“Have you ever noticed that when someone says, ‘no offense’ it means that they want to say something offensive.” I was reminded of that last Sunday by one of our youth. Not because she said, “No offense.” but because she made the observation about that phrase. Her comment reminded me of some other disclaimers, such as, “I’m not trying to be mean,” or “I’m just saying.” All of these are phrases that can sneak in to our vocabulary and mask the true nature of our feelings, our beliefs, and our fears.
Fear is a very real thing that we all have to manage and live with. It has been described as a monster in the closet or under the bed, and when we do not recognize how fear motivates us then we can become its prisoner. We become the monster. We lose the ability to become motivated by love.
I think that’s why scripture tells us, and characters like Jeremiah, over and over again not to fear. Of course, especially in Jeremiah’s case, God never says it will be easy. God tells the Prophet not to let his age get in the way, and we love telling this to youth. I’ve heard it all of my life, and I’ve used it too. Don’t say, “I am just a boy (or just a girl).” God has something in mind for you to do! But we forget that what God has in mind can put you in some very tight spaces. God even tells Jeremiah that God will put words in his mouth that will “pull down, destroy, and over throw,” but God will also give him words that “plant and build up.”
Now these commands were given to a particular Prophet during a particular time – so we have to be careful with how far we generalize – but it’s not unreasonable to believe that God might put words in our mouths that have the same power, even if on a smaller scale. And not only that, if we hear God’s invitation to speak – whether it is with words or actions – and we refuse to do it, we just might be the ones to be uprooted. For in verse 17 God says, “Do not break down before them or I will break you before them.”
So, how do we know what is of God and what is of our own fears? How do we know what is born even out of love, but becomes rooted in fear? How do we know what to say, and when to say it?
The answer, of course, is love – not romantic or sympathetic feelings, but truly selfless, self-giving, and “other” honoring love. And it makes us vulnerable.
In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
He went on to define four different words used in the original Greek text of our Bible that we have mushed into our concept of the word love. The first is “storge,” which is also empathy. It means that we feel as the other person feels. The second is “philia,” which is friendship – or maybe even kinship. The third is “eros,” which is erotic or sensual love. And the fourth is “agape,” which is love in its purest form – love that finds its meaning in the act of loving.
Agape is the type of love that Paul describes to the church in Corinth, and – while it certainly is the kind of love you need in a marriage – he was not talking about the love between two life partners. He was talking about the kind of love between a people who follow in the way of Jesus.
These people – this church in Corinth – needed to know that none of their accomplishments mattered unless they were done in love. And love that is truly of God was only realized in conflict, or in the absence of certain needs. Why else would he need to tell them:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Love – real self-giving, agape love – never ends because it is of God! Its end is its beginning, and it is the basis for everything that can be and all that remains through time and history. Love is about essential things that benefit all of God’s creation. Love echoes in the trees and it finds its fullness in you and me as agents of the one true God. Love can disturb us. It can dismantle things that we hold sacred, and it usually puts us at risk even as it offers us our salvation together.
I think the risk factor of loving is what Jesus had in mind in the synagogue when he reminded the crowd that God had a nasty habit of loving people who were outside of the covenant. The first was a widow who sheltered Elijah. The next was a Syrian General – quite literally a mortal enemy. If not to acknowledge the risk of loving, why else would he have said such things to his elders? It would be as though a child that grew up in this church stepped forward and said that we were no longer acting like a people of God. The words of Jesus seem rude and harsh – even unloving. In fact, his words were so insulting that they moved the crowd from praising him to wanting to kill him! Sound familiar? But it was not time for that – not yet. This story happens at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, and so it acts as a kind of mission statement for Jesus.
It’s his way of saying, “Look. This is what I am here for. I am here to show you what salvation looks like. I am here to demonstrate that it is not all about you, and I am here to teach you that loving as God loves is not an exclusive practice. I am here to offer you salvation from your own limitations, and salvation does not look like you think it does. It does not look like fairness. It looks like release from suffering, and it looks like suffering for and with others.”
It looks like agape. But how do we do it? We can’t just let the streets be filled with violent criminals, but we can take prison reform more seriously. We can look at institutional practices that create a self fulfilling prophecy between homelessness and incarceration. We can look at our school systems and ask serious questions of our legislature about spending. We can look at our community and finally start wrestling with the question of who is our neighbor and how do we target a mission field in a way that encourages and inspires faith and breaks down the barriers between them and us. We can start to think less about being a physical asset on the corner of University and Johnston and more about becoming a mission outpost in a world that is constantly changing and yet consistently crying out for salvation. We can do all of these things – and more – and we will, with God’s help.
I can say this with confidence – not just because we’ve done it before, but because I believe in a God who acts in us and through us when we open ourselves up to God’s self giving love. And how can we do that? A member of Session offered me some wisdom the other day that I think interprets the Gospel pretty well. Like the example given by Jesus, it from outside of our tradition. Many have attributed these to of an Indian Mystic from the early 20th Century named Sai Baba. [Further study reveals that this might have entered the public realm though through a poem called "Three Gates" written in 1835 by Beth Day and said to be "after the Arabian"]
Her words of wisdom were that before speaking or acting, we consider whether or not our words or actions are kind, necessary, and true. And lastly – and I would say essentially – do they improve upon the silence? Is it kind? Is there any compassion in your words or deeds? Are they self-serving or do they benefit the greater good? Is it necessary? Does what you feel compelled to do or say have to be said or done in order to effect change, protect the innocent, or create space for justice and restoration? Is it true? Does what you have to say reveal the truth or simply your perspective? Does what you have to say or do improve on the silence that would be there without your interruption?
For even if we move mountains and build great cities, we still need clean water. If we do not have love in our hearts for everyone and everything, then we are just noise and static. And love is risky. But the reward is worth it. For it is in faith, hope, and love that we abide – but the greatest of these is love. Amen.