The choir's anthem They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love is the basis for my message today. And when you look at each of the scriptures that are part of today's lectionary – you will see that they are all about love. The passage from Deuteronomy is part of Moses' farewell to his people as they are about to enter the promised land. He is not allowed to enter and he is trying to leave them with words that will stick with them during this next chapter of their story. He wants it to be both a blessing and a call to covenant faithfulness to the God who rescued the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt. He knows this is his last chance to reach them. That is a lot to consider – what would you say to a group of people you had been leading if you knew that these were likely to be your last words to them?
Moses chooses a powerful reminder to love. Eugene Peterson's The Message phrases Chapter 30 verse 16 this way: And I command you today, Love God, your God. Walk in his ways. Keep his commandments, regulations and rules so that you will live, really live. Live Exuberantly, blessed by God, your God, in the land you are about to enter and possess.
That's really how we start. Loving God and glimpsing how much he loves us. Once we can wrap our heads around that – then we can get down to living how he wants us to live. Exuberantly.
Love is the key.
Jerome, in his commentary on Galatians, tells that St. John continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s. Even when he was so enfeebled that he had to be carried in on a stretcher, he would lean up on one elbow and deliver his message, “Little children, love one another.” Then he would lie back down and be carried out. One day, the story goes, someone asked him why he said the same thing week after week. John replied, “Because it is enough.” It is Christianity in a nutshell.
We are called to love one another. To show that we are Christians by our love. Because They'll know. First of all, they are going to know we are Christians by the love we show to THEM. Who them? Who are THEY? Who is my neighbor?
With the recent snowfall, I've heard a lot (and read a lot on Facebook) about neighbors taking care of each other. People shoveling each others' walks, giving rides to people, checking on each other to be sure they are okay. These neighbors are important. But we know from scripture that our neighbor is more than the guy who lives next door with the snowblower. In our Thursday evening after-school program JIFF we are currently studying this idea of neighbors. The kids are learning that the whole world is our neighborhood.
So, suddenly – They and them are more clearly defined. They are the people on the outside who are just waiting to be invited in. I've been reading the most incredible book, I hope that you will all take them time to pick it up...Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit who began Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. The book is a collection of stories from the gang-intervention program that was started in the poorest parish in LA, center of the gang capital of the world. You don't get much more “they” than that.
In this book, Pastor G (as the homies call him) tells about the instance in scripture where Jesus is in a house so packed that no one can come through the door anymore. So the people open the roof and lower this paralytic down through it so Jesus can heal him. Although the focus of the story is, understandably, the healing of the paralytic...there is something more significant happening. They're ripping the roof off the place, and those outside are being let in.
We need to rip some roofs off. We need to go outside and see the people who are hurting and need Jesus. We need to find every way possible to get them connected to the one who loves them – and let them know that he does.
Centenary has a rich history of reaching out. The JIFF program is about 20 years old. We send teams to the Sager Brown Depot to prepare relief supplies that travel the globe, we reach out in a lot of ways. Are we doing all we can?
There are people who are hurting out there. People who need to see the love of God. We have neighbors who don't have enough to eat, who need a listening ear, who need a helping hand to get back on their feet, neighbors who face barriers that we can dismantle. They are counting on us.
We have the power to show them God's love. But we have to understand something very important. They will experience God's love through the love we show. And they will be able to tell if it is genuine. I had one of Pastor Rick's Stewardship Thoughts from last year that I carried in my Bible until I passed it on to a friend. So, I don't have the exact wording...but the gist of it was...they'll know. They will know if we are helping them out of a sense of obligation or if our helping them is just an extension of the joy we have in being loved so much by God.
The scripture from Matthew reminds us though, that this love thing is tricky and that we, as humans, will take this simple command and screw it up. We will carelessly call our brother 'idiot' and thoughtlessly yell 'stupid' at a sister. Even in the church. Did God really leave this important work to us? Yep.
And we can be reassured by the fact that the difficulties we face as members of the body of Christ are not so different than those difficulties faced by the early church. In Colossians 3:13-14 Paul tells that church (and us) that we need to “be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It's your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.” After listing all the ways we can bless each other, Paul wrote these words because he recognizes that sometimes we fall short. We're going to irritate each other, so we'll need to put up with each other.
Friday was Valentine's Day. A great many of you celebrated your relationships. My cat and I wished you well. We at least wished you no harm. :) How many of you have had times in those relationships when you needed to put up with each other? Church relationships are no different. Accepting each other is an important key to making this “marriage” work. At some point you say to yourself, you know what? I love him, I love her even though he/she is not perfect. There are things that cause pain and require a measure of grace to be dealt with. If we are to move beyond those things, we have to remember there are six words that are as important as any spoken in a marriage or relationship: Those six words are “I am sorry” and “I forgive you.” If you're unable to say those words, you have no chance of making a friendship, a family relationship, a marriage or a church last. It's that simple.
We have got to get our act together! They need us. They are counting on us. They'll know... They'll know we are Christians by the love we show for each other.
We have to exemplify God's love in every aspect of our lives, but it is critical that we show love within the church. This story was related to me and it hit so close to home, it felt like a story I could have told myself. “I became a Christian as a teenager, and I immediately wanted to be involved in my church. Hoping to channel that enthusiasm, the church leaders put me on the committee which was planning the promotion for the church's building fund. The adults were working on a brochure, which I was supposed to help them write. It was exciting to be performing an important service, and to be working along side a group of mature Christians-or so I thought.
After the first meeting it was clear that these "mature" believers were more concerned about whether or not to have an air conditioner in the new sanctuary than they were about spiritual matters. They argued and fought through the entire meeting. I got my eyes off the creator and onto the creation, and it was discouraging. For 6 years after that day I refused to go to church, read the Bible or even consider anything relating to Christianity. "If that's what Christians are like, why would I want to be one?" I reasoned.”
You see? They'll know! They will figure it out before we even get the chance to tell them about Jesus and the unfathomable love he has for every single person. Mahatma Ghandi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Do not let this be our story.
Let our story be about how we ripped off roofs to introduce a hurting world to the love of the one who knows our name. Who can't wait to see us face to face.
Chapter 3 of Paul's letter to the Corinthians shows us what church ISN'T supposed to be: He opens that chapter by saying “But for right now, friends, I'm completely frustrated by your unspiritual dealings with each other and with God. You're acting like infants in relation to Christ.” He goes on to say that if they are going to act like children then he will just have to treat them like children. They are suffering from an immature faith that leads to fighting, jealousy, selfishness and worshiping the leaders instead of God.
He says “Who do you think Paul is, anyway? Or Apollos, for that matter? Servants, both of us...” he continues in verse 6... “I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants but God made you grow.”
The mission statement of the United Methodist Church states that we are “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Disciples, by biblical definition aren't simply worship attenders or financial givers, but people who answer the call to follow Jesus with their lives. And their love.
No message about love would be complete without you hearing about God's love toward us. If we can grasp that concept – then the rest is just making sure that light shines through you.
For those of you who celebrated a love relationship on Valentine's Day Friday, I want you to close your eyes and think back to the beginning of that love. Remember when your heart would beat a little faster when the phone rang because you knew it was your love on the other end? Remember times that you spent on the front porch because kisses were like potato chips, you couldn't stop until you ate the whole bag. Remember waking up and seeing your love asleep next to you and feeling the love so intensely that your breath caught in your throat and a tear came to your eye? Maybe it isn't a romantic love that you remember. Maybe it is the love for a child. Or a child for a parent. Just think right at this moment about an intense, heart-stopping love. Guess who loves you more than that?
A man named Bill was taking care of his father as he died of cancer. His father had become frail and depended on Bill to do everything for him. Although he was physically not what he had been, his mind remained alert and lively. In the role reversal common to adult children who care for their dying parents, Bill would put his father to bed and read him to sleep, exactly as his father had done for him in childhood. Bill would read from some novel and his father would lie there, staring at his son, smiling. Bill was exhausted from the day's care and work and would plead with his Dad, “look, here's the idea. I read to you, you fall asleep.” Bill's father would impishly apologize and dutifully close his eyes. But this wouldn't last long. Soon Bill's father would pop one eye open and smile at his son. Bill would catch him and whine, “now come on.” The father would again, oblige, until he couldn't anymore, and the other eye would open to catch a glimpse of his son. Bill knew that this evening ritual was really a story of a father who just couldn't take his eyes off his kid. How much more so God?
Anthony DeMello writes, “Behold the One beholding you, and smiling.”
I realized last night, after I thought this message was finished...There is one thing wrong with the choir's anthem. They. With all due respect to Peter Scholtes, that is part of the problem...us and them. We shouldn't be separated. We are one in the spirit. We are one in the Lord. It's about ALL of us. We'll know we are Christian by our love.
Let's pray for unity.
Let's walk with each other – hand in hand.
Spread the news that God is in our land.
Work with each other – side by side.
Guard each one's dignity and save each one's pride.
We'll know we are Christians by our love. Everyone needs to hear about this incredible. Unfathomable. Unconditional. Love. We need to hear this too. We need to come to the place of accepting this for ourselves. We need to know – we are wholly acceptable to God. And he loves us. Right here. Right now.
In Tattoos on the Heart, Pastor G relates a story about Willy. Willy has hit up G for a ride and 20 bucks. When Pastor G stops at the ATM to coax the 20 from his thin bank account Willy asks him for the keys so he can listen to the radio but G tells him to pray instead. When he returns to the car he finds Willy changed. Quiet and reflective and he knows that Willy has made a connection to God. Listen...(here I played about a 30 second clip where Pastor G asks Willy how he sees God. Willy replies that “God is my dog.” (meaning his homie, good thing) Then he asks Willy how he thinks God sees him. After some thought Willy says, “He thinks I'm firme (spanish word).” In gang terms, it means “it could not be one bit better.”)
God thinks that we are all Firme. He loves us completely. When we recognize how much God loves us.
Not when we do better.
Not when we get our checklist done: read bible daily, fast weekly, tithe, stop speeding, never lose our temper...
No, we are wholly acceptable. No conditions. Firme. Could not be one bit better.
When we dive into the depths of that unfathomable love, then we start to see the people around us differently. And this love thing starts to spread. And this just might catch on.