Sunday, February 27, 2011

Done Worrying? (Matthew 6:24-34)

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And who do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For is it the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble in enough for today.

Today’s text is yet another snippet from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus is addressing worry. We all know what it’s like to be worried. Worry seems to be a national pastime! I was really tempted to entitle today’s sermon “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” in honor of Bobby McFerrin’s hit song. You all know that song – sing it with me: “Here’s a little song I wrote - you might want to sing it note for note – don’t worry – be happy.” It’s a happy little song with a simple, counter-cultural message – the kind of song that makes you want to kick off your shoes, lie out in the sun, and have a cold drink, which would probably be good for many of us to slow down and take the time to do!

What sort of things do you all worry about? What sort of things are you worried about right now? To all those things you’re worried about, I’m tempted to simply say, “Don’t worry, be happy,” because if we could honestly do that, we’d all be a lot further ahead than where we are right now. The problem with dismissing worry so glibly is that most of us, on our own, don’t have the power to simply turn off our worries. It’s something that we need God’s help with, and that’s what we’re going to spend a little time talking about this morning. May we pray.

One of the formative movies of my generation was Office Space. When I was in college, when I wasn’t busy playing ping-pong in our dining room, Super Smash Brothers on our Nintendo-64, off doing something that the senior class president has to do, or . . . what else was it I was supposed to be doing? Oh yeah, studying! When I wasn’t doing any of those things, you could probably find me and my housemates watching this movie.

Office Space is, among other things, brilliant commentary on the dysfunction often found in today’s corporate culture. It is full of all the clichés of working in an office full of cubicles, bringing in outside consultants, and an executive structure that seems to reward mediocrity and promote into management those who don’t seem to have a clue what’s really happening. Does that sound like any of the places you work?

In one scene, the main character, Peter Gibbons, is meeting with two “efficiency experts” the company has brought in to eliminate redundancy – that’s business speak for figuring out who to fire. As Peter begins to open up about the difficult and idiotic working conditions, he says, “I have eight bosses. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That's my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

Can you imagine what it’s like trying to please eight different bosses? It ain’t gonna happen, for the simple reason that those bosses have different goals, different perspectives, and different expectations about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. You’re never going to please everybody.

Jesus opens today’s text by saying, “No one can serve two masters . . . You cannot serve God and wealth” (6:24). It doesn’t work to have more than one boss. You can’t follow them both.

The word that our English texts have translated as “wealth” comes from the word “mamona,” or “mammon.” Most literally, it means “that which is trusted in.” The term became equated with “worldly treasure” or “wealth.” So, the desire to accumulate “stuff,” to have big bank accounts, lots of land, and the race to be the one to die with the most toys and thus be declared the winner is an old race, indeed.

Earlier in this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be” (6:21). So, if you trust in money, then your heart – the center of your desires and affections – will also focus around money. But, if you trust in God, then your heart will also focus around God.

You can’t serve both God and money. Jesus says we’ll end up loving one and hating the other. If blind accumulation of wealth is your goal, you won’t like what God asks you to do with your resources – to share with those in need, to be generous toward others as God has been generous toward you, to give of your time and talent and treasure to further God’s purposes in the world. You’ll despise God, who already owns everything, by the way, for asking you to share part of the resources God has given you in the first place.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t say money is inherently bad or evil, just that it makes a poor master. Money is a bad boss. The word in Greek is kurios, which is translated “lord.” The lord is the one who demands and deserves your loyalty, allegiance, and worship. This, by the way, is what made the earliest Christian confession such a dangerous thing – in a world in which everyone was expected to swear their allegiance to Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord,” can you hear the defiance from the earliest Christians who began to confess, “Jesus is Lord”?

Jesus says giving our allegiance to money falls prey to the larger worldview that crowns money lord in the first place – the myth of scarcity. Scarcity teaches us there is only so much to go around, and if we trust in money, that’s true. Again, the issue isn’t money per se; the problem comes when we make money our god and trust it for every good. Once we believe that money can solve all our problems and satisfy our deepest needs, we will discover that we never have enough. After all, money is finite, there is only so much of it to go around, and we are trapped immediately into a world of counting, tracking, and stock piling.

If you were to take a poll and ask people, “How much money is enough?” you would get a very similar response across all income levels. For most people, it’s just a little bit more than what we have. We think we’ll stop worrying about money if we just have a little bit more than what we have now.

And so, if money or wealth or worldly possessions are the thing in which we have placed our trust, then there’s never going to be enough, and we will chase something that always eludes us. And so, we’re going to worry. Jesus makes the connection here – freeing ourselves from trusting in and serving wealth also frees us from worry, because as long as we trust in money, which can run out, we have reason to worry.

For our own good, Jesus calls us to seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice, and the rest will follow. Jesus isn’t naïve here – he knows that we have basic needs for food and clothing and shelter. But, he tells us not to chase after all these things. “More than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33, Contemporary English Version).

Jesus challenges us to behaviors consistent with the kingdom of God – creating a more compassionate, equitable, and peaceful world. Remember the Beatitudes in Matthew 5? Jesus lists a whole group of people who are blessed in the eyes of God – the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Those qualities may not be rewarded in our competitive, fearful, scarcity-driven world, but in the kingdom of God, those are the minimum qualifications for even being considered employee of the month. Jesus keeps calling us to something different – a little salt in the world to change its whole flavor, just a little light to pierce through the darkness, overcoming anger with good, publicly exposing unjust authority, loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.

Friends, that is the way of wholeness and completeness and living in the kingdom of God. If we desire to live a whole life, a free life, an unconcerned life, then we must seek the generosity of God’s kingdom, a kingdom whose heart is turned outward on the needs of those around it, rather than inward on its own needs and desires. We need to embrace each other and take responsibility for caring for one another. We need to nurture and protect our connections and celebrate our interdependence.

The great Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, defined anxiety as “the next day.” We don’t know what will happen “the next day,” which creates anxiety today. When I was a child if one of my siblings and I were acting up on a car ride, and my dad turned around and said, “All right, I’ve had it – just wait until we get home” – do you know how excruciating the rest of the ride became? Often times, that anxiety, that in-between of what I had done and waiting for whatever punishment was to come was worse than the actual punishment itself.

All the things that cause us anxiety – a big test, a court appearance, a visit to the dentist, an interview, an inspection, an audit, a difficult conversation, waiting for medical test results, anticipating a confrontation – is it just me, or is the anxiety of waiting for these things usually worse than the actual thing itself?

Our security is not in things, not in hedging against any calamity that may come, not in buying insurance and securities to protect ourselves, not in stockpiling, bankrolling, and accumulating against whatever is out there that may threaten us. Our security and identity isn’t in money and wealth and possessions and appearances. We don’t need to be worried about how big our bank account is, how much our investment portfolio is worth, how impressive our house is, or what our stuck-up neighbors think about the car we drive or how our landscaping looks. If that’s where we have placed all our trust, our lives are shallow and worrisome, indeed.

When we trust in our treasure, we can never have enough and so we invariably begin to give less and share less and connect less. How many people who have won the lottery refuse to tell their friends and family for fear that they will be expected to share? Hoarding and stock piling is not the behavior of those living in the kingdom of God. Problems of poverty in our world today stem not from the lack of wealth, food, or resources; poverty is perpetuated by lack of sharing and equitable distribution that would ensure that all people have enough. To experience the fullness of God’s kingdom takes a shift in our loyalties – from ourselves, our resources, our accumulated treasure, to God, God’s resources and God’s interconnected community.

Jesus proposes an alternative, a relationship with God – serving God, pledging our allegiance to God, making God our master and Lord. Jesus invites us into a relationship not with money, but with God – God who is infinite and whose love for us and all creation is infinite as well. You see, love is the primary commodity of the kingdom of God, not money. Money is scarce, it’s only available in limited quantities, but love is infinite.

Think of it this way. You grow up in a family, and you have love for your parents. You have love for your siblings. You have love for your grandparents. Then, a special person comes into your life, and you decide that you want that person to be your partner, because you love them, too. Does your love for this new person decrease your love for your family of origin? Or, suppose you have a child, and then two. Does your love for the second child diminish your love for the first? Of course not. You suddenly have more love, more than you could have imagined, but full and complete love for all those people in your life.

In order to be more loving, we have to release our devotion to and our trust in money. Money isolates us and leads us into self-protective hoarding. Just think of Ebenezer Scrooge, or Gollum from Lord of the Rings. The happiest among us often give much of their treasure away to share and nurture goodness with humanity.

William Feather once wrote, “No one is a failure who is enjoying life.” Those who enjoy life the most are not those who die with the most toys, but those who are surrounded with a network of loving relationships. Those who are happiest are rich in love – and that’s something that can never be taken away. In fact, the more love they give away, the more they seem to have. That’s just how it works in the kingdom of God; that’s why Jesus told us to seek God’s kingdom first, and the rest would have a way of working itself out.

No doubt, you’ve noticed the same thing: how the more love you give away, the more you have. Love – and especially God’s love – cannot be counted, tracked, or stockpiled. And when your life is governed by this kind of relationship of love and trust, you’ve moved from the world of scarcity into the world of abundance, the world of possibility, the world of interconnectedness, the world of contentment. Suddenly in this world – Jesus called it the kingdom of God – not worrying actually becomes an option.

Life in God’s kingdom is just plain better. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for today will bring worries of its own” (6:34). Jesus is so clear that there’s a better way to live. A way that is free from worry and anxiety. It is the way of life in the kingdom of God. Friends, we belong to God – in God we find our identity, our trust, our security, and our hope.

Do you see the connections here? Living between the competing claims of two masters – God and money – pulls us in opposing directions, and all this pulling does is create worry. Jesus invites us to something better because he cares about us – he doesn’t want to see us torn apart in this tension, he doesn’t want us to live as if we’re serving two different masters – he wants what’s best for us – a life of consistency and wholeness lived in keeping with the values of God’s kingdom. It’s the path away from worry, away from anxiety, and it’s the path toward being who God wants us to be.

This is the world Jesus invites us to live into – God’s kingdom – a world of abundance, generosity, and new life. But it is also a world of fragility, trust, and vulnerability. Lilies and birds, after all, can’t defend themselves but must trust God’s providence and love.

Instead of worry, we are to seek first for God to rule our lives. We are to seek God’s reign, his rule, his lordship over our lives. God and the ways of God are to be number one in our lives.

We, as God’s children, worry way too much about way too many things. Instead, Jesus wants us to trust God for all of our needs. As we trust God, God will help us win the war against worry.

Trust God. Your tomorrow is in God’s hands.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hear it Again (Matthew 5:38-48)

[Jesus said] “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

“Don’t go around starting fights.” Good advice as I grew up with numerous opportunities to start fights – at school, around the neighborhood, in the park, even at church. Several times in my childhood and adolescent years, my dad continued to share that advice with me. But then, he would expand the advice just a little, and say quietly enough that my mom couldn’t hear: “Don’t go around starting fights, but if someone starts one with you, make sure you finish it.”

Did any of you receive that sort of advice from your parents? Or, if you are a parent, do you remember giving that sort of advice? Nobody wants their kid to be a wimp. Nobody wants their kid to be a doormat or a punching bag. If somebody hits you, you hit ‘em back! Don’t get mad; get even! Do unto others as they have done unto!

That all works pretty well, until this fella named Jesus comes along and starts meddling in our lives. Sure enough, anywhere Jesus goes, he messes things up something fierce. Today’s text is certainly no exception, as he says, “Oh, you think you’ve heard all this before?” What we find out is that Jesus wants us to hear it again, because just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, Jesus throws in a twist. May we pray.

Great crowds of people have been following Jesus for some time. Jesus sees the crowd and seizes the opportunity to give a sermon. He offers this series of teachings that has become known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”

In today’s text, Jesus is mid-sermon as he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” It’s a section of the Law known as the lex talionis, which is Latin for “law of retribution.” Literally, it means that the punishment for any offense should be identical to the offense – an even exchange – eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, burn for a burn, stripe for a stripe. While negative reciprocation sounds cruel to contemporary ears, it was designed to set limits on vendettas. Extract the injury that was inflicted on you and it ends there. It was how the ancient world held in tension the need for justice without enacting cruelty.

This principle of lex talionis is actually enacted in the very first scene of the movie The Godfather. Who here has seen The Godfather? This is one of those great movies that has left its imprint deep on the American psyche, and in the community in which I grew up, it resembled only too closely how business was done.

The movie opens in Don Corleone’s study on the day of his daughter’s wedding, where Mr. Bonasera is asking for help in punishing two boys who beat his daughter. He asks for justice – to have the two boys killed. But Don Corleone says, “You come and say ‘Don Corleone, give me justice.’ But you don't ask with respect. You come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder - for money.” Bonasera responds, “I ask you for justice.” That is not justice. Your daughter is alive.

The principle of lex talionis ensures that the penalty is not arbitrary or more severe than the crime. That was the law, and that was how justice was practiced in the ancient world. But Jesus wants us to hear it all again, and he wants to push us beyond the law. The law enacts justice, but Jesus is interested in more than justice. Jesus is trying to teach us how to live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The laws by which nations are governed, even at their best, are laws of justice, but Jesus has something more in mind. He says, “Look, if you’re going to be my followers, you have to do better than that. Don’t return evil with evil.” I love the way The Message puts it. “Is that going to get us anywhere?”

As Jesus’ followers, he instructs us not to return evil with evil, not to meet violence with violence, not to retaliate and seek vengeance and our own version of “justice.” Rather, Jesus has an alternative strategy for dealing with evil. His objective is to overcome evil with good. Jesus is trying to break the spiral of violence. Don’t violently resist one who is evil – it probably means something like, don’t turn into the very thing you hate. Don’t become what you oppose.

Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” This is one of the most mis-understood teachings of Jesus. People think Jesus is telling us to be a doormat or a punching bag, that we simply need to take whatever abuse the world hands us. I have seen this passage used to justify violence and oppression against minorities and powerless people of every sort. Lest there be any mistake, Jesus is NOT saying that victims of others’ abuse of power need to remain submissive victims. As you’ll see, that is NOT what turning the other cheek is about.

I need a volunteer who is willing to come up here and turn the other cheek. If I were to strike a blow with my right fist on your face, which cheek would it land on? The left, which is the wrong cheek in today’s text – Jesus said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek.” I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in the society Jesus was addressing, because the left hand was reserved only for unclean tasks. You had to use the right hand, and the only way you could strike the right cheek with the right hand was to use the back of the hand. If someone was born like me, left-handed, they were trained to overcome it. In that day, you couldn’t even gesture with your left hand in public, so I guess I’d be in trouble when I try get the attention of other motorists in traffic.

Striking on the cheek was something that someone in a position of power did to someone of lower status than themselves. In the ancient world, that could be from a man to a woman, an adult to a child, a Roman to a Jew, a Master to a slave. The blow was about asserting status and power over the other. It’s not intended to injure. It’s a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It’s only about rank, privilege, superiority, and power.

To preserve one’s honor, it was crucial that everything was done according to protocol. Always the right hand, always the back of the hand, always the right cheek. Any variation on this would demonstrate you’re not in control, and because you’re not in control, it would be a public loss of face.

All right, I need another volunteer. Now, imagine your overlord has just struck you on the right cheek, and without saying a word you silently turn your head to expose your left cheek. It appears that you are becoming doubly subservient by turning the other cheek, doubly accepting your master’s authority over you, but you are actually rendering your master powerless! The master can see, but cannot strike your left cheek with the back of his right hand.

Doing this publicly would expose the master to shame and ridicule. You would appear to be meek and servile, obediently waiting for a second blow. But the Master would be totally helpless. His only option would be to hit you with the palm of his right hand, or use his left hand, or walk away. All three of these would cause him to lose face.

What Jesus is essentially saying is, “When someone tries to humiliate you or put you down, turn the other cheek and take all their power away.” If you turn your cheek, I can no longer backhand you. And really, you can’t backhand someone twice. It’s like telling a bad joke a second time. If it doesn’t work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying, “I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can’t put me down. You may have me jailed, flogged within an inch of my life or even killed, but you will never be able to assert that I have no dignity.”

When Rosa Parks sat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama and refused to move, she was turning the other cheek. Do you remember the reason she gave for not moving from her seat when told to by the bus driver? She said, “I’m tired.” Now, people have interpreted that to mean that she was physically tired from the day’s work, but that’s never how I understood her words. I think she was tired of being oppressed, tired of being abused, tired of being treated like she was less than human. On the bus that day, she said, “I’m not putting up with it any longer.” She turned the other cheek, and this country was forced to reconsider what it means to treat all people with dignity and worth and value.

Back in the text, Jesus continues: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Honestly, Jesus, why would I want to love my enemies? Why would I want to pray for those who persecute me? What’s my motivation?

What I want from this text is to tell me to love my enemies because hatred and negativity is bad for my mental and physical health. Because spending energy hating them gives them power over me. Because I’m the better person. Because God will reward me for taking the high road. Because, as St. Paul points out, being kind to my enemies “heaps burning coals on their heads” (Romans 12:20). Kill ‘em with kindness! Right on, Jesus!

Except, Jesus doesn’t offer any of these as a reason to practice non-retaliation against our enemies. The only reason he gives is this: we are to practice non-resistance when personally insulted and to love our enemies because such behavior is in keeping with the character of God.

When I lived in the mountains, I loved going hiking and climbing at some of the higher elevations, and one of my favorite places to go was Grandfather Mountain. The top of Grandfather Mountain can be a foreboding place, if you’ve been up there, you’ve noticed that the trees all have branches on only one side – the high winds force them to grow this way.

The big attraction at Grandfather Mountain is the mile-high swinging bridge, which leads to a rocky outcropping where you can stand on the edge of the mountain and feel like you’re on the edge of the world – it’s kinda like a York Peppermint Patti commercial without the annoying voice-over guy yelling in your ear.

Next time you’re up there, take a good close look at the vegetation. You may notice, in places where there is neither soil nor a crack in the rock, on top of this windy mountain, a small purple flower grows. Its seeds have been blown by the wind into high, tiny crevasses in the rock, and the plants have adapted to their harsh surroundings, and the result is that beauty blooms in the midst of a very hard place. But there’s more. Over time, the plant itself can crack the rock or the boulder in which it grows; it just takes time and persistence.

What does that story have to do with today’s text? Listen carefully. These teachings of Jesus – turning the other cheek, refusing to return evil with more evil, loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us – are like seeds of the kingdom of God, blown by the winds of the Holy Spirit into hard, and difficult, and foreboding places in the world. We are children of God and followers of Jesus, and Jesus is giving us instruction about how our lives can bloom in the middle of a sometimes very hostile and unforgiving world.

When we turn the other cheek and stand up to those who would oppress us, when we refuse to meet every evil and injustice with a greater evil and injustice, when we love even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, the kingdom of God bursts into bloom all around us, and through us, and within us. Given enough time and persistence, the kingdom of God may actually take root, and when it does, we find it shattering all the old systems of violence, and war, and oppression, and judgmentalism, and alienation, and separation, and fear – all destructive patterns and forces are shattered. And if not shattered, maybe we’ll open some well-placed cracks that will let the sunshine of God’s delight in.

As children of God, as followers of Jesus, as disciples, as CHURCH – this is what we are called to do. This is our task. We don’t succumb to the ways of the world in relation to power and fear and terror and shock and awe, because as Christians, we are called to live differently. As St. Paul says, we are to “live a life worthy of the calling we have received” (Ephesians 4:1). We have been called – named and claimed – as members of God’s beloved family, and brothers and sisters – that means something.

We are Christians; we are something different. Our identity is not in the powers of this world – old power structures of oppression and violence and hate; our identity is in Christ. Our identity is not in wars with armies and bombs, not in the laws of the land with their courts and jails, not in all the ways that people and nations try to control each other or assert their dominance or superiority over each other; our identity is in Christ. We are called to live in the new order of the kingdom of God, even as the structures of the old order seem firm around us, these seeds in our lives will bloom as signs of God’s kingdom. With some time and persistence, they can and they will crack through the oppression and violence around us, old orders will crumble, and God’s new order – the way of living in God’s kingdom – will already be growing strong in its place.

Our task, as Christians, is to stand firm and patient in the ways of God, even when the world throws its worst at us. Even when you want to hit back, even when you’re stronger or more powerful, even when you know you’re right and someone else is wrong, no matter how hard it is, no matter the fact that every fiber of your being is straining with desire to lash out as you have been lashed, Jesus says stand firm, and to meet every act of evil against us with something good.

And friends, doing so is a sign of maturity. Jesus tells us that we have reached an important goal as his followers when we turn the other cheek, when we go the extra mile with someone, when we return evil with good, when we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Doing these things is a sign of maturity – some of your texts may say that we are made “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.” “Perfect” here doesn’t mean sinless or suggest that we’ve arrived and are all done with our growth in grace; it just means that we’ve met a goal, that we’ve matured.

I love the way The Message puts verse 48: [This is Jesus speaking] "In a word, what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you."

And let’s be honest; it’s a struggle. Every time we try to live like citizens of God’s kingdom instead of this world, temptation is going to come along and lure us back to the old ways of doing things. But we don’t let that stop us. Because, we are trying to live out of our God-created identity – generous and gracious toward others, the way God lives toward us. Because, doing so is a mark of spiritual maturity. Because, with the power of the Holy Spirit we can, and we might see some cracks in the rocks, and the beauty of God’s kingdom might just sprout up all around us.

Close your eyes and place your hands on your lap, palm side up for a moment. Dave – play. On behalf of Jesus, let me tell you something –You are God’s beloved child. You are called to share God’s love with others. That’s your purpose in life – that’s why you and I are here! But, we all know that things in our lives keep us from doing that. Picture something in your mind that keeps you from realizing that you are God’s child, or from sharing God’s love. Maybe it’s a fear, a hurt, a memory, a resentment – could be anything. Whatever you’re picturing, imagine yourself handing that thing to God. God has it now; it’s out of your hands. Now, imagine God throwing it up in the air, and it vanishing out of sight forever. Don’t go looking for it – don’t go and try to drag it back into your life – it’s gone forever. And now, eyes still closed, repeat after me: I am God’s beloved child. I am called to share God’s love with others.

Up here on the altar rail, there are some small slips of paper, and they say what you just said – “I am God’s beloved child. I am called to share God’s love with others. With God’s help, I will be what I have been called.” You can carry it with you, and pull it out when it seems particularly hard to follow Jesus in the way of love.

You see, there is no path to love. Love is the path. As Dave continues to play, I invite you to come, to take one of these slips of paper, to remain for prayer as long as you wish, because you are God’s beloved child.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Does God Love Everybody? (Romans 8:31-39)

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charges against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today, we are wrapping up our series of messages I have simply entitled, “Ask God.” For the last several weeks, we have wrestled with real questions that thinking people have either for God or about God. We started by asking “Does God Condemn Suicide?” Then we wondered “Does God Control Everything?” Then, “Does God Get Angry?” Last week, “Can I Believe in God and Science?”

Go ahead and take your sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or pencil as we wrestle with this week’s final question: “Does God love everybody?” The key to understanding these questions lies in understanding the character & nature of God; let’s open ourselves up to what God reveals to us about God’s self. May we pray.

Does God love everybody? YES. Today’s Scripture reading couldn’t be clearer in that regard. In this letter to the church at Rome, St. Paul rhetorically asks, “Who or what shall separate us from the love of Christ?” He then answers his own question with a lengthy list – hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword – all of these cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ. Not even death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, and if that wasn’t enough, just to make sure we got the point entirely and didn’t miss anything, nothing else in all creation, shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That is the promise of God for us today. Nothing – you name it, no matter how bad, nasty, or awful it is – is strong or powerful enough to stand between God and us. St. Paul isn’t a gambler, but he stakes everything on the goodness and love of God. The kindness, the mercy, and the love of God are stronger than anything and everything else. You can make your own list, if you want: parents, children, your boss, employees, colleagues, foolish choices, bedeviling sins, public failure, private disappointments, anxieties, school, a bad business deal, and on it goes. Paul remains adamant in his conviction: nothing can separate you, nothing can separate me, nothing can separate anyone else, from God's love.

Paul’s own journey in Christian faith confirms this. Paul knew that he would suffer much for the sake of God and God’s kingdom. "Prison and hardship" awaited him in every city (Acts 20:23). Brutal treatment, constant harassment, and strong opposition were his regular fare (1 Thess. 2:2, 2 Cor. 7:5, 1 Cor. 4:11). In the book of Acts alone Luke records at least eight murder attempts on Paul's life (Acts 9:23–24, 9:29, 14:5–7, 14:19, 20:2–3, 21:31, 23:12, and 25:3). Through all of this and more, Paul remained insistent: nothing in all of creation can separate you from God's love. Those words are the climax of the entire book of Romans, the summation of Paul’s entire theology, and words for the church today to keep at the center of everything we do.

And yet, we find in so many places and among so many church members the unstated conviction that there are people who fall outside the periphery of God’s love. Why is that? Ours is a club culture. We are good at drawing boundaries around people, separating them into different categories, and figuring out who is in and who is out. We start this at an early age; think about it.

In childhood, think about the ramshackle clubhouse you built in the backyard with your friends, and what was your first order of business? To put a sign on the door that said, “No girls allowed.” Or, the Barbie palace you assembled in the attic with a similar injunction against boys, because “Boys are icky.” Now, I know for a fact that we boys are icky, but is icky-ness alone a reason to keep us at arms’ length? Or, think about the table you chose to sit at or were relegated to sit at during lunch in middle school or junior high. Or in college, we had another way of distinguishing in-groups from out-groups; they were known as fraternities and sororities. Then, the neighborhoods we lived in and the schools our children attended and the particular country clubs we joined – just another way of distinguishing “us” from “them,” another way of making sure that “we” were always kept separate from “them.”

Unfortunately, many times that same club mentality found its way into our churches, and many began to operate more like church clubs than Christian communities. Show me a church that acts more like an exclusive members-only club than the living, breathing body of Christ, and I’ll show you a church in decline. Show me a church that wastes all its time debating who should be in and who should be left out, and I’ll show you a church that no longer deserves to call itself a church. Friends, we are not here as some sort of church club, we are here to be a Christian community.

Well, communities are messy. People living their lives together gets really messy. But, rules tend to keep a lot of the mess outside, which is why clubs always have rules. They may be official rules or they may be unspoken, but clubs always have rules. So, one way to tell if a church is operating like a church club rather than a Christian community is to check its rules. Are there a lot of signs around the place that say, “No”? Sometimes these are actual signs – no parking, no smoking, no running, no eating, no drinking. Somewhere along the way, these became the rules of the club.

Many times, they are signs that are not written down, and the only way you find out some of these unspoken and unwritten club rules are when they are violated. By now, you all know that I don’t always wear the same thing on Sundays. Sometimes I am in one of my robes, sometimes a suit, sometimes a sport coat and tie, sometimes a sport coat or blazer without a tie, sometimes jeans, and a whole lot of combination of some of those. Some of you hate it when I wear jeans, and you know who you are, and so do I, because the first time I wore jeans, the only thing you commented on was the fact that you didn’t like that I was wearing jeans. Now, I have worn to jeans to church off and on for about the last 15 years, but you wouldn’t know that, because it was the first time that YOU ALL had seen me wear them.

What you also wouldn’t know is the first time I wore jeans in worship here was for a very deliberate reason. Some of you may remember that about a year and a half ago, there was a young couple who was passing through Charlotte and found themselves stuck here. They were trying to find odd jobs, maybe a place to live that was nicer than the Days Inn on West Sugar Creek Road where they were staying, or maybe they were going to return home. They didn’t know.

They were only in town a few weeks before they decided to head back home. While they were here, they told me they wanted to come to church, so I was surprised when they didn’t come. The next week, they told me they were embarrassed to come because they didn’t have “church clothes;” they only had jeans and t-shirts. So I promised them that if they came to church the next Sunday, I would be wearing jeans.

Rules hold a club together, but relationships are what holds a community together, and we are a Christian community, not a church club. And so, as a Christian community, not even rules shall separate us or anyone else from the love of God.

Still, we can be tempted to make club rules, and what I’ve realized is that we often make these rules out of fear. Fear of those who are different or who do things differently than we do, fear of change, fear of loss of control, fear that things won’t be perfect anymore if we let anybody and their messy lives in the door. Friends, life is messy.

As your pastor, I am privy to the messy places in many of your lives – you’ve invited me in when things aren’t perfect, when the wheels are falling off, when you’re in distress. Can I tell you what does me good to see and hear about? When someone in this church or the surrounding community finds their life crumbling around them, and I hear about someone in this church stepping in to help and offer healing, to make God’s love real in a very tangible and practical way. When I hear of someone willingly and quietly stepping into the mess of someone else’s life to be the hands and feet of Jesus to that other person. That’s Christian community. When we build each other up in the love of God, when we declare with our words and our actions that nothing shall separate anyone else from the love of God.

Can I tell you what breaks my heart? Anytime I hear about an incident where it appears that unspoken rules matter more than people. We have a banner out on our front porch that says “We love our neighbors.” That’s out there for a reason – as a very public way of saying that people are more important than any stated or unstated rule. When people in our community think about St. Paul United Methodist Church, the only thing I want them to think is “That’s the church that loves people.” When you’re out in the community, at work, in the grocery store, wherever, and people find out where you go to church, I want the first thing out of their mouth to be, “Oh, I know that church. It’s the church that loves people.” And I want you all to take pride in that!

Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The text says that if God is for us, who shall be against us? And do you who Paul is talking about when he says, “us?” He’s talking about all of us. Not just a particular church. Not just Christians. Everyone. Every single human being. Nothing shall separate any human being – no matter who we are, no matter what we have done – from God’s love. That’s really the only rule we need to worry about. That’s really the only rule that is required for building a Christian community rather than a church club. If every church and every follower of Jesus Christ would simply start practicing that rule, can you imagine what would happen?

Close your eyes for a moment. Think about the person or the group of people you love the least. Maybe it’s even an enemy. Nothing shall separate them from the love of God. Those are words of comfort when we apply them to ourselves, and they are words of challenge when we apply them to our enemies.

Do you have an enemy? For the followers of Jesus, we are called to invite them in rather than keep them out. Jesus himself told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). St. Paul tells us the same thing only a few chapters after the text we’ve studied today – “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14).

Sure, we can keep making rules to keep people we don’t like out, to keep our enemies out, to make sure people do it our way and on our terms, but for anyone who truly wants to follow Jesus, that’s just not an option. You can keep doing that if you want to be a church club, but for an authentic Christian community of people following Jesus, that simply won’t work.

Now, that’s hard. I don’t want to love my enemies. I want to hold grudges and make them pay, and if I’m completely in control of my life, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. But that’s the rub – I’m a follower of Jesus, which means I’m not in charge. God is. And God wants me to love my enemies, because nothing shall separate them from the love of God – not even me.

It means we all need to share God’s love freely and abundantly with everyone, regardless of their socio-economic status, regardless of their political party, regardless of whether they went to Duke or Carolina, regardless of whether they live in Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Turkey or Syria or Egypt, regardless of whether or not they are in this country legally, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of who they are, what they have done, how big an enemy they are – because of the truth of today’s Scripture – none of these things shall separate us or them from the love of God. Because the love of God compels us, we will not impose barriers on who is accepted; we will invite all, we will welcome all, we will embrace all.

“But Pastor A.J., if we let all those people in and love them, what will happen to our church?” What will happen is that we will be the Church – a Christian community rather than a church club, a place where relationships matter more than rules.

We love our enemies because that’s exactly what God did. Who were God’s enemies? We were. You and I and the entire human race. We were. “While we God’s enemies, he made friends with us through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).

Think about that for a minute. Before you decide what you want to do to your own enemies, think about what God did for God’s enemies. We – you, me, all of us – were God’s enemies. And what did God do? God offered us a relationship. God sent his Son. God was willing to allow his Son to die for us. We are God’s enemies, but God loves us and offers a relationship to us. God tells us over and over again, “Nothing shall separate you from my love. You can run, you can hide, you can fight back, but I will continue to love you.”

And then God proves it. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God proves it. God prepares a table in the presence of God’s enemies. Who are God’s enemies, again? We are. God prepares a table for us. God calls us, his enemies, to the table, because God desires a relationship with us. Does God care that we are his enemies? Doesn’t seem to. God just keeps inviting, calling, welcoming. Not bothered by the fact that we are sinners. God made a promise, that nothing would separate us from God’s love in Christ, and God makes good on that promise again and again.

Come, everyone, saint and sinner, friend and foe – come to the table of God’s love. On the menu today, you’ll find heaping helpings of grace and love, forgiveness and hope, fellowship and promise. Come everyone, come all of you, come and dine. Come, taste and see, the Lord is good.