The Greatest Love of All

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Sermon for Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Readings:

 

What is love?

 

What does Jesus mean when he says, “love one another”?

 

Well before we answer that, I think there is another question we must ask:

 

Who are you willing to die for?

 

That may seem like an odd question to follow with, maybe it seems severe, but think about it for a moment. Put aside for a moment your secret list of individuals you think the world would be better without, and think about those people that you are pretty sure you would risk your life to save. I’m willing to bet that most of you have at least a few people that you hold so dear that you would risk anything to protect them. Your children perhaps. Maybe your spouse. The people in your life that you depend on; the people you are closest too.

 

If you have been in the military or worked in law enforcement or served as a firefighter or first responder, perhaps your job has called you to risk your life for someone. Maybe a buddy or a partner…maybe even a complete stranger. It takes special people to do that kind of work, because let’s face it, for most of us, the list of people that we would be willing to die for is pretty short.

 

The will to stay alive runs deep in our veins as a species. Throughout the natural world there is this drive, this deep desire to stay alive, to survive. It takes a lot to override that. There might be only a handful of people in your life that you can imagine doing that for. I think that is normal, but think for a minute about those people. Think about who you would willingly accept death for in order to save. Who would you take a bullet for?

 

Why do I ask? Because those are the people you reallylove. Those are the people that you love with the approaching the love of Christ.

 

Now you may be thinking, “hold on a sec! I love lots of people, that doesn’t mean I am ready to die for them. This is just an extreme example. There are lots of types of love.”

 

Well maybe there are lots of types of love, so perhaps we should be clear what we mean when we use that word. And perhaps we need to be clear what Jesus means when he uses it. I get a little nervous when I see or hear the word “love” used in churchy circles, especially when I see it used as a slogan or as a buzzword or as a way to market Christianity or the church. I get nervous because love is such an overused word in our society and we have been trained by television and music to think of love as some sort of greeting card fuzzy feeling that we all want and that is the key to all the world’s problems. All you need is love. Love, love will keep us together. Love, soft as an easy chair; love, fresh as the morning air.

 

I’d like to build the world a home

and furnish it with love

grow apple trees and honey bees

and snow white turtle doves

 

I’d like to teach the world to sing

in perfect harmony

I’d like to buy the world a coke

and keep it company

 

Ok. That’s cute, but is that what love really is? Is that what Jesus is talking about when he says love one another just as I have loved you? Go buy someone a Coke? What is love? What does Jesus mean when he says love?

 

I am reminded of the scene in the Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya says: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

 

I do not think the word love means what we think it means when we use it to describe sunshine, lollipops and rainbows and everything that’s wonderful. When Jesus talks about Love, when he commands his disciples to love one another, is he talking about some warm and fuzzy (or peaceful, easy) feeling? Is love some a many splendored thing? Is it nature’s way of giving, a reason to be living? or is love the exact opposite: a supernatural force that calls us to sacrifice everything, even our own lives?

 

Walk in Love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God.

 

That is our offertory sentence that we hear every week; it is also a line from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, but what does it mean to walk in love?

 

It would be easy to just redefine to be something easy like a feel-good emotion, or like self-esteem, like just holding hands and singing kum bah yah like the only thing standing between us and world peace is one great big hippie love fest, but is that the love that God has shown us? What if it’s not that easy? When we discover that love comes at a price, that it isn’t easy, we might be tempted to draw the circle smaller to limit the number of people we feel obligated to love: let’s just love our families, or our like-minded Facebook friends, or let’s just love people that are loveable, but is that how people will know that we are followers of the man on the cross?

 

What is love? What is love to Jesus? What is the love of our God? Paul’s line says it all, I think.

 

Walk in Love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God.

 

Love is giving.

Love means offering yourself.

Love means sacrifice.

 

What does that look like? Well ultimately, we believe it looks like this. The cross. This symbol of cruelty and death and shame, becomes for us the reminder of where true love, real love leads. It leads to sacrifice. This is the extreme symbol of sacrificial love; a love that wills the good of another to the point of personal loss. A love that has no self-interest; a love that doesn’t seek personal glory or comfort; a love that is so deep and complicated that you can’t slap it on a greeting card or a bumper sticker. This kind of love, the love of Jesus, the love of the cross…this is the world’s worst marketing campaign, because who wants love that promises pain? It doesn’t make sense why anyone would choose this kind of love…it doesn’t make sense, until that moment when you look into the eyes of someone that you would be willing to die for.

 

Then you get it. When your will for the good of someone else is stronger than your will to live, then you get it. It might just be in those moments when you are willing to lose everything for someone else that you are seeing the world through God’s eyes. Those moments might just be the only moments when we really understand love. Love seems like an easy emotion until we realize that real love costs something.

 

A little later in John’s gospel, Jesus says again: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

 

I’m sorry but the greatest love of all, isn’t inside of me; it isn’t easy to achieve and it isn’t learning to love yourself. Maybe those words would make great lyrics to a song, but they don’t make great theology, because that is not the love that was revealed to us by God. According to Jesus the greatest love of all is the love that calls us to the cross; it is love that involves sacrifice.

What is love? This is love.

Avoiding answers

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Sermon for May 12th, 2019

Readings:

I was looking ahead a few weeks on my calendar recently and I noticed that I had scheduled a doctor’s appointment for my physical. I must have booked it months ago and forgotten about it. Well no sooner did I see that appointment then I started thinking to myself: how can I get out of this? Maybe I can double book myself that day. Maybe I will be too busy for one reason or another. I feel reasonably healthy right now, so maybe I should just cancel.

 

So many reasons not to go.

 

But of course, even if I do go, I can always find reasons not to trust what the doctor tells me. I can tell myself that his scale needs to be recalibrated, or that my clothes or shoes are particularly heavy that day; or I can tell myself that his tests are faulty or not trustworthy; I can tell myself that his science is flawed; and if none of that works, I can try to pick my doctor apart, saying things like: why should I listen to him? he looks like he could do a few more push ups.

 

I am looking for reasons not to go; I am looking for reasons not to believe the doctor or to trust him. I feel mostly OK right now. If I wanted to, I could probably convince myself that I’m pretty healthy, that nothing is wrong, nothing is broken. If I let the doctor start poking around, he might tell me something I don’t want to hear. He might try and come between me and my relationship with butter and bacon. He might tell me that I need to change something in my life, and then I am going to be left having to make this decision that I don’t want to make.

 

If I decide to listen to this man, and trust this man and accept that what he tells me is true, then I am going to be faced with a much worse decision: I will have to decide to actually listen to his advice and possibly change my life, or I will have to decide to knowingly reject what he has to say and accept full responsibility for the consequences. That’s a tough decision. That’s not a decision I want to make. I don’t want to have to change if it is going to interfere with doing something that feels good or eating something that tastes good. And I don’t want to accept the consequences or the responsibility if things start to go badly for me. So what is the easiest way out? Don’t go to the doctor. Plead ignorance. Argue with the data. Question the doctor’s judgment; question his integrity. If I let myself believe that this doctor actually wants to lead me to health and vitality and life and has the power to do it, then I will be forced to make the decision to follow him or not. That may sound like an easy decision to you, but you would be surprised how hard it is for people to make. It is amazing the mental backflips we can put ourselves through to avoid dealing with the truth sometimes.

 

Humans have always been that way though. We are always looking for a diversion or the escape clause or the loophole that will allow us to avoid facing the truth; to avoid making that tough decision to follow or reject; we look for delaying tactics that will allow us to not make any substantive changes in the way we see the world or in the way we live our lives. We don’t want new information if that new information might require us to respond or change. Ignorance is bliss sometimes. If we can be willfully ignorant, and that is different than plain ignorance; plain ignorance is not knowing something; willful ignorance is not knowing something and not wanting to know it, avoiding it. If we can be willfully ignorant then we don’t have to deal with the truth when it tries to confront us.

 

Sometimes, believe it or not, sometimes asking questions is a way to avoid dealing with the truth that we have already been confronted with. Sometimes questions are a way of avoiding answers.

 

Don’t get me wrong, questions are good. Questions are how we find answers. Questions are important to our faith formation. People asked Jesus questions all the time. Jesus asked questions in return. We don’t have to be afraid of questions. But we do need to be aware that sometimes when people asked Jesus questions they were looking for the truth, and sometimes when they questioned him, they were avoiding it.

 

“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” How many times has Jesus heard this kind of a question?

 

He can’t be the messiah can he?

How can he say I have come down from heaven?

How can he give us his flesh to eat?

Who can accept these teachings?

How does this man have such learning? Where did he go to school?

When the Messiah comes will he do more signs than this man has done?

Surely the Messiah doesn’t come from Galilee does he?

Who are you?

 

Read through the gospels. How many times was Jesus questioned about who he was? How many times did he answer those questions, not just in words, but also in deeds and actions? So it is no wonder that Jesus gets a bit exasperated at once again being faced with the same questions. He says “I have told you and you do not believe.” The truth is, and Jesus knew this, some people just don’t want to believe. Some people just don’t want to believe.

 

They keep asking question after question after question, not because they seek the truth, but because the truth is, well the truth is right in front of them and they just aren’t prepared to acknowledge it. It’s scary. It’s risky. Because if they admit that this man is a man unlike any other. If they acknowledge that he has power and wisdom unlike anything they have ever witnessed before. If they accept that he is who he says he is, well that is going to force them to make a decision. Sometimes we come to a point where the question has been answered and we have to decide how we are going to respond to the answer that we have been given. Are we going to follow this man or not? Are we going to listen to his voice or not?

 

Even today there are plenty of people in the world that don’t want to believe in Jesus. I’m not talking about people that are legitimately struggling with belief, people that have deep questions, I am talking about people that deep down don’t really want to believe, because if they come to believe that this man is who he says he is that is going to force them to make a decision to follow him or not. So people look for reasons not to believe. People try and find a way to unplug Jesus, so they will try and pick apart the scriptures, or they will point to the failures of Jesus’s followers…anything that will give themselves permission to not believe. I get it. It’s an easier path.

 

Deciding to trust that Jesus actually is the Messiah, the son of God is a scary thing, because if we believe that he actually is who he says he is, then that means that everything that man ever said suddenly is of supreme importance. It means everything he taught, everything he did, now has eternal significance for our lives, so we can’t ignore him anymore. When Jesus is just some Jewish prophet or a good man or a good teacher, then we could ignore him, then making a change in our lives wasn’t such a pressing issue, but once we know that what he says is true…

 

well at one point Jesus asked his disciples: “Do you wish to go away?”

 

and Peter answered him “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy one of God.”

 

If I truly believe that this is the holy one of God and that he has the words of eternal life, then where else can I go? If I recognize his voice to be the voice of the good shepherd, my shepherd, then I am bound to listen when he speaks and follow where he leads and there is a good chance that that is going to mean making some changes in my life. I understand why people don’t want to believe in Jesus, in the same why I understand people that don’t want to go to the doctor. Because there is a good chance he is going to tell you something about yourself that you don’t want to hear, and there is a good chance he is going to ask you to do something that you don’t want to do. But if I want health, then I dare not turn away from the source of health, and if I want life then I dare not turn away from the source of life. Jesus isn’t afraid of my questions, so maybe I shouldn’t be afraid of his answers. Maybe I need to deal with the truth that he wants to show me. Maybe deciding to trust him and follow him, and finally believe that he is who he says he is the best and most critical decision I will ever make.

 

We can only avoid truth for so long. And one truth that I am painfully aware of, is that no matter how much time I spend at the doctor’s office, how many drugs I take or how much kale I eat, there is one sickness I am never going to avoid and that is death. Sin and death are a disease we humans have never managed to cure. Oh sure, I am going to try and take care of myself because I want health and vitality, but nothing I do is going to help me cheat death and no matter how hard I try, I am never going to overcome my own sinfulness, not completely. In the history of the world only one doctor or healer has ever proven that he has power over death, only one doctor that has the key to eternal life, only one man has the solution to damage caused by sin, only he didn’t call himself a doctor…he called himself a shepherd.

When the man comes around

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Sermon for Sunday, May 5th, 2019

Readings:

Near the end of his life, Johnny Cash had a dream.

 

And in this rather bizarre dream he was at Buckingham Palace and the queen referred to him as “a thorn tree in a whirlwind”. It was an odd image and when he woke up he pondered what it must mean. The image wouldn’t leave him alone.

 

A thorn tree in a whirlwind.

 

For him I think it signified a powerful force of nature stripping off the thorns of this world and off of us. Johnny was intrigued by this image and as a man of faith he began digging into the scriptures to see if he could find some biblical source. He began in the Book of Job, but where he found this dream or vision most strongly reflected was in the Book of Revelation. The imagery there was complex and strange and dream like. Johnny didn’t understand every image or reference in Revelation, just like we don’t always understand everything we see in our dreams, but what Johnny found in his journey through the Book of Revelation was a vision. A vision of the end of all things, a vision of a powerful force stripping the thorns off this world, a vision that he could only express in the way he knew best: in song.

 

The result of this dream and this journey through scripture was that at the very end of his life, Johnny Cash wrote and recorded, what for my money is his greatest song. When the man comes around.

 

Now if you have never heard “when the man comes around” I strongly suggest you go home and listen to it, but I will warn you it isn’t a song that tries to tell a story, it is a song that tries to show you a vision. It is a song filled with lots of biblical references and images, mostly from the Book of Revelation, and you may not get, or understand them all, and that is OK. It isn’t supposed to be a story with a beginning a middle and an end like some songs. You don’t have to understand it all to appreciate the vision. But what is fascinating about this song is that it is written and sung by a man very near the end of his life, and he is singing about the end of all things, the end of the world. He talks about death and destruction and judgment and yet, his voice and his music is full of hope, and the tempo is upbeat and there is this sense of joyful expectation.

 

That’s not how I was originally taught to read the Book of Revelation. Revelation has usually been presented to me as a scary book. An apocalyptic book of fire and brimstone and mysterious symbols and destruction. A book that you have to be an expert bible scholar to understand. It is frequently presented as a book of prophecy that details in masked language the end times. There was that whole “left behind” series that treated revelation as some sort of blueprint that predicts exactly how God is going to end it all. But maybe that isn’t the best way to read Revelation. Maybe the fact that we mostly focus on the destruction in Revelation says more about us than it does about God.

 

The Psalmist says that God’s “wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye, his favor for a lifetime, weeping may spend the night but joy comes in the morning.” We pay so much attention to the wrath sometimes, but that is momentary; God’s favor and grace is what lasts a lifetime. What we pay attention to in scripture, and what we dwell on can say a lot about us. There is so much more to Revelation than doom and destruction. There is worship and praise and singing and new life and new creation. We get readings from Revelation during Eastertide and I urge you to pay close attention to the image or the vision of eternity that these readings paint.

 

Angels surrounding the throne and singing with full voice

Every creature in heaven and earth and under the earth singing

All the elders fell down and worshipped

 

Singing and worship. That is the image we are given in Revelation today. And if you decide to sit down and study the Book of Revelation sometime and read through it, challenge yourself to see the whole picture that it is painting. Yes there is the last trumpet, but there are also angels singing, and yes there is smoke and fire but there is also incense and candles. What is the ultimate end that the author wants us to see? It is the singing and the worship. So maybe the best way to appreciate Revelation is to sing about it. If we really want to appreciate where we are headed, as people that are washed in the blood of the lamb, as people that are invited to his table, it should be through song.

 

I have to say I studied the Book of Revelation for years, but Johnny Cash really helped me to love it. Hearing an aging man sing about the ultimate end of existence, helps me to appreciate the vision in a way that the words alone never could, because the vision that is being painted in Revelation is not that God is just destroying things. He is stripping the thorns off, that’s for sure, but this isn’t just destruction. God is creating a new reality. He is setting right things that have gone wrong. He is bringing his children home and he is doing it in song. God children were made, created to sing around his throne, and finally that is what they are getting to do. They are singing around his throne. You can’t just tell that story. You need to sing it.

 

Now you might be thinking that country music isn’t your thing, but don’t worry. Johnny Cash was not the first person to realize that Revelation needed to be sung. In fact there is quite a long tradition in the church of singing about the vision in Revelation. If you have ever been to a traditional requiem mass, there is a sequence called the Dies Irae. It’s basically the Medieval Latin version of “When the Man comes around” and it has been set to music by some of the best composers including Mozart. If you sit down and read the words it may seem severe, especially by our standards these days. But it wasn’t written to be read. It was written to be sung. When you hear it sung you get a vision of the beauty of what God is doing that the words alone can’t convey.

 

Music touches a part of us that words alone just can’t. That is why music is such an important part of worship. It touches us somehow inside, even when we aren’t the ones doing the singing. If you have ever been given goose bumps or brought to tears by a song then you know what I mean. And worship and praise fill a need in us, feed us, in a way that simply nothing else on earth can do, and there is a reason for that: because that is the way God has designed us. We aren’t just capable of wonder, love and praise…that is what we were created for. And when all of the thorns of this world are stripped away and we can finally be what God created us to be, as God created us to be, we may not need the sun and the stars, but we will still need music. There will still be singing.

 

So if you expect to be a part of the heavenly choir someday, you might as well start practicing now. That is part of why we are here. You know mass isn’t a performance, it isn’t a lecture, it isn’t a social gathering, or a self-help group. It’s a foretaste. It’s a vision. It’s a glimpse of our eternal destiny. The children of God. Redeemed by the blood of his son. Gathered around his throne. Fed at his table, singing his praises. This is worship and it is like nothing else we do in life and it feeds us in a way that nothing else can. And you don’t have to understand every symbol to appreciate the beauty of the vision.

 

Singing isn’t the only way to praise God, and church is not the only place where God can be worshipped, but worship and praise should be at the core of everything we do here in church, from printing the bulletins to cooking the food to mopping the floor or lighting the candles. Worship and praise are a fundamental part of who we are; that is what Revelation has revealed to us and that is the vision that we need to show the world.

 

Sure there is judgment in revelation. There is pain. Some things are cast down…they have to be, because this is, as Johnny says, “Alpha and Omega’s Kingdom Come.” All other kingdoms must give way. But after all that is past, what Revelation shows us is an eternity of worship and praise. That is the real end. That is our real destiny. When the man comes around, that is what his new world is going to look like. We aren’t destined for destruction. We are destined for praise.