Easter 4B — April 26, 2015

Truth and Action

NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below — which was not delivered exactly as written — may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned.  In today’s sermon, the preacher also mistakenly referred to Garissa University College as located in Ethiopia.  The school, which suffered such a tragic loss of life in early April,  is located in Kenya.  The text below has been corrected.

1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
What do you think of when you hear that command to lay down our lives?  I tell you what I think.  You may think something very different, but here’s how I respond…
My first response is to remember the martyred Christians who died for their faith, from the very earliest Christian martyrs like Peter and Paul, people like Joan of Arc or Sir Thomas More, to the more recent examples like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero.  And of course, so many Christians in the Middle East and Africa who are being killed on account of their faith.  Those are the first people I think of when I hear John saying, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
My second response to the command to “lay down my life,” is to get up from my desk and go take a nap.  Because, God knows, I am not a martyr.  No getting around it. Not even close.  In fact, I’m pretty much the closest thing there is to being an anti-martyr.  There’s a line from an old Woody Allen movie, “Annie Hall,” in which Annie wonders out loud how she’d stand up under torture.  And Woody Allen says, “Are you kidding?  If the Gestapo threatened to take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell them everything.”  
A few weeks ago, there was a terrorist attack in Kenya at the Garissa University College in which 147 students, mostly Christian, were shot.  There has been a string of attacks against Christians by Islamic terrorist groups, although most of the people killed by these groups such as ISIS are not Christians, but Muslims who refuse to go along with the ISIS worldview and brutal tactics. 
But if facing death in order to prove faithfulness is what this text is about, I think I’m ready to tell Jesus that I’ve been re-thinking our relationship and I want a trial separation.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I’m afraid to die.  I’m really not.  But, you see, I have this daughter I adore more than anything in the world who seems determined to trot all over the world.  So if she woke up in a foreign country, in the middle of the night with a gun to her head and a voice asking her, “Are you Christian or not?”  I know exactly what I would want her to say  – “Which answer is going to keep me alive?” 
I would say the same thing about David.  And about the rest of my family.  And my friends.  Ok.  Let’s be clear. I don’t want anyone to be a martyr for their faith.  True confession.  I think martyrdom is highly overrated.  In fact, I believe the world would be a much better place if everyone stopped thinking that the best way to prove how much we love our God is to be willing to kill or be killed on God’s behalf. 
If this laying down your life stuff really is about dying for Jesus, then I want no part of it.  I was sitting thinking about Jesus and Rachel and kids dying in dorm rooms and people being beheaded on beaches and I was really ready to give up on this sermon altogether and find an old sermon that wouldn’t make me feel so sad and awful and then I looked again at the first reading from the gospel and I felt about a million times better about life and Jesus and pretty much everything.
We don’t have to die for Jesus.  Jesus is the good shepherd.  Jesus died for us, was raised for us, and lives for us.
Jesus isn’t in the business of creating more martyrs.  Quite the contrary. Jesus died willingly to put death-dealing systems out of business.  And through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to be in the business of bringing life.  He said it himself, “I have come so that you may have abundant life.”  (John 10:10).    The God who created us isn’t out to destroy you or me.  Or anyone else for that matter.  Even people who seem intent on evil, awful destruction are not outside the concern of God. 
It’s like this according to the gospel of John — like the good shepherd he is, Jesus keeps searching for the sheep not in his fold, even the really pesky, difficult, hard to love sheep.  Jesus hasn’t given up on ISIS and the KuKluxKlan and members of Congress.  Jesus hasn’t given up on the nasty waitress at Eat n’ Park, and the homeless guys under the interstate.  And Jesus hasn’t given up on you and me, sitting here in this respectable Christian church and still just as needy as anyone else when it comes to grace, love and forgiveness.  We are all sheep, prone to wander, prone to leave the God I love like the feckless sheep I am.
Jesus keeps trying to get everyone together, inviting everyone to take a break from our usual death-dealing activities and come over for dinner, have some wine and bread, and get to know one another better.  God is like the matriarch/patriarch of the whole human family who nevers stops trying to get us all to live peacefully together under one roof of  God’s creation, one flock with one shepherd. 
Jesus isn’t about creating more martyrs willing to die for something, but about creating new and more communities committed to live for one another.
Meanwhile, back here in Emsworth, Pa., the odds of us becoming martyrs for the faith are pretty slim.  What does this text from 1 John have to say to us?  Anything at all?  If laying down our lives doesn’t mean dying for Jesus, what are we to do?
We are to love.  Just as Jesus did.  Not in word and speech, but in truth and action.  We are to love in ways that are palpable, and visible, and real.
And before you say to yourself, “There she goes again, preaching that soft and squishy love stuff…” remember     loving the way that 1 John describes is actually a whole lot more difficult than dying. 
Loving in truth and action means sacrificing something about ourselves for the sake of the gospel, but it’s not a one-and-done kind of sacrifice.  It’s a daily struggle to understand and hopefully respond to the needs of people around us by laying down some things that we need to lay down.  Not just our money or our stuff, but even more precious things like our time.  Our need to be right.  Our prejudices and preferences.  Our discomfort.  Our grudges.  Our old hurts.  Our love for what used to be that blocks us from imagining what might yet be.  Laying down our lives means giving up whatever it is that is keeping us distant from a brother or sister who needs us.  And Lord knows, those are the most difficult distances to bridge.
When the writer of the epistle insists that we lay down our lives for each other, he’s getting nebby.  He’s going in close, down from lofty theology and into the daily grind of life together.  He says that it is here, in our community, that we must practice giving ourselves away.  We give away things that are dear to us so that we can learn what is truly dear.  We learn to empty ourselves for others.  It is by doing it that we learn to love.
This lay down your life love is not an emotion.  It is active.   It is a verb.  It moves us into places we never expected to be, but we can be certain Jesus will meet us every single time.
This is the way Jesus moved through his life on earth.  Jesus connected.  He didn’t solve or eliminate large social problems.  He touched and healed and cured and comforted individuals who suffered because of social problems.  Jesus didn’t eliminate leprosy or design a new health insurance plan.  He cured lepers and said it was ok to cure people on the Sabbath.  He dealt in specifics and he told his followers to do the same.   One person at a time.  Close enough to touch.
The writer of 1 John tells us that we will know love  — real Christian love — when we lay down our lives for one another.  But sometimes love feels kind of pointless when we see how often it is that our efforts fail.  We give and give and give, and we see no movement toward things getting better.  Sometimes we despair that we will ever solve anything or save anyone.  We pour ourselves into people, and they disappoint us.  After a while, we begin to feel beaten up and sick. If we are honest, we admit that our efforts are very often vain, that we have, like the servant in the Suffering Servant psalm in Isaiah, “spent our strength for vanity and nothing” (Isaiah 49:4). 
We live in a world that likes to be able to measure, analyze and quantify our efforts in everything we do.  We like a sense of control that reassures us — if we put a certain amount of effort into a task or a job, we can expect a certain output.  When an effort fails, or seems to, we often blame ourselves.  The “if-onlys” creep into our brain.  “If only I were a better person.  If only I had thought of that.  If only I hadn’t done or said that.”  Or we begin to blame the other person, “If only you would take my good advice.  If only you were more like this.  If only you were less like that.”
Most often, it is our own hearts that condemn us, says the epistle writer.  Things done and things undone; things said and unsaid; our hearts latch onto such things, gnaws on them like a bone, and we experience the kind of self-condemnation that, if we are not careful, becomes self-loathing.  
One of the things I often say to many of you when you become discouraged like this is, “You didn’t do it and you can’t fix it.”  All you can do is keep loving.  Even when it seems to have no effect.  Don’t worry about wasting love.  It is an infinitely regenerating power that we do not create ourselves – we receive it as God’s good gift.    Like faith and hope, love never ends.
When we have decisions to make about how we will live together as a community, we can know we are on the right track if we measure our motivations by asking, “Are we doing this out of love?”  Sometimes it is impossible to know where our motivations come from and whether we’re doing what is right.  Especially in the church, where the old metrics of membership and money and perfect Sunday school attendance no longer seem to work as a measure that we are faithfully serving God.
Thankfully, the writer of 1 John reminds us, “God is greater than our hearts and God knows everything.”  God knows where our impulses come from, where our insecurity chokes us and where our guilt resides.  And God loves us, blesses us and forgives us anyway.  And sends us out again, despite our doubts and perfections, asking only that we trust Jesus and keep loving.  Even if we’re not sure we doing it well.
Barbara Brown Taylors says it well:  “When it comes down to being a provider of God’s love, there is really only one provider, who sends us out with nothing at all and with everything we need: healing, forgiveness, restoration, resurrection. Those are the only things we really have to share with the world, which is just as well, since they are the only things the world really needs.”
Our reassurance, then, is that we still can’t get over the impulse to love despite everything in the world working against love.   Love that is willing to give of itself and, more importantly, get over itself is a gift of the Spirit.  We know that gift when we reach out to the unreachable.  To lovingly offer our treasure to one another, even if we do so imperfectly and even if the result cannot be measured or even seen by human eyes.  If God is good, and God is love, then God will bring out the best in us, even in those moments in which we are terribly uncertain of our own goodness.  God sees strength in us when all we feel is weak.  God sees ability in us when we feel most feeble.  God sees faith in us when we are ready to chuck it all and just go take a nap.  God sees hope for us when all we see is a tangled mess. 
And sometimes, taking a nap is really good idea. 
I don’t know about you, but one thing I have discovered to be reliably true in my life is that every thing seems to get better when I remember that it’s not about me.  When I remember that the church is not about what makes me comfortable or makes me look good or makes me feel good about myself.  It’s about how the goodness of God can show up when I least expect it and push me forward into what seems to give life to someone else. 
Loving one another like Jesus loves takes all of our self-perfecting, self-criticizing, self-doubting energy and funnels it toward the ones who need, the ones who do not have enough, the ones who are hungry, the ones who are lonely and sick and bereaved. 
What are you willing to lay down for the sake of this community? 
How do we deeply care, and risk everything we have, so others may have fullness and quality of life?
How will God’s love be expressed by this congregation?  This year?  Next year? 
How will we be bold before God? 
Will we be a reflection of the truth — not only that Jesus had the power to lay down his life, but the power to take it up again? 
I leave you today with these questions, because the answers can only come from your own hearts, and the trust that God actually is greater than our hearts.  And even when you think you have the answers, and even if they are good answers, none of them will mean anything at all until you put flesh on the Word that gives you life.
Brothers and sisters, let us love not in word or speech that cost us nothing, but in the costly way of truth and action.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.