Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Power of Perfect Love: 1 John 4:7-21 - Fifth Sunday of Easter

7Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
  God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (NRSV)
Heard it Through the Grapevine by Steven Tyler PJs on flickr.  CC BY-ND 2.0
Who is the most loving person you have ever known?

Hopefully, that question brings a number of people to mind: parents, grandparents, spouses, children, teachers, Christians

A loving person is always there for you—and is never too busy to share a meal or a conversation.  Even if they are not wealthy, they always have much to share.  Their door is always open to you.  They know no distinction between stranger and friend.

Whether these persons are living or dead, their legacy is your flourishing!  Not to sound cheesy, but they are “the wind beneath your wings!”

You don’t have to be a Christian to be a loving person.  Nevertheless, “love is from God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

Love must come from God—because it is more than just feelings and affection…  It’s more than just being nice…  It demands time and effort; patience and sacrifice.  You can give everything away and get nothing in return.  And hardest of all, love makes no distinction between friend or foe…

No wonder love comes from God—because human beings aren’t capable of this.  Love will be the hardest thing you will ever do.

1 John was written to early Christians who were struggling greatly in this regard.  Theirs was a church in crisis.  These early Christians were rocked by the growing popularity of false teachers and sharp disagreements about the divinity of Jesus.  You see, love is easy everything’s going well.  But when life hits the dirt, love can quickly go by the wayside.  It wasn’t so easy for everyone to “just get along.”

If that wasn’t enough, they were facing the kinds of conflicts and disagreements that are normal to human relationships.  There would’ve been power struggles, factions, and anxiety.

But love can fall by the wayside even when things are going well!  The early Church was a growing Church, after all—but the lure of power and control can quickly take precedence over the duty of love.

Whatever the case, when love is absent, the Body of Christ falls apart.  The Gospel will fall silent.  Life cannot flourish.  And when you, as an individual fail to love, you are not flourishing.  Greed and ambition, fear and anger will quickly take you over.

The author of John puts it bluntly: those who say “I love God,” and hate their brothers are sisters, are liars; for those who do not love those whom they have seen cannot love the God whom they have not seen.”  To be even more blunt: “you only love God as much as the person you love least.”

And it’s never hard to find reasons not to love someone, even if they’ve never done you any harm.  They’ve done nothing to merit your concern and will give you nothing in return.  They don’t believe what you believe about God.  They don’t conform to your standards of morality.  They speak and act and dress in ways you find offensive.  They seem to take more from society than they contribute.  Their very presence constitutes a threat to you and your way of life.

Any more, you are conditioned by politicians and the media to feel threatened by liberals; conservatives; evangelicals; secular progressives; fundamentalists; immigrants; welfare & food stamp recipients; Blacks, Latinos, Muslims; Millennials, atheists, Jews, empowered women, you name it. 

And if someone has done you harm, whether intentionally or not, you claim it as your right and privilege to shame and mistreat them—and anyone you associate with them.

And then there’s the natural question: If I love someone, what’s in it for me?  How can you love when it costs you time, money, and energy you don’t feel you have?  How can you love when it means getting dirty with someone else’s pain or brokenness?   How do you love someone who lives in a world you try to avoid?  How do you answer conflict, rejection, and abuse with God’s love?

But did you hear the good news of this passage?  “Perfect love casts out fear.”  This includes fear for your safety; for the future; fear of the stranger; fear of change; fear of conflict; fear of hardship; fear of death…

God is perfect love—because God doesn’t look for reasons to say, “you’re NOT one of mine.”  You don’t have to reach out to God or even believe in God in order to be loved. God knows the depths your sin and loves you anyway.  God was willing to suffer hell for you on the cross and shed his body and blood for you. God’s love conquers evil and death.  God’s love brings life.  Living in love means nothing less than God loving others through you.

Imagine, then, if you were to approach everything that scares you, that angers you, that hurts you—with a determination to express God’s love in the midst of it.  God answered sin and death with love—and by doing the same yourself, you are enacting the victory of Easter. 

It’s victory when you pray for your enemies instead of hating them—and pray for God’s deliverance from evildoers. 

It’s victory when two or more persons disagree and stay together—but also when adversaries graciously depart from each other for the sake of peace.

It’s victory when you give yourself away for someone who can never repay you—because love that builds up the neighbor will never leave you empty.

It’s victory when we as the Body of Christ welcome the outcasts, touch the untouchables, and embrace one another in our brokenness.  God’s love is best learned by doing.

It’s victory when you can face your fears with the knowledge that God and God’s people will be waiting for you, no matter what tomorrow brings. 

For where and when there is love, there is life—because there is God. God is making you alive—and creating new life where sin and death have done their worst. 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Mercy in Motion: Psalm 23 - Fourth Sunday of Easter

1The Lord is my shepherd;
  I shall not be in want.
2The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures
  and leads me beside still waters.
3You restore my soul, O Lord,
  and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
4Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
  for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
  you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
  and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (NRSV)

At my high school graduation, I was given, as a gift, a framed picture of a tree-lined pathway, with Jeremiah 29:11 inscribed below:
For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Coming Through! by United States Forces Iraq on flickr.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Over the years, I’ve found that certain Scripture passages pair very well with occasions in one’s life.  We decorate our children’s rooms with murals of Noah’s Ark. We read 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings, the famous “Love is patient, love is kind” passage…  We hold up signs that read JOHN 3:16 at sporting events. 

And when mourners are huddled at the graveside, we read Psalm 23.

And that is a good thing.  This is one of Scripture’s most beautiful passages; a word of comfort from God when we need it most.  And yet, would you read it at a wedding?  Or an infant baptism? 

In my summer as a hospital chaplain intern, I learned to be very careful with Psalm 23 after reciting it to parents whose son was in trauma surgery.  His mother thought I was telling her that her son was dead (which he wasn’t, he was fine). 

That’s the problem—for God to truly speak to us through this Psalm, we must take it back from the funerals and hospices; from the Hallmark cards and Christian gift shops—lest you lose God’s word to the feelings you have—and that’s not good!

Psalm 23 paints a picture of real life.  There’s scarcity and uncertainty.  Enemies and evildoers are all around.  Death and darkness are closing in.  The sheep go astray.  Their lives and souls are battered and broken.

Surely, you can relate to this!  Nobody knows this better than Christ, our Good Shepherd, who cried out from the cross the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Yet Psalm 23 beautifully reveals the God whom Christ cries out to.  Though there is great trial and tribulation, there is also great trust.  God’s goodness and mercy are stronger than evil and death.

Psalm 23 is a forward-looking, forward-moving Psalm.  After all, a good shepherd must keep the flock moving—leading it toward pastures to graze and waters to drink.  The shepherd leads the flock along the pathways and through the darkest valleys.  The shepherd stays with the sheep. The shepherd keeps the flock together; the shepherd keeps them safe. 

Though the sheep and the shepherd are in motion, the enemies and evildoers are not.  They don’t go in pursuit of God’s sheep.  What does pursue the sheep is goodness and mercy.  The enemies seem to watch from the sidelines as God anoints their heads and their cups overflow.

Faith, after all, is moving forward while trusting in the promises of God.  Had the sheep not known hunger, thirst, enemies, and death along the way—they never would have known the goodness and mercy of the Shepherd.  With Jesus, all roads lead to the Lord—no matter what you encounter along the way.

In these troubling times, we need our faith to be renewed in the promises of Psalm 23; to learn how to be sheep and how to be shepherded. 

Sometimes, it’s not enough for the Lord to be your shepherd!  How do you move forward when you’ve lost a loved one; lost a job; lost your health?  It feels a little foolish to speak optimistically about the future of our church while our membership rolls and bank accounts are shrinking!  How can you even envision a bright future when it won’t look like the glories of old?

It’s hard to follow Jesus when suffering and evil come your way.  If given the choice between following Jesus through suffering or taking matters into our own hands, we’d choose the latter!  You want to be in control.  You want to call the shots.  You don’t want to be shepherded. 

The Christian life is all about living simply so that you can give yourself away for others in need!  Well, who wants to post that on Facebook?  The world has a lot to offer that you don’t want to miss out on!

Do you really want to be part of the flock!  Wouldn’t be so much easier just to look out for yourself?  If Jesus were just your personal Shepherd rather than the Shepherd of all God’s children?

The promise for the sheep of the Shepherd’s fold is life—even in the face of suffering and death.  Psalm 23 paints a picture of the life God wants for you.  Faith is about moving forward into the fulfillment of that promise. 

So what’s holding you back today? 

I believe that the best occasion for reciting Psalm 23 is when tomorrow becomes today—and God invites you to embrace that new day with hope.  If there is something you lack, your Shepherd will lead you to where your hunger and thirst can be satisfied.  If sin and sorrow have shattered your soul, your Shepherd will restore it.  If you don’t know the way, your Shepherd will lead you—even in darkness.  Only goodness and mercy will pursue you; and your enemies will look on as your cup overflows. 

For whatever tomorrow holds that holds you in dread, there your Shepherd will be.