Sermon transcript for May 6, 2012
Love One Another
1 John 4:7-21
Belmont UMC—May 6, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
Some of the churches I have served have had children’s sermons as a part of the main worship service. I found writing a sermon for the children who would come forward to the chancel to be more challenging than writing this sermon. The children would often span the ages from 3 to 8 years and trying to find words that would communicate a theological concept with them was daunting. I often failed to communicate.
One Sunday, in one of those early smaller churches, I found myself sitting on the chancel kneeler, with five small children sitting on the floor in front of me. I was preaching on the passage we used a few weeks ago, where Thomas, the disciple, insisted on seeing the resurrected Jesus for him self. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who believe but have not seen.” I wanted to help the children think about things they believe but could not see.
I suggested that we cannot see feelings and that’s where my logic went askew. I said, “For instance, love, we can’t see love, can we?” A little girl named Amber, stood up immediately, and with her hands on her hips and facing me, said, “You can see love. It looks like this.” At that she put her arms around my neck and hugged me. When she released her arms, tears ran down my face, I looked out at the congregation and said something dopey like, “I don’t have a clue what I was talking about.” I offered a short prayer to dismiss the children and tried to compose myself for the rest of the service.
The writer of 1 John reminds us that “No one has ever seen God.” If little Amber were paraphrasing this, she would add, “But we know what love looks like and God is love.”
God is love. The writer states this very simply and profoundly. God is love. This is how God chooses to define God’s self. Everything that God is and everything that God does, creating and recreating, redeeming, sustaining, renewing, resurrecting, all of God’s activity, is rooted in love. This love defines God and God’s love defines us. Or in the words of William Sloane Coffin, “God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates it. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved we have value.” (The Courage of Love, p.11)
The New Testament writers used a Greek word that wasn’t used much in Greek culture to define this love of God. The word is agape. The more familiar word for love in Greek is eros, which is usually associated with romantic love. Frederick Buechner, using thoughts from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13, compares the two and suggests that the mantra of eros is “I want, I want.” and then adds, “Not so with agape. Agape does not want. It gives. It is not empty. It is overflowing. Paul strains to get the distinction right. Agape is patient, eros champs at the bit. Agape puts up with anything, eros insists on having everything its own way. Agape is kind—never jealous, boastful, rude. It does not love because, but simply loves—the way the rain falls or the sun shines. It bears all things up to and including even its own crucifixion.” (Secrets in the Dark, “Paul Sends His Love” p. 203)
The writer of 1 John reminds us of what love is not. Love is not fear. God’s love has the power to dispel fear. When our older sons were in high school they came to me ask if they could go with some of their friends to another church to something called “Judgment House.” I was familiar with this event that happened around the time of Halloween. It was staged at a local church to depict what might happen to teenagers who make the wrong decision—the point being that they wind up in hell. I refused to let my sons go and described what they would encounter there and then said, “If you are going to be Christ followers I want you to be loved into that way of life, not scared into it.”
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18)
God is love. And if God is love, we will want to love one another. Hate, like fear, is the antithesis to the love of God. If God abides in us we will love others, as God loves. And though no one can see God, everyone will be able to see the love of God in and through us.
This love sees the best in others and holds nothing back. It affirms others! Throughout scripture God chooses the unlikely, affirms the possibilities in them, awakens hope in them, and causes them to do great things.
I played the clarinet in Junior High School. I did not choose the clarinet—it chose me. I wanted a more manly instrument like the tuba but my great aunt had a clarinet that I could use for free and that was that.
Everyday we gathered in the band room and labored through practice. We had scheduled a Christmas program. Our parents and grandparents had been invited. Christmas songs were the focus of our practice. I sat among the other clarinetists, the saxophones behind us, the percussionists behind them, and we played, focused on the sheet music on the stands in front of us. I thought it was coming along, coming together.
One day the band director sent me to his office to retrieve something for him. As I came back to the band room I heard the band playing, “Deck the Halls.” It was horrible. It was a cacophony of squeaking woodwinds, faltering trumpets and trombonists desperately seeking the right note. The band director was standing in front of everyone laboring in dramatic gestures as though he was trying to pull the right sounds out of the band.
I was stunned and embarrassed. I wanted to quit. By the time the Christmas program arrived we were not much improved. My parents were there. This was not my father’s cup of tea--he much preferred coming to my Junior High basketball games. We were awful that night as I predicted and my parents sat in the crowd with hands clasped and smiles on their faces. They applauded dutifully after each piece of music. And after the concert my parents said, “That was wonderful. We’re so proud of you. You’ve really made a lot of progress.”
That night, in the 6th grade, I realized that my parents were liars. And my parents were lovers. They loved me and affirmed the best in me. I knew that night something about love. And in my high school years I played in a woodwind quintet and we were pretty good. I hung in there because my parents’ love summoned forth something in me that I could not do on my own.
Like the story of the Beauty and the Beast. The Beauty does not love the Beast for his looks, but her love makes him beautiful. God’s love is transformative. God’s love holds nothing back. We cannot see God, but we do know love when we see it and God is love. God’s love grows in us as we learn to love one another.
This is the table of God’s love. This is the love one another table. The story the table tells us, the elements of bread and wine, and the great breadth of the table which makes room for everyone, reminds us that God is love, unconditional, unrelenting, unilateral, and sacrificial love. Here we are reminded that though we have never seen God, we have seen love, and God is love!
Sermon transcript for April 29, 2012
The Good Shepherd
Belmont UMC—April 29, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
A woman who had recently returned from a trip to Ireland and Scotland was showing her photos of the countryside to her friends, only to notice that almost all of the photos were of sheep. She had been so taken by the beauty of rolling hills lined stone walls and dotted by sheep. We tend to have an idyllic view of the themes of sheep and shepherds, as we read them in these well loved passages. And the concern about teaching or preaching on these passages is to avoid drifting toward the sentimental and maudlin.
Shepherding was not romantic or idyllic; it was work that was risky and sometimes boring. Shepherding could be very isolating work and one had to be on the lookout for danger 24 hours a day. In the days of the Hebrew Scriptures shepherds held a higher place of esteem. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David had all be shepherds before taking on leadership status. But by the time of Jesus, shepherds were marginalized, and for Jesus to refer to himself as The Good Shepherd was scandalous and surprising.
When I was growing up there was a painting inside the doorway of the church we attended that depicted a smiling Jesus with a flock of sheep around him and he was gently holding a small, perfectly white lamb. But that is probably not the image Jesus had in mind when he referred to himself as The Good Shepherd. The word “good” can be translated “model” or “noble” or “faithful” in this reference. In Ezekiel 34 God is presented as the shepherd, who feeds, guides, protects and seeks the lost sheep. At one point in Jesus’ ministry he is moved with compassion for the people because they are like sheep without a shepherd. And in John 10 Jesus links himself with God and claims that his very work is in obedience to God, even to the point of great sacrifice.
The Good Shepherd offers security and provision for the sheep. But this does not mean that we are immune to tragedy or suffering. The Psalmist who gave us the beautiful words of the 23 Psalm was living a very, very human existence. The Psalmist has known hardship. The Psalmist has known loss and grief and has traveled that valley that is in the shadow of death. The Psalmist has enemies. Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, who is best known for his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, wrote a book on this Psalm, and in it he notes, “To say ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ is to say that we live in an unpredictable, often terrifying world, ever mindful of all the bad things that might happen to us and to those around us. . . . But despite it all, we can get up every morning to face that world because we know that there is Someone in that world who cares about us. . . . what is most important about God is that (God) is the presence that makes the world seem less frightening.” (The Lord is My Shepherd, p. 15)
Like the Psalmist we are living a very, very human existence. We never know what will happen when we greet each new day. But we know that Jesus looks over the flocks with compassion and the Risen Shepherd comes alongside of us to guide and strengthen us at every point. And in this reassuring presence we understand that we have everything that we need.
The Good Shepherd leads us. Sheep are different from other animals. Growing up in a farm family, I knew how to drive and herd cows into the barn or onto another pasture. But one cannot drive sheep because sheep follow the shepherd. If you try to drive them, they will run around and get behind you.
The Good Shepherd has an intimate relationship with the flock. Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me.” We are told that in more primitive times and places we might imagine several different flocks and several different shepherds showing up at watering hole at the same time. The sheep mingled together and received nourishment, while the shepherds made the most of the opportunity for visiting and fellowship. But when the time came to move on, the shepherd would merely need to speak and the sheep of his folk would separate from the others and follow. They recognized his voice.
It’s takes time to build that kind of relationship. I have a pastor friend who was moved to a new church a few years ago. He had served his prior church for a long time and he was well loved. He could stand in front of those folks and say something like, “This is the direction we are now headed and the whole church would nod and agree to follow in that direction.” After a couple of weeks in his new church, he stood up and said, “This is where we are going.’ And the people did not respond. In fact it made them angry. Their refusal to follow was their way of saying, “We don’t know you yet. And we aren’t ready to follow you anywhere.” When he came to me for advice he seemed perplexed, but over the last two years he has worked to build that relationship and things are moving along smoothly.
We know and trust the Good Shepherd, and over time we have come to recognize the Shepherd’s voice. We are in the throes of another election cycle in our country. The rhetoric that we have been hearing will increase and become even more vitriolic. I don’t know about you but I’m taking on the same mental posture I take when I’ve tried to teach a teenage son how to drive. In my best King James language, let me say, “Braceth thine self!” We will hear lots of voices calling us in lots of conflicting directions. We will likely hear some voices that will try to tell us what a “real” Christian is. It’s important for us to be able to recognize the voice of The Good Shepherd so that will know if the voice we are hearing is consistent with the Shepherd’s.
The Good Shepherd’s flock is a bigger that we might think. Jesus speaks of one flock and one shepherd but offers this disclaimer, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” The flock that Jesus gathers is a diverse and inclusive flock. It contains some sheep that get lost along the journey and some that have made getting lost a life habit. It contains Samaritans and tax collectors, and people of all political persuasions. The fact that the lowly, marginalized shepherds were the first visitors to see the Incarnated God, wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger, indicates that God is sending a message to our polarized world. The marginalized will be in God’s flock.
With this Good Shepherd we will find ourselves at every watering hole, shoulder to shoulder with all kinds of sheep. One flock does not imply sameness. And one of things I like about the United Methodist Church is that we are a diverse group and we are not of one mind on many different things, but we follow the voice of one Good Shepherd. We gather here for living water each week and we find ourselves loving the Shepherd and loving each other in spite of, and sometimes because of, our differences.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who loves us sacrificially and leads us well. During this Easter Season we know that Jesus is the Risen Shepherd who is with us through trial and hardship and grief.