Note: This sermon was inspired by my time away from my congregation. It seems whenever I return from my various trips, my sermons always start with something that says how much I missed the people here. This holds true to form. The last illustration, personifying Christ as “Love,” is inspired by a keynote address by Pastor Rudy Rasmus of St. John UMC in Downtown Houston, TX. I got to hear Pastor Rudy a couple of times on Monday, August 2nd and thought his ministry and perspective were awesome.
Text: 1 Corinthians 13 & John 1:1-18
Title: “When Love Comes to Town”
I’ve been gone for three weeks, in case you noticed I was gone. Two of the weeks were spent in Indiana, visiting Julie’s family—or families. Then I spent five days in Nashville at a conference, along with Sheila ______ from our church. This time around I had trouble finding a guest preacher for one of the Sundays and our Superintendent Dave _____ said he would do it. But, when Dave got the offer of going to his high school reunion, he hooked us up with Drew ______ who is working at Turnagain United Methodist Church for the summer.
I had never met Drew and he had never met any of you. So, when he asked a bunch of questions, I sent him an e-mail trying to describe this congregation. While it doesn’t really pertain to the sermon at all, I thought I’d let you know what it is that I told him.
Drew, thanks for preaching. Dave ________ had been the 9th person I had checked. You’re #10 (but first in my heart for being able!).
The Congregation: Small, informal feel, very forgiving, able to roll with punches. You can check out our website for things that are important to us or my blog to get a sense of their pastor. This is a church that Superintendent Dennis _____ “barked” during a sermon several years ago because it’s the first church he felt comfortable enough in which to do so. He thought we could handle it.
It’s a congregation that has some very liberal and very conservative folks. It’s a congregation that ASKED for communion to be held every week 12 years ago and it is done with joy…people smiling, people laughing, and kids asking for “a big piece” of bread. They allow me to be very colloquial and I’ve been able to tackle some difficult issues with, I hope, love. We use a traditional format but it feels very laid back…really it does. Honest!
We have focused a lot on ministry in the community but confess that our building process has sapped a lot of energy from us over the last 6 years. It’s been a long road and we celebrate every step that gets us closer to the new building being occupied.
We have an 8:30 AM service (which averages about 5 in attendance and I love them) and a 10 AM which averages about 60-70 (but will be smaller with the 7 Doepkens out of town).
I want to reiterate that this is a congregation that will go with whatever. They laugh at jokes. They’ll respond to your questions if you want them to be thinking about points. They are game for video (although probably not what you want as a guest preacher). If you have a fun youth song you’d like to do for children’s time or a song you’d like to teach them, great. If you want to bear your soul, they’ll listen. They appreciate heartfelt prayer and they know how to both praise God and offer up some difficult questions. It’s a good place to lead worship.
I just thought you might like to know that.
But, as we get to the sermon I want to tell you that, while Drew was preaching here, I was learning a lot in Nashville. I heard a lot. I experienced a lot. Great stories. Great preaching. A lot of African American worship leaders and a whole lot of “Amens.” And all along I got to hear how it is that communities of faith, across the nation and, indeed, around the world, are trying to live out God’s love with those they come into contact with on a daily basis.
I wish this wasn’t a novel idea. (Amen?) I wish this wasn’t something we need to be reminded of. (Amen?) I wish this was something that was just second nature to us. (Amen?)
But it’s not. (Congregation, on their own, responded with “AMEN!”) We need to be reminded. We need to be reminded to love.
That scripture passage from 1 Corinthians which we read this morning. It’s a pretty passage. It’s a “nice” passage. For those of us who have had it read at our weddings (which is a whole lot of us) when we hear “and the greatest of these is love” we can turn to that special someone in our lives and go… “Ahh…” And for the married folk, we can think to our own little selves, “He’s talkin’ about us, darlin’.”
And that’s what we often think of as love in this world.
But the “love” that Paul talks about here is not some ooey, gooey, puddle of self-satisfied love. No, it’s hard-hittin’ revolutionary stuff. (Amen? Amen!)
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
This is love WAY beyond a dozen roses. This is the kind of love that changes people…that changes situations…that changes the world.
And it’s hard.
The last night in Nashville, all that love discussion under my belt and hearing about leadership in the small church and schmoozing with church leaders and getting’ ready to hear Tony Campolo speak, I went out to dinner with Sheila and Leila _____ from our conference. That afternoon Sheila and I had gone to a ministry in a poor section of Nashville where a church from the suburbs had sent in a pastor to live in that poor section and be in ministry with the underprivileged, forgotten, hurt people and work for economic justice and social justice…putting feet on their love in a difficult neighborhood.
But before we went into the city, we went to the suburbs for worship at the parent church. They were huge…about eight-thousand members. Something like that. I don’t know. And their contemporary service had a band that was awesome. On the way to dinner that night, I was trying to describe the band to Leila and I said it was “tight” and “crazy good” and “sick.”
The only problem was there was a gentleman in front of us who overheard part of this conversation. I assume was homeless and I assume had some emotional issues going on. I think he thought my mention of “sick” was referring to him. And he turned and he yelled. And he was angry. And I was nervous. And I was trying to find a way just to get around him and get to the restaurant without really having to look him in the eyes. And I did.
There was no “patient and kind” from me at that time. My love didn’t “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things.” My love only endured to the point that I started to feel uncomfortable.
After dinner, I was first out of the restaurant. There was a beggar on the street. The beggar looked at me, wearing my $14 straw hat I picked up on the trip, and said, “Nice hat. Are you a minister?” I don’t know if he had seen a lot of ministers over those few days or I was looking particularly clerical that evening. Maybe it was the hat. But, since he now knew I was a Christian…and more…a MINISTER…I felt like I should show what love I could at that time. I couldn’t address the underlying reasons for his presence on the street that night. I don’t know what job he may have had and lost. I don’t know what ailment had him fall on hard times. I don’t know what REALLY was going on. But I could give him some money…in the hopes that it went toward some food.
Love is hard.
Girdwood is not Nashville. And, thank God, Girdwood doesn’t have Nashville’s heat right now. It was 90 degrees and humid the whole time I was gone. But we do have among us those who are challenging to love at times. And, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we will be among those who are “challenging to love at times.” (Amen? Amen.)
Each of us has our circles…our friends and relationships…our comfort zones. They are the people who may work where we work or who have kids the same age as our kids or who have lived in the community about the same amount of time as we have. They may be the people we serve on committees with (Lions Club has their Humpy Fest next week!) They may be the people we run with or party with or look like or vote like or think like or live with.
And, getting outside of that safe area can be a challenge. How do we reach out to them? What would love look like?
We say, in this place, that we want to be followers of Jesus. That’s nice.
We are those who believe in a God of love. That’s nice.
We think service is a good idea and that we are the ones who benefit, really, when we act like Jesus…love like Jesus…to those around us. That’s nice.
We have a church that has a mission statement of “Love God. Love others. Change the world.” And we say that we want love to come to town…to this town through the presence and action of this church in this place. And that we want to see a change because of this. That’s…nice.
But we can be pretty lousy with love…not just with those who look different or think different or talk different or smell different or who act different. Sometimes we’re pretty lousy with love in our own families…in how we treat our spouses…in how we treat our kids…in what we say behind people’s back. And we can be pretty lousy with it in our love for God. We, very rarely, are the people God would like us to be. We’re lousy lovers.
And we have good company. We, collectively, have a history here.
From the moment Adam and Eve ate some fruit, the story was set in motion that we’d have issues with love. Then Cain kills Abel out of Jealousy. Josephs brothers sell him into slavery. David kills a man for the affections of his wife.
And even though our God would say about himself in Exodus 34:6: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” almost all of our story is about how unloving we have been. Jeremiah notes how we loved foreign gods. Isaiah talks of how we loved bribes and treated the poor poorly. Micah even needed to remind us to love mercy.
We lied about our love. We twisted our love. Our love was self-serving. It wasn’t love at all. How could we learn about love? How could we see it in action? How could we experience it anew? What could God do with us or for us or…even more…IN US.
John’s gospel includes that famous television-ready Bible verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
Earlier it says this (John 1:14-18):
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
I love how Peterson’s The Message translation puts it here:
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
Like the hymn that says, “Love Came Down at Christmas,” it’s here that “Love Comes to Town.” Love moves into the neighborhood. Love puts on flesh and walks among us. Love was born of a poor woman in an obscure Middle Eastern town. Love was tempted not to love. Love turned water into wine to save a wedding feast. Love healed a crippled man who was lowered through a roof. Love walked on water. Love reached out to a woman, an unclean woman who had been bleeding for years. Love challenged Nicodemus at night to be born again and Love reached out to a despised Samaritan woman at the well and offered her “living water.”
Love made lunch with just a few fishes and loaves. Love spoke from a Mountain to say that it’s peacemakers who are blessed and those who are poor and hungry and weeping…and you know these are hard words to hear when you are rich and full and happy. Love took bread and broke it and a cup and blessed it. It was given to the whole world. Love in action. Love in the flesh. Love in word and deed.
Love came to town and the town rose up against Love. We put Love on trial. We convicted Love. We whipped and beat love. We abused Love. We mocked Love. We marched Love up to Calvary and we nailed Love to the cross for all the world to see…to see just what it is that we do to Love
And Love died.
We had been killing Love for thousands of years…through action and inaction. And now that God’s love was made manifest in God’s very own Son, we killed it off. Didn’t want any of it. Didn’t want the challenge. We had other things we sure liked a whole lot better than love. Easier things.
We buried Love and Love stayed in the grave for three days…just long enough to let everyone know that Love was dead…that we had given it our best…and our best was the absolute worst you can imagine…………
Three days later Love gets up. Love walks around. Love teaches again. Love preaches again. Love breaks bread again. Love pulls together. Love builds up. And Love says, I am going to live in each and every one of you. YOU will have my love. You will be my Love. YOU be the Love that comes to your town. YOU will be the Love that comes to THIS town. Amen? Amen.
Look, I want us to love this town and the people here. I want us to love our spouses more fully. I want us to love our kids and try to teach them and raise them in such a way that they learn about Love and learn to Love…maybe not how we do…but how Jesus did himself. I’m a long way from that myself.
Can we love like that?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.