Sunday, May 07, 2006

A 'Comma' Kind of Love

Ps. 23; John 10: 11-18; 1 John 3: 16-24
******** United Church of Christ
May 7, 2006

Do you remember when this picture was taken? I was told you had just had a fire drill (I don’t know of any other church that does fire drills) and came out onto the lawn for the picture. You can see that the doors to the church were left wide open; a very telling gesture, with more than one connotation. A number of you are wearing your ‘God is still speaking’ t-shirts. It’s a beautiful warm day yet you all chose to come to church: about 60 adults and 20 kids. Although it appears your pastor is missing from the picture, really she is not. She’s the one perched on top of the ladder taking the photograph. And she formed you in the shape of a comma, as a way of saying that God is
still speaking through you. God is not finished with you; praise God!

Seeing all of you in this picture got me thinking about the kind of love to which God calls the Church to be and to reveal and to practice. A comma, in all its simplicity, is a wonderful illustration of this love. It is a love that is open-ended, without limits and conditions. It is a love that possesses a willingness to be led, toward the yet-to-be-realized future of infinite possibilities. It is a love that has the ability to let go of the outcome and of our desires for the sake of the other. It is a love that we know in this way: that Jesus laid down his life for us. Jesus’ death on the cross was a comma in the expression of God’s love for us.

We’d like to think that it is love that motivates everything we do in church. We’d like to think that way. But we know, we know what lurks inside our hearts, and indeed, our hearts condemn us. We are not always willing to be led; we are a stubborn lot. Sometimes we place limits and conditions on our love. Often we try to control and manipulate the situation at hand, not to mention a few people, so as to quell our fear and satisfy our own desires.

We’re not all that different from the early Christians; in fact, we haven’t changed much, in that we still need to hear the ancient words and how they speak to us today. When the apostle Paul wrote his famous chapter on love in his first letter to the Corinthians, about love not being envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, he did so because the brothers and sisters of the Corinthian church were behaving exactly this way with one another. It always tickles me when couples choose this passage for their wedding, thinking that it is such a romantic passage about the feeling of love. Love, in the Bible, is hardly ever a feeling. In God’s lexicon, love is an action verb. And for we who are Christians, we see this most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In the Heidelberg Catechism, the FAQ (frequently asked questions) on Christian life, it is asked of us, “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The answer: “That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” To love is to lay down one’s life for another, to acknowledge that our lives do not belong to ourselves but to Christ and to the world. Author M. Scott Peck defined love this way: “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” He recognized that our motives are rarely pure, especially when we love. That is why we follow Jesus, God’s Anointed One, who shows us how to love, how to extend ourselves for the well-being and wholeness of the other.

When I first dreamed of becoming a minister, I thought I was laying down my life for others, in what I thought was the single response I could give for Jesus laying down his life for me. The words of the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” brought my heart to its knees: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” I never thought I would be called by God to lay down my ministry for another calling, that of motherhood and marriage partner. But over the years I have seen how being a mother has made me a better pastor and how not being a pastor has made me a better mother. This time of letting go of my vocation is but a comma in God’s call in my life. There truly is no “THIS IS WHO YOU’RE GOING TO BE—PERIOD!” in being led by God. God calls us to be many things in many places but through it all, God calls us to love. And to love is to lay down our lives, to be willing to be a comma in the grand scheme of building the kingdom of God.

When we are willing to be led, when we are so eager for God’s wholeness to come to everyone, when we are keen to love without regard to ourselves, we begin to live without fear. When we realize that our future and the future of the Church does not depend solely on us but is in the keeping of the One who leads us, we then become capable of amazing things. We become Easter people and an Easter church: loving, letting go, dying, rising again; working, praying, singing, giving, welcoming, suffering, and loving even more. Instead of trying to change the hearts of others, it is our heart that is changed, opened, and healed.

In your church covenant you have promised God and each other that you are willing to be led by God’s Word and God’s will. You affirm that you are open to the Holy Spirit to lead you and empower you. You state that you are willing to walk with each other as you follow Jesus. You assert that you are forward-looking toward that kingdom of God. And even though you live as a people who love each other, you do not say so out loud in your covenant. Many of you have been here for a number of years, through good times and bad, through hardship and celebration, through death and new life. Why not declare before God and everyone that you will be there for each other no matter what, that you promise to love each other, not only in feeling, but in action? If you are willing to be a ‘comma’ kind of love, then you must practice; and as part of your practice you need to state it in the form of a promise, a promise that is renewed each time you say it.

Saying you promise to love each other is a ‘comma’ kind of love in and of itself. It doesn’t mean you have to like everyone. It doesn’t mean you have to be perfect at loving others. It doesn’t mean you will do everything that is asked of you. To promise to love someone means some days you will give whatever you’ve got and other days you may not be able to give at all. To promise to love someone, to lay down your life for others can mean many things but above all it means that love, the essence of which we know through Jesus, is more powerful, more humble, more radical, more than anything else that might try to undercut that love. By promising to love we admit how fragile we are and our need for God’s grace to live by this promise and to rekindle it each time we speak it.

So, ******** United Church of Christ, how are you living out this ‘comma’ kind of love? How might promising to love each other change the way you worship and work and witness together? What about the future scares you? Inspires you? What is difficult for you about being led? What are the blessings? In what tangible and recognizable ways is Jesus the center and head of your church? How is God calling you to extend yourselves for those in need of God’s grace?

By promising to love, by laying down our lives for one another, in this way we reveal Jesus our Savior, risen from the dead, the One who laid down his life for us. We proclaim to the world that all that serves to destroy love is but a comma, that love itself is open-ended and limitless. We begin to live without fear, to boldly counter a world that uses fear to impose a commitment. We begin to live with true love, love that inspires us to be led; love that calls us to lay down our lives for one another and for our fear-filled world; love that puts a comma after death and leads us to new life. Amen.


Andy said...

When I was younger I thought that "love" ended with a period, too. The older I get, the more I realize that a comma is needed with darn near every statement.

I really enjoyed this one, Cindy. Thank you.

Cynthia said...

If you didn't already know, the 'comma' is part of the UCC's ad campaign, "God is still speaking". This coming Sunday, on Mother's Day, churches are giving out 'comma' pins, with the slogan "Give a comma to your momma". What a hoot.

Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it. It's the last one for a while. My temp job ended Sunday. I had a really good time there, but it's also nice to be able to go to church, sing in the choir, and just be. I have three preaching gigs in July, all at different UCC churches.