Sunday, July 5, 2009

Purpose - John 15:9-17

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Back in elementary school, I remember participating in an odd sociological study. The study was conducted once a week in our physical education class, and it went by the name, “choosing teams.” The gym teacher would select two of the natural athletes in the class to be the captains of two teams – one of whom would wear red mesh jerseys over their normal gym clothes. Whether it was soccer, volleyball, dodgeball, floor hockey, or kickball, the study was always conducted the same way. The entire class would line up along the baseline, and one by one, my classmates were chosen as members of team A and team B. I was always somewhere in the respectable middle of the pack – the serious athletes and competitors going ahead of me, and the asthmatics and pocket protectors being left to last. I’m sure it did wonders for those kids’ self-esteem. However, there was no sense complaining about it. Both captains chose the teams that they believed would best enable them to win.

If Jesus was choosing his team to win, he chose poorly. If he was trying to win the religious game, he should have chosen the Pharisees. They were the religious experts, the ones who were just a little bit holier than everyone else. They always brought their Bibles to worship. They fasted. They prayed at least three times a day. They tithed. They followed all the rules, even the ones that contradicted the other ones.

But they’re not who Jesus chose. Jesus chose fishermen – known to be foul-mouthed and crude, impatient and hot-headed. He chose a tax collector – about the most corrupt and morally unscrupulous person around. He chose a zealot – a radical, fanatical revolutionary. Jesus chose sinners – known sinners – known to be somewhat less than perfect, known to have all kinds of problems in their lives. In short, Jesus chose people very much like us. May we pray.

The church is the physical presence of Jesus in the world. Nothing all that radical or earth-shattering, I would guess. In our text this morning, Jesus outlines his idea of how the church will be his presence in the world. It’s really a simple formula. I hear an awful lot of people who are worried about their purpose in life, and I hear an awful lot of congregations who are trying to figure out their purpose. But really, Jesus makes it pretty simple here. He commands the disciples to be a community of love and to bear fruit. Easier said than done.

No doubt, many of you have seen the advertisements run by the United Methodist Church as part of the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” campaign. It’s an attempt to reach out to people who are not currently part of our church and invite them in. The ads welcome unchurched people to come worship with us, and promises them an experience of hospitality, non-judgmentalism, and welcome. This week, I was looking at some research as a follow-up to the campaign. About 3% of respondents said that they visited a United Methodist Church as a result of the campaign and made a positive connection with the congregation. However, about 18% said they had visited a United Methodist Church as a result of the campaign and their experience had been negative. Nevermind that 79% of the respondents did nothing in response to the ads, but for every person who had a positive experience in the United Methodist Church, 6 had a negative one! In short, the ads promised one thing, but when people visited a local church, their experience failed to measure up to what was promised.

Said one woman, a 20-something Cuban American: “I needed to clean up my life. I took my kids to the church with the banner. It was clear that nobody wanted us there. My kids are a little loud. People couldn’t wait for us to leave, that’s how ‘open’ they were.”

Or, from a homeless man in Tennessee: “All I wanted was a place to go, you know? All I wanted was a place to be accepted. There’s a church in town that put a sign out –‘open hearts and doors’ so I went in. People wouldn’t talk to me, except a man who said I shouldn’t hang out in the church because I was making people uncomfortable.”

The church is supposed to be the physical presence of Jesus in the world, and we all know that. Jesus commanded us to love, and we know we’re supposed to do that. We’ve put it on our websites, in our newsletters, and have even run television spots promising the world that we are a community of love. Jesus commanded us to love one another and to be known by the fruit we produce. More often than not, when the world has come in and tasted our fruit, it leaves a bitter taste in their mouth. But it doesn’t have to be so.

Mike Yaconelli tells the story of a lay leader in his church who didn’t lead. You know, who didn’t live up to his responsibilities. There was a group of young people who conducted a monthly worship service at a local old folks’ home, and Mike finally convinced that lay leader to at least drive them every month.

He was there at the home, standing in the back with his arms crossed as the kids set up. Suddenly, there was a tug on his sleeve. He looked down at an old man in a wheelchair. He took hold of the old man’s hand, and the old man didn’t let go all through the service. This was repeated the next month, and the next month, and the next month. Then one month, the old man wasn’t there. The lay leader asked about him and was told he could find him down the hall, third door on the right. “He’s dying. He’s unconscious, but if you want to go pray over his body, that would be all right.”

The lay leader went and there were tubes and wires all over the place. He took the man’s hand, and prayed that God would receive him graciously from this life into the next. When he finished, the man squeezed his hand, and he knew his prayer had been heard. He was so moved that tears began to roll down his cheeks. He stumbled out of the room and ran into a woman. She said, “He’s been waiting for you. He said that he didn’t want to die until he had the chance to hold the hand of Jesus just one more time.”

The lay leader was amazed at this. “What do you mean?”

She said, “My father would say that once a month Jesus came to this place. ‘He would take my hand and he would hold my hand for a whole hour, and it was wonderful. I don’t want to die until I have the chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time.’”

Friends, I don’t know what you think God’s purpose for your life is, but I’ll tell you it is this: God’s purpose for your life is to be Jesus for people. It’s to be Jesus for people who are in need. It’s to be Jesus for people who are hurt. It’s to be Jesus for people who are lonely. And if you’re going to be Jesus to people, you have to treat them like Jesus would have treated them.

First, you have to believe in people. Jesus seemed to be drawn to people the world had given up on. Many of them had long given up on God! It had been years since they believed in God. But yet, as Jesus shows us, God never stopped believing in them. While the world believes in a God who helps those who help themselves, Jesus reveals a God who helps those who cannot help themselves.

In spite of our imperfections and our shortcomings and our flaws, Jesus chooses us. In spite of our inability to keep our promises, Jesus chooses us. In spite of our brokenness and our deep hurts, Jesus chooses us.

When Jesus met a tax collector, or a prostitute, or a paralytic, or someone demon-possessed, he didn’t see a tax collector, or a prostitute, or a paralytic, or someone demon-possessed. No, Jesus saw someone created in the image of God, one of God’s precious children, a person of inestimable and sacred worth.

When we meet the modern-day equivalents of these people, we are called to believe in them just as Jesus would. We are called to believe that God is not finished with them, that no life of God’s creating is beyond God’s redeeming, and that every life is an arena for the glory of God to be revealed. If you’re going to be Jesus for people, you’ve got to believe in them.

Second, you have to forgive people. A few years ago, while I was still in seminary, I was driving back to Durham from New York late on a Sunday night. OK, it was a little after midnight, so it was technically Monday morning. I was eager to get home, and as I passed a Maryland state trooper on Highway 301, he signaled to let me know that he noticed and appreciated the apparent urgency of my trip.

The Rev. John Owen, a good friend of our family, was working with the DC metro police department as a crisis chaplain at the time, and when I went to appear in traffic court, he agreed to come with me for moral support. John stands about 6’5” and weighs over 300 pounds and has the physical build of a refrigerator. He always wears a clerical collar in public. The judge was moving through the docket, and eventually called my name. As I went to stand in front of him, the Rev. John Owen came to stand with me. The judge looked down over his glasses and said, “Young man, is this your counsel?” Before I could answer, the Rev. John Owen, in his most booming preacher voice, said, “Your honor, I am here to provide spiritual support and guidance to this young man at this time. But I also remind the court that one day, we will all stand before the righteous judgment of God, and beg that in his infinite mercy, he will not hold us accountable for all our grievous transgressions against him.” The judge simply said, “Thank you, Father. I try to remember that on a daily basis.” Fortunately for me, the judge was interested in practicing forgiveness that day.

Who in our lives stands in need of forgiveness? We are called to forgive them, just as Christ has forgiven us. We are called to offer the hope of new beginnings to anyone and everyone, regardless of what they may have done. If you’re going to be Jesus for people, you’ve got to forgive them.

The last thing I hold before you is this: you have to love people unconditionally. Jesus calls us to exercise unrestrained love. It is easy for us to love that which is lovely, or desirable, or pleasing to our own sensibilities. It is much more difficult to love that which, from our perspective, is ugly, or undesirable, or disturbing to our own sensibilities.

It’s interesting that so many of us have such strong opinions on the type of person that God can and cannot use. Quite frankly, I think it’s because our society is insecure with God’s love. Some people are insecure in the knowledge that God loves them, and others are insecure in the knowledge that God loves people other than them. Let me explain. There seems to have been a lot of teaching that God is an angry, vengeful, wrathful God. People are so scared of incurring God’s wrath that they find it difficult to trust God’s love. But our relationship with God is so often likened to that of a parent and child. Loving parents love their children no matter what. They are grieved by things we do, but they still love us just the same. The love of a parent is not contingent upon a certain set of behaviors from their children. And the love of God is not contingent upon certain behaviors that are pleasing to God. Good parents love their children no matter what.

I also know that God is good. And because God is good, God loves each of us no matter what. God loves me. God loves you. God loves the people I find most difficult to love. God loves the people you find difficult to love. I happen to think this world would be a much better place if every person knew that God loved them. God cares what happens to us. God cares about every one of God’s creatures. God didn’t make any of us and then turn to an angel and say, “Whoops, I made a mistake.” No, what God said when he made you was, “It is good! It is very good!” Even when God made the humans who would betray him. Even when God made the humans whom the other humans seemed to hate, God still said, “It is good.” Even when God made those of us who have faults and failures and brokenness and hard hearts, God said, “It is good.”

How often, when something appears outside of our own self-determined realm of acceptability, do we ignore or reject it? How often, when someone appears outside of our own self-determined realm of acceptability, do we reject them? Mother Teresa said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

It is not our job to determine who gets into God’s kingdom. It is not our job to determine who is and who is not the worthy recipient of God’s love. We are not the judge, the jury, nor the executioner. We are called to be witnesses of God’s great love in Jesus Christ. If you’re going to be Jesus for people, you’ve got to love them unconditionally.

We are called to show people a God who loves them unconditionally, who forgives them, who believes in them. We are called to be Jesus to the world, but the world begins right here.

As Church, we are called to be the body of Christ here on earth. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a world in need of God’s love. Jesus gave us a command to love one another, just as he has loved us. We are not here to promote judgmentalism, or hate speech, or legalism, or pride, or colonialism. We are not here to pick and choose among all those who are dying to be invited into the loving presence of God. We don’t have the freedom or the right to decide who gets to be loved and accepted and called by God.

Brothers and sisters, the time for picking and choosing is over. Now is the time for inviting everyone we find – the good and the bad, those who smell good and those who smell bad, rich & poor, those whom we like and those whom we don’t, Republicans and Democrats and Independents, liberals and conservatives, Carolina fans and Duke fans and Wake Forest fans and State fans and even Florida and Boston College fans, those who are popular and those who are unloved, the educated and the simple, the cultured and the unrefined, people of all colors and backgrounds and lifestyles —everyone—we are called to invite everyone into God’s presence and love them with the same love with which God loves us – that is our calling. That is what it means to be the presence of Jesus in the world.

Let me share some things with you about the future to which God is calling this church. I firmly believe that God has called us to be Jesus to the people right around us. Within a mile and a half of this building, there are currently 23,000 people. You’re going to hear those numbers a lot from me in the months and years ahead. God has called us to be the presence of Jesus to those people. If you’re looking for a purpose by which this church ought to be driven, it is nothing more and nothing less than to do everything in our power to bring the love of Jesus to our part of the world. Every decision we make as a church should be driven by this one singular purpose of being the hands and feet of Jesus to the people right around us – the people who live nearby, as well as your friends, families, and neighbors. What would it mean for every decision about the building, about our programming, about the budget, about worship, about mission, about staff, about outreach, about fellowship – what would it mean for every decision to be evaluated solely on the basis of whether this supports our aim to be the hands and feet of Jesus to people who don’t know him yet?

A church can believe its best days are behind it, or a church can believe its best days are ahead of it; in either case, it will be right. If we will operate out of Jesus’ command for us, to love one another as he has loved us, then I am convinced our best days are still ahead of us. If we will operate with this one aim in mind, there is no limit to what God will do among God’s people in this place.

My prayer for St. Paul is that we will operate with one aim in mind: to be a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply committed followers of Jesus Christ.

Friends, that may mean we need to change a bit. To become something we have not been before. We cannot preserve the old institution and dress it up in trendier clothes and pass it off as something different and innovative. If we have forgotten our calling to be the presence of Jesus in the world, then we need to challenge the status quo and tackle the hard questions. My hope is that we will be open to the love of God working in and among us, and that the love of God will transform our hearts and lead us to transform this heartless world.

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