“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.”
That’s what it all boils down to, friends: LOVE. A love, personified in Jesus Christ, that brings us into relationship with God; a love that forges a “connection of kindred hearts” among us as brothers and sisters in faith; a love that binds us all together as the Church of Jesus Christ. Truly, when people ask us who we are and what we’re all about as this gathering of people we call the church, this is what we tell them; that we’re all about the love!
And I’m here to tell you this morning that I’m eternally grateful for that; that both pastorally and personally I’ve long been and continue to be very thankful for the presence of Christian community – this family of faith – that has always brought so much love into my life. That said, however, I have to be honest and confess that there have been times for me when the Church, that is, this fellowship of kindred hearts of which we’re all a part, can easily be compared to the young man who wrote the following letter to the love of his life: “Dear Mary,” he wrote, “dear, sweet Mary… I would swim the deepest river for you. I would climb the highest mountain. Oh, my sweet, sweet Mary; I would walk over burning coals just to be at your side! All my love; all my devotion – XOXOXXO – Jack.
“P.S. I’ll be over on Sunday, if it doesn’t rain!”
It’s one thing, you see, to talk about love; quite another to actually mean it and let that affirmation move our very lives. In the end, merely elaborating on the depth of our devotion is insufficient. Words of devotion, while beautiful and often very welcome, can also be annoying, even offensive, when they are not accompanied by action.
And so it is within the church of Jesus Christ. The fact is, here in the church we have an abundance of good words with which to talk about love, and we’re not afraid to use them: in songs and stories, prayers and promises we regularly tell out our devotion to God, as well as the depth of our affection for those around us; and well we should, as the affirmation of love is an essential part of our worship, and of our life together. So there’s no question that we church folk are great at “talking the talk,” but there’s still the matter of “walking the walk;” and the question is, where love is concerned do our words and our deeds match up? In other words, do we truly “love one another as we have been loved,” or is it that there’s a “disconnect,” as it were, between what we say about love and what we do?
And make no mistake, friends, that’s a big question; in fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that how we answer says everything about the caliber of our faith, the effectiveness of our shared ministry in this place, and the utter distinctiveness of a Christian community that at least seeks to be some small embodiment of the kingdom of heaven; a people girded by faith and led forth in perfect love expressed in unabashed caring: reaching out boldly, extravagantly and without fear.
In one sense, I know that what I’m saying here is pretty obvious; of course, to be a Christian means to care about, and for, others; and yes, “they will know we are Christians by our love.” Moreover, all praise be to God, we’re a church in this place that embraces that mission as something not only important but crucial; it never ceases to amaze me that no matter the situation, when it comes to outreach, the people at East Church always seem to come through in a big way! We volunteer, we raise money, we make contributions, we bake casseroles, we send cards, we help out as we can. I can tell you with all certainty, friends, that as persons and as a people, we care… because we love!
And yet… I have to wonder how many opportunities for true caring you and I have missed along the way; how often we’ve actually held back from doing the right thing, the loving thing; times when we did know of a problem or a concern, and even knew what should be done about it; but in the end we couldn’t… or maybe just didn’t. Do not misunderstand me here; I do not wish to denigrate what we do, nor suggest a lack of caring or compassion on anyone’s part. But I would suggest to you that for us to truly care, to “love one another” as we are taught and commanded in our faith means for us to do so without hesitation or fear; and well, oftentimes that can be a challenge.
Kenneth C. Haugk is the Founder and Director of Stephen Ministries, an international lay caring ministry, and the author of a book that as far as I’m concerned is essential reading on this subject, “Christian Caregiving: A Way of Life.” Haugk actually begins his book with an exhaustive list of the reasons that people don’t reach out to others in Christian love: personal embarrassment, for one thing; there are people who can easily talk to you about anything under the sun – sex, politics, you name it – but when it comes to talking about spiritual matters, one’s faith, religion or one’s relationship with God, immediately they become self-conscious and things get awkward real quick! And then, conversely, there’s the concern that your reaching out to someone in Christian love might embarrass them, and you don’t ever want to do that; so you simply back off!
And Haugk goes on from there: there’s caution; you know, you don’t want your caring words to be perceived as “pushing your faith down anyone’s throat.” There are others who might have had, shall we say, a bad experience in their attempt at caregiving; and now they’ve vowed never, ever again “to get involved.” And then there are those who simply don’t feel they have the sufficient knowledge or training to help somebody in the midst of their crisis or need; bottom line, and we all feel this way sometimes, we don’t want to say and do the wrong thing and make the situation worse!
The fact is, it’s not always easy to be a caring person, and in a day and age where people tend more and more to “keep to themselves” with their troubles, to be distinctively Christian about the way that we love and care for others is even harder; it requires risk and openness, the courage to be bold, and the willingness to accept some level of sacrifice on our parts. But for you and me as people of faith, it’s essential. As our scripture reading this morning from 1 John says it, “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. [But] whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” And if that’s not direct enough as to make us totally uncomfortable, notice how at the end of this passage, John goes another step further: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
Incidentally, I how the Message translates the next verse: “The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.” No ambiguity there, friends! In other words, it’s not merely some lofty ideal for you and me to aspire to be caring Christian people; any more than it’s ever an option for a church to engage in caregiving on a part-time basis. For to be unabashedly Christian is to be unabashedly caring… always; and the challenge for us, even with all our fears and reluctance and supposed inabilities, is how we make that real in our lives.
So how does that happen? How do you and I start to live lives that are “unabashedly caring” and worthy of the love God has given us? Well, I think it begins with understanding that it’s not solely or primarily about what we do, but it is most especially about why we do it; and why we do it is Jesus Christ. You see, at the core of our faith is this truth that about 2,000 years ago, God identified himself fully with our humanness, and “sent his Son into the world to live and breathe, to suffer and love, to minister and care – and finally to die” and rise again. This was how the church – our church – was established, and it’s through that church that Jesus continues to extend his ministry of love and care for people.
To quote Kenneth Haugk once again, “the love of Christ is powerful and dynamic. It is not just a good feeling; it is the basic motivation for all Christian caring… as the message of God’s love grips Christians, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, who moves clay-footed Christians to use our God-given gifts for others. He makes cared-for Christians into caring Christians.” Or, as 1 John puts it, “We love because [God] first loved us.”
Because God is love, and because God loves us, even here and now, God’s love is being perfected in each one of us; so “we may have boldness on the day of judgment;” and so that we have “no fear in love, [because] perfect love casts out all fear.” Because of God’s love within us, we can move beyond our hesitancy to act with caring; we can get rid of the old notions of propriety and deservedness and judgment that also tend to hold us back from doing what we know, deep down, is the right thing to do. And because of God’s love within us, we can be bold enough to act; because we also know that the Lord will be doing incredible things in our midst as we do.
That’s the other thing we need to remember, friends; that while each one of us as Christians are called to be caregivers in this life, it is God who is the curegiver. I think that this is another misunderstanding that holds us back; the idea that if we can’t fix it, and we’ll most certainly find ourselves in over our heads if we try, then maybe we just shouldn’t! But that would be missing the point, you see, of what it is we do as caring Christians. We are like gardeners, really; preparing the soil, if you will, and getting the garden ready for what needs to grow; yet all the while waiting for God who ultimately provides all the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual growth that needs to take place!
That’s who we are; you and me who seek to follow in the way of our caring Savior; we are tasked with the hard but good work of establishing relationships that build up people in need. We are called to carry the good news of Christ’s unconditional acceptance and hope-filled gospel of forgiveness and life in him; we lend an ear, we hold a hand, we give words of encouragement, we cry a few tears… and sometimes we even reach into our pockets to help in other ways. We care because we love… and because we trust that even we’re making the effort, God’s already providing the hope, the peace, and ever and always, the cure.
Maybe this all does seem rather small in the divine scheme of things; but what’s equally true is that even the most casual of words and the smallest of actions, there is the potential for us to be unabashedly caring; and in that there’s great empowerment for us to open hearts and lives the incredible and healing power of God the Father, his loving Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And that’s the stuff of miracles, beloved!
So let us go forth and make some miracles today; and as we do, may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry