Sunday, February 15, 2009

So This Is Love

Here's my sermon from today. I kinda got goosebumps at the end. My only regret in preaching it is that I moved away from the pulpit and preached it off cards. I think I would've put even more energy into it had I not been worried about that and just had the papers in front of me. Oh, well, live and learn. I was also a little nervous about parts of it because the church I preached in tends towards the conservative side, and well, you know what they say about the prophet in her home town. But I think it went very well! Without further ado... 

So This is Love- SoS 2:1-11, 8:6-7; Romans 13:8-10, John 13:31-35

 I’ve been thinking about love a lot in the past few weeks, and not just because yesterday was Valentine’s Day. Sure, the television has been filled with ads about buying the right piece of jewelry or even the perfect car for that special someone, and the stores have been full of pink and red since about Christmas Eve, but my real focus on love started right around January 20, Inauguration Day.

 Although I originally missed most of the reading of the inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander, I caught enough to be interested and search for the text later. One stanza, in particular, stood out:

                        Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself

                        others by first do no harm or take no more

                        than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?[1]

 That phrase has been pounding in my head for weeks: What if the mightiest word is LOVE?

I chose these three texts today because they all speak of love, although all in distinctive ways. The love in the Song of Songs in particular is of a different type than what Jesus and Paul were talking about. The ancient Greeks used three different words that we translate as “love.” First, there’s philia, which is love for family or friends, platonic love. That’s why Philadelphia is known as the “city of brotherly love.” Next is eros, romantic or erotic love, what our lover in Song of Songs is describing, and finally agape, often described as “charitable love” and sometimes translated as charity, it implies unselfish, giving love. It’s also many times described as “Christian love,” but I would argue that all of these would be forms of Christian love.

I want to talk mostly today about agape, but first I want to explain why I chose these verses from Song of Songs, since I just mentioned that the love written about there is eros. I chose them because of their portrayal of love as powerful. At the end of the first selection, the female lover warns the daughters of Jerusalem, as she does often in the book, to “not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!” Love can do powerful things, so watch out! The second selection may be familiar to some of you; it is often read or sung at weddings. These verses take it even further—“love is strong as death,” “many waters cannot quench love, nor floods drown it.” The writer of the Song of Songs, who may be Solomon, or may not be, is stating without reserve that love is mighty.

Jesus was well aware of the power of love. In the Gospels he tells the disciples and the crowds quite explicitly who and how to love. We’re back to that agape word again. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we’re told that Jesus said the two most important commandments are to love God with all our hearts, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And then here in John he gives a new commandment, very simple: love one another. Just love one another, that’s it, that’s how you follow me, he says, by loving one another.

Now, here I want to make something very clear. Jesus was not saying we should all somehow force ourselves to feel all lovey-dovey towards each other, that we should create this world utopia of happiness and rainbows and all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. See, this, I think, is where people get really hung up on one of Jesus’ other teachings on love, that we love our enemies. People get so frustrated that they cannot feel love for their enemies. Anger, a want for revenge, disappointment, fear, yes. But love? I count among my enemies anyone who hurts children, perpetrates domestic abuse, or, at the moment, takes a huge bonus out of government money when the economy is falling apart. If one such person walked into this church right now, would I be able to look them in the eye and feel my heart warm and swell with love? Uh…NO.

But that’s ok—because that’s not what Jesus intends. When Jesus says, “love one another,” love is not feeling, it’s action. That’s really important, so let me repeat it: this love is not something we feel, it’s something we do. And if we do it right, we do it without distinction, expectation, or condition, because that’s the way God loves. Paul gets it right in his letter to the Romans when he says that all the commandments in the law—the commandments given by God to Moses—can be summed up by saying “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus particularly stresses that we should love those who don’t love us, because that’s more difficult. “Even sinners,” he says in Luke, “love those who love them.” He acknowledges that loving each other, and particularly loving those with whom we disagree or have hurt us or who just seem to be following an evil path, is hard.

But by doing this, he said, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” As the old hymn says, “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

They will know we are Christians, followers of Christ, by how we love. But what does that mean? Matthew’s account of the Gospel gives us some examples: feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, clothing the naked, caring for the sick. And again, Jesus does not say love one another…except for this group, those people, and anyone who’s like this.

Jesus preached a love that was radical when he lived and is still radical more than 2,000 years later. “Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And yet is this what we see around us? As a pastor-to-be, I’ve already found that when I share with people my chosen profession, it often sounds to them like an open invitation to share their thoughts, and more often their problems with Christianity. What I’ve heard over and over again, and what I see portrayed in the media are stories of exclusion where there should be inclusion, of close-mindedness in place of open hearts, of acting with fear, anger, and hate instead of with love. All by people who claim to be followers of Christ.

Now, should any of my enemies that I mentioned earlier make their hypothetical way into this church, would I feel love for them? No. Would I forget what they’d done, or not demand they receive consequences for their actions? Absolutely not. I would, however, welcome them to come and worship with us, and join us downstairs for coffee and fellowship. I would love them. Now, to be clear, love is not always welcoming—if one of those people caused harm or posed an immediate safety risk, I would love them and everyone else by asking them to leave. Jesus may have encouraged us to offer up the other cheek if we’re hit, but he was instructing his followers not to respond to violence with violence. I do not believe that following his commands to love one another and to love our enemies means allowing ourselves to be abused.

That being said, Jesus’ command to love one another is intimately connected to justice, and sometimes we do have to risk it all in the name of love. There are countless examples: Oscar Romero, the three nuns killed in El Salvador in 1980, Martin Luther King, Jr., …these are more contemporary examples, but the list is long, and stretches back millennia. People who have declared that they would not stop loving, even at the risk of their lives. They knew how powerful love is—and so did their enemies. Mahatma Ghandi knew the power of love in non-violence when he said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” He was also assassinated.

When Jesus started his ministry, he was ignored by the religious and political elite. As he continued, he was ridiculed for his willingness to eat with outcasts. Then, seeing his growing following and challenge to the status quo in both the religious and political spheres, he was killed. “Love is strong as death, and passion fierce as the grave,” our lover proclaims. It reminds me of that Easter hymn that says, “where, o death, is now thy sting?” They ignored him, ridiculed him, fought him…and then he won, because he loved all the way to the end, even asking God to forgive those who had put him on that cross. 

Now, I’m not suggesting we all go and put our lives at risk in the name of love, but this radical love is risky. We risk having to let go of notions of who belongs and who is an outsider, of loving without receiving anything in return, of loving people who by their beliefs or differences or simple unfamiliarity make us uncomfortable, of changing the whole world, and that, even if it’s for the better, can be terrifying.

“What if the mightiest word is love?” What if every action or reaction we made every day was to love? Imagine, for a moment, that each member of our government made every decision based not on what was “morally right” or best for the bottom line, but by what best followed the commandment to love one another? Imagine if people in areas of conflict came to negotiating tables not with the goal of getting everything they wanted but with the goal of loving the others there? There are much smaller things too: imagine someone cutting you off in traffic and instead of yelling and/or making an unfriendly gesture you smile and say—even if they can’t hear you—have a nice day? If you, intentionally or unintentionally cut someone off, which would you rather get? How could that change your perspective? Imagine taking a big breath and pushing aside your discomfort with the hungry and homeless to volunteer a couple hours in a shelter or food kitchen. Many, many, many of us—particularly in this economy—are only one paycheck away from being homeless ourselves. Imagine taking five minutes to send an e-mail or write a letter to our government representatives about a justice issue—child health care or torture or outsourcing jobs. Imagine if you were someone affected by one of those issues, how you’d feel knowing someone took the time to do that. Imagine you pick up the phone and call someone who’s sick or lonely or simply someone you’re thinking about. Imagine if you were the recipient of that phone call. Love one another. Love your neighbor as yourself. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In my mind, it is no longer a question. Love IS the mightiest word, and when made an action and not simply a feeling, love IS a raging flame which no water can put out. When we go out from this place today, let us make sure the world knows that we are followers of Christ by the way we love one another. Amen.  

[1] Elizabeth Alexander, “Praise Song for the Day,” Graywolf Press, found at NY Times online,, accessed 13 February 2009.

Sphere: Related Content

Friday, February 06, 2009

By request: the Gibbs sermon

Many people were intrigued by the notion of comparing Jesus to Agent Gibbs from the television show NCIS, and even more intrigued when I said I also included a tune from a Broadway show. So, by popular demand, here is my sermon, entitled "Follow Me" and is based on Mark 1:14-20. I wouldn't say it's my best, and there's  certainly room for improvement, but I think it's one of those that's better preached than read. Sorry!

You know, there’s one thing I appreciate about reading the stories of Jesus’ life from different perspectives. Jesus has a different way about him in each of the Gospels, most likely reflecting the personalities of the people telling his story. Mark’s version of the Gospel is one I struggle with, but the way he portrays Jesus is pretty interesting. Jesus is not so meek and mild in Mark. Perhaps that’s why Marks skips the birth narrative, to avoid presenting Jesus to us as small and manageable.

 In this story from Mark, Jesus reminds me of Agent Gibbs on the television show NCIS. Anybody watch that show? It’s one of the many crime dramas on these days, and admittedly probably my favorite. Gibbs is a pretty strong personality. No mincing words, just straight to the point, just like Jesus at the Sea of Galilee. He tells the four men, “Follow me” and then moves along, just expecting they would do so. Later in the Gospel, the disciples often appear confused or clueless, and at those moments I can almost see Jesus slapping a few of them upside the head, Gibbs style.

 Anyway, getting back to our text, Mark doesn’t tell us the men’s thoughts about Jesus’ bold statement—if they questioned it at all, if they wondered what they were getting into, if they were curious about what he meant when he said “fish for people.” Instead, Mark says, they “immediately left their nets and followed him.”

 Wow, now that’s faith. It doesn’t say whether Jesus had ever met Simon (who’s later named Peter), Andrew, James or John, but it’s possible they had heard of him. I mean Jesus had been traveling around Galilee proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, so I’m guessing they probably had gotten wind of what he was saying. Yet they hadn’t independently searched him out—they were still going about their daily lives when Jesus showed up and changed everything.

 Follow me. Follow me. Earlier I spoke with the children about the choices we make about leaders to follow. Certainly this is not exclusive to children. Adults—perhaps even more so than children since there is no one else to make our choices for us—have to make many choices about whom and what to follow in our lives.

 There are many examples of ways we follow. We follow trends—market trends, food trends, fashion trends. How else can we explain bell bottoms and neon spandex? We follow politics and national events—how many people watched the inauguration on Tuesday? We follow TV shows—the producers try to come up with what they call “appointment” television—shows around which we schedule our lives, and it often works. You know, like, “Ooh, dinner Tuesday? I can’t, American Idol is on.” We follow sports, which can be exhausting. I remember following the Red Sox in 2004 and all those games that ran well past midnight!

 We follow people, too. Whole websites and magazines are dedicated to what’s happening in the lives of celebrities, sports players, public figures.

 So that brings us to the question: are we following Jesus?

 Ok, here’s a follow-up: what does that even mean?  How do we get up and leave our nets to follow Jesus today?

 Let me start out by saying I think our first clue is in the word “follow.” See, follow is not really something you can do once and it’s done, like stand, for instance. If you’re sitting, you can stand, and once you’re on your feet, the action is completed. Following generally means something continuous, ongoing. Certainly, you can follow something or someone for a set period of time—a season of sports or how an event plays out or simply following someone to a destination.

 But in this passage, Jesus doesn’t give a set boundary of where or for how long to follow him. He doesn’t say, “Follow me to Capernaum,” or “follow me until I’m arrested.” No, he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” It’s opened-ended.

 Again, though, this brings us back to the question, “How do we live this out today?”

 Well, I think in a few ways.

 Let me start with what seems like the easiest one: joy. Perhaps my favorite saying about call is from Frederick Beuchner: “The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s great need.” Isn’t that wonderful? In other words, when Jesus says, “follow me,” he’s not asking us to give up all joy and pleasure in life to do so. God wants us to be happy. The writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes of an experience she had in which she was struggling to figure out her call. She just couldn’t figure out what it was that God wanted her to do and be. In her frustration and exasperation, one midnight, she says, she fell down on her knees in prayer and said: “Okay, God. You need to level with me. What do you want me to be? What do you want me to do? What are you calling me to do?” She said she felt a very powerful response, God saying, “Do what pleases you. Belong to me, but do what pleases you.” She said it struck her as very strange that God’s call could actually touch that place of her greatest joy, that she could be called to do the thing that pleases her the most. Following Jesus is joyful (that doesn’t mean easy, but I’ll get to that later).

 Another way to look at how we follow Jesus today is as “the continual refocusing on living in the kingdom of God.” A friend of mine describes this as “hitting the wall of ‘what’s next?’” When we’re following Jesus, that might mean working on a justice issue, or fighting for what’s right. If the justice issue is resolved, if the fight is won, then what? My friend offered the example of the inauguration. So many people were so excited on Tuesday, and even Wednesday, but then what? That’s not the end of a journey, but just a step. Jesus takes his disciples different places and visits different people, and the focus changes. One day it’s about the poor, one day it’s about the children, one day it’s a parable he has to explain to the disciples. We don’t stop following, don’t stop attempting to live into the realm of God when we reach one milestone. We have to step back and take a moment to focus on what’s next—because there’s always a “what’s next!”

 A third way to live out this message is to remember that following Jesus is not a one-time thing. Remember what I said about the word “follow?” Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to follow him just on that lakeshore. They were asked to follow him when they were in a boat during a storm. They were asked to follow him when there was a large crowd and not enough food to go around. They were asked to follow him when he was arrested, and tried, and crucified. They had to make a choice not just the first time, but every time he asked. And they didn’t always make the right one—but they kept trying. Even as scary and life-altering as things got, they kept trying to follow Jesus.

 But here’s where I think that it’s right about here when we come to a screeching halt sometimes when we’re trying to follow Jesus. The disciples Jesus called in Mark’s story are offered a new way to use their skills and passion for fishing, but they had to give up the old way, leave their families, become social outcasts, and enter dangerous situations. There are costs to discipleship. I think often we are totally gung-ho about following Jesus—as long as it fits into the life with which we’re comfortable.

 Let me give you an example. A couple of years ago I watched an Oprah show called “fascinating families.” A woman named Lysa described how one evening, she took her two young daughters to a performance by a boys’ choir from an orphanage in Liberia. She explained that she thought she was just going for this cultural experience. But during the concert, she said she heard God’s voice in her heart say that two of those boys were hers. Her reaction? An internal “Lalalala! I’m not listening!” She said, “I just went to hear a concert. I didn't go that day for life interrupted.”

 “I didn’t go that day for life interrupted.” I’m not sure about you, but I know that’s how I often feel when I sense Jesus saying “follow me” towards something big, or difficult, or frightening—or simply not in the plan for the day! And unfortunately, too many times, that initial reaction makes our decision for us, and we stay in our comfort zones. But if we decide to step out in faith, let go of our nets and take the risk of following Jesus, the returns can be beyond what we’d ever imagined.

 After the concert, Lysa said she went to the car and called her husband and said something like, “Hi honey, do we need milk? And by the way, there are two teenage boys from the other side of the world now calling me Mom.”

 Now, as happens many times when we act on what we feel is a call from God, Lysa’s four best friends were skeptical. However, Lysa convinced them to attend a concert, and all four adopted boys. One couple, whose two sons were in college, even brought over the boys’ siblings from Liberia, adopting a total of six kids! And it didn’t stop there—all in all, 14 families adopted a total of 31 children from the same Liberian orphanage.

 But here’s the thing: she still has to keep following. It’s not like she was given that one choice and there, she made it, she adopted those boys, she’s done. Every day she, and we, have to make decisions about whether we follow Jesus or not. What clothes we buy, what food we eat, which people we pay attention to, what words we speak or when we choose to stay silent, all those are decisions to follow Jesus or not.

 Again, though, this is not a once-in-a-lifetime shot. We can’t just say, “Ok, yes, I’m going to follow Jesus” and expect to be finished. There are two things that help us. The first is being in community with others who are also trying to follow Jesus, which, in my opinion, should be the main purpose for attending church. A second help is an idea stressed in 12-step programs: One Day at a Time. It can be overwhelming to think of trying to follow wherever Jesus calls you for the rest of your life…but today might be manageable.

 Follow me. Today, follow me. Tomorrow, try again. Like Gibbs on NCIS, Jesus doesn’t want to hear our excuses why we can’t do it, our protests about life interrupted. He just says, “follow me.” We either do or we don’t each time, but like the disciples, even when we make mistakes or doubt or don’t understand, we keep trying. We keep following.

 I like to put some music in my sermons whenever possible, and while reflecting on this idea, a song kept popping into my head, and so I’d like to end with it as a prayer, that each day we may follow Jesus “more nearly.” You may know it, and if you do, feel free to sing along.

 Day by day, day by day. Oh, dear Lord, three things I pray: to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day…

Oh, and the congregation (small as it was) did join and and sing with me.

Sphere: Related Content