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FAQ’s of Faith: Why the Cross?

(a sermon for  March 25, 2018,  Palm Sunday; sixth in a series, based on on Mark 11:1-11 and 15:6-20)

The story goes that the circus had come to town, and there was this little boy who really, really wanted to be there.  The only problem was this was happening on a Sunday and the boy’s mother, who was very much of the old school and had always insisted upon the proper observance of the Lord’s Day, was reluctant to let him go.  But the boy was relentless in his pleading, and finally she gave in; allowing him, just this once, to “break the Sabbath” and go see this circus.  Well; after the show was over and the young boy returned home, his mother asked what he’d thought of the show.  His eyes were as wide as saucers; a combination of the wonders he’d witnessed and the abundance of doughboys and cotton candy he’d consumed!  And with visions of daring young men on the flying trapeze, elephants and clowns still dancing in his head, the boy replied, “Mama, if you ever get to go the circus, just once, you’ll never want to go to church again!”

I wonder why it is, every year around Palm Sunday, I always think about that story!  Probably because this is one of the three or four most celebrative days we have in the church; and while it’s not exactly a circus, I think you’ll agree that this morning there’s certainly been a parade atmosphere around here:  I mean, we shout our “hosannas,” we sing songs of triumph, and we wave palm branches as our kids march up and down these aisles and around the pews; all of it to rejoice in the fact that on that day when Jesus entered Jerusalem he did so with the respect and honor and love of all the people.  And it’s great, no doubt; it’s what the late Peter Gomes used to refer to as “that festival frenzy of the palms, the marvelous chaos which we organize each year – a festive dress rehearsal for an Easter triumph.”   Because don’t forget, next Sunday we go from “Hosannas” to “Hallelujahs,” and that’s going to be even better… so spread the word and invite your friends; the celebration continues next week!

Of course, first there’s what happens in between Palm Sunday and Easter; there’s still this matter of the cross.

That’s the problem, if you will, with Palm Sunday: it’s called Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” for a reason, just as there’s a reason that all four of the gospel writers chose to record this particular event in their account of Jesus’ life and ministry.  It’s because this “Palm Sunday Parade” was not merely celebratory; it was revelatory as it just seemed to embody all the hopes and dreams of God’s people, all amidst the growing crescendo of hosannas and ancient words of prophecy:  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”  And it’s tempting – very tempting (!) – simply to treat our re-creation of it all “as though it were an Easter before Easter.”  But, as Fred Craddock wisely observed, “as we sometimes have early warm weather called ‘false spring,’ so it is possible to observe a ‘false Easter.’”  Because, you see, not only was this “triumphal entry” we remember today the focal point of a joyous celebration (and, might I add, a supreme act of protest) it was also, as it turned out, a funeral procession.  To quote Peter Gomes once again, that is “the solemn side of [this] day, and it is almost unbearable in its anguish and pathos.  Here [is where] we confront the dark side of the human experience, and when [very soon] we are forced to cry ‘Crucify, crucify’ along with the biblical mob, it is painfully close.”

On Sunday, you see, the people met Jesus with palm branches; on Friday, they slapped him his face and struck his head with a rod.  On Sunday, they extoled him praises as “the one who comes in the name of the Lord;” on Friday, they heaped insults upon him and mocked him as “King of the Jews.”  (15:18) On Sunday, they raced to be among the first to lay their clothing along his pathway, a fitting “red carpet” for approaching royalty; on Friday, they stripped him of his own clothes, “clothed him in a purple cloak, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, put it on him.”  On Sunday, he was welcomed into Jerusalem as a King, a Savior, the Messiah; by Friday, he’d been thrown out of the city as a criminal, having first suffered through a hasty trial, jeered and condemned by the crowd, mocked and tormented by the Roman soldiers and abandoned and even denied by those closest to him!  On Sunday, he was mounted on the back of a donkey (or “a colt that has never been ridden,” as Mark’s version of the story tells it) and despite the humility of such an entry, Jesus is accorded every mark of honor; but five days later on a Friday morning, he was hung on the wood of the cross, his flesh torn by whips, his hands and feet pierced by the nails, his side cut open by the spear; crucified there with “two bandits, one on his right and one on his left” (15:27) and left there in the hot, midday sun to die a truly “excruciating” death.

That’s the problem with Palm Sunday, you see; however joyous are our songs for this festive morning, however much we would just like to slide into the hallelujahs of Easter morning and avoid everything in-between, inevitably and inescapably Sunday leads to Friday… the shouts of hosanna will become the cries to crucify…and we will see Jesus there on the cross, suffering and bleeding and dying, calling out so plaintively in such agony and pain, ’Eloi, Elio, lema sabactani? which means,“My God, God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34)  There’s no avoiding it… come this Friday that’s inexplicably called “good,” Jesus, our teacher, our healer, our Savior and our friend… will die.

And you and I; we were there.  Even some 2,000 years later, we’re still there; even knowing as we do how this story is going to end, you and I are still there at that place of the skull called “Golgotha,” and we’re asking perhaps the most “frequently asked question” in all of human history:  Why?  Why, God?  Why Jesus?  Why your Son?  And why the cross?

What’s interesting, you know, is that the disciples really should have already known and understood what was going on; after all, look through the gospel story and you’ll be reminded that Jesus had told them three times (!) of his approaching death in Jerusalem!  But of course they couldn’t even begin to comprehend what Jesus was talking about – they didn’t want to think that anything like that could ever happen to Jesus – and it was only after the resurrection that they began to remember and understand what had taken place there on the cross.  In some ways, it’s the same for you and I who have already been to the empty tomb, who’ve been there “in the garden” with Mary and have encountered the risen Christ.  Yes, the central truth of our Christian faith is that we are “Easter People,” to be sure, but we live in a Good Friday world; truly, if it is true that “we were there,” at least in spirit, “when they crucified our Lord,” then it follows that we are the reason for Good Friday!  So, before we can rejoice in how in Christ we are made alive forevermore, doesn’t it seem as though we should understand why he died so that could happen?  Why, God?  Why the cross?

I’ll be honest; over the years as I’ve tried to wrap my mind and heart around that all-important question, I’ve discovered that I’ve never felt like I’ve had the words adequate to even begin to answer that question – maybe it’s better expressed by poets and singers and dancers – but I do know this:  the answer to “why the cross” basically comes down, simply and beautifully but oh, so deeply, to… LOVE.

Some years ago in a prior congregation, about this time of year the church staff and I were invited for a noontime luncheon at the home of a very elderly lady of our congregation.  This was my first year there, and I was told that this was an annual affair put on by this lady as a way of thanking us all for what we did for the church.  And I have to tell you, it was as fancy a meal as I’ve ever been served: the fine china was out; the place settings were beautiful; the sandwiches were cut just so and there were fancy desserts.  And at the end of it all, there was coffee and tea, served in these dainty little cups and saucers way too big for my big glaumy, clumsy hands! (It’s not what you think happened!)

But I managed somehow, and reached over for the little pitcher to pour out some cream my coffee… and what came out… were chunks… chunks of spoiled, curdled cream, just plopping into the teacup.  And the thing was, nobody noticed; or at least, if they noticed, nobody said anything about it.  And as much as I’m not liking the curdled cream, I’m also very sensitive to the fact that our hostess is smiling so broadly and who has done everything she possibly can to make this as special and as perfect a luncheon as she can for us all; I mean, she’d been planning this event for weeks, all because she wanted to do something so nice to honor us. So… long story short… I just quietly stirred it a little bit and drank the coffee… a very little bit at a time.!

It wasn’t until a couple of days later that our hostess came over to the church office to ask me in no uncertain terms what in the world was the matter with me; how I could ever drink coffee with spoiled cream in it, and why in heaven’s name did I not tell her about it at the time?  She was actually a bit angry with me!  “Is that what you people do in Maine,” I remember her asking, “drink sour milk all the time?”

All good questions, I’ll admit; and I also have to confess that I didn’t have much of an answer for her… just that I didn’t want to embarrass this lovely woman when she’d gone to so much trouble, or hurt her feelings in any way or form by making a deal out of this spoiled cream incident.  Looking back on it now I probably should have – gently and lovingly – pointed out the error and honor her effort in the process; in the end, we probably all would have had a good laugh and I’d have gotten better coffee!  But at the time, I felt on the horns of a dilemma and all I could think about was how correcting this woman in front of all these people could have ruined everything about this beautiful luncheon that she’d prepared; so instead I just opted to drink that awful tasting coffee instead!

A small faux-pas, to be sure, albeit one the rest of the folks on the staff never let me forget!  But it did get me to thinking a bit about the mind of God.  Max Lucado, in his book He Chose the Nails, writes that on an infinitely greater scale God faces with humankind much the same kind of challenge.  “How can [God] be both just and kind?  How can [God] dispense truth and mercy?  How can he redeem the sinner without endorsing the sinner?  Can a holy God overlook our mistakes?  Can a kind God punish our mistakes?”  Two equally unappealing solutions, writes Lucado.  But from God’s perspective, there is a third solution; and it’s the cross.

It was for Jesus – son of God, son of humanity – to take the mistake, the sin, the brokenness of our very lives as his very own, and to himself pay the price for that sinfulness so that we don’t have to suffer for it ourselves.  In Jesus, God was willing to hurt because we hurt and needed healing; In Jesus, God was willing to suffer because the idea of our suffering was unacceptable to him; in Jesus, for the sake of our sin God was willing to face the judgement of death – even death on a cross – because the thought of our being apart from him now or ever was and is unbearable.  And so, beloved in cross of Jesus Christ, God emptied himself so that we could be close to him today, tomorrow and forever.

That’s why the cross… and it is, as the song we’re about to sing proclaims, a wondrous cross.

Beloved, next Sunday we will come together at the empty tomb to shout our hallelujahs.  But first, let us be sure to pause at the foot of the cross; to ponder this divine sacrifice and the wonders of redeeming love; and most especially, to remember that which we’ll be singing together in a moment, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

May this be true for us on this Holy Week and always.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on March 25, 2018 in Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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FAQ’s of Faith: What Is Grace?

(a sermon for March 18, 2018, the Fifth Sunday in Lent; fifth in a series, based on Luke 15:11-32 and Ephesians 2:1-10)

So… GRACE.  What is it, and what does it really have to do with faith?

Not only a “frequently asked question” as regards faith, it’s a pretty good one as well; after all, so often when we use that word “grace,” we’re speaking apart from any kind of biblical or religious context. Outside of these church doors, for instance, grace becomes a way of describing the dancer’s leap or the poet’s word; it’s the manner by which we communicate our awe and admiration for those with the strength and ability to do something amazing or wonderful.  To be “grace-full” suggests someone with the skill to do what they do beautifully, smoothly and without wasted motion; it’s that intangible something that just seems to fill a particular moment, whatever it is, with perfection.

We also tend, do we not, to equate “grace” with something really good that happens to us; or perhaps more to the point, with something really bad not happening to us!  “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  Now there’s a quote that dates back as far as the 16th century (attributed to the English Protestant Reformer and Martyr John Bradford), but how often have we uttered pretty much the same sentiment; usually referring to one specific situation or moment in time when we chose to take one road in life rather than the other, a choice which made all the difference between our success or failure, wealth or poverty, righteousness or sin, and yes, even life or death!

Now admittedly, this does bring us a little bit closer to our biblical understanding of grace; by speaking of what happens to us as being “by the grace of God,” we’re talking about a God who shows forth favor – often unmerited favor – toward those whom he loves.  In fact, two words in ancient Hebrew that can be roughly translated as “grace” are, first, hen, which describes the compassionate response of a superior to an inferior, especially when that kindness is undeserved; and second, hesed, which is the word in scripture used to describe God’s loving-kindness and loyalty toward Israel, even when Israel turned away from God!  So then, “by the grace of God” ends up meaning that you may well not deserve it and probably don’t, but nonetheless the divine and almighty God – the very Creator of heaven and earth – this God loves you, and so here it is.  It’s yours, by GRACE.

I say all this as a way of preparing us for the hard truth of our Epistle reading this morning, in which Paul gets to the nitty-gritty of the matter of grace by letting the Ephesians and us know in no uncertain terms, “You were dead.”

That’s right… dead.  Dead and gone: as in the words of Dickens, “dead as a doornail.”  Dead “through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived;” dead in “following the course of this world;” dead from “following the desires of flesh and senses;” dead “by our nature [as] children of wrath, like everyone else.”  Friends, I would submit to you that this is not the kind of obituary any one of us would want for ourselves!  I’m reminded here of an obituary that ran in a Los Angeles newspaper a few years ago: it actually said that the deceased “had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. Her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing.”

Can you imagine (!); now there’s an argument for writing your own obituary ahead of time!  Here was a final testament of life that included no highlights of this person’s existence, just the low lights; it was the record of a life with no redeeming qualities whatsoever!  And that seems to be exactly where Paul is headed as he writes to these early Christians in the city of Ephesus (as The Message translates this, “You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience!”) and such judgment would seem to preclude any hope of their redemption or salvation at all!  All you were, and all you could ever hope to be was… dead!

But… you’ll notice that Paul is very clear about using the past tense in that judgment; as in, “you were dead.”  Because in fact there’s very good news to share here:  “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”  “He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ…” (The Message again) and here’s the thing that is so amazing about it: “He did all this on his own, with no help from us!”  It is “by grace [that] you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God.”  If I might borrow a great line from the Rev. Donovan Drake, a Presbyterian pastor out of Tennessee, just when we figure that all is lost for us, here Paul “pulls away from the grave news and towards the great news:” that we are made alive in Jesus Christ so that we might join him in the work that he is doing and dwell with him in the highest heaven… even when we don’t deserve it!

I love what Drake goes on to say about this: “God has set forth a bail-out package of enormous proportions! The amazing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is gathering up our sins, our failures, our pains, our brokenness, our pasts, our presents, and our great illusions of foresight into the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection,” and we are saved.  “This is huge,” concludes Drake, “so huge that many cannot seem to fathom its size and scope.”  You and I, are all-too-human tendency is to decide that we somehow have to earn our way into the good “graces” of God (there’s another way we use that word!); that is, if we only act better, do better, be better than maybe – just maybe – we might squeak by with just a modicum of divine approval now and eternally.  But that’s not grace: grace is the assertion that “while we still were sinners Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8) and rather than being dead, we are indeed made alive together through Jesus Christ.  And ultimately, that this happens has nothing to do with us at all, but everything to do with the infinitely graceful gift of God unto those whom he loves; all we need do is accept the gift.

Like most of you, I suppose, I’ve always been very fond of our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son; although I must confess to you that every time I return to this parable of Jesus, the more convinced I am that history and tradition has misnamed it.  Now granted, Jesus intended the story to illustrate the “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” (Luke 15:7) so the story of the sinful younger son who “comes to himself” and decides to return home to his father and face the music does ring true.  But more and more it seems to me the real truth of this parable is in what happens next; and what happens next is… God!   In the story, of course, it’s the father who saw his son “while he was still far off” in the field and goes running after him, but in truth, it’s God!

Did you notice in this story that the father never actually says anything to his son?  That there’s no effort to extract a confession from him, no “what have you got to say for yourself, young man?”  And that there’s just this loving embrace and the kiss, this incredibly emotional welcome home; and that it’s only after all this that the son can manage to get his confession out of his mouth; and that even while that’s happening the father’s busy calling the household staff to get the party started!

And that’s why I really do believe this ought to be called the “Parable of the Forgiving Father!” Because such forgiveness is utterly amazing, isn’t it?  The scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ time would have insisted (and quite honestly, so many of us even today would have to agree) that for such forgiveness to have taken place all laws and statutes would have to be followed to the letter, with everything from that moment on done properly and in good order; in other words, repentance followed by good (no, make that perfect) works being the only justification for any kind of forgiveness.  But now here’s Jesus, saying with all boldness that ours is the God who just up and forgives the transgressions of this so-called “prodigal,” not because all the dots have been connected, but just out of love (!); all because of that relentless desire of God has that every one of his children should be welcomed home, and that there should be this unending joy “in the presence of angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

That’s what grace is, you see… because ultimately, in the same way the younger son couldn’t change the hopelessness of his own sinful situation, there’s nothing you or I can do about ours: you can’t change what’s been done in your life; you can’t fix what is broken between yourself and God; and you can’t raise the dead… only God can do that.  But the good news, now and always, is that by grace, God does do that, and he does it for you and me by the redeeming power at work in Jesus Christ.

The story goes that during a British conference on comparative religion some years ago, the renowned theologian and author C.S. Lewis was asked in the middle of a very intense discussion what he considered to be Christianity’s unique contribution among the world’s religions.  Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy… it’s grace.”  And despite the brevity and simplicity of his answer, not to mention all the other sharp divisions that people of different faiths will sometimes espouse, on that one point, at least, everyone had to agree.  I love what Philip Yancey says about this; he writes, “The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity.  The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law – each offers a way to earn approval.  Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.”

Turns out that our the glory of our Christian faith is ultimately is found not in our doing, but in our receiving; and so in that regard, I suppose that it’s not wholly unconditional, for it does require each of us to take hold of what we’ve been given.  But when we do, we become the recipients of “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”  We are made part of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (1:9) And we are given life heretofore unimagined; full and abundant and eternal; all because of this incredible, unmerited amazing grace that’s borne of divine love.

In the end, you see, grace is all about love.  As Frederick Buechner says so very well, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

Dear friends, the good news of this and every day is that we are loved beyond measure and by grace we are saved; and in a sacrificial act that will change the world forever, God’s own son is about to show us just how true of a thing that is.  So let us watch and wait, even unto the cross, for this gift of grace to unfold very soon now; so that we might embrace it as our very own.  So that there, for the grace of God, will go you and I.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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FAQ’s of Faith: What’s Most Important?

(a sermon for March 11, 2018, the Fourth Sunday in Lent; fourth in a series, based on Mark 12:28-34)

I have to say that for me one of the great parts of the study of scripture is that no matter how many times and how many ways I return to a particular passage, there’s always something there that manages to surprise me!

Well, such is the case with our text for this morning; for in coming back this week to Mark’s account of how “one of the scribes” came to Jesus asking about which of the commandments is first and greatest of all, I was very surprised to discover that this actually is one of the rare instances in the gospels where Jesus and one of the religious leaders of his time actually… agree on something!

I mean, think about this with me for a moment:  here is Jesus, who long before this had established his overall opposition and basic animus for the practices of the religious establishment of his day; and then there’s this scribe, who’s not only a learned member of that religious establishment, but also part of the group who were intimately involved in the conspiracy to kill Jesus!  Add that to the fact that as we pick up the reading this morning, there had already been some rather intense words exchanged between Jesus and a series of representatives from the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees having to do with things like religious authority, the belief in resurrection and the legality of paying taxes unto Caesar; understanding, of course, that these “questions” had very little to do with theological discussion or debate and everything to do with at the very least undermining Jesus’ popularity amongst the people, or perhaps even trapping Jesus into saying something that could be branded as heresy, which would be most certainly be a punishable offense!  So it’s incredibly surprising that when this one, individual scribe – already, it should be pointed out here, impressed at how Jesus had answered those who had come before – asks this particular “frequently asked question” about the greatest commandment Jesus gives an answer on which they can both agree: simply put, it’s first to love God with your whole heart; and secondly, but just about as importantly, it’s to love your neighbor as yourself.

And that’s it; two simple commandments, dating back to the days of Moses, that would seem to encapsulate all the teachings of faith itself!  One could argue that there was a whole lot more that perhaps could have been said here; or that maybe Jesus should have seized the moment for a teaching about love leading to acts of righteousness or justice, or better yet, about the reality of hypocrisy regarding such matters!  But no, this time it’s just a simple response on Jesus’ part; and moreover, there’s nothing all that radical about what Jesus says here, nothing that any serious student of the Torah wouldn’t have already understood on some level!  But yet, it’s this very basic response that immediately leads to the scribe gushing about the correctness of Jesus’ answer, and it’s why Jesus could look to this scribe – the scribe, of all people (!) – and not only see that “he answered wisely,” but also be able say to this man who represented everything that was wrong with the practice of religion, “’You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”  For you see, whatever else divided them at that moment, where true faith was concerned they could agree on that which was the most important: to love God and to love others.

I must confess that even in my particular line of work, I don’t often get asked pointed questions about which of the commandments I feel to be the greatest.  I do, however, quite “frequently” get asked questions regarding what I think to be most important about faith, particularly among those who have been away from the church for a while, or who maybe are making their very steps toward faith.  Some want to know, for instance, how literally I take the Bible; or how, considering the world as it really is, how “optional” I would consider a few of the ten commandments to be (my answer to that has sometimes been to half-jokingly suggest that there’s a reason they’re not called “the ten suggestions,” but I’m not always sure that message is wholly understood!).

Some people will ask if I believe there’s a heaven and a hell; and more to the point, they want to know if everything they’ve done in the past could ever possibly qualify them for going to heaven when they die. They’re curious about this man Jesus, and they want to find out if he really is everything we Christians always say that he is; and though it’s not usually said in so many words, they truly want to know about salvation and redemption, and about things like confession and repentance; about love and grace (that’s next Sunday, by the way!); and what it means to be forgiven as well as to forgive.  Mostly, though, I have to say that in one way or the other the common thread running through all those questions is of what ends up being the most important facet of living a faithful life: of what it is we can and should do to best honor God; to obey Christ’s teaching in a way that pleases God and serves God by creating an atmosphere of justice, freedom and peace for all; and, ultimately, for each of us to be in this life the persons and the kind of people who we have been created to be from the beginning of our creation!

And I have to tell you – as a pastor, yes, but most especially as a person of faith – isn’t it interesting that the answer to this question of what’s most important turns out to be as simple – and as complicated (!) – as Jesus’ answer to that inquisitive scribe: first, to love God with our whole hearts, and second, to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This is, as the scribe noted, “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” to say nothing of all the countless little rules and regulations, precepts and traditions, limits and boundaries we create for ourselves all for the sake of at least trying to get everything right where faith is concerned!  And I say “trying,” because inevitably such attempts, however well-intentioned, end up falling short of the mark.  To love God, and to love others… that’s what Jesus says, and that’s the most important thing.

Don’t, however, get the idea that this altogether simplifies things where faith is concerned! I love what the Rev. David F. Sellery, pastor and writer from Connecticut, says about this:  “Sure we’ve heard the words over and over,” he writes. “But do we live them over and over?  Is the message fresh and alive in us… shaping our thoughts and actions today… or has familiarity bred neglect… leaving love of God and neighbor as sweet sentiments reserved for Sunday mornings.”

“Love is the total reason for our being,” Sellery goes on to say, “the sole purpose for our Creation and our unique place in it.  Love defines us.  It must be who we are and what we do. If not, we’re just taking up space and wasting time.”

Love God… with heart and soul and mind and strength… and love others… with the same intensity and depth by which God loves us, and after the same manner that we are meant to love ourselves.  As people of faith, it is both our mission in this generation and, might I add, the legacy that we leave for the next.  I’m actually reminded here of something that John Westerhoff wrote about our shared task of Bringing Up Children in the Christian Faith (his book of the same title).  He correctly asserts that we cannot rely on the culture in which we live to impart faith to our children; this, in fact, is a task that belongs to each of us as Christians, and all of us as the church.  Not that we can “give” them faith, per se; faith, writes Westerhoff, “is a gift from God given to both us and our children.  [But,] we are called to live faithfully in childlike ways with our children so that we both might know the gift of faith and live in its grace.”

So it is with the all-important commandments to love God and to love others.  Granted, our love, whatever its shape or form, can only be but a pale reflection of God’s love that, in Christ, “surpasses all knowledge” and understanding (Ephesians 3:19); nonetheless the kind of divine love that’s reflected in us serves as a palpable and lasting way that we give form, substance and meaning to every one of the joys and challenges, the laughter and sorrow, the excitement, the boredom and the utter routine of our daily lives.  Moreover, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, love isn’t always about our being nice!  Quite frankly, some of the worst affronts to love and justice and true “Christian” morality has come about because of a refusal to be anything less than “nice” about the evils around us that we ought to deplore.  Love, as God gives it, intends it and yes, commands it means that we are both accountable for our own behavior and responsible for nurturing one another and our world in ways that are moral, ethical and in keeping with the all-inclusive love of Jesus Christ.

At the end of the day, and at the beginning of each new day, it’s important… most important (!) in everything we do that we love God and love our neighbor. If I might throw in just one more quote, this time from Mother Teresa, “It is not how much we do that is pleasing to God, but how much love we put into the doing.”

That is what’s most important.

Did you hear the story about the wife who wrote a letter to her husband who was in prison for armed robbery?  It was coming on to this time of year, close to springtime, and so in the letter she asked her husband, “I’ve been wondering; what’s the best time to plant potatoes in our garden?”  And the husband immediately wrote back, “Whatever you do, don’t dig in the garden, because that’s where I’ve hidden all of my guns!”  Well, as you might imagine, the mail going in and out of prison was intercepted, and soon as the guards read that particular sentence several men were dispatched to go to the woman’s home and dig up every square foot of her garden plot from one end to the other; but even after all that, they didn’t find a single gun!  When the wife reported this in a letter back to her husband, the husband again quickly wrote back to say, “Alright, then; the garden is now ready for you to go ahead and plant the potatoes!”

Well, it strikes me that just as you can’t throw seeds on hardened ground but rather have to plant them in soil that’s been first tilled and nurtured, it’s also true that for God’s purposes to be fulfilled, our hearts and lives need to be opened up and carefully tended so that real love, divine love transformed into human love can take root there.

The thing is that most of us, I believe, have come here today wanting to be, trying to be and are committed to being faithful by way of loving God and loving others in and through our very lives.  And yes, I’ll admit that these are times when given the world around us and the forces that tempt us to other sorts of responses that commitment to love often becomes difficult and confusing.  But we know what’s important where faith is concerned; we want to do what’s right, we want to live as we ought, and at heart, I believe that each and all of us wants to be the best we can be before God; and what the Gospel tells us this morning is that, as the song goes, “all you need is love.”

But remember, friends,  what makes the difference is love that has source in the one who first loved us, who lived and died for us in the person of Jesus Christ, and who continues even now to bring us closer to him by his Holy Spirit.  This is love made real in his presence and his power; and it’s love that can and will transform us into something brand new; that we might truly love as we have been loved… today, tomorrow and in every day that comes.

Thanks be to God for that love we are given, and that we are challenged to share.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2018 in Faith, Jesus, Lent, Love, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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