This is the sermon I preached at Garland Ave UMC on Sunday, May 17th. Granted, when I preach it is NEVER word for word what I've written out, but this gives you the general idea.
When I was a kid I had a ton of books. Well, I still do, but now they’re totally different kinds of books collected over years of schooling. Anyway, one whole wall of my room was made of built in book shelves, which was more space than I needed for my collection, so many of shelves held books that belonged to my parents. Every now and again I’d get curious and would look through them for interesting titles but inevitably I’d get bored and go back to my own shelves and pull one of my worn out favorites. I had several of these books that I flipped thru or read over and over again. One was a collection of Peanuts cartoons, another was an oversized children’s bible with lots of great pictures, and another was a book of Norman Rockwell pictures. I’ve always loved photography and visual art, and Norman Rockwell became a favorite of mine. I couldn’t really tell you why, but looking back I think I fell in love with his work when I saw his Golden Rule picture. I don’t know if any of you have seen it, but it has the text of the golden rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – written in gold lettering on a dark grey stone, almost like it was engraved. And then it’s surrounded by faces of people from all around the world, particularly children in native costume. It captured my attention the first time I saw it - the eyes of the young girl from India or Pakistan seemed to bore into mine - and really got me to consider who these “others” were and what it really meant to live out those words. It’s such a powerful image that the UN building in NYC actually has a version that’s a huge mosaic. It’s one of the highlights of the tour, if you ever get the chance to go I recommend it. When I first saw it at the UN, I was intrigued because it seemed to be such a promotion of religious ideals. But it’s not necessarily a religious message; I somehow made the association at a young age that the golden rule was a Christian idea. It was later when I was in college that I discovered it to be used in many world religions and I fell in love with the idea that there was at least some nugget of scripture that truly was universal, that perhaps we do have more in common with our brothers and sisters around the world.
So what does that picture have to do with us and our scripture? Well, in case you missed it, the theme and word for today is love. This probably isn’t a new idea for most of us – hopefully not for any of us – but I think what many people boil the concept of love down to is essentially the golden rule. In the gospel of John, Jesus is explaining his commandment to the disciples (and to us) that we are to love one another. But if you notice, he doesn’t use the words of the golden rule. We aren’t told to love someone else as we love ourselves but as HE loves us. This is really a totally different concept. What Jesus is asking us to do is much different, and much harder. After all, how much do we really love ourselves? Would it be so hard to love everyone else the same amount? We constantly talk down to ourselves, beat ourselves up, second guess our instincts, and more. If we treated everyone else that way, what kind of families would there be and what kind of world would we have. But to love someone else as Jesus has loved us – that’s something wholly different, even radical. Can we really do it? Jesus loved us so much he literally gave up his life for us. Do we have to literally die for someone else to live up to what he asks of us? And he’s not just asking, but commanding us to do this. What will happen if we don’t? How do you command an emotion? What does he really mean?
We generally think of love as a feeling, something that we develop for people as we come to know them. It’s an emotion that grows as we value the person more and more. People we’ve never met are valued for the fact that they are people, but we can only feel love for them on a superficial level. Jesus was anything but superficial, so that can’t be all. If we look at the word love in the gospels, it gets used as both a noun and a verb. In this gospel reading alone the word is used NINE TIMES! Looking at the whole gospel of John, the verb form of love is used 5 times as often as the noun (37 times vs 9, respectively). One of my seminary professors used to always say, “If it’s repeated, it must be important,” so by that logic the idea that we’re supposed to love one another is pretty darn important, as is the fact that love is a verb – it’s an action. Love can’t just be a warm fuzzy emotion that we feel when we really like someone. It’s a matter of will. Did you ever have a fight with a brother or sister when you were a child and you were told to say you were sorry even though you didn’t mean it? Perhaps you didn’t mean it right away, but looking back on it later, perhaps you realized why it needed to be said anyway and you really did love them. Your parents weren’t forcing your emotions any more than Jesus is doing here – the point is to act out love and not let the angry emotion of the moment take over. Likewise, Jesus is telling us that love is a conscious decision to act on our part, an act of will and compassion for someone else. It means overcoming our fear and taking a risk. Let me give you an example.
(This is actually referring to an incident I blogged about a little while ago. You can read the original post here.) I was in the drive thru at Burger King one day on my lunch break and as I was pulling away with my bag full of food, a man with a bedraggled appearance walked up to my car window (which was still rolled down) and asked me for some money so he could get a burger. I reacted quickly – whether I thought he was going to rob me or use the money I gave him for drugs or whatever, I couldn’t really process until later – and I told him I had used all my money to get my own lunch. This was mostly true – I had used the last of my cash and only had maybe 50 cents in change but that wasn’t really the point. I could just have easily had $20 in my wallet and I know I wouldn’t have given it to him. Besides, wouldn’t that 50 cents put him much closer to buying a burger? And did I really need that huge burger and all those fries myself? Let’s face it – I’m obviously not in danger of starving to death anytime soon. And this man may or may not have been in dire need of that burger; how could I know? But I didn’t offer him anything – I told him I was sorry and I drove off back to my office. I hadn’t driven a block before I felt ashamed of myself. I knew that it wasn’t the Christian thing to do, that I was not living up to this commandment Jesus has given us here. Fear took over and I didn’t have the impulse, the love, to reach out and act anyway. There are of course, many other examples we could share with each other, I’m sure, but I want to make a point here to let you know that this is not all to say that emotions are bad. Yes, we can get carried away with them and they can take over our actions at times, but God also gave us emotions for a reason and they shouldn’t just get pushed aside or ignored. The trick is to balance it out. You feel fear for a reason – perhaps you sense that this person is dangerous. Then use that feeling to prepare yourself and adjust HOW you reach out to them – don’t NOT reach out at all. Perhaps you take a friend along, perhaps you give food directly rather than giving money that you fear will be used in a negative way, etc. There are ways to value your emotions and still overcome the fear that inhibits you from taking that loving action.
In other ways, our emotions aren’t the issue at all. Sometimes we act wrongly as an institution, as a church. I heard a sermon preached at a large church here in our area once, and the pastor was talking about a study he had done asking young adults and youth what they knew and thought about Christianity. Over and over again he heard answers that were along the lines of saying that Christianity is against homosexuality and they didn’t know what to do with that since they had friends who were gay. They saw an image of Christianity that was about judgment and exclusion and saying who is and isn’t allowed to participate in God’s love. In many cases this isn’t even done politely, if there’s way to do that politely, but it’s done very vocally with hateful language. Is this the image Jesus would be proud to see for his followers? At one point Gandhi was asked about his feelings about Christianity, and, to paraphrase badly, he said I don’t really like your Christians – they seem nothing like your Christ. OUCH! We’re getting it exactly wrong. Regardless of what you personally feel about a person, as a Christian you are called to act in love. We can accept homosexuals and we can talk to the scruffy guy on the street – we can and we should because Jesus did it for us. To be in relationship with Jesus and with God means that we love one another in the same way we have been loved by God. It can be a hard thing for us to learn. And it was hard for the disciples as we see in the Acts reading. Peter certainly didn’t get it right away.
In this passage from Acts we get the last half of the story – that he baptized these Gentiles who amazingly received the Holy Spirit. But the first half of the story really explains how Peter even got to that point. He had a dream that God set all kinds of food out before him and told him to eat, but many of the items were unclean according to Jewish law. Peter refused to defile himself, just as any good Jew would have done. After all, those laws were commandments from God on how to live their daily lives. You can’t just go ignoring those, right? But God tells him that the food was brought specifically for him and that he has made it clean for Peter to eat. Again Peter refuses and God comes back for a third time to tell him to eat; God has made those things and they are indeed clean for him to eat. Again, note the repetition and “If it’s repeated, it must be important.” Peter doesn’t understand the dream until a Roman centurion sends for him – something that would never have been okay. Jews and Gentiles didn’t hang out with each other let alone like each other. But when the invitation comes, Peter understands that God was telling him it’s okay – all people are okay by God and all food is okay to eat. It was never about the letter of the law for God. It’s about the spirit – acceptance and love. Peter acted out of love even though he was probably scared of what could happen to him in a Roman centurion’s home – remember Christians weren’t exactly popular at the time! For all Peter knew, going to that home may have been the last thing he ever did, but he overcame the fear and went to speak with the Romans. And when he does that, he finds that those people are actually very glad to have him there, the Holy Spirit comes into them and they get baptized. Peter does his act of love and God takes care of the rest. Peter is fine, the love of God is shared and the world becomes a better place if only in a small space for a short time. One day, if we can all figure out how to get this right, imagine what the world could be. Imagine what God could do!