22 October 2012

Service as Sacrament

Mark 10: 35-45

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost/ October 21, 2012

It was the great theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430), writing in the late-fourth to early fifth-century, who gave us one of the best descriptions of a sacrament.  So good it’s stood the test of time. A sacrament, he said, is “a visible sign of an invisible grace.”  It’s that simple; so easy to remember.  I remember learning it in college.

A sacrament is something that allows the invisible grace of God to become visible, even tangible in our lives.  A sacrament is a holy act that allows something of God to come into focus. It’s an act that allows the grace of God to become more accessible to all of our senses and therefore more real.  That’s what baptism does.  That’s what the Lord’s Supper does.  The definition works for any moment, any activity that helps to reveal the presence and love of God.  As we know, Protestants affirm two sacraments; our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters consider five additional acts sacramental.  But if we affirm Augustine’s definition and say that a sacrament is “a visible signs of an invisible grace,” then that means there can be many signs that make grace visible to us.  If we were to add to the list of sacraments – and I’m not suggesting that we do so, but if we did – perhaps Protestants and Roman Catholics, as well as Orthodox Christians would agree that acts of service can also be regarded sacramental.  Because service, when done in love, can also be a sign of God’s grace and reign in the world.  Service, when done in love and joy, can convey to the world that God is near.

            This is Jesus’ point here, much to the consternation, frustration and confusion of the disciples. “…but whoever wishes to be great among you must become your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave (or servant) of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).

            Now, these verses sound pretty harmless.  Don’t they?  They sound, well, so Christian.  Jesus as servant.  Jesus as servant of all.  Jesus as suffering servant.  The Christian is called to serve. That’s what we do – or what we’re supposed to do – we serve one another.  This is what it means to be Christian, some say.  We do nice things for people.  We try to do some good in the world.  It’s the Christian thing to do.  Christians don’t have the market on doing good, however. 

To be a follower of Jesus, however, is more than just trying to be good person.  Doing good does not a Christian make.  Jesus is more than a teacher of ethics.  For what Jesus is saying here, what he’s expecting from his disciples requires something more than a willingness to do good.

            Just before we read about James and John asking to be their teacher’s pet, their teacher tells them, “See we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit on him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days rise again” (10:33-34).  Then, we find James and John not listening – or listening, but not hearing, ignoring, denying what he said – asking Jesus for a favored position when he sits in glory.  There’s only room for two, they think, one on the left and one on the right.  “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says.  You really don’t know what you’re asking.  You have no idea, do you; you have no idea what I’m about, do you?  Sure, we do.  Just pick us.  You’ll see.  We’re better than the others. 

            When the others heard James and John, they became angry.  So Jesus called them all aside and said, look, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”  You know that among the Gentiles…  Who is Jesus talking about here?  Who are the Gentiles?  Non-Jews, yes.  But who is the ruler of the Gentiles?  The Roman governor.  He’s also the ruler of the Jews, too, because the Romans are occupying Palestine.  You know how the Romans operate, Jesus says, they lord it over them; their rulers lord it over them, and subjugate everyone, including their “great ones,” probably a veiled reference here to the Roman Emperor himself.

How does Rome act?  It’s all about power.  Those at the top have all the power; those at the bottom have none.  Those on the bottom exist to serve those on the top.  Those without power are destined to serve those with power – and they are powerless to do anything about it.  Those who have more honor, more glory, more power expect to be served by those who are beneath them.  That is the Roman way. 

            But it’s just not the Roman way, there’s something about all this that reflects a very human way, a fallen-human way, in that we struggle to be on top of the heap, to be the best, to have the place of honor, the recognition of the crowd, the glory.  If we’re honest, there’s something of James and John in all of us.  We all have ego needs, like James and John, and we have a tendency to look to wealth, power, position, authority, honor, glory, and status to help meet our ego needs.  To be clear, these are not inherently bad, but they can easily become hurtful and destructive, petty and small, ugly and dishonoring, even evil if all we’re worrying about is our ego needs, if we’re only worrying about ourselves, if we use people and power and privilege – and yes, even religion (!) – to get ahead in the world.  

           “But it is not so among you,” Jesus says.

            One of the wisest and honest writers I know is Parker Palmer, a Quaker, an educator, philosopher, a humane human being.  Several years ago, in his book Let Your Life Speak, he was brutally honest about a time when he was offered the presidency of a small educational institution.  He wanted the job, and he thought he should take it.  He gathered a half-dozen trusted friends and formed what’s called in the Quaker tradition, a “clearness committee.” This helps to discern what the Quakers call way, whether the way is clear or closed.  They gathered around him, not to offer advice, but to ask honest, open-ended questions of Palmer to help him discern the call. 

            Halfway through this three-hour meeting, a friend asked Palmer what he would like most about being president.  He mentioned several things he wouldn’t enjoy, like wearing a tie.  But one friend said, you’re not answering the question.  Palmer says that he then “gave an answer that appalled even me as I spoke it:  ‘Well,’ I said, in the smallest voice I possess, ‘I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word ‘president’ under it.’”  He continues, “I was sitting with seasoned Quakers who knew that though my answer was laughable, my mortal soul was clearly at stake!  They did not laugh at all but went into a long and serious silence – a silence in which I could only sweat and inwardly grown.  Finally, my questioner broke the silence with a question that cracked all of us up – and cracked me open:  ‘Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?’  By then it was obvious, even to me, that my desire to be president had much more to do with my ego than with the ecology of my life.”[1]  That moment of clarity led him to withdraw his name from the search.

            “But it is not so among you….” 

When Jesus offers these words, he’s leading his disciples down an entirely different path.  It’s not the way our egos usually want to go.  It’s not the way that comes naturally to us.  And it’s certainly not the way one chooses to go if one’s ego is especially fragile and insecure, when it full of worry and anxiety, when the ego “dominates, exploits, and manipulates others for its own advantage.”[2] 

But it is not so among you….”

            Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant or slave of all.  Jesus is talking about mutual servant-hood here, one serves the other, seeks to serve the other, does not seek to “lord it over” the other. Equal to equal.

            But how?  How do we do this?  It sounds impossible, given human nature.  It cuts against the grain of so much of who we are.  Is Jesus setting up an impossible standard for us to achieve?  I don’t think so. That wouldn’t be loving, would it? 

            Jesus didn’t have to grab for glory or wealth or power or authority or status in order to affirm who he was.  He knew who he was.  In the absolute best sense of the phrase, Jesus was truly full of himself, that is, clear about his identity and purpose.  And it’s from that state of fullness, of completion, of participation in the love and generosity of God that he was free – not compelled, but free – to serve and to give.  I believe that the way of Jesus is offered to us through him.  From Jesus’ perspective, “only the strongest sense of self, a self that neither grovels nor grasps, can resist chasing counterfeit notions of greatness.”[3]  When we have a strong sense of self, who we really are, deeper than the ego, then we are free to serve and give in a new way.

When we serve and give in this way – when we see it happening toward others, when we’re the ones doing it, when we’re the ones receiving this kind of generosity – it becomes and looks and feels sacramental.  There’s something holy and good about it.  Something of God is present in those moments because that is the way God is, that’s how it’s done.  And, I believe, it’s possible for us to live and serve this way, not by human will and determination alone, but when we know who we are, when our identity is firmly grounded in the One who created us, loves us, redeems us, and empowers us to act.

            Whether we’re putting together Safe Motherhood Kits for IMA World Health, helping at the Samaritan Women here in Catonsville, building homes with Habitat for Humanity in impoverished Baltimore neighborhoods, sharing a meal through Lazarus Caucus, engaging in advocacy, working for justice and fairness, making the world safe for our children, sitting beside someone who is scared, lending an open ear and an open heart, or giving space and time to the things and people that really matter, we’re not just doing “good works." When we do all of this – as well as the countless other ways that we serve one another – in love because of the One who loves us, then service becomes a sacrament.  It’s a holy moment.  Holy.  In those moments we know that God is at work in us and through us.  In those moments we know that God is near.

[1]Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1999), 44-46.  I’m relying on Daniel D. Clendenin’s helpful summary of Palmer’s account found on his website, Journey with Jesus: http://journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20121015JJ.shtml.

15 October 2012

The Blessing of Minority Status

Mark 10:17-22

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost/ 14th October 2012

 No, this is not a stewardship sermon.  This is not a sermon about money and pledges and budgets.  But it does have to do with wealth and power and influence.  It’s often called the parable of the rich (young) man.  You know the story.  While Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit life?”  After deflecting his adulation, Jesus says, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; …’” The man replies, “I have kept all of these since my youth.”  I’ve followed the rules, I’ve been a good person, I’ve done what is expected of me by my family, my faith, my community. 

            Then, Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  Of course, we know what happened.  The man was troubled by the answer and “he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” 
            Jesus looked around and said to his students, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”  And then they were shocked and perplexed.

            As we hear this story, it’s quite natural to think Jesus is talking only about money and possessions. And he is at some level.  Because of the judgment Jesus makes against wealth and possessions here, it’s easy to assume that wealth and possessions are inherently evil or bad.  But Jesus isn’t saying this.  There’s another level here.  What he is saying is that if you have a lot of wealth and possessions it’s just more difficult to be his follower, you have more baggage, as it were, more weighing you down. 

            When we focus on the wealth verses, it’s easy to overlook these words, which, I think, really drives this text:  Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said…  Jesus looked at him, saw him, I believe, looked into the depths of his soul, and loved him, loved him through and through, to the depths of his soul, and in love – true love – said to him, You who claim to “have” so much, who “own” so much, “claim” to have done so much, are lacking one essential thing.  What you’re lacking is the ability to let go.  What you’re lacking is the willingness to release your grip, to relax your striving and your selfish ambition, your fearful grasp after things, your obsessive compulsion to get it right, your anxious worry about missing out on eternal life.  Let it go.  “Sell it.”  Detach from it. 

            For this man, it was his many possessions and their death-grip on his life that needed healing.  It’s in love that Jesus invites him “to sell,” not because wealth is bad, but because for him the wealth meant more to him than eternal life, his wealth distracted him from life in the kingdom, his identity was too wrapped up in what he owned, how much he had.  And he looked for his security and assurance in how much he had.  You can tell how much his wealth was connected to his fearful ego because the thought of changing his status caused him considerable grief.

            How hard, indeed, it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.  Jesus isn’t saying it’s impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom.  It’s just more difficult.  Not because wealth is bad, but because we value wealth more than the kingdom.  To truly be a child of the kingdom requires a giving up, sacrifice, a dying and a rising into a new way of being in the world.  When we give up attachment to wealth and power and possessions and, yes, even people, and focus on the kingdom, on God, something remarkable happens.  We gain a different kind of wealth and power and things and even people.  “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold (one hundred times) now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and field, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.”

            Like so many other places in Jesus’ preaching, the world is turned upside and inside out, and those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, let them hear and see.  For this is the truth that the rich man could not bear to hear and what he needed to hear and what we need to bear and heed and hear, “…many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  If this isn’t contrary to the way most of us live in the West, I don’t know what is.  This is the opposite of our Western values, our American values – where we say that we must be the first, the goal is to be first, the best, and God help, literally, the last, the least, the second-best.  This might be the American gospel, but it’s not God’s gospel, and it’s not the message of the cross.

            It’s striking that the Gospel lectionary for today, which includes these words, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,” comes to us the same week that the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released its latest statistics on religion in America.  For the first time in our nation’s history, Protestant Christians now make up 48% of the population.  We are now a minority faith in the United States for the first time.  We were at 60% of the population in the early 1990s.  This is a dramatic shift.  If this doesn’t tell Protestants that we’re “not in Kansas anymore,” that we’re not in the 1950s any more, that the church and the world around us have changed and is changing, I’m not sure what will. 

            The Pew Forum also cited that for the first time in our nation’s history the fastest growing segment of our population are those who describe themselves as “nones” – those with no religious affiliation.  Their number has risen to almost 20% of the population, which reflects an increase of 15% in the last five years.

            Now before we respond to these numbers with doom and gloom, before we find someone or something to blame for this change, we should probably take a step back and take an honest, sober assessment of ourselves, and ask a few questions.  And we must resist attempts to rush in to “fix” the problem, because the problem can’t be easily “fixed,” if at all.  There’s a question whether or not it should be fixed.  There’s the deeper question, what is the problem? 

            The problem might be that we Protestants are like the rich man in the parable.  Maybe we have been seduced by our “wealth.”  By wealth, I don’t mean money alone – although, historically, we Protestants have been and are among the wealthiest in the nation.  We have been rich in financial resources, but we have also been rich in our influence, rich in power and resources (such as education), rich with a cultural hegemony that said, believed, acted as if this nation was ours, that ours was the true church of Jesus Christ, that we knew how to do church, how to worship, how to preach and live the gospel.  We cannot underestimate the enormity of Protestant power and dominance in our nation’s history.  We know the history: the pilgrims in Plymouth were Protestants; most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Protestants; our form of democracy, although inspired by the ancient Greeks, was really channeled through the religious reforms of the Reformation. The oldest and best universities and colleges in America were founded by Protestants.  When Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) of France traveled through America in the early nineteenth century and described the people in this democracy, he saw a people shaped by a Christian outlook.  “There is no country in the world,” he wrote in Democracy in America (1835/1840), “where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.” He was describing Protestant America. Until the large influx of Roman Catholics in the late nineteenth-century Protestants were the unchallenged dominant class, the dominant church, the dominant political force.  And among the Protestants, Presbyterians were among the most powerful, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The American Revolution was known in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster as the “Presbyterian rebellion.”

            But maybe – just maybe – our wealth, broadly understood, is no longer a blessing but burden.  Maybe it has become a distraction; maybe we have become so obsessed with our Protestant ideal and our Protestant work ethic, our ambition, our pride, our drive, our desire to be first, that we have lost the spirit and fire of the gospel.  Perhaps we have become so obsessed with our “possessions” that we’ve lost the purpose of our calling.  Have we become so entrenched in our way of doing church, in our way of having power, control, and influence, that we’ve neglected the core mission of the gospel?  Have we attached our self-importance to dominance?  Are we valuing the wrong things?  Do we value the trappings of church and culture more than the gospel?

            The Pew Forum found that among the 20% “nones” population that these people have not given up on God, they have not given up on prayer, they have not given up on spirituality, and they have not given up on caring for the least among us.  These women and men are among the “spiritual but not religious” category.  They’re on a spiritual journey, but they’re their path completely bypasses the institutional church.  The decline among Protestants is also similar to the decline among Roman Catholics in this country.  And among Protestants, it’s occurring in the evangelical and in the so-called liberal churches.  It all points to the fact that something is essentially wrong with institutional Christianity in the West.  There are many reasons for this shift; however, the largest influence increasing the “nones” population, as the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has shown, is young adults’ “reaction to the religious right.”  “The best predictor of which people have moved into this category over the last twenty years,” Putnam says, “is how they felt about religion and politics” aligning, particularly conservative politics and opposition to gay civil rights.[1]

            Yes, it’s a little depressing to learn that we’ve lost our market-share of the religious economy in America.  It’s a jolt to our Protestant egos.  But maybe it’s a gift.  Maybe it’s a wake-up call.  Maybe it’s an opportunity for us to re-examine what it means to be a child of the Reformation, of being “reformed and always being reformed.”  But more than that, maybe it’s an opportunity to discover again what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, what it means to live in and toward God’s kingdom.  Philip Jenkins, president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, said something similar in an interview this week.  “It may do us a lot of good as Protestants to lose dominance,” he said.  “Instead of reaction, we need to listen to this carefully.  It could help Protestants to reflect more critically on our purpose as people of faith.”[2]

            Maybe Jesus is looking at us and in love says to us, “You lack one thing. Go and ‘sell’ it.”  Let it go.  Let your Protestant “wealth” and cultural dominance go.  Instead of grieving over the loss of our “wealth,” maybe we can detach from it, not over-identify with it, shake off its weight and discover a freedom that we’ve been missing, a freedom to really live the faith without all its cultural baggage.  Let the first become last and as “last” we might get to see what being “first” really looks like in the kingdom of God.  Then we’ll claim or reclaim our “treasure” and value what matters most.  Not institutions and numbers and size and power and influence and endowments.  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Maybe trusting so much in our wealth, liking it so much, we’ve lost the ability to value the kingdom.

            All is not lost, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 

            So here’s to discovering the blessing of minority status!  Let us raise a glass to minority status!  On the way to being last, may we discover or rediscover all the more profoundly what it really means to be “first” in God’s kingdom, rediscovering that this should be the ultimate concern for us as individuals and as a church: being attentive to the deep hunger in the human heart that can only be satisfied by the grace of God, the deep human hunger for mercy, for justice, for healing, for love.  This should be our treasure that we are called to embody.  This is eternal life.  This is what God treasures. This is what calls us to life!

10 October 2012

Love in Truth and Action

1 John 3:18, 4:7-21

World Communion Sunday/ 7th October 2012

“Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words!”  So sang Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.[1]  Words fill every hour, every day.  Spoken. Read. Sung. Heard.  We can’t get away from them.  We Presbyterians are guilty as charged.  You have to admit, we’re a wordy-bunch of Jesus lovers.  Just look at how many words are in today’s worship bulletin!

A lot of good is accomplished with words.  But words can also be a distraction: they can prevent us from hearing what needs to be said; they remove us from the work at hand. It’s easy to talk a good game.

On the subject of love, the writer of 1 John has a few words for us. He offers one of the most profound expressions of the meaning of love found in Scripture. But, stop talking about love, he says.  Stop writing about love.  Stop preaching about love.  Stop with the words.  “Let us love,…not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).

            John knows that love is not a noun, but a verb.  It causes things to be.  What it causes to be is an extension of the one who is love.  With these verses we have the only place in the Bible where God is defined as love.  Yes, there are expressions of a loving God found in the Bible. But here we find John saying God is love, it’s who God is.  Love is the expression of God’s Being, completely, which means that if God is to remain God, then God cannot be anything other than love itself, the One who loves in truth and action.  How do we know this?  Jesus as God in the flesh is God’s love in “truth and action,” the Word of God embodied, enfleshed, and enacted because words are not enough; they’re never enough.  Love, if it is love, is embodied, enfleshed, and enacted.  Love causes something to be and what it causes to be is always an extension of the one who loves.  God is love.  As lovers of God, let us love, not in words only, but in truth and action.

            So, then, what do we mean by love?  That’s the question.  Sadly, what tries to pass for love is not love.  I’ve known plenty of people in my life who say they love someone, but their actions betray them: they do not practice what they preach, they do not embody their love.  In fact, their actions are the very opposite of love, inflicting fear and shame, sometimes violence and hurt and pain.  And, frankly, some people really don’t know how to love because they have never been on the receiving end of love and respect; they don’t know what that feels like and looks like. When it comes to love, though, we all fall short.

            On this World Communion Sunday as we consider our connection with Christian brothers and sisters around the world looking for love, we are lifting up, in particular, the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who needs a whole lot of love.  Through the life and witness of Don Padgett we as a church have a strong tie with Presbyterians in the DRC, especially in the Kasai (the central region that has a strong Presbyterian witness).  Bulape, Kananga, Tshikaji, and Lubondai are familiar place names to us, places that know our love in truth and action.  And we have been blessed with knowing something of the pain, suffering, and trauma experienced by the Congolaise.  I say “blessed” because they have helped raise our consciousness around issues that we otherwise would have been ignorant.  And in this knowledge – in this love – we have been called to truth and action. 

The DRC is a tough place to live; it’s one of the poorest nations in Africa, among the poorest in the world.  The unspeakable suffering and loss that they have experienced is beyond our capacity to imagine.  As a result it’s a place where reality is a little unhinged.  I saw that eight years ago when I traveled to the Kasai with Don.  And I saw it in August 2011 while traveling in Kivu, Eastern Congo, with Rick Santos and members of the IMA World Health board, visiting new places like Goma, Bukavu, and Mwanza. This past summer I went back to Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico.  While I was there I met a monk who was from Zambia.  I mentioned to him that I had spent some time in the DRC, that I’ve been to Goma and Bukavu.  He was amazed. “You’ve been to Bukavu?” he said.  Then he touched my hand to see if I was real. He couldn’t believe that a Westerner had been to a place like Eastern Congo.  Places that have been in the crosshairs of wars and civil wars, with countless women, men, and children the victims of war, particularly victims of sexual and gender-based violence. A UN official once called Goma the “rape capital of the world.”  On our visit we met several women who were raped. We talked with them.  Listened to them, heard their stories.  Unknowingly, we also met and talked with their perpetrators. 

            I have to confess, I didn’t know much about sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) before going to Goma.  But I’m grateful for the “blessing” of this knowledge, because it has caused me to be better informed, better educated around this issue, and better equipped to do something about it there.  But what came as a shock to many of us – and Rick Santos shares this view in his introduction to the One In Three sermon guides recently released by IMA World Health through their We Will Speak Out initiative – is that what is happening in Congo is actually happening in one form or another to women, men, and children, but mostly to women, all around the world, including the United States.[2] Sexual and gender-based violence is far more pervasive than we like to admit. The disturbing PBS-series Half the Sky, which aired this past week, based on the book by award-winning journalists Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, makes this abundantly clear.[3]  In 2010, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a national survey of American adults and discovered that “more than one in three women in the US have reportedly experienced sexual assault, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.  The same is true for more than one in four men.”[4]

            According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.”[5]

            And it’s occurring in the church.  An internal study done by the United Church of Christ (here in the US) states, “What will strike some as remarkable is that the data we gathered contains nothing remarkable.  The numbers of persons who have experienced sexual and domestic violence…are very consistent with national averages.” As Rick Santos says, “attending church didn’t make anyone less susceptible to sexual or domestic violence.”[6]

            These are sobering statistics and difficult to hear.  I know.  I am conscious that this is a sensitive subject to talk about.  We’re very conscious of this.  We don’t often hear about these things in worship.  Our silence, though, is not helpful and it’s not loving, particularly toward those who might be included among these statistics.  But we’re talking about more than statistics here; we’re talking about real people. The silence allows the shame to permeate one’s life.  The church’s silence reinforces the shame and the pain and keeps it in shadow.  This is not the way of Jesus Christ.  As Jesus graciously said, “For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light” (Mark 4:22).  Love in truth and action calls us to speak out with and for those who cannot speak out.  And if the church won’t speak out, who will?  Love in truth and action invites us to take what’s been placed in shadow and shame and lift it up to the light of God’s healing love, so that the totality of one’s self can be loved and fully embraced and held. 

            Love in truth and action means ensuring that our homes and church are safe places, sanctuaries – places where God’s love is enacted and embodied, known and felt and celebrated, places of healing and hope, places where people know that God’s love is liberating and freeing.  In the hope of putting love in truth and action, we want to ensure that we are creating safe places here today.  I have asked Dorothy Boulton to be available in the Crossroads room after the service if any of our youth would like to talk about anything heard today, and I invited Dr. Elaine Bain, a psychologist and person of faith on staff at the Suburban Pastoral Counseling Center (based here at the church), to be available in the France Room.  And I’ll be around if anyone wants to talk.

            So what is this love, then?  What is God’s love?  What does it look like?  Feel life? What does it do?  As Jesus demonstrated and embodied with every ounce of his being, God’s love raises the dead to new life.  It is resurrection and it’s renewal.  It’s liberation and new creation.  It transforms everything that has died or is dying in us and offers life.  It’s a love that is powerful and creative and always – always! – life-giving.  It calls people to life and it fights and struggles against anything or anyone that tries to destroy or dehumanize one of God’s beloved children.  It wants people to live and to grow and to thrive.  It wants the best for God’s children.  It takes delight in the uniqueness and joy of the other – whoever the other might be.[7] 

            The early church father, Irenaus (d. c.202), the bishop of Lyon, France, said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”  We glorify God by helping people come alive, to be the people they were created by God to be. Love not only invites people to come alive, love also creates the space for it to happen in safe, loving communities, families, and churches where people are loved, respected, and honored.  Love creates caring spaces for people to grow and develop, spaces that are safe, spaces that allow deep healing to occur so that men, women, and children can grow into being the people they were created by God to be.  Several years ago one of our young, budding theologians asked her mother, “Mom, what is the church forThis is what the church is for.

            And this is what it looks like, a Table of welcome placed at the center of God’s world.  This, too, is love in truth and action.  And our host invites us to come, urges us to come from north and south and east and west, trusts us – and counts on us – to make it safe for everyone to make their way safely to the Table, so that all can feast on the abundance of God’s love.  With arms out stretched in love to a world in need, Jesus welcomes us here and with the embrace of his arms actually creates the space – he is that space – where we encounter again and again the deep healing love of God, a space that continually calls us to come fully alive!

[1]Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, 1956.
[2]One in Three:  Preventing Sexual Violence in Our Communities, IMA World Health, 2012.
[3] Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky:  Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Vintage Books, 2010).
[4]Cited in One in Three:  Preventing Sexual Violence in Our Communities (IMA World Health, 2012), 4-5.
[5]Cited in One in Three, 8-9.
[6]One in Three, 4.
[7]These comments are drawn from my contribution to the One in Three sermon guide, “Why We Must Choose Love,” 7-10.