Sunday, February 12, 2017

Phil Kniss: In favor of flourishing

The Rugged Commitment to Love
Advocacy: Commitment to be FOR the other
Jeremiah 30:3, 8-11a, 22; Psalm 23; John 3:16-17; 1 John 2:1-6

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Love is hard.
Understatement of the year.
Understatement of my career as a preacher.

That love is hard has never been more obvious.
I am painfully aware of all the failure to love
that pervades our lives right now,
in the larger world,
in our nation,
in our church,
in our families.
Sorry to start my sermon with such pessimism.
But love is difficult.
And a lot of us are struggling . . . mightily . . . to love.

This is part two of a three-sermon series on three aspects of love.
I acknowledge the work of Scot McKnight that inspired this series.
He wrote that love—that is, in the biblical, covenantal sense—
can be described as a rugged commitment
to be WITH the other,
to be FOR the other,
and to grow together TOWARD Christlikeness.
Love with, for, and toward.
Or, love as presence, advocacy, and direction.

I did the WITH part last Sunday,
and I made a point of saying how being truly WITH the other,
can be a difficult, and costly, thing to do.

Today, I’m thinking the commitment to be WITH is a piece of cake,
in comparison to the daunting task of being FOR the other.

Why would I say that?
To be an advocate FOR the one we love, is a no-brainer, isn’t it?
If we love someone, of course we will be FOR them!

It’s instinct.
Think mama bear.
When a human mother rushes to defend her son or daughter,
we call that the mama bear instinct.
No one wants to get between a mama bear and her cub—
real bear or human bear.
It’s a dangerous place to be,
because that mother is going to act immediately, and fiercely,
as an advocate for the one they love,
the one they are wired to protect.

That kind of advocacy comes naturally.
That’s not what I mean when I say love is hard.

We are not called to love only those we’ve given birth to.
In a family, for instance, we have to love a sister we can’t understand,
a brother who drives us crazy,
an uncle who IS crazy,
and in some cases,
a spouse who is as different from us, as night is from day.

We are called to love other members of our church family
who annoy us,
who upset us,
and often, have very different beliefs or practices than us.

We are called to love our neighbors who speak other languages,
and have different cultural and religious values,
or who support a different political party.

And if that wasn’t hard enough, Jesus had the nerve
to tell us to love our enemies—
to be FOR those who are AGAINST us.
Now, what in the world does that mean?
Are we supposed to be advocates for the well-being of our enemies?

How are we to love like that?
Well, let’s take a look at today’s scripture.
We must learn to define love as God does, not as Webster does.
Love, as seen in the God of the Bible,
is not having warm or affectionate feelings toward someone.
Love is not something we fall into.
Love is a choice. A choice to act in certain ways.

God is love, scripture says.
And we must love each other as God loves us.
So how does God love?
How does God choose to be FOR us?

The Bible is one big story of God willing himself, again and again,
to give his people one more chance.
Over and over, the people reject God’s initiative,
work against God’s purposes.

But God has a promise to keep.
A promise to love.
A promise be WITH and FOR God’s people.

I picked out just a few of many biblical texts
that illustrate God’s persistent advocacy FOR us.

In Jeremiah, after pages and pages recounting the people’s rebellion,
and God’s judgment against their rebellion,
we heard in chapter 30, God’s outpouring of love and advocacy:
For the days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah,
says the Lord . . .
I will break the yoke from off his neck.
Have no fear, Jacob, I will save you
I will make an end of all the nations you were scattered among,
but of you I will not make an end.
And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

We sang Psalm 23, picturing God as a shepherd—
the very essence of an advocate—
clearing our path,
leading us to good water,
spreading a table in front of our enemies,
pouring out blessing like anointing oil.

In 1 John, we heard these tender words,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you
so that you may not sin.
But if anyone does sin,
we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;
and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

That’s the ultimate love act—
the advocacy of God FOR us, in the person of Jesus,
who stood in for us, at the cross.
Jesus, the mama bear, standing between us and danger,
taking the hit himself,
instead of subjecting us children to destruction.

That act of love is summed up John 3:16-17, which we also read.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . .
that we might have eternal life.
Jesus came not to condemn us, but to save us.

Those words were not written just to make us feel good.
They were written also to challenge us.
Here is how God loves, and how we must love,
if we want to be God’s children.

So let’s talk a bit about the challenge before us,
if we assume love is being FOR the other,
even when they are hard to love.

Being on the side of someone,
being an ally, an advocate,
can be tricky business,
and easily misunderstood.

How do we know when we are being someone’s ally, or advocate?
What does it really mean to be FOR another?

Does being for someone,
mean we seek to fulfill their every desire?
that we advocate for their freedom from all unpleasantness?
Must we give someone everything they want,
in order to be considered a bonafide advocate?
For any of you parents, the answer should be obvious.

Love is not giving someone everything they want,
and it would be foolish to even suggest that.
Love is not protecting someone from everything unpleasant.
Even if some parents today seem to misunderstand that concept.

I think we can all affirm that
love sometimes gives, sometimes withholds.
So who decides whether we are being an advocate?
If we say we are doing something for someone’s own good,
does it mean that we really are?
And if the one we are acting toward,
says we are not being their advocate,
does it automatically mean that we’re not?

It’s complicated.
If our child isn’t getting what he or she wants from us,
they may not see us as their advocate at the moment.
But is there a way to discern
whether we are or are not acting FOR them?

Again, looking to scripture,
perhaps the Hebrew concept of shalom can help us sort this out.
What is GOD’s desire for God’s people, and for creation?
God’s desire is shalom.
The state of flourishing, and unhindered fruitfulness.

Obviously, there are baseline needs important to human flourishing.
The first that comes to mind is safety—
protection from physical and emotional and spiritual injury.
Every child of God in the world deserves that.
There should be a basic sense of security surrounding them.
They should know someone loves them,
that they will not be left alone and abandoned,
that someone is for them, on their side.
We should be in favor of the flourishing
of every human being in this world.
Every one.
Otherwise, we fail to love.

Maybe here’s a way to measure it.
If the one we say we love
is not convinced we desire their basic safety, security,
and full human dignity,
we probably have more to learn about loving.

If we say with our words,
“I care about you and your well-being,
especially your spiritual well-being,”
but then we don’t strongly advocate for their personal safety
within their families and communities,
their need for security,
their need for respect, dignity,
and the freedom to flourish and prosper,
then our love is probably subject to question.

Love is more than a feeling.
It is more than having warm, gentle, and quiet thoughts
toward some one,
or toward some group of people—
LGBTQ persons, or refugees, or immigrants, or the poor . . .
As our MCUSA summer assembly theme puts it,
“Love is a verb.”
Love is action, and often, costly action.
It takes courage to enact.
And it can be seen and experienced
by those we direct our love toward.

If those we claim to love,
don’t experience our love in particular actions,
if they can’t identify specific ways
in which they see our love expressed,
if they do not see concrete evidence
that we have their flourishing at heart,
then let’s be cautious before making this bold claim
that we love them.

I think those being loved have a say in the matter
about whether or not they are actually being loved.
Yes, love can be unrecognized.
We might love someone with a pure heart and loving acts,
and they still deny or reject our love.
I’m not saying they have the final say.
But if the ones we love, say they don’t experience our love,
that should give us pause,
and reason to try harder to love.

As I think about all the tumult around us,
in the political sphere,
in the church,
the call to love all people by being FOR them,
gets very challenging.

Among our elected leaders,
among our church leaders,
and other persons in the public arena—
there are people who upset us,
who make us justifiably angry.
There are leaders, or leadership groups,
that some of us can get passionate about in our opposition.

Here’s the thing . . .
we can be vocal in opposing
someone’s public and private behavior,
or ideology,
or policies,
or rulings,
or statements,
or decisions that effect other people we love . . .
we can, and should, hold all our leaders to account for their actions,
even to the point of unseating them from their position of power,
if that’s what it comes to.

It’s challenging, but we can do all that,
and at the same time love them—
be an advocate for their safety and well-being,
for their full human dignity and flourishing.
We do not need to resort to dehumanizing the other,
or wishing them ill,
in order to oppose their actions or beliefs . . .
even if that person is our President.

I know it’s not everyone here,
but there are many persons among us
intensely angry at President Trump and his circle of advisors.
There are those with a deep and passionate desire
to see his political agenda thwarted,
and his power reigned in.
I think Christians can be passionate in their opposition,
motivated by faith,
and still have spiritual integrity,
still fulfill God’s call to love.

So here’s a little test to see if we are succeeding at that.
Are we comfortable praying for the health and safety
of President Trump and his family?
If not, why not?
Are we saying we secretly hope for his demise?

Praying that he is able to live into God’s full desire for his life,
is not the same as praying for the success of his political agenda.

Now, let’s ask the same thing
about any other person we are intensely angry at right now,
or finding very hard to love—
be that a public figure in the government, or a church leader,
or a neighbor,
a colleague,
a parent,
a spouse.

Think about whatever it is that makes our blood boil about them.
Are we able to pray that they be held to account
for any wrongs they have done,
and at the same time, be in favor of their full flourishing
as a human being made in God’s image,
deserving of health and safety and dignity?
If we cannot, I suggest we have our own repentance to do.
I suggest we are failing to love as we are called to love.

I will add this caveat.
I’m not saying that every one of us,
needs to pray for the well-being of every other person.
Sometimes the injuries inflicted by trauma, or abuse,
create a spiritual and emotional chasm that cannot be bridged.
If you cannot pray for the well-being of someone
who triggers trauma memories, let it be.
Let there be no guilt over that.
There are others you can pray for.
And there are people who can pray for the one you can’t.

But I still hold that we can work passionately toward justice,
we can resist systems of oppression,
we can even resist the people running those systems,
and still demonstrate love,
by being in favor of their full human flourishing.

After all, flourishing, as God defines it, includes repentance.

So I commit myself to pray for President Trump and his family,
and his circle of advisors.
I will pray for their safety, for their health.
And I will pray for their honesty and humility,
and for their courage to repent of pride and self-centeredness,
for their capacity to show compassion for the vulnerable,
for their generosity of spirit,
for openness of mind and heart to the wisdom of others.
I will pray for God to transform them,
even as I open myself for God’s transforming work in me.

Now, that precise prayer may not be what you are called to today.
There may be another person, or group of people, near or far,
that you find difficult to love,
and for whom you are called to pray, and to act,
in favor of their flourishing.

I think there is little doubt that this is what God calls us to.
To love others, as God loves us.
And God is FOR us. Always.

As the choir anthem puts it,
“Feel God’s strength defend you,
let God’s love begin to fill your thirsty soul.
Hold on in times of sorrow, in days of despair,
Even in the darkest valley, God will always be there.”

Rest, and rejoice, in that promise,
as the choir comes and sings.

—Phil Kniss, February 12, 2017

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Phil Kniss: Love—here, now, and in particular

The Rugged Commitment to Love
Presence: Commitment to be WITH the other
Psalm 139:1-12; John 1:14-18, 14:18-21; Romans 8:38-39

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50 years ago, in the summer of 1967,
during another troubling and violent time in our nation and world—
race riots in our cities,
the six-day war in Israel and Palestine,
a nuclear arms race spreading around the world,
less than a year before Martin Luther King, Jr would be shot dead,
a group of creative artists from 19 countries,
held the first-ever worldwide live TV event broadcast by satellite.

They called it “Our World.”
It’s intent was to bring people together.
No politicians or heads of state were allowed on the program.
Only artists.
As diverse as opera singer Maria Callas and painter Pablo Picasso.
The concluding act was a new song from the Beatles,
written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney,
and sung for the very first time—
to the world, on live TV: “All you need is love.”

After that, the song spent 11 weeks at #1 on the charts.
In the 50 years since, it has become an anthem for the masses,
sung on the streets, in coffeehouses, on marches,
to get people through other troubling times.

Now . . . Lennon and McCartney are legendary songwriters.
I have at least four Beatles albums in my vinyl record collection.
But I’ll be honest.
It’s hard to think of a Beatles song any more empty of substance
than “All you need is love.”

It’s fun to sing. But means practically nothing.
Yes, getting the world to sing together—that’s great in itself.
But even when we sing the line 20 times in a song, like they did,
we still don’t know what we mean when we sing it.
“Love is all you need.”

In fact, it’s hard to know what practically anyone means,
when they talk about the pleasures and virtues of love.

Love is one of the most squishy words in the English language.
It can be pressed into just about any shape,
and mean anything . . . or nothing.

But . . . love is at the very center of our scriptures,
and at the center of our faith.
There is no theological concept more robust and profound
and essential to our understanding of God,
than the biblical concept of love.

So, we can’t just dismiss love-talk as purely sentimental.
We must . . . we must . . .
do the careful and deliberate work
of giving love the theological depth and clarity
and power to shape us that it deserves.

That’s the point of this 3-part series.
To think theologically and practically, about love,
especially as it pertains to love in the body of Christ.
I was inspired to do this series
after spending a few days with Scot McKnight last fall,
when we hosted him for some lectures in this community.
And after I read his book, Fellowship of Differents.

In that book he makes a powerful case that the church ought
not to define love by consulting a dictionary,
which tends to focus on emotions,
on feelings of affection.
Rather, he suggests, we consult our scriptures,
and define love by watching how God loves.

God is the one who gets to define love.
1 John tells us “God is love.”
The nature of God = the nature of love.
1 John also says the proof of whether our faith is genuine,
is whether we love each other,
the way God loves us.

Which takes us straight to the question, “How does God love?”
Well, the biblical foundation of love is covenant.
And Scot McKnight suggests,
another way to say “covenant” is “rugged commitment.”
There is nothing casual about covenant.
We enter into covenant with great resolve.
We assume it will be hard work.
We assume we will change in the process.
But the covenant to love remains.

When the human side of God’s covenant with us failed—
miserably, and repeatedly, according to the Bible stories—
God kept reaching toward us in love,
keeping faith, keeping covenant,
making a rugged commitment to love.
That’s basically the whole story of the Bible,
God reaching toward us to close the gap,
to restore the relationship with us,
where love is freely given and received.

God takes initiative to express covenant love in three ways.

First, God promises to be WITH God’s people,
to move toward us, and join us in our muddled mess.
Even in the Garden of Eden,
God is portrayed as one who comes
and walks WITH Adam and Eve (Gen. 3).
In the Exodus, God is WITH Israel,
in a cloud by day, and fire by night (Exo. 13).
Long after the Sinai covenant, God says to faithless Israel,
“I will never leave or forsake you” (Deut. 31).
God is WITH God’s people
in the tabernacle, in the ark of the covenant,
in the prophets, and ultimately, profoundly WITH us,
in Jesus of Nazareth, who is called Emmanuel,
meaning “God with us.”

Second, the God of the Bible is FOR us.
God identifies with Israel, says “I am on your side.”
“I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
God is our advocate.
Over and over, God fights FOR Israel.
And in fact, passes judgment on Israel
when they reject God’s advocacy,
and try to win on their own terms.
And ultimately, Jesus expresses his solidarity FOR us on the cross.
Taking on himself what would have been ours to bear.

Third, God’s covenant love is directed TOWARD our transformation.
God’s love is a transforming love,
intended to move us TOWARD a particular end,
a telos,
an aim,
a direction TOWARD Christlikeness,
as loving, holy, God-glorifying, other-oriented
citizens of the Kingdom of God.

So . . . in love, God is WITH us, FOR us,
and inviting us TOWARD a transformed life,
living into the fullness of God’s intentions for us.
It’s God’s action, laid out in three prepositions—
with, for, and toward.
Or . . . we could say it this way:
God loves us with presence, with advocacy,
and with pointing a direction.

That is the love we are called to emulate in life.
If God is love,
then that is what genuine love looks like.
And that is the way we are invited to love each other.
As God first loved us.

And, as Scot McKnight points out, the order matters:
First WITH, second FOR, and third TOWARD.
First presence, then advocacy, then direction.

If I am willing to be WITH someone,
it gives credibility when I act FOR them, as their advocate.
And the combination of being WITH and FOR someone,
let’s them internalize our love,
so that when we offer DIRECTION
it can be received as an act of genuine love.

So often, we want to jump straight to giving direction,
and call it love,
without establishing any WITH-ness or FOR-ness.
A parent who truly loves their child,
will not try to shape the moral direction of their child,
without having established a relationship of love and trust,
by being WITH and FOR their child.
without being preceded by long-term presence and advocacy,
will not be experienced as love, but as coercion.

We’ll have two more Sundays to focus on advocacy and direction.
For now, let’s think about presence—
the rugged commitment to be WITH the other.

It’s harder than it seems, truly being WITH another.
Especially when that other, is profoundly other—
truly outside our tribe, outside our way of seeing the world.
Sometimes, we have to travel a great distance to be with someone.
And I’m not really referring to miles.
Sometimes, our neighbor next door, who we are called to love,
lives a great distance from us,
culturally, politically, religiously.
Sometimes, a member of our own church family,
sharing our pew, or small group,
or voice part in choir,
lives a great distance from us, in one way or another.

Being genuinely WITH another
is not something that happens by chance.
It is a choice.
Just as all acts of love are.
This is not the kind of love that anyone
falls into or falls out of.
We choose whether or not to love
by choosing whether or not enter into
someone else’s life and experience,
and be with them in it,
so we can find out what their life is like.

To love us and pursue is God’s choice.
As we heard in Psalm 139,
God chooses to follow us, wherever we go—
to the heights, to the depths, to the far side of the sea.
No one travels a greater distance than God.
God chooses to enter into the messiness of our humanity,
and be with us in it,
to even co-suffer with us,
for the sake of our salvation and restoration.
That is love—
a rugged commitment to travel the distance,
to close the gap,
to offer the gift of deep and lasting presence.

Hear me now!
A rugged commitment to be WITH another
is not just showing up long enough
to listen to someone’s side of the story,
it’s not just being quiet while they make an argument,
or explain why they think or act as they do,
as we rehearse our response or counter-argument.

No, being WITH another, in love,
is a choice to open our heart and mind to the other,
to place our physical bodies in their neighborhood,
to actively move toward them,
willing to share life with them long enough,
to know, viscerally, what life is like in their shoes.
It is not something to be taken lightly.
Love never is that. It’s costly.

The rugged commitment to be WITH another
is what makes an intimate relationship—
like marriage, or any deep friendship—work.
It is radically living out our basic human need
to know and be known.

In family life,
it’s choosing to stick together even when we disappoint each other.

In church life,
it means not walking away from conflict or tension
or painful misunderstandings.
It means a willingness to do the hard work of maintaining presence.
Talk about loving our neighbor is cheap.
Actually loving, by being WITH, is a precious thing,
that often comes at the expense of something else . . .
such as . . . our treasured preconceived notions about the other,
that we might need to let go of.

This principle of presence,
as the first layer of learning to love our neighbor,
applies in many other areas of life,
beyond intimate friendships
or relating to other church members.
It also has to do with loving our neighbors in everyday life.

The plight of refugees and immigrants
is certainly high on our radar these days,
with President Trump’s order to temporarily suspend
the refugee program
and the on-again-off-again ban at the border
affecting thousands of Muslims around the world.

Of course, sincere Christians can disagree
about what a good immigration policy should look like.
But we cannot disagree that a central commitment for us all,
according to our scriptures,
is to welcome the stranger,
care for those in danger,
and to love all our neighbors . . . even our enemies.

But in this case, how do we love?
I suggest there are cheap ways to love, and there are costly ways.
The easy and inexpensive ways to love are fine, as far as they go.
We should probably do them.
Like putting up signs in our yard.
Maybe calling our elected representatives.
Attending some rallies.
All good, no doubt.

But how might we love our neighbor
by choosing to be WITH them in their suffering,
not in the abstract,
but here, now, and in particular.
It’s not enough to read about them,
or think we know what they are going through
because we saw it on Facebook.

Do we know what it’s like, right now,
for some of our Muslim neighbors in Harrisonburg?
or Iraqi Christian refugees, for that matter,
whose families are in a refugee camp somewhere,
caught between one kind of suffering, or another?
When was the last time we chose to travel a distance,
even if it was only across town,
to sit with one of our neighbors,
to let them know we are thinking about them,
to ask them what life is like for them right now,
to ask about the welfare of their families back home,
to ask them how we can be good neighbors to them?

That’s only one small example.
Certainly, in a divided political climate,
in a divided church,
we can do the same kind of active, stretching toward the other,
to be with them,
to ask what life is like, and take time to listen, over time.

Even if we ourselves aren’t under any immediate threat,
or don’t feel ostracized, or condemned by others,
or unsafe, or unwelcome . . .
Even if we are in a secure place . . .
especially if we are in a secure place,
we are called to love those who are not.
And the first step of love, if we take God’s love as a model,
is to pay the price to travel the distance,
and to be WITH the other—
not just in Spirit,
not just in thought and prayer,
but also with them in the here, in the now, and in the particular.

As we reflect on what that means for us,
let’s remind ourselves, in song,
of the God who, from great distance, comes to us in the silence,
and calls us each by name,
and says, “I claim you as my choice.
I love you and you are mine.” (STS 49)

—Phil Kniss, February 5, 2017

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