Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - "And love one another; it is all that easy and it is all that hard."

Luke 13:31-35, John 13:31-35
May 10, 2015, Mother’s Day

After God created Adam and Eve, one of the first things God said to them was “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” Adam replied.
“Don’t eat the forbidden fruit.”
“Forbidden fruit?  Really?  Where is it?”
“It’s over there,” God said, wondering why God hadn’t stopped after making the elephants.
A few minutes later God saw the kids having an apple break and God was angry.  “Didn’t I tell you not to eat that fruit?”  the first parent asked.
“Uh huh,” Adam replied.
“Then why did you?”
“I don’t know,” Adam answered.
God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own…
It is not easy to love even our own kids all the time, and as we know, not every parent does it well.  Mother’s day can be a really hard day for a lot of people as they reflect on their childhoods.  It can also be a hard day for a lot of women who wanted babies but couldn’t have them, or who lost them, or who raised kids but struggled to be good moms.  Far too many children suffer abuse, neglect or simply an absence of love at the hands of their parents.  While we cannot condone this behavior from any parent, I think there are moments in every parent’s experience when they have a slight understanding of what might lead to the tragedies of abuse.  Even the best parents suffer disobedience and rejection at one time or another at the hands of their children.  When we tell our children “no” to something they really want, it is not uncommon for a child to strike out.  Even toddlers push parents away with angry tears.  For parents of many teenagers the words, “I hate you” are not unfamiliar.  Jesus described this experience well when he said in the Luke passage, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing!”  And yet Jesus continued to act loving.  Good parents continue to care and love their kids even when they are rejected, even when their children disobey.  It is not easy, but it is part of parenting.
Parenting is hard for another reason.  A good parent will risk anything to protect their child.  When we love, we want to protect them just as Jesus wanted to gather the children of Israel to himself as a hen with her brood, protecting them from the foxes in that society.  And this protection is impossible.  We cannot protect our children from every bad thing.  There are horrible things out there; kids shooting other kids, pedophiles, murderers, kidnappers.  More universally, all children get their hearts broken, get sick and suffer disappointments.  Even though sometimes these trials help kids to grow and be strong, every time my child hurts, a part of me dies.  We lose parts of ourselves daily in the process of loving as a parent.  It is hard to love in this way, and as I said before, not every parent is capable of this kind of love for their children.
In today's passage from Luke, Jesus describes God’s love for us as the love of a mother hen gathering her chicks in to herself.  In the John passage, Jesus refers to his followers as little children and then proceeds to ask them to love one another as he loved them.  Jesus asks us to love one another with God’s love.  The closest we can come to understanding the depth of this love is to compare it with the kind of love we have as parents for our children.  Even a parent’s love falls short of what God asks, but it is the closest we have in human understanding for the kind of love God asks, and expects us to return to God by loving one another.  But this is hard.  It is hard to love our own children well, and it becomes increasingly challenging when we apply this to others, to strangers, to enemies.  But it is something we are called on to do as Christians.  It is also something we promise to do every time we baptize someone.  We promise to help raise the child, or adult, in the way of Christ, a promise we can only keep by loving with the depth of love of a good parent.  Even beyond the bounds of our membership and baptism, we are called to “love our neighbors” with the same love Jesus had for us; the deep love that we are closest to experiencing when we love our children.  And in this way, because of those promises, every one of us is a parent, a mother, to everyone else in this room.
I worked for a while as an associate pastor in a church in which many AA meetings were held.  One such meeting was a weekly AA group for teens.  One evening during a session meeting at the church, a teenage girl, about 13 years old, interrupted the meeting, asking for help.  I went outside to talk with her and she told me that she had thought the teen AA meeting was held that evening when in fact it was scheduled for the following night.  She lived about 20 miles away and had no way to get home.  When I returned to the session meeting I asked if any of the members would be willing to forego the rest of the session meeting to take her home.  The response was that no one knew the girl.  She had admitted in the very act of looking for the AA meeting that she was an alcoholic.  What other problems did she have?  She could be a thief.  She could be desperate.  She could be lying.  She could be a murderer.  It wasn’t safe to take that kind of risk.  I asked if anyone would then be willing to pay for a cab for her.  No, they said, that would be putting the cab driver at risk, they couldn’t afford to pay the cab, what if it was a scam and she and/or the cab driver ran off with the money, or worse, spent it on alcohol.
I was surprised.  I was also very tempted to throw some scripture at them.  Wasn’t every parable and story about Jesus a story of loving to the point of risking his life until finally his very life was in fact taken away?  And weren’t we then called on time and again by scripture to go and do like-wise?  In fact, there is nothing in scripture, not one word, that supports playing it safe.  Where people are in need, where people ask for our help, we are called on to risk everything to love them.
Maybe when you heard this story, you, too, felt the indignation which I felt on that day.  Why wouldn’t these Christians, these elders, help this young girl?  But what if I were to change the story?  What if I were to tell you that she was dressed all in leather with dark make-up on her face and a spiky dog-collar-like band around her neck and wrists?  What if, instead of a 13 year old girl, the person asking for help was a 13 year old boy?  What if, instead of a young person, it was a young adult?  What if that adult male, threateningly or differently dressed were disheveled?  Dirty?  Drunk?  And yet, what Jesus calls us to do for a young, innocent looking girl, Jesus calls us to do for every person who comes to us in need.  And while at that juncture, I felt indignant and angry, the truth is that not very many of us, with exceptions such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and a few saintly people among our own acquaintances, live up to this commandment.  I don’t stop on the freeway when someone looks like they need help, because I am afraid.  I don’t offer homeless people beds in my house.  And it makes sense that I don’t.  It makes sense that we don’t.  For these activities are dangerous.  What the elders at my church said was true.  It is possible that they would have been putting their very lives at risk to care for this girl as when we care for anyone with the love of Christ.   Not only is this hard for us to do, it is hard for us to support others doing this.  I don’t want the people I love taking those chances or risks.
But when I look at scripture what I see is a path of love that lead Jesus to the cross.  And Jesus told us to follow him in that path of loving, even to the cross – literally, not figuratively.  Loving is not easy.  While referring to his own love as that of a mother hen, Jesus refers to Herod in this passage as a fox.  And as we know, the fox will get the chicken, foxes do get chickens that come in front of the, and Jesus was killed.  If we too care about the world as a mother hen cares for her chicks, if we too would go out and meet the fox face to face to protect others, if we too would love to the point of putting ourselves in the path of a fox, we too risk death.  Loving is not easy.
Every Sunday you participate in a benediction and charge which ends with the phrase; “Care for one another and love one another.  It is all that easy and it is all that hard.”  Mostly, I think, loving one another as Christ loves us, loving one another as a parent loves, is hard.  We are called to see one another as we really are.  We are called to be good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed.  We are called to lay down our lives for one another, even as Jesus laid down his life for us.
So where is the good news in this?  The good news is that loving is itself the greatest most fulfilling experience we can be given by God.  Loving as a parent loves a child is a deep love like nothing else one can experience.  Loving my kids is truly the greatest gift I have been given.  There is a woman I know who has been unable to conceive.  Every mother’s day she avoids church because hearing about how wonderful mothers are reminds her of her own inability to become a mother.  Her story is not unique.  And she would not experience such despair and loss were it not the case that the deep love one experiences in being a parent is its own reward.  I tell you this not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate the gift of motherhood because we should.  We do need, however, to celebrate that gift in a way that is still loving for individuals who find mother’s day a challenging holiday.  And while I do not want to diminish her loss or the loss o others in her situation, I think that in spite of that loss we are still all called to love one another to the depth of a parent loving a child.  And I believe that in every case where we learn to truly love to the depths of our being, the loving itself is more fulfilling and rewarding gift than we can imagine.  Even when that love is not returned, real love is a gift to the lover.
Not only is the gift of loving its own reward.  Also, when we are able to love like this, I believe we are given the ability to see God.  We see God’s face in those we love, we experience God’s grace through the act of loving.  We experience God’s resurrection.  Every time I die a little in loving my children and experiencing their pain, I am born again stronger, with a greater ability to love my kids, with a greater ability to love others.
It is not easy to be a Christian.  We are required to love with our whole beings, with our total selves.  But loving and the ability to love ever more fully and deeply is its own reward and promise.

Monday, May 4, 2015

yesterday's sermon - Love Vs. Fear

Psalm 22
1 John 4:7-21

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen.  This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.”

Wow.  There is so much in these texts for today.  So much.  I’ve been focusing on similar texts from 1 John on Wednesday evenings as well.  They are not easy texts.  Perfect love casts out fear, and those who are in fear are not in love.  And then “Anyone who doesn’t love a brother or sister can’t love God.”  Wow.  “Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.”  And then Jesus goes on to tell us to, “Love your enemies.”  Wow.  Who can do all of this?  Who can live without fear?  Who can love their enemies?  Who is it who loves every person without exception?  And who is loving to even those who are hurtful and sinful and bad to us or, what’s even harder, who can love those who hurt our loved ones, our children?
None of us succeed at all of this.  And yet the passage from 1st John would tell us that when we are afraid, we are not living in love.  And when we fail to be loving, to anyone, we are not loving God.
There is a great deal in this passage, but what I want to especially focus on today is the fear aspect of this passage.  Fear casts out love.  Love casts out fear.  We see this all the time.  As we hear about what is going on in Baltimore, regardless of how you understand or interpret the events, we can see the truth about fear and love.  The fear and anger of those rioting includes no love for those they feel or believe have hurt them.  There is only fear, which leads to anger, which leads to hate, which leads to this kind of destruction and, indeed, to suffering.  And the response of those on the other side is also fear, which includes no love or ability to hear what the rioters are trying to say with their rioting behavior.  There’s no love because everyone is acting out of their fear.  And again, no matter how you understand what is going on politically, or who you see being at fault here, it is easy to see that fear is truly casting out love.  No one is hearing, no one is seeing with eyes of compassion, no one is engaging in the empathy, understanding, and possibilities for constructive change that love demands. Fear IS leading to anger, which is leading to hate, which is leading to destruction and which is then causing great suffering.
The thing we tend to fear most is death.  That’s not always true, but I do think as a general rule it is what we fear most.  And even though Jesus’ resurrection shows us that we don’t even need to fear death, that there is life after death, that even death is ultimately defeated, when we are faced with death, and even more, I think, when the people we love are faced with death, it is really hard to hang on to our peace, our commitment to loving even our enemies, our call to choose love over fear.
We struggle so much with fear.  I mentioned in a newsletter article a few months ago, that not only have parks removed all of the little merry-go-rounds we used to have along with the see-saws, but now they are starting to remove swing sets because “some kid might walk in front of the swing and get knocked down!”  I loved that equipment as a kid, especially the swings.  But because of our fear of someone getting hurt, we are removing those opportunities for kids.  When I was a kid, I was shoved out the door early in the morning to play in the street with the other kids on our block, called home only for supper in the evenings.  I walked, hiked, by myself starting at age 6 in the foothills of Mt. Diablo.  Could I have been hurt?  Of course.  I could have fallen in a mole hole and sprained an ankle.  I could have been bitten by a spider or a snake.  Someone bad might have been in those hills when I was up there who might have grabbed me or worse.  There are all kinds of dangers I could have suffered.  But those walks in those hills are my fondest child-hood memories.  It is in those hills that I found, met and grew close to God.  I got my exercise in those hills without my parents ever paying a cent, staying in shape physically, emotionally and spiritually in those hills.  Now a days I would never, ever let my kids walk in them alone.  I would never let my kids play in the streets unsupervised.  We would never do this.  Our kids stay inside unless they are in an outdoor sporting situation that is heavily supervised.  But I wonder what we have lost because of our desire to protect them.  About three years ago, I read another article on line about how dangerous ice cream trucks are and what MIGHT happen to kids who went to buy ice cream from them – they could be kidnapped or poisoned.  In the comment section, someone asked the reporter if the scenario he had painted had actually ever happened.  The journalist admitted, “well, no, I haven’t been able to find any record of anything like this actually happening.  But it COULD happen.”  Well, yes, anything could happen.  But does it mean we simply stop living because of our fear?  I wonder more and more, how much we have lost out of fear.  I wonder how much living we have denied those we love the very most because we are afraid and want to protect them.  And I wonder as we move forward at what point we will just insist that everyone stay in their own isolated homes with the doors all locked all the time because we are just too afraid to go out.  It is not just love that is chased away by fear.  LIFE itself is also chased away by fear.  We are so afraid of death, that we don’t allow ourselves or our loved ones to LIVE the life we are so terrified of giving up!  The thing with fear is that it simply doesn’t leave room for anything else – like beauty, or purpose.  Like hope, or joy.  Like reconciliation or peace.  Like LOVE.
Marianne Williamson said, “We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
About ten years ago a book came out, “The Price of Privilege” which was written by a woman. Madeline Levine, doing research into those growing up in Marin County, possibly the most affluent community in our country.  The kids were not allowed to fail.  Or rather, the parents of these kids did not allow them to fail.  If a kid had a paper due the next day that they had put off, the parents would help the kids write the paper, staying up all night with them in order to assure their success.  These kids simply were not allowed to experience failure in any way.  The parents had this huge fear of their kids not being at the very top.  And they had a huge fear of their kids suffering at all to the point where they would be helicopter parents, overseeing every activity and situation.  Making sure nothing bad ever happened to their kids.  But the researcher then followed the kids when they left home and went on to college.  Some experienced failure at college then for the very first time.  The parents weren’t there to write the papers for them or stand up for them.  For others it wasn’t until they got their first jobs.  But either way, life includes failure.  And what this researcher found was that these kids had no experience handling failure and so when they experienced it finally, they simply were not able to cope.  The suicide rates among these kids was astronomical.  The clinical depression rate even higher.  In not allowing the kids to live all of life, which includes experiencing hard times, they did not build up a resilience or coping ability in their children which would allow them to know that everything passes, that what one experiences in each moment does not define the entirety of life.
I read an article this morning that was talking about how much good it does for kids to occasionally fall, get hurt, experience pain and learn to move through and beyond it.  Our fear of our kids experiencing any kind of pain or hurt damages them more than we can imagine.  Fear.  Fear, fear, fear.  Damaging all of us, keeping us from love, keeping us from LIFE.
The Good News in this is that God knows this is not easy for us.  God understands that.  Every time an angel appears in scripture, the first words they speak are words of calm, “Do not be afraid.”  Every time.  And then we come to have Jesus’ experience.  And we have his cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” which I think expresses both a feeling of abandonment, and also a feeling of fear.  In that, I find great hope.  Because it says that God, too, experienced those feelings, those very human feelings.  And while God calls us to step out of fear, because in fear we really are unable to feel love and compassion and empathy for that which we fear, at the same time, God loves us through that fear.  And God will call us into a love that surpasses it.  Psalm 22 reminds us not only that God has experienced all of what it is to be human, from our deepest pain to our fear, it also shows us that when we turn that over to God, when we turn over the fear as well as the pain to God, that we are reminded that God is bigger than both.  Vs. 27 of the Psalm – “Every part of the earth will remember and come back to the Lord; every family among all the nations will worship you.”  We have nothing to fear.  Ultimately God wins.  On this, the 5th Sunday of Easter, we can remember the promise – God wins every time.  Love wins every time.  Death was overcome.  Fear was overcome.  Love conquered all.
Yes, we will feel afraid.  It is human.  And God knows that.  But we can turn that over to God.  And we can trust in God’s promise that Love wins.  The more we trust it, the less we will fear.  The less we fear, the more we can love.  The more we love, the closer we come to God.  Every time.  Amen.