ST. PAUL’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH
MAY 13, 2012
As I was preparing my sermon this week, I noticed that the word “love” was mentioned a number of times in the scripture readings. I thought I’d open with a relevant joke about loving your neighbor, but the only one I could find said, “Love your neighbor all the time, but first make sure her husband isn’t home.” That one didn’t really fit my sermon so I decided to keep it out. Instead I’ll start this way:
Christians are called to be a people of love. Just today in the scripture we’ve heard the word “love” 14 times. In the gospel reading Jesus says, “abide in my love,” “I have loved you,” “my commandment is that you love one another,” “no one has greater love.” By the time we get through the passage we are tempted to throw our hands up and say, “okay, okay, we get it already!” But I think the reason the topic of loving others is so prevalent in the Bible is to signify how important it is and to get it through our, sometimes, think heads!
I spent this week at a conference in Washington D.C. called “Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity.” Hundreds of people from across the denominational spectrum gathered together downtown at Calvary Baptist Church. The were a ton of workshops and presentations on a number of topics including the presence of violence in today’s youth culture, new teaching curriculums, and welcoming the homosexual community into our ministries, but the overall theme and question that was laid as the basis for all of our discussion was this: How do we as the Church respond to the shift in today’s culture that is taking place in our country and in our world? We in the “belt buckle of the Bible belt” sometimes miss that the percentage of students that leave the Church after graduating high school is more than 80% and growing. There seems to be a lack of relevance in the minds of so many people these days.
A few years ago a popular survey organization asked young people about the concepts and ideas they most strongly identify with the word “Christian.” The most common three answers were anti-homosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical. If almost 2,000 years ago we began with a humble and meek Jewish peasant named Jesus calling a people to a radical life of love and mercy, what has brought us to this place in history where people think of us as anti-gay, judgmental hypocrites? What happened to the love?
Before I continue, I want to say that I think St. Paul’s is an amazingly loving community and probably an exception to those statistics. I think many people can testify to that. We’re great at loving people who aren’t loved by others as can be seen by the groups and ministries that share our facilities each week. In fact, I think the Episcopal Church in general has been pretty good at loving others. Many of you probably heard last week about the tragic killings of the Rev. Mary-Marguerite Kohn and Brenda Brewington, the parish administrator, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Maryland. They were shot in their office after having some trouble with a belligerent homeless man who pulled out a gun, later killing himself in the woods nearby. A few days after their funerals, the people of the Diocese of Maryland offered their forgiveness and a funeral service to the family of the shooter. It’s amazing to me that out of such pain and suffering, people can have the courage to love instead of hate. It makes me proud that next week I’ll be confirmed in the Episcopal church.
But if loving the unloved is our strength, perhaps our weakness is loving those people who don’t love the unloved. Many of us don’t have too much difficulty loving those in the homosexual community, or the poor, or Muslims, but–at least for me–it’s another story trying to love people who hate gay folks, ignore the poor, and misrepresent the Muslim community. I think this is what Jesus had in mind when he said in Matthew 5, “So you love the lovable? Big deal! Everybody does that. You’re good and nice to folks who are good and nice to you? Big deal! You’re in good company. The key is to love the people you hate, the people that tick you off, the people that frustrate you.” Christ calls us to love the folks whom we think the world would simply be better off without! As a person that grew up and was hurt by a conservative, fundamentalist tradition, sometimes my fiance, LauraAnn, has to remind me that the word “evangelical” was never intended to be a derogatory term. The truth is that the word is meant to express the invitational and inclusive nature of God’s kingdom, whether or not that is translated in the mistakes of a few Christians in the tradition.
Today we’re celebrating a few things. For one we are celebrating our youth who are performing and helping more than usual in some of the services, second we are celebrating their mothers, and every mother. We are used to representing God as a Father most of the time, but in today’s second reading we encounter another image. We encounter a God who gives birth to her children. I like to paraphrase 1 John 5:1 this way: “Everyone who claims Jesus as their teacher and savior has been birthed by God, and no one would dare to love a mother and not love her kids.” Just as we would never come between the love a mother for her child when she first looks into her baby’s eyes, we would be stupid to come between God and her love for the people around us whom are called God’s children.
Although these passages continue to be relevant to us today, they were first written to a divided church at the beginning of a movement. The details may have been different, but the problems were the same. One such debate was about whether or not Gentiles would be aloud to enter the forming Christian community, and if so, how much of who they were would need to be abandoned in order to assimilate into “proper” Christianity. If Gentiles wanted to follow Jesus and be a part of the community, should they have to stop eating certain types of food? Should they be circumsized? There were plenty of passages of scripture used by many Christian Jews to say that unless Gentiles assimilated into the way things are done in Judaism, they could not be accepted into the community. Our first reading in Acts drops us in the middle of this discussion. Peter was undecided on the issue until one night he had a vision that convinced him to visit the house of a Roman Centurion. Peter did just as the voice said, and when he came to the house of the centurion, he began to preach to the people there saying “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man unclean.” As he continued preaching the Spirit came down upon the Gentiles present, and the Jewish believers there were amazed that the Spirit had been poured down even on the Gentiles. The Spirit excludes no one who calls upon God.
In a famous prayer we normally attribute to Saint Francis, we pray, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow–not a more just and opposite hatred–but love.” This is the love that Christ calls us to, an inclusive love always waiting to embrace another.
I’ll close with a favorite joke of mine. It is commonly said that when a person dies, it is Saint Peter that greets them at heaven’s gates either welcoming them in, or sending them away. One day as the saint was going about his business, letting in and sending away, some angels approached him with a problem. “Peter,” they said, “there seems to be a housing problem inside. There are way more people in here then our records show you’ve let in.” Peter replied, “That’s odd, scout the kingdom and see if you can find the issue and report back to me.” After a few hours Peter began to get worried about where the angels had gone. Just as he was about send someone to look for them, they returned. “Well, did you find the problem?” Peter asked. “Yes Father,” they said, “Jesus was out back lifting people over the gate.”
May we ever be surprised in the wideness of Christ’s love and mercy, and may our love always reflect our Savior’s. Amen.