SERMON Sixth Sunday of Easter – St. Thomas Episcopal Church, St. Petersburg FL
Acts 17:17-21; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” I imagine some folks might hear those words, and somehow believe they represent some formula for gaining God’s acceptance, love, and grace. In other words, “Be good, do as I say, obey all the rules, then I will take that as evidence that you love me, and then you’ll be accepted.” Our Lord is trying to tell us something very different from, “you love first then, I will return the favor.”
God’s love is NOT something that can be earned, but we struggle with understanding this idea. My siblings and I were not always the perfectly behaved children, but our mother loved her kids nonetheless. Whether we did our other chores or not, whether we got into trouble in our neighborhood or not, whether we actually said, “I love you Mom” or not, my mother loved us first, regardless of how we acted.
Even when we messed up and treated each other with disdain and without mutual care and concern, our mother loved us through it. There were even a few times when she warned me, that if I didn’t get in the house and stop being a pest to my neighbors, she would tell my Dad when he got home. Honestly, the discipline I received on those occasions, although needed, did not feel like love, but in hindsight (no pun intended) it was. My parents loved us not because we DID or DIDN’T DO something. They just loved their kids, because we were their kids.
I wrestled all my life with the idea of unconditional love. I have had a hard time accepting the reality of unconditional love that is, until I had my own child. I adore my daughter. Despite her tantrums of the terrible twos, her parental disdain as an aging teen, and the sometimes forgotten Dad’s birthdays, by the busy and often overwhelmed college student, I care for my daughter unconditionally. I sort of get it now. I get God’s love for us – not fully- but I have a glimpse of its possibility. Unconditional, no-strings attached, “first on the scene” love, is God’s love for us. God draws us to Godself, and here is the really GOOD NEWS, “God ACTS first and then, we respond; not vice versa. We respond by loving God with all that we are, and “Loving neighbor as ourselves.” Those were Jesus’ commandments that he gave us to keep.
Sometimes, that second command of loving neighbor gets reduced to mere charitable giving or worse yet, it is forgotten altogether. GOOD NEWS often ends with us and the cycle of unconditional, no-strings attached, “first on the scene” love goes no further, than we who receive it with open arms, and then, we fail to share it with others.
Grace (God’s love) is a fountain of living water that must flow from the source (God), to and through each of us, and then, return to God in loving response. At our baptism, we make promises, or they were made for us, and we renew those promises as adults both at confirmation and throughout the year, on days appropriate for baptism. One of those promises is that we will commit to be messengers of God’s love in us. We are asked, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” And each of us respond with, “I will, with God’s help.”
How do we do keep that promise you might ask. We begin listening to our neighbor, understanding our neighbor, being with our neighbor, getting to really know our neighbor, and then, inviting our neighbor to experience GOOD NEWS in and through us. We begin by loving our neighbor. That is not easy, because it means we must take a risk.
In her book, “Daring Greatly” Brene Brown writes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” That is what Jesus did, with his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, he was vulnerable to humanity. He got out there in people’s lives, the difficult, often unsettling places of human situations, and brought healing and love. So, love begins with God, flows to us, and the people of God are charged with the work of going out into the world, sharing Good News. That work is not easy, not like it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
Let me share some statistics with you about the religious landscape of our country today. (1) The number of people who claimed no religious affiliation in the US in 1988 was only 8%. (2) In 2012 that number rose to over 19.6% (3) Like no other time in our history, the number of young adults under 30 are increasingly less religious (33%). What does all that mean to us, you may ask. It means that the church must share GOOD NEWS differently than it has in the past. We cannot merely open our doors and expect the next generation to show up. We must engage people in ways that are honest, open, authentic, trusting, and non-threatening. We have to let go of our “get them in the pews” agendas and get out in the marketplace. This approach is not something new to the church.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about Paul’s adventures in the metropolis of Athens. “Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, `To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17 NRSV)
“When Paul arrived at Athens in the province of Achaia, he came to an anomaly. Though its population was no more than ten thousand and it had been reduced to poverty and submission by its war with Rome (146 B.C.), it was granted the status of a free city in view of its illustrious past.” 1 Despite its economic/political challenges, Athens was still a great center of philosophy, architecture, art, and religion.
Scripture tells us that Paul, a devout Pharisaic Jew, and a newly converted follower of the way of Jesus, was distressed at the symbols of “idolatry” that existed in this city. I’m sure he wanted to just bust a gut to say something about Athens’ religious state and then, coerce them all to come to church on Sunday, but Paul took a different approach.
Rather than take out is handy Bible Tracts, Portable Bull Horn, and his best “Hell Fire and Brimstone” sermon filled with words that condemn, adjure, and rattle the cages of those idolatrous Athenians, he did something else. Scripture asserts, “So he (Paul) reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17 NRSV) Paul immersed himself in the local culture, hung out in the marketplace, and met folks where they were, long before he proclaimed Good News or invited them to a worship service. Paul just hung out and got to know the folks to whom he was called to minister.
Things are not that much different today. Let’s consider your own back yard right here in St. Petersburg for a moment. The ministry field in which you are called to share GOOD NEWS is similar in many ways to the culture, in which Paul found himself in Athens. Did you know that within a 3 mile driving radius of this parish, 40,000 people live near the church. 48% consider themselves spiritual, 19% say their faith is really important to them, and 25.2% say it is important to attend religious services. Only ¼ of the people around you think it is important to gather as community of faith to worship the one who loves beyond imagine, but half are spiritual.
Folks, it is no longer enough for us to assume that people will flock to our doors. We must GO out there and develop relationships of trust. We must hang out in the marketplace, like Paul, and get to know our neighbors.
Did you know you have folks in this parish already doing this work? Mother Janet and Deacon Jon and several others from St. Thomas, gather each week “out there” engaging those religiously unaffiliated folks, those folks on the edge of church life. That is what Janet and Jon do each week through their Pub Theology community. They get out there and meet people in their spiritual need, and they ARE GOOD NEWS to them. Now, you do not have to be ordained as a clergy person to go into the world, you are given that ministry through your own baptism. Through small acts of love, by being Christ to others each and every day, you too can BE GOOD NEWS!
While driving back from Georgia this week, I listened to one man’s story of Good News, in one of the podcasts to which, I subscribe.4
A young man named Dan was driving down a busy interstate in a friend’s Jeep, when suddenly his tire blew out. He found himself on the side of the road for several hours without a tire jack. No one would stop to help him. Finally an old van pulled in front of Dan and a man came back to offer assistance, but could speak no English. He called his daughter out of the van to help translate. The two men worked together and finally got the tire changed. They both were sweaty, covered in grime, and exhausted. The man’s wife came out of the van with a jug of water and offered it to them to wash their hands and face. Wanting to thank the family and send them a gift for their help, Dan asked the young girl where they lived. Her reply was, “we live in Mexico, we are traveling to several farms for the harvesting season, and we hope to make enough money to return home and help our family.” Dan thought, “here, in my need, this family whose survival is based on the fact that ‘time is money,’ stopped and took two hours of their time to help a stranger. Dan tried to offer a $20 bill to the man and he refused, but he finally offered it to the man’s wife and she reluctantly took it. As Dan returned to his Jeep, the young girl yelled out, “have you had a chance to eat lunch?” Dan replied, “No.” The young girl offered him a tamale wrapped in aluminum foil and as he opened it, inside was the $20 bill he had given them. Dan pleaded with the man to take the money. “Por favor, por favor,” he said to the man, but he shook his head no. Then the man with a very stern, but gentle gaze looked into Dan’s eyes and said in broken English, “Today you, tomorrow me.”
Dan experienced unconditional love in a small sacrificial gesture from a stranger. This powerful moment changed Dan who now, never misses the opportunity to help change a tire, offer assistance to someone in need, or show love to others through small self-giving acts. One acted first, the next responded in kind. My dear friends, God loves us. God loves us first, stirs our own hearts and we should love God with all that we are, and we should love our neighbors as ourselves.
Go out into the world beyond these doors, beyond your comfort zones, and get out there in the marketplace and BE GOOD NEWS. Meet people where they are, listen to them, and be with them as Our Lord was with us. Jesus, the Great Lover, the God of Love who on the cross with outstretched arms offered himself, was unconditional love. Jesus, whose giving of himself, reminds us that we are to love others, unconditionally, with no-strings attached, and we should be “first on the scene.” Jesus showed us how, and reminds us with the example of his life, “Today me, tomorrow, you!”
2 Bader-Saye, Scott. “To See And Not To See.” Christian Century 119.8 (2002): 17. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 16 May 2014.
3 Beasley-Murray, George Raymond. “John 13-17 : The Community Of True Life.” Review & Expositor 85.3 (1988): 473-483. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 16 May 2014.