It was the summer of 2013. It had been three years since I served my last church. At the time, I didn’t think I would ever serve as a pastor again.
I was on a business trip in Las Vegas, the city that’s said to represent everything depraved that is within us.
Early one morning, I went for a run on the Strip. The streets were already crowded with people. Some were shopping. Some were on their way to another casino. While others were on their way to do who knows what to fulfill their most selfish desires.
As I ran along, I noticed that all of the electronic billboards suddenly changed displaying a picture of a young man with words that read: “David Vanbuskirk.1977-2013. Las Vegas Police Search and Rescue Officer.” I would soon learn that Vanbuskirk was killed while rescuing a hiker stranded in an off-limits area of a mountain northwest of Las Vegas, when he fell from a helicopter hoist line.
I ran a few more blocks, until I noticed that the people walking up and down the busy sidewalks began to stop and peer down the street that was suddenly empty of traffic. The entire Strip, which was booming with the sounds of automobiles and of people enjoying themselves a few seconds earlier, became profoundly silent.
A man removed his hat. A woman covered her heart with her hand. A little boy, sitting on his father’s shoulders, saluted. I stopped running. And with everyone else, my eyes turned toward the street where we watched and listened as a very long police motorcycle motorcade produced the only sound on the hushed strip. The motorcade was followed by a white police pick-up truck carrying a flag-draped casket.
People remained silent and still for several more minutes. Some bowed their heads. Others wiped tears from their eyes. Others embraced their loved ones.
Here are some questions I believe the church needs to ask today:
What was it that stopped the traffic on one of the busiest streets in the country?
What was it that got everyone’s attention?
What was it that made people cry?
What was it that got even the most indulgent and decadent one, in the heart of sin city, to believe in something greater than thenself?
What was it that turned eyes away from reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy and toward selflessness and sacrifice?
What is it that has the power to change the world?
It’s the very power that is the heart of our Christian faith, or should be the heart of our faith.
It’s the power that caused firefighters, police officers and first responders to run into the Twin Towers on 9-11 when everyone else was running out of them.
It’s the power that has sent John Mundy and hundreds of volunteers back to Texas this weekend. It’s the power behind our prayers for Florida and the Caribbean.
It’s the power that gives generously to disaster relief funds like Week of Compassion.
It’s the power that can unite our government to save the lives of the Dreamers.
It’s the force that created the universe, this good earth, and every living thing in it (Genesis 1-2).
It’s the source of all life (John 1:4).
It’s the burning compulsion to liberate God’s people from the evils of oppression and slavery (Exodus 3).
It’s the fire in the prophet’s voice to welcome the foreigner, defend the orphan, stand up for the poor and take care of the widow (Isaiah 1:17).
It’s the drive that sent Emmanuel into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3:17).
It’s the energy that continues to pour out the very Spirit of God on all flesh to overwhelm evil and overcome death (Romans 12:21).
It’s the power of love—pure, unconditional, unreserved, unrelenting —passionate love that propels action, deep love that compels sacrifice.
Jesus said there is no greater power in the world than the power of love compelling one to lay down one’s life for another (John 15:13). And there is no greater commandment than to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:40).
To the Corinthians, Paul writes about faith, hope and love, but says that the greatest of these is love. And if love is not in our words, even in our confessions of faith, then we are only making noise. If love is not the heart of all that we do, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13).
To the Romans, Paul echoes the words of Jesus:
You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13:9-10).
Paul writes that “now is the moment” we need to “wake up” and understand that what the world needs now is love (Romans 13:11). And as Dionne Warwick sings, “not just for some, but for everyone.”
When it comes to loving all people, we have too many Christians who keep hitting the snooze button. They pull the covers over their heads, close their eyes, and selfishly sleep. For whatever reason: self-preservation, control, greed, to protect their privileged positions, they seek darkness over light, judgment over grace, exclusion over acceptance, and hate over love.
John calls them “false prophets” who possess “the spirit of the anti-Christ” and “a spirit of error” (1 John 4:1-6).
Stressing how essential it is for Christians possess a spirit of love, he then pleads:
Love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love… No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us (1 John 4:7-12).
I began to think about the rescue of that stranded hiker. Vanbuskirk probably didn’t know anything about that hiker. He didn’t know whether the hiker was male or female; rich or poor; Democrat or Republican; gay or straight; documented or undocumented; Muslim or Christian; black, brown or white.
He didn’t know if this person would ever contribute to society, or ever give a dime to the Fraternal Order of the Police.
He just knew that the hiker was stranded and needed help. He just knew the hiker was afraid. The hiker was hungry, thirsty, wounded. And Vanbuskirk was called to protect and serve.
Vanbuskirk wasn’t concerned about breaking any religious, cultural or political rules. His only concern was rescuing the perishing, saving the lost.
It was in that moment that something inside of me woke up. It was like an alarm went off inside my soul. Love—pure, unconditional, unreserved, unrelenting. Passionate love pierced my heart. Deep love roused me from a self-absorbed slumber. And there, in the middle of the Miracle Mile, I began to pray:
“God, if you give me an opportunity to serve as a pastor again, I am going to do all that I can to lead your people to love others more than self, to serve and protect courageously, graciously, expecting absolutely nothing in return.
God, I will lead your church with great worship services, but more importantly, I will lead your people to worship you with great service. And I will lead them to do it with no strings attached, selflessly, sacrificially, always lovingly.
Lord, together, we will comfort the fearful, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the wounded, not because they might believe like we believe, contribute to our budget, or even attend one of our services, but simply because they need help.
Lord, we will serve without prejudice, without judgment. We will love all people, and all means all.”
Before I came home from that trip to Vegas, I received a phone call from the search committee of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Farmville, North Carolina, asking me if I would consider being their pastor.
And four years later, I stand before you today believing that what the world needs now more than anything else is for the church to wake up to rediscover what is the very heart of our faith: love, not just for some, but for everyone.
I love the quote from German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius that is usually printed in our order of service: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, diversity. In all things, love.”
When thinking about what is essential to our faith, we might say that it is our confession of faith, “Jesus is Lord.” But we can say “Jesus is Lord” all day long, but if we don’t have love, we are only making noise, says Paul. We can say we love God, but if we don’t love our neighbors, we are liars, says John. This is why Jesus says: “Many will call me Lord, yet I will have to say to them, depart from me, for I never knew you.”
Love is our essential. And it is in this essential that we must be unified. Then, we say, “In non-essentials diversity.” And just in case you didn’t get it the first time, we are going to say it again, “in all things, love.”
I have heard the term wake-up call many times in the short-time I have been your pastor. The white nationalists’ march on Charlottesville has been called a wake-up call. The “Nashville Statement” put out by Christians to further marginalize the LGBT+ community has been termed a wake-up call. I heard the solar eclipse and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma referred to as wake-up calls.
I don’t believe the Apostle Paul cares what we use for an alarm, because we already “know what time it is. How now is the moment to wake up. For salvation is coming near. The time has come to lay-aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
So, let’s wake up and love our world.
Let us love our city so purely that it stops traffic on Rogers Avenue.
Let us love our neighbors so unconditionally that it gets everyone’s attention.
Let us love people so unreservedly that it brings tears to the eyes of strangers.
Let us love so relentlessly that it gets even the most selfish, indulgent and decadent one in this city to believe in something greater than self.
Let us love so passionately that it turns people’s hearts away from indifference and toward justice, away from reveling and drunkenness and toward self-denial and selflessness, away from debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy and toward empathy and compassion, sacrifice and generosity.
Let us love the creation so deeply that it changes the world!
Invitation to Communion
This table has been set with the power that created the universe, the source of all life that liberates the oppressed, overwhelms evil and overcomes death. This table has been set with love—pure, unconditional, unreserved, unrelenting—passionate love propelling action, deep love compelling sacrifice.
And it is love incarnate, the living Christ, who invites all to receive this power and share it with the world.
Commissioning and Benediction
You know what time it is!
The time is now! This is the moment!
Having awakened from a self-absorbed slumber,
go and love the creation so deeply that it changes the world.
Go and stop some traffic.
Go and get somebody’s attention.
Go and make somebody cry.
Go and help somebody believe.
And may the God who is love, the Christ who exemplified and commanded love, and the Spirit who empowers love, be with us all.