The Finale: Love

Sermon for Nov. 18, 2012 Pentecost +25, 33rd Ordinary

Lev. 19:9-17

9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.
11   You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.  12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.
13   You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.  14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
15   You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.  16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
17   You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

1 John 4:7-21

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4:7   Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 

4:13   By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.  15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.  16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

 God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  19 We love because he first loved us.  20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. 

The Finale

There’s a radio show that comes out of Wisconsin called “Whad’Ya Know?”  that always begins with the question to the live audience “Whad’Ya Know?” to which they all shout the answer, “Not much.  You?”

I guess it is a sort of homey, Wisconsin, politeness-thing, to not be the kind of person who claims too know much.

Reading the Bible in 90 Days: Now we know.

Many of us have just completed the program of reading the bible in 90 days; this is the finale.  I’m sure most of us have learned a lot; there are stories we read that

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we  never or rarely get to hear, on a Sunday morning.  Some of them are downright unfit for “younger or more  sensitive people.” But now we’ve read them all.  If you ask us “Whad’Ya Know?” about the bible, we would have to say, “Much more than we used to know.”

One of the great benefits of reading the bible at such a fast pace is that we have seen the big picture, like a mosaic, made of many different, uniquely colored pieces, forming a single scene.

It turns out that biggest big-picture view of the bible is the image of God who longs to be in relationship with the people he made and whom he loves.  So, this is a love story.  But it’s a tragic love story.  It’s an “unrequited love” story.  God’s people are an odd bunch.  In general, they all (or we all) have a deep longing to to be with God, to know God, but we have a strong pull in the opposite direction as well.

Can God solve this problem and be with people who sometimes do, but other times don’t want to be with him, by means of a covenant and promise?  Will a law work?  A temple?  How about prophets?  In the end God has to come in person, and that’s our story: God coming in person, in human form, whom we know as Jesus.

Whad’Ya Know about God?

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But there is something odd we have experienced as we have read the bible these past 90 days.  God is hard to figure out.  If you asked us concerning God himself, Whad’Ya Know?”  We might be inclined to say, “Not much.  You?”

Here’s what I mean.  The bible’s characterization of God is complex.  In the bible we read that God is good; he creates a good world.  But then we read about how God destroys the world with a flood.

We read that God forbids killing, but he also commands killing.  We read that God is “not like a human, that he should change his mind,” but then we read that he changes his mind when people like Abraham and Moses argue with him.

We see a lot of violence in the bible, but we read about a future time, when God’s will is finally done “on earth as it is in heaven,” in which people will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

So, that’s why, on the subject of God himself, when we hear the question, “Whad’Ya Know?”  we are be inclined to say, “Not much.  You?”

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At one level God always remains an inscrutable mystery.  We long to know God, but can our finite little minds do that?  Are we any closer to really getting it than our pet dogs and cats are at knowing what we doing when we sit in front of our computers, reading and typing?  Whatever they could possibly imagine is going on  when we do that has got to be far from accurate.  Probably not even close.  Is that the best we can hope for with our knowledge of God?

Help from Jesus

Fortunately, we get a lot of help from Jesus.  Jesus didn’t try to explain God like theology does – with words like “infinite, eternal, omnipotent, or even Trinity.”  But he told us stories and taught us to pray, and so he did help us picture God; as Father, as Shepherd, as love itself.

Perhaps we don’t and can’t know God any better than these analogies and approximations, but maybe that’s enough.  Enough to know how we are to live with this God who longs to live with us.  The odd thing is that there is a consistent thread from the Old Testament to the New Testament – as we just experienced in the two texts we read.  From Leviticus , in the Law of Moses, all the way to the epistles, we find out that the the essence of what God wants, is love.

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“Whad’Ya Know?”  “Enough to know that the God who loves us has called us to love one another.  Maybe that’s not much, but enough.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – says Leviticus.  1st John agrees, saying “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

In fact, loving our brothers and sisters is exactly what we should do in the face of the unknowability of an infinite God.   How do you love a God you cannot figure out?  How do you demonstrate that you love a God you cannot see?   Listen to 1st John’s perspective:

12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

“20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

John uses those stark, black-and-white, either-or, all-or-nothing categories to make his point.  You either love or you hate; no middle ground.  We are either truth-tellers or liars according to this uncomplicated scheme.

Love Logic

Maybe it’s just that from John’s perspective, it is simply obvious.  The logic goes something like this: What do we know of this unseen God that is bedrock-certain?  That “God is love.”  God’s defining characteristic is love.  Love is not an aspect of God or a quality that he could have in greater or lesser degree; rather love is God’s essence.

That means that any way of thinking of God that forgets this fundamental fact must be misguided.  After reading the entire Old Testament, this is a relief.

What about all that wrath?  All those punishments?  What about the curses?  John doesn’t go into long explanations, except to say that if we are fearful about God’s punishments, our thinking has gone off the rails somewhere, because that kind of thinking ignores the fundamental fact that God is love.  Listen again:

16 God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may

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have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

The God who loves us and longs to be with us, longs for us to know him as pure love.   For John, this has exactly one concrete implication for us: we cannot but love those whom God loves.

11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

Love Gives

If God has seen past all the reasons not to love us, but still loves us anyway, how could we possibly have any reasons to withhold our love for others.

This is not about having warm fuzzy feelings for everyone.  That would be impossible to accomplish and futile to command.  For John, as well as for Moses, in Leviticus, love is completely practical.

Love gives.  Just as God loves, and so gives his Son to us, so love compels us to be givers.  We give ourselves in service, in ministries of mercy, in direct response to needs, because love gives.  We give our best thinking and strategizing to find solutions to human problems; we become advocates: voices for those whose voices are not being heard; we research and we organize and plan, giving our energy, intelligence, and creativity because love gives.

We give our resources too, because as people who have been touched by God’s love, we respond out of love.  We love our church and want it to prosper.  We love our community and demonstrate it by responding in love to needs around us.  Most of all we love God, and we know that there is a strong competition in our hearts for  the spot that God and Mammon cannot both occupy at once.  We know that our own spiritual growth, therefore, depends on relaxing our grip on our resources by giving.  Love gives.

Knowing the Finale

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“Whad’Ya Know?” Not much; I’m only human.  But I know enough to get the main point of the drama that we are in.  I know what the finale is all about.  I know that God is love.  I know that love gives.  And I know that giving love to God of necessity involves giving love in practical ways to people that God loves.  I know that I am a part of the way God’s love is given to others, as I give in response.

Today is the Sunday on which we dedicate ourselves anew, for this coming year, to be loving givers of ourselves.  In a moment we will come with our Time and Talent responses, and with our pledge cards, brining them here to the front, dedicating them to God, as tangible expressions of our love.  This is our mission:  “Loving God, Growing in Faith, and Sharing Christ’s Love.”  It starts with love, it ends with love.

“Whad’Ya Know?”  God is love; and to love, is to give.

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The Broken Bread Community

Sermon for Nov. 4, 2012, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Acts 2:38-47

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive

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the gift of the Holy Spirit.  39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”  40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”  41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.  42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 

43   Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.  44 All who believed were together and had all things in common;  45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,  47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,  14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,  16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.  18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,  23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”  25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 

28   As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  29 But they urged him strongly, saying,

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“Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.  30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”  35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The Broken Bread Community

Many of us have been involved in the project of reading the whole bible in 90 days.  This past week, we have read the story of Jesus from the four gospels.  Each gospel writer tells the story a bit differently, as you would expect four different authors to do.  Each includes and excludes different sayings or actions of Jesus.  Having all four gospels gives us a wonderfully rich and textured look at Jesus.

Luke’s Two Volume Story

Luke, unlike the Matthew, Mark and John, had in mind, from the start, to write a two-volume story.  We call his two volumes the books of Luke and Acts.  For Luke, the significance of the life of Jesus had to include both the story of his life and the story of the community that formed around him; the community who  continued to call him Lord and Savior after his time on earth was over.  Luke told the story of Jesus, and the story of the early years of the church.

Stories in Context

How would you tell your story?  Where would you start?  What are the poignant experiences in your life that have made you the person you are at this moment?   Where are you now, in your story?  What’s ahead for you?

It’s not possible to tell the story of our own lives without setting them in other, larger stories.  Our personal stories are set in the context of our country and the events we caught up in as a nation.  Some of your stories start in the Great Depression or in World War II or in more recent conflict.  Some of our stories are set in the context of the struggle for of the Civil Rights.  All of our stories are set in larger stories.

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Luke tells the story of Jesus within the larger story of Roman-occupied Palestine.  And, at the same time, Jesus and his story is told, by Luke, within the long story of the chosen people, the story of Israel, as in fact, the climax of the story of Israel.

Luke wrote his gospel in the context of a believing community of early Christians. So his story of Jesus is not only a story set in the past, it is also a story written with an eye on the present – which for Luke and his church, was the world of the Greek-speaking Roman Empire in the generation after Jesus.  Luke told his story of Jesus in order to help his community understand who they were and what they were to be like as Christians in their context.

This means that as we read Luke’s story of Jesus, we too ask ourselves the question: how does this story help me and help us understand what we are to do and to be, as followers of Jesus today, in our context?  There are powerful and important things we can learn when we ask these questions.

Today we are going to focus attention on the scene we read from Luke 24.  It’s Easter evening.  Actually, that’s saying too much.  Easter, for us, is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus – a joyous time.  But three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, not many people yet know about the resurrection.  Most of the ones who followed Jesus are still shocked at what happened.  Jesus was caught, tried, and executed by the Romans, for being seditious.  Now all of them are in trouble, in fear, and utterly  depressed that their hopes in him have been dashed.

The Eerie story on the Emmaus Road

That’s the state of the two who were walking the relatively short distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus as the scene opens.  There is an un-worldly eeriness about this scene, as Jesus enters mysteriously.  Luke says:

“15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,  16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”

We need to stop right here and notice something: when a story is being told with events that seem to defy the normal, often this is the narrator’s tip-off that the story should be read on a non-literal level.  Maybe Luke is using this scene to say something to the church, his community.  How do we follow Jesus, living as we do in the days after his crucifixion?  How do we, who do not see him in the flesh, like those two, at first, find faith?

So as the story goes, the two people on the road tell Jesus, whom they do not recognize, all about how their hopes were set on him.  They were Israel’s hopes: hope that God would redeem his people from the clutches of their enemies.

So what does Jesus do?  He proceeds to teach them from the Old Testament – the story of Israel.

“27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

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Suffering in the Story

Jesus was setting his story in the context of the larger story of Israel.  He had to: this is the only way to make sense of the story of Jesus.  But notice the one element  of that story that Jesus draws their attention to.

“26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

Suffering was necessary for Messiah; this is an idea most Jews of those days did not expect.  Messiah was supposed to come raising a sword against the Romans and then assume his throne in glory, as the new king, they thought.

But Jesus led them to places in the Old Testament which speak of a person whom the prophets called the “son of man,” (Dan 7) or the “servant of the Lord” (Isa 53) who would redeem the nation through suffering for them, just as Jesus had done on the cross.   This is the key to the story of Israel the they had missed, but the key that made sense of it all.  And Jesus was the one who fulfilled that suffering servant role.

Suffering Brokenness

Suffering is part of the human condition.  I don’t know how you would tell your story, but I do know that it would not be a painless triumph of success followed by success.  Nobody lives that fairy-tale life.  All of us experience pain and loss.   All of us know disappointment, heartaches and failure.

Some of our tragedies are baked into our genetic cake or come un-bidden from the family we grew up in, or setting we are given.  Some tragedies are self-made through mistakes, bad decisions, regrettable actions.  We are broken people.  Our story has to be told that way to be a true story.

And so, Luke tells the story of Jesus as a redemption story, by telling of God’s savior who came as one who suffered.  He suffered as we suffer and he suffered on behalf of those who suffer.  He came to be broken on behalf of broken people.

Seeking the Broken

Luke tells of  Jesus who intentionally came to seek out broken people.  Luke is the one who tells us Jesus’ parables of lostness – the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son, the prodigal.   Luke tells us of God’s redeeming love for all of those who have gotten themselves lost, a form of brokenness.

He shows us God as the father of the prodigal who looks down the road every day, and when he finally sees his dirty, penniless son returning, runs to hug him, kiss him even before he gets cleaned up, and announces a great celebration party in his honor!   That’s how Luke shows us that Jesus came to broken people, and how he shows us God coming to broken people.

Luke gives us the story of the broken, bleeding, probably dying victim on the side of the road, and of the despised foreigner, the Samaritan, who stopped to help him.  God’s concern for broken people in Luke shows us an ethic of responding to brokenness that begins to look at everyone as our “neighbor” whose needs are our concern.

Following Jesus after Good Friday
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What does it mean then, in Luke’s generation, to be a Christian community who lives after that suffering; after that terrible crucifixion?  How do you go from a community of a suffering prophet-like person, to a redeemed, transformed community?

Only by coming to recognize that this broken, suffering one named Jesus was raised from the dead.  That changes everything.  That would mean that the power of evil really had been broken.  It would mean that the final enemy, death, had been defeated.  It would mean that hope was real!

But how are the broken believers in Luke’s community, many years later, to cope with life without Jesus present to see and hear and be encouraged by?

Luke’s story gives us the answer:

“30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him;”

The community of faith in the risen Lord Jesus sustains itself as it takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to each other.  Our eyes are opened and we recognize Jesus in the broken bread.

To emphasize the point, the two people Jesus met return to the 11 disciples in Jerusalem, announcing to them:

“35what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Bread that is Broken

Bread – the most basic, essential staple of life in the Western world, the indispensable nutrition, became the symbol of the sustaining, nourishing presence of God for Christians.  But not bread in a perfectly shaped loaf.  Rather Jesus is seen in bread that is broken, jagged, uneven.

Broken bread is the nourishment that broken people like us need, daily.  Broken bread, messy with crumbs falling all over the place shows us a broken Messiah who came to redeem broken people.

And it is redeemed, broken people who return with the joyful news of resurrection to other fearful, broken people, announcing that we too have seen the risen Lord.  We see him in the breaking of the bread.  And we gather, as the book of Acts showing the early church as:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  Acts 2:42

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The Broken Bread Community

We are the broken bread community.  Broken by our own personal histories, and broken hearted for a broken world.  We are the community of the bread that has

been broken, that is now uneven, irregular, softly jagged, and messy with crumbs falling all over the place.

But we are also the community of broken-healers.  We who follow a broken Lord, raised to life, are to go out to be the broken body of Christ in the world.  Going to broken people, with the opposite of pride, judgment, superiority or smugness.  Rather we go as broken people offering bread to the hungry, nourishment to the ones who have been starving for love, saying, “Come: the table is set and waiting for you.  The bread has been broken for you.  Take and eat.”

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