You Will Know They Are Christians By Their Love

February 24th, 2019

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

One of the first things that folks often ask me about being married to a professional musician is what it is like to live my life listening to beautiful music. And while I love Jeremy very much and my life is richer sharing it with a such a talented human being, the soundtrack of my life is less performance and more practice – less song and more scales.  Because the truth is that the beautiful music we hear at a club, or symphony, or here in church is the culmination of a lot of work. Hours of practice and rehearsal precedes a performance. And that is true in terms of learning, in terms of work—and in terms of life as well. 

Now in today’s gospel reading we are met with some very challenging ideas about what it looks like to be a Christian. The kind of things that, at first glance, can keep us wondering if we are actually up to following Jesus. Because today Jesus tells us, “I say to you…love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.”  And while these phrases might be often repeated, “just turn the other cheek” or “you gotta love your enemies” these phrases have been repeated much more frequently than they have been followed.

This last week I saw a funny meme that said something like Christians are a book group has gotten stuck on the same book for almost two thousand years – but after all that time I am not sure that we have really gotten the gist of it. Karoline Lewis writes that, “[t]here are many ways to describe and define the Bible. From assertions that are mostly faith-based, such as “Scripture” or “Word of God”; to claims rooted in its perceived genre, such as “storybook,” the “narrative” of God’s people; to the more practical, like “rulebook” or “guide for life.”  But regardless of how we refer to the Bible, the most important thing is how we use the Bible to inform and change our lives.

Lewis says of this week’s reading: “This particular passage in Luke forces our hand, I think, when it comes to adjudicating the role of the Bible in our lives. While we would like to have the Bible aspire to lofty purposes…sometimes it is more basic, more simple, than that which inspires theological imagination.  Sometimes it is just words to live by. Words to guide a decent and kind life. Words to guide a decent and kind life.

Because that is what we’re doing here friends. As we gather here today, we are trying to learn how to follow Christ and following Christ actually takes some doing.  Now, I want to be careful to point out here that Jesus does not say that we have to do a bunch of stuff in order for him to love us or even bless us because as Jesus reminds those listening to him, “[God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” No, God loves all God’s children all the time – but if we want to follow Christ, if we want to be Christians – those in the world now that represent Jesus to the world, we need to try to do as Jesus did. So as Jesus would go on to say we need to emulate the God who loves us, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Sometimes I feel sad to see how we Christians seem to have gotten away from this… Mercy, compassion and love are an integral part of Jesus Christ and the Father whom he came to make known. I have a little button from the time of my youth – that has this cute little girl and boy hugging one another and says “They Will Know We are Christians by our Love.” My mom bought it for me at the Christian bookstore in Lewistown was right next to “The Health Food Store” which was a lot like a small PCC or Whole Foods. On Saturdays, beginning in 5th or 6th grade, my mom and I would go to lunch together, just the two of us before she would go off to work. And after a bowl of chili or a Nellie Nibbler (a veggie sandwich) at the Wholefamdamily we would walk over to the Christian Book Store-slash- Health Food Store and get a carob cluster or a dried pineapple slice and maybe a little something from the bookstore like my button. And on those wonderful days, life seemed so full of promise and I felt both proud of my button and sure that that sentence said it all; Christians are known by their love and their compassion—by the ways that they helped others. And much the same way that we would recognize a firefighter by their truck or their uniform and/or  Dalmatian and immediately know that he or she was the person to go to if there was a fire, when we saw someone wearing a cross or sporting a bumper sticker that said “Honk if you love Jesus” well you could count on them to love you – to love you like Jesus loves…

But sadly, as I grew up, I grew uncertain that that was the case. I served as an acolyte from the time I was in second or third grade so I saw “behind the veil,” if you will, of church folks fairly early. Those of us who are up here – well we are sinners too. So, I did love Fr. Boyer. He was a nice man who smiled a lot and smoked a pipe, but then he would sometimes say unkind things about Mr. Staum, an older gentleman I loved, who had given us a fantastic antique doll house and always seemed to delight in the little Garcia girls who would visit him at his home. Shouldn’t they know we are Christians by our love? And Maggie Byers, a woman I came to love and know as an adult, I wanted her to know I really didn’t touch a cookie I wasn’t going to eat at coffee hour. But she scared me. I knew she was a Christian but….

This is of course little stuff, right? The way that our young brains want there to be a world where right and wrong is easier and where we don’t have to deal with the grays.  But there are so many folks out there that have had horrible stuff done to them in the name of the Christianity—and while it is easy for us to admit that no one likes the Spanish Inquisition – no one really likes to be judged. And the Church that is to be easily identifiable by our love – well this week the Methodist Church’s General Convention will try to come to a decision regarding ordination for LGBTQI folks and same sex marriages. This is literally a divisive issue. While one pastor was quoted as saying “Marriage and ordination of  homosexual persons is not a church-dividing issue…It’s a difficult conversation, but we’ve had those in the past with other issues…[and] I believe we have the muscle strength to show the world we can have unity with diverse opinions,” Others assert that it’s time to for the church to separate. “We are hurting and harming each other…What kind of unity is worth the damage we are doing? We can’t quit fighting and we can’t escape each other. It’s time to quit the cage match.” 

In my lifetime our church, too, has had to grapple with many difficult issues. And it, too, continues to do so. So, if we are as the meme suggest a book group that is stuck in the same book – maybe we need to really spend some time pondering the words of today’s gospel: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” These words are pretty clear in terms of instructions for living a decent and kind life. Yet, it seems like we Christian folks continue to want to apply these to those we believe are worthy of this love and care. But those who follow Jesus are to be merciful because that is the nature of our merciful, loving God. God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked – which we all are at least some of the time. But we don’t seem to get it. Bishop Gene Robinson has said, “It’s funny isn’t it. That you can preach a judgmental and vengeful and angry God and nobody will mind. But you start preaching a God that is too accepting, too loving, too forgiving, too merciful, too kind and you are in trouble.” We have a hard time understanding how love and mercy work in a world that places its faith in a misguided understanding of justice.

We can see how this plays out in our culture and politics too. On the political front, we are in a particularly divisive time with every side saying that the other is wrong, or responsible for what is wrong, and seemingly unwilling to believe that no one—NOT ONE OF US —is outside of God’s love. And belief in God’s promise for each human being is what gives us the ability to persevere—to listen to one another and to work to be part of the changes necessary now. A God of Love does not view justice the way that we do. God’s justice is based on love. It is not about tit for tat. It is not about vengeance. Jesus came to make that clear once and for all.  Our human treachery, our human sin, our human violence was thwarted by God’s love, acceptance, and grace. Shame and blame do not change things – love does. Anthony de Mello put it this way, “Everyone kept telling me to change. I resented them, and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. Then one day someone said to me, ‘Don’t change. I love you just as you are.” Those words were music to my ears: ‘Don’t change. Don’t change…I love you as you are. I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly I changed!”

What if we were to practice this kind of music ourselves—see the world outside of our limited views of the scales of justice—and work instead on writing a real love song… a Christian love song that wished for each and every creature of God that true, unconditional love that God has given us even at our most ungrateful and wicked. A love song that made it clear to the whole world that when they needed love, mercy and compassion they would seek out this place, this church, these Christians here – and better yet – if they had no idea where to go, they would see us on the street and knowing that we were Christians by how we love , maybe from a whisper, they would come and ask us to help them if they feel lost or hurt or just in need of love – because they would know that that is what Christians do.