The Power of Love

This is the third of a three part series called “I Want to Know What Love Is” on agape love. This particular sermon was delivered on Sunday, March 3, 2019, the first Sunday following the United Methodist Called General Conference 2019. Other parts of the series include What’s Love Got to Do With It and You Give Love a Bad Name.

power of love

Scripture reading:

John 15:9-17

Love each other

“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. As a result, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. 17 I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.

The Power of Love

hugging people

Who needs hugs?

Now, I think because I have shared a couple of times that, while in Haiti I’ve had to adjust to that different culture’s concept for personal space (in that they have none), people have got the impression that I’m not a big hugger. To be fair, I am not one to be proactive about hugging, but we all need hugs.

What kind of hugger are you? (Here is where I demonstrate different hugs with a brave volunteer – a reluctant hug, awkward side hug, back pat, big I haven’t seen you in a while, this hug is lasting long enough that I feel uncomfortable hug, etc.)

hug needs

Interesting “facts” – the average person craves a hug 13 times a day. The average hug lasts 3 seconds, and yet, the amount of seconds a hug needs to be to have medical healing properties is 20 seconds. We physically need hugs.

On Tuesday, Connor McMains (remember him? former organist on staff) asked me if New World UMC was doing anything in response to the General Conference vote. To be honest, that night my boys had soccer games and what I really needed was to regroup and be with my family.

On Wednesday, though, I was able to come up to the church in the evening since my daughter started confirmation class. I used this to focus on serving people when words just aren’t enough – I offered up free hugs to anybody here.

What I observed on Wednesday – some were ready for great big hugs. They needed them, they held on, we might have even cried together. Other hugs were frankly a little awkward. Some people were glad to give and receive hugs, they felt comfortable with them. With others – a quick little awkward side hug was stretching their comfort zone. I think at least one person didn’t want a hug at all…I didn’t take it personally and I won’t name names. (smile)

But there we were – a church family just trying our best to show love to one another, to share God’s love, but we each came to the space with our own spectrum of unwritten rules on what was okay and what wasn’t. 

No one has ever confused legislative action with a hug, have they? 

love cubesIn case you were wondering, this was a really hard week to be a United Methodist Pastor. I was talking to my husband Dennis about it – and I pretty much came to the conclusion that this was the toughest week yet. I’ve wept, I’ve spent a lot of time exercising and trying to eat right, I’ve lost sleep and have had trouble concentrating…I’ve needed to care for my soul a lot this week.

In case you missed it – last weekend through Tuesday, a special meeting called General Conference met in St. Louis, Missouri with some 860 representatives from United Methodism around the world. Unlike other denominations, the United Methodist Church is a global church. It was started around the same time as the United States was founded, so its structure is kind of like our U.S. government. About every four years the General Conference meets to, among other things, decide what we are all going to agree our denomination is about.

This particular conference was called to make a decision about whether or not the rules should be changed on if people can be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. With such a wide range of countries and cultures represented, it is challenging to agree on what is the right answer.

In the end, around 53% of this global gathering selected the traditionalist plan, effectively keeping the rules and language the same as it has been since 1972. It remains to be seen in April if the plan will be ruled as constitutional (by the UMC constitution, not the US one) and nothing changes until January 2020.

In the meantime, no one “won” the General Conference. With so much division and disunity, everyone walked away hurting. While some faithful United Methodists are pleased with the vote results, other faithful United Methodists are devastated. We have long been a denomination that is filled with different and deeply-rooted beliefs – like most families, we are a denomination filled with different opinions and diverse ideas. Unfortunately, we seem to have had a huge family feud with the whole world watching, and the future of our denomination seems unclear.

As a lifelong United Methodist – the niece of two United Methodist Pastors – I like many of you, deeply love the United Methodist Church. This week I hardly recognize her, and I can hardly articulate how painful this is.

But, as I said earlier this week: General Conference is NOT the church. We are the church.

When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he made reference to the church as the Body of Christ. “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it…” Paul also said other things, and I don’t always agree with him.

As an ordained clergy woman, I can identify with how it feels to have Bible verses pointed out to tell me that I shouldn’t be in ordained ministry. I am thankful that men and women along the way evolved in their thinking and recognized that even I could be good enough to be ordained.  I stand here before you, wearing a clergy collar as an outward symbol of my credentials, precariously perched on the shoulders of the advocates and trailblazers before me.

General Conference’s vote not only hurt the people present in the convention center, it caused further harm to our brothers and sisters in Christ who identify as LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, plus). This isn’t a far off issue. I’m not asking anyone to raise their hands in here if you are affected: We are talking about people in this room, plus the literal brothers and sisters, parents, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins of people in this room. People who have been baptized and confirmed in our midst, people who sat next to me in seminary classes, people who have heard God’s call on their lives and now hear from their church home “we think you’re sacred, but no, you are not good enough.”

Our future is uncertain – has it ever been certain? –  but God’s faithfulness can be counted on. We are a resurrection people, and I’m hanging on to the truth that resurrection means the worst thing will never be the last thing. My prayer is that we can all stick things out together and can be the church to people who are hurting right now.

stained glass eye

Where do these unwritten codes of behavior come from?

For me, I can think of so many different forces that have shaped my worldview:

  •  my family of origin – I’m sure that my concept of personal space and how to express love primarily came from my family.  I’m thankful they taught me that “anything boys can do, girls can do,” and I wonder where I would be today if it wasn’t for that encouragement.
  •  my faith formation – raised in the particular United Methodist congregations I attended, influenced by attending a Southern Baptist University, and making my home church Church Under the Bridge in Waco shaped how I view who is okay to hug and who isn’t (hint: we all are worthy of hugs!)
  •  my education – my family taught me to value education, and I know my thinking has been shaped and transformed through my education through seminary
  •  my culture/language – how I learned to speak taught me what words were okay, which ones built people up and which tore people down
  •  the country or nation-state we live in, politics, and media have shaped and formed my worldview
  •  many of us have been shaped by trauma, fear, insecurity
  •  just being the age I am has shaped me into becoming a pastor who thinks it is acceptable to have a sermon series based on 80s music because, well, it’s totally rad, like for sure! (smile)

Through all of these influences, different for each one of us, we all come to this place with a different worldview. We might sit here and wonder, how on earth could someone think differently than me on this issue? Can’t they see what is so clear?

The answer is probably no – we can’t see, we can’t automatically understand where the other is coming from. And our viewpoints are constantly evolving – my theology isn’t the same as it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 20…..

But I do know you each to be faithful people.

And just like last week, we are a diverse group of faithful people who are just doing our best to love God, love neighbor and make disciples of Jesus Christ. No matter how much we may disagree with one another on this, I have no doubt that, should a natural disaster strike or someone be in need, we would all pitch in together to help one another, serving side by side just like we always have.

Sometimes people will say, I see why you picked that verse this week…Which brings us to our scripture reading for today – one that was set up way before General Conference.

chalk heart

Today’s scripture reading includes a commandment to love each other, just as Christ has loved us. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.

We are continuing to talk about agape love, the unconditional love that is honest, hopeful and humble.

Such agape love is first and foremost interested in the good of the other person. It never attempts to squelch the best out of another. In fact, so great is this love for others that it follows the very pattern Christ modeled for us – care and concern for others, even to the point that we will lay aside our very lives for our friends.

Now, it is rare in this day and age that we have to love all the way to death, Christians are not persecuted now the way they were in the years immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection. But I do think there is an important message for us even today, and that is that we must be willing to set aside our agendas, our opinions, in order to work in unity as the body of Christ; that we love others enough that we are willing to lay down our own beliefs, have the courage to speak up, or even risk our credentials in order to love our friends.

In the body of Christ, if one part suffers, all suffer with it.

At a time when life seems to be scattering more and more, we know what it means to have friends. And here, as Christ is speaking to his disciples, he knows that he is about to leave them, so he is proclaiming to them a new relationship. At the very time when those disciples are feeling the least secure and will soon abandon him, Christ calls them his friends, bringing them to a new level of discipleship, and even community, as he calls us to emulate him, the pure embodiment of love.

So what does it mean for us today to be Christ’s friends? It means that we live as a community, united in Christ’s love. We show solidarity in suffering, we share our spiritual gifts for mutual up-building; we confront conflict not with hostility but with reconciliation. We don’t focus on our differences, but rather celebrate our unity as friends in the body of Christ.

We have within us the power of love, a love that can transform and make things new. A love that overcomes disagreements and shows mercy.

Choosing to love is not the easy path. We have a “love your enemy” faith, and it is perhaps the hardest and most difficult path.

And while we’re busy arguing, the world looks at us and wonders what’s so great about God because Christ’s church – the United Methodist Church in our case – is just as ineffective as every other institution in the world. And the truth of the matter is, that’s because you can’t legislate for love. But God, through Jesus, can command love, calling it out of his disciples, his followers, his friends.

My hope is that, when we disagree, we can take the time to listen and try to understand one another instead of making someone out to be our enemy. I struggle with this too.

We have an opportunity to be something far, far greater than any other human institution because we are not a human institution, we are the friends of Christ; his very body. So let’s do what Christ did; let’s demonstrate the power of love to help and heal one another.

And maybe even hug often.

I close today with a song that has been weighing in my heart all week. Last night I was able to see The Brilliance play this live at Kessler Theater. I invite you to reflect on the words of the song as we prepare our hearts and minds for communion, Christ’s ultimate demonstration of how the power of love can bring us all together.

(See https://www.ignitermedia.com/products/8416-brother for music video)

Amen.

images used with permission from istockphoto and igniter media, scripture from biblegateway.com 

What’s Love Got to Do With It

This is message one of a three-part sermon series called “I Want to Know What Love Is.” See “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “The Power of Love” for the rest of the series.

1 John 4:7-21 CEB

Love and God

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. 10 This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.

11 Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us. 13 This is how we know we remain in him and he remains in us, because he has given us a measure of his Spirit. 14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the savior of the world. 15 If any of us confess that Jesus is God’s Son, God remains in us and we remain in God. 16 We have known and have believed the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. 17 This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. 18 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. 19 We love because God first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. After all, those who don’t love their brothers or sisters whom they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen! 21 This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.

whats love got to do with it

 

What’s Love Got to Do With It

Key point: Love has everything to do with it; Following God means sharing Christian love that is honest, hopeful and humble.

A few months ago I posted on my Facebook wall, “What are your unpopular opinions?”

It started a long thread of comments about what people liked and disliked – a surprising number of people didn’t seem to think pizza was all that. I also noticed that we use the word “hate” too easily. My unpopular opinion was that I hate musicals – which prompted an unexpectedly strong reaction and so many people telling me I just haven’t seen the right ones…it’s just not my thing. But we use “hate” loosely, as in, I hate traffic, I hate certain collegiate rival football teams to my alma mater (but I wouldn’t dare say that in front of a crowd!), I hate roaches! (shudder)

“Love” is a funny word too, isn’t it? I use that word to describe my love for a lot of things – coffee, English toffee, TexMex food, Chick-Fil-A waffle fries.

I love Jesus and my church.

I love a lot of people, of course (with a special shout out to my parents, husband and 4 kids)

But I also say love the shows “This is Us” and “The Office.”

We use this word to describe things we like a lot, we use the word easily and take it lightly.

Love is a word that’s hard to define. It’s slippery. It’s easier to explain the effects of how it feels to be loved than to try to explain what it is.

Love has everything to do with what it means to be a follower of Jesus, yet sometimes we make it too complicated. We mess it up.

In the next few messages, we will deepen our understanding of characteristics of the biblical love mentioned in the passage I just read.

We are called to give and receive love in all directions – we love UP when we love God, we love IN community when we love one another, and we love OUT when we offer that love to the world. We’ll look at the obstacles that keep us from loving well, and hopefully be sent from this place equipped to love just a little bit better.

What are some characteristics of biblical love? 3 H’s Honest, Hopeful & Humble

This Christian love we are talking about is HONEST.

Matthew 5:23-24 “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.”

When we disagree with someone, we have a lot of options nowadays, don’t we? The easiest option could be just to walk away from that relationship altogether. We can vent online or to our other friends, we can get busy and ignore each other. But if we look at this line in Matthew, then we are challenged that to love one another, we cannot just go about carrying on grudges. Intimately tied to our love for God, we have to make things right and settle our differences with each other before we honor God.

Honest, genuine love for our sisters and brothers is determined to set things right, but reconciliation is hard, vulnerable work.

Norman Vincent Peale used to tell a story was about an African boy who gave his missionary teacher an unusually beautiful seashell as a Christmas gift. The boy had walked a great distance, over rough terrain, to the only place on the coast where these particular shells could be found. The teacher was touched. “You’ve traveled so far to bring me such a wonderful present,” she said. The boy looked puzzled, then his eyes widened with excitement: “Oh, teacher,” he explained, “long walk part of gift.”[1]

One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is taking the “long walk” of reconciliation. It may be tempting to just let differences slide, ignore the problem and hope it goes away. But, the problem is that the problems are still there under the surface. Think of love in Christian relationships like car maintenance – you can choose to ignore the transmission problem or neglect getting an oil change and the car will probably keep going, but eventually it will deteriorate. Or like nourishing a garden – if we don’t take care of our relationships, pulling out the weeds of disagreement and dealing with them, eventually the whole garden suffers.

Life makes it difficult to love well – we get too tired, too busy or too proud to love well. But fear is the primary thing that keeps us from love.

1 Corinthians 13:7 “Love puts up will all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.”

We live in a culture with a 24 hour, 7 day a week news cycle of doom and gloom, conflict and division. It is hard to hear a story without the narrative of “us vs. them.” We are bombarded with messages telling us to fear people who are different, warning us about whichever-group-thinks-differently-than-you and all of the bad things that could happen if the “bad guys” get their way. The news reports want us to live in fear, but “there is no fear in love, perfect love casts out fear.” Which brings us to the second H:

In addition to being honest, Christian love is full of HOPE.

Augustine once said, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.”

The problem with putting other people in categories, making them issues, is we lose sight on their God-given humanity. God’s love is a love of hope. When you hope in others, you see them as God sees them. You cannot help but realize that everyone (yes everyone!) is worthy of God’s love.

No matter our differences and no matter the circumstances, if we can grow to a place where we are seeing the wonderful in one another, that is a love full of hope.

The third H – Christian love is a love full of Humility.

Philippians 2:5-8 “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

We know that Jesus modeled humility when he died on the cross. He also recruited unlikely disciples from humble positions and associated with the lowest of the low. It’s beautiful to consider that, although we are unworthy of God’s love, God loves us anyway.

When we disagree with one another, which happens, a model of Christian love is to remember that we are all beloved children of God, even when we disagree.

With humility as our guide, we can look past the faults of others, look past our differences of opinions, quit casting people away into categories and issues, and care for one another.

What keeps us from love?

The opposite of these three H’s honest, hopeful and humble? Deceitful, doubtful and proud. When we live from a place of deceit, doubt, pride and fear, we struggle – it’s pretty much impossible – to create love, empathy, compassion or care for one another.  While the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, the fruit of fear is distrust, suspicion, slander, resentment, grudges, murder and violence.

God’s love is a love for all directions.

We are called to both give and receive God’s love, love one another, and even love ourselves.

As we close this first message on love, I want to end with this video about what it means to follow Jesus.

(see video: https://www.ignitermedia.com/products/8873-love-no-exceptions)

 

 

[1] http://theranch.org/2004/10/27/norman-vincent-peale-theres-a-story/

Gift – A Christmas Thought

I’m writing this just after midnight, technically Christmas Day. The house is peaceful, kids asleep while Dennis, my mom and I quietly visit. Probably because I had so much to prepare for preaching two days in a row, all of the presents have been wrapped and ready a while now. I can’t remember a Christmas Eve wrapped up so early before (pun intended).

The real gift is that we kept the holiday relatively simple. Our kids are pretty wonderful, so I’m looking forward to a fun morning of Lucas’s excitement and the rest of us keeping the magic alive. It is such a joy to be the parents of our kids.

Another gift was the chance to help lead Christmas Eve worship earlier tonight. I’m honored to be part of the staff at New World UMC.

And perhaps the biggest gift of all was seeing our family friend Allan in worship. He is part of the Kenyan family I mentioned in my sermon & I’m deeply grateful God placed his family in our lives.

My prayer for each of you is the gift of knowing that God is real, God loves you & you, dear reader, are worthy of love. May you find space in your heart and home for the holy.

Merry Christmas to all….and to all a good night!

Peace like a River Pastoral Prayer

God of Love, God of Peace and God of Joy, 

We praise you for the many ways you fill our souls with what we need.  

You are a God of love, a God of agape. When we feel alone, you are ever-present. When we feel unworthy, you wrap us in a deep love that knows no end. Forgive us for when we are in the habit of rejecting one another, of rejecting our own self even. You cherish each of us as your children, no matter how imperfect and fallen we may be. We pray for those who long to know your love, and we pray that you can use us to offer love to even our hard-to-love neighbor.  

You are a God of peace, a God of shalom. When we feel torn apart and divided by the conflict of the world, you give us a peace that transcends all understanding. Our hope can be found in your calming Spirit. Forgive us for when we fall into the trap of believing we should look down upon or separate ourselves from one another. Although we cannot understand the big picture, although we cannot understand why some things happen, we can rest assured knowing that you have got it all within your grasp, your love will undeniably conquer our brokenness. 

You are a God of joy, and with that we have hope. We pray that you, our God of hope, will fill us with all joy and peace as we learn to trust in you, so that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Allow us to become instruments of your joy and hope in a world that so desperately seeks the Good news you alone can offer.  

We pray all of these things in the name of the one who modeled your sacrificial love on earth, the one who taught us to pray saying, “Our Father….”

Pastoral Prayer – originally delivered 11/11/2018 at New World UMC Traditional service