Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Church is not for you

Psalm 145
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 10, 2013

Downtown Newark, DE
            I am convinced that God lives in downtown Newark because she keeps finding me whenever I happen to be taking a walk down Main St.  Earlier this week I was in the National 5 & 10 looking for a University of Delaware sweatshirt.  I had already been in a couple of times before and had looked in Barnes and Noble, scoping out all the options.  I was about ready to make my decision when I noticed two students, a boy and a girl, also shopping for sweatshirts.

            “Pick one,” he said.  “Which one do you want?”
            “The cheapest,” she said.  She turned and walked to another part of the store with him on her heels.

            I shook my head.  Really, I thought.  Young women are still playing that game?  The one where it’s not about how much a guy loves them but how much they value themselves.
I was standing on the right of that middle display; they were on the left.
            When I had finally decided on a bright blue one, complete with a little Blue Hen on it, the two of them were back, standing on the other side of a wide display of soft piles of sweatshirts.  She was still dithering over her choices.  I couldn’t take it anymore and said something.

            “Let me get this straight.  You can choose any sweatshirt?”


            “Yup,” he said. 


            “And you want to pick out the cheapest one?”  She shrugged in response.

            To him I said, “And you’re doing this because you love her.”  I left it at that, and went up to the cash register.  I do wonder, though, how that date ended.

            It was then that God brushed past me in the National 5 & 10, nudged my ego, and winked at me.  We do the same thing in our relationship with God.  God is ready to love us with an everlasting love, to accept us as we are, to forgive every hurtful thing we’ve ever done and redeem that which we’ve left undone.  And yet we’re willing to get by on what we’re willing to receive rather than live abundantly with what God is willing to give.

            NPR’s Scott Simon tweeted earlier this week:  “Priest came in and asked if he could pray for me.  Told him I was fine.  He said, ‘So a prayer won’t hurt, will it?’  We prayed.”

            And yet we’re willing to get by on what we’re willing to receive rather than live abundantly with what God is willing to give.

            Earlier in September I heard these words from author Kirk Byron Jones:  “What if Jesus really meant it?”  What if Jesus really meant that there is no end to God’s love for us?  Jesus would have grown up with, been steeped in the psalms.  Over and again he would’ve heard, just as we do, that God is kind and compassionate, slow to anger and endless in love, that God’s goodness is everywhere, and that God’s compassion extends to all of God’s works.  Jesus knew down deep in his bones that God’s love for him was infinite.  “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I well pleased.”  And it was from this knowledge, from this place of God-given, irrevocable acceptance, that Jesus was able to not only do but be what God called him to be—a vessel, a vehicle for that infinite, no-strings-attached love.

            There is nothing, absolutely nothing that we can do to separate ourselves from God’s love.  To be sure, there’s plenty we can do to cut ourselves off from it but we can’t stop God from loving us.  It would be like telling the sun to go away and shine someplace else.  Or sending the mighty Mississippi River back the other way.  Or leaning away from the best hug of your life.  All we need do is to wake up to this, every morning, and lean in.
Savage Chickens - Unconditional Love

            But it seems as though we register this knowledge solely in our brains.  We know God loves us, but in an intellectual sort of way.  I think what holds us up is that God accepts us and calls us as we are—warts, mess, and all.  And that’s something that needs to take root not only in our hearts and in our gut but in the very fiber of our being.  That’s what it means to be created in the image of God.  And I think that once we truly realize this, when we know that we don’t have to become acceptable, that we already are and so is everyone else, we’ll understand that church is not for us.

            Now I don’t mean that we won’t need church anymore once we know deep down that all the love we ever thought we should’ve had and needed, God will give us.  We still need church—a community in which we can know that holy, irrevocable love in one another.  We need people with whom we know that love is not always easy; that sometimes it’s downright hard and painful to love and we need help doing it.  And we need people who’ve always got our backs.  I know I’ll always need church for that.  But the church is not for me or for us.

            God loves us the same way and for the same reasons that God loves Jesus.  God loves us not only for ourselves but so that we would be a vessel, a vehicle for the very same infinite, unconditional love.  We are fully and completely loved so that we might share that same love with others.  We are church not only so we can be here for each other but also for those outside these walls who do not know their worth, that they might know themselves as beloved.  We are more than family.  We are the body—arms, feet, hands, legs, heart and mind—of Christ.

            Earlier this week I saw a news story about a middle school football team in Olivet,Michigan that made one of the best sacrifice plays I’ve ever seen.  The team orchestrated a play so that they would intentionally not score a touchdown.  In fact, the player with the ball went down on one knee at the one yard line.  Then the team called in Keith, a boy with special needs, to take the ball.  The team surrounded Keith, keeping him from all harm until he was able to cross into the end zone and score for his team.  This group of boys realized that their team was not solely for them but that they could be a conduit of radical acceptance for someone else.

            And yet we’re willing to get by on what we’re willing to receive rather than live abundantly with what God is willing to give.

            Last week we read these words by Ted Loder as our prayer of thanksgiving:

“As we have been drawn to this table and to you, O Lord, make us aware not so much of what we’ve given as of all we have received and so have yet to share.  Send us forth in power and gladness and with great courage to live out in the world what we pray and profess, that in sharing, we may do justice, make peace, and grow in love.” 

Make us aware of all we have received and so have yet to share.  What we have and continue to receive is nothing short of the fullness of God’s extravagant love.  And before we rush off to share it, let’s first soak ourselves in it, bask in its glow, delight in God’s sheer joy to greet us each day.  For it is then, with our God-soaked spirits, we can shower others with that same love, we can do justice, and make peace.

            We can love because God first loved us.  And it is a perfect love, a complete love that shows us the way; revealed through Jesus and now through us how it can be done.  And so we need to hear these words of love and praise again and again, because oftentimes we allow life to get in the way of this life-giving love.  Which is why God lives on Main St.  Because church is not for us.

            “Pick one,” he said.  “Which one do you want?”

            “How about this one?” she said, holding up one of the softest ones, not looking at the price.
            “Perfect,” he said, smiling.  “It matches your blue eyes.”

            “Do you think it’ll keep me warm enough?” she asked.

            “If it doesn’t, don’t worry.  I’ll be right beside you.”

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