2018 Random Lent Thought #34: God’s Love for Us Always Comes First

We began Lent this year on Valentine’s Day, which seemed appropriate, since Lent is about discipleship and discipleship is all about love.

But let’s remember that the fundamental love is not our love for God; it’s God’s love for us. Long before we ever thought of loving God, God loved us with an indestructible love.

So let’s close these Random Lent Thoughts for 2018 with a passage of scripture that sums it all up:

‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

‘This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

‘God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

‘We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister’. (1 John 4:7-21 NIV)

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2018 Random Lent Thought #11: Neighbours and Foreigners

Sometimes our Lent disciplines can be overly individualistic. We think about our own prayer, our own fasting, our own self-denial, our own individual relationship with God. But God has a different vision. To God, holiness is social as well as personal.

This morning in my ‘One Year Bible’ readings I read Leviticus 19-20, the so-called ‘holiness code’. It begins with the famous words “Be holy, because I, Yahweh your God, am holy” (19:2). But it immediately begins to define holiness in social terms: respect your father and mother; keep the Sabbath (in modern Judaism, that is very much a community discipline, and I expect the same was true in ancient times); don’t harvest your field or vineyard so thoroughly that you don’t leave something behind for the poor; don’t steal, lie, deceive one another; don’t defraud your neighbour; don’t hold back the wages of a day-labourer overnight; don’t pervert justice by showing partiality in court to either rich or poor; don’t slander your neighbour or endanger their life; love your neighbour as yourself (this is just a selection from 19:3-18).

The one that really struck me was this one: ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God’ (Leviticus 19:33-34).

So they were commanded not only to love their neighbour as themselves, but the foreigner living among them – the immigrant, the refugee – as well. So all the commands about how you treat your neighbour also applied to how you treated the foreigner.

“Isn’t it awful – refugees and immigrants who haven’t paid taxes here get just the same benefits as us!” Well, in Leviticus God apparently disagrees with that sentiment. ‘The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born’.

We must not avoid thinking about these things during Lent. The way I treat my neighbour is an integral part of my relationship with God. This is not just about warm feelings and kind words; it’s about basic honesty, justice, and respect.

On Ash Wednesday we read from Isaiah 58, in which God rebukes the Israelites for following the prescribed fasts but not caring about their neighbours. ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?’ (Isaiah 58:6-7; the whole chapter is worth a re-read today).

Lent is not just about ‘me and God’, because holiness is not just about ‘me and God’. Both are social. After all, Jesus has told us that the way we treat people in need is the way we treat him (Matthew 25:31-46).

How will we treat our Lord today when he comes to us in our neighbour?

Lent is All About Love (a Sermon for Ash Wednesday)

Ever since someone noticed that this year Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, people on Twitter and Facebook have been having a field day. Most people seem to see it as something incongruous: Valentine’s Day is about romance and chocolate and pleasure and more than a hint of sex; Ash Wednesday is about self-denial and taking up your cross and going into the desert with Jesus and getting closer to God. What can the two possibly have to do with each other?

Personally, I’m much more interested in the connections than the contradictions. Valentine’s Day, we’re told, is all about love. And what’s Christian growth about, if it’s not about growing in love? How do we grow as Christians? You don’t need me to answer that one for you: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…You shall love our neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).

Christianity is relational: it’s about growing in our loving relationship with God and our neighbour. And wise people know that life is relational too. It’s often been observed that no one on their death bed says to themselves “Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office!” We all know instinctively that when we’re facing the ultimate test, that stuff’s not going to count for very much. What will count will the quality of our relationships – the quality of the love we’ve offered.

So I want to spend a few minutes with you tonight, as we begin our Lenten journey, unpacking this theme of love. How might we make this Lent all about love? I’m actually going to offer you three ‘L’ words tonight to hang our thoughts on: Love, Listening, and Labour, and all connected with Lent (I know, that’s four ‘L’ words…!).

So – love. “Love is all you need”, sang the Beatles, and then they broke up and proceeded to sue each other for millions of pounds. Obviously, love wasn’t all they needed – or at least, the sort of love they aspired to wasn’t adequate to guide them through the challenges of long-term relationships.

So let’s start by reminding ourselves that when the writers of the New Testament used the word ‘love’, they probably had something different in mind. “Getting the Love you Want” was the title of a well-known book of the 1980s, but nothing could be further from the Christian conception of love. We’re not about getting the love you want; we’re about giving the love God wants you to give. And when the New Testament describes this love, it always describes actions.

What does Jesus do to illustrate to his disciples what it means to “love one another as I have loved you”? He gets down from the supper table, removes his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes their feet. In their culture this was the servant’s job, but for some reason that night no servant had been there to do it. And of course, a few hours later he ‘loved them to the end’ (John 13:1) by laying down his life on the cross for the salvation of the whole world.

This is the most important thing for us as Christians. God is love, and we are made in the image of God, so growing in love is growing in God’s image. And that love is offered in two directions: to God and to our neighbour.

We love God because God first loved us. We don’t love God as a way of earning God’s love; God’s love for us is unconditional and indestructible, and Jesus tells us that he pours it out on the righteous and the unrighteous. We know ourselves to be loved by God, and in response, we offer our own – much smaller – love to God.

And then we love our neighbour. ‘Neighbour’ doesn’t just mean those in close proximity to us – family, friends, the people on our street. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? ‘Neighbour’ means people in need who we are in a position to help, both near and far away.

How do we love these people? I want to make a suggestion to you this Lent: let’s start by listening to them.

Most of us are much quicker to speak than to listen. This applies both in our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. When we take time to pray, most of us take time to talk to God. We’ve got our concerns, things we want or need for ourselves, loved ones we’re anxious about and so on. And so we sit down to pray, and we start talking right away. “God please do this. God, please bless that person. God, if you want to know how to bless them, I’ve got some ideas I could give you”.

The same with other people. It’s scary to think how much of our conversation consists in showing off to other people. I’ve got such a good joke to tell you! You’re going to love this story! I’m going to share my political views on this subject and you’re going to see immediately that I’m right and you’re wrong!

And even when we do listen, how carefully do we listen? For instance, when I sit down to read the Bible – to listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice – am I open to the possibility that there might be something new for me today in the passage? Or do I  just think “Good Samaritan, yeah, yeah, I know that story, I know what it means”? Do I just read it quickly, and then pass on to sharing my shopping list with God?

Or when someone’s talking to us, how long are we prepared to listen before we interrupt? Ten seconds? Twenty if they’re lucky? Do we assume that after twenty seconds we know enough to respond helpfully to them? I’m sure we’ve all had that experience: we start sharing our struggles with someone, and they don’t really let us get finished before they’re launching into giving us their helpful advice, which is actually not that helpful, because they haven’t given us time to really go deep yet.

So how about this Lent we all resolve to do our best to become better listeners – to God, and to other people?

Some of us in our parish have decided to read the Gospel of Mark this Lent. Let’s not assume each day that we already know what God’s going to say to us in the daily passage. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to speak to us, and then let’s read it through, slowly and meditatively, two or three times. Which words or phrases particularly strike us, and why? What’s the passage saying to us about God? About ourselves? About life? About what’s important and what’s not important? What’s the passage calling me to put into practice? What difference would it make today if I tried to practice it?

We can also listen to God in silent prayer. Most people who do that don’t actually hear God speak in an audible voice, although some people do report that they feel they’re received some guidance and direction from God. But it’s mostly about quietening down and becoming more aware of the presence and peace and joy that God gives. Again, it’s not something that can be rushed. A lot of people find that about ten or twelve minutes in, they start to notice things they hadn’t noticed before. Are you willing to wait that long?

And let’s listen to others, and pay attention to what they say. A friend of mine used to do a little exercise: he’d get people together in pairs, and then one person had to listen carefully while the other took five minutes to describe something that had happened to them recently. When they were done the listener had to take three minutes to recount in as much detail as possible what they had heard. The first time I was the listener, I was amazed at how hard that was! We’re just not that practiced in listening!

And yet people long to be listened to! When we really listen to someone, we’re communicating to them that we value them, that we love them. I’m ashamed to admit how frequently I really don’t listen to Marci; she’s talking to me, but I’m doing something else or thinking about something else, and I only listen with one ear and a quarter of a brain.

This may be the most loving thing we can do this Lent: to resolve to become better listeners – to God, and to other people.

Finally comes labour. In 1 Thessalonians Paul writes, ‘…remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3).

Labour of love – that’s a striking phrase! But it reminds us that biblical love is not primarily about feelings; it’s all about actions. Listening is one such action, but there are many others. Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). What’s the point of saying we love Jesus if, as soon as he tells us to do something we don’t want to do, we refuse to do it? That love isn’t worth very much, is it? It needs to have a little labour added to it, to make it real!

What does it mean to love our enemies? In Romans chapter 12 Paul quotes the Old Testament: ‘No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’ (Romans 12:20). And in the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus spells out for us what Christian love looks like: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

What labour of love might God be calling you to this Lent? You don’t necessarily have to undertake some new relationship (although, I have to say, every prison chaplain I know is looking for more volunteers to go in and spend time with the inmates). But when we think of the people who are already in our lives, and we think of their needs, is there anything else we can do to love them in action? Or do we perhaps need to go first and listen carefully to them, so that we don’t assume we already know what their needs are? You see how these three ‘L’s tie together!

So – this could be our Lent. Let’s make these six and a half weeks until Easter a season of love. Let’s work on our relationships with God and our neighbours. Let’s make it our first priority to learn to become better listeners – to God, and also to people. And then let’s find new ways of putting our love into action – our labour of love – so that we can truly be a blessing to others as God has blessed us.

New Year’s Resolutions for 2018

Yes, I do believe in these things. I think the reason most people fail is because they make resolutions without making a plan to keep them. But I learned in the first half of 2016 that if I make a plan, I can keep it. And I also know myself well enough to know that if I do these things at times when there is a natural ‘new beginning’, it gives me an added psychological impetus.

So, the Lord being my helper, here are my three 2018 New Year’s Resolutions:

Resolution #1: Get back down to 165 lbs by the end of February (I’m currently at 174).

Plan: use the same diet and exercise regime I used January to June 2016 when I succeeded in losing 52 lbs.

Resolution #2: Don’t buy any new books in 2018. Instead, read the dozens of unread books on my shelves.

Plan: sign out of my Amazon account and let Marci change the password! (Just kidding: she knows about this resolution and will help me stick to it! Although, come to think of it, it might not be a bad idea…)

Resolution #3: Each week, plan and implement new ways to love my neighbour as myself.

Plan: Pick a day of the week to journal about this (probably Saturday) and, having decided what to do, put it on the calendar. I need to do this because I’m very selfish and this is the command I (can you believe it?) get most bored with.

The Heart of the Gospel

We are told in several places in the New Testament to follow the example of Jesus, to be ‘imitators of Christ’. This includes attitudes such as humility (eg. Philippians 2:1-11), but if we ask the question, ‘How specifically should I practice that?’ only one concrete behavioural example is given: Don’t retaliate when you are mistreated, but love your enemies (1 Peter 2.21-23).

Why is this spelled out? Because this behaviour is at the heart of the Gospel. The heart of the Gospel is the story of a God who loves his enemies, forgives those who murder him, and reaches out to those who reject him. We are told to ‘Go and do likewise’.

All You Need is Hate

This morning I thought about this poem by Steve Turner; it appears in his collection ‘Up to Date‘, published in 1983 and now long out of print. Somehow, it seems sadly relevant.

All You Need is Hate

Alan hated soldiers, and teachers
and politicians, policemen, and bankers.
Alan was full of hate for such people.
Poured his hate into poems.
Threw the poems at audiences
who sat bleeding in their seats,
words hanging from holes in their skin.
Hate them, he shouted, boot stomping
the boards.
Hate them. Hate them.
Alan, I said. Alan.
Hate hate, Alan, I said. Hate
hate.
It’s the only hate worth having, Alan
and it comes by another name.

More poems by Steve Turner here.

Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.