Mirroring the Self-Giving Love of the Triune God

reclaiming jesus

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 NRSV

We Americans are often guilty of trivializing things that are important. Consequently, survivors of loved ones who gave their lives for their country often struggle during the Memorial Day Weekend, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Americans truly know what Memorial Day is about.

Is it about the end of the school year and the beginning of summer? Is it about going to the beach, the river, or the lake? Is it about playing golf, having a cookout, or opening the backyard swimming pool? Is it about red-tag sales at the mall or some other self-fulfilling activity?

No, it is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about people giving all that they had to give, for they so loved their country more than self.

This weekend is about honoring those who died for us, and it is about praying for those they left behind. It is also a time to recommit ourselves to those who continue to selflessly fight evil in our world, evil that demeans, devalues and destroys human life and sometimes does it in the name of God.

May God forgive us for forgetting what this weekend is all about or watering it down for our own selfish gain.

I am afraid that we have done the same thing to the Christian faith. Consequently, followers of Jesus everywhere struggle, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Christians really know what the gospel is about.

Is it about judging and condemning others who believe and live differently? Is it about pure beliefs and possessing an attitude of superiority? Is it about having the right to discriminate and treat others who differ from us as second class citizens? Is it about banning people of other faiths from our communities? Is it about depleting our natural resources because we believe the Lord is returning and the world is ending in our lifetime? Is it all about going to heaven one day or on some other self-absorbed venture?

No, our faith is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about a God giving all that God has to give, for God so loved this world more than God’s self.

Thus, faith is about honoring a God who died for all. It is about recommitting daily to continue to selflessly fight the evil in our world, evil that seeks to demean, dehumanize and destroy human life and sometimes does it in the name of God.

Monday is Memorial Day. May we remember what it is truly about. And everyday is the day the Lord has made. May we remember how God is made known to us, relates to us, and loves us, and how God calls us to make ourselves known to, relate to and love the world.

This is where I believe the doctrine of the Holy Trinity can really help us—Three persons in one. Throughout the centuries, people have been trying to explain this complexity in simplistic language.

You have probably heard that God is like a pie. You can cut a pie into three pieces, but it’s still one pie. Or God is like many of us. I’m a brother, a father, and a son, but I am still one person. Or God is like water, and water has many forms: steam, ice, and liquid, but it is still water.

However, I believe each of these descriptions only scratch the surface of who our God truly is. It is only a watered-down, version of who our God is. Furthermore, it is defining God based on our understanding of the world, instead of allowing our understanding of God to define the world.

God, the creator of all that is, the power behind our universe, gave God’s self, emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out and became flesh and dwelt among us through Jesus Christ.  And Jesus Christ, while he was on this earth, gave himself back to God by becoming obedient to God even to death, even death on the cross. But before he left us on this earth, he promised not to leave us orphaned, he promised to be with us always by giving himself back to us through the Holy Spirit.

Do you see the one characteristic of the Holy Trinity which stands out?  God gave God’s self through the Son. The Son gave himself back to the Father. And God once more gives God’s self back through the Holy Spirit. God is a self-giving God. God is a God who loves to give to others the very best gift that God has to give, the gift of God’s self.

God is a giver. That means that God is not a taker. For givers are never takers.

Isn’t interesting that many Christians, often characterize God as a taker? Again, I think it is because we like to create a God in what we want our image to be, instead of allowing the image of God to define and guide us.

For example: How many funerals have we attended and heard the phrase: “God took her home or God was ready to take him?”

We have all lost loved ones to death. But the Trinity teaches us that Lord did not take them. For givers are not takers. A more accurate way of describing what happened to our loved ones when they breathed their last on this earth is that God wholly, completely and eternally, gave all of God’ self to them.

When we experience the heartache and heartbreak of this fragmented world, there is one thing of which we can be certain, God is here with us, not taking, but giving us all that God has to give, the best gift of all, the gift of God’s self.  If we don’t know anything else about God, we can know this. For it is God’s very nature.

As we renew our discipleship mission as a church, let us renew our commitment to mirror our God by living not as takers, but as givers.

For I believe with all of my heart that mirroring the self-giving love of God that is revealed to us in the Holy Trinity can help us reclaim the gospel that has been high-jacked by people who prefer to live in this world on their terms instead of on God’s terms.

Mirroring the self-giving love of God can help us recover our faith that has been co-opted by takers, by people who have used and misused the name of God for their own selfish gain

For if we mirrored the Triune God as self-giver, think of how everything would change.

Think of how our Christian faith would change. Our faith would not be about what we can take from God—healthier marriages, stronger families, deeper friendships, peace, security, comfort, a mechanism to overcome trials or to achieve a more prosperous life, or even gain an eternal life.

Our faith would be what we can give back to the Holy Giver—namely all that we have and all that we are, even if it is costly, even if it involves risk, danger and suffering, even if it involves the loss of relationships, stress on our marriages, sleepless nights, a tighter budget, even if it involves laying down our very lives.

Church. Church would not be about what we can take from it. It would not be about getting fed, experiencing some peace, attaining a blessing or receiving some inspiration to help us through the week.

Church would be about opportunities for self-giving. Church would be about feeding the hungry, working to bring peace, being blessing to our communities and inspiring the world. Church would no longer be a place that we go to on Sunday, but who we are every day of the week, the body of Christ, the very embodiment of holy self-giving love in the world. Church would not be a way to for us to get some Jesus. Church would be way we allow Jesus to get us to love our neighbors as we were created to love.

And our neighbors. We would look to our neighbors, not for what they can give us, not for what we can take from them, or how we can use them, but for what we may be able to offer them, especially those things that others are constantly robbing them of in order to support their dominance and superiority over them—their dignity, their equality, their value as human beings created in the image of God, their hope, their freedom, their justice.

We would look to our city, our state and our nation, not for what we can selfishly take from it, but for how we can selflessly give to it to make it a more just place for all.

The environment would not be something for us to take from, plunder and exploit for our own selfish wants, but something for which we sacrificially care for, respect, nurture and protect.

I believe if we would truly mirror the triune image of our God as givers instead of as takers, God’s kingdom would fully and finally come on earth as it is in heaven.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can rebuild a broken world.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can correct a distorted moral narrative.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can heal sick religion.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can bring down walls and break the chains of injustice.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers will erase racism and sexism. It will end sexual harassment and assault.

When we mirror the triune image God as givers, all hate, bigotry, and violence will pass away, and all of creation will be born again.

When we mirror the triune image of God as givers, liberty and justice and peace will come, and it will come for all.

When we mirror the triune image of God as givers, the words of the prophet Isaiah will be fulfilled:

Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
…[Then] they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:3-4).

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I Pledge Allegiance

Poor People's CampaignDelivered at the Introduction Meeting of the Poor People’s Campaign at First Christian Church in Fort Smith AR, May 6, 2018

I

In America, I as an individual,have certain inalienable rights. As an individual citizen of this country, I have freedom. And with that freedom, I have a great responsibility. I have a voice. I have a vote, and I have the responsibility to make this country the very best that it can be. And that includes keeping our water safe, our air clean and our land pure.

Pledge allegiance

Our allegiance does not mean blindly accepting our faults, never questioning our past, and never second-guessing how current policies will affect our future. Allegiance means faithfully doing our part to “mend thine every flaw.”

It means being loyal, law-abiding citizens committed to our civic duty of voting in elections. However, it also means voicing opposition to laws that need to be changed and to elected officials who need be corrected. Civil allegiance sometimes means civil disobedience.

Like a faithful marriage, pledging allegiance means being loyal to our country in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, never giving up, never becoming complacent, never running away. It means perpetually praying for it, continually correcting it, forever fighting for it.

To the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands

The flag is not a mere sign for our country. It is the profound symbol of our country. Signs are limited as signs only give information. Signs do not have the power to stand for something. Only symbols can do that. Whereas signs invoke intellectual responses from the brain, symbols elicit visceral emotions from the heart and gut. This is the reason seeing the Confederate Battle Flag flying on the back of motorcycles this weekend turned my stomach. The flag is not a mere historical marker, label, design or brand but a powerful symbol that stands for something. Flags have the power to move us, stir us, and guide us.

One nation

Our flag stands for one nation. Although heritage and culture are important aspects of life in different parts of our country, they are never more important than the unity of our country. Abraham Lincoln and Jesus spoke truth when they said: “a house divided against its self cannot stand.”

We need to come together not as liberal or conservative, republican or democrat but simply as Americans who believe we can do better and be better.

Under God

Not under God because we are down here and God is up there. Not under God because we want some sort of theocracy like the belief of ISIS and other Islamic extremists. And not under God because we believe we were established to be a Christian nation like the beliefs of Christian extremists.

Rather, we pledge our allegiance to country under, after, second to, our allegiance to the law of God.

As people of faith, this is why our allegiance is not blind. The Commander-in-Chief is not our chief commander. The Supreme Court is not our supreme being. Our allegiance is first pledged to something that is bigger than our nation, even larger than our world.

It is an allegiance that informs our vote, rallies our civic duties, admonishes our obedience to civil law, and yet, sometimes calls us to civil disobedience. For the Christian, it is the God revealed through the words and works of Jesus who becomes our civil conscience. We believe the law of God revealed through Christ supersedes every human law.

Immediately following words from the Apostle Paul regarding good citizenship and obeying the law, we read that every one of God’s laws is summed up in just one law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said it this way: “On this hang all of the laws of the prophets “…that you love your neighbor as yourself.”

And just in case some are still confused to what “love” is, Paul defines love by saying: “Love does no harm to a neighbor.”

Jesus said, “There is no law greater.” It is as if Christ is saying, “If you don’t get anything else from Holy Scripture, you need to get this: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” Yet, as evidenced by the amount of hatred, racism and violence that is in our nation today, much of it propagated in the name of God, this supreme law is widely ignored, disobeyed or rejected all together.

I believe it is when we first pledge our allegiance to this supreme law, that we have the opportunity to be a great nation. For when we love our neighbors as ourselves, when in everything we do to others as we would have them do to us, it quickly becomes “self-evident that all people are created equal with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Indivisible

When we pledge allegiance to the supreme law of God, when we pledge to love our neighbors as ourselves, we promise to work together under God to build bridges to overcome the gaps and barriers that we have created that divide us: racial, sexual, ethnic, political, economic, educational and religious. We pledge to come together, side by side, hand in hand, for the equality of all people and the inalienable rights of all people.

This does not mean that we are to never disagree with the beliefs or lifestyles of others. We can certainly love our neighbor while disagreeing with our neighbor. It is not hating our neighbor when we disagree with the flag that our neighbor flies; however, when we infringe on their life, their liberty, and their pursuit of happiness by supporting public policies or actions that treat them as second-class citizens, that do harm to our neighbor, that keep the poor poor while keeping the rich richer, it is certainly not loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. As our 44thPresident said in the eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney: “…justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. [Our] liberty depends on [our neighbors] being free, too.”

With liberty and justice for all.

We pledge to work for freedom and fairness not just for our educated, rich neighbor who can afford the best attorneys, and not just for our advantaged, abled-bodied and able-minded straight, white, Christian, English-speaking neighbors. We pledge ourselves to stand for liberty and justice for all. And according to the Abrahamic faiths, “all” especially includes foreigners, minorities, the poor, the differently-abled, all those who have been pushed to the margins.

All even includes people of every nation. For our love and our mission to stand for liberty and justice have no borders.

In response to a call to include the rights of the LGBTQ community as civil rights, one of my friends raised the following question on Facebook, and to avoid being obscene, I am going to paraphrase: “They only represent 2% of the population. Why do they matter?”

This was not just one lone, ugly, hateful voice, but one that was representative of the sentiment of many.

“They only make up 2% of the population. Why do they matter?”

For the Christian who pledges his or her allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all: LGBTQ+ lives matter; Black lives matter; Poor People’s lives matter, because according to everything for which this flag stands under the supreme law of the God of love, all lives will never matter, until all finally means all.

Holy Friendship

Friendship

John 15:9-17 NRSV

To prepare us for a new church year, today, I invite us to be a part of a four-part sermon series entitled: Renewing Our Mission. To be the church that God is calling us to be, the church that God needs us to be, we will be challenged to renew our mission in at least four areas: friendship, partnership, stewardship and discipleship. Today, I want us to think about friendship.

Friendship. It’s a word that we use casually, superficially. These days we call nearly every acquaintance or contact a friend. I have Facebook friends, friends who follow my blog or my Twitter, many I have never met and never will. I have ministry-colleague friends. I have teacher friends, professor friends. I have friends from high school, college and seminary. I have running friends, gym friends, and I have Ainsley’s Angels friends all over the country. I have a dry cleaning friend, a friend who cuts my hair, and just this past week, I met a new friend who repairs my automobiles. And, of course, I have some wonderful church friends.

But we all know that friendship can be experienced on another level. Genuine, long lasting friendships can be so much more profound than our more casual relationships.

A week ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time with two old friends. Steve is a pastor outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Cary is a pastor in Longview, Texas. We met fifteen years ago in the Doctor of Ministry Program at Gardner-Webb University. We used to get together every year; however, this was the first time that we have gotten together in maybe eight years.

We decided to meet somewhere in the middle, so we chose Memphis. We spent one day at the National Civil Rights Museum and one day on the golf course. And spent both days, eating a lot of barbeque.

Although Steve has had a career serving with mostly Baptist churches, he now serves with an inter-denominational church. I said Cary is a pastor in Longview, Texas; however, he is only a pastor for another week. His passion for serving the poor and the marginalized is prompting him to leave the pastorate to co-direct a ministry for the homeless in Longview, similar to Hope Campus here in Fort Smith. Steve and Cary are both the fathers of two children.

So, the three of us share much in common (our jobs, our religious convictions, family, golf and barbeque); however, this is not the reason we are such good friends.

One of my favorite authors and preachers, Frederick Buechner perfectly describes our friendship:

Basically, your friends are not your friends for any particular reason. They are your friends for no particular reason. The job you do, the family you have, the way you vote, the major achievements and blunders of your life, your religious convictions or lack of them, are all somehow set off to one side when you get together. If you are old friends, you know all those things about each other and a lot more besides, but they are beside the point. Even if you talk about them, they are beside the point. Stripped, humanly speaking, to the bare essentials, you yourselves are the point. The usual distinctions of older-younger, richer-poorer, smarter-dumber, male-female even, cease to matter. You meet with a clean slate every time, and you meet on equal terms. Anything may come of it or nothing may. That doesn’t matter either. Only the meeting matters.

Only being together matters.

And although we hadn’t been together in almost a decade, although the hair on our heads were much more gray and thin, it was somehow like no time had elapsed at all. Yes, we did our best catch up one another, but we really didn’t have to. That is friendship. And the joy that is experienced in such a friendship is priceless.

Another one of my favorite pastors, Henri Nouwen, said this of friendship:

Friendship is one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive. It is a bond beyond common goals, common interests, or common histories. It is a bond stronger than sexual union can create, deeper than a shared fate can solidify, and even more intimate than the bonds of marriage or community. Friendship is being with the other in joy and sorrow, even when we cannot increase the joy or decrease the sorrow. It is a unity of souls that gives nobility and sincerity to love. Friendship makes all of life shine brightly.

This makes it all the more astonishingly wonderful when we read scripture like:

“The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). The prophet Isaiah says that God referred to Abraham saying: “Abraham, my friend” (Isaiah 41:8).

When we consider what friendship truly means, when we consider the innate grace of friendship, the unconditional love of friendship and the immeasurable joy that is experienced through friendship, “the friendship of God is a staggering thought.”

The friendship of God—that the creator of all that is wants to be with the creatures just as they are, and that everything else is “beside the point” except for that—This privilege, this divine gift, this holy friendship is such a staggering thought, we say to ourselves, “Yeah, but I’m no Abraham. I am no Moses.”

The good news is that that too is beside the point.

Through our scripture lesson this morning, Jesus says to his disciples and to everyone of us: “I do not call you servants any longer. . . I have called you friends.”

Notice that their relationship has changed. It has grown to another level.

The disciples are much more than acquaintances, contacts or colleagues of Jesus. They are no longer students, no longer servants of Jesus.

Jesus says: You are my friends. I love you. I want nothing more for us to be together. I want to commune with you. I want to abide with you. I want to live with you, in you and through you. Your denials, your betrayals, your lack of understanding, your fears, your faults: none of that matters. It is all beside the point. The only point is you. I want to be with you, and I want nothing more than you to be with me.

And listen, for this is how you can be with me. This is how we can be together, finally and fully. This is how you can experience a joy that will fill you, complete you, satisfy you.

You are with me when you love one another. You are with me when you love one another as I have loved you. You are with me when you look past the flaws and failures of others. You are with me when meet people with a clean slate every time, always meeting them on equal terms. You are with me when all of the usual distinctions, older-younger, richer-poorer, smarter-dumber, male-female even, cease to matter.

You become close to me when we gather at the table, when we share the loaf and drink the cup, but we are together, when you are willing to break your body, pour yourself out, and give yourself away for others.

In Matthew, Jesus says, “Do you want to be with me? Then give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, give clothing to someone in need, take care of the sick and visit the imprisoned. When you are a friend to the least of these, you are a friend of mine. When we love others as I love others, you are my friend.

If we are to be the church that God is calling us to be, if our joy is ever to be complete, I believe the first thing we must do is renew our mission to be a friend of Jesus. We need to make the commitment not to study Jesus, admire Jesus, hit “a Like button” for Jesus, but to be a friend of Jesus.

We are going to take a step toward making this commitment tonight at our cabinet meeting, as we are going to talk about our church officially adopting a non-discrimination policy. I think such an official position is needed, but, doesn’t it seem like, for the church, for the body of Christ in this world, for the Body of the Christ who never excluded anyone, a non-discrimination should be the default? You would think that a vote would only be needed if a church wanted to start discriminating. But sadly, we know that’s not the case.

We know there are too many people today who call themselves Christians who are behaving more like acquaintances of Jesus, students of Jesus, Twitter followers of Jesus, even servants of Jesus, but not friends of Jesus.

You can call ourselves Christian, but if you discriminate against or denigrate anyone because of race or religion, ability or class, gender or sexual identity, ethnicity or any other social identifier, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can worship God, but if you mistreat, take advantage of, or neglect the poor, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can say your prayers, even make a National Day of Prayer, but if you do nothing to protect and care for our most vulnerable citizens: our children, the elderly, the differently-abled; then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can sing God’s praises, but if you are silent in the face of immorality, dishonesty and injustice, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can hear God’s truth proclaimed on Sunday morning, but if you fall for lies the rest of the time, because you’re afraid of standing for that truth, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can give our tithes, but if you do not support fair living wages, equitable healthcare, access to a quality education and affordable housing, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can eat the bread and drink the cup and remember a life poured out, but if you are never willing to sacrifice for anyone or anything, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

A common phrase that we say to our friends is: “a friend of yours is a friend of mine.” But this takes on a very challenging meaning when we remember that Jesus was widely known and ridiculed for being of who? “A friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

This means we can attend church every Sunday, but if we never go out and eat and drink with those outside of the church, if we fear getting a reputation for hanging out with the wrong type of people, then we might not be a friend of Jesus.

As I speak these words, I am reminded of my response to my son who is visiting with us this week when he asked to go downtown last night to eat supper. I said, “Downtown? This weekend? With a motorcycle rally going on?” “Heck no.”

But being a friend of Jesus is risky. It is difficult, and it is costly. Being a friend of Jesus takes us places that we would rather not go and puts us into contact people we would rather avoid. However, all who have experienced the complete joy of friendship know that to be friends with God is more than well worth it.

Invitation to Communion

We believe it is the Risen Christ who invites us to eat and drink from this table. And we believe that he invites us, because he has chosen every person in this room to be his friend. Our faith or our lack of faith—it’s not the point. Our understanding or our ignorance—it’s not the point. Our deeds or our misdeeds—it’s not the point.  The Lord invites us because we are the point. Take and eat the bread, drink from the cup. Accept this friendship. All are welcome.