Sunday, February 19, 2017

Phil Kniss: Loving without fixing

The rugged commitment to love
Direction: Commitment to grow together TOWARD Christlikeness
Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Psalm 15; Ephesians 4:1-7; 11-16; John 15:1-2; 8-17

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Today is the third and final of this sermon trilogy on love,
especially love within the body of Christ.
We’ve examined three aspects of covenantal love,
that is, love that comes with a rugged commitment.
It’s not feel-good emotionalism,
but a rugged choice to act
in ways that are often difficult, and can be costly.

The first Sunday,
was the choice to be truly WITH the other,
in the act of loving presence.
Last week,
the choice to be FOR the other,
in the act of loving advocacy.
And today,
the choice to open ourselves to transformation,
to grow together TOWARD Christlikeness,
in the act of loving direction.

So, three aspects of love, described in three prepositions:
and in three nouns: presence, advocacy, and direction,
a paradigm borrowed from Scot McKnight.

If you heard the first sermon,
you might remember I said being truly WITH another
is often a difficult choice.
And last Sunday, I upped the ante,
and said being WITH is downright easy,
in comparison to the challenge of being FOR the other,
especially when that other we are called to advocate for,
is difficult to love.
So, you might well anticipate what I’m going to say next . . .
something like, “Forget being WITH and FOR—
the most difficult and grueling challenge we face
is the formidable task
of calling others TOWARD transformation,
to offer loving direction.

You might well anticipate that. But you’d be mistaken.
Because offering direction to another
is one of the easiest things to do,
and comes almost without effort in most of our relationships.

Oh, there is a huge challenge here.
But it’s not the challenge of getting up the nerve
to invite someone to change their ways.
The challenge is doing so with relational integrity.
The challenge is doing so
while remaining entirely WITH and FOR the other,
while keeping our genuine presence and advocacy intact,
and beyond reproach.

You get a sense of how hard this is,
and how rarely it’s done,
if you try to think how many times it’s happened to you.

How often have you been challenged by someone to change—
to change your mind, change your behavior, change your habits,
change anything about you that someone else
thought needed to be changed,
and your immediate response was overwhelming gratitude,
a deep and heart-felt,
“Oh, thank you for loving me so much to tell me.”

How often have you heard words of challenge directed toward you,
and you were instantly grateful,
because you knew, beyond any doubt,
that the one speaking those very challenging words
was also your biggest fan and advocate,
and who loved you unconditionally, even in that moment.

I’m sure some of us remember such a time.
And thank God for those shining examples.
Others of us would have to think pretty hard to come up something.
I dare say,
even within the bonds of an intimate long-term relationship,
where mutual unconditional love is a given,
even there,
well-received words of challenge
are more rare than we might think.

Even in the most loving of relationships,
it’s hard to give direction well,
and it’s hard to receive direction well.

Yet, the impulse to give direction to others
is with us constantly.
There is hardly any temptation we face more,
as we try to relate in loving ways toward others,
than the temptation to try to change the other.

Even in marriage.
It’s one of those issues I always talk about to starry-eyed couples,
when I do pre-marital counseling—
I say something along the line of,
“If you think getting married
will put you in a better position to help your partner change,
maybe you should think again
about why you want to get married.”

Then, to drive home the point,
I tell them some stories
of couples trying to change each other, without success.
I may . . . or may not . . . reveal that those stories are current,
and come from my own marriage.

See, we never outgrow this temptation to want to change those we love.
Even in good, long-term relationships,
like the one I enjoy with Irene.
Sure we’ve gotten better at it over time,
but in virtually any relationship,
the temptation to change the other never goes away entirely.

Why? Maybe the difference between us and the ones we love
seems like something that needs fixing.
And it seems easier to fix the other, than ourselves.
After all, this world would be a better place, wouldn’t it,
if everyone saw things the way I do.

Or, maybe we try to change the other
not because they are so different from us,
but because they are so similar.
Their faults seem all too familiar, because they’re ours, too.
And it’s a lot easier to point out the fault in someone else,
than to admit it in ourselves.

So let’s face this challenge head on.
And start by noting the biblical ground we stand on.

One of the first things that becomes obvious, looking at scripture,
and contrary to popular culture,
love is not a warm and fuzzy thing,
that wraps its all-affirming arms around us,
takes us as we are, and leaves us there
in a cozy cocoon of self-enrichment and self-actualization.

We read several texts this morning that make clear
that love points us in a direction.
Love is not for love’s sake alone.
It’s not for self-fulfillment.
It’s for the fulfillment of God’s purposes for us.
Love helps us live into God’s best for our lives.

The God of love created us with love, and for love.
But we have failed to love as we are loved.
Our shalom has been disrupted.
Creation itself groans at the destructive impact of our failure to love.

So when we lean into God’s love,
we are leaning into the transformative power of God’s love.
God wants shalom to be restored.
God wants to see us fulfill our created purpose.
God’s love has a goal, an end, a telos, an intention.
At the core of God’s love, is an ethic of obedience.

Love points us in the direction of God’s will and way,
and calls us to walk in it.
We see this throughout the scriptures, from beginning to end.

There’s one scripture quoted more than any other in the Bible, by far,
thanks to its high place in Jewish ritual and liturgy.
It’s the “Shema,” from Deuteronomy 6, which we read today—
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
And then careful instructions are given about
how often, when, and where these words get repeated.
The idea being, that reminding ourselves, often,
of our duty and command to love God entirely—
will make us more likely to obey that love command.
Then comes a long list of commands in Deuteronomy,
laws and decrees,
you shall do this, and do that, and a lot of other specific things,
but the first command, the chief command,
at the pinnacle of Hebrew scripture,
is to love God.
Obedience to all the rest,
grows out of following this first command to love.
It’s a direct connection, between love and ethics.

Then we heard in Psalm 15
that the privilege of being welcomed to dwell in God’s presence,
to experience God’s abiding love—
that privilege is extended to those who live justly.
Who do what is right, the psalmist says.
Who speak the truth.
Do not slander.
Do no evil to their friends.
Cause no reproach to fall on their neighbors.
Honor their promises, even when it hurts.
Take no advantage of the poor.

We also heard some of the teachings of Jesus, from John 15,
where he used a metaphor for love, a vine and branches.
Staying connected to the vine is not something we do
because it feels good.
Staying connected to the vine is not something we accomplish
simply by desiring it, wanting it,
mustering up the will to be close to God in our spirits.
No, staying attached to the vine has everything to do with ethics,
with living into God’s intent, and will, for our lives.

Abiding is dependent on obedience, and vice-versa.
These two things—following God’s commandments,
and abiding in God’s love—
are interdependent.
The one cannot exist without the other.
Says Jesus, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you;
abide in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commandments
and abide in his love.”
That’s the “how”—keeping God’s commands.
The “why” is, to bear fruit.
The reason we strive to abide in love,
to stay connected through obedience,
is to bear the kind of fruit we were created to bear.

Then the apostle Paul wrote a letter from prison,
addressed to the saints in Ephesus.
He begged them to live a life worthy of their calling,
with humility and gentleness,
bearing with one another in love.
Maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Paul’s call for the church to love one another
is, again, not about nurturing warm feelings for each other,
not even about liking each other,
it is couched in a call to figure out a communal ethic together.
To help each other grow into our full God-created potential—
or in his words,
“to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
Grow up! Paul said.
Stop acting immature,
being tossed and blown about.
“But”—and here is the golden core of his letter to the church—
“But speaking the truth in love,
we must grow up in every way into him who is the head,
into Christ,
from whom the whole body, joined and knit together . . .
each part working properly,
promoting the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

That is what love looks like in the body of Christ—
a collective family of God,
working together,
with great diligence, and with great humility,
speaking truth in love,
not to tear anyone down,
but to build everyone up,
so that, together, we might grow closer toward God’s best for us,
looking like Christ.

Oh, if it were only as easy to do, as it is to say.

Christian love is a high bar.
I have no desire to settle for a cheap imitation
that looks like something warm and fuzzy,
and doesn’t go much deeper than smiling and being polite.
Although I am in favor of smiling and being polite!
We could use more of that these days.

But Christian love takes on the task of building hard relationships.
Being willing to spend time together over the long haul,
the rugged commitment to be WITH the other.
Being willing to go out of our way to stand up for the other
when their well-being is in jeopardy,
the rugged commitment to be FOR the other.
And last, but by no means least,
the rugged commitment to join together with those we love,
and seek the hard path of obedience and transformation,
Because our own need for transformation
can never be set aside while we try to fix others.

I think one of the problems we run into frequently,
when trying to work at ethics in the church,
is that speaking the truth often doesn’t seem like love,
because that truth gets spoken from a distance.
It’s gets spoken at us, instead of with us.

That’s why I’ve been highlighting Scot McKnight’s paradigm
of presence, advocacy, and direction—
in which the order matters.

It matters a lot.
If I don’t know that you are committed to be WITH me,
in my world,
in my context,
in my daily reality—
and committed not to walk away from me . . .
If I don’t know you are truly FOR me,
and have my safety, my dignity, my flourishing,
uppermost in your mind,
and will always have my back,
when something or someone threatens my well-being . . .
If those two commitments are not rock-solid in our relationship,
I will not be likely to be able to hear you,
or respond very positively,
when you speak words of challenge to me.
I need to know, I need to be secure in the knowledge,
that you actually know me and care about me.
Otherwise, it will not feel like you “speak the truth in love.”

That phrase from today’s reading from Ephesians,
is one of the most misapplied Bible verses, in my estimation.

Speaking the truth “in love,”
does not mean what we think it means.
It does not mean speaking the truth,
while willing ourselves to have warm feelings toward another.
It does not mean speaking truth
with a calm tone of voice, and sympathetic body language.
And just because we might believe that “delivering the truth”
is, by definition, a loving thing to do,
that doesn’t make it an act motivated by genuine love.

If the one to whom I am speaking
does not know beyond a doubt,
that I am WITH them in their daily realities,
if they do not know beyond a doubt,
that I am FOR their flourishing, and have their back,
then I am not yet in a position to “speak the truth in love.”

It doesn’t mean there isn’t truth to speak.
It just means that I’m not ready to speak it.
So I should work on those first two conditions, first.
Or yield to someone who can speak from a posture of love.

Otherwise, it only becomes an exercise in me trying to fix others.
Fixing others doesn’t work in marriage,
it doesn’t work in friendship,
it doesn’t work in my relationships with neighbors or enemies,
and it doesn’t work in the church.

Fixing others is a unilateral act,
of trying to apply my ethical standards on another,
because the difference between me and the other
is too uncomfortable just to let it be.

But the rugged commitment to love,
by committing myself to grow together with you,
TOWARD the best that God has for both of us,
when we work at that mutual growth
in the context of loving WITH-ness and FOR-ness . . .
that is a precious and beautiful thing to behold.

And that is love. And that is God.
Because where charity and love prevail,
there God is ever found;
brought here together by Christ’s love,
by love are we thus bound.

Let’s sing together from our hymnal, #305.

—Phil Kniss, February 19, 2017

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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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