One Sunday two women entered a church. One was a long-standing member, wife of the Deacon, and chair of the UMW. The other was a new face. The inky contours of body art could be seen peeking around the neck and sleeves of her shirt. She was a single mother; an exotic dancer; a recovering alcoholic. She had made some poor life choices. Worry, doubt, and fear filled her eyes as it did her troubled soul.
The first woman strode confidently down the aisle to the second pew where she had sat religiously every week for the last twenty years. The second crept quietly into an empty back pew.
The service began and progressed as it did every Sunday. Hymns were sung, scripture read, a sermon was preached. It was the first week of the month, so naturally Holy Communion was taken. During the passing of the peace, the two women encountered each other, exchanged a few words, then returned to their pews. After communion, the first woman marched up to the altar to pray. “Lord,” she said, “Thank you. I am so fortunate to have grown up the way I did, to have been raised by a Christian family. Thank you for teaching me right from wrong, that I could avoid the pitfalls that other woman fell into.”
The second woman returned to her pew at the back, bowed her head and also prayed. “Dear God, please forgive me. Help me be a better person.”
Which of these women is more righteous? Which draws nearer to God by her actions? On one hand, we have an upstanding citizen who does her duty to the Church, and is thankful for the life she has. On the other we have someone who lives outside of what most would call a goodly life, a sinner without question.
I like to think of this as a modernized parable. In the parable of the tax collector, Jesus holds up two examples of people coming to the temple to pray. The first is a Pharisee, a middle-class businessman who follows the rules prescribed by the Church. He goes into the temple and says a thankful, yet self-centered prayer. “Thank you, God, that I am not sinful like other men.” The second is a tax-collector.
“Why the disdain for tax collectors?” you might ask. Good question. These were Jews who were now working for the Roman government to collect taxes, which no one likes to pay, and were in direct contradiction to Jewish teachings. Tithes were to go to the Church, not a foreign ruler. So they were viewed by most as traitors. Imagine, if you will, how an American might be viewed if it were discovered that he went about raising money to fund a radical terrorist organization. Tax collectors were pretty much doing the same thing.
So, this tax collector goes to the temple but stands at a distance, beating his chest, wailing, lamenting his ways and prays, “Lord, have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.” Jesus then comments to the gathered crowd that it is this man who leaves the temple justified and not the Pharisee.
Now back to our other story. According to Jesus, it is the tattooed, alcoholic stripper that found favor in God’s eyes. It is her prayers that are heard and answered. She is the one whom God will forgive for her transgressions.
Many of the stories we hear from the New Testament involve Jesus putting people in their place, calling out the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, and shaking up the social order. The one about the tax collector is no different.
In this story the message is simple: “all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all those who humble themselves shall be exalted.” At the time this was written, many of the Jewish leaders, businessmen- those with status, were riding high on their horses. They felt holy, holier than their neighbors because they kept to the letter of the law (of which there were many), whereas others did not live up to the prescribed standards. They found confidence and pleasure in their accomplishments, a sense of moral superiority because they fasted at the right time, said the right prayers in the right order, etc., etc. Such people are, in fact, not righteous at all for they have forgotten something very important: in judging others, in believing they are somehow better and more deserving than their fellow man, they have sinned.
This message is as pertinent and poignant today as it was when it was first uttered. The moment we begin to believe ourselves worthy of God’s love and mercy because of our own actions, when we fill ourselves with righteous indignation and proclaim ourselves better than others, that is the moment we fall from Grace.
How many of you have ever looked around the sanctuary at some point during a service, noticed who was absent, and felt a little smirk tug at the corners of your mouth? How many have felt a sense of pride and superiority because we volunteered for something that others didn’t? How many of us have looked down on someone because we didn’t agree with their life choices? We are all guilty of this. I know I am. That’s why we have this parable, to remind us that it isn’t ok.
Last week, Taylor finished up his sermon series on controversy in the Church. Such topics, by definition, are divisive- creating rifts between people when they don’t agree. Sometimes, disagreement is healthy, creating opportunities for discussion, civil debate, and occasionally seeing things from a new perspective and with deeper understanding. Oftentimes, however, we let these differences of opinion grow to such a magnitude that we feel ourselves morally superior to those who hold a different belief or viewpoint. All you have to do is look at facebook to see just how militant people become over these issues.
Reading the hateful things people say about each other over Black Lives Matter, or Trump’s Deplorables, or Clinton’s bleeding hearts, the natural gas pipeline, transgender bathrooms, or gay marriage, I see how easy it is to blindly hate, to make ourselves feel better by tearing down someone else. When we allow ourselves to vilify each other over these issues, we become like the Pharisees.
Here’s the thing that we keep forgetting: We are all sinners. We all fail to be perfect Christians.
Ok, you might be thinking, I can accept that I am a sinner. Sure, I’m occasionally judgemental. I’m not always completely truthful, but at least I’m not a murderer. Right? Wrong. We love to rank the ten commandments in order of severity. We comfort ourselves by thinking that our transgressions are somehow less bad than other transgressions. But this scale of badness is a human construction. It doesn’t exist in God’s eyes. Rather, sin is sin, plain and simple. In God’s eyes, when I forget the sabbath and do not keep it holy, I have sinned and I am no better than someone who has committed the sin of murder. Did you get that? No matter how often you come to church, no matter how many committees you serve on, or how many hours you spend volunteering, when you lie to the beggar on the corner about not having any cash you are no better than someone who commits murder. That’s hard to wrap our heads around. Even while I was writing this I kept thinking, “Wow, that’s hard to accept.” But accept it we must. So let me say this again. Your sin is no greater nor no less than my sin. That seems kind of like pretty bad news, doesn’t it. But it’s not.
You see, this also means that no sin, no matter how grave it seems to us, is unforgivable in the eyes of God. No matter what we’ve done, when we come humbly before Him- truly humbly- penitent of our transgressions, He will be merciful. We will be redeemed- justified. The slate is wiped clean and we get to try again.
Now, I’m not saying that we should forego trying to live righteously. This parable doesn’t tell us to throw in the towel and do whatever we want because once we’ve had our fun, we can ask forgiveness. On the contrary, what we are being told is that no matter how perfect we think we are, now matter how hard we try, we can always be better. When we think we’ve done enough or we’re good enough, that’s the time to step back, to humble ourselves and take a long hard look at just how flawed we actually are. Once we do that, we can then approach God rightly, confess our fallibility, ask for mercy and strength to continue on our journey, to be transformed into even better Christians.
Every so often we offer up prayers of confession and pardon during our service. But do we really mean it? Do we simply recite the words without being present in their meaning? In a few minutes we will pray together, but first I want us to reflect on that prayer, let the words fill our hearts and truly humble ourselves before God.
The prayer is divided into three parts. The first is confession. We confess that we have not loved God with our whole hearts. We have not done His will. We have broken His law. We have not loved our neighbors and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Take a moment and think about that. Try to think of specific times that you have failed to do this over the last week.
In the second part we ask for forgiveness. And in the third we ask to be freed from these sins so that we might obey joyfully. Humility. Forgiveness. Freedom. That’s the progression. We cannot be freed without being forgiven, and we cannot be forgiven without humbling ourselves first.
So now, let us go to God in prayer.
The story of the adulterous woman is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. On the surface, it’s meaning seems pretty straight-forward; a reiteration of a lesson appearing many times- don’t judge others. But there’s more to it than that. This story has deeper layers that can only be realized with more thoughtfulness.
n my 4th grade class, I teach my students to write snapshots, clear and detailed descriptions so the reader can easily create a picture in their mind’s eye. Sometimes this is lacking in scripture and it takes a bit of effort to really imagine what happened. I think the real lesson in this story emerges when we see the nuance.
Jesus has come to the synagogue to teach. A crowd of people has arrived and he sits down to teach them. He is sitting with them. He is not standing before them at a pulpit like I am. He is among them. Perhaps they sit in a circle. Or perhaps the people have just gathered around him. This is important. This shows us what kind of teacher Jesus really is. He doesn’t preach at people. He meets them where they are and explains things so they can understand him.
While he is teaching, the scribes and pharisees, the leaders of the church, barge in dragging a woman who has been caught cheating on her husband. “Teacher,” they say, with voices I imagine to be dripping with sarcasm. “We caught this woman committing adultery. The law of Moses commands that she be stoned. What do you say?” Now, these guys aren’t truly looking for justice or for the law to be fulfilled. They have come to trick Jesus so he can be arrested. Their attempt at deceit is clever. The goal is to get Jesus to do one of two things: either contradict the laws of the Church or to put him in conflict with Roman law. If Jesus says she should not be put to death, then he would be directly contradicting the law established in Leviticus, which clearly says anyone who commits adultery should be put to death. If he does condemn her to death, then he would be assuming an authority that the Romans have claimed, for which he could be arrested.
So what does he do? He does what every good teacher does when an obstinate student tries to pull focus from the lesson… he ignores them and continues the lesson. He bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. We don’t know what he wrote, but it doesn’t really matter. Clearly, Jesus believed that what he was trying to teach was more important than what the Pharisees were asking about. I imagine his expression was one of detached annoyance.
They are persistent, however, and continue to pester him. Finally he stands and says “Let any one of you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then promptly returns to his teaching. The answer, of course, is truly brilliant. With one sentence, he shoots down their entire plan. He affirms the law of Moses, while skirting the Romans by putting responsibility back on the pharisees. To carry out the execution, one of them must claim that they are above reproach, which they cannot do.
Realizing that they have been outsmarted, the woman’s accusers slowly leave one by one, until only she, Jesus, and the crowd are left. They aren’t alone. It’s not an intimate moment between Christ and a sinful woman. Jesus is still teaching. He is unphased by what just happened. The woman, I imagine, is a bit more distraught by the whole encounter. After all, she was dragged from the bed of her lover and brought before the one they said was the Messiah to meet her demise. So there were probably tears involved. Perhaps hysterical sobbing. Whatever her behavior it was most certainly a distraction to the lesson Jesus was trying to teach. Eventually, perhaps after finishing a thought, he turns to her and says, “Where are your accusers? Did any of them condemn you to death?”
“No,” she replies.
“Well, neither do I,” he tells her. “No go on. Shoo. And don’t do anything like this again.”
That’s the end of the story that we are told, but I’m certain that Jesus returned once again to his teaching, now that all the hullaballoo was over with.
The first few dozen times I read this story, my take away was fairly simple: that we are all sinners and none of us has a right to judge another person. This exact thought is stated several times throughout scripture. Matthew 7:1 “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Luke 6:41 “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, when you do not see the log in your own eye?”Just to name a few. It is clear that judgement is reserved only for God.
I considered standing here and railing against the hypocrisy of a church who condemn homosexuals claiming that it is incompatible with Christian teaching, yet offer support groups for divorcees and welcome them into the congregation with open arms when Jesus clearly says, “whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery”; or the hypocrisy of a “Christian” who decries the evils of Islam, and then complains about how the church service ran too long and cut into his football time. I thought about being the reminder that none of us is perfect. Each of us sins against God and man on a daily basis, whether it’s by manipulating the truth to make ourselves appear in a better light (I’ve done that), or turning our hearts and minds away from the needy (I do that, too), or putting our own family above serving God (yep, once again, I am guilty).
But then I thought a little bit more and I realized that this message is like an onion. You can look at the top layer and say, yep, that’s an onion. But that surface layer has little effect. It’s not until you peel it, revealing the inner layers that the essence is released, your eyes start to burn, maybe you tear up, and you know for absolute certain that you hold an onion in your hand. Don’t judge others is that top layer. So let’s peel that away and look at the deeper message.
The core of this scripture is in what Jesus is doing, not just what he says. We know why the pharisees do not condemn the woman, but why doesn’t Jesus? I think it’s because he has better things to do. Christ is filling the role of rabbi, teacher, to his followers in this story. He is so caught up in spreading the Word, in doing God’s will, that passing judgement on this woman is a distraction from what he is supposed to be doing.
Calvin and Hobbes is one of my favorite comics ever. In one strip, they are discussing Calvin’s behavior in the days leading up to Christmas. “How good do you have to be to qualify as good?” he says, “I haven’t KILLED anybody. See, that’s good, right? I haven’t committed any felonies. I didn’t start any wars. I don’t practice cannibalism. Wouldn’t you say that’s pretty good? Wouldn’t you say I should get lots of presents?” “But maybe good is more than the absence of bad,” retorts Hobbes. “See, THAT’s what worries me.”
What if we shift our perspective and think of this message not as what we shouldn’t do, but what we should do. In all things we should try to emulate Christ. Therefore, we should immerse ourselves in doing God’s work. We should be so caught up in doing good, in loving others, in treating people with kindness and respect, in sharing the good news, that the thought of judging another doesn’t even enter our minds. As I said in the children’s message, it’s about where we place our focus. For example, if we are truly focused on worshipping God at church, we’ll never pay enough attention to what someone is wearing three pews ahead to criticize it.
When we approach scripture from this perspective, being a Christian suddenly becomes a lot more difficult. Think about the ten commandments. What if, through all the myriad translations, they have been altered from the original syntax to the current “shalt nots.” What if, instead of “You shall have no other gods before me” it read “You will worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind, and soul.” Instead of “Do not lie” it said, “Always tell the truth.” Instead of “Do not commit murder”, “Protect the lives of others”; instead of “Do not steal”, “Always be just and fair with others”; instead of “Do not covet another’s possessions”, “Be satisfied with what the Lord has given you.” Think of the ramifications. No longer would it be good enough to not kill someone, which, hopefully, is a pretty easy thing not to do. To abide by God’s law, we would have to leave our comfort zone and act if someone else were in danger. How difficult is it for us to be satisfied with what we have, when our whole lives we expend so much effort on getting a better education so we can get a better job so we can have better stuff?
But I think this is the point Jesus was trying to make. Doing good, living the way God wants us to live is so consuming that there isn’t time to focus on all the other distractions of life. Being a true Christian means more than standing on a hilltop doing nothing “wrong”. If we are complacent, satisfied with our own righteousness, pointing out the sins of others, then we are doing it wrong. Being a true Christian is hard work. It requires us to be proactive, to be in the world, but not of the world, to commit 100% to loving God and loving each other. All the time. The end.
I offer this in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The other week, Taylor preached a sermon titled “Who are you?” I wanted to delve a little deeper into this topic today. The answer to this question, I think, is not one that can be answered easily. It requires us to wrestle with some heavyweight opponents in the arena of the soul.
After I graduated college and moved to Chicago, I plunged headfirst into the busy social world of early twenty-somethings. One thing I distinctly remember about this era of my life were the often repeated conversations that took place when meeting someone new. There would be a brief handshake and the exchange of first names. Then the chat went a little like this:
“So, Keith, what do you do?”
“I’m in advertising. What about you?”
“I’m an actor.”
“Oh, so you wait tables?… Ha Ha Ha.”
It was a get to know you dance, a list of questions whose answers we all had memorized as if the essence of who we were was all wrapped up and presented in a neat little package. But it wasn’t really who I was.
Many of us struggle to find our own identity in adolescence. We try on different personas, searching for the one that fits. When I was in middle and high school, I remember wanting desperately to be a part of the “in” crowd. I suffered many jibes and insults because I didn’t wear the right clothes, or listen to the right music. I wasn’t athletic, so the jocks shunned me. I had no musical talent, so I didn’t fit in with the band geeks. It wasn’t until I started doing theatre regularly that I thought I found my identity. Finally, I found something I was good at. I made friends. I was accepted in that circle. I was a drama nerd and proud of it.
For many of us, the search for our true identity ends there, in a place of comfort and acceptance. But we are wrong. We are not who we think we are. We have created a false identity. Some live behind this mask their whole lives. Some find it no longer fits and they go through a mid-life crisis until they find another mask to wear.
Thomas Merton, a catholic monk, wrote about the false self in his book, The Seeds of Contemplation. He says, “… this superficial “I” is not our real self. Our external, superficial self is not eternal, not spiritual. Far from it. This self is doomed to disappear as completely as smoke from a chimney. It is utterly frail and evanescent.”
In our scripture reading today, James warns us of being consumed by our false self.
“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”
Many people mistakenly believe that the devil or satan is an external supernatural force that causes them to do evil. But if we look at the true meaning of the word we discover that satan actually means adversary, and the greatest adversary to God is sin. Merton wrote, “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” In other words, when we get caught up in ourselves; when what we have going on in our own lives becomes the most important thing in the world, we become our own adversary. Evil springs from our own selfishness.
People whose lives are centered on themselves, believe that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions into and on the rest of the world. They try to make the mask they wear real by imposing themselves and their beliefs onto others. They seek to retain their individuality by setting themselves apart. How many of us have ever said or thought, “I want to leave my mark on the world.” I know I have. All we really find in this way is an illusion, a trick played on us by our own minds.
The alternative, then, is to find our true selves. Merton writes, “I must learn to “leave myself” in order to find myself by yielding to the love of God.
The first step is the hardest. To abandon our self-image, whatever it may be, when we have laboured so long to create it in the first place is a sacrifice that many are unwilling to make. We have rooted ourselves so firmly in our illusory false identity that we rage against the slightest hint that we should change it.
Some might even argue that God made them who they are, flaws and all, and no one and nothing can change that. And this is true, sort of.
A tree is the perfect expression of God’s will because it is being exactly what God meant it to be. It has no other choice. We, on the other, have been given free will and can be whatever we choose to be. The more we cling to the idea of ourself created by our own ego, the further we move from God’s idea of us.
To discover our true selves, we must shed this attachment to our false identities like a cicada emerging from its husk. Only then will we be able to live as we were meant to.
I also remember the first “Acting for the Camera” class I took in Chicago. Early on, we did this activity where we simply sat in front of the class while everyone else watched us on the tv screen. They wrote down adjectives to describe who they thought we were, or thought we could play. Phrases like “the guy next door”, “the serial killer that everyone thought was normal”, and “lumberjack” were ascribed to me. It was certainly eye-opening to realize that other people didn’t see me the way I saw myself. This was the first time I realized that I might not be who I thought I was. The way other people see us might be closer to who we truly are, but it isn’t a complete picture.
We must let go of the notion that we can understand and know ourselves through rational thought. The mind is not the whole being of a person. A person is of mind, body, and spirit. To the mind, the ways of the spirit are strange and mysterious. Just as a person’s body has no understanding of the mind, the mind cannot truly comprehend the spirit. Yet they must co-exist and work in harmony for us to be our true selves.
Once we have accepted this, we can begin to seek our true identity in a state not of knowing, but of being.
From there, James gives us the next piece of the puzzle, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” It is not so much that we can endeavor to find ourselves as much as we allow ourselves to be found by and in God. The secret to our identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. If we find Him, we will find ourselves.
But this is no easy task. Finding God in ourselves and ourselves in God is not a one time revelation, not a sudden epiphany that transforms us once and for all. Rather, it is an ongoing process of discovering the beauty, majesty, wonder, and mystery of God’s unending love over and over again. Every moment of every day, the great and the tragic, the mundane and the magnificent is an opportunity; a seed that God plants in our lives to reveal a truth about who we really are. Finding our true selves requires a commitment of faith to live fully and unequivocally in each of these moments, to seek God at every turn, to love with every breath, and forsake the ways of our false selves.
When we do this, the lies and deception of the world drift into nothingness like a morning fog lifting from the fields. We will find the uniqueness of our own being. The question of who are you will be inconsequential, and we may find ourselves answering simply… I am.
Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
Wow. What a reaction. It doesn’t seem a very appropriate response to being told that the Messiah has been found.
Philip and Nathanael were prominent disciples of John the Baptist. When John began proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah, they became very excited, no doubt imagining how fabulous this man would be. He was, after all, Immanuel, God with us, a king of kings as promised by the prophets. Certainly, such a man would arrive with all the fanfare and glory that was his due. We would expect a more welcoming and praising reaction from such devout followers of God. But instead Nathanael lets loose with a very shallow and judgmental comment.
I imagine if something like this were to happen today it would go a little like this: The media has been heralding the arrival of a great man – one who will save us from ourselves. He will cure cancer, stop global warming, do away with the two party political machine, and find peaceful solutions to the world’s conflicts. The news stations have been rife with speculation about where this man will come from. Some say he will be a physicist from Austria. Others claim he will be an engineer from MIT. More far-fetched ideas say that he will come from the future or, perhaps, a distant planet.
But they all get it wrong. When this savior appears, those closest to him start spreading the news of his arrival. “Hey Chris,” Taylor says. “We’ve found the one everybody’s been talking about. It’s Jesus, from Radford.”
I’ll go ahead and apologize for offending anyone, but that’s kind of the point here, so don’t get too upset.
Radford? I think to myself. He can’t be serious. Can anything that good come from Radford?
Now, I’ve known a number of people who have graduated from Radford and they’re all very wonderful people, but in my experience, the school doesn’t have the reputation for producing world changers. I would pause to question the validity of the claim that mankind’s savior was from such a place. Yes, it is true, I have a prejudice. In fact, I have a lot of them. We all do.
Substitute anything else for Nazareth. Can anything good come from ___________? What would you put in the blank? Staunton? Waynesboro? Craigsville? New Jersey? Maybe something other than a place. The Republican Party? The Democratic Party? Or perhaps your prejudices are on a smaller scale. Can anything good come from… the Markhams? the Mertins? that crazy Kirby clan? The truth is that we all have certain preconceived ideas about people that we don’t know based on all kinds of superficial qualities that we use to judge them. That’s just human nature. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us or that we are bad people. Even one of Christ’s own disciples held such prejudices.
The trick is to look beyond them.
Philip’s response to Nathanael’s incredulity was simply, “Come and see.” And Nathanael went. He put aside his prejudice and went to meet Jesus and almost immediately declared him to be the Son of God.
If we are to be disciples of Christ, we must put aside our prejudices, and see people for who they truly are. It is right and just to acknowledge our preconceptions whether they be based on skin color, socio-economic status, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation if, by doing so, by drawing our attention to them we rise above them and get to know people based on, as the great Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the content of their character.
Greatness, when given by the Grace of God, can occur anywhere, in anyone. The Old Testament is filled with stories of great men and women who came from lowly backgrounds, from poor families with lesser names, from the least of these. They constantly asked God, “why me? I am a nobody.” Yet because they walked with God, they were able to achieve fantastic things, free their people from oppression, defeat their enemies against fantastic odds, and establish kingdoms that lasted for generations.
Who, then, are we to dismiss anyone based on what we think we know about them? We are all God’s children.
But the story doesn’t end there.
As Nathanael approached, Jesus calls out “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Ironically, Nathanael responds with “How do you know me?” Not moments before, Nathanael has passed judgement on a man he has never met, yet questions Jesus for doing the same. Yes, Jesus has made a statement about Nathanael’s character before meeting him, but there is a big difference between what the two men have done.
Had Jesus asked Nathanael, “How do you know me?” Nathanael might have replied, “Um… well, I don’t know you exactly, but I know other people from Nazareth, so you must be like them.”
But Christ answers differently. He says, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” This is remarkably specific. We don’t know what is so important about this or what he was doing under the fig tree. Some claim that he was praying or meditating there, but it doesn’t really matter. Nathanael’s reaction is so strong, with an immediate proclamation about the truth of Christ’s identity, that it must have been a profoundly significant moment to him. More importantly, this simple statement proved to Nathanael without a doubt that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah. Such a revelation, it seems to me, also proves that the moment under the fig tree was a very private one, that no one would have known about.
And here we have the difference between Nathanael and Jesus. Nathanael does not and cannot know the heart and character of others without meeting them, watching them, and talking with them. Neither can we. But Christ, being one with God, does. He sees our most private moments; knows our hearts better than we do. And he knows us whether we have come to know Him or not.
God in Christ knows us from the very moment we come into existence. He knows who we are, knows our innermost thoughts and feelings, knows the secrets that we keep hidden from the rest of the world, sees every flaw, every failing, hears our darkest desires, knows every sin we’ve committed against Him, ourselves, and others… and loves us anyway.
For some of us, that may be a difficult thing to imagine. We may be so tangled up in our faults that we cannot believe we are worthy of such unconditional love. I have heard mutterings from people in my life who feel that way. At times, I have felt that way. Maybe you feel that way too. Maybe you find yourself doing things that alienate others just to prove how unlovable and wretched you are. Maybe you would say, “Can anything good come from me?” The answer is yes. Because God still loves you, no matter what.
In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he wrote about the art of “turning”. I think there is some truth in this allegory, and it is applicable to our role as Christians. Using the image of a cave, the student is at the bottom enshrouded in the darkness of ignorance. Understanding comes only when one reaches the mouth of the cave and sees the light of day, the light of Christ. But being blind, the ignorant are unaware of the light. The teacher cannot simply shout into the cave and tell the student to come out, because the student has no idea how to get there. Instead, the teacher must reenter the cave and guide them out, step by step.
Our job, as disciples of Christ, is to follow His example and love everyone. Not just our friends, our family, and those we share common beliefs and values with. We are called to love those who are drastically different, those who lead lives that we find truly despicable. We must show kindness and love to the drug addicts, the beggars, the racists, and the criminals. We are called to love those who disagree with us, who despise us, and who persecute us. These are the students, those who are ignorant of Christ’s love for them.
If we reach beyond our prejudices by loving them unconditionally, we bring a tiny flame of hope into their darkness, showing them that a light exists. Hopefully, they will turn and follow, eventually basking in the brilliance of God’s unending love.
But… they might not. We cannot force them to turn or change their ways. And this is the truly difficult part. We must remain with them, holding our candle, and loving them no matter what. We cannot focus on the end result. If we become concerned about “results,” we risk disappointment, frustration, and letting our own light be overcome by darkness. Our priority, our zeal is in the process, the doing, the loving. It isn’t easy. And we can’t do it alone. We must open ourselves to God’s amazing Grace because it is that Grace which allows us to do incredible things, no matter who we are or where we come from. We are all God’s children.
Thanks to Taylor Mertins for the title upgrade. Originally I called this "A Few Good Men." His idea is better.
A small group of people sit around a table in a social hall. It is a church council meeting and they are discussing plans for their upcoming fall festival. They haven’t gotten very far in their discussion because they are stuck on when to schedule it. Everyone seems to be in agreement that it needs to be on a weekend when everyone in the community can come, but there are so many conflicts they can’t figure it out. The neighboring church is having a revival on the first weekend they look at and homecoming is the following weekend and they know the youth won’t come if they do it then. There’s a big wedding the weekend after that in the next town that half the congregation will be attending.
Meanwhile, across town a committee is meeting about vacation Bible school. They are having a similar problem with scheduling. This week would compete with the big Baptist Bible school down the road. That week the coordinator will be on vacation. This other week the two families with all the kids will be out of town and attendance would be cut in half.
A pastor slumps down in his office chair after a particularly difficult nominations committee meeting. Attendance has been dwindling steadily the last several years, his flock is aging and young families are few and far between. Almost everyone in the congregation holds an office or is in charge of something and he just received a letter from the district about a new ministry initiative they want all churches to participate in. He has no idea how the few people who aren’t already burnt out or overwhelmed will be able to pull this off.
On a bright and beautiful Sunday morning the council chair calls three women to the front of the packed sanctuary. He announces to everyone that these three women are solely responsible for the planning, organization, and execution of one of the most profound ministries the church has ever seen. Their efforts have touched the lives of hundreds in the community, provided food, clothing, and education opportunities to the homeless and poverty-stricken residing in the city. Because of them, the church will have a lasting legacy. He bestows them with all manner of honors and accolades.
Each of these scenarios is one that could and has happened to some degree in every church across the country. On the surface they appear to be what every good group of Christians would do or discuss in the given situation. So ask yourself… what would you do next?
We learned the other week that the purpose of scripture is to refresh and rejuvenate the soul, which is absolutely true. But isn’t it also to inform our decisions and influence our actions? Of course. So let us examine the story from our scripture today to see what light it sheds on the course of action that should be taken.
Gideon, a man from a small, weak clan, has been called upon by God to free Israel from the hands of the Midianites, who have enslaved them for seven years. He has mustered 33,000 men, a truly impressive force, but on the eve of the battle, God says to him… “Wait! You have too many soldiers. Get rid of some.” So Gideon sends away those who are afraid, whose hearts are not in the fight. He’s left with 10,000 men. But God tells him he still has too many, so he leads them down to the river to refresh themselves. The men who knelt down and put their faces to the water to drink were sent home. He was left with only 300 men to fight the armies of Midian who were thick as locusts, who could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.
Imagine how paltry a force of three hundred soldiers must have seemed against an army of thousands. A successful campaign must have seemed near impossible. Gideon was most certainly doubtful and full of fear at the prospect of what awaited him. The story continues beyond what we read today with God acknowledging Gideon’s fears and sending him to spy on the enemy where he is encouraged by the retelling of a dream one of the Midianite soldiers had.
Then Gideon splits his 300 men into three companies of one hundred each and attacks. The Midianites are routed and Israel is freed from oppression.
So what does this story mean for us today? How and why is it relevant for our own church? Let’s think again about the council planning a fall festival. They are concerned about the timing and how many people will be able to help. They are afraid they will have too few hands on deck to be successful. The same could be said for the committee planning for vacation bible school. Many times, I’ve heard complaints of how few members the church has, that there are things we can’t do, projects we can’t take on because there aren’t enough people. I’ve even said the same thing myself. But if God can defeat an army of thousands with only three hundred men, imagine what he can do with five or six. Look at how profoundly he changed the world with only twelve. If we are committed to doing God’s work, we are no less than they. If it is God’s will, he will use us to accomplish wonderful and amazing things no matter how few in number we may be. Being a faithful group, the council decides that who shows up is ultimately out of their control, and they should focus on making it an enjoyable time even if only a handful of people participate.
So what about the haggard pastor who has been asked to spearhead a new ministry? He leans forward in his chair and places a hand on the well-worn leather bound Bible on his desk, uttering a whispered prayer for guidance as he picks it up. He flips through the dog-eared pages and stops at Judges, chapter 7. The story of Gideon, the one we’ve just heard. His keeps going back to verse 3: “ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’ So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.” He realizes that God doesn’t want the weary, the afraid, or the overwhelmed to go on this mission. Such people will only harm the morale of the others. Of course, he also realizes, it is not his job to determine who will go and who will not, just as it was not Gideon’s. God will sort them out. If only two people agree to tackle this project, then that is God’s will and it will be enough. Relieved of his burden, the pastor picks up the phone and begins calling the list of members.
These three situations seem bleak and desperate on the surface, similar to the fate that was facing Israel. But in reality they are an opportunity for God to work through his people to achieve great victories.
Now we return to the last scenario: the joyous occasion celebrating the success of several church members. This appears to be the most positive and faith affirming situation of them all, but I believe that this particular church is in great peril. They are poised on the precipice of disaster, of bringing God’s judgement upon them, of wallowing in the sulfurous fire and brimstone of sin!
Ok… maybe I’m going a little overboard with the theatrics. But I do think this moment requires careful examination and reflection.
Let’s look at the reason God told Gideon to send away so many of his troops. He said, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’” Israel has had a bad habit of turning away from God, of forgetting all the miracles and wonders he has done for His chosen people, of forsaking the covenant they had made. They have grown in numbers and strength since being delivered to the Promised Land, but are facing an oppressive enemy. A force of 33,000 men is nothing to scoff at, and should Gideon defeat the Midianite army with them, the people of Israel will certainly chalk it up to their superior skill, leadership, and prowess in battle and be blinded to the Will of God. To prevent this, God sets Gideon an impossible task, one that can only be achieved with Divine intervention. The people need to be reminded that God has not turned His back on them despite the error of their ways. They need to know, without a doubt, that it is God’s hand that delivers them from their enemies and not their own.
The church in our story has won a great victory by creating and running such an effective ministry, but they are on the verge of bursting with arrogance. They boast of their own strength, they applaud the accomplishments of their own people. They have forgotten who is truly responsible for these magnificent works. In this, they are like the people of Israel who, upon Gideon’s return from battle, ask him to be their king. Gideon refuses, saying he will not rule over them, but that the Lord will.
The warning is clear. When great and wonderful things happen as a result of our actions, we must resist the temptation to take credit for them. We are merely instruments through which God has chosen to do His work. When we are offered accolades for our accomplishments, we must refuse them, redirecting the glory to He who truly deserves it.
I struggle with this constantly. As an actor, a performer, I occasionally find myself in the spotlight and receive praises from the audience. I will admit that sometimes I let it go to my head. Ok, it always goes to my head, and sometimes my ego is the size of Montana. I mean, come on, I even have a shirt (that I bought for myself) that reads “You’re looking at a legend.” Then there’s the pair of Superman socks with the capes on them that I got for my birthday. So, no, modest is not a word most people would use to describe me.
In my heart, however, I know that I am not worthy of any honor. Whatever little talent I do possess was granted by God and my challenge is to use it in ways that glorify Him, and to publicly give Him credit for it.
Others have a different challenge. Some people seem outwardly humble, yet in their hearts, they secretly crave attention and validation. The goal, then, is to bring the desires of our hearts and the words of our mouth into harmony with each other.
But it is not only those who have done great things that are being cautioned in this story. The witnesses of God’s great work must also be held accountable for their response. We, the church, must not be like Israel, offering our subjugation to the few who seem great. Our loyalty and praises must always remain focused on the Lord. We can certainly thank the people who serve and celebrate with them, but looking on them with eyes of awe and wonder, like one would a celebrity is going too far. After all, none of us is better or greater than any other. We are all equal in the eyes of the Lord. Each of us can be called to serve just as each of us can be sent away to serve another day.
So I urge you all to think before speaking. The next time you are tempted to sing someone’s praises, pause to consider who’s you really should be singing. Truly, I tell you: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him, all you creatures here below. Praise Him above the heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen and amen.
The story of Lazarus as it is told by John is extremely powerful. It is, in John’s eyes, the culminating act of Christ’s ministry and the final straw that provoked the authorities to have him crucified. In literary terms, it is the climax in John’s narrative of the life of Jesus Christ. When Taylor first asked me to do the sermon this week, he told me what the scripture would be and then apologized. I wasn’t sure why, but after reading this story a dozen or so times, I get it. This story is overwhelming in its entirety. It is packed full of meaning and significance. There are probably a dozen or so sermons that I could have written. I considered the faithful eagerness of Thomas to follow Jesus into a dangerous place and compare that to his doubtfulness of Christ’s own resurrection. I thought about the parallels between raising Lazarus from the dead and our own rebirth through the Holy Spirit. But the more I thought and reflected, the more I was drawn back to three particular verses.
The first is one that we are all familiar with. As Jesus nears the town of Bethany, Martha comes to meet him, expresses her sorrow over Lazarus’ death, and tells him that she knows her brother will rise again on the last day. Then Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
In the early Jewish tradition, people believed that the dead went to the underworld for a fairly drab existence until some point in the future, when heaven comes to earth and all righteous people would be resurrected to be a part of its perfection. Here, Jesus makes quite a revelation to Martha, telling her that he is the Messiah, the one bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth, that no one need to wait until the end of days for the resurrection. The time for new life, for rebirth was at hand and all that was required was to believe in him. That’s quite a revelation and I think, for the most part, Martha didn’t get it. But I also think there’s more to this revelation.
This statement reveals the true relationship between God and Jesus. Only God has power over life and death. Yet in this story, Jesus shows that he has such power. How can both be true? The answer: God and Christ are one. Earlier in the scripture, Jesus says that Lazarus’ illness will not end in death but in God’s Glory. Everything Jesus does is an extension of God’s will. On the one hand, Jesus is a man, bound by the same worldly needs as any other, but at the same time he is the embodiment of the Holy Spirit, God made flesh. Here we have the mystery of the Holy Trinity. This fact makes another event in this story even more profound.
After Martha leaves, Mary comes to see Jesus and “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Then “Jesus began to weep.” The gathering crowd, seeing this, comments on how much he must have loved Lazarus, but as usual, the masses have it all wrong. Because Jesus is the resurrection and the life, because he knows without a doubt that death of the body is not a final end to life, he has no reason to weep over the death of Lazarus. So why does he cry? Mary and her sister are obviously in anguish over the death of their brother. They do not have the same knowledge and faith that Jesus does, so they are in pain. I think this is the reason that Jesus weeps. He weeps for the pain and suffering of the living. Think on that for a minute… Jesus wept. If God and Christ are truly one, then not only did Jesus weep, so did God.
We are just like Mary and Martha. We are imperfect in our faith and understanding of life and death. We are constrained by our own experience, our perceptions limited to what we see, hear, touch, and feel.Each of us knows what it is like to lose a loved one. The pain of separation can be so intense it affects us physically. Even those of us strong in our faith who know we will rejoin with those who have gone before us, can still suffer because of our sense of time and the years we must endure until that time.
God is not subject to the same limitations. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the end and the beginning. God encompasses all that is, was, and ever will be. With that kind of experience under your belt, you might have a different perspective on things.
The other week, I was watching the newest version of Cosmos on the National Geographic channel. They took the entire history of the universe, all 13.8 billion years of it, and condensed it down into one calendar year. From this perspective, the universe begins on January 1st and present day is December 31st at the stroke of midnight. On this scale, mankind doesn’t even appear until the last ten minutes of the last hour of the last day. The average lifespan lasts less than the time it takes to blink your eye. If this was your frame of reference, how would you view the suffering of such a seemingly insignificant creature. For me, I doubt I would even be aware of their existence, let alone be moved to tears by their pain.
But God is. Not only is He profoundly aware of us but He loves us so much that He weeps for our suffering. He loves us so much that he offers us great hope and comfort in our sorrow. Which brings me to the last, and in my opinion, most poignant verse.
Right before he calls Lazarus forth from the tomb, Jesus says to Martha “Did I not tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God.” At first, this particular verse troubled me. He seems to be saying that with a strong enough belief, with enough faith, anything is possible, even raising the dead. Why is this troubling? Because most of the time we don’t get what we want. All of us have prayed for things that we didn’t get. I’m not talking about those shallow, ridiculous things that we sometimes pray for, like winning the lottery or getting over a cold. I’m talking about meaningful, worthwhile prayers, like healing a sick loved one or ending a violent conflict. I think somewhere along the line, we convince ourselves that prayers said for others are more noble than praying about things for ourselves, and that somehow, because they are nobler, selfless requests, they should have more power and be granted by a loving God. Yet much of the time, these wishes do not come true. We’ve all experienced some sort of tragedy in life despite our prayers and this interpretation of the Lazarus story can leave us feeling that if we only had more faith then this bad thing would not have happened.
But… when we consider this verse more closely, we must look at what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you would see Lazarus come back to life?” He does not say, “ Did I not tell you that if you believe your prayers would be answered?” Instead, he says “Did I not tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God.” Jesus makes it very clear from the beginning that the reason Lazarus will be raised is for the glory of God. He does not do it for the comfort of his friends and family. He does it because it is the will of God.
Too often, we pray for our will to be done. We ask that God give us the things that we want, and no matter how noble or selfless that request is, we’re still missing the mark. We should be praying for God’s will to be done, not ours. In the Lord’s Prayer, the one that Jesus used to teach his disciples how to pray, we see this very clearly. Every week, we recite the line “Thy will be done,” but I think we sometimes forget what that truly means.
Sometimes I like to imagine what these stories would be like if they happened in today’s world. I think the disciples would be very similar to us. They’d wear jeans and hoodies, maybe Carharts, and carry smartphones everywhere. Instead of celebrities posting selfies with pizza at the Oscars, we’d see the twelve disciples with the loaves and the fishes. Peter might be tweeting “Hey peeps, the J-man just brought Lazarus back from the dead.” Social media would be buzzing with news of all that Jesus had done with the glaring lack of posts from Jesus himself. I can not imagine him having his own website, facebook page, twitter, or linkedIn account. Let’s face it, the purpose of most social media is to shamelessly promote ourselves and our egos. Jesus is remarkably humble, most of the time telling his followers not to speak of the miracles he works. He knows that all the hubbub isn’t about him. As Taylor once told us, “it’s about God, stupid.”
So what, then, does Jesus mean when he says we will see the glory of God if we believe? I think he is saying not to put the cart before the horse. Many people look for signs and miracles so that they can believe in God. Many want the evidence before they will allow themselves to believe. But this isn’t how it works. Belief has to come first. With true faith and honest belief, we will see great beauty, splendor, and magnificence everywhere we look.
God’s glory is not confined to mighty, seemingly impossible acts like the raising of Lazarus. It exists in everything. It is in the smallest grain of wheat that has the potential to sprout into a field that will feed hundreds. It is in the coo of a mourning dove on a summer afternoon, the fresh blanket of snow on a winter morning marked only by the footprints of a squirrel or deer, the vibrant pink and purple hues of a sunrise or sunset, the quiet hours of the morning when no one else is awake, and the mysterious wonder of the milky way on a clear night. It is also in a smile and friendly word passed between neighbors, in the choice to forgive one who has wronged us, and a melody sung by a joyful congregation. These are the simple, everyday things that often go unnoticed, yet each is miraculous in its own way. Too often, we close our eyes to these glories that surround us, focusing instead on the troubles, the struggles, and the darkness.
During my father’s battle with cancer, there came a point when he had to go on kidney dialysis three days a week. On these days, we would get up at 4:30 in the morning, eat breakfast, and I would make the 40 minute drive to Harrisonburg so we could be there by 6. Now, I was never much of a morning person. While I was in college, I often skipped my 10am class because it was too early. So getting up at 4:30 was not a pleasant prospect. The first couple weeks, I was tired, cranky, and generally all around miserable. But a funny thing happened. We started paying attention to the sunrise. Every day, it seemed to be more beautiful than the last. Because of the timing and direction of the trip, I got to watch the whole thing unfold- the first hints of gray light in the air growing into purple reflections off the easternmost clouds, followed by reaching red fingers of dawn as the sun crept over the horizon until the whole sky was a full bloom of color. I remember the sensation of awe I felt, of amazement at God’s artistry. Pretty soon, the dread of dialysis days was gone. I began looking forward to each sunrise and to the simple satisfaction of a hearty breakfast. The situation hadn’t changed, but my perception of it had. Even in this dark time, I was seeing the glory of God.
And that, I think, is the true message here. God’s love and glory surrounds us all the time, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. When tragedy strikes and suffering abounds, God is still with us. If our hearts, minds, and souls are turned to Him during these times, we will see His glory. We will find joy and comfort in Him and in doing His will. Our suffering will diminish, and hope will grow.
I wrote this for Transfiguration Sunday last year. When I found out that I would be giving the sermon for the week, I immediately went and read the lectionary scripture from Matthew, hoping to find some inspiration. However, as I thought and pondered I was constantly drawn back to the scripture from the previous week from Jeremiah. Since that seemed to be where I was being led, I decided to go with it, and was pleasantly surprised that as I wrote and rewrote, the theme of Transfiguration, or transformation, appeared to be intertwined with what I had written. What follows is from that sermon.
Over the last month or two we have heard about heeding God’s call and using our gifts in God’s ministry. Most recently, we heard about how we are all many parts of one body. This shouldn’t be news to any of us. We all know that we have a role to play in God’s ministry, no matter how big or small it may be. In the past, I have spoken about the gifts that each of us has been given to help us fulfill those roles. We know how important it is for us to work together to achieve a common goal. So what I want to talk about today is: how do we do that? How do we take all these parts, put them together, and make them work? I think we have to begin by looking a little deeper at heeding God’s call.
Many of us hear the whisperings, or perhaps the shoutings, of the things God wants us to do, yet we still don’t take action. There are many reasons why, but I think the most common reason is that we don’t know how. In this we are similar to Jeremiah. The word of the Lord came to me, saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” 6 “Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” 7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. 9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Now, while not all of may say we are too young, we do have many excuses for not obeying. Perhaps these will sound familiar. We don’t have the money for that. I’m only one person, what can I do? I’m too old. Someone else already tried that and it didn’t work. That’s too risky. There aren’t enough volunteers. That’s against our policy. We don’t have the money for that. Oh wait, I already said that one. The list goes on and on and on and on. But just as God told Jeremiah, and I’m going to paraphrase here: “Quit whining. I told you to do it. I will give you the tools to do it, and I’ll be standing right behind you the whole time.” He’s saying the same thing to us. If we are truly responding to God’s call we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the obstacles in our way. The voice of reason shouldn’t enter into our discussions. The voice of God is the only one we should be listening to.
When I was at Virginia Tech, I took a number of theatre classes, and in one of them we learned about improvisation. We were taught that the most important part of creating a good, interesting improvised scene is the concept of Yes, And. Let me explain. When an actor comes up with an idea and introduces it into the scene, all the other actors must say “Yes, and,” and then build upon that idea. For example, if one person said, “My the sky sure is blue today,” the other actor would say, “Yes, it is blue, and there are fluffy clouds.” Another actor might say, “Yes, it is mighty blue, and that cloud looks like an elephant.” They would continue on in this manner until they were able to bring the scene to a close. At no time ever is an improviser allowed to say no or but. All their ideas, all their interactions must be affirming of one another. If you’ve never had the opportunity to watch good improvisation, you’ve probably also never had the opportunity to watch bad improvisation. I, however, have. And it is painful. Very, very painful to watch an actor who does not know this rule of yes, and. The second that they shoot down somebody’s idea or they provide an alternative to that idea, all the energy evaporates from the scene. The comedy falls completely flat and no one enjoys themselves- not the actors and not the audience. Now using this concept of yes, and, sometimes the scenes can become completely ridiculous and far-fetched with crazy stuff going on, but as long as the actors buy into it and accept it all by saying yes then it works, no matter crazy it is, no mater how ridiculous it seems.
A church is no different. We’re all actors improvising our way through life. We may have guidelines, certainly, but we definitely have no script. When God gives an idea, a calling, we must be the dutiful actors and say “Yes, And.” We can’t worry about the details that we so often use as excuses for inaction. If we’ve been called to serve and we’re being true to that call then God will provide the tools whether they be words in a prophets mouth, volunteers to do the legwork, or money to buy supplies. We must take it on faith that when the time comes and we are truly in need, we will find that God has given us a path to our goal if we simply open our eyes to it.
So… let us imagine that we are in fact able to find this faith in God and in ourselves. Is that all that we need to be the best church that we can be? Unfortunately not. Now we’re not alone in our quandary. There are many contexts we find groups of p[people working together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Most of our big corporations and companies are trying to do that. Some are even working toward a greater good. Our educational institutions are certainly trying to do that, and even the government is trying to work toward a greater good. Sometimes they succeed, other times not. So what is it exactly that determines whether such an endeavor thrives, grows, and takes on a life of its own or causes it to flounder and eventually fail?
Think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you’ve never read it, maybe you’ve seen the movie. Even after Frankenstein had stitched together all these different body parts, he still had nothing more than a rotting corpse. Something was missing. It wasn’t until he found the spark of life that his creation truly came into being.
So, too, is a congregation. Just because we have a number of people gathered together with different talents, doesn’t mean we have a vital ministry. We must have that spark of life. First Corinthians, Chapter 12, Verse 13 says “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Today we heard that the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom and I daresay, also, there is Life. The Holy Spirit is that spark of life, that when it is upon us, when it flows through us, we are transformed from a lifeless assemblage of people into a living being that we call a congregation.
But even then, we are not yet complete. What was it that made Frankenstein’s creation so tragic? What made him a monster instead of a man? One thing, and one thing only. It didn’t know love. The Dr. Frankenstein was repulsed by what he’d done. He viewed his creation with revulsion and he shunned it, so it fled. It ran away and became a wretched creature, never finding that love that it so desperately craved.
I have another theatre story about love. In one of my classes we were taught that when we read a scene, it is imperative that we find the love in the scene. It didn’t matter what it was, or who it was between. If it was going to be interesting, we had to find the love. Every character, always, was motivated by love. It’s a difficult concept for a young actor to wrap their head around, especially when you’re in college and your only real concept of love is the romantic kind, but with practice it becomes totally and completely obvious. Without love, the characters are apathetic and dull. It is what creates the drama. Even characters that seem to hate each other are fighting to find love somewhere.
The Bible also tells us how important is it is that we find the love. The scripture from Corinthians is one of the most direct instructions on how to be a Christian I have ever read. We often hear it at weddings because of its content, but I think we miss the true extent of its message because it if often overlooked. So here it is again: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.” I don’t think it could be any clearer. Without love, we have nothing. All our attempts at ministry are futile if love does not pervade everything we do. All of our thoughts, our actions, our decisions must be motivated, driven, and ruled by love of our fellow man, each other, and of God.
Now what does this look like? Paul tells us that love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious, or boastful or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love is not, however, a battlefield. Though it can build a bridge. It isn’t all we need, but it is necessary. I think it can be very challenging at times, not only to remember these things, but to live them as well. Even with our spouses, we often forget that love is not irritable. How much more difficult is it then to treat someone we haven’t chosen as a life partner with love. I know, though I love all of my students very dearly, I am often irritated by them and lose my patients. How many of you find yourselves falling to these petty evils? How many of you insist on your own way? How many envy another’s talents or possessions? How many have spoken unkind remarks to or about someone you know, or maybe you didn’t know? How many have boast of an accomplishment out of pride, whether it was your own or someone close to you? How many of you rejoice in pointing out the flaws of others or take comfort in the knowledge that you are “better” than they are? I’m sure if we think about it really hard, we could all raise our hands at least once. I know I could probably raise my hand on every one of those. So let’s just say that we all have room for improvement. So if we are to be a truly vital congregation, fulfilling the roles that God has placed us in, then we must find the love in every scene, whether that scene is played out here at the church between committee members, in the office between coworkers, at Target between shopper and clerk, or at home between family members. We must be patient and kind to everyone we interact with, even with the people we just know are wrong or that drive us absolutely bonkers. I do believe that if we focus on finding the love that is within us all, that God has placed there, then we can and will find it. Perhaps this is what Matthew meant when he wrote, “Seek, and ye shall find.” So find the love and give the theatre of your everyday life true meaning and purpose. Let go of everything else. All that other stuff will only make us stumble. No, we are not perfect, and we will make mistakes from time to time, but if we are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we must try. We must try every day to do better and become what God wants us to be. Faith, hope, and love are three things he gave us, and the greatest is love.