comforting to me, by the way: knowing that Jesus’ disciples missed the point more often than they got it.  It gives me hope for myself.  In fact, that’s why I like to read the Bible: it’s the only book I can read and find people more messed up than I am.  If God never gives up on them, then I can trust that God will never give up on me.

Anyway, this particular story takes place as Jesus and his disciples were crossing a lake in a boat one day.  A bad storm snuck up on them and things were looking pretty grim.  They were sure that this was it.  All their hard work and sacrifice as disciples was about to go to waste: sucked beneath the mighty waves of the Sea of Galilee.  And just where is Jesus while of this is going on, where is the one in whom they had put so much faith?  He was taking a nap!

Have you ever felt like that in a moment of crisis?  “God, where were you when I got that diagnosis?  God, where were you when my loved one died?  God, where were you when I got laid off from my job?”  I can relate to those disciples in the boat because, sometimes (in my life, anyway), it really feels like God is asleep on the job.  I have sometimes asked the very same question that the disciples asked Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Do you not care?  That’s the question that bothers us so much in times like that.  Does God not care about me?  Do I not matter in the grand scheme of things?  Does God not exist?  Am I all alone in a meaningless world?  These are hard questions.  In fact, these are the hardest questions a person can ever ask.  They are the ultimate questions that give voice to the deepest fears in our hearts.

In this story, the disciples do finally get the miraculous solution they were looking for.  Jesus wakes up and calms the storm with his divine power.  The hero saves the day.  But, after all is said and done, Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Have you still no faith?  Obviously, the disciples had some kind of faith because they knew exactly who to call when the situation got really hairy.  They prayed for a miracle and they got it, but they still missed the point.  The point is not the miraculous rescue from the storm.  That was simply a convenient arrangement of circumstances based on a conditional relationship with God.  The point of this story is that God is with us.  Jesus, asleep in the stern, is the main image we readers supposed to take away from this story.

God’s presence with you in the storms of life is unconditional.  There is no circumstance that God can’t handle.  There is no minimum faith requirement for getting “Jesus” into your “boat”.  Before, during, and after the storms of life, God is there, holding us all together in the arms of unconditional love.  There’s nothing you can do to make God love you any more; there’s nothing you can do to make God love you any less.  God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it.

Sometimes, when you face the storms of life, you get the outcome you’re looking for.  Sometimes, God calms the storm.  But then there are other times, when things don’t work out like we planned, prayed, or hoped.  In those moments, God calms you.  Whatever the outcome of your circumstances, the important thing to remember is that you are not alone, you matter, God is real, and God does care about you.

Faith, in these circumstances, means trusting in that love and embodying it in the way that we live our lives, so that we, through our love, can become living reminders of God’s love to each other.  Where is God when someone you love is going through life’s storms?  God is in you.  That inner impulse you feel to pay your respects, send a card, bring a casserole, or lend a hand?  That’s God.  On a larger scale, that still, small voice in your heart that makes you want to speak out against injustice whenever you see God’s children, your brothers and sisters, being treated unfairly?  That’s God too.

Whenever you listen to that inner voice and act on it, you are living a faith-filled life.  I would even say that you are living a godly life, a spirit-filled life.  And, best of all, when you live like that: you are making it easier for someone out there to trust that we are not alone in the storms of life, that we matter, that God is real, and that God cares about us.  And that’s what faith is all about.

I Have Called You Friends

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian Church.

John 15:9-17

If you were to ask the average person on the street to define the term ‘God’ (as it is often used in most contemporary monotheistic religions), you would probably get an answer similar to what the late Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson used to call the God “up there.”  In his more cheeky moments, Bishop Robinson also referred to the God “up there” as “the Old Man in the Sky.”  This idea of God was taken quite literally by superstitious people during the Medieval Dark Ages.

Folks these days, while they might use language about God that describes “the Old Man in the Sky” as being “up there,” will most likely admit when pressed that God (if they believe there is a God) is neither biologically male, nor does “he” exist in a physical location that just so happens to be directly vertical in relation to the speaker’s current point of reference.  Most folks who believe in a traditional monotheistic deity these days tend to think of the God “out there” (to use Robinson’s words again).  In other words, they think of God as a singular, intangible, all-knowing, and all-powerful Supreme Being who exists independently of the created universe.  Depending on their overall outlook on life and religion, they may or may not identify this Supreme Being as benevolent or compassionate.

The attribute of God that people tend to name more than any other is omnipotence, which means “all-powerful” or “almighty.”  Have you ever paid attention to how often people begin their prayers with the words ‘Almighty God’?  We kind of take it for granted that God is almighty.  We figure that a Supreme Being can do anything that comes to mind.  This is a tremendous source of strength and comfort for those who face difficult circumstances.  It’s helpful to know that God is in control, can handle any crisis, and has a plan to work everything out for the better.  The downside to this idea is that there seems to be so much meaningless suffering in the world.  How could God possibly bring good out of it?  Philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with that question for thousands of years.  If they ever come up with a single, universally acceptable answer, I’ll be sure to let you know right away.

I find it interesting that omnipotence has taken such a central place in our ideas about God.  When you think about modern society, it kind of makes sense.  Modern people are obsessed with power.  In the last five hundred years, we’ve used the power of science and technology to accomplish things that our ancestors never dreamed of.  We’ve come to see ourselves as the masters of our own destiny.  We worship what we value, so it would be fair to say that modern people worship power.  When we try to conceive of a Supreme Being, the first thing we think of is someone who possesses unlimited power.  Thus, to the modern mind, God must be omnipotent.  It is as the philosopher Voltaire famously said: “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.”

However, our faith in the power of power has been shaken as of late.  The twentieth century, with its two world wars, the holocaust, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, gave us reason to doubt our ability to bring about utopia through science and technology.  The current century, as young as it is, has already drawn our attention to the growing problems of global warming, international terrorism, and social stratification.  The modern era’s faith in the power of power has left us feeling empty, helpless, and alone in a sea of political propaganda and consumer advertising.

The God of modern power-lust has also presented us with certain problems.  I’ve already mentioned what philosophers call “the problem of evil.”  How can an all-powerful deity allow such horrible things to happen in the world?  Whole books have been written on that question, so I won’t get into it just now.  The problem I want to focus on is a relational one.  There is only one way to relate to a God who is primarily understood as all-powerful: servitude.  Obedience is all that matters in a power-based relationship.  This much is true, even when power is trustworthy and only exercised in the interest of our individual or common good.

This idea of God is quite popular among religious believers today.  God is an all-powerful lawgiver with a plan for the world that must be obeyed to letter, or else…

The spirituality shaped by such a theology is characterized by crime and punishment, as well as guilt and forgiveness.  Average people, uncertain of what an all-powerful Supreme Being wants of them, tend to vest the authority for moral decision-making in some tangible and supposedly infallible source like a church, a Pope, or a Bible.  This infallible source, so they say, represents the will of God to the people.  In their minds, questioning the words of the Pope or the Bible is disobedience toward God.  One must either obey or face the consequences of eternal damnation in the fiery abyss of hell.  As you can see, this is how religious fanaticism and fundamentalism are born.

So, the question I want to ask today is this: is there a way to relate to God outside of the modern obsession with power?  The answer, in my opinion, is yes.

I have already noted how the only way to relate to the omnipotent God of power is as an obedient servant.  So, with that in mind, I love how Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel reading, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.”

Jesus was (in)famous in his day for challenging the authority of traditional orthodox religion in order to replace it with authentic and radical relationships.  His own family called him insane, all the preachers said he was demon-possessed, and respectable folks called him a glutton, a drunkard, and “a friend of sinners.”  Those who followed him were as diverse as they were dense.  They were ancient versions of government workers with guerilla fighters, barstool brawlers with church choir soloists, adult film stars with senators’ wives.  It was an offensive and unlikely collection of people that found friendship with this remarkable person and each other.

Jesus, in his teaching and his living, replaced the God of power with the God of love.  He told his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”  He makes it clear to them that his friendship with them is not based on religious observance or moral performance.  He says to them, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”  His love for them is a free gift of grace.

Gone is the sophisticated legal system of the Torah with its 613 commandments.  Gone too are the famous tablets of the Ten Commandments.  In fact, the only commandment that Jesus leaves his disciples is the commandment of love.  “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”  The only thing Jesus asks us to do with this free gift of love is pass it on.  And the end result, he says, of this extravagant love-fest is a lasting fullness of joy for eternity.

What Jesus knew on an instinctual level, and his friends learned by following him, is that God is love.  The experience of a lived compassion and affection is more than just a fleeting emotion.  It is divine.  Love, as Jesus lived and taught it, is an expression of that which is the “Ground of all Being” and the very heartbeat of reality.  Live like this, he says, and you will touch the face of God.  For Jesus, God is not some all-powerful Supreme Being who rules the universe from a golden throne behind a pearly gate on a white, puffy cloud.  The throne of God, the place from which God reigns, is much nearer to us than that.  The kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus, is within you and among us.

If you want to find God, don’t look up, look deep.  Look into your own eyes and those of your neighbors.  Honor the relationships in your life and you will automatically be following the will of God for you.  As the Christian theologian, St. Augustine, once said, “Love and do what you want.”

This is a radically different view of God than the one we get from religious fanatics, fundamentalists, and other modern folks who are obsessed with power.  According to Jesus’ experience, love (not power) is the primary attribute of God.  Everything else we might say about God must be understood in light of this first principle.  This kind of God, the one revealed in and through Jesus, is Emmanuel (i.e. “God with us”).  The life of Jesus represents a fundamental shift in the way we think about God.  Going back to serving the demanding God of power after this would be an act of sheer idolatry.

Jesus’ God of love offers us a healing balm for the wounds and ailments of power-driven modern society.  In spite of our incredible technological capacity for communication and information exchange, folks of all ages today tend to feel more isolated and lonely than ever.  We are besieged by an endless invasion of barbarians who tear us and each other apart in the effort to obtain our money and our votes.  We are horrified to discover, as Charlton Heston did at the end of the movie Soylent Green, that we are all destined to become mere consumers and products for consumption.  But Jesus shows us that there is another way.  There is more.

Jesus turns us onto the God of love and the subversive power of committed relationships.  When we, as a community, begin to learn and practice this art, we find ourselves living the life of heaven on earth: the fullness of joy forever more.  We might not be luckier, happier, or more prosperous than before, but we will have discovered the secret to living well.

I want to invite you then, whoever and wherever you are, to begin to look deeper into the relationships in your life.  Take a second (or third) look at your family, friends, and neighbors.  Take an especially good look at those you might consider your enemies.  Take a look at those strangers you pass by in public and at the store.

If you’re listening to this sermon online or on the radio, I would invite you to take a break our culture’s individualism and consumerism to come visit us on Sunday at 10:30 and start exploring these relationships with us at our church.  We don’t do it perfectly all the time, but we give it our best try.  Come and get involved.  See what love looks like in our little community of unlikely friends and ragtag disciples.  Get involved and help us look for God in these little things.  Maybe you’ll find the God of love while you’re helping Wally move chairs after the rummage sale, helping Vivien make sandwiches, or helping Rod put up the Christmas tree.  These are the places and times when heaven comes to earth and the Spirit of God takes on flesh and bone again.

These relationships are sacred.  Try to treat each person as you would treat Christ himself.  Maybe you could memorize what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 and recite his words silently to yourself as you interact with people, “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.”  This is the secret to living well.  This is the fullness of joy.  This is how the kingdom of heaven comes to earth.  This is how we come to recognize the sacred face of Jesus’ God of love.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)

Abiding in the Vine

Symbolic enactment of Ubuntu by African school children. Photo taken at Nazareth House Apostolate in Sierra Leone

John 15:1-8; 1 John 4:7-21

This past week, I was glad to wrap up another semester in my teaching job at Utica College.  I have to say that one of my favorite things about this academic year has been my daily walk from the parking lot to my office.

When I first arrive on campus in the morning, I like to sit in my car for a few minutes.  With two young kids, it’s hard to find a quiet moment to myself at home.  During these few minutes in my car, I like to close my eyes and pay attention to the natural rhythm of my breathing.  This is an exercise that I learned from a doctor named Jon Kabat-Zinn.  You would be amazed at the effect that it has on my day.  I feel so much more relaxed, focused, and “tuned in” to the present moment.

When I get out of my car, I am so much more aware of my immediate surroundings.  I feel the wind blowing my hair back as the soles of my feet hit the ground rolling and propel me forward, I smell the dirt emerging from beneath the snow, I hear the sound of birds chirping and cars going by, and I see blue sky meeting red brick and green grass that stretches as far back as the eye can see.

I’ve become particularly good friends with the two deciduous trees who flank the front entrance to White Hall, where my office is located.  I don’t know my botany well enough to name their species, but I’ve enjoyed watching them change with the seasons.  The brilliance of autumn gave way to the stark bareness of winter.  The buds of spring have now given way to new green leaves that seemed to burst forth overnight.  I suppose they have been right there for at least as long as I have been teaching at the college, but I never really noticed them before this year.  I guess you could say that, because of this new meditation practice, I’m literally “coming to my senses” in ways that I hadn’t before now.

I’m tempted to label this effect as a “spiritual experience,” except that it lacks so many of the characteristics that are often associated with mysticism.  There are no visions of angels or voices from heaven.  There is no intuitive sense of a supernatural presence within or around me.  I am simply aware of the present moment and caught up in what I like to call the “is-ness” of everything.  If I am experiencing God at all through this meditation exercise, it is as the “Ground of all Being” and the great “I Am Who I Am” that Moses encountered in the burning bush at the beginning of the book of Exodus.  If God is present at all, it is in the overall wholeness of “the big picture” and the natural lines of connection that weave us into “the interdependent web of existence.”

I said, “if God is present,” but of course I do believe that God is eternally present in all places and at all times, whether we perceive God’s presence or not.  Our moment-to-moment existence, as creatures, is forever dependent upon that which is greater than us.  For example, we do not “take birth,” our mothers give birth to us.  To illustrate further: imagine the finely-tuned delicate balance of creation that allows for life to exist on this planet.  If Earth were just a little bit closer to the sun, the oceans would boil and we would burn up.  If she were just a little bit farther away, we would freeze.  If Earth’s rotation on her axis were just a little more tilted, the seasonal conditions would be so extreme that the Arctic Circle would reach all the way to the tropics and vice-versa.  If the moon floated only a few miles closer to the Earth tidal forces would decimate our coastlines.  I could keep going, but I think you get the point.  We do not create or sustain ourselves.  Life cannot be taken for granted.  Existence is a gift that is given freely to all.

All of this has been in the back of my mind this week as I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ words from John’s gospel: “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  He goes on to talk about “abiding” in the vine and “bearing fruit.”  This is a powerful image.  It speaks beautifully of the grace of being, which connects us to each other and to the greater whole.  Christians from the first century to the 21st century have come to believe that the great Source of Life and the Ground of all Being was revealed to the world through Jesus, not just in his words and accomplishments, but in his very person.  Other religions have noble sages and prophets who delivered the will of God or the meaning of life to people, but it was always the message and not the messenger that was most important.  Christianity is unique in our belief that the messenger is the message.  Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Each of us is begotten and sustained by our connection to this vine, the Source of Life.  This truth is so easily forgotten by people who live in the modern age.  We are trained to be rugged individualists.  In spite of our rational disdain for all things superstitious, we retain our belief in the ridiculous myth of the “self-made man (or woman).”  I think you can ask anyone in a hospital maternity ward and they’ll tell you that there’s no such thing.  We are all branches off the same vine.  Our lives intertwine and intersect with one another.  Our separate identity as branches presents us with the illusion of independence, but we can only keep that idea up so long as we persist in living what the Greek philosopher Socrates called “the unexamined life.”  The minute we start asking questions about who and what we are, it becomes self-evident that we are all connected to and dependent on each other and the whole.  Scientists have identified this inherent connection in their study of ecosystems.  Individual species are mutually supportive of each other in symbiotic networks that form the engine, if you will, of evolution.  Plants feed animals, who feed other animals, who die and return to the earth, where their bodies become fertilizer for plants.  The food chain, it seems, is not so much a line as a circle.  One of my favorite illustrations of this point comes from the process of breathing itself.  We animals inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide as waste.  Plants, as many of you already know, inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen.  What a wonderful coincidence!  What beautiful symmetry!  We are sustaining one another through the very air that we breathe.

As Christians, we have come to understand and interpret our connection to the whole through the person of Jesus.  To us, he is far more than our favorite philosopher and an ancient wise man.  What we celebrate during this Easter season is our experience of Jesus as an eternally living reality.  Christ is alive in our hearts and the world around us.  He may not be visibly present, but he lives nonetheless.  We’ll say more about that when we celebrate Ascension Sunday in a few weeks.  Christ is alive.  He is the vine of which we are all branches.  This is the Christian’s fundamental understanding of the universe.  You might even call it our most basic principle.

In response to this truth that we believe, Jesus instructs his followers in John’s gospel to “abide in” him so that they might “bear fruit.”  What is that all about?  If we’re all branches on the same vine, wouldn’t we just naturally “abide in” (i.e. “stay connected to”) the vine?  On one level: yes.  We can’t cut ourselves off from the source of existence any more than one of us could willingly disconnect ourselves from an arm or leg.  But the vine analogy breaks down when we consider that human beings have a quality that plants do not have, to wit, consciousness.  We are able to think and make decisions in ways that other life forms cannot.  Through the choices we make and the lives we live, we are able to either honor our connection to the whole or not.  We can nurture the common life that is in us all or not.  We can water the seeds of faith, hope, and love in our souls or not.  That much is up to us.  To the extent that we choose well, our lives will tend to flourish.  To the extent that we choose poorly, we will wither and die.  Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading make it clear that we are meant to flourish.

How can we do this?  How do we, as branches, abide in the life of the vine?  I think there are many ways that this is possible.  Personally, I have found my aforementioned meditation practice to be most helpful in this regard.  It reminds me of the significance and sacredness of the moment in which I find myself.  There is no day but today.  There is no place other than here.  Here and now is where I live.  Simply recognizing and respecting this reality goes a long way in nurturing my connection to the vine.

If you want to try it sometime, I recommend that you set aside a quiet place and time (I find that early in the morning, after my first cup of tea, works best, so that I don’t fall asleep).  Sit upright in a comfortable position with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor.  Close your eyes and try to become conscious of the fact that you are breathing.  Don’t try to breathe more deeply or slowly than usual, just notice this unconscious act that is happening in us all the time, whether we realize it or not.  Stay in this place for a while.  As thoughts pop into your head (and they will), don’t fight them or get angry at them, just simply acknowledge them and then gently direct your attention back to your breathing.  Do this as often as you need to.  It doesn’t matter if thoughts pop up one time or a hundred times.  Simply recognize the thought and redirect your attention.  You’re not trying to accomplish anything in the moment.  There are no “altered states of consciousness” that you are trying to reach.  You’re just trying to be fully aware of the present moment.  If you want to, try this exercise for five minutes a day.  When you feel ready, try increasing it by another five minutes at a time.  Some people stay at five minutes, some go for fifteen or twenty, and some sit like this for as long as an hour at a stretch.  It’s your practice.  Do what works best for you.

Another way that we can “abide in the vine” is through the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist (a.k.a. Communion).  Just as we’re about to do in a few minutes, we gather as a community around one table, breaking bread and drinking wine.  This ritual reminds us that we are part of one another through Christ.  We are what we eat: the body of Christ.  The wine reminds us that the blood of Christ flows in our veins.  They say that “blood is thicker than water.”  This blood is thickest of all.  As we eat and drink in this sacramental ritual, the branches abide in the vine.

Finally, and most importantly, the best way to “abide in the vine” is to nurture our relationships with each other.  This is the true mark of our religion and the true measure of our spiritual health.  Jesus continually told his followers that the “fruit” of this vine is love.  The community that first published John’s gospel also published his epistles, which we also heard from this morning.  They offered additional advice to flesh out what Jesus meant by “abiding in the vine.”

They remind us that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  If you want to know how spiritual a person is, don’t look at his/her church attendance or theological beliefs.  Look at the way s/he treats other people.  I once heard someone say, “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person.”  The size of your waiter’s tip says more about the quality of your Christian faith than the Bible you leave on the table.  In fact, your life might be the only Bible that another person ever reads.  What does that Bible say about what you believe?

I was talking to someone just yesterday about politics.  I know that’s a dangerous topic for preachers to broach in church (especially in an election year), so I’ll choose my words carefully.  I’m not going to tell you how you should vote.  Frankly, I don’t care what your ideological stripes are: conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican, whatever.  That doesn’t matter nearly so much as the way we treat each other.  I care very much about that.  We live in a time of intense polarization in this society where those labels (conservative/liberal) are thrown around and used as insults.  We slander each other with names like “fascist” and “socialist.”  We categorize and demonize those who think differently from us.  We paint them as stupid or evil.  This, rather than the particular views we fear, represents the real threat to our democracy.  We’re so busy attacking each other that we’re unable to make any real difference in advancing the common good.  It’s high time that we learn to “abide in the vine” and nurture the life of the whole plant, so that we might bear the fruits of peace and justice.

There is an African word, Ubuntu, that refers to a particular character quality.  A person who has Ubuntu is conscious of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people and all life.  We might say that a person with Ubuntu really knows how to “abide in the vine.”  We need more Ubuntu in our common life today.

Sola Gratia

King Street in Boone, NC. Image by Jeremy Mikkola

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian

Click here to listen to this sermon

1 John 3:16-24

Back when was in college, I lived in a little town in western North Carolina called Boone.  It’s nestled way back in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which form part of the ancient and gentle Appalachians.  Once you get up into the High Country of Christmas tree and tobacco farms in the hills around Boone, let me tell you: you will meet some “interesting” people.  We had one guy named Joshua who lived in a tent in the woods and sold poetry on the street corner.  We had Satanists, Neo-nazis, drug dealers, apocalyptic conspiracy theorists, and fire-breathing preachers galore.  Don’t forget: this is the same region of the country that produced snake-handling churches.  I think there are even a few folks left in that region who (still) might not have read the memo saying that the Civil War is over.

One such “interesting” person that I had the singular privilege of knowing was a guy named Mike.  Mike was a reformed drug user who lived in a trailer way back up in the woods.  He attended a particular church that holds the unique belief that theirs is the one and only true church left on planet Earth.  All others have either forgotten or corrupted the true gospel of Christ.  They believe that strict adherence to the dogmas and morals that constitute the membership requirements for their one, true church is what could secure one’s status as “saved” in the eyes of God.

Mike himself was an intense and energetic loner who felt drawn to their form of religious belief and practice.  Their robust conviction and die-hard certainty was attractive to him.  However, Mike was a person who struggled in many ways.  He wrestled with substance abuse and mental illness.  His church, unwilling to bend their strict rules in the name of pastoral sensitivity, was constantly excommunicating him and then readmitting him to membership.  Whenever I would bump into him in public, Mike’s customary greeting was, “I got saved again!”  Mike believed that his status before God was constantly in a state of flux because of his inability to adhere to his church’s code of faith and conduct.  That inflexible code, I think, only served to increase Mike’s anxiety and make him feel alienated from the Source of life and love that could truly help him on his quest to become a better person and a more faithful Christian.

Now, I don’t think many of us are likely to find ourselves in Mike’s position.  While we too might very well wrestle with problems like addiction and mental illness, this church does not exclude or condemn people for being human.  However, we do live in a time when it is quite likely that you will encounter someone (in person, online, or on TV) who will try to send you the message that you’re not “saved” or “born again,” which is to say that you don’t count as a “real” Christian or a child of God.  Let me tell you right now that I think that’s a bunch of baloney.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I should probably take this opportunity to also tell you flat-out that I am a universalist.  What that means in theological terms is that I believe in the doctrine of universal salvation.  What it means in plain English is that I don’t believe in hell.  I find the idea of eternal punishment after death to be completely incompatible with the nature and purposes of the God of Love who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  This means that I believe everyone, everywhere, regardless of their religion or their behavior, is “saved.”  I’m going to come back to this point later, but I think it’s important that I lay it out now, just so you all know where I’m coming from and where I’m going with this.

Those who try to draw lines in the sand between us and them (i.e. the saved and the damned, the religious insiders and the secular outsiders), typically do so using one or both of the following criteria: belief and behavior.  They might say that there are certain ideas you need to accept before you’ll count as a “real” Christian in God’s eyes.  They might also say that there are certain things that you need to do if you want to be “saved.”

Folks like this have been around for a long time.  In fact, I think it’s probably fair to say they’ve been around for as long as organized religion has been part of human society.  We can definitely see their tendencies emerging within the pages of the Bible itself.

In the earliest decades of Christianity, there were two influential groups that developed within the church, each with its own ideas and ideologies.  The first group is now known as the Judaizers.  These were folks who had a very high degree of respect for Christianity’s roots in Jewish religion and culture.  So great was their love for this heritage that many of them began to insist that every new Christian should become Jewish first.  They thought this would limit the amount of cultural perversion and assimilation that might happen among Christians.  The Judaizers insisted that Christian believers of all ethnicities should make certain that they follow all 613 of God’s commandments in the Jewish Torah.  The leaders of the early church, however, decided together that the doors of the church should be flung as wide open as possible in order to welcome people from every tribe, language, people, and nation into the community of Christ.  Christianity’s honored roots may have been Jewish, they said, but its future would be international and multicultural.  You can read about the details of this conversation in chapter 15 of the book of Acts in the New Testament.  The apostle Paul confronted this controversy head-on in his Epistle to the Galatians (also in the New Testament).  He had a lot of passionate things to say about it (he was against the Judaizers).  Even though the issue seems to have died down in the later part of the first century, we can still hear echoes of that conflict in today’s reading from John’s First Epistle.  John’s words about “obey[ing] the commandments” may well have been a reference back to the controversy with the Judaizers.  With their strict emphasis on following the commandments, one can easily see how the Judaizers were the ones who said that there are certain things that people need to do in order to count as “saved” in God’s eyes.  We could say that they believed in self-salvation through behavior.

The second influential group in the early Christian church was actually a collection or series of different groups that had common characteristics.  Collectively, they are now known as the Gnostics.  These were folks who came into their Christian faith from the Greco-Roman side of the equation.  They brought with them a love of philosophy and wisdom as part of their cultural heritage.  As they began to explore their newfound Christian faith, they tried their best to understand Christianity through the lens of philosophy.  Popular philosophical thought at the time saw the physical world as completely evil and the spiritual world as completely good.  The Gnostics saw Jesus as a kind of divine messenger who floated down to earth and appeared to take on human form in order to teach humanity the secret knowledge that would allow them to transcend above the realm of the physical and enter the spiritual realm, where God lives.  The early church leaders, especially the author of John’s First Epistle, were extremely uncomfortable with the idea that this world is totally evil and Jesus wasn’t a real flesh and blood human like you or me.  With their emphasis on “secret knowledge” as the source for salvation, the Gnostics were like those who insist that a person has to accept certain ideas or interpretations of scripture in order to count as a “real” Christian.  We could say that they believed in self-salvation through belief.

Now John, writing as a pastor to his congregation in his First Epistle, challenges both of these false assumptions, but he spends a lot more time being concerned about the Gnostics (probably because that was the bigger issue with this congregation).

John counters these ideas with one, huge, over-arching principle that trumps both belief and behavior: Love.

John is the writer who famously wrote, “God is love.”  God’s love, given freely and unconditionally to those who neither deserve nor earn it, is the basis of all authentic Christian faith and action.  Another word for this kind of unconditional love is “grace.”  That’s what we mean when we sing, “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”  The Protestant Reformers, our forbears in this church, were following in John’s footsteps when they leaned heavily on the principle of sola gratia or “grace alone” as one of the central foundations of their faith.  In theological terms, grace is the “unmerited favor” of God.  In plain English, it means “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

For John, the Protestant Reformers, and all of us in this church, the primary revelation of God’s love is in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus embodied love.  He lived and died for others.  He set for us an example of what love looks like and what the power of love can do in this world.

According to John, the only way to respond to this free gift of unconditional love is to give love freely and unconditionally.  When we love like Jesus, we remind ourselves and others that love is the Ground of our Being.  Love is the heartbeat at the center of the universe.  When we love like Jesus, our hearts beat in time with the cosmos.

Love is so much simpler, yet so much more difficult, than following a list of prescribed beliefs and behaviors.  We would much rather have an itemized creed to which we demanded adherence from everyone.  That’s way easier than loving.  We would much rather have a code of conduct that spelled out every possible contingency and application for each regulation.  That’s way easier than loving.

Love is a fluid and unpredictable thing.  Love keeps us creative and flexible.  Love is difficult, but it’s also so sorely needed.

You and I live in a society where dogmatism and litigiousness run rampant, but real love and community are on the decline.  Just as the Beatles found out that “money can’t buy me love,” we’re finding out that we can’t legislate it either.  It would be so much easier to simply draw our lines in the sand over belief and behavior, keeping us in and them out.

The one thing that’s lacking in this land is a sense of love and community.  People are longing to belong.

In spite of our exponentially accelerated rate of communication and information exchange in our culture, folks are feeling more isolated than ever.  This is a time when the recovery of love as our central principle for faith and action is needed more than ever.

Because of this great need in the world and the great love that is in us as the people of God, I am ordaining and commissioning you all this morning as evangelists and missionaries of love to Central New York and the North Country.  I’m not asking you to go proselytize your neighbors or try to win converts at the grocery store.  There are enough folks out there doing that already.

At best, those “missionaries” and “evangelists” are only trying to get people to “believe that” certain ideas about Jesus are true (i.e. that he is the Son of God who was born of a virgin, died on the cross, and rose from the grave).  Those pamphlets of religious literature can never really get people to “believe in” Jesus in a real way.

I can say “I believe that” about any number of facts.  I believe that I am standing in a pulpit right now.  I believe that there is a stack of paper in front of me.  I believe that I can see our organist from here.  All of those are simple statements of fact.

But to say “I believe in” takes a much more personal commitment.  I believe in this church.  I believe in you.  It’s a statement of personal trust and relationship.  It goes way farther than simply giving intellectual assent to a list of statements on a piece of paper.

Into this isolated and isolating world that knows so little of real love, I want to send you all as evangelists and missionaries of unconditional love in word and action.  Show your faith in love through loving deeds, not creeds.  Help people to believe in that love which we hold most sacred.

I commission you in the words of another, more famous, American Universalist named John Murray, who preached during the 1700s:

Go out into the highways and by-ways.  Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.  Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.

The Erotic Spirit

The first week of spring has felt more like the first week of summer in New York.  We’ve had temperatures in the 80s most days.  This is unheard of in a land where I’ve preached Easter sermons under a blanket of snow.

I’ve come to love spring over the last ten years or so.  It started when I was living in Vancouver, where spring’s arrival is loudly announced by the explosion of cherry blossoms and the rhododendrons just outside my apartment window.  The combined effect is like floral fireworks.

Flowers aren’t the only things popping out either.  I’ve noticed that, as human beings emerge from hibernation, they have some kind of instinctual urge to get out of their clothes in public.  They do it while jogging, sunning, or going to class.

I like to say, “It’s mating season for the earthbound human!”  I stole and adapted that phrase from a movie in the 90s.  While sometimes annoying, this tendency never fails to be entertaining.

Earlier this week, the weather being what it is, I decided to take my work out of the office to the lake.  Grading papers, prepping for next week’s lectures, and quietly meditating.  Not normally sexually charged activities.  I was rather surprised to find, on a weekday afternoon, our wannabe naturists already out in force with all the coy subtlety of Britney Spears’ famous claims to virginity.

In years past, I probably would have stormed off in a self-righteous huff, annoyed at the distractions while I was trying to get work done or “be spiritual” (whatever the hell that means).  It reminds me of something Rich Mullins said (I think he stole it from Tony Campolo).  I paraphrase:

“If you’re a [straight] guy on a beach and a young woman walks by in a bikini and that doesn’t do something for you, that doesn’t mean you’re spiritual.  It means you’re dead.”

So, in the interest of (a.) reminding myself that I’m not dead and (b.) liberating myself from old habits of belief and behavior, I decided to stay where I was and see if it was possible to be spiritual and sexual at the same time.  To many out there, this will probably come across as rather basic, but it’s still a new concept for me, thanks to my previously disembodied (my seminary prof, Loren Wilkinson, would call it gnostic) orientation toward all things theological.

What I discovered in that moment was happily surprising.  I began to recall particular prayers of thanksgiving from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.  In one prayer, we express gratitude for “All beauty that delights us…” and in another, “The treasure stored in every human life…”

I began thinking about the Greek word Eros.  It’s one of several words that sometimes gets translated as Love.  It’s where we get the English word Erotic.  Eros is romantic love, desire, and attraction.  Matthew Fox and Diarmuid O’Murchu, who have written on this subject far more than me, like to emphasize Eros as creative love.  It simultaneously includes and transcends animal lust.  I’m currently coming to believe that lust is neither foreign nor antithetical to love unless the two are deliberately divorced in the name of either licentious selfishness or “purity” (which can become a form of religiously legitimated selfishness).

I found myself saying prayers of gratitude for that indefinable magnetism that draws human beings together.  It drives us to know one another fully.  No other single psychic factor is so motivating.  We yearn for intimacy, not only in our minds and spirits, but in our bodies as well.

The coming together of human beings (in the lab, studio, classroom, boardroom, or bedroom) is inherently life-giving and creative.  It’s also complex, tricky, messy, and requires lots of skill and commitment in order to be fulfilling in the long-term.  I pray that we would learn how to honor the meaning of our connections with each other so that we might sustain the beauty we have created.  In this sense, all of life is as erotic as it is spiritual.

As my time of meditation at the lake came to a close, I surveyed the trees, the water, and the hills of the earth around me.  I thought about the Jewish creation myth depicted in the first chapter of Genesis.  Delirious in the pulsating and passionate throes of creation’s rhythm, God cries out repeatedly in climactic pleasure, “It’s good!  It’s good!  It’s SO good!”

It’s Time for Love to Get Loud

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.  Blog fans will notice some similarity with my previous post, Get Loud.

There is considerable congregational participation toward the end, so it would be better to listen at fpcboonville.org

The text is Mark 1:1-8.

First impressions are funny things.  They have a way of setting the tone for what comes next.

This is true for stories:

Who doesn’t remember the opening scene of Star Wars, when Princess Leia’s starship races across the screen, relentlessly pursued by Darth Vader’s menacing Star Destroyer?  George Lucas had audience members on the edge of their seats from the beginning to the end of that film.  How about the first line of the novel, A Tale of Two Cities?  “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”  I particularly like the opening line of my favorite novel: Neuromancer by William Gibson.  “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

It’s also true in relationships:

My over-eager self-introduction to a professor on my first day of seminary effectively ended my career in academic theology before it started.  On a more positive note, my propensity for sharing too much information made an impact on my friend Matt, who works at a bagel shop in Utica.  At first, he was taken aback by my apparent lack of tact and subtlety, but those same qualities came to shape our future friendship as one characterized by intense honesty and trust.  He is one of my closest companions today.

This morning, we’re taking a look at the opening scene of Mark’s gospel.  Right off the bat, Mark sets the tone for what comes next in the story.  This gospel has a powerful opening line that often gets overlooked: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

That sounds pretty straightforward and innocuous, right?  Wrong.  There are three terms I need to unpack before we can come to a full understanding of what this verse is saying.  Those three terms are good news, Christ, and Son of God.

Good news.  The Greek word we’re looking at here is euangelion.  It’s a term that comes from the world of imperial politics.  An euangelion was a joyful announcement sent out by royal courier to the farthest reaches of the empire.  It usually announced big news, like the birth of a new heir to the throne or the victory of the emperor over his enemies.  Anyone else who proclaimed an euangelion that didn’t have to do with Caesar could be found guilty of treason.  Mark’s use of euangelion in the very first sentence of his gospel is an extremely radical and subversive move.  It’s the kind of thing that could get someone arrested by the Department of Homeland Security.  It says something important about the way Mark looks at the world and, more importantly, the way he looks at Jesus.

Christ.  Most people these days are used to thinking of this word as Jesus’ last name.  Well, it’s not.  Christ is a title.  It’s a Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “Anointed”.  When first century Jews talked about the Anointed, they imagined this Che Guevara kind of person who would rise up and liberate the Jewish people from Roman tyranny.  In short, the Anointed/Messiah/Christ was supposed to be a terrorist.

Son of God.  This is another title that was reserved for the emperor.  Caesar was worshiped as a god in ancient Rome.  People were required to make regular sacrifices to his statue as a sign of loyalty.  It was kind of like pledging allegiance to the flag, only more so.  When Mark proclaims Jesus as divine, he is implying that Caesar is not.  This is a bold statement to make in an occupied country.

With a fuller understanding of what these words mean, let’s hear them again: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  In American terms, we might say, “The inauguration of President Jesus, our real commander-in-chief.”  Anyone who walked around this country seriously talking like that would probably earn a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay.

Mark goes on from that opening sentence to paint a picture of the person who first ran through the countryside, shouting this euangelion at the top of his lungs.  His name was John.  He, like the message he preached, was a radical.  Later in the story, John is arrested and eventually executed for exposing the hypocrisy of Herod, the puppet king set up by the Roman government to maintain order.  Like the opening sentence of Mark’s gospel, John is subversive of the established status quo.  He looks instead to the way things ought to be, the way they will be, in God.  John is not satisfied with mere Roman order; he longs for the divine harmony that God intends for all creation.

John is not alone in his task.  He stands in the shadow of another outspoken reformer.  When John first shows up in Mark’s gospel, he is “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” and eating “locusts and wild honey”.  That might not mean much to us, but it would mean a lot to first century Jews.  Dressed in those clothes, they would immediately recognize him as the prophet Elijah, as surely as we would recognize a fat man in a red suit coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve as Santa Claus.

Elijah was another subversive radical from Israel’s history.  Like John, he exposed and confronted the powers that be.  He was constantly challenging the corrupt government of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in his day.

Mark seems to be going out of his way to drive the opening point home: the gospel of Christ is a subversive message preached by radicals.  Those who want safe, predictable religion should stay away from Jesus at all costs.

What made John live his life as a “prisoner of hope” who never stopped questioning the way things are?  What is this radical message that turns the whole world upside down?  Mark spends the rest of the book answering that question.  It’s the story of Christ, a never-ending story that includes John, you, and me in its eternal plot.  There’s no way to fully capture its message in a single sermon, book, or library.  That being said, I’ll try to sum up one small part of it like this: God is with us, God is Love, Love wins.

This, in part, is the message of Christmas: God is with us, God is Love, Love wins.    Therefore, all that is not Love is destined to fade away like dust in the wind or a bad dream after you wake up.  There is hope in this.  And that hope gives us the strength to stand up and speak out loud and clear against all that would stand in Love’s way.

John believed in this Love (i.e. God’s Love, the God of Love, the God who is Love).  That’s why it bothered him to see so much un-Love in the world around him.  I call John a realist because he confronted the reality of the world as it is.  However, I also believe he trusted in a deeper reality that is more real than what he saw with his eyes.  I think John’s faith in that deeper reality is what gave him the strength to stand up and get loud.  His is not a voice of rage or hate.  There is no call to arms or partisan propaganda.  When John gets loud, it’s the voice of Love getting loud.

Here in this room today, we believe that God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins.  But, like John and Elijah, we live a world that is deaf to Love’s call because Love has been drowned out by the white noise of apathy and injustice.  What does that mean for us?  It means it’s time for Love to get loud.

What does that mean for us?

It’s time for Love to get loud.

God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins.  But somewhere this week a boy got his face slammed into a locker at school just because he likes other boys.  What does that mean for us?  It’s time for Love to get loud.

God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins.  But somewhere this morning a girl looks into a mirror and cries because what she sees there doesn’t look like what she sees on the cover of a magazine.  What does that mean for us?  It’s time for Love to get loud.

God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins.  But somewhere there’s a local shopkeeper who is fretting about how to keep the family business open for another generation.  What does that mean for us?  It’s time for Love to get loud.

God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins.  But somewhere today someone is mourning the death of a beloved parent, spouse, or sibling.  What does that mean for us?  It’s time for Love to get loud.

God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins.  But in 2011, there are still churches in this country where the Bible is used as a weapon and people can be denied membership just because of the color of their skin.  What does that mean for us?  It’s time for Love to get loud.

God is with us, God is Love, and Love wins.  But Oneida County is still eliminating daycare funding for children already living below the poverty line.  What does that mean for us?  It’s time for Love to get loud.

It is indeed time for Love to get loud.  How will Love get loud in you?

It’s time to raise your voice, like John the Baptist, in the name of Love.  It’s time to lift every voice and sing!

“My Feet Is Tired, But My Soul Is Rested”

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This morning’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Matthew 18:15-20.

Someone once asked the famous author C.S. Lewis why he thought it was necessary for Christians to go to church.  Lewis, with his usual wit and candor, had this to say:

When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

The “solitary conceit” that Lewis mentioned is one of the hallmarks of trendy spirituality in our culture.  Spiritually-minded Americans, from Transcendentalists to Evangelicals, have often emphasized individuality at the expense of community when it comes to their devotional lives.  Lillian Daniels, a United Church of Christ minister from Illinois, minces no words as she calls this kind of spiritual individualism “self-centered” and “boring”.  She goes on:

There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

One’s relationship with God is always personal but never private.  One does not simply wander off into a cave to commune with the Divine in total silence and solitude.  Even ancient hermits in the desert maintained practices of hospitality toward wandering beggars and spiritual seekers.  One cannot be a Christian by oneself.

We find this counter-conviction to American individualism all through today’s gospel reading.  Here we see Jesus teaching the people about spiritual community.  Specifically, he’s talking about those times when community gets messy.  He starts with the words, “If another member of the church sins against you”.  This is Jesus giving advice about conflict resolution.  Rather than getting bogged down in the procedure that Jesus lays out, I’d like for us to focus our attention this morning on the underlying values and beliefs that undergird Jesus’ message to us in this passage.  I say “values” and “beliefs” but really there’s just one of each: a value and a belief.

The value that Jesus was trying to communicate is the value of reconciliation.  Reconciliation was a major theme in the ministry of Jesus and the early church.  Notice how it comes up again and again in this passage.  Jesus says repeatedly that the goal of this conflict-resolution exercise is to persuade people to “listen” to one another.  That word, “listen”, appears four times in three verses.  Meanwhile, there’s no “eye for an eye” or “hellfire and damnation” language at all.  Even in the worst-case scenario, where the “sinner” will not “listen”, Jesus recommends that the church should “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  This might sound like punishment at first (remember that tax collectors were the most hated people in ancient Israel), but remember how Jesus treats tax collectors and other religious outsiders?  He welcomes them and affirms them!  He goes out of his way to make sure that these people know they are loved by God.  It seems like Jesus is saying that the point where negotiations fail is the point where real love begins.  This is so different from our world where justice is associated with punishment and vengeance!  For Jesus, real justice is the restoration of harmonious relationships.

The theme of reconciliation that resonates through this passage is related to the core belief that Jesus is trying to instill in his followers: the belief that God is love.  As the people of the community of faith work together to reconcile their differences, Jesus tells them that they will begin to discover a mysterious divine presence working in and through them.  Decisions made in this spirit of reconciliation will have the weight of spiritual truth.  This is what Jesus means when he says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Likewise, the community of faith that is committed to reconciliation will see God working impossible miracles through them.  Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”  Reconciliation and love are important values to embody because they most accurately reflect who God is.  God is present wherever this process of reconciliation is going on.  Don’t look for God in the sky or in magical rituals, but in the genuine love that is made manifest through us, the people of the church.  This is why Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Love.  It’s all about love.  Love is what Jesus calls us to.  Love is who God is.

This belief runs entirely counter to our culture’s punishment-oriented individualism.  In that sense, it is truly “counter-cultural”.  People who believe in love, as Jesus presented it, are crazy by this world’s standards.  Yet these people see things that others can’t see.  When they speak, they speak with supernatural clarity and conviction.  When they stand together, they sense that there is “something more” standing with them, empowering them, and holding them up.

One of my favorite examples of this power at work comes from the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott that took place in 1955-56.  For over a year, the African American citizens of Montgomery, Alabama  stood together against the demonic spirits of racism and discrimination.  These prophetic activists were made the subjects of constant harassment from local citizens, government, and police.  Walking together along city streets, many of them described a feeling of divine empowerment.  Wherever these few were gathered in the name of Jesus, he was there among them.

One particularly elderly woman was stopped on the street one day during the boycott.  The interviewer asked whether her feet were exhausted from all the walking, perhaps hoping that she might give up soon and take a bus.  Her reply resonated with exactly the kind of spiritual authority and divine presence that Jesus was talking about:

“My feet is tired,” she said, “but my soul is rested.”

As we go out from this place today, may our lives reflect that same kind of divine glory.  May we sense that same spiritual presence among us, especially in this sacrament of Holy Communion.  May our church be known to this community as a place where reconciliation happens.  May we all be able to say as we reach the end of our earthly pilgrimage, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”