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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