New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 23, 2014
Who do you find difficult to love? Who pushes your buttons, sits on that very last nerve, the one whose attitude would, in the words of Anne Lamott, make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish? Perhaps this person is from the past. Quite possibly they are in public service or they make it into the news quite frequently. They could live down the street or work with you or might live with you. Maybe they’re even in this room.
On some days it’s us: we’re the one who is difficult to love, either because we’re cranky or tired or something hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to. More often, we’re difficult to love because we’re hurt, we’ve been wounded, either recently or from a long time ago, and we snarl and scratch and bite with our words and feelings.
When it comes to living in community, chances are either we will be the one difficult to love or we will be serving and worshiping with someone difficult to love. We’ll take turns, swap places. Sometimes we’ll wear out our welcome or someone will wear their welcome out on us. More often, we have good days, months, spells of time when we’re moving and groovin’ with the Spirit. But there are times when our well runs dry, we want to be filled, and we find ourselves with someone or whole group of someones we find difficult to love.
Jesus came to a well to get a drink because he was tired and thirsty. What he found was someone who wasn’t difficult to love but, as a Jew, someone he wasn’t supposed to love: a woman from Samaria. And yet he loved her anyway. He talked to her, listened to her, accepted her, taught her as though she were a student, revealed himself as the Messiah to her. She expected to be treated differently, as one not worthy of these attentions. But then this is Jesus we’re talking about.
Earlier this week, Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church died under hospice care in Topeka, KS. He’s the most recent in a long line of troubled, broken souls not only difficult to love but who behaved in such a mean, painful, hateful manner that we feel as though we are not supposed to love him.
Ironically, Fred Phelps’ date of death was also Fred Rogers’ date of birth, Mr. Neighborhood himself. Eleven years ago Fred Phelps and members of the WBC protested Fred Rogers’ memorial, because of Mr. Rogers’ practice of not only tolerance but acceptance of everyone, saying that his ‘syrupy teachings led millions astray’. In Mr. Rogers’ words, those so-called syrupy teachings sound like this: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
And so when members of the WBC held their first protest since Phelps’ death, at a concert given by New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde in Kansas City, a counter-protest was also held as usual but this time there was a different message: a banner with the words “Sorry for your loss”. Not surprisingly, the folks from the WBC couldn’t understand the message, it meant nothing to them, because hate and anger have a way of numbing our souls to grief and sorrow, as much as to joy and love.
But what if the folks at Westboro Baptist Church were inundated with expressions of sympathy, condolences, and prayer? As blogger Darren Main suggests, what if, in their name and in memory of Fred Phelps, donations of any amount were made to organizations like the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Wounded Warrior Project which benefits veterans, or the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation—all of these representing funerals and memorials that have been picketed by the WBC. Love indeed wins, but not without struggle, not without action, not without a willingness on all our parts to be not just generous with our love but extravagant.
For now, we’re going to engage in an exercise of love in action: an agape or love feast. On the table are pitchers of water and cups for drinking, crackers—both regular and gluten-free, and cheese: water, to remind us of our thirst for God, for unconditional love, for justice, crackers to intensify our thirst, and cheese for protein. Please serve each other rather than help yourselves.
In the bulletin are questions for discussion at your table. These are not easy questions, but do try to find one you can answer. Give each person the honor of speaking without interruption or questions. Offer each other a word of trust that what is said will not be repeated. Lastly, during the week, keep your tablemates in prayer, simply holding them in the light of God’s love. We will have 12 minutes together.
Let us begin with the prayer that I use at the beginning of the sermon:
Lord Jesus Christ,
Take our hands and work with them.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our minds and think with them.
Take our hearts and set them on fire
With love for you and all your people.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION DURING THE LOVE FEAST
- What makes it difficult for you to love someone?
- Think of a time when you were surprised by love and tell the story to those around the table.
- Whom does our culture say we’re not supposed to love?