God is Love

I asked a friend, Rev. Lisa Blackmonson of Broad Street UMC in Portsmouth, VA, if she would allow me to post the sermon she preached earlier today as a blog entry today, and she graciously agreed that I could publish it here. Thanks, Lisa, for your witness and for this word – and for being my first ever guest blogger!  I will be giving Lisa the last word on this blog about General Conference – at least for awhile!
I would encourage you all to read her texts for the sermon, since sermons are expositions of a particular text or texts.  The links here will take you to 1 John 4:7-21 (which also was the text I had in mind when writing a recent post on General Conference) and John 15:1-8.

Every four years the United Methodist Church holds a gathering of its top legislative body called General Conference.  This is a General Conference Year and the conference, this year held in Tampa Florida from April 24 until May 4, has just ended.  General Conference is a gathering of over 900 elected clergy and lay delegates from around the world, including Africa, Asia and Europe. General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the 12.1 million member United Methodist Church.

Over 4,000 people serve in a variety of roles such as greeters, registration officials, marshals, pages, translators, hosts, guides, drivers, musicians, technicians, reporters and emergency responders…the majority of whom are volunteers.

During the 11 day session, the 988 delegates revise the Book of Discipline, which regulates the manner in which local churches, annual conferences and general agencies are organized.  The book includes policies regarding church membership, ordination, administration, property and judicial procedures.  Delegates also revise the Book of Resolutions, a volume of more than 300 statements, declaring the church’s stance on a variety of social justice issues.

In addition the assembly approves plans and budgets for churchwide programs for the next four years and elects members of the Judicial Council and University Senate.

All of this may or may not be a big deal to you…As I look ahead to June and my taking lifelong vows of membership as a Clergy person in the United Methodist Church it is a really big deal to me.

Much that happened these past two weeks at General Conference directly affects me… and inevitably all local United Methodist Churches.  I won’t get in to all of that right now…but suffice it to say it has been a roller coaster week of emotions for me and for my Colleagues as we tuned in to the General Conference via Live Internet Video Feed.

Curiously what has affected me most has not been the vote to do away with Guaranteed Appointments, nor the vote to restructure the entire denomination shifting power structures and agendas like the faultlines in our denominational foundation…no, what has affected me is the ways in which change has been made.

Few people like change.  It makes us move, and we are quite comfortable in the places we have settled…but it isn’t the change itself that has spoken to my heart this week…it is the ways in which Christian brothers and sisters have engaged in conversations with one another as change was made.

Through live video feed I, and all who cared to tune in, witnessed the United Methodist Church engage in both amazingly beautiful, loving and Holy Conferencing and ugly, hateful, very Unholy conferencing.

Alas the church, even at it’s best falls short of God’s example of perfect love…and at our worst…well I’d rather not relive it.

But there is good news…For our hope does not lie with the United Methodist Church: though we engage in community and service to Christ through the United Methodist Church, no denomination of Christ’s body, the church, has a full claim to the whole of Christ!   Our hope does not lie in any one institution or organization or even local church…no our hope is in Christ Jesus who is indeed present with us as we gather to worship and conference…Christ Jesus who tells us that if we abide in him, if we seek to live in relationship with him, then He will in fact live in and through us as well.

Christ Jesus who says that if we live in relationship with him, he will teach us not only to love our brothers and sisters, but even how to love our enemies.  Christ Jesus who is building the Kingdom of God in our midst as we learn to love perfectly, but even as we love imperfectly.

As I studied the passage from 1 John I kept coming back to the question…how do we love?  What does it look like when we love as God loves?  And as I considered and prayed about this I remembered the famous love chapter…1 Corinthians 13

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”

This is what it looks like when we love even our enemies.

The author of 1 John tells us “God is Love”…curious he didn’t tell us what God is not…but we tend to think like that…we look at things in terms of the negative…or the negate-tive…we look at things and people in terms of what they are not…

Ronald Cole Turner wrote, “In our insecurity and longing for protection, we often yearn for a God who can control nature and prevent sickness or violence, a God who will protect us from all harm.  In a world of moral confusion, we wish for a God who lays down the law with complete clarity and holds everyone accountable, catching the cheaters and rewarding the faithful.  In our hunger to possess, we might even imagine a God of prosperity, one who promises to make us rich if we obey a few principles.

Whatever may be true about God’s power or moral order or generosity, the author of 1 John avoids all of these descriptions in favor of the simple word agape…or LOVE.  It is not power or law or prosperity, but self-sacrificing love that is the heart of the truth about God.  God has acted in love, sending Jesus Christ to overcome the destructive and divisive power of sin.  God has defined God, and God’s chosen self-definition is love.  We don’t have to wonder what God is like…God has shown us in Jesus Christ.

God is patient, kind, not envious, boastful or proud.  God does not dishonor others, God is not self-seeking, nor easily angered.  God keeps no record of wrongs.  God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.God never fails.

If we abide (stay close) to God then God will perfect us in love.  This doesn’t mean we will be made perfect…but God’s perfect love will be seen in us.  Which leads me to an important point.  To abide means to stay or live there…to dwell with.  It is a discipline to live in love…to abide with God..this is why we call it “practicing faith…or practicing religion”  we must continue to work at it.  All relationships are hard work and this is what the scripture  is getting at when it says…

“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Love is contrary to our insecurities…what comes naturally to our insecurities is fear…We are fearful as we dwell in sin…as we choose to abide with distance between ourselves and God fear stages a wedge between us and God and us and each other too.  This is what the scripture means when, in encouraging us to abide, dwell with God…and it says 

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.

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.

As I meditated on our scriptures, and as I watched in prayerful discernment of all I was witnessing on the live stream video of General Conference, I was troubled by what to me seemed a great chasm that was building between my understanding of the scriptures and what I witnessed on my computer screen.

I was awakened very early one morning, and as I awoke I believe that God gave me a vision, perhaps to comfort me…perhaps to comfort others…with some sense of fear, but with boldness of faith I would like to share with you my experience.

As I awoke from sleep I saw a thin veil blowing and moving, it seemed it was daylight on the other side, though I could not tell for sure.  It was as long and as tall as I could see.  I stood in the night, but did not feel afraid, more at peace and then I heard these words:

“The veil is thin now.  The world is battered, bruised, burning, but not destroyed or forsaken – what is coming is not death, not retribution, but peace and salvation.  It is in fact already here – peace is upon us- salvation is here- but we place our faith in our own power- we rely on our battered histories our bruised and wounded lives and relationships…The veil is thin and we are panicked because we think that punishment lies on the other side – we see darkness where there is light and love, mercy and grace and from our fear we create more darkness which blinds us – the temple curtain was torn in two- into….The angels continuously remind us “Be not afraid” Jesus said “Peace be with you, my peace I leave with you” …peace not like the world gives….The veil is thin now- be not afraid!  Salvation, love, mercy and grace lay just a breath away – Do Not Fear- the veil is thin- Listen to the Ruach…it breathes through the veil- feel it wash over all that is, was and is to come/ Peace Be Still!”

Friends,  God is not finished with us yet.  We and this world is God’s masterpiece in progress.  Thomas A’Kempis said we should seek to be “imitators of Christ”…Jesus tells us in John 15 “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

This doesn’t mean that in our selfishness or even in our retributive prayers we might ask for personal prosperity, or plagues upon those who offend us…but the closer we draw to Christ the more our minds will be of the things that are precious to Christ and therefore the things we will ask will be things of love and building up the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  It isn’t about changing others…it is in fact about changing each of us, one by one into the image of Christ.

I leave you with this clip from the movie “Hook”, a rendition of the Peter Pan story…Robin Williams plays the now Grown up and married with children Peter Pan who has returned to Neverland…but the lost boys do not recognize him because he has changed so much…so they do not trust him they will not stand by him…to battle the evil Captain Hook.

Our world is locked in fear…our church our world even our very selves may at times be eaten up with fear…but the love of Christ can heal even the most fearfully broken heart and soul.  This is why we must seek to see Christ’s face in everyone…even our enemies.  For we have all been created in the image of God…sometimes it takes time for God’s chiseling work to reveal God’s image underneath all that we have masked and plastered on ourselves and each other…But if we search the Christ in me…can greet the Christ in thee…and we can say to each other…”Oh…there you are Jesus!”

Facing our Fears

“Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;

from our sins and fears release us, let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;

dear desire of every nation, joy of every trembling heart.”

– Charles Wesley

Like other United Methodists, I have been thinking a lot about guaranteed appointments in the past 48 hours. Perhaps I seem a bit late to the table on this one, as attention has turned to the latest votes and statements. But I wanted to give this one the thought it is due, especially as among the many interested clergy persons continuing to make online statements for or against the new policy, I count personal friends on “both sides.” It has struck me that, in the midst of drawing our lines, too few have noticed that everyone is a little bit right:

  • It is surprising that such a significant piece of legislation was handled on a consent calendar, with many delegates not really knowing what was going on… and just because it was handled this way does not mean that there was any particular agenda or conspiracy behind it.
  • It is true that many UM clergy have been empowered to be prophetic by knowing that, even if they are moved from a particular congregation, they will still be able to feed and house their families… just as it is true that many UM clergy (sometimes the same UM clergy) have passed on opportunities to be prophetic even with such guarantees.
  • It is true that there are many pastors in other denominations without guaranteed appointments who have been prophetic without this guarantee… and that there are many others who have chosen a path of security for their families after seeing colleagues lose appointments over their prophetic stands.
  • It is true that the laity generally do not have jobs with such guarantees… but it is also true that their job descriptions do not usually include telling those who pay and evaluate them things that they might be uncomfortable hearing.
  • It is true that there are ineffective pastors… and it is true that there were already mechanisms in place for removing them.
  • Some of us are concerned that this policy might be abused… others of us point out that the appointment system itself was abused… and others among us point out that there are at least monitoring safeguards in this new system…

… and others say, “Isn’t it too bad that we don’t trust each other?” Yes it is. It is too bad that we don’t trust each other. But I hope that saying so is not being used as an attempt to shame others into not sharing their mistrust.

Some have gone further, suggesting that airing this mistrust so openly is a poor witness, but I am not so sure. I do not think that anyone outside of the church is likely to be surprised that there are untrustworthy people in the church. That may be part of why they are not interested in joining themselves (or why they have left.) It isn’t really proclaiming the good news to lie and say, “No no – we are all trustworthy here, and we all trust one another!” Every church – every group of people contains untrustworthy people. No, let’s state it more strongly – no one of us is trustworthy at all times. To draw people in with the dishonest assertion that at least they can trust us, the good folk in the United Methodist Church – well, there is no more sure formula for ultimately breaking their trust.

There are many of us who have been hurt by people we thought we could trust in the church – and many others of us who were asked to trust people we knew would be poor stewards of that trust. And there are others who have not been hurt – but that does not make them more righteous or better witnesses (nor does it make them less experienced, more naïve, or better connected) – it just means that they have a different story and a different relationship with sometimes different (and sometimes the same) people within the same institution. I refuse to concede that anyone who trusts in their cabinet has their [by implication, unloving, dysfunctional, or privileged] head in the sand. But neither will I allow that those who have been hurt sharing their pain are thereby offering a poor witness. Instead, they are witnessing to the reality that we will (I hope) all recognize – that we in the Church (yes, even our own beloved United Methodist church) are not ourselves the full expression of the love of God, and as such, do not merit the same level of trust that we can rightly place in Godself only.

Not that I have not seen some poor witnessing! I have seen a good bit of it around this issue (and others, but lets not digress any further.) I would propose that fear is a poor witness. Or, at least, acting as if our fear is justified is a poor witness. Perfect love casts out fear, John reminds us – or (if you prefer Gandhi) where there is fear, there is no religion. Having been hurt before – knowing that others will be hurt again – we cannot create a policy that will avoid that. We can create policies that will mitigate injury, or policies that will exacerbate them (which results this policy change will have remains to be seen) – but we cannot guarantee that we can protect anyone from being injured by another – even by another within the church – even by a bishop or a cabinet or a SPRC committee. But here’s what we can do: Fear not! Jesus is with us!

Do we believe this? Do we believe that God will make it right in the end? Do we believe that any suffering or indignity is nothing compared to the glory of the age to come? Do we love those who injure us enough that our greater concern is for their souls – for their right relationship with God – than for our ability to keep our family in a single family home?

Perhaps some of us do not believe this. Perhaps, for some, faith has become a fragile and a fearful thing. If so, let us not point the finger of blame at the one who has lost a fearless faith because she has been hurt one too many times by individuals who invoked God even as they failed to act in Christian love – let us not blame the one who has lost faith in this God that was invoked as he was bent over someone’s knee with the switch upraised in their dominant hand.

Instead, let us face our fears – beginning with collectively taking loving ownership of the fears of those who feel most fearful. Perhaps what some individuals need most is time off to recover – not cut off from the safety net of their community, but supported (financially and spiritually) through a sabbatical time of healing, when they can rediscover that Perfect Love that casts out all fear. Perhaps others will find that place of recovery in a supportive and nurturing parish, or in covenant with sisters and brothers in Christ who honor their pain and see in it the grain around which luminous layers might slowly form, until it becomes a precious pearl, a kingdom sign. Others may find their recovery in a sincere apology, simply given through that miracle of being suddenly seen in a new light by the one who once failed to see – that miracle when one who injured unknowingly (and with great self-righteousness, perhaps) experiences an epiphany – an expansion of their empathic imagination. Yet others might find their recovery in the assurance that they can still offer their service to God – still answer God’s call on their life, and yet need never again subject themselves to a system that has broken them one too many times.

Offering these threshold spaces of healing for those who have given of themselves, in order that they might find their way back to the love and the light of the only One who can deliver us from slavery to fear – that might be one of the best witnesses we could give.

God of Glory, Lord of Love, grant that we may seek not so much to be consoled as to console – but free us from the ever-present temptation to offer false consolation. Amen.