Sermon: “Progressing Faith by Grace and Deeds”

“Progressing Faith by Grace and Deeds”
Sermon by Aaron Farnham
June 21, 2015

Sermon Audio

I am particularly indebted to James Thobaben and Joseph Okello for their indirect and direct guidance while preparing this message.

I fancy myself methodical. In the expedience and efficiency that come from good, well executed practices I see a beauty and grace of movement that I enjoy. I tend to be content in myself most when I follow a daily, ordered, routine especially when I notice progress toward a long term goal. It is no wonder, then, that my preferred life illustration comes from “The Tortoise and the Hare.” (Andrea would likely summarize what I have just laid before you by saying I am annoying.)

Alas, the rabbit holes I have pursued in writing this sermon have been numerous. Trying to follow them all would leave Alice with the desire to stay in Wonderland forever. Alas, no matter how far I wandered I kept noticing I was circling something, and last Wednesday’s attack brought me in a downward spiral toward that something as quickly as it would jerk Alice back to reality. Hence, anything right and good that come from this message will be by the Holy Spirit’s grace in this place.

My understanding of theology has grown to hinge on the right and capacity for self-determination: Autonomy. In fact, in the final paper I wrote in my philosophy of religion course I presented the importance of autonomy to such an extreme that I was offered the opportunity to declare the logical outcome of my thoughts was not my personal belief or face the possibility of being invited to walk away graciously from the seminary for theological differences. Why would autonomy be so important to me that it could have taken me to that point? In a nut shell, God created humanity to be in relationship with God. For that relationship to be genuine humans must have the autonomy to choose or not choose a place in God’s story of love. If God had created us without the right and capacity for self-determination humans would be mere pawns or slaves to a tyrant self-absorbed in his own pleasure. From my limited perspective, that doesn’t jive with the God of Scripture when Scripture is looked at through a holistic lens that sees the overarching theme of God. To spell it out, I believe that overarching theme is love.

As Methodists we believe that one must make a choice to be in relationship with God, through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, a person must make a decision that God cannot and will not make for the individual, but the Holy Spirit will provide all God’s grace to see that decision, which is available by Christ’s work, carried through. To be clear, by being in relationship with God I mean deciding to love God, to love Jesus Christ and to love the Holy Spirit. As an aside, I am referring to ideal situations. My God is big. My God is bigger than my capacity to understand, and I am confident that in that lack of understanding God has a means for those who, by being in a broken world, are unable to make an autonomous decision to be in said relationship.

Dr. James Thobaben, the pastor of Mt Zion UMC in Mercer County Kentucky, and Dean of the School of Theology and Formation, Associate Provost for Institutional Effectiveness and Professor of Bioethics and Social Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary, is fond of illustrating the theme of relationship with God by relating that when he loves God primarily he finds his capacity to love his spouse and children grows exponentially. On the other hand, in times when he has put his relationship with his spouse before his relationship with God there is a very noticeable drop in his capacity to love her. When I ponder this illustration I dwell on Matthew 22:36-40 which in the NIV reads;

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

As stated in this passage we must understand and accept the former as a necessary precursor to the latter.
Traditionally Christians with a Methodist heritage have relied on the Wesleyan Means of Grace as the foundational activities of engagement in relationship with God. These include individual and communal practices of piety and mercy. For the sake of brevity, I am not going to read a list of these activities. However, I do wish to highlight a few works of piety (the individual practices of reading, meditating and studying the scriptures, prayer, and regularly attending worship, and the communal practice of Bible study) and one work of mercy (the individual practice of giving generously to the needs of others).

Now please consider some people who through the joys and perils of lives long and short made decisions to love God as Christians in the Methodist tradition. A tradition which, like the majority of the universal church, recognizes each week as a mini reminder of what I believe to be the most important Christian holiday: Easter. Throughout the world each Wednesday there are Bible studies, services of worship, communion and prayer. Yes, pragmatically, Wednesday is the midweek apex, but it reminds us of Ash Wednesday as we approach the first day of the Christian week, Sunday, which is the Christian Sabbath to remind us each week of Christ’s Easter Sunday victory over the powers that held us subject.

Last Wednesday, as other Christians today and the saints for centuries before them, twelve disciples gathered to pray. (That number is not lost on me.) And I remind you, prayer is an autonomous act of love toward God which helps facilitate the Holy Spirit’s outpouring of grace. According to the accounts I have read a thirteenth joined the twelve and they, recognizing his need, his spiritual depravity, gave generously to him in prayer and other deeds. They gave so generously that he admitted to police officers that he almost did not follow through with it because everyone was so nice to him. They loved God first, and that love allowed them to love their neighbor who would suddenly turn on them and take their lives. To borrow from the first Epistle of John, they lived in love, they lived in God, and God in them.

Through those twelve people it is apparent to me that the Holy Spirit offered this man all of God’s grace and as a fully capable autonomous individual he made the wrong choice, he made a bad choice, and he made the most painful choice he could as he decided to reject God and proceed with his plan. Along with the hearts of so many people he broke God’s heart, and I believe the first mourner of this event was the Holy Spirit which had and still does fill Emanuel AME. We know that God’s grace still fills that church family because family member of those murdered have publically forgiven the man who pleaded guilty to this crime.
Nevertheless, killing our fellow Christians was a hate crime. It was a hate crime that had nothing to do with the faith they displayed. There are many investigative questions to be asked in response to last week’s massacre at Emanuel AME in Charleston. The standard who-what-where-when-why-and-how’s will be combed over and rehashed by people with and without official duties. It will be an intense and integral mode of healing in the mourning process for those with direct ties to the victims.

Removing faith from the equation the biggest scientifically measureable difference between the victims and the perpetrator was they had more melanin…It isn’t that simple.

It isn’t that simple. We live in a culture that is dependent on hierarchies, marginalization, otherness, dominance for personal gain often even to the point of hindering our offspring and throwing survival of the fittest out the window… We live in a culture very much like the one we encounter within the New Testament. Both are cultures that breed hate and racism. However, if you are a Christian you cannot deny that Jesus’ ministry suggests that the Kingdom of Heaven will be realized first through the marginalized, the hated, the oppressed and the other. If you are a Christian you cannot deny a place at the table, in the communion of saints in the church universal because the story, God’s story, is one of love primarily for the spiritually, physically, emotionally and culturally subjugated.

Some argue that in our culture all of Christendom is marginalized, but frankly, that position is as important today as saying Hashtag All-Lives-Matter. If it wasn’t a means of overlooking the systemic cultural problems facing the marginalized in our communities it would be a wonderful complement for a “Pie in the Sky” faith. Marginalized lives matter just as much as those of the ones marginalizing, but in a culture that denies them that equality and ignores the racism that promotes it the Church must demand that marginalized lives are valued because “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world”. Not just those of the people in power and certainly not just those with a particular melanin threshold. Furthermore, call me old fashioned, but I reject the notion that one’s human essence is a thing alone on an island or some sort of expression of nothing or everything as various modes of Modern thought would leave us thinking. I believe the human essence is an embodiment of the image of God, and human identity comes, sometimes only by grace as I said earlier, with the necessary autonomy to reject or accept that embodiment. If the essence of each and every human being is the image of God then we absolutely must be against hatred, racism and marginalization. Because to not be against them is to be against the God we love.

While I take great comfort in knowing the nine people who died in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal accepted and nurtured the image of God within them I was overwhelmed with fear and disgust at the news of their murders. I found myself repulsed. I’ll be honest, if it had been my friends or family that were slaughtered after some form of worship with their attacker I do not think my personal relationship with God is where it would have to be able to do what the families of the slain have done by forgiving the murderer so soon. I acknowledge that I have a long way to go in my pursuit of Christian Perfection.
We talk about our Methodist connection and typically mean United Methodist connection by that, but we share linage with the AME. In fact, Emanuel AME’s website illustrates how marginalization at the hands of late 18th century Methodists in Philadelphia brought about the denomination’s formation. These are our brothers and sisters. Likewise Depayne, Sharonda, Cynthia, Clementa, Ethel, Tywanza, Myra, Daniel and Susie were our sisters and brothers, and we should mourn with their families just as the Holy Spirit has mourned since that night even as we worship on a Sabbath intended to remind us of Christ’s victory on the first Easter Sunday.

I dare say that mourning with the immediate community of Mother Emanuel because “our hearts go out to them” is the obvious action, it is the safe action, it is the act of conventional wisdom trying to grope at the same solution which has yet to bear real fruit. You see, conventional wisdom rarely takes into consideration God’s laws. Conventional wisdom tells one spouse to love the other spouse before anything else. Conventional wisdom would tell us that if we ignore racism and racists they will vanish. Conventional wisdom would tell twelve African Americans who all knew each other intimately to be immediately wary of an interloping twenty something white male. Conventional wisdom would tell 26 year old Tywanza to save his own life rather than offer to die in place of his 87 year old aunt Susie because he was a good black man with a good future ahead of him. Besides, she’d already lived a good long life herself.

To best love our church family at Emanuel AME, to best love the marginalized we must first love God. It is my hope and prayer that at the very least you will come away from this message with a duty to pray for a minimum of seven days over the families of Clementa, Cynthia, Daniel, Depayne, Ethel, Myra, Sharonda, Susie and Tywanza, Emanual AME, the African American community at large that finds itself continuously under siege, and the judicial system that will dole out justice according to the letter of the law. Please give thanks for the lives and the examples of the nine, pray for the healing of the two survivors that were shot, pray for the emotional state of the woman who was intentionally left unharmed, pray for good restorative and healthy grieving, pray that people would learn to love God so they can learn to love people and pray for the grace, peace and realization of God’s Kingdom here on Earth.

That is the easy request. Now comes what I am uncomfortable with. Please pray for Myra, Ethel, Clementa, Susie, Depayne, Tywanza, Daniel, Cynthia and Sharonda’s murderer, Dylan. It is easy to pray for those we love, for those we know would be in worship today if they were still alive. It is an entirely different experience to pray for God’s blessing upon someone we do not love for very just reasons. I believe the generous giving the twelve people in that prayer service bestowed on this spiritual void individual would have been in vain if we do not step in for them and pray God’s grace mercy and peace poured over him no matter what the judicial system decides for him.

Yes, as we mourn those who have pasted and pray for their families and church I am asking you to pray God’s blessings upon a racist. C.T. Studd, as turn of the 20th century missionary said, “Some wish to live within the sound of Church or Chapel bell; I want to run a Rescue Shop within a yard of hell.” Praying for Dylan, in the way I have discribled, will firmly plant us as some of Studd’s shopkeepers.

Finally, I would like to share with you’re the words of Sister Jean German Ortiz as quoted on Emanuel AME’s homepage saying, “Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for Him should be as passionate.”

BENEDICTION (inspired by the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s spiritual doctrine according to Emmanuel AME’s website) As we leave today may God our Father, Christ our Liberator, and the Holy Spirit our Nurturer pour grace upon and from us so that the world will recognize all of Humanity as Sibling.

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: I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light (or Why I Became a United Methodist)

“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” (or Why I Became a United Methodist)
Sermon by Dr. Jodie Lyon
April 12, 2015
1 John 1:5-2:2

Choir Anthem: “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”

Sermon

I officially joined the United Methodist Church in the summer of 2006 after years of stubborn resistance. Yes, I fought tooth and nail against becoming a United Methodist. It took two years of Methodist college, three years of Methodist seminary, and finally being accepted into a PhD program at a Methodist institution before I finally, like Jonah, begrudgingly gave up the fight and joined the Ninevites, (otherwise known as the United Methodists).

Don’t get me wrong—I liked the Methodists, I just wasn’t ready to sell the soul of my firstborn child to join them, or whatever denominational membership entailed. I grew up Church of Christ, the granddaughter of two Church of Christ ministers, and we Church of Christ folks are naturally suspicious of mainline denominations. For one thing, the Church of Christ is a denomination that prides itself on being a non-denomination. We cling to that belief staunchly, against all logic, and we’re critical of other churches who actually admit they are denominations. The Church of Christ is of course NOT a denomination, but the restoration of the NT church, the church that Jesus himself started. How was I supposed to be a member of an openly denominational denomination? Did you know that there are currently at least 45,000 Christian denominations? When I was in the Church of Christ, I could pretend that I was special—set apart from a sea of denominations. Joining the Methodists meant becoming just one of the masses. Joining the UMC, I had to admit that my church wasn’t THE church, but just a church, a group of people who tried to follow Christ’s teachings in the way they knew best.

Aside from my reluctance to accept denominationalism, there was a bigger obstacle in joining the Methodist church: a sin-related obstacle. You may or may not be aware of the fact that I have a certain reputation. A reputation for being knowledgeable in a very particular area. Let me explain by giving you an example:

A few weeks ago I received an email from a former UGA student who is now studying at Emory to become ordained in the United Methodist Church. The email began like this:

“Dear Dr. Lyon,

You know a lot about sin. Maybe you can help me.”

I’ve been living with this reputation for quite a few years now. One of my friends loves to introduce me this way: “Hey, John, have you met Jodie? She’s an expert in sin.” It’s possible that I get these emails and these introductions because I wrote my dissertation on the doctrine of sin, but it’s also equally possible that people are just judging me. Once, on an airplane, in the course of a conversation with the guy sitting next to me, I was asked my area of research. The guy was quite fascinated with my field of study, and turned to the woman on the other side of him and proclaimed, “Hey, we’ve got a sin expert over here!” She, without missing a beat replied, “Oh yeah, I’m a sin expert too! I’m really good at ______.” Because this is a church service, I will not finish that sentence. Let’s just say that being a sin expert makes for interesting airline conversation.

When I looked at the lectionary passages for today, I figured I had to choose the one about sin, since that’s what a sin expert would do.

But I also chose this passage because it sums up for me two Methodist doctrines that were crucial in my decision to become a member of the UMC. First, this passage demonstrates a Methodist teaching that attracted me to the denomination long before I was ready to join. This passage tells us that “God is light” and in God “there is no darkness at all.” The first reason I became a Methodist was because of the Wesleyan vision of God, an understanding of God as wholly and utterly good, a God who is pure light, a God in whom there is “no darkness at all.”

But this passage also reveals the big initial stumbling block I had in joining the Methodist church. The sin-related issue. This passage also asks us to imitate God, to walk in the light as God is in the light, and therefore not to sin. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, loved this passage in first John, because for him, it demonstrated his doctrine of entire sanctification, or what he also referred to as Christian Perfection.

This sin-related doctrine known as Entire Sanctification kept me out of the Methodist fold for a number of years. I just couldn’t get past it. Now some of you may be scratching your heads saying to yourself, “I’ve been a Methodist for years and I have no idea what the doctrine of entire sanctification even is.” If you feel that way, you’re probably not alone. The funny thing about the doctrine of entire sanctification is that while it was the seemingly unsurmountable obstacle that kept me from joining the Methodist church, once I finally joined the church I never heard of it again. I’ve been an official United Methodist for 9 years now and I don’t believe I’ve ever even heard it mentioned in a church building in all of those years.

But before we get to an explanation of entire sanctification, let’s return to the first thing of note in this passage: John’s insistence that in God there is “no darkness at all.”

I became a Methodist first and foremost because Methodism, more than any other denomination I know, recognizes and proclaims the goodness of God.

Methodism says this about God: That God loves everyone with an extravagant, relentless, wasteful grace. Let me explain those adjectives in detail. God’s love is extravagant: it’s above and beyond, it’s far more than we could ever deserve, and far more than we could even imagine. Whatever you imagine to be the extent of God’s love for you, it is much, much more than that. The depths of grace are unfathomable. You can’t exhaust the grace of God, because it continuously overflows out of the depth of God’s very being. God’s love is extravagant, and hence God is light and God is good.

God’s love is also relentless: God is always in pursuit of us. You don’t have to run to God, for God has already run to you. Methodists also speak of grace as prevenient: it not only chases us, like a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, but it even goes before us, where it stands, ready and waiting for us. God is not caught unawares. If we run from the fold, God is already there, ready and waiting to embrace us when we arrive. Grace is always ahead of us, behind us, around us. God’s love is relentless, and hence God is light and God is good.

And finally, God’s love is wasteful. Using a term like “wasteful” to speak of God in an age in which we recognize the importance of recycling and the conservation of precious resources seems like an odd thing, but hear me out. God’s love is wasteful in the sense that it is not given only when it will prove to be effective. It’s lavished on us just as freely when we will certainly reject it as it is when we will surely open our arms to receive it. God, according to Jesus’ parable, is not a prudent farmer, carefully plotting rows of crops and meting out exact portions of seeds, but God is a crazy farmer who wastes seed, throwing it willy-nilly all over the place, not caring whether it lands on the plowed soil or the rocky soil or even on the road. God can be wasteful with grace, because, as noted before, God’s supply of love and goodness is endless. There is no need to worry about it running out, no need to carefully and prudently dispense it. God has grace to waste, and so love and goodness is showered on all persons, all the time, regardless of their response to it. God’s love is wasteful, and hence God is light and God is good.

This is the God that Methodists worship—the God of extravagant, relentless, and wasteful grace. This is what attracted me to the Methodist church; this is what sealed for me my decision to thrown in my lot with the people called Methodist instead of the people called Baptist or Presbyterian or any other denomination. It’s not that other Christians or other denominations deny God’s goodness. I’ve never met a Christian who didn’t believe that God is good. But so many denominations define the goodness of God in ways that I consider to be less than truly good, so when I found Methodism it was truly a breath of fresh air.

I don’t want to dwell on the negative today, but I do want to share with you one example of the difficulty Christians have in acknowledging the utter goodness of our God. A couple of years ago while teaching a class called Popular Theology I assigned the book, Love Wins by Rob Bell. If you haven’t read this book, you should. But let me summarize it for those who haven’t: in Love Wins, Rob Bell challenges the traditional depiction of God as someone who will send millions of people to Hell to burn eternally because they never heard of or believed in Jesus Christ. Bell contends that a truly good and loving God wants to spend eternity with all creatures, and that the existence of Hell would mean that God doesn’t get what God wants. Wouldn’t it make more sense to believe that in the end, love wins, or in other words, God wins? For Bell, God is good, and the goodness of God rules out the traditional ways Christians have understood salvation and the afterlife.

But Bell’s defense of God’s goodness wasn’t positively received by his fellow evangelicals. Popular pastor and author Francis Chan wrote a book in response to Bell, claiming that what Bell was doing was defining God in his own terms instead of allowing God to be self-defined through the Bible. Chan says that the Bible clearly teaches a doctrine of Hell, and even if we don’t like it, or find it morally appetizing, we have to accept it on faith. Chan says the NT writers didn’t have the same “allergic” reaction to Hell that people today do, they just took God at God’s word and didn’t try to make God measure up to their moral standards or to their mere human sentimentality. God is good, Chan claims, but Christians need to let God define what goodness means, even when it opposes our own understanding of morality.

Chan’s vision of God is a popular one in Christianity, because many people believe that faith involves forcing ourselves to believe things about who God is or what God does that we have trouble believing, or even, in this case, find morally repugnant. Faith, for many Christians, is believing these things, and still proclaiming, against all logic, that God IS GOOD.

Francis Chan believes that the problem with progressive Christians, Christians like us, like those here at Oconee Street, is that we’re not willing to let God be God. We want to put God in a box and make God act like we would if we were in charge. Our problem, Chan claims, is that we we’re unwilling to recognize the fact that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and submit ourselves to those ways, even when they make no sense to us.

But that’s not our problem. We’re not upset because we don’t want to let God be God. Our problem is that we want God to be God, and not to be us. Chan’s portrayal of God looks all too much like us, all too human. Chan’s God is a God who like us takes sides and plays favorites, a God who picks some and passes over others. Chan’s God is a God who like us allows wrath to overtake love, who selectively forgives, and selectively administers grace. My problem is not that I don’t want to let God be God. My problem is that I know God is better than me, and Chan is describing me. I refuse to worship a being who is no better than I am, not because I am stubborn but because I know better than that. God is light, and in God there is NO DARKNESS AT ALL. God’s goodness has to be superior to mine. God has to be (forgive me, grammarians) more good than I am. I recognize that I am good only a percentage of the time, and even then, my love and grace toward others is always mixed with selfish motives and half-hearted effort. My best actions are often accompanied by less than truly good thoughts, as sometimes I have to force myself, against my true desires, to do the good in the world that I know God expects from

Where we are supposed to struggle with the goodness of God is in its overpowering light, not in trying to defend shadows as if they were light. God’s goodness is too overwhelming for us. It’s too good. We can’t bear its expansiveness. It hurts us to look at it, and it forces us to adjust and adapt to its brightness. It shines on us and makes visible all the things that we were trying to hide, whether actions or thoughts or motives. It exposes all our partial attempts at love and forces us to see the wider community that we have rejected.

And this passage in I John asks us not simply to look at the light, to recognize and admire the sheer goodness of God—a task that is difficult enough in and of itself—but this passage asks us to walk in the light. Here comes the obstacle, that doctrine that plagued me so heavily when I was thinking of aligning myself with the Methodist Church.

One of the most distinctive aspects of John Wesley’s theology was his doctrine of entire sanctification. Wesley believed that redemption meant more than just forgiveness. Forgiveness was only the beginning of redemption, which is the process by which we transformed into children of the light. Against the common Christian idea that salvation is something that happens in the future—that it’s simply a matter of where you go when you die, but that it doesn’t really change much in the present—Wesley read Scripture as promising a new life here on earth, a life in which we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are remade in the image of God. Wesley believed that sin isn’t mean to be the default human position, that it is something that God here and now offers us freedom from, if we are willing to allow ourselves to be changed by God.

Wesley called this teaching entire sanctification or Christian perfection because he truly believed that it was possible for those who were filled with the Spirit to avoid all sin. In fact, drawing off of this passage in I John and also Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, Wesley sometimes insisted that if a person continued to sin after being born again in Christ, then they weren’t truly a Christian. A Christian walks in the light as God is in the light. Sin is darkness, and in God there is “no darkness at all.” A person filled with the presence of God is a person through whom the light shines brightly, so that no shadows and no sin remain.

I just couldn’t past this doctrine when I was a seminary student. It struck me as arrogant, quite frankly. My general belief is that if someone goes around claiming to be perfect, they probably are anything but perfect. Besides that, I knew lots of Christians, but I didn’t know any perfect ones. My upbringing didn’t help me accept the doctrine either. I had grown up with the belief that sin was something that inevitably remained until heaven. One day, we believed, God would abolish all sin from the human heart, but until then, we were imperfect creatures, and although you should try as hard as you could not to sin, you had to recognize that no one was going to be perfect. Screwing up was going to happen, and to claim otherwise was to deny one’s fallen humanity.

Once I got over my indignant rejections of Wesley’s position, I realized that what he was describing was more realistic than I thought. Wesley himself acknowledged that he wasn’t entirely sanctified (which was good, since I had studied his life story in seminary). HE also admitted that he didn’t know very many people who were entirely sanctified, and that most of those people were elderly, which demonstrated that entire sanctification was often a long and difficult process, one that was not likely to be achieved until late in life. And finally, he defined “perfection” not as never making a mistake, or never getting anything wrong, but as always being motivated by a complete love of God and of neighbor.

Once I got past my reservations about entire sanctification, I began to see it for what it really was: a call to Christians to imitate the extravagant, relentless, wasteful grace of God to the world. Wesley called his followers to mirror God’s goodness, to be light to others as God is light to us. And he called Methodists to never be satisfied with our half-hearted, minimalistic attempts to love others. We are to always be loving more, remembering that the light of God is pure grace and goodness.

The grace we extend to others, if it is to exhibit God’s light and goodness, must be extravagant. It must not be based on the perceived “value” of the person to whom it is directed. God’s grace is not given out proportionally, but wholly, in an overwhelming flood of love, and so must ours be. We must always love more than we want, or even more than we feel that we ought. God does not measure out love, and neither may we. The grace we extend to others, if it is to exhibit God’s light and goodness must also be relentless. It cannot be satisfied with defeat, but must keep pushing forward. Our grace must be prevenient, it must go before others and follow up behind others, enveloping all people in its grasp. It must do whatever it takes, and then some more. And finally, the grace we extend to others, if it is to exhibit God’s light and goodness, must be wasteful. We must give love to those we are sure cannot or will not accept it, just as we do to those who stand waiting with arms open. We must be crazy farmers, scattering the love of God abroad in ways that make us look like complete fools to those who watch us.

I am thankful that I found a home in the Methodist church, with its emphasis on the goodness of God and the Spirit’s empowerment of people to share that goodness with others. And I am even more grateful for finding a home here at Oconee Street, where I am constantly challenged by a group of people who are, in John Wesley’s words, “going on to perfection,” people who are involved daily in mirroring the extravagant, relentless, wasteful grace of God. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: One Thing is Needful

“One Thing is Needful”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
March 22, 2015

Sermon

Choir Anthem: “It is Well With My Soul”

In our continuing consideration this Lent about what it takes to make changes in our lives, last week we looked at making choices. We make choices every day, some for the good and some for the not so good. But if we have a foundation for our individual choices, then it is clearer – not always easier by a long shot – but clearer which path to take. Moses encouraged the Israelites to “Choose Life” as they entered into the Promised Land, and Jesus reminded his disciples that He is the way, the truth, and the life, so if we choose life patterned after the life and example of Jesus, then we have a basis for the subsequent choices we make and for the reactions we have as life inevitably causes us to adjust and change course from time to time. But whatever complications, disappointments, or surprises along the way, there is that North Star, that unchanging bedrock decision we have made that keeps us pointed in the way that leads to the life that really is life.

Today’s gospel reading is one of the most famous stories in the bible. Jesus comes to the home of his good friends Mary and Martha to spend an evening relaxing with them and the disciples before he continues on his way to what he knows will be confrontation, hostility, and death in Jerusalem. It is an oasis for him of peace and tranquility.

Mary and Martha may be sisters, but that doesn’t mean that they are clones and can read each other’s minds. Those of you who have siblings can attest to the fact that you can grow up in the same house, eat the same food, go to the same schools, and even sleep in the same bed, but still be as different as day and night. Both sisters understand hospitality, but they act it out in different ways: Martha by cooking a wonderful dinner for her dear friend, and Mary by sitting quietly with him and listening to him intently. Both good food and listening ears are gifts of love. You can tell that knowing Jesus has changed these women; his presence brings out the best in them; his friendship means the world to them both.

But then their loving gifts of quiet listening and creative cooking are hijacked by some very human emotions. Martha is busy in the kitchen preparing a meal worthy of her friend, and it’s quite a task to prepare a meal, not just for Jesus, but also for his 12 disciples, herself and her sister. Back in those days there were no microwaves, no double ovens, no food processors, or refrigerators, much less cake mixes, hamburger helper, or salad in a bag. This meal is made from scratch! And understandably, the task that started with such love and gratitude, quickly becomes ridden with anxiety and stress. Martha needs another pair of hands to help in the kitchen.

The logical helper is her sister, but Mary is in the front room, sitting with the disciples at Jesus’ feet, wrapped up in every word he’s saying. Her mind is fixed on the conversation and she is oblivious to what’s going on in the kitchen. It’s not that she is lazy or uncaring about her sister’s predicament; she is simply unaware of anything other than listening to her guest and her friend.

Can’t you just imagine Martha spotting her sister just sitting there, doing nothing, as her anxiety quickly morphs into anger. Perhaps her eyes began to narrow, and her shoulders stiffen, as she thinks of the injustice of it all. The weight of this entire dinner is on her shoulders, while her sister, the one who should be helping, is hanging on Jesus’ every work, oblivious to the clattering of pottery or her sister’s frustrated call to her.

Bless her heart! Her righteous indignation and sense of frustration gets out of hand, and she does the least hospitable thing possible. She marches into the midst of the gathering, interrupts the conversation of her guest, and then demands that he help her to get Mary out to the kitchen where she belongs.

She must have been surprised by Jesus’ response. Instead of supporting her request, he speaks to her with kindness and compassion. First, he identifies her situation accurately, “you are troubled about many things.” In Greek the words for “anxious” and “troubled” have the meanings of “being drawn in different directions” and “making a disturbance or an uproar.” Jesus can see that Martha is troubled with cares, drawn in different direction, simultaneously wanting to concentrate on preparing a wonderful meal but also angry that she has no help from some she trusted would be there for her, so she makes an uproar because she’s tired, angry, and disappointed. And maybe feeling a bit left out of that great conversation going on in the other room.

Jesus doesn’t criticize the work she is doing or the way she has chosen to demonstrate her love for him, but he is concerned about her attitude of heart and mind. And when he says, “Mary has chosen the good portion, and it shall not be taken away from her,” he doesn’t mean that Martha, by default, has chosen the “bad” portion. He’s not saying, as is so often suggested about this story, that the quiet life is better than the active life. Martha and Mary have each chosen different “good” portions.

In response to Martha’s request to make Mary do what she does, Jesus tells her “no.” Mary is her own person just as Martha is her own person. It would make any more sense to send Mary to the kitchen than it would to send Martha to sit quietly in the front room. Mary can’t be Martha, and Martha can’t be Mary. I can imagine Jesus speaking to her in a quiet, gentle voice – and the louder Martha gets, the softer Jesus gets, and pretty soon Martha can her herself – can hear the noise she’s making, and can then begin to settle down.

Then Jesus’ message can work its way into her heart. Her anxiety and her anger towards her sister have overshadowed her love for Jesus and taken away any joy she might have had at serving him that day. Her service was no longer a gift to him, an opportunity for hospitality, but had dissolved into a desire to justify herself and judge her sister.

Martha’s top priority was meal preparation, so she thought it should be Mary’s as well. When she made her demand of Jesus, she was acknowledging that even his teachings, as important as they were, were not at that moment for her the foremost event of the day because they were interfering with her work. She lost the meaning of the hospitality she meant to convey; she lost her concern for the comfort and the needs of Jesus and her other guests. The love which had gotten her into the kitchen in the first place, was replaced by her anger. Her service was no longer about others and meeting their needs, it had become all about herself and her own needs. And so she justifies herself and blames her sister, and her original loving and generous gesture is forgotten in the power struggle to have her own way.

All of us have Martha days, and will have them in the future too. There are those days when we feel all the hard work has been left to us and no one will help. Days when, like Martha, we find ourselves over our heads in the kitchen, or the office, or the classroom, and somehow what started out to be a gift of our love, a fulfillment of our decision to choose life, to model our lives after Jesus, becomes drudgery, and we before we know it we get annoyed, frustrated, angry, full of righteous indignation, convinced that what we are doing is more important that anything else. And maybe in there with all the anger, is also a little bit of fear – fear of failure, fear of being thought inadequate or incompetent, fear of disappointing or of not measuring up to the expectations of those we most want to please. Is Martha your middle name? Some days I think it’s mine.

That’s when we need to remember this story. Jesus is able to hold a mirror up to Martha; his words are healing. He doesn’t criticize her for cooking or for her hard work or for not sitting at his feet. He does not object to her being busy. In fact, he’s probably looking forward to his dinner. But he is concerned about her attitude. She’s lost all sense of why she’s cooking in the first place. She’s lost all sense of joy in her service to him, and what had begun as a sweet gift for Jesus has turned in to a bitter opportunity to judge someone else.

Knowing what we do of Jesus’ teachings, it is probably a good guess that while Martha was busy in the kitchen, he was teaching Mary and the other disciples that afternoon in the living room that if they love him, they must show it by their love for one another. It’s not about being contemplative rather than active. Jesus likes busy people! Just before coming to Mary and Martha’s house, he’d told a lawyer the story of the good Samaritan, and encouraged him to go and do likewise. “Don’t just stand there, do something” is a great gospel truth.

It’s work done with the wrong spirit that troubles Jesus. If we’re keeping the main thing the main then, that whatever work we are doing – at home, in our public lives, wherever, will be done with a quiet sense of joy that comes from serving him, and demonstrating our love for God and neighbor. Love always comes first; we are to love God with all our hearts, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. Love is the one necessary thing for a disciple. It is the one necessary thing for Martha. It is the one necessary thing for us.

Lenten Devotional: Wednesday, March 4

by Joe Dennis
March 4, 2015

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

One of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received was from a student who often confided in me. One day I asked her why she felt so comfortable to talk to me. “You’re a really good Christian,” she said.

At first glance, I may not appear to be a Christian. I’ve been known to cuss. I enjoy heavy metal music and gangster rap. I watch R-rated movies. I’ll regularly indulge in a beer or a glass of wine … or both. And I certainly don’t proselytize. I would not make a good Baptist.

But she knew I was a Christian, she said, because of the love I demonstrate for others.

We will work with each other. We will work side by side.
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yeah, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
–Church Hymn, Peter Scholtes, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love”

In every interaction, I try to be Christian through my love, looking at every person as a child of God. I’ve worked really hard at practicing love, especially in times when showing love is difficult: when a client is yelling at me over how I handled a job, when another person hurts (physically or emotionally) a family member, or when the customer service representative has consistently messed up my situation. Sometimes this love can be interpreted as being weak. I disagree. It’s easy to show love when it is being reciprocated. But you have to be strong to show love when societal norms are to demonstrate the opposite. Was Jesus weak when — dying on the cross — he showed love by forgiving his tormentors?

God has empowered us with the ability to forgive, allowing us the capability to love. Loving others is entirely in our power, yet it can be one of the most difficult things we attempt. Do we show love for the leaders of “the other” political party? Do we show love for our personal oppressors? Do we show love for criminals? Do we show love for members of ISIS?

Prayer: God, thank you for loving us unconditionally. Please help us love others as you love us. Help us forgive those who have hurt us. And let others be so inspired by our love, that they reciprocate it in their own lives. Amen.

Lenten Devotional: Tuesday, Feb. 24

by Lisa Caine
Feb. 24, 2015

Galatians 5:22-23the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against such things.

This story was shared on Facebook this morning by my friend, Katie Krumbach.

His mom served burnt toast, but he was shocked when his Dad said this.

“When I was about eight or nine, my mom burnt some toast. One night that stood out in my mind is when she had made dinner for us after a very long and rough day at work. She placed a plate of jam and extremely burned toast in front of my dad. Not slightly burnt, but completely blackened toast.

I was just waiting to see if anyone noticed the burnt toast and say anything. But Dad just ate his toast and asked me if I did my homework and how my day was. I don’t remember what I told him that night, but I do remember hearing my mom apologizing to dad for burning the toast. And I’ll never forget what he said: ‘Sweetie, I loved burned toast.’

Later that night, I went to tell my dad good night and ask him if he really liked his toast burned. He put his arm on my shoulder and said, ‘Your momma put in a very long day at work today and she was very tired. And besides, burnt toast never hurts anyone but you know what does? Harsh words!’

Then he continued to say, ‘You know, life is full of imperfect things and imperfect people. I’m not the best at hardly anything and I forget birthdays and anniversaries just like every other human. What I’ve learned over the years, is that learning to accept each other’s faults and choosing to celebrate each other’s differences, is one of the most important keys for creating a healthy, growing, and lasting relationship. Life is too short to wake up with regrets. Love the people who treat you right and have compassion for the ones who don’t.’”

Enjoy life now.

Prayer: Loving God, help us to treat each other as we would like to be treated, offering kindness, compassion, and understanding not only to those who are closest to us but also to everyone with whom we interact today. Help us to remember that none of us is perfect, and all of us are in need of grace. Amen.

Sermon: “Double Blessing”

“Double Blessing”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Nov. 9, 2014

For the last several years in the final weeks of the Christian year, we have turned our attention to stewardship, and what it means for us to give back to the God who has so generously given to us. Stewardship is more than a monetary issue, as important as that aspect is to our continued existence and vitality. Stewardship is really about what we do with what we have after we say we believe. And we have much to share. When we join the church we make some promises about how we will use what we have – more than promises, we make some vows. Right off hand, do you know the difference between a promise and a vow? Both are pledges of assurance that we will or will not do something. But a vow is a promise made not just with another human being but also with God.

In our vows of membership, we promise to support the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness. Two years ago, in November 2012, BF – before the fire – we focused on prayer because it is foundational to everything we do.

A year ago in November 2013, AF – after the fire – we focused on presence. We’d had lost our church buildings to a fire – we were in a temporary location three miles away. There was no better time for us to concentrate on our vow of presence than during that limbo time. Presence is always important, we can’t be absent and be the church, but presence is more important than ever perhaps, as we commit ourselves to God, to the church, to one another, and to the world in our journey of faith.

This year we are focusing on the third of our membership vows – the promise to support the church with our gifts. Before we can give, however, we have to recognize and give thanks for how much we have been given. We had that opportunity last Sunday when we remembered and celebrated the gifts we have received from the saints in our lives. We know we are all beholden to someone. None of us is self-made, without the influence of another. We are the people we are today because of someone or several ones who influenced us in a positive way. Joel shared with us about his parents and the loving direction he has received from them throughout his life.

Today we are going to consider love as the motivation for giving. Sharon has shared how love motivates her in her work and she gives her time and talent to school children. Love is the only true reason to give; there may be others that distract us – dreary obligation, peer pressure, the desire for a tax deduction! But it’s love that has the power not only to bless the receiver but also the giver of the gift as Paul explains the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians.

This passage from first Corinthians is perhaps one of the best known and most loved passages in the Bible. It is a great favorite at weddings, and maybe that’s where you’ve most often heard it. Maybe it was read at your own wedding. But interestingly, Paul wasn’t writing to a young couple just starting married life together. He was writing to a congregation he’d founded in Corinth, writing in response to their request that he intervene and help them with the fighting and bickering that was tearing them apart. They were a very unloving group of people, divided into factions, each one thinking itself better than the other.

They were divided over the importance of their various spiritual gifts, with one group maintaining that the gift of speaking in tongues was the most important of the gifts. And there was heated debate over whether or not an interpreter should be provided to translate ecstatic speech so that the rest of the congregation could understand. In the chapter immediately preceding today’s reading, Paul reminds them that spiritual gifts are not meant to separate them into special or privileged groups, but are meant for service to the common good. And if they use their gifts appropriately, they will find themselves to be a part of that mystical, living, dynamic entity that he calls “the body of Christ.” Within the body of Christ it makes no difference whether their gift is flashy and obvious like speaking in tongues, or quiet and subtle, like caring for the sick, or offering hospitality to strangers. It takes all the parts, all together to compose the Body of Christ, and each is an indispensable and unique contributing member of it.

Paul concludes by saying something quite interesting. As they strive for greater gifts, he says, “I will show you a more excellent way.” What could possibly be more excellent than what he has already described – a community of faith intent on sharing their abilities, their gifts, and their graces for the common good – all for one and one for all. What could be better than that?

The more excellent way is to do all of those things with love. Love must be the motivation behind the right use of gifts; love is what makes them important at all. One can speak in everyday language, the tongues of people, or one can speak in ecstatic speech – the tongues of angels – and can be eloquent, able to communicate ideas and possibilities with great effectiveness, but if love is not the motivator of the speech, more often than not, communication is used for personal advantage and can divide and isolate, rather than bring together and unite.We don’t have to look far to see that do we?

Although I may not be happy with the outcome of the midterm elections, I am happy that they are over because of the terrible divisive, biased, half-truths that passed for electioneering in the last several months. What if our elected officials had been able to see their opponents as equally loved children of God, not as bumbling idiots or evil adversaries hell bent on destroying the country. What if their goal was the common good and not simply their own desires to gain power or to be elected?

Paul says we can have all kinds of prophetic powers, and be full of knowledge and information, but without love that knowledge can be used as a tool or a weapon to gain advantage of another. It can destroy rather than promote loving relationships and understandings among us. Paul doesn’t say that the intellect is worthless, we are, after all, to love God with our minds, but without love, it can become cold, calculating, self-serving, and dangerous

He says we can have all faith – but like eloquence and knowledge – faith without love is dangerous. It is what led to the Crusades and the Inquisition. It is what led our forebears to burn people at the stake as witches, or to affirm slavery and to proclaim one race as superior to another. The Westboro Baptist Church calls it faith when they protest at various public events, proclaiming God’s hatred for the LGBTQ, and God’s judgment on the United States. But true faith is meant to draw us closer to God and to one another, and God is love. Only when we act out of love do we reflect God in us. Faith that results in violence towards another person or group of people, or leads to intolerance of diversity, or indifference to the poor, or that supports injustice is counterfeit faith because it lacks love.   When his speech or his faith lack love, Paul says, he does not become a better person, but is diminished by it. In fact he says, in that action “I am nothing.”

The same is true of giving. If we give away everything we have, even if we sacrifice our very lives for the cause, but do not do it out of love, we gain nothing. He doesn’t say that the gifts are worthless, or that the gifts are nothing. Gifts can be used for good regardless of their source. All gifts to God and God’s people can bring about good. If you win money in the lottery, don’t be ashamed, don’t hesitate one minute, to tithe to your church! Your ill-gotten gain can be used for good purposes!   But here’s the thing – unless a gift is given out of love and the motivation for the giving is to bless another person and not ourselves, then giver loses out and gains nothing from the transaction. There is no blessing for the giver in the gift.

So that should make us stop and think rather closely about our motivation for all of our giving. There are some misguided reasons for giving; I mentioned a few earlier . Guilt, fear, obligation, peer pressure, even the desire for a greater tax deduction! But all of these are rather grim, grudging motives for giving that don’t lead to feeling blessed – harassed maybe, but not blessed! You know in your heart when you give with love – there’s a lightness there, not a heaviness. There’s joy there, not resentment. There’s freedom, not obligation. It makes you feel good! Those of you who serve at Our Daily Bread tomorrow and give your time to that effort will feel good about it when you leave, as though you have been given a gift far greater than the food that you helped to give. That is the blessing that comes to the giver from giving with love.

Or think about how you feel on Christmas morning when you watch your family open the gifts you have lovingly selected for them. When you give a gift to someone, you are really giving a part of yourself in those gifts. The concrete package is a representation of you and your affection. When they see the gift they think of you and when they think of you they think of love. And that is exactly why Paul insists that love must be our primary motivation for giving. Because that’s what God did — love is God’s concrete expression the in gift of Christ. “God so loved the world, that God gave . . .”   “[i]Giving is our opportunity to be toward others the way God in Christ has been toward us.”

Love then is more than a feeling, more than a thought; it is action; it is behavior. It changes and blesses the one who gives as much as the one who receives. For me personally, I give to my children and grandchildren because I love them. I give to various charities because I love God’s people and want to have a small part in making life better for someone. I give to this church because I love God and I love you and I love the work that is done in and through our efforts. When we think about it, we all know from our experiences that gifts given out of love bear a double blessing – they bless those who receive and they bless those who give. Thanks be to God for the opportunity to share our love through the gifts we give and to be blessed in the giving. It is the more excellent way. Amen.

[i] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1987, 631.

Sermon: The Greatest Commandment

The Greatest Commandment
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Oct. 26, 2014
Matthew 22:34-46

There is nothing more frustrating, nothing more irritating, than trying to have a conversation with someone who is not really interested in knowing what you think, or in learning from you, but is intent only on trapping you in a contradiction or a misstatement of some kind in order to undermine your position and your credibility. In the political arena recently, maybe you heard the news about Allison Lundergan Grimes, who is running as a Democrat in Kentucky to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell. She tried her best to evade answering a question posed by a Kentucky newspaper that was designed to trap her. “Who did you vote for, for President in 2012,” they asked. They didn’t really care who she voted for; they could pretty well guess who it was. She’s a Democrat, right? So she probably voted for President Obama. But if she goes on record as saying that she did, then it can be used against her in a state that is not fond of our President. She tried to get around it by claiming the sanctity of the ballot box, saying her vote was a secret vote. And all that did was give her opponent a different kind of weapon – she’s not brave enough to say who she voted for. Either way, she loses! But then, that was the purpose of the question.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is an even worse predicament because there’s no debate like a religious debate since the parties all claim to have God on their side, and feel great urgency to oppose and to silence those who would challenge or reinterpret long-standing positions. The setting is Jerusalem during Jesus’ last week of life. He’d come into the city with the acclamation of many, but since his arrival the tension has been mounting between him and the religious authorities. They pose many questions to him about paying taxes, loyalty to Caesar, and the validity of the resurrection. Not that they want to know the answers to the questions – they know they already know. But they’d like to discredit Jesus by exposing his ignorance.

They are put out by this itinerant, laboring class teacher from Galilee. Who does he think he is? They have spent their lives studying and being trained professionally as leaders of Israel’s spiritual life. They knew every detail. They are the ones who know; they are the ones who are the authorities. Jesus and his followers, on the other hand, have very little experience, very little education, and therefore should have very little authority or influence over anyone or anything.

However instead of effecting his humiliation and undermining of his authority as they’d hoped and planned, Jesus has held his own with them. So they pull out all the stops and have a lawyer, one well versed in all the laws of Moses, to ask the final question. Which commandment is the greatest, he asks? Which of the 613 laws of Moses is the most important? The plan is obviously whichever law Jesus picks, the lawyer will ask why he didn’t pick one of the other ones.

And besides, there isn’t one that is greater than another, all 613 were to be observed and were considered of equal importance. They all hang together; to violate one is to violate all. Some even divided the 613 into 365 “thou shalt nots,” one for each day of the year, and 268 “Thou shalts,” one for each bone of the body. Thus, the law applied to all of ones times and all of one’s movements.[i]

So which one are you going to pick, Jesus? Gotcha!! It’s a no-win situation! But Jesus’ choses to answer by stating the essential core of their faith, from which all of these rules have sprung. “It’s the love!” he says, quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. “Everything else in scripture—all the law and all the prophets,” Jesus says, “relates to these two things.” Now, who’s got whom?

The heart of our faith, Jesus insists, is about loving God. We are to love God with all that we are – our heart, our soul, and our mind. For the Pharisees that would have meant adherence to the 613 rules that governed all of life and required living every day in mindful attention to all the laws of God. And, for us as United Methodists, John Wesley stressed the importance of regular routines of prayer, Bible study, fasting, worship, and partaking of the sacrament of holy communion. In this commandment we are taught that part of ourselves is separated from our complete devotion and love for God.

This first law would have been enough to answer the lawyer’s question, but Jesus adds the second law, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, because he knew we really cannot love God with our entire heart, soul, and mind, unless and until we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The second greatest commandment is not secondary to the greatest commandment then. It is essential to it, for, as we heard in our Epistle reading, we cannot love God whom we do not see and despise our neighbors whom we see every day. There are too many people, now as then, cling to the first commandment and somehow have forgotten the second; they proclaim their love for God, while continuing to treat others outside their personal circle of friends and family quite badly. But Jesus doesn’t instruct us to love only our brothers and sisters, but to love the neighbor, the one—whoever she or he happens to be— whom we encounter regardless of circumstances.

Why insist on love? Can’t we just toss a dollar into someone’s hat and walk quickly away? Can’t we just give to the church, or let some agency take care of it? Then haven’t we done our duty towards our neighbor? Not really; the kind of love Jesus is speaking of makes it impossible to see someone in need as beneath ourselves, or to consider any one or any group as a nameless, invisible entity. Instead, we are to see each person, each group of persons as worthy of the respect and consideration that we want for ourselves.

If our nation were to love as Jesus commands us to love, what difference might it make? As we think about the big three right now – Immigration, Ebola, and ISIS! As we think about education, housing, healthcare, job training, minimum wage? Locally, what difference might it make? I have been meeting lately with a group of Athens pastors to discuss what we as a faith community might be able to do to influence the negative response that our city government has given to the idea of resettling 158 refugees in the Athens area – not in downtown Athens, mind you, — in the greater Athens area. Many of these 158 persons are Christians who are seeking asylum in America because they have been persecuted in their home country and fear for their lives. They are not coming here just because they want a better job or to see the world; they are coming here to save their lives. So they’ve already been persecuted once. And now our government is saying, “Not yet; not now.” And they put aside and consequently are persecuted again. How might we be able to love these would be neighbors and help them to live abundantly as God intends for all of God’s children to live? What might that look like and how could we help so that the burden placed on public resources does not push us to the breaking point, as has been suggested? I don’t believe this should be simply a governmental responsibility, but it should be a community responsibility, to respond with love to these desperate neighbors. I personally believe that in welcoming these strangers and in being concerned for their needs we will be welcoming God among us in each one of them.

Now, you might think that Jesus would have quit while he was ahead. He’d answered the question; he’d said, as Paul would say later, “love is the fulfilling of the law,” (Romans 13:10). He’d held the mirror up to them and called into question how well these expert law keepers had been keeping this most important law that lay at the heart of Israel’s faith. But he has a question now for them. “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

And they give the rote answer, the traditional answer, the answer they’d been taught, just as their fathers and fathers’ fathers had been taught: “The Son of David.” If there was anything they were sure of and knew about it was the subject of the Messiah. They only understood this one meaning of Messiah. They had that one idea; and had no room for another. Why bother to think further about anything when you already have all the answers.[ii] It’s the same way with us when we confuse our idea of God with God, because our concept of God is not God.

They couldn’t imagine the Messiah as any different from what they’d always imagined. And Jesus responds them, not completely disregarding their answer, but showing them it might not be as simple and as easy as they’d thought. He quotes from the 110th psalm, the most quoted psalm in the New Testament, by the way. “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I put my enemies under your feet.’” Now, the psalms were thought to have been written by David, and so Jesus wonders aloud, If David calls the Messiah “Lord,” how can the Messiah be David’s son?

Obviously, they’d never thought about it that way before. The question had never come up in their discussions of the Messiah who was always thought to be a descendant of David and an even greater, more powerful and successful king that he had been. Son of David is certainly one way to think of the Messiah; the crowds had called Jesus that when he’d entered Jerusalem earlier that week – but are their others? Whose son really is the Messiah? Those first hearers of Matthew’s gospel would have remembered earlier verses, in which “a voice from heaven said, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

Jesus and his questioners were at an impasse, there was no more reason for conversation. And so, they withdrew to plan how to hasten the day of when he would be arrested, executed, and a problem no more.

Without the ability or openness to see new things, and think new ways, they were unable to recognize the one standing in front of them as anything more than an irritant at best and a threat at worst. How sad, how tragic for them, they missed the Christ standing in front of them because he didn’t look the way they’d always assumed he’d look.

And for us as well, if our hearts are not open, if we do not love with all we are and love our neighbors as ourselves, if our minds are closed and we are satisfied that we know all there is to know, we may miss the opportunity when we come face to face with the Christ to know in whose presence we stand, and turn away unaffected and unchanged. I will always remember the words I heard years ago in a sermon preached by Rev. Art O’Neill, III, reminded us that we are wrong when we see a less fortunate person and think to ourselves, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Instead, he said, we should be thinking, “There by the grace of God goes God.” May God grant us the discernment to sense God’s presence within ourselves and within our neighbors. Amen.

[i] John Petty, “Lectionary Blogging: Matthew 22:34-46, “ October 17, 2011.

[ii] Petty.