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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Say Goodbye to Fear (1 John 4:18-19)


18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love because God first loved us.

 

Early in her ministry, a young Methodist pastor noticed one day that a new family had moved into a neighborhood not far from her church. So she dropped by late one afternoon.  She noticed that one car was parked in the carport.  She had rung the door bell only once when she heard a deep, bass growl that sounded like the rolling of thunder coming from the back of the carport.

 

About 20 feet away in a crouched position was a huge German Shepherd.  She began backing slowly away from that door, in the direction of her car, all the while speaking words of pastoral comfort to the dog.

 

It must have been a Baptist dog; never has anyone in their life seen a dog have such a problem with a Methodist preacher.

 

She wasn't worth much good at work the rest of that day. Fear had stolen her energy. She called her friend, the local Baptist preacher, and told him about this new family that had moved in, and that she was pretty sure they were Baptists.

 

Fear had stolen her energy.  Today, I’d like you to consider what fear has stolen from you.  As a person of faith, how will you make room for God’s love restore what fear has taken?

 

We are wrapping up our May series of messages today, on “Share the Love.”  Over the last month, we’ve been looking at how we can live a warm-hearted faith.

 

We began with the basics, namely that God is Love.  Say that with me: “God is Love.”  Period!  God is Love, Love is God’s reigning attribute, our faith begins with God’s Love.

 

It all begins with God’s love. In case we ever forget this basic, essential fact of our faith, 1 John makes it crystal clear.  God is the source and the definition of love. God is love. God loves as the sun shines: love expresses who God is.  God’s love is a truth more basic and reliable than the ground on which we walk, or the air we breathe.

 

God’s love is not some abstract concept. It is passion expressed in action. God made love real and present by sending Jesus to live among us and to give himself for us. God continues to show us love through Jesus’ life-giving presence among us.

 

The more fully and completely we know God, the more the immense reality of God’s love dawns on us. When we open ourselves to the warmth and light of God’s presence, we find that even our deepest, darkest secrets and the ugliest parts of ourselves are not beyond God’s reach. Nothing in us is so broken or so filthy that God is unwilling or unable to touch it. God embraces us as we are, loves us as we are, and works in us to make us clean and whole and new. Upheld, surrounded, enfolded by such love, who could be afraid of anything or anyone?

 

Turns out there’s an awful lot of stuff in this world to be afraid of.  For example, you may have ablutophobia, which is the fear of bathing.  It should not be confused with the refusal or unwillingness to bathe, which is common among students at App State.  Chirophobia – the fear of hands.  Geniophobia, the fear of chins, which should never be confused with genophobia, which is the fear or sex, or genuphobia, which is the fear of knees.  There’s metrophobia, the fear of poetry; and pediophobia, the fear of dolls.  The list goes on and on, all the way to zeusophobia, which is the fear of God.

 

There’s a lot to be afraid of, and a lot of people who have figured out how to manipulate our fears.  Politicians, cable news networks, and syndicate radio especially have teamed up in an unholy trinity that runs on and spews out fear.

 

I’ve learned, maybe you have as well, that when someone tries to scare me, they are trying to get something from me.  When someone threatens me and tries to scare me, they want me to do something that may or may not be in my best interest, but will always be in theirs.  They may be trying to scare me in order to get my vote, or my money, or my attention, or my support of whatever fear-based idea they are peddling.  Watch for it and see that it’s true – the next time someone tries to scare you or worry you, especially if they’re a politician or on cable news, they want something from you.  They aren’t in it for you, they’re trying to use you.  Don’t let them do it.  Don’t fall for it.  Don’t be a pawn in someone else’s game.

 

Fear can often be used to divide us based on the things that make us different.  We have a natural curiosity about the differences between people, but fear exploits those differences.  We begin to see difference in and of itself as cause to be fearful, we become afraid of anyone and anything we perceive to be different.  Difference turns into division.  We divide ourselves away from poor people, or gay people.  Maybe brown people or foreign people, nevermind that Jesus was, himself, a brown foreign person. 

 

Yoda said, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.”  Fear and anger and hate cause us to build walls of separation, to exclude some to protect ourselves.  A 20-foot wall is better than a 10-foot wall, we reason, because it can keep out more of the bad.  But no sooner is it built than we wish we had constructed a 30-foot wall.  Turns out no wall is high enough, no bomb big enough, no border secure enough, no law restrictive enough to protect us from fear, because fear isn’t out there, it’s in here.

 

The solution to this fear?  Love, of course.  Dionne Warwick said (though I personally prefer Burt Bacharat’s version) that “What the world needs now is Love, sweet love.”

 

We’re not just talking about any old love, but the perfect, full, complete love of God, the perfect love which casts out fear.  The church should be a welcome and refreshing alternative to an ethic of fear.  Our whole way of thinking and being is based in the simple, timeless good news that God is Love, and seeks to perfect us in love such that we love as fully and completely as God loves.

 

Indeed, the Scripture we’ve read today reminds us that perfect love drives out fear – and low and behold, the church of Jesus is based in, founded upon, saturated in, living out that love in ways large and small.  And so, the church should be a powerful force in expelling fear, arguably the most powerful force, and yet, we often find this is not the case.  Great corners and influential voices within the church are leading the charge advancing an ethic of fear that sounds more akin to the message of cable news and politicians than it does to the love-soaked Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Throughout history, many fear-based campaigns that spilled over into suffering and oppression were led by Christians, with the blessing of the Church, and we still see it happening, today.

 

Friends, the Church is a supposed to represent something different.  One of the descriptors of the early church was “the called-out ones,” meaning the followers of Jesus are singled out, to live differently than the world around them.  To be a different kind of community that stands in contrast to the harsh realities of business-as-usual in the world around them.  Jesus called the church to be salt and light in the world – seasoning and illuminating the dysfunction of things with something better, something of God, something motivated by love rather than fear.

 

Even so, as you look across the landscape of Christianity, you’ll see fear at play.  The most popular strategies for inviting people into the Christian faith use fear as a motivator, as pamphlets and preachers alike ask, “If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven or to hell?”  These tactics introduce us to a big, bad, scary Go, ready to pounce and punish on not so much as a moments’ notice: fear-mongering and scare tactics wrapped up in religious language –hardly a faithful motivator.

 

No one should have cause to be afraid or scared of God.  When Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10, Psalm 111:10), it’s talking about having a healthy respect and reverence for God.  Maybe we had parents or grandparents or teachers or whomever who had a look or a way of talking to us that was said to “put the fear of God in you.”  They scared us all right, perhaps even to shape up and amend our behavior, somehow, but in reality, they put the fear of themselves into us, not the fear of God.

 

I’m sometimes asked why I don’t preach about hell more often.  Because I’m not a fire insurance salesman.  Because I was ordained a minister of the Gospel, which is good news for all.  Because the world can be scary enough without the church making it even scarier.  Because I refuse to use fear to manipulate people’s emotions or motivate them to action.  Because the Gospel is a great story of a God who is Love, who loves us more than we can imagine, not the story of a monster from whose punishment we need to be rescued.  Because our task is to witness to God’s love, to invite people to receive and grow and share in that love.  Because the fear of hell would only introduce people to a God who is a strict disciplinarian, rather than the God who is Love.

 

We need not be frightened of God, because God is Love.  And if God is love, and if perfect love casts out fear, it is infinitely better for us to use love to introduce people to God than to use fear.  So, we love our neighbors into God’s family, into the kingdom of God, into heaven, rather than scare them out of hell.  If we’ve got to lean one way or the other, we’ll err on the side of love and grace rather than of judgment and fear.  When your friends and family ask why you go to a Methodist Church, or what is wrong with your preacher that he doesn’t preach about hell more often, you just look them in the eye and tell them proudly that you’re part of a church that would rather love the hell out of people rather than scare the hell out of them.

 

Perfect love drives out fear.  We are people of faith, followers of Jesus, filled with the Spirit, we are seeking to pattern our lives after the love of God, to live and love like Jesus, to be so filled with his love that there isn’t room for anything else.

 

I want everyone to close their eyes and picture a house.  That house represents your soul, your heart, the essence and core of your being.  Now, it’s a rented house.  It doesn’t belong to you.  The house belongs to God.  You are allowed to use it and benefit from it and take care of it as God has entrusted it to you, but ultimately, it’s not your house, it’s God’s house.

 

You have an unauthorized roommate living with you in this house that belongs to God, and the roommate’s name is Fear.  Fear doesn’t pay rent, and breaks things and messes things up in the house.  Fear keeps you up at night, and robs you constantly – stealing your time, your emotional energy, and even the cash out of your wallet.

 

The owner of the house isn’t any more pleased about it than you are.  And so, the owner sends a new roommate, whose name is Love.  Later that afternoon, Fear comes back to the house to find his belongings on the curb, the locks changed, and an eviction notice on the front door, announcing that Fear is no longer welcome.  Love has moved into Fear’s room, and where there is Love, there is no longer room for Fear.

 

Fear tries to get back in, but you meet fear at the door and say you’re much happier living with Love.  You didn’t realize how happy until you gave it a try, but now you have, and this is better.  Given the choice between Love and Fear, you’ll choose Love.

 

Friends, today is a great day to say goodbye to fear. And not only fear, but all of fear’s nasty little friends, too.  It’s a great day to say adios to anger.  Sayonara, selfishness.  Giddy-up, gossip. Hasta la vista, hate.  Hey divisiveness, don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.  Peace out, prejudice.

 

Perfect love drives out fear.  Perfect love says to fear, “Turn around now, you’re not welcome anymore.”  Perfect love drives out fear.  It drives it far out into the middle of nowhere, opens the door and says, “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more.”

 

Let the world run be run by fear and his friends.  Here in the church, we’ll do it different.

 

Friends, we are children of God.  We are the church.  The body of Christ.  The beloved, called-out community, defined and driven by God’s unconditional love for all.  Perfect love drives out fear, and God’s perfect love drives us.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Spirit Made Me Do It (Acts 2:1-21) Pentecost Sunday


When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

 

 

Today is Pentecost Sunday, sort of the third leg in the Church’s triple crown of major festivals, Christmas and Easter being the other two.  Christmas and Easter seem to get all the attention, while Pentecost gets forgotten in the shuffle, but on Pentecost Sunday we focus on biblical stories in which God's Spirit—God’s presence with us—encounters ordinary humans and wonderful and unexpected things begin to happen.

 

Pentecost is, in a sense, the birthday of the church, which is why after worship today we will have a birthday party for the Church, complete with cake and whatever delicious food you all have brought, and you’re all invited to stay.  Even if you didn’t bring anything, don’t worry about it, there is plenty there for all!

 

In the familiar Pentecost story we’ve just read from Acts 2, the symbols of wind and fire represent God's presence given in powerful and dramatic ways to the disciples of Jesus, who experience the Spirit as mighty and powerful, moving them to do for God things that are far beyond what they could do themselves.

 

Pentecost, the outpouring of the Spirit, is the beginning of the mending, healing, getting over and moving past every division that exists between people.  The Holy Spirit blows through, and a timid, frightened, and discouraged group of Jesus' followers become forceful, confident, and unified advocates for their experience of the risen Christ.

 

Pentecost is a day to celebrate not only the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the first followers of Jesus, it’s a day to welcome the Holy Spirit upon ourselves, to believe that’s God’s Spirit could even be poured out in this place, upon people like us.

 

In many ways, Pentecost feels like the pep rallies we used to have in high school, as the cheerleaders would shout out, “We’ve got spirit, yes, we do, we’ve got spirit, how about you?”

 

But then, as we wave our little flames around we realize the only flames in here are dancing politely upon the table, and the only wind we’ve felt was cranking out of the air conditioning vent, and we wonder if there should be a more powerful experience of the Spirit among us.

 

A friend of mine, also a Methodist pastor, jokes that when the Holy Spirit shows up at the Methodist Church, he knows to mind his manners.  Take a look at our cross-and-flame logo, the symbol of the United Methodist Church recognized the world over.  You see that squiggly red thing on the side of the cross?  That’s supposed to be a flame, representing the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Look at that flame – a controlled burn, if ever there was one, more like a flicker on top of a BIC lighter than the holy, chaotic wildfire described in Acts 2.

 

We prefer that little flicker because it gives us the illusion that we are in control.  Tongues of fire?  Mighty rushing wind?  That scares the hell out of us – better to have a little candle flame and watch it flicker when we blow, a Holy Spirit we can control, turning on or off at a whim.  But the Spirit will not be controlled.  It blows and burns wherever it will.

 

I may like my life just the way it is, and inviting the Holy Spirit into our lives opens us to the possibility that God might transform us with his love and grace!  Open up to the Holy Spirit, why, God might CHANGE me!  I don’t want God to CHANGE me!  What a dirty word!  And so people remain spiritual infants, not growing in God’s love, not maturing in faith, not becoming the people God created us to be.  It’s amazing how many people will give lip service to God, but not offer their lives for God to actually do what God does best – namely, transform and warm our hearts with his love.

 

One Pentecost Sunday, after worship, the meanest, most judgmental, critical, hateful, negative person in the congregation marched up to me and proudly announced, “I don’t believe in that Holy Spirit business,” and I was thinking, “Lady, that’s not a secret – everybody knows!”

 

Perhaps I should have quoted to her this pearl of wisdom from Charles Spurgeon: “A Christian without the Spirit is rather a curse than a blessing.  If you have not the Spirit of God, remember that you stand in somebody else’s way.  You are a fruitless tree, standing where a fruitful tree might grow.”

 

She wasn’t open to the Holy Spirit, and she was done growing spiritually, and despite the fact that she was 84 years old and had been a church member for 72 years, her life produced no fruit.  She had cut herself off from the Holy Spirit, the source that could refresh and renew her life, and without it, she dried into a hard, bitter prune of a soul.

 

I want better than that for myself.  I want better than that for you.  May we be open to the Holy Spirit.

 

Just know that opening up to the Holy Spirit is inviting some major renovation in your life.  The Holy Spirit can be meddlesome, poking and prodding around in the dark parts of ourselves we try to keep hidden or manage ourselves.  Inviting the Holy Spirit into your life opens the possibility that God will ignite something within you you’d rather not have sparked, or blow into rooms you weren’t ready to open just yet.

 

The Holy Spirit will make a mess of your agenda, your preferences, your plans, your prejudices, and set your heart on fire with a burning zeal to share God’s love in every way possible with everyone you possibly can.  The Holy Spirit will blow you right out of your comfort zone to share that love, equipping and empowering you to do so more boldly and with greater passion than you could ever muster on your own.

 

The most mature Christians are the ones who can readily admit that they haven’t yet arrived, that, thanks be to God, God isn’t finished working on them, yet.  We are all beautiful works in progress, because wherever we are on our spiritual journey, there is still more that God can do within us and through us.  And the Holy Spirit is the one who does that work – cleansing us, convicting us, changing us, consecrating us, to God’s purpose and for God’s glory.

 

Friends, none of us has arrived to a place where we no longer need the fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  The biggest mistake we can make is to believe that we’re done growing in faith, that we are a finished product.  God’s mercies are new every morning.  Every day is an opportunity for us to be changed from glory into glory.

 

That is daily, constant work.  Does anyone here have a clean house?  Does anyone here have a not-so-clean house?  For those with a clean house, did you clean it once and then it stayed clean, or did you have to clean it again to keep it clean?  It’s a constant process, isn’t it?  Ashley has a magnet on our fridge, a Joan Rivers quote, that says, “I hate housework.  You make the beds, you do the dishes – and six months later you have to start all over again!”

 

I wish you could clean the house once and it would magically stay clean forever, but we all know it doesn’t work that way.  It’s no different for our spirit, either.  We need constant cleaning, a fresh anointing, a willingness to press ahead because none of us is yet who God dreams we can be.

 

On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came as fire and as wind.  They say that the occasional forest fire is actually good for the health of the forest.  It clears away the undergrowth and leaves and dead growth that accumulate on the forest floor and suffocate new life from being able to spring up.  The occasional fire clears all that away, and the forest matures and grows healthier as a result.

 

If you are sick, your body will develop a fever – a little fire inside of you to burn off whatever is making you so sick.

 

So think of the Holy Spirit like a forest fire.  Think of the Holy Spirit like a divine fever.  Think of the Holy Spirit as a cleansing, refiner’s fire, burning away the dross so the image of God within us can be revealed and restored.

 

Right now, if each of us were to take stock of our lives, would we be able to identify things that need to be burned away?  Things that are keeping us from being spiritually healthy, things that are preventing God’s love from being seen and experienced through us?  An attitude?  A behavior?  A grudge?  An agenda?

 

Whatever that thing is, it’s keeping you from growing and maturing in your faith.  It’s keeping the love of God from taking root in your life, and growing you into the person God dreams you can be, so today I’m just asking you to let go of it, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

 

Would it be that the Holy Spirit came to us as a cleansing fire, burning up whatever needs to be cleared away.  This day, would it be that the Holy Spirit came to us as a mighty rushing wind, clearing out whatever of that rubbish remains, that God’s love and grace might find a home in our hearts.

 

So today, we wave our flame, and we say, “Come, Holy Spirit.”  Come as fire, and cleanse whatever doesn’t belong within us.  Ignite and warm our hearts with a steady, loving glow.  “Come, Holy Spirit.”  Come as wind, and fan the flame of your love within us.

 

Friends, God’s holy presence will not be contained.  It will not be controlled.  Fire is meant to burn. Wind is meant to blow.  When God’s Spirit comes to town, it will be loud.  It will be unruly.  It will be chaotic.  It will be filled with the warm winds of love.

 

When God’s Spirit comes blowing into town, he’ll be looking for hearts that are open to receive.  May our hearts be the Spirit’s home.  May the Spirit not pass us by.  God’s holy fuse is lit – his presence is among us, stirring through this very room – may we be carriers of his heart-warming flame.

 

“Come, Holy Spirit!”  Come claim us.  Cleanse us.  Convict us.  Convert Us.  Consecrate us. Change us with your heart-warming loving presence, so we can change the world, to the glory of God.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

What Does 'Made in the Image of God' Mean? (Genesis 1:26-27)


26 Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”

27 God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

 

It is Mother’s Day today, and I welcome the moms who have joined their children and or grandchildren in worship today.  I welcome children and grandchildren who have joined mom or grandma today, because one of the things she wanted today was for the whole family to come to church together.  So, whether you are here today because it’s what you wanted to do, or because Mom guilt-tripped you into coming, which, as a mother, is her right to do, either way, I’m glad you’re here today.

 

One of the tricky things about Mother’s Day is the honest recognition that while it is a happy day for many, it’s a painful day for many others, for a whole variety of reasons.  As a church, we walk a fine line on Mother’s Day between celebrating with those who celebrate today, but not adding additional hurt to those for whom today is already difficult enough.  That’s what the church does – we simultaneously rejoice with those who rejoice, while we weep with those who weep.  So whether today is a joyful or a difficult day for you, thank you for giving us all a chance to be the church today.

 

Mother’s Day was started by Anna Jarvis, a Methodist from West Virginia, who wanted to honor all women and the influence they have in raising us, pouring themselves into us, shaping us, forming us, making us the people we have turned out to be.  She was thinking of both actual mothers, but also spiritual mothers who, whether or not they have children of their own, have left an impression on us.

 

I think of some of the church mothers, like Mrs. Marshall, who always wore a hat every Sunday, and whose *snap* in the sanctuary could freeze a misbehaving child at 20 paces.  That sound was so familiar and long-established in the church in which I grew up that there were adults who still tensed up when they heard it.  I think of Mrs. Kellogg, who kept the nursery, even though her own grandchildren lived hundreds of miles away.  I think of Mrs. Jasper, who tried to instill something of the Christian faith into us rowdy, smart-mouthed middle school boys, and who, despite our best efforts and appearance of total disinterest in each week’s lesson, was more successful than we would have ever let on.

 

I think of extended family, too – second cousins and my grandmothers and my aunts – my mom’s sisters who all look and sound so much alike, that my cousins and I, as toddlers, were known to walk into the kitchen where the sisters were working together and grab Mom’s pant leg, only to look up and realize that we’d gotten the wrong one.

 

Something of each of these women is part of who I am, indeed, it does take a village to raise a child, and today I celebrate these who were part of the village that raised me, and as I look back over this list, I can’t help but think, “God bless them, because these women sure must have loved me an awful lot to put up with what they did.”

 

You can so often see the influence and family resemblance from one generation to the next.  You could put a picture of me and my Dad taken at the same ages next to each other, and you’d think we were twins.  We are often a chip off the old block, or the apple don’t fall too far from the tree, as it were.  Ashley was looking at a recent photo of herself yesterday and she said, “I am so turning into my mother,” which I could have told her a long time was already happening, but I’m smarter than that, but I will tell you a I got a good, hard look at my mother-in-law before we got married just to make sure I was good with how everything was going to turn out in the long run.

 

Family resemblances are hard to deny – and they’re not just physical.  Something of those who raise us rubs off on us, makes us who we are.  No doubt, many of you have found yourselves in the same situation, realizing you are looking more and more like one of your parents, or finding yourself doing or saying certain things, perhaps things you swore you would never do, as you think, “I am so turning into my father or into my mother.”

 

Likewise, our family resemblance to our Heavenly Father is hard to deny.  The Scriptures tell us today that we are made in God’s image.  Think about that.  Something of God’s character is imprinted upon us, makes us who we are, undeniably, unmistakably identifying us as having something of God within us.  But what?

 

In ancient near Eastern culture, an image carried the essence of the thing it represented.  It’s why world leaders would have statues of themselves placed in far corners of their empires, ego not withstanding, it was a way to take their authority and presence into distance lands.  It’s why the Hebrew people were warned against having idols or false gods or making graven images, lest the essence of those things infect their devotion to God, which it often did.

 

Images are not merely symbolic, they powerfully carry the essence of the thing they represent in real and tangible ways.  We are no different.  When the Biblical writers chose the words “made in God’s image” to describe humanity, those were powerful and intentionally-chosen words, meant to convey in no uncertain terms that we, humanity, the pinnacle of God’s whole creation, have been created with something of God’s essence and character within us.

 

What we mean when we say that we are created in the image of God will largely depend on who we understand God to be.  Last week, we spent some time getting clear on our basic, fundamental understanding of who God is – establishing a picture in our minds of God’s character, what makes God, God.  We turned, as always, to the Scriptures, which told us plainly and clearly that “God is Love.”  That’s our starting point, our foundation, the root from which the whole rest of it grows – God is Love.

 

Tina Turner rightfully asked, “What’s love got to do with it?”, and the Christian faith responds that Love has EVERYTHING to do with it because Love is who God is, plain and simple.  And we, all of humanity, is made in God’s image, so it naturally follows that since God is Love, we are made in the image of Love.

 

Wow.  God is Love.  And God’s love for us is so great that when God makes us, God fashions us in God’s own image – the image of love.  Every man, woman, and child, everyone who has ever lived, everyone who will ever live, is made in the image of God, which is Love, and has the capacity to become like God, namely, to be perfected in love.  Over time, by God’s grace, we find the family resemblance becoming more pronounced as we grow in love, to become like God.

 

And here’s the thing about what happens when God creates – every time God creates, God says, “It is good.”  Read through the creation accounts in Genesis: God creates, God stands back and surveys what God has just made, and declares, “It is good.”

 

Theologians have said, “Creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good.”  How do we know?  Because God has declared it so!  Creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good.  In fact, God says humanity is “very good,” and it stands to good reason that, having been made in God’s image, imbued with something of God’s character, filled with God’s essence, which is Love, we would be.  We are made in the image of God, and creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good.

 

That, of course, is only part of the story.  It’s the first part of the story, the foundational part of the story, but the other part of the story is that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, as Romans 3:23 tells us.  We fall short of the glory of God, the image of God, the Love of God.  Every day we do this.  The word, “sin” means both “a condition of separation,” and “the act of missing the mark.”  Every day we do things that separate us from God and others, every day we miss the mark by sometimes painfully wide margins.

 

Even as people of faith, every day we fall short of loving God and our neighbor fully and completely, every day we fail to glorify God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

 

Some would start the story of faith there – with a sinful humanity.  And that’s part of the story, but it’s not the start of the story.  There are a few chapters in the story that come first.  Remember, our starting point is with God, and creation, of which humanity is a part, as it leaves the hand of God, is good.

 

And so, before we sinned, before you and I were separated and distanced from God, we were made in God’s image.  Even when we fall into sin, that image is still there, for God has placed it permanently and indelibly upon each of us.  The image of God may be tarnished, it may be bent, it may be obscured, or hidden, or almost unrecognizable.  It may be covered over by layers of selfishness and willfulness and pride – but it’s still there.

 

Just as we at times may distance ourselves from our parents, turn our backs on them, disobey them, resent them, rebel against them, yet, be unable to deny that whatever they have done to shape our character is still a part of us, even when we make it hard to see, so too does that image of God remain upon us, waiting to be restored to its original glory, shone and polished back into beauty and brilliance.

 

My sister and her husband own a sprawling house built in 1878 that is a total heap – but they love it.  It sat on the market for years, until they came along, and could envision what it would look like to restore that home to its former glory.  And that’s what they’re doing – slowly, carefully, pain-stakingly restoring what has been there all along, just waiting to be revealed.

 

And that’s how God deals with us.  God sees the brilliance, the beauty, the reality of what how we were originally made, for it was God who fashioned us in the first place, and the story of salvation is one of God slowly, carefully, painstakingly restoring the image of God that’s been there all along, just waiting to be revealed – and thank God, God loves us enough to restore us and reveal who we were created to be all along.

 

It all starts with God’s Love.  We find our value, our dignity, our worth, not in ourselves, but in God.  For the person who is struggling with feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt, know that you are valuable simply because you are made in God’s image, and as such, you are a person of sacred and inestimable worth.

 

Friends, God doesn’t love us because we are lovable.  God loves us because God is Love.  God doesn’t love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.  God is Love and we are made in God’s image – we are imbued with God’s attributes of love and creativity, and we most fully live into our purpose when we use that love and creativity to restore others as God has restored us.

 

After all, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.  We are made in God’s image; may the family resemblance be unmistakable.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

If God Had a Name, What Would It Be? (1 John 4:7-8)


Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.

 

This afternoon at 3 pm, a worship service will be held in First United Methodist Church in Newton, just this side of Hickory.  It will be the service to celebrate the life of my father, who joined the Church Triumphant on April 15.  In planning the service with Dad’s pastors, as I have done with many of you, there is a challenge in that – to adequately sum up and capture somebody’s life in scripture and song and the few words that will be spoken.  I had the same challenge in writing his obituary, as well as selecting the picture that would accompany his obituary, and the one to be displayed next to his ashes at today’s service.

 

It’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible.  It’s said “a picture is worth a thousand words;” get the picture right, and the whole story will unfold from it.

 

That’s true in the life of faith, as well.  With the right picture constantly in front of us, the rest falls into place. Today, we are beginning a series of messages designed to help us get the picture of God right.  Throughout the month of May, we’ll be focusing on the right picture, and what that picture means as we live out our faith.  The right picture serves as the starting point for our understanding of who God is and how we relate to God, which is why it’s important to take the time to get the picture right.

 

Last week, we set this series up by talking about how the root of a plant determines its fruit.  Remember, we said, Root determines fruit, and using today’s analogy of finding the right picture, the root and the picture both refer to the same thing.  They are both the foundation from which the rest of it stems and grows.

 

So, what’s the root?  What’s the picture?  What’s the foundation? If you remember nothing else from today’s sermon, if you remember nothing else about the Christian faith, remember this: God is Love. 1 John 4:8.  That’s the picture, the foundation, the root, the starting point: God is Love.  Everything else is rooted in that, stems from that, grows from that.  Friends, start with the understanding that God is Love – that’s the picture from which the whole rest of the story unfolds.

 

Why does this matter?  Because there are other images of God that would paint themselves, other roots that would try to take hold.  Some start with an understanding of God as angry, or wrathful.  Some see God as a power-hungry tyrant, an arbitrary despot, a strict judge.  Some view God as an absentee landlord, distant, mysterious, and unapproachable.

 

These pictures of God are like propaganda pieces or political advertisements.  Have you ever noticed, in political attack ads, that they find the worst, most awful picture of the candidate they are attacking?  Weird facial expression, maybe looking tired, grumpy, or aloof. It’s a picture all right, but one intended to cast a person in a less-than-favorable light.

 

We all know what that feels like.  Ever have someone say things about you that weren’t true?  Or misconstrue or misrepresent something you did or said?  Know what that feels like – how frustrating it is?  Imagine how that must be to God, when pictures of God are put forth that make God out to be arbitrary, sadistic, and angry.

 

Indeed, these pictures of God are fairly well-rooted in some places in our culture, and even among some in the Church.  But, they are less-than truthful statements about who God is, and they do more harm in God’s name than they do good.  They are like a smear campaign against God, and they serve to drive people away from God.

 

They’ll say things like, “I just can’t believe in a God who gives people cancer or kills people by causing accidents and natural disasters.  They see a picture of God being painted by self-aggrandizing “Christians” whose message emblazoned on their signs is that God hates this or God hates that.  They say, “I just can’t believe in that.”

 

And neither can I.  Neither should you.  I refuse to believe that God is a jerk: a sadistic, power-hungry, tyrannical, self-aggrandizing monster.  The Bible tells me, Christian tradition tells me, my experience in faith tells me, my intellect tells me that God is Love.  And so, all of the arbitrary, hurtful, awful things just described, I have to ask myself, ‘Does that sound like Love?’ and I answer with a resounding ‘No.’  No, no, a thousand times, NO!

 

God is Love.  John Wesley, in his commentary on this 4th Chapter of 1 John, said, “Love is God’s reigning attribute.”  That means Love is primary.  Love dominates the picture.  With all these false images of God out there vying for primary place, even being rooted and nurtured and cultivated by people of faith, sometimes; friends, we are called to witness to the reality and primacy of God’s love, and to double down our efforts in doing so.

 

Remember, if you get the picture right, then the rest of the story will flow from that.  Our picture is that God is Love.  This is the root from which the rest of it stems and grows.  Remember, root determines fruit.  And if the root is love, the fruit is love.

 

But, perhaps you ask, “What about God’s holiness?  Isn’t God also holy?”, and that’s a great question.  Of course, God is holy, but do we understand what the word, “holy” means?

 

“Holy” is a word that simply means “other.”  “Set apart.”  “Distinct.”  And so, when people of faith have used the term “holy” to describe God, that’s simply a way of saying that God is “other” than human, “distinct” from humanity.  It’s a way to say that God is not exactly the same kind of being as we are, and can you guess what sets God apart from humanity?  It’s Love.  God is “other” because God has the inherent capacity for love in a way we don’t – on our own, we just don’t have that kind of Love within us. 

 

Another way to think of the word “holy” is “perfect.”  And you can think of the word “perfect” in one of two ways, either: 1.) “without flaw” or 2.) “complete.”  The first definition suggest an emptiness, while the second suggests a fullness.  When the Bible talks about perfection, particularly in the New Testament, it’s not talking about flawless purity.  It’s talking about fullness and completeness and wholeness.  Yet, some still want it to mean flawless.  A flawless, picky God is attractive to picky people.  Picky people want a picky God who makes them feel holy to be picky about other people’s shortcomings.  You know, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, from whom Jesus came to save us from becoming.  Friends, a picky and flawless God is an empty God, and any faith built around notions of flawlessness is just as hollow.

 

God is holy, not because God is flawless, but because God is complete.  Completely full.  Perfectly full. Filled to overflowing with perfect Love, and the Bible says perfect Love casts out fear, and we’ll come back to that before this series is over.

 

But it all starts in Love.  Love is the root from which the rest grows.  Love is the foundation upon which the rest is built.  Love is the primary picture.  There are other pictures available about who God is and how God relates to the world, but they’re distorted images, and they take us to radically distorted places.  That’s why it’s so important to get the picture right.  Get the picture right, and the whole story will unfold from it.

 

Starting with God’s Love doesn’t lessen the reality of human sin and the presence of evil in the world, but it does give us the confidence that God’s primary interest in us is not to fix us, but to relate to us in a loving way.

 

God’s holiness is his perfect love, a love that welcomes sinners rather than shuns them, a love that is sacrificial rather than self-serving, a love that pursues us in order to transform us in, by, and through that same love.  Perfect love is our assurance that God wants the best for us and calls us to treat others with the same benevolence regardless of how flawed they are, which is what the Scripture is getting at when it says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.”

 

The way to heaven isn’t about doing right or being right.  Not about doing good and being good.  No, the path to salvation begins in the realization that God is Love, and loves us with an unquenchable love, and that the way to eternal life is to bask in that love, be filled with that love, and radiate that love so it’s shining out of us in every direction.

 

It’s a matter of getting the picture right.  With the right picture constantly in front of us, the rest falls into place.  So, picture this: God is Love.  Full, complete, perfect Love.

 
Friends, if God had a name, that name would be, “Love.”