Oconee Street UMC Online Service
September 27, 2020
Reading: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Prayer / The Lord’s Prayer
Oconee Street UMC Online Service
September 27, 2020
Reading: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Prayer / The Lord’s Prayer
Anticipation is Making Me Wait
by Jon Biron
December 6, 2019
Let’s begin with Galatians 5:22, the “fruits of the spirit” passage –
“But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience ( long-suffering in KJV ), kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
If asked which of those fruits is the greatest, then I suspect that many people would say “Love”. Love is first on the list. However, I suggest that the greatest fruit of the spirit is “patience”. Why? Because without patience, none of the other fruits seem truly possible – even love. (maybe especially love)
My prayers from childhood until now have always included two big requests from The Lord – wisdom and patience. I don’t think that I have received noticeable amounts of either, but the one I am truly getting impatient about is patience. If you are anything like me, then you are tired of waiting for The Lord to return. Our world is languishing from our lack of spiritual fruits, and we really need God – here, now, doing something for Christ’s sake. Advent serves to remind me of my need for patience, and that The Lord has unforeseen ways and means and times for coming.
As I was thinking about that, I recalled another passage, 2 Peter 3:9 –
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
OK, now that is a sobering sentence. Who am I to be impatient with The Lord after all the ways and circumstances in which The Lord has been patient with me?
Prayer: O Lord, help us to believe that you will come again indeed because you came before. Help us to turn our impatient waiting into patient anticipation of your promise.
by Sarah Sumners
Corinthians 12: 9-10 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
In the wake of general conference, I find myself experiencing two disparate, yet confounded emotions: loneliness and vulnerability. Feelings of hope, safety and security have been giving way to exposure, sadness and disappointment — manifesting as uncontrolled weeping and uncomfortable weakness.
But these feelings crowd my thoughts, serving to distract and distance me from God and from those around me, spurring on my discontent. My loneliness persists when I create barriers that separate me from God and from others. Instead, how powerful might I be if only I can risk showing my weaknesses as an offering of love?
The words of Paul and Timothy in 2 Corinthians offer me the instruction I need to understand God’s love for me, telling me to be content in my weakness. If I can delight in hardship and remain vulnerable in the eyes of God, then I can truly receive God’s love, freeing me from my unending search for love from others.
Today I will risk exposure, venturing to love others as God loves me, fully and unconditionally.
Prayer: Heavenly One,
We ask for Your forgiveness for ways in which we have filled our time and thoughts with human endeavors. Guide us towards Your salvation and use us to create space for others to join us so that they may experience the bounty of Your unending grace and mercy. Help us to expose our weakness as a witness to Your unconditional love. In Your name we pray, Amen.
The past two weeks have been difficult for our country. It has opened up wounds and showcased the divisiveness of our politics. People on both sides of the fence demean and degrade the other side. Many of us surround ourselves in “echo chambers,” where we only hear opinions that support our own beliefs.
This runs counter to God’s call to the church. In Ephesians 4:2, God tells us to lead a life of “humility and gentleness, patience, love and unity.” On this World Communion Sunday, churches from all over the globe are demonstrating such unity. Our differences are not a weakness, but rather our strength. The church is a diverse global body — formed by God — and knit together by the Holy Spirit.
Let’s work to show the humility by honoring the human dignity in each person. Demonstrate gentleness by showing kindness to each other. Show patience by loving and understanding those with whom we disagree. Showing humility, gentleness, patience and love will lead towards a unity of all people.
“We’re One, but We’re Not the Same”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Ephesians 4: 1-16
Oct. 7, 2018 • World Communion Sunday
Jesus is very clear in Mark 12:28-34 what is the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” But he doesn’t stop there. Even though the questioner was asking for the “greatest commandment,” Jesus adds another law: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love is a word that is used so often that it often loses its value. But it is the central word that Jesus uses — “Love your God. Love your neighbor.” If we’re loving genuinely, we will constrain ourselves beyond the stated law. If we’re living in the love of Jesus, not only will we not steal from our neighbor, but we will make sure our neighbor has adequate food.
One aspect of love is listening, even those with whom we disagree. In society today, it’s so hard to constrain our own opinions for even a moment. “Love constrains us to be quick to listen and slow to speak.” If we are to hear Jesus, we must hear others.
The love Jesus commands us to practice is not a love of convenience. But through God and with the love of God, we have the power to practice such immense love.
“The Great Commandment(s)”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Mark 12: 28-34
Sept. 30, 2018
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark opens his Gospel not with the birth of Jesus, but his baptism. And just a few verses later in chapter one, while preaching in a sanctuary Jesus casts out a demon from a possessed man. Many were surprised with the confidence with which Jesus did his work, and that he exhibited power over an “evil spirit.”
Although we may not possess power to perform exorcisms, we do have a power as a Christian people to be a strong, positive influence in the lives of others. Several stories of “evil people” have one thing in common — they joined a radical movement (for instance, the white supremacist movement) because it was a group with whom they finally felt accepted. What if we were able to get to them first?
But we cannot go at it alone. As followers of Jesus, we go to church and worship among our community of believers to develop our practices of piety. Those practices of piety prepare us for works of mercy. And it is only then — when we love our neighbor — that we achieve holiness.
“Holy One of God”
Sermon by Dr. Robert Foster
Mark 1: 21-28
Jan. 28, 2018
We all have the ability to love. But the difference between our love and God’s love is that our love comes and goes, while God’s love is constant.
When we recognize that our ability to love comes from God, then we will be able to practice constant love with humanity. God wants us to love every member of our family, and that extends beyond our immediate family to our community and the world.
Our love must extend to the Syrian refugee, the war-torn family in Egypt, and the immigrant separated from his children due to deportation. That is the only we can get our family back together.
“Love on the Way”
Sermon by Dr. Robert Foster
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Dec. 10, 2017 • Second Sunday of Advent
Jesus was often accused by church elders of violating Jewish law — for instance, healing on the Sabbath. This should not be interpreted that Jesus did not support laws. In Matthew 22: 34-40, Jesus said the two most important laws are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. If these two laws are followed, then everything else will fall into place.
However, unlike the Beatles song, love is not all we need. Loving one another must go beyond love. It has to be supported by action. Our love for one another is not just an idea — it’s manifested in how we take care of each other. And through church, we can consistently see the face of the neighbor and be challenged to demonstrate our love through our stewardship.
Choir anthem: “Come Dwell in Solomon’s Walls.” (Click to listen.)
“Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Matthew 22: 34-40
Oct. 29, 2017
“Who is the Good Samaritan?”
Sermon by Dr. Jodie Lyon
Luke 10: 25-37
July 10, 2016
The Word in Song: “Prayer for Today”
“Who is the Good Samaritan?” (Oconee Street, 7.10.16)
I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan more times than I can count.
The problem with hearing the same story over and over again is that it usually has less and less of an impact on you with each retelling. In the final years before my grandpa passed away, he would tell me the same story every time I visited. He was taking a college class, and the professor insisted he would only award one A for the course. My grandpa was tied for the top spot with a female student. The competition was close, but the night before grades were due the female student and her mom invited the professor over to their house and hosted a private piano concert for him. She got the A, and my grandpa, apparently, never quite got over that.
As I heard this story more and more frequently toward the end of my grandpa’s life, I became understandably less and less shocked at the outcome of the story. I of course feigned moral outrage every time my grandpa told the story, but by the 100th time, I wasn’t really even listening anymore. I was just nodding my head as I entertained other thoughts in my mind, trying to remember to look appropriately shocked and indignant at the story’s climax.
It’s like that with this parable. We all know how it’s going to turn out, and it’s no huge surprise what happens. But this isn’t just a story about your grandpa’s shady professor and a grade-grubbing student. This is a parable of Jesus, and we can’t afford to let the story lose its power to shock, outrage, and motivate us. So I’m going to begin today by offering three retellings of the story of the Good Samaritan—three attempts to set this story in a modern context in the hopes that the story speaks to us in a fresh way this morning.
The first retelling comes from Katy Hinman in response to the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in Minneapolis, and the five police officers in Dallas. These stories should be fresh in your minds, so I won’t rehearse the details, I’ll simply get to the parable:
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘What is written in the Law?’ [Jesus] replied. ‘How do you read it?’
He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’
In reply Jesus said: “A man was selling CDs outside a convenience store…
‘A man was driving in a car with his girlfriend, her daughter, and a broken taillight…
‘A man was standing guard at a peaceful protest…’
Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.”
Perhaps we are no longer surprised that a man gets robbed and beaten in Jesus’ parable, but the senseless deaths of two black men has shaken many of us this week to the core. The man in the parable is just a fictional character, but he’s supposed to bring to mind the real victims of violence and injustice in our present world, people like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. People like the officers who were killed, and the officers who were injured in the anger and outrage that followed yet another story of racism and tragedy. If we are going to be the neighbors that Jesus calls us to be, we cannot afford to skip over the horror of the man who is beaten, the women who is killed, the children who are abused. We must be willing to stop and be moved to tears on their behalf. To be a neighbor, we must hurt with the hurting, and feel the outrage of the injustices committed against them deep in our souls. If we don’t, we will never be moved to action, never compelled to speak up for the rights of the oppressed, never motivated to fight for justice denied.
You may have noticed that Katy Hinman did not end her telling of the parable with a Good Samaritan. She leaves us hanging. No one helps. No one is the neighbor. Instead, she ends it with a cry to God for mercy. Mr. Rogers once said that his mother told him that when something scary happens, he should look for the helpers, for there are always people who help. That’s good advice in a terrifying world, but we must also not be too quick to jump to the conclusion of Jesus’ parable, to the person who helps, for it might make us forget the horror of the problem itself. We have to be shocked and outraged and hurt by the deaths of these men. We cannot forget. Lord, have mercy. And Lord, help us to have mercy.
The second retelling of Jesus’ parable is set in the context of the Stanford rape case. If you’ve forgotten the story, several weeks ago Stanford college student Brock Allen Turner was convicted of sexual assault in the rape of woman who had attended a frat party with her sister. After leaving the party, Turner assaulted the woman as she lay unconscious behind a dumpster before he was found by two Swedish students riding their bikes. They intervened and called the police, holding down the rapist until the cops arrived. The story became national headlines not simply because of the crime involved, but because of its outcome. Turner was sentenced by Judge Aaron Persky to only six months in jail for his three felony convictions because the judge was worried about the “severe impact” prison time would have on the young man’s life. And Turner’s father wrote a statement complaining about the “steep price” that his son had to pay for “20 minutes of action.” With that in mind, Jennifer Tweat wrote this version of the story of the Good Samaritan:
“The Good Swedes”
But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, “and who is my neighbor?”
And Jesus answering said,
“A certain college student left her house to go down the street to a party, to keep her sister company. And she was attacked by a man, who stripped her of her clothes and raped her, and ran away, leaving her behind a dumpster unconscious and bleeding.
In the year that followed, the rapist’s dad heard her story but decided that his son hadn’t raped her enough to deserve punishment in jail.
In the year that followed, a judge heard her story but decided that the rapist’s future was more important than hers, and he passed the minimum sentence required by law to give the rapist 6 months, time served.
But by chance, two Swedish guys on bicycles happened by and when they saw what was happening they had compassion on her; they shouted and stopped the rape and chased down the rapist and called the police.
Which now of all three, [do] you think, was neighbor to she who fell attacked by the rapist?”
Jennifer’s version of the story is powerful because it highlights not only the injustice done, but the excuses that we use to avoid being good neighbors. The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable had plenty of reasons, I’m sure, not to help the man in the street. He was probably carrying his money in a way that invited attack. He was probably walking through the wrong part of town unaccompanied. He was probably not a temple-goer, so he deserved what he got.
If someone in our society is sexually assaulted, we are ready and waiting with reasons why it was justified or why the perpetrator shouldn’t be held responsible for it. She was drunk. She was wearing a revealing shirt and too short of a skirt. She shouldn’t have left the party alone. She kissed him, so she must have consented. It was a shame that this happened, but she kind of had it coming, you know? This sort of thing doesn’t happen to the good girls. He is a swimmer with a possible Olympic future. He has never been in trouble with the law before. It was only 20 minutes of action out of a 20 year life. He really shouldn’t have done this, but come on, let’s not be too harsh, you know? Boys will be boys.
Before we get too holy and condemn the college student, his father, and the judge, let’s be honest with ourselves. What are our excuses for failing to be a good neighbor? I know I have mine.
The final retelling of the Good Samaritan highlights a few of own excuses. It’s a story about me and an experience I had last fall. It’s entitled:
“The Good Muslim”
But the college religion professor, wanting to justify herself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus answered saying,
“A certain college student taking a large introductory religion course was mourning the death of her grandmother and trying to juggle work, school, and friends, and fell behind on her assignments, to the extent that she was in danger of failing the course.
And when the student’s TA came to the religion professor’s office, wanting to discuss the student and her missing assignments, the professor lectured him on academic integrity, the necessity of allowing students to fail and learn from their mistakes, and the student’s responsibility to seek out help.
But the Muslim TA quoted the Qur’an and implored the professor to show the student compassion, the compassion that God requires all those who profess faith to give toward to those in need.
Which of these two, do you think, was neighbor to the one who fell behind in her assignments?”
This final version of Jesus’ parable highlights what would have been the surprise ending of the story for Jesus’ original listeners. The righteous one in the story, the one who lives out the commandment to love God and neighbor, is not one of the expected characters, but the completely unexpected one. It’s the Samaritan. Because this parable is so familiar to us, most of us if we heard the word “Samaritan” would automatically associate that word with the adjective “good”. Of course the Samaritan is good! I’ve heard the story 100 times! But Jesus’ listeners would have heard “good Samaritan” as an oxymoron. Those are words that simply do not belong together. Good priest, yes. Good Jew, yes. Good Levite, yes. Good Samaritan? No way. It’s like saying “Good Florida fan” in a room full of Bulldawgs. That just can’t be, Lord!
So to surprise and shock us, to fully grasp the intent of Jesus’ parable, we need to insert another noun after the word “good.” We need to think about the people that our society and culture would deem evil, and realize that they may be the ones who live out the love of God when we don’t. I chose “Muslim” for my version of the story because Muslims are currently one of the largest targets of societal hatred, and because I had an experience with my TA that clearly demonstrated how I can be put to shame by the followers of other religions.
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks Jesus.
There’s an internet meme that I think answers that question quite succinctly. It says at the top, “Love Thy Neighbor,” and then underneath it lists all the neighbors that we should love:
• Thy homeless neighbor
• Thy Muslim neighbor
• Thy black neighbor
• Thy gay neighbor
• Thy white neighbor
• Thy Jewish neighbor
• Thy Christian neighbor
• Thy atheist neighbor
• Thy addicted neighbor
I could easily end the sermon right here, but that would only give you false hope for shorter sermons in the future, and I don’t want to burden Pastor Joe with your unrealistic expectations for brevity. So I’ll go on.
And I also don’t want to end the sermon right here because I want to change directions a bit. I left out one of the “thy neighbors” from this list that I just read. I left it out because, I’ll be honest, it’s a group of people that I don’t want to love, that I don’t want to be a neighbor to. I left out: “Love thy racist neighbor.” Please Lord, not the racist. Let me be a neighbor to anyone but them.
It’s long been a belief of mine that the best sermons are the ones that are preached to oneself. They are inwardly directed, not outwardly directed. Both preaching and teaching, sermons and lectures, are best done staring into the mirror. Not to admire the image one sees reflected, but to recognize the failings and shortcomings and sins one sees staring back at oneself. It’s the evil that we know that we can most effectively and honestly speak against. Those sermons and lectures are the hardest to write, because they force us to face our own demons, but they are often the most powerful because they are written from a place of authenticity. So today I am attempting to battle my own demons by taking this sermon and pushing it farther than I would like.
It’s easy to use the story of the Good Samaritan as a weapon to beat others over the head. The church has a long history of using Scripture in this fashion, condemning others by selective quotations of the Bible. And the Good Samaritan story seems so relevant now, as it’s a text that speaks against the “us versus them” mentality of our culture, even our Christian culture. When I see Christians who fail to see racism and sexism and bigotry in the world, I want to shout this parable to them. I want to scream ‘til I’m red in the face, “You have to love Muslims! You have to love gay people! You have to acknowledge racism and sexism! Black lives matter! The rights of women matter! You can’t vote for Donald Trump and ignore his disgusting rhetoric that threatens to tear apart our nation at its seams! STOP IT NOW! I can’t take it anymore. Love is more important than our gun rights, our national security, our middle class jobs, our taxes, our whatever. WE ARE CALLED TO LOVE ABOVE ALL ELSE!!!!”
This parable says all of that, so perhaps I need to keep proclaiming that truth even if no one listens to me. Even if I get unfriended on Facebook or lose some friends in real (non-virtual) life.
But I also imagine that Jesus’ parable is supposed to have a meaning for ME, not just a message for other people. So I have to be willing to ask Jesus:
Who is MY neighbor? Who is the neighbor I’m neglecting out of self-righteous indignation and anger? Who would I pass by on the street, perhaps even crossing the street to avoid the taint of being associated with them? Who would I treat with hostility rather than mercy, contempt rather than love? Who is the neighbor that I refuse to see as a rightful recipient of my time, my energy, my finances, and my love?
At this point in my life, it’s not the black community, the LGBT community, the undocumented students and their parents, the victims of rape and sexual violence, the refugees, or the poor. I know those people are my neighbors, and I know that I have the obligation to love them, to feed them, to fight for justice for them, to listen to them, and to stand up for their rights. I’ve been at Oconee Street for three years now and I’ve been convicted time and time again by the sermons I’ve heard and the testimonies of those of you who live out your faith in tangible ways. Our mission statement proclaims loudly to all that we consider those whom society condemns and marginalizes to be our neighbors, and I’ve watched in awe as you have repeatedly demonstrated to me how to live out this calling. I have a long way to go in being a neighbor consistently to these groups, but you have at least set me on that path. I pray that I will daily increase in my ability to be their neighbors.
But I’ll admit that I not have an even bigger neighbor problem. I have a hard time being a neighbor to those on the right. I have a problem being a neighbor to the person who wants to build a wall to keep out the undesirables from Mexico, and suggests via Facebook meme that perhaps adopting a policy like North Korea’s and shooting illegal immigrants would be a better border protection policy than our current one. I have a difficult time being a neighbor to the person who responds to the #blacklivesmatter movement with an indignant post about how #alllivesmatter. I don’t want to be a neighbor to the person who proclaims that healthcare isn’t a universal right, or that gay and lesbian folks are an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.
But if I were to ask Jesus who my neighbor is, I imagine he’d tell me a story where a racist, sexist, homophobic Trump supporter was the hero, the merciful one. THAT’s the story of the Good Samaritan set in my context.
Or perhaps, Jesus wouldn’t throw all of that at me at once, but he’d start with John Piper. “Your neighbor, Jodie, is John Piper,” I hear Jesus saying.
Most of you don’t know John Piper. I don’t personally know him, but he’s my theological nemesis, nonetheless. Piper is an extremely influential Reformed pastor and author. Reformed is basically another name for Calvinist, so imagine a pastor who believes that God predestines some people to heaven, and passes over the rest of humanity, allowing them to burn eternally in Hell for their sins. I’ve often said that Methodists can believe almost anything and still qualify as Methodists with one exception: you can’t believe in predestination. That is entirely contradictory to everything Methodism stands for. John Wesley would roll over in his grave if a Methodist endorsed predestination. Now I’ve known some predestinarian Methodists, but I prefer to call them “Baptists who keep showing up to the wrong church on Sundays.” So you know already that John Piper and I see God and Christianity quite differently.
I will spare you the laundry list of reasons I disdain John Piper and just give you one more: he actively campaigns for traditional gender roles. Not only does he spend a good deal of time teaching and preaching that women are to be subordinate to men in the home, and not preach or teach in the church, but he thinks that women should submit to men in society, too. Women professors? Totally suspect in Piper’s book. You can see why I’m not a fan.
I have to love John Piper. I have to be his neighbor, because “Love thy neighbor” doesn’t exclude anyone, not the person you like the least, not the person you think is most unworthy of your love, not the person you are convinced is wrong, wrong, wrong. How do I do this? How do I love the person who thinks every aspect of my private and professional life is a violation of God’s gender norms? I’ll confess that I don’t quite know the answer, but I have some thoughts, and hopefully as we continue our spiritual walk together, I will learn more from you about how to be his neighbor.
But for now, I don’t think loving my neighbor means that I shouldn’t speak out against them. I truly believe that I have a moral obligation to speak out against John Piper’s teachings, not only because his teaching on gender roles is harmful and sanctifies the sinful practice of sexism, but because his theology as a whole misidentifies the nature and reality of the God I know and worship.
But yet I’m called to be John Piper’s neighbor. How do I do that?
When I imagine Heaven, I imagine a great feast. The idea of a huge heavenly banquet is not only a biblical image of the afterlife, but essential to my understanding of a good God. If you know me, you know I love food. So if God is good, heaven must be a place where I can eat to my heart’s content, no longer burdened by my numerous food allergies, and not get fat. Seriously, ya’ll, this is ESSENTIAL TO MY THEOLOGY. Last week a student in my summer class was giving a presentation on the afterlife in Judaism, and he asked for feedback about what we would imagine Gan Eden, the Jewish version of paradise, to be like. My hand shot up first. “PIZZA! There will be PIZZA and I can eat it!!”
But when I show up for the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet in the afterlife, I imagine that there will be assigned seating. And the assigned seating will be partly God’s little joke and partly God’s poignant demonstration of the sinfulness of human divisions. God will, I’m pretty sure, sit me right next to John Piper. Piper will be my neighbor in heaven, whether or not I was ever willing to be his neighbor on earth.
Perhaps that is even an unstated point of Jesus’ parable. The people I dislike the most, the people who I’m sure are doing religion all wrong are going to be the people I’m literally going to be neighbors with after life on earth is done. Jesus preaches both the present reality and the future fullness of the kingdom of God. John Piper is my heavenly neighbor and if I can live into the teachings of Jesus I will make our neighborly relation a reality on earth, too. I will have my eyes opened and see him for who he is: a beloved creature of God who is both sinner and sanctified, both theologically wrong and right, just like me. If I lived into the teachings of Jesus, I’d probably look at Piper and instead of seeing him as the “other,” the person who is messing up my correct version of Christianity, I’d simply see myself reflected back. I’d see me, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and seeing myself, I’d have to stop judging so harshly and love instead. I’d have to show him mercy, the mercy that the Jesus praises the Samaritan for in the gospel of Luke.
Mercy is a gift we can offer others only when we recognize the common humanity and common frailty of the people we encounter. The only way I can show mercy to John Piper is to recognize myself when I look at him. When I’m being honest, that is what I see. Me.
When I was in tenth grade, we were paired up in English class and given an assignment to write and deliver an introductory speech about our partner, imagining that we were introducing them at a function 10 years in the future. My partner, Camille, decided that in the future I would be an overachiever, and quickly came up with a long bullet list of my imagined accomplishments at the ripe old age of 26. I don’t remember most of the grand achievements she envisioned for me, but I do remember she wrote that I would become a doctor and find the cure for AIDS. I asked her to change it and say I found a cure for cancer instead. I don’t think I revealed to her why I asked for the change, but the truth is that as a high school sophomore, I was convinced that AIDS was a divine punishment on the gay community for the sin of transgressing God’s intentions for human sexuality. I didn’t think God wanted anyone to find a cure, and perhaps wouldn’t even allow it.
I’m horrified and embarrassed to admit that I believed that. But that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. I believed people on welfare were generally lazy, and that the government shouldn’t be giving them “handouts.” I was certainly aware that racism still existed in the 1990s, but I was also convinced that an over-reaction to racism had spawned reverse racism, and that many white people were now treated unjustly because of affirmative action practices. I also thought women preachers were sinful, and that women who put their children in daycare were selfish and were abdicating their God-given responsibility to put their families first. I could go on and on, as I haven’t even mentioned my views on Muslims and immigrants yet, but I think I’ve made my point. I was one of “them.” I was one of those people that today I feel a righteous indignation against, one of those people that I feel a moral obligation to oppose. I was one of them: a sick, sinful person in need of the mercy of Christ and of my neighbor.
So here I am now, at a place I would call politically and theologically and socially left of center. Here I am now, in a church that is also politically and theologically and socially left of center. The question for me, and I would imagine, for us, is how to be a neighbor from the left–how to be a neighbor not only to those who are also on the left, but to those on the right, because they need mercy, too.
I have to be a neighbor to the John Pipers of the world, even as they tell me I’m a sinner for preaching and teaching and leading as a woman. I have to be a neighbor to the Franklin Grahams of the world who warn Christians that the Qur’an teaches violence and that Islam is an evil religion. I have to be a neighbor to the Robert Jefress’s of the world, the Dallas pastor who rails against illegal immigration and chastises Christians for their prideful refusal to support Donald Trump, the obvious “Christian” choice. These are my neighbors. These are our neighbors. These people need our mercy, too, and Jesus’ parable tears at my heart because I don’t want to show mercy because they are wrong. And because they are making a mockery of my religion.
But mercy is about recognizing that I am no better than them. I am simply at a different place in my journey to God, perhaps further along or perhaps simply on a different fork in the path. IF I have made it further, it’s not because of my efforts. I don’t deserve some sort of credit for it, as if we’ve all been offered equal opportunity to become more generous, open-minded people, and I rightfully accepted the way forward while they stubbornly stood back and refused. I am who I am today because God graciously saved me from myself. God sent the right people into my life to guide me out of my place of bigotry and lead me to higher ground. I was rescued. It was God and not me. So when I see the John Pipers and the Franklin Grahams of the world my response should be to beg for mercy for them, too. They need rescuing, for they are drowning in the sinful mindset of the world.
And so am I. So am I. Because no matter how many times I’ve heard this parable, no matter how many times I’ve been challenged to be a neighbor, I still walk smugly every day past people who need mercy. I am still drowning in sin, because I keep being unwilling to admit that oftentimes, those people I dislike are the actual heroes of Jesus’ parable. That often, John Piper, despite all the things I think he’s wrong about, is the one who shows the neighborly self-sacrificial love of Jesus to others when I pass them by. So all I can cry is: Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy, and Lord, may we learn to reflect your mercy. Amen.
by Stephen Frick
Romans 5:6-9: (English Standard Version)
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
Before the worship service started this past Sunday, my daughter, Melanie, asked if she could sit beside me. She could have sat by a friend her age, but she wanted to sit by me. I was quite happy that she wanted to sit beside me, and said “Sure, you can sit with me.” As if I would turn her down? It’s not like she hasn’t sat beside me before. She has several times, so why she should actually ask, I don’t know. At any rate, I felt quite honored. Did I sit by my mom or dad in church at age 10? I SHOULD THINK NOT! I was MUCH TOO OLD to be sitting by my parents in church at age 10!
After service began, she proceeded to snuggle up close to me and lean her head on my shoulder. I’m not sure why. Maybe sitting close to me made her feel more secure, or maybe it was just her way of showing love for me at that time. It doesn’t really matter, as I’ll happily accept such display of love without question. While sitting beside her, and realizing that I made her feel secure and that she loves me very much, I was reminded of the kind of love The Father yearns for from us – his creation, children of God. Perhaps there is nothing more meaningful to me than my children’s love for me. Is there any possession that I would rather have than the love of my children? A resounding NO! Absolutely nothing.
I’d like to think she will always display a child-like love for her earthly father – that she will always want to sit beside me (not just at church) through all her future teenage angst and beyond, and that she will lean on me for anything or for no reason at all. Perhaps… perhaps she will, but I’m not exactly counting on it. I was once a teen and now a distracted adult who most of the time doesn’t snuggle with the Father or lean on Him when I should even though I know I should. How much would He enjoy such action if I did? Maybe Melanie will even have days that she despises me, but if she does, I will love her just the same and want her to sit beside me and lean on me no matter the reason. Always.
And so it is with The Father’s yearning for our love. Through the love I have for my own children, God’s love for me and for mankind is not a mystery to me. It is COMPLETELY and UTTERLY clear. I love my children more than my own life and would give up my life if it meant that they would be saved from harm or even just a miserable life – a life that doesn’t know God. If throwing myself in front of a car would save my daughter or son from death or injury, I would without hesitation, because the pain or death that would come to me for that small amount of time would be nothing compared to the pain that I would feel for NOT doing so. This is the love The Father demonstrated for us through sending Christ, who showed this kind of love while he walked the Earth, but also selflessly showed this love for us on The Cross, so that his blood would justify us from our sin and save us from death.
After writing this I know why Melanie asked to sit beside me, snuggle up next to me and lean her head on me. Sometimes God uses subtle things to help us understand; we just have to listen.
Prayer: Thank you Father for the love that you have shown us through Christ’s selfless act of love, sacrifice and forgiveness on the Cross. Let the meaning of the Cross dwell in our hearts and inspire us to what should be our utmost for His Highest in our daily lives. Be with us through your Holy Spirit to guide us, empower us and to know your mind so that we will be the parents, spouses and friends who will show selfless acts of love, sacrifice and forgiveness to others.