The Sunday Sermon: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 20, 2017
Scripture: 1 John 4:20
Love is an Act of Courage
Let us pray …
Back in two thousand and two (fifteen years ago), as I was discerning my sense of call beyond my first call as an Associate Pastor at Highland Pres., I found myself scheduled for an interview at First Presbyterian Church in New York City in late February of 2002. I did some research on the church and its Pastors prior to contacting them, and then did much more to prepare for my conversation, my interview, with them. Along with talking to some colleagues and mentors and checking their on-line presence for mission and ministry engagement, I went to the sermon page of their website to read a few of the Pastor, Head-of-Staff’s, sermons.
I read a sermon preached by Jon Walton, the senior Pastor, from September 23rd of the previous calendar year. That was, of course, two Sundays after Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I don’t remember the title exactly, but it was something like, Not in My Opinion, with an emphasis on the word “opinion,” even in the printing. The sermon was a response to a comment that had been shared with him after his sermon on September 16th, the Sunday immediately after Tuesday, September 11th (2001). In that sermon, the message on the 16th, Reverend Walton had preached on forgiveness and reconciliation, daring to suggest, just five days after this national tragedy that we will have to take a look at our own culpability in the events of that day, that our country has exacted a toll from other nations in order to maintain and protect our privileged way of life, and that, when the time is right we’ll have to do some of our own soul-searching. That challenge is difficult for us to hear today, sixteen years later. I can only imagine how it landed on many only five days after the attack – and in New York City, itself. I know it challenged at least one of Dr. Walton’s parishioners.
It was this person’s comment that provided the seed for the next Sunday’s sermon. As Dr. Walton remembered it, after his message on the 16th, one of his parishioners shook his hand in the back of the church as all were leaving and thanked him for “his opinion” on the events of September 11th and our required Christian response in the days, months, years, and now decades that followed.
The sermon of September 23rd preceded to engage the understanding that a Pastor’s sermon, delivered from the Pulpit, or anywhere, on a Sunday morning, or any day or time during a Service of the Lord’s Day, was his (or her) “opinion.” Rather, he noted, with deep humility, that the sermon, the primary proclamation of the Good News in a service of worship, was the Word of the Lord (with “thanks and glory to God”), not the opinion of the Pastor.
That’s a tough one, isn’t it? Especially tough the better you know the Pastor, the more intimately you know me, in our case in Pewee Valley. My wife knows me most intimately here. She calls this kind of thing “playing the God card,” and she tells me once in a while that I’m good at cards (!). But … it’s true.
There’s a point at which a Pastor, where ever his or her call may be, or however reticent he or she may find themselves, must insist that “this is not me pronouncing,” these are not simply my thoughts on the matter. These are the pronunciations of God, this is the mind of God, this is God’s “opinion” on the matter. It’s a tough one because that pronunciation and opinion must always come through a flawed human’s mind and voice, but that is the authority given to Pastor’s by the Presbyterian denomination after years of scholarship and training and, more importantly, that’s the authority given to a Pastor by a particular congregation, the authority given to Dr. Walton by his congregation in 2001 and given to me by you since 2008. And I don’t want you pity me, or Dr. Walton, or any other Pastor when I tell you that this authority is not a power we possess over you, but a burden we bear for you, or more accurately “with” you. The “God card.”
In our scripture reading this morning, one verse, the author of the first letter of John plays a God card. Listen … not for the opinion of John … but for the Word of the Lord: Read 1 John 4:20 …
Those who say, ”I love God,” and hate their brothers and 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.
The Word of (pause) the Lord … Thanks be to God.
Like all of you, I was deeply disturbed and dismayed by the events in Charlottesville, VA over a week ago. We prayed for those events and with those involved them last Sunday, but as the day wore on and the days after provided responses from our President and the lack of responses from too many other national political leaders, my dismay turned to despair. I found solace in other’s words, clergy who were there a week ago yesterday and those who gathered throughout the past week as well as a few our political representatives. I found myself powerfully identifying with some words shared by a Representative from Massachusetts Joe Kennedy.
I’m fifty-two years old, seventeen years older than Mr. Kennedy. I, too, have never lived in a country where men and women could be bought and sold. I, too, have no memory of a country where separate bathrooms were required for whites and for “coloreds.” I have never lived in a country where followers of a faith were marked with a patch or worked in a place where women were denied employment. I have always taken for granted that freedom from fear was not only a gift given by God, but a right bestowed upon every citizen of our country. As long as I can remember, I’ve read about and watched other countries, not all certainly, but far too many, discriminate against their own citizens because of the color of their skin, their gender, their faith, and/or their sexual orientation. I’ve watched and I’ve taken solace in the “fact” that our country, the United States of America was different. That our country, while deeply in need of constant self-evaluation and transformation, was a country where everyone is seen and heard and “counts.”
But for the first time in my life, I’m worried for our country, not because of foreign terrors, but because of domestic ones. We are divided and being more deeply divided over contemporary disputes by powers and principalities that are as ancient as time. We can point fingers at individuals or groups, and the powers at work are certainly active in many of those involved in groups, but we are being divided by fear and anxiety, by hate and by lies. As fear and anxiety seep into our minds and our lives, we too begin to fear and then to hate. Driven by our anxieties over whether or not there will be enough or whether or not we will be secure, we begin to become hate-mongers and … liars.
The verse we just read from the first epistle of John is a radical affirmation that allows no question about interpretations. In every single one of the translations I looked at this week (and I looked at eight of them, from King James to the Good News to Eugene Peterson’s The Message) calls anyone and everyone who would profess love for God, but not love for your brother or sister, a “liar.” In no way can there be denial about this statement. Whether your “brother or sister” is related by blood, or a neighbor, or an in-law, or among the recent immigrant populations, or gay, or black, or Jewish, or Muslim, you cannot love God without loving the persons who are within your line of vision. That’s not John’s opinion. That’s not the opinion of the legion of translators of the ancient Greek texts. That’s not my opinion as the preacher this morning. That is the Word of God. God who is Love. Go back and read verse eight of this chapter. Verse twenty is a radical affirmation of the nature of God and of anyone who would profess to give their hearts to God …
That’s another tough one.
I know that everyone of us can conjure up at least two or three faces of those we could easily say “we do not love.” In our own families or communities, I’ll bet. But certainly anyone carrying a swastika emblazoned flag in Charlottesville over a week ago, or anyone refusing to condemn the hatred that that symbol, those groups, and any individuals who espouse the hatred these groups hold.
Our verse is not the only instance when situations are described with pointedness and heat. The time and place in which the letters of John were written is unattainable with the sources we have to date, but it’s impossible to imagine anything other than that some very specific people or parties are in his view. Quite obviously 1 John is criticizing the behavior of certain “so-called” Christians. But is he describing opponents, or separatists (like our modern day neo-Nazis) or is he admonishing those with whom he still feels a bond (like our modern day counter-protestors)? Is John condemning the “lack of love” of those who are warping the Gospel message, or is he chastising the faithful Christians in the community who are responding to violence and hate with violence and hate?
Yes. He is.
There really is no way around it. We cannot use God, the “God” we have created, to justify any act of violence we undertake, even acts that are in response to bigotry and hatred and violence against us. The writer of 1 John, the writers of our Gospels, and in those Gospels Jesus himself, will not allow us to do that. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the writer of these letters of John, and Jesus himself, do not understand “love” as a description of one attribute of God. Rather “Love” names “God.” Love is the way in which God is God. Jesus didn’t love simply when it was easy or convenient. He loved when it was decidedly inconvenient, even while dying on a cross. The Gospel of John’s recording of Jesus before Pilate suggests things could have been different on the day Jesus was tried and convicted. “If my kingdom were of this world,” Jesus tells Pilate, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being” killed. John 18:36 If Jesus’ kingdom was earthly then there would be violence, righteous as we may wish to call it. “But as it is,” Jesus finishes, “my kingdom is not from” this world. Neither is ours. A choice was made. We, too, must choose. There can be no violence and no hate …
Salvation, the truest, deepest, most meaningful understanding of salvation, lies not simply in something someone else did. But in something we, too, must do. Love one another.
That’s yet another tough one.
What are we supposed to do if we can’t act in any way needed, even violently, against injustice and hatred and evil in this world? What’s the alternative? “The alternative to violence is, of course, nonviolence – nonviolent resistance.” We must engage, I am engaging. But we do it nonviolently. We engage powerfully in this way because of our faith in the future, a faith that truth and justice will prevail, on earth as it does … elsewhere. We do it spiritually, not just physically. We do it by engaging the forces of evil at work in our lives and in the world, rather than the persons who are caught up in this evil. We do it not to humiliate those we are engaging, but to work always toward reconciliation with them. And finally, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded decades ago, we do it with courage. Nonviolence is not a method for cowards. (Christian Century magazine, 1956.) Love is an act of courage. .
The love of Christ, the Love that is God, the love that we hear in scripture’s first letter to John, is so unique that early Christians took an old colorless Greek word that was rarely used and adopted it for their own purposes. That word is agape, love that gives without expecting a return, sacrificial love. God is agape. Jesus’ death was an act of agape. We are commanded to agape one another. And there’s nothing easy about it. Hatred is easy. Violence is easy. Love, agape love, is hard. But there’s nothing in this world more needed, more essential. It’s the only thing that will save us.
Let it begin with you.
At some point this week, reach out to someone who is different than you – someone who looks different, who thinks different, who acts differently than you – and accept them as your brother and sister. You don’t have to have them over for dinner. You don’t have to explain anything to them. They don’t even have to know what you’re doing. That’s not what this is about. Just accept them as your brother or sister. And then do it again with someone else different from you. And again, and again, and again, and again. It’s about basic human dignity and basic respect for all who are in your line of vision. It’s not an option, it’s a demand of the Gospel, a commandment of the Christ those Gospels reveal to us, and of the communities that gather in his name, from the first ones to the last ones.
“Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God.“ We profess our love of God. May we have the courage to love one another.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / August 20, 2017