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.

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