Saturday, March 21, 2009

Who Do You Love?

“Who Do You Love”
The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 22, 2009

Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-20

For those keeping score this is my second sermon title that is blatantly stolen from a song. “Who Do You Love” was released in 1956. It is a hallmark of the “Bo Diddley Beat”, and has been covered by countless bands in back room bars and music festivals. It’s lyrics reference barbed wire, rattlesnake hides, and human skulls, and some say the title is a throw back to a medicinal and magic based African religion called Hoodoo. “I’m just 22, and I don’t mind dyin,” says Bo Diddley. It is an ultimate power play that set the ground work for the expression of cultural change that became the genre of Rock-n-Roll during the late 50s and early 60s.

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt like you would rather draw a line in the sand and stand your ground than compromise? Have you ever felt like, if push came to shove, you were already pressed as far as you could be? I’ll give you an example of where I see this being expressed in our culture…Twitter. (pulls out cell phone and tweets, “Preaching”) For those unaware, “Twittering” is a new fad in communication. It is a way of posting short notes on line that can go to any number of cell phones as a text message. Some of you are thinking, “Why?” or “Who cares?”, but I can tell you that our congress is using it like a bunch of third graders passing notes under their desks. “The Daily Show,” which is a comedic parody of the news networks offered an insightful commentary the other day when a fake reporter stated it this way:

“It’s because we are rotting corpses grabbing for a glimmer of relevance, hoping that one of these retarded things will be the vine that can pull us out of [the] quick sand [we have created]!”

Paul knew a people who felt this way. That is why he wrote to the congregation in Ephesus to assure them of their vitality in Christ. Before Christ, they were dead because of their passions. After receiving Christ, they were now alive. Without Christ we too are held in the grip of things that please us, else there would be no financial crisis in our country. I know a man who once made profits from getting loans approved with no concern for the appropriateness of the arrangement for the lender or the consumer. I know a woman who once managed real estate developments without concern for the homeless. I know a man who does not believe in God because he sees believers who are so concerned about their own salvation that they do not know how to deal with injustice in the here and now.

The concept of being imprisoned or free reminds me of Paul’s definition of sin as an inner conflict in Romans ch 7. “I do that which I do not want, and that which I want I do not do.” I have a painting in my office that illustrates this point with a man hanging from chains that are not clasped. It is a symbol of the patterns we find ourselves in when we realize, “Oops, I did it again.” It is a reminder that only when we lay our agenda on the table and open our hands to receive Christ’s can we be free. Freedom is only found in response to God’s grace. For it is by grace, through faith, that we are saved, and this is not our own doing.

Now on the surface it may seem that there is some conflict between the idea of salvation by grace and the personal choice advocated in John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” On the surface it seems that our salvation is dependent on our conviction that Jesus died for us and on the actions we do to show that we believe. On the surface the ocean looks as though it only rolls toward the land, but we know there is yet a deeper flow in the undertow. So, grace and works are not in competition because they are the ebb and flow of our faith, and they are grounded in love. And love has its source in God’s redeeming action in Jesus Christ.

Now this concept of ebb and flow raises a question, in my mind, about the things we find under the surface in our lives. John says that those who believe do things in the light because they are not ashamed, but those who do not believe work in the darkness because they feel like they can get away with more that way.

Last week Dr. Wall talked about living in the shadows with the understanding that God is the source of light. God is both the spotlight and the actor on center stage. We are the stagehands and ushers. With this idea in mind I want us to consider what we do with the light we have. Over the last few weeks we have been considering sins of disbelief, and today we are looking at despondency. It is what happens when the job is lost, the child is hurt, the life partner dies, or the spouse is unfaithful. It is what happens when the reality that life is not in our control is undeniable, the earth no longer seems stable beneath your feet, and your center of value gets questioned. That’s what love is, you know. It is the center of our value system. Despondency, like some demonic power, asks us resolutely and defiantly, “Who do you love?”

As I wrote this my three-year-old son, Sam, heard me reading that last line to myself when he walked through the room. As though I had asked him he said quietly and resolutely, “God.” With that answer in our hearts, despondency can also be a place of great creativity. It is the gut check of every hero narrative when all seems lost. That is the place the Hebrews found themselves in that narrow pass, assailed at every turn and plagued by poisonous snakes. How did they respond? They responded by repentance. What did God do? God took the very thing that was killing them and turned it into a symbol of life! Doesn’t God do that every time? Every time we look at the cross we are reminded that the very instrument of death has been retooled as a symbol of everlasting life. Now if you answered yes to my last question, then you can go down the rabbit hole to where the scripture is taking us. The reality of the cross is this, God does not simply offer healing apart from our pain. God turns our pain and suffering into the instrument of our healing.

Ann Weems is a Christian author and lecturer. In her book, Psalms of Lament she writes:
“On August 14, 1982, the stars fell from my sky. My son, my Todd, had been killed less than an hour from his twenty-first birthday. August 14, 1982…and still I weep.” She goes on to describe a process of writing down her feelings and putting them in a drawer, slamming it closed every single time. A friend of hers who knew of this practice asked to use a few of her writings in a class he was teaching. The response was overwhelming, and through her willingness to look into the heart of her own despair a connection became woven with others in a way that created life where there was death. Ann Weems wrote about Jesus weeping with her and all who mourn throughout time.

“For blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.
In the Godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
There is a deafening alleluia
Rising from the souls of those who weep
And of those who weep with those who weep,
If you watch, you will see
The hand of God putting stars back in their skies
One by one.”

The cross offers healing, but it does not do it apart from suffering. For it is the light that pierces the darkness of our souls and shows us the things which we keep hidden, especially that which we hide from ourselves. It asks us the crucial question, “Who do you love?” and it alters our lives... radically, fundamentally, and eternally.

You see I know a man who used to offer creative financing who now lives without security in wealth but relies on God. I know a woman who used to sell real estate developments who now counsels homeless men and women in hopes of rebuilding shattered lives. I know a man who believes in moral conviction but does not know the love of God expressed through Jesus Christ.

How do we stand in the midst of such an ebb and flow of opportunity in this world? What activities and opportunities do we arrange our schedules around? How do we respond to suffering? Who do you love?

Through Jesus Christ we can say that love is the source of our proclamation and is reflected in all we do. Through Jesus Christ we know that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Who do you love? Even a three year old can answer that one… God.

What matters most is that God loves you. God calls you into something bigger than yourself so that your will becomes woven into something new, so that ther can be life where there was none. And to God be the glory for that. Amen.
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