Sermon: How Wide is Wide?

“How Wide is Wide?”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1John 4:7-21 and Acts 8:26-40
May 3, 2015

Choir Anthem: “Your Love, O God, Has Called Us Here”

Sermon Audio

The New Testament begins with the four Gospels, designed to share the Good News that Jesus of Nazaareth is the Messiah of god. They are followed by the Book of Acts and the various epistles by Paul and others that are attempts to explain how faith in Jesus began with just a small group of frightened disciples huddled together in Jerusalem but then spread rapidly from one place to another, just as Jesus had told them it would on his last day with them. He had said “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.   Acts shares several stories of individual encounters that result in the spread of faith in unlikely places and to unlikely people. And in the letters we get a glimpse into various congregations that have particular problems understanding and living out what they have heard and now believe. Under the pressures of their daily lives, the groups are polarizing, with factions taking sides on various issues. So, the letters are mostly about problem solving. And the basis for solving the problems, as varied as they are from place to place, comes down to love for one another that reflects God’s love for them as revealed in Jesus.

Since this is a theme that runs through each of these writings, it shouldn’t be surprising that the same issues trouble us today. It’s one thing to love God; we can work up some enthusiasm for that and get pretty good at it. It’s another thing, however, to love other people. Linus, a character in the old “Peanuts” cartoon strip, summed it up beautifully when Lucy confronted him with his lack of love for mankind. “I LOVE mankind,” he replied; “it’s PEOPLE I can’t stand.”

Linus was on to something and he was honest about it. It is so much easier to “love” or accept or champion a concept, an abstraction, and idea, than it is to love or accept or support any one particular, individual, concrete example of it. The problems begin when the “ideal” meets the “real.” Consequently, as Peter Gomes has pointed out, the sad truth is often that our faith has developed only to the point of knowing how to hate, but not far enough to know how to love.[i]

But according to what we’ve read from 1John just now, loving God and loving neighbor or love the other, are inextricably bound up. We can’t love God unless we love our neighbor. It’s futile; it’s impossible; we are delusional, fooling ourselves, if we think we can, because Christianity is not so much a set of abstract beliefs, principles, or propositions that we give intellectual assent to as it is a relationship—an active, working relationship between us and God and us with each other and the world. Jesus didn’t ask his followers to think about him. He called them to follow him. We are to do as he did, to live in the world and relate to other people as he did. Jesus didn’t just talk about love in the abstract; he did love –with all kinds of people in many different circumstances.

And many of those circumstances involved people at the fringes of “polite” society, those outside the purity rules and the regulations of the law-abiding and pious. He healed many so-called “unclean” people whom the insiders shunned – the woman with hemorrhages whom he calls “daughter,” Bartimaeus, the blind man, the Syrophonecian woman’s daughter, the Roman centurion’s servant. Others he teaches, like the Samaritan woman at the well. And to others he offers eternal life, most notably the penitent thief on the cross beside him. Jesus’ love wasn’t kept for high ideals or lofty goals. His love didn’t hide behind the law: he touches the leper; he eats with the tax collector.

Jesus shows us that faith is not about separating ourselves from humanity in an upward ascent toward God, but it is the “joyful acknowledgement” that as we draw closer to one another, we draw closer to the heart of God. To love as Jesus did, is not to love in the abstract. Other people do not get in the way, keeping us from finding God; they are the way to God.[ii] Thus, as God’s love was made incarnate in Jesus, so we too are to incarnate that love in our individual relationships with other people.

Because of the uniqueness of each relationship, the Bible doesn’t give us seven easy steps to love. We are just told to use Jesus as our model, and then in each of our particular relationships and situations we are called to love the Jesus way. Sometimes that’s easier than other times because none of us is perfect, all of us are “human becomings,” still a bit needy perhaps, or rude, or stubborn, imperfect in some way. But that does not diminish our responsibility to be loving. Eugene Peterson writes that “Every act of love requires creative and personal giving, responding and serving appropriate to – context specific to – both the person doing the loving and the person being loved.”[iii]

Our reading from Acts that Katie shared earlier gives us one example of what that kind of creative, context- specific love looks like. There is a significant exchange between two men who could not have been any more different. The first is Philip, one of the deacons appointed by the Jerusalem congregation to care for the poor and hungry among them. Later he went from Jerusalem into Samaria, where he shared the good news of Jesus with the people with great success. From there he was led by the Holy Spirit to go to Gaza. As a Jew, he knew the law and traditions, and was familiar with scripture. Philip is an “insider.”

The second is his complete opposite. He is a Gentile, a foreigner, of a different race, rich and influential in his country, highly educated, and he is a eunuch, and as such he was barred from the Temple by scripture, law, and tradition. His gender differences and inability to fit into proper categories made him “profane by nature;”[iv] he simply did not fit; he is an outsider. But that had not stopped him from going to Jerusalem to worship, and seeking God, and now on his way home he was reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah. He reads a passage he does not understand just as Philip comes upon him on the road.

Now you might think they would pass each other without any kind of acknowledgement and conversation; they were so very different. But Philip hears familiar words from scripture; he asks – and who knows with what kind of attitude – “Do you know what you’re reading?” and the man answers honestly that he could use some help. So Philip teaches him that the suffering servant described by Isaiah has been fully embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus, and that Jesus’ death and resurrection has led to new life for all people.

This comes as great good news to one who had thought there was no possibility he could ever be included among the faithful. And so with great excitement he asks, “What is to prevent me from becoming part of this living, welcoming Body of Christ?” Well, nothing, of course, except what the Law says – no foreigners, no Gentiles, no black men, no eunuchs are to be included within God’s exclusive people. But what does Philip do? He does what Jesus would do – he baptizes the man; he touches the untouchable, he accepts the unacceptable.

Now most of the time when this story is told, a lot of emphasis is given to the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch and his baptism. But this is Philip’s story too. And as such, it is our story too. We are more like Philip than the man from Ethiopia. Philip had to weigh everything he knew from tradition and the law, as do we, and then decide whether he would follow the letter of the law, or do something new, something that Jesus would have done, something that spoke to the heart of the law rather than the letter.

Philip had to decide if the Word of God is only for a select few. He had to decide if the Love of God was only meant for a handful. He had to decide how wide is God’s love and mercy. He decided to respond positively, not in spite of the man’s differences, but because the differences didn’t matter. The man’s excitement, curiosity, and love for God were what counted. So Philip sets aside the narrow confines of the law, and throws open the wide doors of God’s mercy and love.

Later Peter would do the same thing with the gentile Roman centurion Cornelius, concluding “Truly God shows no partiality.”

The love of God is wide and ours must be also. How wide is wide? As wide as necessary to make everyone feel welcome in the heart of God. This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Peter Gomes, The Good Life, 304.

[ii] Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves, 1987, 26.

[iii] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 2005, 327.

[iv] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch,” April 30, 2012

Sermon: Laying Down Our Lives

“Laying Down Our Lives”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1John 3:16-24 and John 10:11-18
April 26, 2015

Choir Anthem: “God You Made Us In Your Image”

Sermon Audio

The letter that we call 1st John provides a window into life in an early Christian community, one which was experiencing threats from within as well as persecution from without. It was written probably within 100 years of Jesus crucifixion, and members of the community were already at odds with each other over who Jesus was and how his followers were supposed to live out their faith. The author, reminds them that trusting Jesus as their model, would allow them to grow in love for God and one another, and assuring them that in this way they would grow in their resemblance to Him so that at some time and in some way when they saw Jesus face to face, they would see themselves in him.

And they also knew that as they sought to follow Christ, to love as he loved, an expectation was placed on them to live, not only with love for one another, but with a willingness to sacrifice for one another. In the gospel reading that Beth read earlier, Jesus spoke of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus calls himself the Good shepherd, and speaks of the willingness with which the shepherd lays down his life. It is not taken from him; he gives it willing as an act of love and grace for those within his care.

The reading from 1st John takes up this image and amplifies it for us to help us see that there may be only one Good Shepherd (with capital letters), but we are meant to be shepherds in training. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

Obviously during the time that John was writing, many people were physically laying down their lives for Christ and for one another. Everyone in John’s little community probably knew of someone who had been martyred – dying in the arena, attacked by wild animals, burned at the stake, flayed alive, or used for target practice by spear-wielding gladiators. Persecution, torture, and execution at the hands of the Romans were common. So it could be as the author is writing to this young and persecuted congregation, he is reminding them that such a sacrifice might be required of them someday; that they might be called on to do as Jesus did out of their great love for him and for their community of the faithful.

While that is still the context for Christians in some parts of the world – just think for a moment of the 12 men recently beheaded by ISIS — it is not an issue that we Americans have to fear, although there are some politicians who are trying to gain popularity and votes in certain areas by claiming that American Christians are being persecuted ferociously every day. But, instead of claiming their so-called martyrdom bravely, they just whine about how unfair it is!

Realistically, it is easier for us to contemplate Jesus as our Good Shepherd who loves and protects us from life’s marauding wolves, laying down his life for us, dying on the cross to save us, than it is for us to think about how we might imitate him in such sacrifice or even imagine where or when such ultimate sacrifice might be called for. It’s a one in a million chance that we will ever be called on for an heroic act of sacrifice while defending our faith.

But John says, “The Good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep,” and, “we know love by this, he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Since we don’t live in such a dangerous environment as our forebears in faith, how are we to understand this commandment in our own lives? How ought we to lay down our lives for one another? As much as our culture is drawn toward superhero images, perhaps there is a slightly more mundane and less dramatic way in which we can be obedient to this call on and for our lives.

It is true, isn’t it, although not very spectacular, that we are laying down our lives every day, moment by moment, breath by breath. When we come to the end of today, we’ll have one less day to live than we did at the same time yesterday. That time is gone forever. We laid it down. The choice we have then, is in how we lay down our lives and what we lay it down for.

We’re given some guidance by John’s very next words: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” This reminds me of what the letter of James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sister, if you say you have faith but do not have works?   . . .If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

John and James seem to agree that all the fine speeches and good wishes in the world do not count for much. What counts is how much of our time – our life – is given to the welfare of others. I am always so thankful for each of you and how willing you are to give your time in the service of others – Our United Methodist Men who spend time frequently in projects to better the lives of others – building, repairing, painting – whatever it takes. Those of you who volunteer for Our Daily Bread and Interfaith or Parking for God. Our Sunday School teachers – how many hours do you give to prepare for each Sunday morning lesson for our children! Our choir members who come back to church on Sunday evenings to learn new music and who take time every year to go to Choir Music Weekend to learn more. And in the last 2 years, the members of our building committee – If it’s Tuesday night do you know where Maxine, Sharon, Carla, Jim, Sheree, and Beth are? And then there are those saints who provide dinner for us every Tuesday night. And I could go on and on.

There are many ways to be followers of Christ, but they all seem to involve getting busy and helping out – doing something for others, contributing time and talent for the benefit of others. We can’t profess our loyalty to the Good Shepherd, and yet act like the hired hand Jesus condemned, running away from responsibility, abandoning the vulnerable, not caring for those in danger. All of that takes time, that precious non-renewable commodity that once gone, cannot be regained.

But there is one other way as well that we can lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in addition to giving our time, and it may be the most difficult and the most important. If the truth be told, some of us find it easier to give time than to give ourselves.

Laying down our lives for others means giving up our egos too. How much of my “self” am I willing to lay down? We all have created an idea of what our “life” is – our role, our title, our position, our personal image. We have our boundaries, our need for control, our desire for approval and inclusion, our need for affirmation, affection, power, success. Can we lay them down for a friend? Especially if that friend happens to disagree with us disappoint us or is estranged from us? Or is being right more important than being in relationship.

The more we are able to set aside the walls we’ve built around ourselves that we define as our “self,” the more openness we have to living sacrificially for others. This doesn’t mean not having any values or principles; indeed, we have to have them in order to know when to set them aside. Jesus knew the law and revered it; but then he knew when to modify it or leave it behind. The law said don’t eat with sinner; but he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. The law said, “don’t work on the Sabbath,” but he healed on the Sabbath. He knew the law and he know its limitations. There are limitations to all of the values, laws, identities, boundaries, rules or regulations we have set for ourselves, and the real task of life is to figure out when and how to go beyond them for the sake of another. That’s laying down our lives where we really live and where it really counts.

Friday afternoon and all day yesterday George and I attended the Reconciling Ministries workshop on just this issue. How can we talk together and share with respect and love for one another our opinions, beliefs, and concerns about fully including the LGBTQ community in the life of the church and in society at large. We discovered what a trying, stressful task it can be to listen well with patience and respect, and to express our thoughts without becoming angry or defensive or scared or tongue-tied when we talk about difficult issues. It is one thing to talk with a like-minded person, but quite another to stay in conversation with someone with opposite beliefs and understandings. It’s so much easier and so tempting to cut the conversation short, to retreat into a safe corner; and it is so very difficult to be vulnerable and engaged, to risk what might feel like one’s life, one’s identity, one’s strongly held position, for the sake of giving the other person a voice and a hearing.

That’s true in any relationship we have. Even our most intimate relationships with family and friends. How willing are we to lay down our lives – our opinions, our desire to be right, our own neediness – in order to see the other person whole and to preserve or improve our understanding of one another?

Maybe now is a good time to see where we are – to consider how far we will go, what we can relinquish of both our time and of our ego in order to lay down our lives for our friends as the Good Shepherd has done for us.