Sermon of the Week:
Love One Another–How to See God
Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Keywords: Feelings, Agape, God is Love, Stewardship, The Kirk. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
So, I’ve been swirling around with a slew of emotions lately.
How about you?
As I’ve been checking in with people, this is one of the things I’m asking about.
How are you?
How are you feeling these days?
How is it with your spirit?
I’m not meaning to trick anyone with these questions,
but sometimes when I ask people these things, they don’t have a lot to share.
Some of my friends consider themselves rather stoic when it comes to their feelings.
A couple of them deny that they even have any feelings,
though I know better.
I’ll tell them: I’ve seen joy on their face
(that’s what a Kansas City Royals World Series, Chiefs Superbowl win can do
even for the most staid fan)
and I’ve seen their pain and heartache too,
these friends who say they don’t often feel emotions.
Even so, they do find ways of not reacting to a lot of what is going on around them.
As we continue through these unusually stressful and anxious days
I wonder how these friends are doing,
because some of them keep so much bottled up inside.
These are the stiff-upper-lip people in my life—
be strong, because those around you “need you to be strong,”
don’t cry, because for some reason “you’re not supposed to cry…”
(It is amazing what we tell ourselves about our feelings)
stay focused, if you’re gonna get through this…
or, sometimes, they’re just not as connected with their feelings, that’s sometimes part of it,
they don’t quite know what it is they’re feeling,
or they’ve pushed them down, for one reason or another.
Or sometimes what they’re feeling isn’t mine to know, mine to share.
And they don’t really feel like sharing it, you know?
That’s ok too.
And then I have another set of friends, the polar opposite of that first bunch,
who wear every feeling on their sleeve, as the expression goes.
I need exactly 0.025 seconds to assess what they’re going through
jubilation or stress or magnanimity or consternation or hunger
because tears come easily, as do smiles, or furrowed brows
emoting their emotions as a way to let them flow out
as creatively as some musicians can effortlessly burst forth into song
as naturally as an illustrator doodles magnificent cartoons
on a scrap of paper while they’re waiting for the kettle to sing.
I also ask these people how they’re doing,
even though I often have a sense already,
because I want them to know I’m interested, and that I see them,
and that I can feel along with them, that I know they feel all the feels
and that that’s ok.
I’ve been checking in with people lately.
It seems as if almost all of my friends, of both kinds, are exhausted.
Navigating a Covid world with masks and social distancing isn’t easy
and it’s so frustrating:
there are millions of things we want to do but can’t do
and all sorts of experiences we’re missing out on
some of them really important experiences,
like being with loved ones who are sick
or loved ones who are getting married
or loved ones over thanksgiving ritual
and it is exhausting keeping a stiff upper lip about that
or crying or fretting about it so much, on the other hand, all the time.
It’s not just Covid, of course.
I have friends who are deeply engaged in the struggle for racial justice right now
some of whom are conflicted because of deep concern for loved ones who are in law enforcement
as well as for people of color in their lives
and our shared understanding of the need to fight racism together.
It has been a lot for them, for all of us, this summer, this fall.
There’s a lot of good and a lot of hope that has come out this struggle, as hard as it has been.
And I’ve also been speaking to a lot of people about this election we just had, a lot,
many of them worried about our future, worried about what is broken,
more than a few people yearning for politics to become boring again, a bit less drama,
and some others for whom these things have never been boring
because it directly impacts their lives, their safety, their wellbeing.
Some have felt a big weight come off their shoulders this week
and they’re feeling genuine relief or satisfaction or hope…
but others I’m talking to don’t share that.
And I don’t know anyone who thinks that the future is going to be easy.
We’re so divided, it seems.
Point being that if you feel exhausted in the midst of all this feeling, there’s a reason for it.
And that’s true whether you don’t allow yourself much emotional reaction to any of it at all,
for one reason or another,
or if you are a big walking talking billboard of feeling
or if, like me, you’re sort of in the middle of these options
just trying to navigate all these things in your own way, hopefully a healthy, helpful way.
I’ve been trying to take my own temperature through all of this.
I’m not on one end or the other
of this range of possibility in how we handle expressing our emotions—
I’m somewhere in the middle. A lot of us are.
I’m in touch with my feelings, some of the time,
though they can sneak up on me when I’m not expecting them to.
Like when glass ceilings break and I see my daughters watching
the first ever female vice-president-elect address the nation
and yeah I get a bit weepy at it all.
I have people with whom I can share my feelings
and thanks be to God for that
but I carry them with me a lot
often worrying about burdening others with them
sometimes knowing that I have a particular responsibility at the moment
so it’s better to hold off on those feels if I can
until there’s a better time.
But because I know there’s a lot going on right now,
I’ll often do this check in with people:
How are you doing today?
How is it with your spirit?
How can I help walk with you?
I didn’t start my sermon writing this weekend
planning to reflect so much on feeling and emotions
but I think that’s where a lot of us are today,
so we should pay some attention to it, it seems to me.
The original plan has been for us to talk about God, and about love.
That’s our stewardship theme for this year: Love One Another.
And It is right there in the reading for today:
Beloved, let’s love one another,
Because love is from God
Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
That’s four mentions of love, in the first verse alone.
But love is a feeling, isn’t it?
It is every much a part of our emotional life
as is anxiety and stress, hope and contentment, anger and relief.
And we know that love is an important emotion for people of faith,
and deeply important concept, an essential idea.
Some might argue, as the Apostle Paul did, that it is the most important concept:
and now faith, hope and love abide, Paul wrote,
these three, and the greatest of these is love….
So another way to check in with one another these days,
one way to check in with yourself, is to ask specifically about love:
Where have you felt love in your life lately?
Who do you find yourself loving?
Where are your struggling with love these days?
How is your love for people making you feel when you can’t be as close to them?
So let’s talk a bit about love this morning.
We talk a lot about Love in the church.
It has been that way as long as I can remember.
The churches of my childhood taught me about faith and hope and love
and how all of our gifts and skills and abilities are most useful, most alive, most helpful
most faithful when they are animated by love, when they serve loving purposes.
That was what Paul was talking about, if you remember, or if you’ve ever heard it at a wedding:
If I can move mountains, Paul mused,
If I can understand all mysteries
but have not love,
I am a noisy gong, and clanging symbol…
But when the gifts and skills and abilities you have are rooted in love, animated by love
good things will happen, for you, for others, for the world God is working to build.
In this sense, Love is something we all can experience,
we all can share.
It is a gift, a spiritual gift, that helps focus and empower our other gifts toward a good end.
But what exactly is it?
Well, Paul tried to explain what love is:
Love is patient. Love is kind. It is not boastful or arrogant or irritable or rude,
it doesn’t insist just on its own way…
but even that effort at explaining it reveals how hard it is to pin down
just what it is we mean when we’re talking about Love.
But we know that it is important
that we all feel it
that we all long for it
and that it matters to God.
When I was a student intern, way back in seminary,
in my first ever church community as a pastor in training,
I was often asked to lead the time with children
at the small little church in Chicago that gently and graciously
cared for me and loved me
as I stumbled through learning how to lead a community in worship.
I would often gather the kids together
on the little platform there in the front of the sanctuary
and I would start talking to them about the theme of the day.
This is always so fun, for me, talking to kids about churchy things.
And after about three or four weeks, I noticed an interesting pattern.
I would say hello to them
and tell them how glad I was to see them
and then I’d say a few words to summarize the bible story of the week
and then I’d ask them a few simple, age appropriate questions.
But it didn’t really matter what the questions were.
There was always the first kid, who would raise her hand straight up into the air
so excited, she was, maybe six or seven years old,
and I would call on her
and she would always smile and answer “Jesus.”
That was her answer. Always.
Why do you think that that Noah built a big boat? Jesus!
How do you think that the father felt when the prodigal son left and went so far away? Jesus!
How many times are we supposed to forgive someone? Jesus!
Now, that’s not a bad answer, right, but
it felt like someone got to that kid and told her
that the pastor was looking for them to answer Jesus, so what could it hurt to just say that?
Incidentally, that has held up in most of the churches I been to since, by the way,
there usually is someone who will answer Jesus during the children’s sermon. Every time.
There are also a lot of grown-ups who repeat answers that they think others want to hear.
It’s sometimes easier that way.
But here’s the interesting thing: there was also always another kid
who had a different, but just as consistent, answer.
To my questions, that kid would always answer “love.”
That was his answer. Love. To everything.
Why do you think that that Noah built a big boat? Love!
How do you think that the father felt when the prodigal son left and went so far away? Love!
How many times are we supposed to forgive someone? Love! Love Love!
And so I noticed this, and the next Sunday,
during children’s time,
I asked the kids the question:
What is your favorite thing about going to church?
And the first kid would say with a big smile Jesus!
and the other kid would follow without skipping a beat Love!
and the church applauded
and someone told me I was doing a great job.
And I later told the kids
that they were amazing
and that Jesus and Love were almost always the right answer
In the church, and in life….
We talk a lot about Love in the church
as much as we talk about Jesus
as much as we talk about God.
And there is a reason for that.
God is love, as we heard today.
We know God most clearly when we love, through the very act of loving.
We learn how to love by watching and learning from Jesus.
Jesus teaches the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbor.
It is pretty clear that Love is kinda a big deal.
But, again, what do we mean by Love, exactly?
This can get complicated rather quickly,
in part because the English language wraps together a lot of different feelings,
several different intentions,
many different relationships under that word ‘Love’.
So I can say
I love this pen (it is useful)
I love that sunset (it is beautiful)
I love you, will you be my friend, will you listen to me, will you marry me
(depending on the context)…
and I mean something different with each use of the word ‘Love’.
Turning to the dictionary doesn’t exactly help:
Love is an intense feeling of deep affection, it says..
in other words, love is when you have strong positive feelings about something…
but that doesn’t seem to be what our scripture text is getting at
when we say God is Love, and that those who abide in Love abide in God.
Is the Love we’re talking about just the things we feel really really strongly about,
in a positive sense,
that intense feeling of deep affection?
No, not really.
When we talk about Love in the church,
we’re translating a particular Greek word: agape.
The Greeks had many of different words to describe love,
and so they could more easily distinguish
between love for one’s favorite sports team
and love for your best friend
or love for your partner and spouse.
And so when the Bible talks about the kind of love we’re talking about, agape love,
they mean something more than just a strong positive feeling about something:
they’re talking about relationships, about people,
and a feeling of concern for the wellbeing of another.
an expression of empathy and compassion and affection for them.
Other expressions of love are often wonderful, and useful, and important,
but they’re not what we’re talking about here.
For us, for today,
when we try to understand
why we talk so much about love in the church,
Agape is the outward expression of concern and empathy and compassion for another
which we share because God shares that same concern and compassion and empathy for us
and which we experience most directly, most powerfully,
in God’s love through Jesus the Christ.
This is why we talk so much about love at church.
At the heart of what it means to be Christian, Jesus taught us,
is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength,
and to love our neighbor as ourself.
Loving, in this context, means that we care about the wellbeing of others
friends, children, parents, neighbors, even our enemies.
And we believe that when we do that,
hard though it might be sometimes,
we experience God at the heart of it
we abide with God, to use the language of our reading today
and it changes us, enlivens us, transforms us
because, lets face it,
it is such a better way to live than the alternative:
to harbor bitterness or indifference or enmity toward other people.
One of my particular feelings of sadness of late
is seeing so many people rooted in bitterness or indifference or enmity
against one another these days
rather than finding ways to nurture love for others.
But there is an antidote.
To be a Christian is to have compassion, concern, empathy for all.
That’s why we talk about love so much here
because we want to learn about it, to help it take root
to have this love guide our loves, for Jesus’ sake, for God’s sake, for the sake of the world.
As we mentioned, this is Stewardship season at the Kirk
a time for us to think through the basic things that we aspire toward as a church
as a people God calls together and empowers to do a particular thing,
namely, to build relationships, to love one another because of Jesus.
I’ve thought a lot about how different Stewardship is for us, this year,
about what challenges we all face, and in particular how our church has had to adapt and shift
and try new things.
But the heart of a church is love: love for one another, love for the world around us, love for Jesus.
Love is always, always the right answer.
And because of this church, because of you,
I am constantly reminded of the importance of nurturing love in my life,
finding ways to choose empathy and compassion and concern for other people,
as a basic tenet of what it means to be a person of faith.
That is such a gift during these trying times.
It helps me understand what it means to stand for justice,
to both lift up those who deserve justice,
and to seek accountability and a change of heart for those who are responsible for injustice.
It guides me in always leaving the door open for reconciliation.
It urges me to find ways to join those who are working for peace.
And it teaches me that everything we do is about the people we meet,
not about being right all the time,
not about winning, or about success, and certainly not about judging others.
Everything we do is about love,
and if the other things I do are not also loving,
I’ll just be a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.
But if I can ground what I do, whatever it is we’re talking about,
in care and compassion and concern for the other,
then look out!
There is a moment where God will shine, for all to see.
The Kirk has been that kind of community for sixty years: community minded, loving and serving.
We’ll talk more, next week, about our work as a church.
It is enough for today for us to acknowledge and celebrate how this church helps us grow in love
how we teach love for one another as the cornerstone of our faith. Thanks be to God.
Every week during this pandemic I’ve encouraged you to check in with one another,
or if you’re new to us and watching online,
to connect with those around you: your neighbors, your work colleagues, whomever.
That is because this is an act of love,
and act of concern and compassion and empathy for others, particularly those we interact with.
One way to do that is by using those questions I mentioned at the start of this sermon:
How are you doing today?
How is it with your spirit?
How can I help walk with you?
And as you do that,
I invite you to listen with loving attention,
no matter how you experience your feelings and your emotions.
Think about how Jesus listens to you when you answer those questions,
knows you intimately, and loves you as you are,
and as you ponder that,
marvel at how God creates an opportunity, right there, to be part of the Kingdom of God.
And when we do that, do not be surprised
when God shows up,
because God is love, and those who love Abide in God
and God Abides in them.
May it be so. Amen.