SERMON IN PROGRESS for
For Sunday May 10th 2009
1 John 4:7-21
Some stories are just worth re-telling.
The woman entered the old Lutheran church in a farming community nestled in a beautiful valley near Gettysburg long after worship had begun. The opening prayer had been prayed and the Kyrie chanted and the hymn of praise echoed off the walls. “You alone are the Holy One. You alone are the Lord! You alone are most high Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen!” The pastor began to chant “The Lord be with you” and the congregation, as they had probably a thousand times before, opened their mouths, the next words forming automatically only to die on their lips as a woman entered through the main doors and walked directly up the center aisle to the altar. There she fell on her knees and wept. Eyes turned, fixed her slight frame in their field of vision. They could not help but see her heaving chest. Tears dropping, falling raining down on the carpet, on the step up to the altar. Everyone was wondering what would happen next. What would the pastor do? Why was the woman kneeling at the altar in tears? Would the service ever continue? The deafening silence stretched into forever. A cough. A sigh. Someone nervously adjusting their frame to get a better glance without looking like they were trying to look as intently as they were.
The pastor looked out into the congregation and all eyes followed his gaze, not down to the woman a mere few feet away, but at another woman off in the congregation. And as his eyes caught her eyes she knew without a word being spoken what had to be done. What she was being asked to do. The woman, a Sunday school teacher that led the adult class, rose and slowly walked up to the altar and knelt down next to the praying, weeping woman and joined her for a few moments, sobs punctuating the silence, the terrible awkward silence.
Hanging in the air “The Lord be with You!” seemed to hold everything together, as if in the silence it kept its strength, its power, its purpose. Together the two women exchanged a quiet word and then walked arm in arm to a pew off to the side where they spent the rest of the service.
When a stranger appeared among them lost and weeping, somehow that community of faith had the faith to trust that the Spirit of God would lead them in the right direction. They did not rehearse it. There were no contingency plans written into their constitution that covered such a situation that they could quickly turn to for the proper actions to take. No turning to section One hundred and four “What to do when a weeping woman throws herself down at the foot of the altar in the middle of a prayer and response.” There is no section one hundred and four. There is only a gracious God who in Christ Jesus taught us how to love by becoming love for us.
A couple entered a church in a upper middle class suburb in New York with their baby in their arms. Someone handed them a bulletin before returning to their conversation about some church business or other that had set one of them off. The couple wandered into the sanctuary unsure of where to sit and where the nursery was if they ended up needing it; unsure of just about everything. Looking back the usher’s conversation was growing more heated so they opted to just wing it and sit in the middle pew of the middle section, close to the aisle, in case a quick exit was required.
During the service, every time their baby gurgled or cried out or made any noise at all they felt a hundred pairs of eyes staring at them. Whispers here and there. Louder and softer and louder again. They considered the nursery, but as they found buried in the back of the bulletin, it was located in the opposite end of the building from their pew and to get there would involve having every pair of eyes follow them as they got up, walked to the rear aisle and behind half the sanctuary until they reached the safety of a side door that led down the hallway to anonymity. That there were no other children at worship escaped them at the time, but should have come as no surprise. They felt like lepers and no one came to their aid.
When strangers appeared among them alone and unsure, that community of faith ignored them. Perhaps strangers were not that important or at least not as important as the members and their comfort were. They did not even need to say a word, for their glares and serious expressions said it all. And what was said was not a word of love.
We read again:
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.…Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another….if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
This Sunday we turn ourselves to the joy and challenge of loving as God loves - no simple or easy task. What does it mean that love defines a community? This text is about us and every community that declares itself to be Christian - about a community defined by love for one another. Not selective love, or shallow love, or love in words only. But love made powerfully manifest in word and deed.
If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us. But this love is not just any kind of love – no pale imitation of love. We are called to imitate Christ. This is not about being a warm and friendly community of faith. It is not even about being a welcoming church. This about manifesting Christ Jesus in our hearts so deeply, so honestly, so purely, that when people get home after worship they say to themselves: “We didn’t just go to church today – we encountered Christ!”
Church after church might say to itself: This is impossible. Sounds nice, but let’s get serious. We’re just human beings – we are how we are. We can be friendly, we can be warm, we can be welcoming, but we can’t love as Jesus loves. There is only one Jesus.
But in every instance when our love falters as we encounter another human being, Christ reminds us that this act of audacious love is the very thing that he is calling us to do. And God has a history of empowering people to do the impossible, time after time after time.
Listen again to the words from 1st John:
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
As he is, so are we in the world.
We boldly and audaciously choose to love as Jesus does with a love that is sacrificial, fearless, committed, genuine, just, patient, and true.
As Jesus is so are we to be in the world.
How does a faith community live so differently, so lovingly?
Simple: they become a school of love.
That’s how the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, describes themselves: As a "School of Love."
Not perfected and finished becoming all that God hopes for them to become, but rather a school, a place where that love of Jesus is taught and experience and practiced over and over again.
A school is a place of learning: it is never satisfied with the status quo. And a school of love never declares itself satisfied that it loves enough. Never. It is never satisfied with being a warm and friendly community of faith. It is never satisfied with being a welcoming church. Instead it seeks with the full force of faith and ample humility to manifest Christ Jesus in its heart so deeply, so honestly, so purely, that when people get home after worship they say to themselves we didn’t just go to church today – we encountered Christ!
Will everyone here be able to say that with confidence this afternoon?
Are we all prepared to declare school in session?