Monday, August 28, 2017

August 27, 2017 I Love the Church Because...I Am Accepted

This week we continue the series of messages titled I Love the Church Because…  This week’s message is I Love the Church Because…I Am Accepted.  I want to begin as I did last week with, what someone wrote to complete the phrase, I Love the Church Because…

I love the church because I belong.  From the time I was a young child my own family has made me feel like an outsider.  Like I had to be a certain way, talented enough, a “proper” lady.  I never felt “good” enough for them.  But with Christ, in His church, I am enough.  I belong.  He blesses me with the right talents to have and cherish my husband and children.  He blessed me with a new family that needs me as I am.  He blessed me with my church family to love and support me.  I belong!

Our Scripture text for this morning tells of an encounter Jesus had with a Pharisee named Simon.  Simon invited Jesus to his home, for dinner, and Luke’s gospel tells us of what happened in 7:36-47 –

36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.
37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.
38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.
46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.
47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

I have two simple points to share with you this morning, the first of which is –

1.  People will search out – and find – somewhere they can be accepted.

Listen to the first three verses of today’s Scripture text again, and see if you notice something unusual about this scene –

36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.
37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.
38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

Did you notice what is odd about that passage?  Jesus was a guest in the home of Simon, the Pharisee; he was supposed to be there.  The woman in this story simply shows up at Simon’s house, comes into his house, stood behind Jesus weeping, wet his feet with his tears, then wiped his feet with her tears, kissed his feet, and then poured perfume on his feet.  Let me ask you this question – when was the last time you had a dinner party where something like that happened?  And if you did, what in the world would you think?  What would you do?

Imagine the awkwardness of that moment!  Imagine how people must have begun to stare at this woman and to mutter about her shocking behavior!  I can’t imagine what in interesting moment that must have been.  But here’s what we need to know – people will do most anything to find acceptance.  People will travel almost any distance, they will do almost anything, they will go almost anywhere, they will allow themselves to be embarrassed and they will embarrass others, all because they are desperate to find acceptance.

This woman did not come to see Simon, the Pharisee.  Actually, I’m rather amazed she managed to get into his house!  I’m amazed Simon didn’t have her removed!  Simon was a religious figure in his community.  He seemed to be well known and most likely a person of some means.  He probably invited other leading members of his community.  He probably invited people of means.  Jesus was coming to his home for dinner!  Simon was going to invited anyone who was anybody, because he wanted to make an impression.  But this woman had not been invited, and she was not coming into Simon’s home because she felt accepted by him; in fact, she came in spite of the fact that Simon had not invited her and had not welcomed her into his home. Simon, one of the most religious members of the community, whose responsibility it was to be hospitable, refused to offer her welcome.  Very clearly, his message was, you are not welcome here!  But that’s okay, because she was there because of Jesus, and Jesus made her feel accepted.

There are few forces as powerful in life as the desire to belong and to be accepted, and there are few forces as devastating as rejection.  The desire to be accepted is one of the primary reasons why people are drawn to church.  People come for many reasons, and one of those reasons is certainly to be part of a community, to be part of what we so often refer to as our “family.”  Indeed, for many people, the church becomes a surrogate family.  But a lack of acceptance can be why people leave a church or the church, and let’s be honest, churches have not always been welcoming to all people.  There are modern-day Simons, sitting in church pews, standing in church foyers, and sitting in Sunday School classrooms who are as unwelcoming and as judgmental as was Simon.

I asked a classmate back in my high school days why he got involved with what we called the “heads,” who were the drug users.  In my school we had the “heads” and the “reds.”  “Reds” was short for “redneck,” which in my school meant someone who didn’t use drugs.  For a while some of us got together for an annual “reds” against the “heads” football game, until we finally didn’t have enough “reds” to field a team.  I asked my classmate why he became one of the “heads,” which led him into a lot of drug use, which caused him a lot of difficulties and problems.  His answer?  They were the group that accepted him.

At church camp, again this year, I was struck by how many times in the course of the week I heard those students talk about the fact that they loved church camp so much because they could be themselves there and they were accepted simply for who they are.  Some of those students are popular and admired by their classmates and their peers, and yet they still crave acceptance.  When I was a student minister, back in the 80s, I often played my students a song called I’m Accepted, by a band named DeGarmo and Key, the lyrics of which are simple, yet powerful –

I may not be rich
Don't wear fashion clothes
Don't live in a mansion
Don't have much that shows
Never won a contest in popularity
Don't have much to offer
But Jesus loves me
I'm accepted, accepted
I'm accepted by the One who matters most

Never set a record in sports agility
Never was magnetic in personality
That don't really matter
I'll do the best I can
'Cause there's a God above me
Who loves me like I am
I'm accepted, accepted
I'm accepted by the One who matters most

If you think you're a loser
When you fail it seems at everything you do
Just remember there's a Savior
And you are worth enough
He gave His life for you
I'm accepted, accepted
I'm accepted by the One who matters most

The powerful desire for acceptance is what drives young people to do many things, but it's not just young people.  People of all ages need to know they are accepted, and for the church, acceptance is one of our bedrock principles and callings.

2.  We are accepted.

Listen again to the rest of the Scripture text –

39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.
46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.
47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

I find that exchange to be interesting on several levels.  One is that it sounds like it was spoken in tenderness.  Jesus says, Simon, I have something to tell you, to which Simon responds, tell me, teacher.  It doesn’t sound to me as though Jesus was scolding Simon, although his words surely very stinging to Simon.  I think Jesus had a great deal of affection for Simon, but Jesus also had a measure of disappointment because of Simon’s rejection of this woman.

Obviously, this was not the first encounter Jesus had with a Pharisee; Jesus had many encounters with Pharisees.  The Pharisees are often portrayed as the “bad guys” of the gospels, and there is certainly plenty of evidence that they lived up to the long-held stereotype that they were possessed of much self-righteousness and hypocrisy.  Not all Pharisees, however, fit that description.  Some, like Nicodemus, are portrayed in a more positive light.  Nicodemus, in his encounter with Jesus in the third chapter of John’s gospel, is genuinely interested in what Jesus had to say and also recognized him as being sent by God (Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him – John 3:2).  Nicodemus also gave a defense of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51) and helped with his body after the crucifixion (John 19:39-42).

The tragedy of the Pharisees is that their original purpose was very well-intended and much needed, but eventually went far off track.  The Pharisees came into being during the time we call the intertestamental period, that is, the time after the end of the Old Testament era and before the dawn of the New Testament era.  In that time period the religious life of God’s people had grown stale and was in need of revival.  The Pharisees began as a movement to bring about revival by emphasizing personal holiness, study of the Scriptures, and a close adherence to the Law of Moses.  That was all well and good, but after some time their efforts at reform and their desire to increase holiness devolved into legalism, which is always a danger to movements of personal piety.  Such movements can quickly become more about following religious rules, while in the process forgetting the intent behind those rules.

It’s easy to find ourselves in the position of Simon.  Simon was blind to the fact that he was unaccepting of this woman, and we too, have our share of blind spots.  Perhaps we’ve been in church all of our lives and have been in all the positions churches have to offer.  We’ve served faithfully and the church has always been able to count on us to do whatever was needed.  Now mind you, I’m not diminishing that at all, but we must be careful lest we fall into the same trap as Simon, and that is thinking we are more righteous than others, because we’re not.  Our lives might be a bit more together and we might have less dysfunction and we might not bother our neighbors or any such thing, but that doesn’t mean we are more righteous, and it should certainly never lead us to believe, as Simon did, that some people who wander into our midst our of lesser value, worth, equality, or dignity. 

It is a sad testimony when any group of religious people – such as Simon – pride themselves on who they exclude rather than on whom they include.  This attitude has, sadly, been well represented among religious people over the centuries, as too many continue to construct walls of exclusion rather than building bridges of inclusion.  Jesus reminded Simon of his lack of hospitality, as he did nothing to make Jesus feel welcome, which is ironic, as hospitality was an important hallmark of the religious life of the time.  This serves as a powerful warning for us today – one can keep all the “official religious rules” of the day and yet be a long way from the core tenants of the faith.

Too many churches have fancied themselves as the gatekeepers for God, believing they are the ones who control access to God and are the one who get to determine who can be associated with God. Isn’t that nuts!  Sometimes, I like to think of the church as being like the Island of Misfit Toys.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  The Island of Misfit Toys is in the cartoon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  I like to think of the church that way because there ought to be some place where people can go and they can belong.  It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you have, or what you don’t have, whether or not you’re rich or poor, and regardless of much of a misfit you might be – in the church, you belong!

Charles Spurgeon, the famed English preacher of the 19th century, said that we are accepted in the Beloved.  We are accepted by God, but Spurgeon saw that acceptance as being necessarily extended to others as well, and not just reserved for those within the church.  Spurgeon was opposed to slavery, because he believed that all people were accepted by God, and because of that view he lost many of his admirers and supporters in this country.  His sermons, once best-sellers, dropped to almost nothing, and he received threatening correspondence.  What a sad testimony to the closed hearts and minds of people!

I want to close this morning with another one of the statements I was given to complete the phrase I love the church because….  It also speaks to the desire for – and discovery of – acceptance.  Acceptance was the primary theme in the responses I received, which was not surprising to me.
I love the church because I feel accepted as a believer.  I have a place to study the Bible.  I have a place to go to when I feel judged as a believer.  I have a place to truly call home.

Amen to that!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

August 20, 2017 I Love the Church Because...It Is Indestructible

I appreciate very much receiving answers to that statement and I will share as many as possible in the course of the series.  Some of them might be adapted a bit in order to make sure the individuals won’t be identified in any way.  I will begin this morning with one of them – I know our world is in bad shape and many people can only see negativity in everything.  I get so overwhelmed when I watch the news that often I feel hopeless.  But when I come to church I feel renewed.  I feel the love of God and the congregation surround(s) me and that gives me hope for tomorrow.   I know that what comes next is in God's hands.  It is easy to forget that when I see so much pain in the world.  But from the minute you walk in the door of FCC I feel…connected to something greater that myself.  I feel so blessed to be part of that love.  I think that is so well expressed, and I think it speaks for all of us as well.

Our Scripture text for this morning is, I think, the obvious place to start, because it is, interestingly, one of the few places where Jesus used the word church Matthew 16:13-18.

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

I thought I would begin this morning by taking just a moment to tell you a bit about my home church.  I was raised in the Wellsburg Christian Church, in Wellsburg, West Virginia, just a few miles from Bethany, where Alexander Campbell lived and where he founded Bethany College, one of our very fine Disciples schools.  Wellsburg Christian Church was founded by Alexander Campbell and his father, Thomas, both of whom served as the first ministers of the church.  The Campbells were two of the four most important figures in the movement that led to the founding of the Disciples of Christ churches.  Walter Scott, a third member of that group of four (the fourth being Barton W. Stone), was also one of the first ministers of the church, so I grew up in one of the central locations in the history of the Disciples churches.

In many ways, there is nothing special or outstanding about that church. It was, in my younger years, a typical small town church.  We weren’t very large (there weren’t any large church where I grew up, as it wasn’t a very churched area in comparison to this area and most of the south); we didn’t have a lot of impressive programs; we never had a youth minister, a children’s minister, or a music minister, only a minister; we didn’t have an impressive building; we didn’t have a big budget; we didn’t have a lot of the things that we often associate with churches today.  In recent years, the church has struggled and has declined, reflecting the slow, painful decline of the town and larger area.  Wellsburg has lost quite a bit of population since I graduated from high school in 1975 and the county – Brooke County – is, according to an article I read in the New York Times, is literally the dyingest county in the entire country.  Brooke County, and Wellsburg, have been hit hard by the economic downturn that accompanied the closing of almost all of the steel mills in the northern Ohio Valley.  The towns, the businesses, and even the churches, all reflect the decline of the area. 

Having said all that, and though I have a great deal of sadness about what has happened to my home area over the years, it still remains very much a part of who I am, and it would be impossible for me to adequately communicate what the Wellsburg Christian Church has meant to my life.  The people of that church taught me in Sunday School, contributed the money that helped to send me to church camp, the adults of the church who served as role models, and one minister, in particular, shaped and molded my life in a way that has been so very profound, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like without those experiences and those people.  When I return home to visit my family it is a rare occasion that I am able to worship in my home church, but I do like to drive or walk by it and, when I can, stop in and step into the sanctuary in order to be transported back in time.  When I walk in the building, climb the steps to the second floor to enter the sanctuary, and sit in a pew, I see that almost nothing has changed, at least in the appearance of the building.  I can sit in a pew and remember where people sat all those years ago.  I can see them in my mind, getting up to receive the offering or to serve communion, or to open the windows on a warm summer day.  Many of those people are long gone, but they remain very much in my heart and mind and the faith has now become part of my faith.  I am so very grateful to that church and to those people who nurtured my faith, who cared for me, and will never be forgotten.

I imagine my experience is true for many, if not all of you, as well.  Whether you grew up in this church or in a different one, your experience was probably very similar to mine, certainly in respect to the people who influenced your life, because here is an important truth – when we look back on the churches that shaped and molded our lives, we rarely if ever speak of a fancy building or impressive technology.  We rarely if ever speak of the style of worship.  We rarely if ever speak of the amazing committee meetings.  We almost always talk about the people and the ways in which those people helped to connect us to God, how they helped to deepen and enrich our faith, and how they shaped and molded our lives.

So, I decided to offer this series of messages for several reasons.  One is because I am, frankly, tired of hearing so many bad things about churches.  I am a member of a number of email lists that send out church news and information about the world of faith and ministry.  More often than not these days I delete the messages without reading any of the articles.  The reason?  I’m tired of the gloom and doom drumbeat of bad news.  I know that there are churches struggling in this day and age, but I also know that the news is not always as bad as it is made out to be.  The church is very much in transition these days (and that is not a bad thing, in my opinion.  We were very much in need of some of the transitions that are taking place) but it is certainly not in danger of dying, as some would claim.  The oft-heard narrative about the decline of the church is, in all honesty, about as far from the truth as one can get.  Yes, there is decline in some places, but even the measurements of those areas do not tell the entire story.  Indeed, on a worldwide scale the church is booming, and it is booming in parts of the world that were once – and in some cases continues to be – hostile to both the church and the Gospel.  China will soon be home to more Christians than all of Europe and by the middle of this century may have more Christians than any other country.  Imagine that!  A country that is officially atheistic is now witnessing some of the greatest in the history of the church!  Throughout Asia the church is growing exponentially.  The countries that comprised the former Soviet Union are seeing much church growth, as is sub-Saharan Africa and South America.  The church is alive and well, of that there is no doubt about. 

I am also presenting this series of messages as a rebuttal to those who claim the church is irrelevant in our modern age.  Once again, nothing could be further from the truth!  I’m not sure who first equated ancient with irrelevant, but those two words are not connected.  In fact, there is much ancient wisdom in our world that remains incredibly beneficial to us, and that is because the human condition never changes.  Technology brings about great change to the way we live, conduct business, and other matters of life, but the basics of human existence do not change.  The literature of the ancient Greeks is every bit as powerful today as it was millennia ago.  The engineering skills of the ancient Egyptians is as impressive today as it was in their day.  And is there a modern writer the equivalent of Shakespeare?  And where are the modern day versions of Beethoven and Chopin?  And we certainly continue to value the words of an old document we call the Constitution, as much as we sometimes argue about it.  No, ancient is neither equivalent to being irrelevant or out of date.  We still have much to learn from the recent and distant ancients.

But the primary reason why I decided to do a series of messages titled I Love the Church is because I love the church!  I was a “pew baby.”  I have attended church all of my life, even in my younger adult years when I was doing what I will simply refer to as some “wandering.”  I love the church!  And I find it amusing that I am often asked a question, a question that is always prefaced by an interesting statement.  Many times over the course of my ministry I have been approached by someone who begins with the following statement – I want to ask you a question and I want you to tell me the truth (do they think I need to be reminded to tell the truth?).  That statement is almost always followed by the question, when you are on vacation, do you go to church or do you sleep in?  Yes, I go to church!  I love to attend church when I am on vacation.  It’s nice to listen to someone other than myself for a change!  I like to slip into the back of a sanctuary and observe what is going on, experience a different style of worship, and enjoy church without all of the things that would normally occupy my mind and attention on most Sunday mornings. I know every criticism of churches. I have heard them all. I have also experienced many of the shortcomings of churches, and I have experienced many of the hurts as well.  Some of those experiences are why I ended up here instead of continuing on my previous path (and I am very, very grateful to be here).  I’ve been a minister for over 35 years, so I have seen, heard, and experienced almost everything possible in churches, both good and bad, and I still love the church, and nothing will ever change the fact that I love the church.

That is a rather long introduction, so let’s turn now to this morning’s Scripture texts, which is one of the most famous in all of the Gospels.  Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, which was home to many competing truth claims.  It is in that context of various religious and political ideas that he draws from Peter the great confession of faith, a confession that continues to serve, after all these centuries, as our great uniting point – You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  The response of Jesus is so inspiring, as he proclaims that upon that confession he will build his church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

So allow me to offer a few words about the indestructibility of the church.

The Church is Indestructible in Spite of Itself.

I had originally planned to write a message for this series titled I Love the Church In Spite of…, but I thought that sounded far too negative, and I don’t want to be negative in this series, especially since one of the reasons I decided to offer this series was to counter the negativity that is often attached to church.

We all are well aware, however, of the sometimes problematic history of the church, and that history and the failures of churches are very painful to witness and to experience.  There are, for instance, many Catholics who have given up on the church because of the terribly tragic abuse scandal that continues to unfold in very painful ways.  That is certainly one of the most painful and terrible stains on the church in its entire history.  On the Protestant side of the faith we must remember that the struggle of any church, or denomination, becomes in some way our struggle as well.  We are all part of The Church, and what affects one part of the body of Christ affects us all.

I understand, I want to emphasize, that I understand how the depth of hurt does cause some people to turn away from the church.  We all know people who have joined what one person describes as “the church alumni society.”  The amount of hurt and pain out there has added far too many members to that “alumni society,” and I would never minimize the pain and suffering of anyone, but personally, I would never turn away from the church because of its failures, any more than I would consider turning away from my citizenship as an American because of the failures of our nation, which are also numerous and painful.  I might change congregations – and I have done so – because of hurts and struggles that take place, but I will never give up on the church.  It is my responsibility, I believe, to remain a part of the church and work to make it better, stronger, and as Christ-like as possible.

The church needs, I believe, to acknowledge and speak against its own struggles and failures, as well as those outside of the church.  There are failures and hurts all around us, and any institution – the church included – have perpetuated some measure of hurt, but that is all the more reason why we must speak up and speak out.  I think it is, for instance, commendable that members of the Catholic Church have forced it to confront the terrible scandal of abuse that has hurt so many people.  I think it is commendable that some of confronted the church with its role in the history of racism in this country.  The recent events in Charlottesville remind us that racism is still a powerful force in our society, unfortunately, and the church has not always set the best example in how to confront the scourge of racism.

This is why we must remember that while the Church is indestructible, not all individual congregations do survive, or will survive.  One of the reasons why I chose the picture that stands at the top of this message is because it serves as a reminder that some churches do not survive.  Sometimes, the closing of a church is due to sociological factors such as population shifts or the decline of a particular community.  Other times, however, churches close because they cease to be relevant to their communities, and one of the ways in which they become irrelevant is by ignoring the needs that exist outside of their walls.  If a local congregation cannot – or will not – speak against the ills that surround it or work to ease and eradicate those ills, then perhaps it is not only inevitable that the church will close, but perhaps it should close.

The Church is Indestructible Because of Its Anchor.

Listen again to the exchange between Jesus and Peter –
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

One of the great beauties of the church is that in these times of uncertainty, the church provides a sense of certainty.  That is true, I believe, of all the centuries of the church, because all times in history have about them a sense of uncertainty.  For over two millennia now, the church has served as an anchor of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.  When Jesus stood with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, I imagine there was a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty among them.  They were surrounded by many competing ideaologies and philosophies and it would have been very difficult for them to enjoy a sense of certainty and security.  Some of those ideaologies and philosophies would have been very demanding of them, such as Rome and its demand for ultimate allegiance.  Today is not much different from the context in which the disciples found themselves.  We too have many competing ideaologies and philosophies competing for our hearts and souls – and some of them are very demanding – but the church provides an anchor of certainty that reminds us God will be for us and with us whatever kingdom claims control.  We need that sense of the eternal and unchanging now more than ever.  In the midst of competing truth claims, Peter was able to make his great confession of faith, and in the midst of today’s competing truth claims and sometimes overwhelming uncertainty, let us also make our confession of faith and trust in Jesus.

The church has survived for 2,000 years because it is founded upon the eternal, and it will survive – and thrive – until God decides to bring a conclusion to creation.

The Church Will Continue to Change Lives.

My life was changed by a church.  Your life was changed by a church.  How many lives have been changed by this church, or any church, we can never know for certain.  There is no way for us to know in this life, but we can be assured it is a great many.  Some day, in eternity, we will have the privilege to know who they are.

At its heart, the church is about relationships, and it is through relationships that lives are changed.  I will close this morning with a very powerful testimony sent to me.  It is a beautiful testimony to a life changed be a church –

What does the church mean to me…Salvation, in the spiritual sense, but also from an earthly perspective.  I grew up in extreme poverty, without a named father and with a mother who put men and drugs ahead of her children and disappeared for weeks at a time. Although my family situation has sadly become commonplace nowadays, it was foreign to my small town [at the time].  Yes, I was blessed with grandparents who cared for me as their own and made sure my needs were met, but to the outside world, I was an outcast, an untouchable.  And then, one day in 3rd grade, a neighbor offered to pick me up on her way to church.  I don’t think I missed a Sunday for the next 3 years!  Partly out of pity and partly out of love, the congregation adopted me as their own.  They saw potential in me that I couldn’t yet see.  The Music Minister gave me free piano lessons and one of the older ladies from church picked me up every day from school and took me to her house to practice.  The next thing I knew, the church delivered a piano to my doorstep.  The congregation paid my way to church camp.  Even my high school jobs were working for church members.  When I was serving in [another state], they sent me letters and love offerings.  They supported me, guided me, prayed for me.  To them, I wasn’t “just that poor kid”.  I WAS SOMEBODY WHO WAS CREATED IN GOD’S IMAGE.  The church helped me rise above the circumstances that I couldn’t control and become the person that I was created to be.  They could have easily turned away, but they didn’t.  Their love and compassion saved me.

Isn’t that an amazing, beautiful testimony?  Our story may be different in the details, but we were changed by a church as well, and that is one of the reasons why I love the church.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

August 13, 2017 The Great Commandments: The Greatest Commandment

This week we complete the series of messages titled The Great Commandments.  Next week we begin a series of messages titled I Love the Church Because…

I’ve done a lot of funerals over the years, and one of the most touching was several years ago.  The person was someone I had known a long time and she asked me some months before her funeral if I would officiate.  I said I would and then she had an interesting request of me; she was going to write her own eulogy and asked if I would mind reading it.  That was the first and only time I officiated a funeral where the deceased had written their own eulogy.  It was really beautifully written, and made everyone there, I imagine, wonder, what would be my final words?

This morning’s Scripture text is that kind of passage.  It comes from the latter part of John’s gospel, at the Last Supper, and these are some of the “last words” of Jesus.  When you get down to your last words, they are words that matter.  You don’t talk about the weather at that moment, and Jesus took his opportunity to share the core of his message with his disciples; it was a summation of everything he had sought to instill in his followers.

Today’s message is The Greatest Commandment.  Our Scripture text is two portions of John’s gospel, both taken from a long passage devoted to the Last Supper.  In that longer passage Jesus is offering his final words to the disciples.  As it is the final moments that he has with them, and the final opportunity to offer teaching, Jesus uses that time to share what is at the heart of his mission, and that is, unsurprisingly, love.  So I have saved the greatest command in all of Scripture for the final message of our series of The Great Commandments, with today’s message The Greatest Commandment.

Follow along with me as I read this morning’s text –

John 13:34-35
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 15:9-17
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command.
15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
17 This is my command: Love each other.

Anyone who has heard me preach for very long knows that I, like any other minister, has particular themes that I favor.  One of my regular themes is that of the primacy of love, which was a theme of Jesus, thus it is mine as well.  In these final words that he offers to his disciples, love is the theme that Jesus really emphasizes.

1.  You Can’t Command Others to Love, But Sometimes You Have To.

I know that sounds strange, and contradictory, but doesn’t it also sound strange to command people to love?  In these passages Jesus refers to love as a command.  In 13:34 he says, a new command I give you:  Love one another. In 15:12 he says, My command is this:  Love each other as I have loved you.  Jesus uses the word command six times in that passage.  Issuing a command is an interesting way to encourage people to love one another, isn’t it?  Is it possible to command people to love one another?  Can we be coerced into love?  Isn’t love, by its very nature, something that must come about through free will, and not a command?  By its very nature, love is voluntary, not commanded or coerced. I am not disagreeing with Jesus, certainly, but I find issuing a command to be an interesting way to talk to people about love.  Imagine if you had to command your family to love you.  If you have to issue a command for them to love you there are some very serious issues in your family that must be addressed.

Here’s what I believe Jesus means, and it goes back to the passage that was our text last week, where Jesus said in Matthew 5:46 – If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  Obviously, there are people we love, and people who love us.  No command is needed to encourage that love; we just naturally and easily love some people and they naturally and easily love us in return.  But what about the people for whom our love does not come naturally or easily?  And what about the people who have no interest in loving us?  That’s where the command comes in.  That’s where we need a command that becomes a push to encourage or compel us to step out of our safety zone, out of our area of security, out of what is known.  Sometimes love needs a bit of a nudge; sometimes love needs more of a push, and that’s why Jesus issues a command.  We don’t need a command to love some people, but we certainly do for others.  If Jesus desires that we love our enemies, we probably need a push to do so.

When we consider the events in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend I think we understand the necessity of a command to love.  Do those white supremacists understand the harm of what they are doing?  Do they understand how their bigotry diminishes the humanity of others, as well as their own?  It takes blunt language to counter that level of bigotry and hatred, and certainly we must say don’t ever use the name of God to justify your hatred and bigotry!  If we ever hope to see such bigotry and hatred disappear in the world it is going to have to come from a command, and this is why Jesus issued a command.  Left to our own ways, it is rare that we will cross the boundaries that must sometimes be crossed in order to counter hatred and bigotry with love.

Jesus certainly knew this.  Jesus faced a great deal of hatred as well.  His enemies had no love at all for him.  No, they had only hatred for him, and that’s why Jesus was so often very blunt with them.  When you confront hatred of that magnitude a command must be put down as a marker that says I’m not suggesting that you love the people you hate; I’m commanding it!

2.  We Must Choose Love Over Law.

When Jesus talked about love, which was so often, I also think he meant that we need to choose love over law.  There are two elements within faith, and often those two elements are in conflict with one another.  Those two elements are love and law, and we must always tip the scale in favor of love. Laws and commandments, as important as they are, must not be the preeminent aspect of our faith; that is reserved for love.

That is the message at the heart of the conversation Jesus had with some Pharisees when one of them asked, teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?  In answering that question Jesus gave his famous answer, love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:36-40; a text I referenced two weeks ago).  That last sentence is particularly instructive, as Jesus says that all the law and all the words of the prophets are filtered through the primary command of love.  In other words, laws and commands are not of much meaning if they are not subservient to, and based upon, love.  Jesus never intended to diminish the importance of the Law, but he did seek to put it in its rightful place.  In Matthew 5:17 he says do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  The Law, unfortunately for some, was raised to a level above love.  This is seen in the exchange Jesus had with some Pharisees, when they criticized the disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath.  Jesus reminded them that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  When we forget the intent of the Law and elevate it to a place where it is place above love, we have become trapped in legalism, and Jesus always railed against legalism.

Paul echoes this sentiment in the book of Romans, as he struggles with the way in which the Law does not bring righteousness to him, but merely demonstrates how unrighteous he is.  He reminds us that Abraham was justified not by his works but by his faith, saying that whatever we do, in terms of trying to fulfill law, is only what we should have done in the first place (Romans 4:4 – when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation).  This highlights the difficulty for those who fall into legalism and who want to raise laws and commandments above love – there is never enough that we can do in order to satisfy laws.  Laws, commands, and regulations, as helpful as they can be in giving us a framework of how to live, will ultimately fall short because we can never do enough to satisfy those commands.  Love, however, is the better guide, because it does not makes us subservient to rules and regulations and all of the frustrations and failures that come with trying to be perfect in following them.  Seeking to follow laws ultimately becomes a dead end for us because it does not lead us to love, but only into legalism.  Jesus wants us to act out of love, not legalism.  Paul highlights this in his letter to the Galatians, when he writes in chapter five about not being so bound to the law that love is forgotten.  In 5:6 he writes, the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love, and in 5:14 adds, the entire law is summed up in a single command:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It is a great tragedy that some churches are known more for their pronouncements about law than about love and their attitude of judgment than acts of mercy.  Such behavior and attitudes are absolutely contrary to the way of Jesus.  I understand the temptation to make those pronouncements about laws and commands, because we like the security they offer in times that are anything but secure.  The more uncertain our world becomes, the more we crave certainty, and laws and commands can provide us with a sense of certainty.  Laws and rules also make life simpler in some ways, as they attempt to give an answer for what to do in every conceivable situation.  Read the Old Testament and you will find the laws there cover a multitude of possibilities.  Love does not do that.  Love says, basically, work it out.  It’s easy to prefer the specifics and the security of a law over the complications that come along with love, but that is not the way in which we are called to live. 

Our church is not a legalistic, law-bound church.  We are not a church that pronounces judgment upon people; rather, we emphasize love.  Where some churches desire uniformity, we do not.  Some churches want everyone to be a square peg, and if you are not a square peg you will not find a home there.  Some churches want everyone to be a round peg, and if you are not a round peg you will not find a home there.  We’re not a church of only square pegs.  If you are a round peg, that’s okay; you are welcome here.  We are not a church of only round pegs.  If you are a square peg that’s okay; you are welcome here.  You are welcome if you are an octagonal peg.  Or any other kind of peg.  Or even if you’re not a peg.  And, to be honest, sometimes that costs us, and that’s okay.  Not everyone wants a church like us.  Some people want a church of all round pegs.  Some people want a church of all square pegs.  Some people come and check us out and decide we are not what they are looking for in a church, because we recognize that not everything is black and white; sometimes there is a good deal of gray.  Some people want more certainty than what we offer.  We sometimes ask more questions than we offer answers.

I am growing more and more disturbed with two developing trends in our society, the first of which is that we seem intent upon tearing ourselves apart and the second is that we are dividing into factions and groups that insist upon accepting their particular orthodoxy and their group to the exclusion of other groups and other ways of thinking.  Too many people are succumbing to the pressure to align with a particular group and not veer from it, and once a part of a group one cannot associate with someone in another group.

Love, however, does not divide us in that way.  Our orthodoxy should not be the Republican or Democratic parties.  Our orthodoxy should not be liberal or conservative.  Our orthodoxy should not be urban versus rural, or north versus south, or east coast versus west coast, or, if I could be so bold, UK or UofL, or any other.  Our orthodoxy should always by Jesus and his love.  And I’m not saying that if you favor any of those aforementioned categories you are not following Jesus; what I am saying is, don’t put any of them above Jesus; don’t let them become points of division.

3.  Love Is Super Tough.

When I’m driving in my car, which is quite a bit of the time, I am always listening to the radio.  I used to spend a lot of time pushing the buttons to see what songs were on.  I might like a song, but perhaps there is a better song on another channel, so I would keep pushing buttons.  Now that SiriusXM radio has a Beatles channel I push the buttons a lot less.  I love the music of the Beatles.  Yesterday evening, as I was driving, one of my favorite Beatles songs came on – All You Need Is Love.  Isn’t that a great song?  I love that song.  But let’s be honest, on one level it’s not really true, is it?  Try taking love to the bank when you’re behind on your mortgage and see what happens.  Try applying some of that love to a down payment on a car and see what happens.  Will it work?  Of course not.  Obviously, love isn’t all you need.

But we understand what the sentiment means.  But here’s also a problem with that sentiment – we’ve arrived at a point, I think, where we have so over-sentimentalized and so over-romanticized love that we forget just how tough love can be.  I Corinthians 13:4-7 says that Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  There is nothing easy about those qualities of love.  They are tough.  They are super tough.

Love never fails, that is true, but sometimes we fail love.  Sometimes we fail love because love is tough.  Love is super tough.  Love is incredibly super tough.  Love is really incredibly super tough.  At least it is if you want to step beyond only those who love you.  Here’s how tough love is.  Love can get you killed.  It got Jesus killed.  That’s a scary thought to consider, isn’t it? 

My older brother Ed, and his wife Jodi, are co-pastors at Old Union Church in Jamestown, Indiana.  Back in the 80s, Ed was the pastor at a church in Lafayette, Indiana.  I still remember a newsletter he wrote back in the mid-80s.  He wrote about our tendency to see faith and love as a bit like a vaccination against a disease.  If you are familiar with biology, you probably now that a vaccination actually gives us some of the cells of the disease that the vaccination is designed to prevent.  Be receiving a little bit of the diseased, our body’s natural immune system can prevent us from receiving the full blown disease.  Ed compared this to how we can be about the power of God’s love.  We want a bit of that love, but not the full blown effects of God’s love.  We prefer an inoculation; enough to give us a bit of God’s love but not enough to make us do anything crazy, such as love our enemies or pray for those who persecute us.

Love is tough.  Love is super tough.  That makes it understandable why we only want a little bit of it, because we don’t want our lives made more difficult by living love in the way that Jesus did; it would simply be too difficult and too complicated to live love to that extent.

But God wants to give us the full measure of his love, and he wants us to live the full measure of that love.  That is, after all, his greatest commandment.