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!