Monday, April 29, 2013

new commandment

John 13: 31-38

This particular part of the story is an interesting  because it comes immediately after Judas leaves the upper room and the last supper to make arrangements to betray Jesus.

It then ends with Peter being told that he too will betray Jesus.  Although he doesn’t know it yet, at the time of trail, he will deny he ever even knew Jesus.

This scripture, bookended by acts of betrayal is full of love.  What a wonderful message that sends.  Jesus, though surrounded by people who will abandon him when they are needed the most, are still loved. 

But this message of love seems to bring up as many questions as it does answers.  Although the command to love one another seems simple it is the hardest of all commandments to follow.  The 10 commandments are easy compared to this.  It is black and white, very clear straight forward rules for the most part.  But love, that can be pretty ambiguous.

First of all, What is love?  We all have a preconceived notion to what this means.

Love can be an emotion- one of pleasant feelings toward another.  We know this emotion when we look at a spouse, lifelong friend or family member.  We know the power of this emotion but we also realize it is not possible to have these same emotions towards everyone.  This emotion normally happens after years of building relationships and nurturing one another. 

One of my professors at school, while preaching on this topic this week, identified Love as an Action.  Love is going out of your way to help someone.  It is being kind and gracious.  It is having mercy and compassion towards people you may or may not know and in no way are able to compensate you for the gesture.

He also said; Love is seeing others as God sees them.  We sing songs all the time and recognize that God is God of all people and nations but when we are faced with the Judas in the world, it is hard to love them too.  When we feel abandoned by someone we rely on, we struggle to see them as Jesus saw Peter, and love them anyway.  We often even have a hard time seeing ourselves the way God sees us.  We struggle with forgiving ourselves when we mess up, loving ourselves when we betray Jesus with our words or actions much less people we don’t like very much. (Dr Ian McFarland)

The definition of Love is not the only question this scripture raises.  Who is Jesus telling us to love?  If we only looked at the text from John today, we could suggest that when Jesus told the disciples to love one another, he literally meant the people in that room.  That would be easy right- if we were told we only had to love the people in this room.   No other group knows the trails and pains as well as the celebrations and joys of your life better.  The love in this group is powerful and needed.

But, when we look at all the other places where Jesus told the disciples and others to love, we get an entirely different picture. 

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

So the net of love is being thrown a little wider.  Ok, so we are to love the people in this room, and our neighbor.  Well, that doesn’t seem too hard either.  I like my neighbors, I can do that.

Here is where it gets tricky- in Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. In other words, love everyone.   I don’t know about you all but that is not an easy thing to do- ever.  And yet, it is something we are called to do.  The person who betrayed your trust, yep.  The person who broke your heart, yep.  The person who hurt your family, yep. 

We are called to love them all.  We are called to see them as God sees them and sees us.  Each one of us, broken in some way, sick, defective humans who don’t deserve God’s love but are claimed as children of God anyway.   All the Judases and Peters, of this world, forgiven and loved by God.  And as hard as that is, Praise God!  If God can love them, surely God can love us too, faults and all!

Jesus knew Judas would betray him and knew Peter would deny their relationship- his closest friends would all abandon him, but he loved them anyway and never stopped loving them.  The same is true for you and me.  He knows we are going to mess up.  He knows we are going to betray him, deny him and not live up to his expectations or even our own expectations but he loves us anyway. 

So, we know that love is more than just an emotion and we know who we are supposed to love.  We know that we are loved.  The big question then is how?  How are we to love others as Christ loves us?

It is one thing to know something and believe something and it is another to live it.  It is hard to even be around people you don’t like very much- much less, love them. 

Love is never an easy thing to do.  Even when we try really hard, we sometimes fail.  Maybe we think we show love by doing mission work; donating food or clothes to the shelter.  And yes, that is very much needed but all too often what happens is the giver is elevated and placed on a pedestal while putting the person receiving the donation down. Even when that is not the intention, society often looks at the givers as good and the receivers as bad.  It is an emotional trap we have to work at avoiding.

The emotion of Love is often confused with pity.  Real love is taking a genuine interest in the life of those we encounter and seeing people as equals; Gifted in different ways and acknowledging that those receiving our assistance are valuable children of God who have much to give too. 

When I worked with children with developmental delays, we had always been told not to accept gifts and to be very careful about professional boundaries.  It always felt like a one sided transaction though and that is normally ok but on one occasion, I commented on how wonderful a family’s dinner smelled.  I didn’t think much of the comment- just general conversation with the parent while I helped the child.  An hour later, as I prepared to leave, Mom insisted I take some food home with me.  I tried to decline but she insisted.  For once, she was able to share her talents and give something of value to me. 

It was a humbling experience, especially when I realized she had given me one of only two pieces of chicken in the pot that was intended to feed her family of three.  Her generosity went over and beyond anything I would have been willing to sacrifice.  This was her way of showing love.  They had no money, nothing substantial to offer but she could share her talent of cooking. 

Maybe it is just learning someone’s name that shows love.  How often do we go places where we are being served and never learn the name of person taking care of us? Gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores… We are paying; they are serving, end of business transaction.  Imagine the difference it would make if we each took the time to meet them, learn a name and offer genuine words of gratitude and encouragement. 

It is this love that speaks volumes about who you are and the Christ you believe in.  Yes, tell people about your faith after or while you are showing them your love.  The scripture tells us people will know we are Christians by our love not our words.

It is not always a grand gesture that makes the difference in a person’s life.  Sometimes it is the simple sacrifice of a few minutes of your time, a genuine interest in someone, and a willingness to lower our guard long enough for someone to get to know us.
A common piece of advice given to counselors and many people in helping professions is “No one cares what you have to say/know until they know you care” Let your actions speak louder or at least in concert with your words.  And let people see that you are Christians by your love.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Easter disbelief

Luke 24: 1-12   Easter 2013

Why is this story so hard to believe?  Christians and Non-Christians alike respect the story but some still question if it ever really happened.
 Even the women and the disciples who spent so much time with Jesus, learned from him, loved him, were loved by him, believed he was the Son of God and even heard him tell them multiple times that he would be turned over to sinners, killed and on the third day raised from the dead.  If anyone, these should have been waiting and anticipating what came next not hiding out in fear and mourning.

 They had even seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead- they knew it was possible. And yet, as they watched our Lord die, doubt entered their mind.  What they had been so sure of was now in question.  They of all people should have not been so surprised by the fact that the tomb was empty and indeed his prophecy had come true.
It goes beyond rational thinking, this disbelief that Christ was resurrected from the dead.  We find it hard to imagine that Jesus didn’t put up a fight.  He went willingly with the soldiers, willingly to the court officials to be unfairly judged; he willingly carried his own cross to willingly die- even though he was not a criminal and didn’t deserve any of this.  He remained steady, strong and dignified while he was being humiliated and tortured.  We can’t imagine not at least offering up a complaint much less not having to be dragged kicking and screaming to our fate.

But it goes beyond this.  Not only did he willingly go to his execution but he shows love and compassion to his accusers in the process.  He reassures Pilate that he is not the one to blame.  He not only offers forgiveness to the criminal being crucified with him but he prays to God to forgive his murderers.  Even in excruciating pain, he still loves those who hate him.
It goes beyond that.  It is not really the history of the event that bothers us.  It is our own fear, uncertainty, our own feelings of self-loathing and hatred,  the feeling of anger towards others and a general sense of unworthiness that truly get in our way of believing. 
Our difficulty is not with God, it is not with the death of Christ, it is not with the empty tomb and the resurrection.  Our difficulty is with ourselves.  Our unbelief is not in Christ, it is in our willingness to accept that we are loved that much. 
We may be able to put on a good front for others but when we look in the mirror and take a good, honest, self-evaluation of our souls we don’t always like what we see. 
It’s not the graying hair, the new wrinkle, the crooked nose, the not so slim figure or the surgery scar that bothers us.  There are parts of our insides that we try to cover up, ignore, and hope no-one else notices.  We hear that voice in our head that holds grudges against people who have done us wrong.  We know the disdain we have for others who aren’t like us- whether it is ageism, racism, sexism, homophobia, or political affiliation we all have some stereotype that, if we are honest, bothers us at least a little but maybe a lot.  We don’t understand how if we recognize so many not so lovable things about ourselves- how could God love us?
We are usually somewhat capable of hiding the parts about ourselves which we detest the most, even from our closest friends and loved ones.  But God? 
We can’t hide anything from God.  God knew us before we were born, knit us in our mother’s womb, God knows every hair on our head, every line on our face, knows our thoughts before they are spoken and every need and desire of our heart- good and bad- and loves us anyway.  That is the most difficult thing to reconcile; the unconditional, un-surpassing, and unfailing love of Christ.  Not that Christ was willing to die but that he was willing to die for you. 

Easter is the time of year when this struggle comes to light.  We hear the story of the last supper.  We witness the brutality of Good Friday and the quiet despair of Holy Saturday. We reflect on how the women and the disciples felt on these three days.  We understand their sense of defeat and disappointment when it seems all their hopes had died on that cross and evil and death have had the last word. 
We have all felt that way at some point.  It is why it is so easy to put ourselves in their shoes.  We’ve sat up late at night worried about the health or safety of someone we love.  We’ve feared the call from the bill collector when we know we don’t have the money to pay.  We stress over layoffs at work. We understand despair.  We can’t escape at least the periodic sense of disappointment in our lives.
But we also understand the significance of Easter, the empty tomb, and the hope that it brings.  Death does not have the final say.  There are greater things to look forward to than the uncertainty of this life.  There is hope, joy and peace in a God who loves us and can and will overcome the death and darkness of this life.
It is sometimes hard to see this hope and light when you are in a time of despair.  Maybe people try to help with words of encouragement and hope in Christ.  You hear people say “don’t give up,” “pray about it” God loves you, Jesus loves you,”
Maybe you are like Peter- you don’t believe the stories of other people’s experience with God.  You need to see it for yourself.   You can see the peace and Joy others have received through their faith journey with Christ but you need to experience it yourself to really believe.
Now is the time, see it for yourself.  Open your eyes and your heart.  Go on that Journey with Christ.  Let him prove to you just how much he loves you. 

This sacrifice, this grave, this empty tomb is for you and for all those who are willing to accept that even when we can’t love ourselves, God loves us, warts and all.  Spend time reading the stories of Jesus, learn the message underlying the parables. 
The disciples and the women who came to the tomb that Easter morning had to be reminded too.  They all had to spend time remembering the life of Jesus, seeing the prediction of Christ in the Old Testament and how Jesus fulfilled it before they really understood.  See the love and compassion Jesus showed to even the most detestable members of society at the time and know he can and does love you too.  Listen with an open heart the stories of others and their experience with God- the familiarity, the sense of love, patience, provision and guidance will be unmistakable.
The empty tomb is a sign of promise that our sins have been paid for.  Jesus willingly took on the sins of this world so that we too may experience eternal salvation and eternal life with our creator.  Our sins have been washed away.  All we have to do is believe and accept our inheritance as a child of God.
Nothing, not hard times in life, failure nor disappointment, not even death can separate you from the love of God. 

With Jesus there is hope beyond the confines of this life.  Death is not how this story ends.  It is not how your story ends.  It is just the beginning.  It is never too late to start your personal journey with Christ.  Maybe you’ve been faking it all these years or maybe you have never before today realized how much you are loved.  Start today, speak with me, slip me a note, or talk with someone you know has a strong faith.  It is never too late to begin a life of hope with the love of Christ.  Your church family is here to help along the way to lead you from your cross to resurrection and life eternal.