Sunday, September 6, 2020

Phil Kniss: Big rocks and bedrock

“No debt but love”
Romans 13:8-10

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Speaking of “big rocks”—
this metaphor we’ve been playing with in this re-wilding series—
where “big rocks” are those core essentials
we have to put in the container first,
because we can’t squeeze them in later,
after we’ve filled it up with little stuff . . .
speaking of big rocks, love is not just a big rock—it’s bedrock.

We call ourselves a “people of God.”
And scripture tells us, over and over, “God is love.”
So we could hardly call ourselves a church,
if we are not known by our love.
As Paul told us, in Romans 13,
“Owe no one anything, except to love.”

I think it’s safe to say there isn’t a church anywhere
who would say they aren’t acting out of love.
It’s also safe to say when non-church people
are asked what they think about churches,
their top answer is not that churches are so loving.
In fact, social research has proven that.

But the ironic thing about saying “love” is the bedrock,
is that the meaning of love is so squishy.

When I say, “I love coffee.  I love my wife.
I loved Ralph and Lucinda’s Barnyard Boogie
in the variety show last night,”
I am saying three very different things.
. . . I also loved Tristan’s hats.

This week I saw the word love in a sentence that really struck me,
“Food made with love can connect us all.”
Now, there you go. Truth!
Made me think of my grandmother’s kitchen,
and a bountiful church potluck,
where food is a tangible expression of our love for others,
and brings us closer together.

But the reason that sentence stuck out to me,
was that I read it in large bold print on a KFC flyer
in our mailbox on Wednesday.
Really? . . . “Food made with love can connect us all.”
Now I love southern fried chicken now and then.
But to find out . . . that the cooks at KFC love me,
and want to feel closer to me . . . Who knew?
An industrialized fast-food multi-national corporation
does it all for love.

Love can mean so much, it can mean very little.
But since love is bedrock for the church,
we need to use it, but use it well.

Theologically, love is not squishy at all.
It’s specific.
It’s demanding.
And it’s hard. Hard as a rock.

Our rock-solid starting point as a church,
is that we are bound in a covenant relationship.
We are in covenant with the God of the universe, who IS love,
who embodied love in Jesus Christ.
And we are bound into a covenant community of love,
a covenant that will outlast any emotion.

There is nothing casual or squishy about a covenant
that commits you to the total well-being of another.
Anyone who enters into a covenant to love,
enters it with great resolve and great trepidation.
We assume love will be hard work.
We assume we will change in the process.
We assume the covenant will survive
past disappointment, pain and resistance.

That’s true in a church covenant,
it’s true in a covenant between individuals.

And it’s certainly true in the covenant
which God had the guts to make with us.
God’s persistent covenant to love us is the main story of scripture.
We human partners in the covenant fail—miserably, and often.
But God keeps faith, keeps covenant,
keeps reaching to close the gap.
I think this covenant must bring God a lot of pain.

You will soon be hearing about a new narrative lectionary
we are launching next Sunday,
that will follow this story-thread through all of scripture,
God’s persistent and tireless effort to draw us into covenant.

Biblical scholar Scot McKnight talks about three moves
in any covenant of love,
the move to be WITH,
the move to be FOR,
and the move TOWARD.
WITH is all about presence.
God promises, and wants, to be with us, Emmanuel,
to share our world and our reality.
FOR is about advocacy.
God stands up for us, defends us, shows solidarity,
forms an alliance with us.
TOWARD is about direction toward transformation.
God does not intend us to be static,
but to grow in God’s likeness,
to be continually transformed, and transforming.

We could page through our Bible right now,
and I could point out story after story,
where God, in love, was doing one of those three things.
We will get to many of those stories in our Narrative Lectionary.

But it is also a model of how we, as human beings,
love one another.
In the church, we love other members of the body,
by being WITH, FOR, and TOWARD each other.
And the church shows its love for its neighbors,
and for the world, in the same way,
by being WITH, FOR, and TOWARD them.

But here’s the thing.
The order matters.
First, it’s WITH. Then it’s FOR. Then it’s TOWARD.
A musical piece, like a concerto,
has movements that are written to be played in a certain order.
You can play them out of order,
but the music will stop making sense,
it will lose its power,
and lose its connection with the heart of the composer.

Only after I am willing to be WITH someone,
will I have credibility when I act FOR them,
and claim to be their advocate.
And only after the potent combination
of being radically WITH and FOR someone,
can they experience my love as true.
Then, when I do offer DIRECTION, as the Spirit may lead,
they can receive it as an act of genuine love,
even when I challenge them.

We see this played out every day in our broader culture.
Take racial injustice for example.
So many white people jump at the chance
to be FOR their neighbors who are people of color.
They gladly raise their voices, and hoist their signs.
Then they retreat back into their safe white world
and wait for the next noble cause to come along.
Their lack of desire to truly be with their neighbors,
to be immersed in their reality,
to share in a world where their own lives are at stake,
can make the advocacy sound a bit hollow.
And even worse,
are those who come out with simplistic solutions
and easy-to-take prescriptions.
All you have to do, dear people of color,
is be more like this or that (in other words, more like us),
and all will be well.

Those words won’t get heard,
because they aren’t worthy of being listened to.
There’s no free lunch here.
Pay the price of being WITH . . . for a long time.
Then make the sacrifices required
to move into a position of solidarity,
of taking the same hits they are taking . . . long-term.
Then . . . we might have some level of believability,
if we have a challenge to offer.

Same thing is true in family life.
You who are parents, or have had parents,
know this to be true.
A parent cannot shape the moral direction of their child,
without first having established a relationship of love and trust,
by being WITH and FOR their child.

So isn’t is obvious? It should be.
Same principle applies in the church.

But the temptation, always,
is to jump straight to giving direction, and call it love . . .
without establishing WITH-ness or FOR-ness.

Direction, without prior, long-term presence and advocacy,
will not be experienced as love, but as coercion, as violence.
Think the church has ever missed it on that one?
We’d be na├»ve if we didn’t admit that we’ve missed it,
time and again.

This is hard stuff!
To love with presence, advocacy, and direction.
All three are hard!

Sometimes, to be WITH someone, we have to go a great distance.
The choice to go the distance can be costly.
It’s even harder to be FOR the other,
especially when that other is weird, troublesome, or offensive.
Anyone have relatives or neighbors or Facebook friends these days
who fall in that category?
Kinda hard to love and support and stand up for them as persons,
when we don’t agree, and maybe don’t even understand.

But WITH and FOR are both a piece of cake,
in comparison with the hard work
of calling others TOWARD transformation,
in a way that has integrity and can be heard.

This way of showing love is not for the faint of heart.
It should be entered only with fear and trembling
and a huge dose of humility,
and in a spirit of mutuality.
Our call is not to fix the other.
We are called to love each other into Christlikeness.
We are called to seek the hard path
of obedience and transformation . . . together.
Our own need for transformation
can never take a back seat, even temporarily.

In the church we say we’re “speaking the truth in love.”
Just thinking.
If we have to specifically point out that we are speaking in love,
then maybe we aren’t.
Maybe we should hold our tongue, when giving counsel to others,
if they don’t already know, in the depths of their being,
that we are for them, that we got their back.
There are people who need a particular kind of guidance.
We might even know what that guidance is.
But if we aren’t in a position to give it,
maybe we should wait for someone to come along who is.

Not saying we never speak words that are likely to be resisted,
or never step in when there’s an emergency.
But in general,
let’s not speak where we don’t already have relational depth,
where the other one already knows and feels
that we are WITH them and FOR them.

As we keep working at Re-Wilding the Church,
let’s be clear about this—
whatever new or revised forms of church might emerge,
they must reflect God’s way of loving,
they must resemble God’s die-hard commitment
to be WITH us,
to be FOR us,
and call us TOWARD transformation.
Otherwise, it will not be worth our time and effort.

As I pointed out, we often err in our attempts to love.
In light of that, there is no better confession I know
than the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer.

I recite this one on a regular basis,
and I invite you to recite it with me now.
You’ll find it in your printed order of worship.
one Most merciful God, 
we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
all We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Now a song of great comfort—“Savior Jesus, enfold me.”
—Phil Kniss, September 6, 2020

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