Sunday, February 14, 2010

How do I Love Thee?

Matthew 22:34-40 (New Revised Standard Version)
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" 37 He said to him, " "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

It’s St. Valentine’s Day. Television and radio and the internet are all encouraging us to spend lots of money on gifts that prove our love. Have you seen the drugstore commercial that shows two men charging around the store trying to out-buy each other? On the other hand children’s programming yesterday morning focused on teaching that it’s the thought that counts when giving a gift, not how much you spent.

Meanwhile, I’ve been bombarded from all directions with suggestions on what to preach today. California Faith for Equality wants me to preach on Marriage Equality. Faithful Reform in Health Care suggests I use my sermon to promote a universal heath care program. Sojourners magazine has a list of possibilities for me to consider including immigration reform and economic injustice, as does the Courage Campaign, a California Movement for Progressive Reform. Interfaith Power and Light has called for a Preach In on Global Warming. As you know I chose to participate in the Global Warming Preach In. Gwen has sign up sheets so you can get more information about Global Warming and there are inserts in the bulletins, as well as postcards to mail to our Senators asking them to love the earth by supporting certain legislation. And surely, the very beginnings of our history with God make it clear that caring for creation is a necessary and important part of our relationship with God. But there a came in sermon preparation that I realized preaching any one of these causes would not be sufficient if I were to focus on Love today. Perhaps that moment came when I read these words in the first chapter of Genesis.

Genesis 1:27-31 (The Message)
27 God created human beings; he created them godlike, Reflecting God's nature. He created them male and female. 28 God blessed them: "Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth." 29 Then God said, "I've given you every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth And every kind of fruit-bearing tree, given them to you for food. 30 To all animals and all birds, everything that moves and breathes, I give whatever grows out of the ground for food." And there it was. 31 God looked over everything he had made; it was so good, so very good! It was evening, it was morning - Day Six.

God saw that it was all good - every thing that God created was so very good. And we are to love them all because God does, and because God told the first people to take care of the earth. We are to love and care for them all in response to God’s love for us, in response to the incredible bounty that is showered upon us daily. All those valentines and boxes of chocolate and roses and diamond necklaces that prove our love to our earthly lovers – all of those cards our children give to their classmates, even the ones they don’t like – they are as nothing compared to the gifts we receive from our God. And in response to all of this, we love God. Jesus tells us that the first and greatest commandment is "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'

Wait. What’s wrong with this picture? I mean, people love where ever they love. It isn’t something we can control or do on command. We don’t love someone just because they give us presents, nor do we always love the ones that we “should” love – the ones that make sense for us to love. If we did there would no great tragic tales of star crossed lovers or even romantic comedies involving the wrong people being in love.

Ah – I know. What’s wrong is our idea of what love is. We get confused between Being In Love and Loving someone. We know when we are in love – our heart races when we think of the other, we can’t stop talking about them, we count the minutes until we can be together again. And then, a few years later when we’re just comfortable with each other maybe we think we aren’t in love any more. We are less likely to overlook those little faults that didn’t seem important in the first flush of romance. Some of us may not understand that it takes hard work to remain in a loving relationship with another person. That we have to continue giving and receiving, and accepting the other for who they are. That confusion between love and in love too often leads couples to believe the relationship is over, that love is gone when it’s just the initial being in love part that may have faded a bit. And some of us realize that, while being In Love is both wonderful and terrible, the deeper love that grows with years of being together is even better. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote one of the world’s most famous love poems to her husband about ten years into their relationship.

How Do I Love Thee? Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

This is how we love with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind. To me this poem sounds like a restatement of that commandment, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'

When you love someone you do everything you can to please them and to bring them joy. You strive to make their life pleasant to the best of your ability. You give them whatever you believe will be pleasing to them. Instead of the chocolate and roses and diamonds and stuffed animals and cards we give our earthly lovers, we give God our lives, our actions, our choices in matters of love and justice. We will not all make the same choices. And that’s a good thing, because there are more than enough causes out there to become passionate about and no one of us can possibly even be aware of all of them.

You know all of those causes that asked me to preach about them today, the ones I’ve mentioned here and all of those others that show up in my Facebook page or my email or in mail and phone calls at the church office and at home? I know you hear from them too. And you know that all of them want us be aware of the importance of their cause, and tell others, and oh yes, send money. All of them need money so they can continue their work. They need money to buy supplies or support programs or change legislation to make the lives of the poor and oppressed better. And we will select the ones dearest to our hearts to receive our money and our effort. We choose the gifts that we will give to God and present them the best way we can.

As a congregation we are dedicated to feeding our neighbors and educating their children and providing a place where they can improve their lives in a variety of ways. As a congregation we make information on several social justice issues available to everyone who uses our buildings. As individuals we are passionate about so many different things, way more than we could possibly put on our awareness table, and we each devote time and energy to those passions. We do these things not because God loves us and we’re trying to deserve that love, but because we. love. God. Not the way we love a benefactor or a mentor or even a parent, but passionately, with the whole of our being, as Elizabeth Barrett loved Robert Browning, in the same way that Jesus reminds us we are to love our God.

God doesn’t want diamonds and roses and stuffed animals and chocolate. God doesn’t want burnt offerings or incense. God wants our hearts. God wants our love, which we can demonstrate in part through our treatment of the neighbor, for the second commandment is like the first, that you love the neighbor as you love yourself. God wants our lives, dedicated to caring for the world and all the creatures in it, animal, vegetable and mineral. Let us turn to the prayer called “Caring for the Earth” and pray together.

Caring for the Earth CH 694

we have faith
in One God, one Source of all life
One Ground of the whole earth, with all its creatures.

And thus we believe
in the goodness of earth’s life
in the innate worth of all its dependents
in human partnership in the life of nature

And thus we believe
that in Christ we have been shown
the special role of the human race
to bear God’s likeness
in working and caring for the earth,
in seeking to understand its mysteries and powers,
in gently working with those powers
for the wellbeing of all children of the earth

And thus we believe
that God’s Spirit will lead us
to sensitive closeness with earth’s life,
to that meek, unselfish, compassionate life-style
by which the earth is inherited in peace,
by which its life is transformed
for all creatures to share justly in its bounty
So be it. Amen.

And let us sing of the Beauty of the Earth.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Come with me

Luke 5:1-11 New Revised Standard Version
1 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

SKIT (slightly revised from a book of skits titled “Jesus and Peter”)
Jesus Peter . . .
Peter yes Jesus?
Jesus come with me
Peter where are you going?
Jesus I’m not telling you
Peter Do you not know?
Jesus Oh yes. I have a fair idea
Peter Then . . why won’t you tell me?
Jesus You might not like it
Peter Well, thanks for your consideration Jesus
a pause
Jesus Peter . . .
Peter Yes, Jesus?
Jesus Come with me
Peter Can I bring somebody else?
Jesus Just bring yourself
Peter Will there be only the two of us?
Jesus Oh no. There’ll be plenty of others
Peter Will I know some of them?
what about my cousin? Will he be there?
Is there any chance of my sister coming if she’s still crushing on you?
And what about my grandmother?
Oh Jesus, I’d love to bring my grandmother.
Can I?
Jesus Peter . . . just bring yourself.
Peter But . . .but . . you said there would be others.
Jesus That’s right.
Peter Who are they?
Jesus I’m not telling you
Peter Why not?
Jesus You might not like them.
Peter Aw, thanks a bunch Jesus.
a pause
Jesus Peter . . .
Peter yes, Jesus???
Jesus Come with me.
Peter Jesus, I’ve got better things to do than to go on a mystery tour.
But I’ll think about it.
Just tell me what I’ll need
Jesus What do you mean?
Peter Well, if I’m going somewhere I don’t know
with people you refuse to tell me about,
there are some things that might come in handy.
Jesus Like what?
Peter Like something I can read in case I get bored . . .
Like something to sing in case I get sad . . .
Like a new pair of jeans in case there’s a party
Jesus Peter, you’ll not need anything.
Just bring yourself.
That’s enough to contend with.
Peter Jesus . . . do you want me to end up like you?
Jesus Peter . . .
I’m going. . .
Are you coming with me?

I had a couple of pretty heavy conversations about Christianity this week. One was with a fairly new acquaintance who doesn’t like Christians much because he believes everything the media says about what Christians believe and stand for and didn’t even know there was such a thing as Progressive Christianity. The other was with a Christian friend who is pretty much my polar opposite politically and theologically and wanted to know what Progressive Christianity thought about the Gay Agenda. Meanwhile I’ve been reading articles in journals and magazines about what it means to be Progressive and committed to ecumenism and interfaith cooperation. I’ve read every point of view from “all paths to God are equally true” to “you can only get to the Father through the Son and everyone else is going to hell.” And I read this skit several times.

I wish I could just say to all of them “Jesus said come with me. Don’t bring anything. Not a book, not new jeans, not your cousin, not any preconceived notions about where we’re going or what we might be doing. Just bring yourself.”

Do you have any idea how hard it is to just bring yourself? Can any of us really do that? Many of you know that I left the church I was raised in when I was 18 and old enough to leave home. For the next 25 years I tried lots of alternative paths to God. I tried New Age spirituality, which for me was pretty much following whatever practices looked cool to me at the time. You know, listening to sitar music while burning incense and doing yoga and meditating on crystals. But it was pretty self focused. There was no direction no instruction to care for others, although there was an adaptation of the Wiccan command to “do as you will as long as you harm no one. For me, it got kind of boring pretty quickly. It felt like a way just to feel good about myself and the world and at one with the universe. And that’s nice, but something was missing. It was solitary, there was no worshipping community. There was no one to address my prayers, my joys, my sorrows to. They just sort of went up . . .

I tried Buddhism for a while. I really liked the Eight Fold Path, the directions on how to live in such a way that you enhance the world around you while doing no harm to anyone. I liked the emphasis on peace and allowing others to make their own mistakes. I really liked reincarnation, getting to do life over and over until you get it right. But I had a hard time with the basic tenet that life is suffering because of our attachment to things – including food, family, the idea of an eternal soul, even life itself. God looked at the world and all the creatures and said “It is good.” How can the life God created be suffering? Jesus said, love one another. How can you do that and be detached at the same time? As you can see, I kept bringing my preconceived notions of what religion should be with me.

For a number of years I was Spiritual but not Religious. I was happy to talk about my Higher Power or the God of my understanding and I would cheerfully do that for hours. But I really didn’t want to hear about any particular religious beliefs. During those Spiritual but not Religious years I learned that God loves all of us and forgives any who come asking forgiveness. I learned how to pray and listen for God’s direction and how to work at changing myself to become a person whose life would be more pleasing to God – things I hadn’t learned in my church or in those other places I had looked.

As you know, eventually I realized that I was going to have to find a church to become part of. It seems that a long time ago, when I wasn’t even really paying attention, Jesus said “Maria will you come with me?” While I was trying all of those other paths to God, Jesus was always right there waiting for me to make up my mind. All those years I was away from church I kept reading the Bible, the Old Testament for entertainment and the Gospels for advice on how to live. I kept reading Jesus’ words to love everyone. I kept reading about how he protected the weak, healed the sick, loved the unlovable. I kept reading that he didn’t come for the righteous, but for those who needed him. And I realized I needed him. I needed him so that I could see the face of God. So that I could stop seeing the punishing, angry, judgmental God I was raised with and see God as God truly is through the words and actions of his Son.

This passage may underline more than any other Jesus’ mission to come for those who need him. He didn’t go to the temple looking for disciples among the wise and well educated. He didn’t seek out the most faithful and respectable of the Jewish people to proclaim the Good News to them. He went to the lakeshore. He sought out tired, hardworking people at the end of their work day. He asked them to follow without any clue where they would go, what they would find there, what might lie ahead. And they did, without question or pause – at least, Luke says “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

Jesus is still coming to tired, hardworking people at the end of their work day and asking them to follow, with no clue what lies ahead. With no goal or plan or map. We’re in that position right now as a congregation. In fact, our whole denomination is in that position right now. In an interview in DisciplesWorld magazine, General Minister and President Sharon Watkins says that we Disciples are “on a journey without a map”. Scary, but no more so than what those fishermen faced.

Jesus has come again to the lakeshore. He has come to us, to tired, hardworking people who have already put in a life time of work and wonder what there is to show for it. He knows we are not wealthy or powerful in the way the world recognizes wealth or power. But we are rich in faith. Let us also be rich in willingness to follow when Jesus says “Come with me.”