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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Get Your Heads out of the Clouds

Acts 1:6-14 NRSV

I have had more than my fill of end-of-the-world Sunday School lessons and doomsday sermons. In the sixth grade, I had a Sunday School teacher who talked about the end of days and the imminent return of Christ every Sunday for a year. She clouded my head with charts and graphs, all indicating that Jesus was certainly going to come back before my high school graduation.

In seventh grade, our youth minister took us to see the movie The Late Great Planet Earth. Like the recent Left Behind movie with Nicolas Cage, it was about all these people disappearing in the rapture. Planes, trains and automobiles were all of sudden without drivers. I watched in horror as planes crashed into crowded cities, trains derailed, and automobiles collided on every street.

And if that was not enough to permanently scar me for life, it seems like every revival preacher I ever heard would preach that the Lord was going to return in their lifetime. This always bothered me, especially since most of these revival preachers were retired, and to me, looked like they only had two, maybe three good years left.

Today, you can find preachers on TV who are still preaching the imminent return of Christ. They point to world events—ISIS, Iran, North Korea and Russia—as signs that the end is near. If you took some of these preachers to heart, you’d never plan anything a week in advance. You sure wouldn’t be freezing strawberries, and you’d never buy green bananas!

This is where today’s scripture lesson offers us a little bit of sanity.

For months, the risen Christ had been warning his followers that he would one day leave them, but he had reassured them, “I will not leave you orphans.” He told them that when he left they were to return to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

In today’s lesson, the time that they had been dreading for weeks had come. But before he departed, they asked him what my Sunday School teacher and those revival preachers seemed to already know: “When will you come again and restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He replied: “It is not for you to know the time or the period…But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After those words, he ascended into heaven, vanished from their sight, and left them standing there, gazing into the sky. They just stood there, looking up into the clouds.

And while they were gazing up toward heaven, while they had their heads in the clouds, suddenly, two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Jesus’ followers were instructed to get their heads out of the clouds. They didn’t need to be alarmed about the departure of Jesus, for Jesus would one day return to them. They don’t know when, but they don’t need to know. In the words of Jesus, “It’s not for them to know the time or the period.”

“All you need to know,” said the angels, “is that he is coming.” It’s a certainty; he’s coming, so you can stop looking into the clouds, and start living for him by doing what he has commanded, and being his “witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

I believe this wonderful Ascension story teaches those of us who are obsessed with the second coming of Christ, that we need to stop obsessing. We need to get our heads of the clouds and start living the way Jesus commanded us to live.

There are too many Christians who regard faith as some ticket to heaven. Their salvation is something to be possessed, held on to, not actually lived, or shared with others.

I believe this scripture reminds us to get our heads out of the clouds, get our minds off of heaven, and come back down to earth. Come down and go to Jerusalem. Come down and go into all of Judea and even into places that we do not want to go, like Samaria. Go and be a witness to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere. Don’t go to church for the assurance that you possess something spiritual that others lack. Go and be the church by giving yourself to others who are the very image of God.

The story also teaches us that if we truly want to see God, if we really want receive the power of the Holy Spirit, instead of looking up in the clouds, all we have to do is to look around us.

In the play, Inherit the Wind, one of the characters says: “He got lost.  He was looking for God too high up and too far away.”

The truth is that we find God when we redirect our gaze from the heavens toward people, and toward the world around us. We find God when we understand that grace, salvation, and the love of God are not mere tickets to heaven, but something that is to be shared with all people every day here on earth.

And we find God through mirroring God’s love, a sacrificial, self-denying, self-expending love—a love from a God giving all that God has to give, for God so loved this world more than God’s self. Thus, our faith is about honoring a God who died for all.

Here in Enid, Oklahoma, our heavens are blessed with the roar of aircraft piloted by men and women who possess this same sacrificial, self-denying, self-expending love—a love that is willing to give all, for these men and women we see in the skies above us love their country more than self.

Tomorrow, we remember those who did give all, as they paid the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedom, but we also honor all who are willing to lay down their lives at a moment’s notice. And in Enid, living in the shadow of Vance Air Force Base, named for Leon Vance Jr. who heroically gave his all during World War II, all we have to do is walk outside and look toward the heavens to be reminded of these men and women.

But as our eyes are focused upward, we need to pay attention to the voice of angels: “Men and women, boys and girls of Enid, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Get your heads out of the clouds and share this love—the love that you see in the jets flying overhead—share this love throughout Garfield County, across Oklahoma, and even into those places that you may not want to go.

This is the reason it has been such a wonderful blessing to welcome members of the 3rd and 33rd Flying Training Squadrons into our church the past two weeks to prepare and serve a hot meal to some of the the most impoverished men, women and children living in our community (last they week they served 60). The sacrificial love we hear and see in our skies literally came down to earth.

For when I walked into our church’s kitchen the last two Sunday afternoons, I saw none other than the very presence of the risen Christ. He had not disappeared into the clouds, but was right here in our church through the love of these service men and women who sacrificed a Sunday afternoon to feed the hungry. And there was no doubt that the risen Christ was also there sitting around those tables. You could see him clearly in the smiles, in the sincere gratitude of the ones who were being fed, accepted and embraced by selfless and unconditional love.

This is why the angels told the disciples to redirect their gaze, to get their heads out of the clouds. Stop looking for Jesus in the heavens. The angels said to them and says to us: “Look around you. In Jerusalem and Judea. But also look beyond you, even into Samaria, even in places that you may be afraid to go, places that may make you uncomfortable, places that may be painful, risky, dangerous.  Look, go, and live for Jesus, and you will find him.

Moshe is a prophet in Elie Wiesel’s book entitled The Oath.

Moshe was speaking with Azriel, the narrator of the story one evening after a meeting at the synagogue.

“You go to school?”  asked Moshe. “To what purpose?”

“To learn,” said Azriel.

“To learn what?”

“Torah,” the boy said uneasily (That’s the first five books of the Old Testament).

“Torah is life,” said Moshe, “and life must be lived; it cannot be learned from books, between four walls.”

“I thought,” said Azriel, “that Torah is more than life, since God himself submits to its commandments.”

“God too must be lived, my boy,” said Moshe. “You must live God, not study God in books, between four walls.”

Let us pray together.

God, help us to get our heads out of the clouds,

out of books,

out from these four walls,

and go out into the world to live Christ,

around us and even beyond us.

Help us to go and be the body of Christ,

be a community of grace,

of self-expending love,

and wholeness in our fragmented world. Amen.

Memorial Day and the Gospel

Memorial Day

We Americans are often guilty of trivializing things that are important. Consequently, survivors of loved ones who gave their lives for their country struggle every 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 play golf, having a cookout, or opening the backyard swimming pool? Is it about red-tag sales at the mall or some other self-centered activity?

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

Thus, Memorial Day is about honoring those who died for us, and praying for those they left behind. It is also a time to recommit ourselves to those who continue to selflessly fight the evil in our world, evil that seeks to blow up innocent children at a concert without a second thought, and do such evil in the name of God.

May God forgive us for forgetting what this day is all about, or worse, for watering it down.

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

Is it about judging and condemning others who believe, live and love differently? Is it about possessing an attitude of arrogance or superiority? Is it about having the right to discriminate and treat others as second class citizens? Is it about banning people of other faiths from our communities? Is it about going to heaven one day or some other self-absorbed venture?

No, it 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, and we do that by loving all of God’s children. It is about recommitting ourselves daily to continue to selflessly fight the evil in our world, evil that seeks to demean, dehumanize and destroy any of God’s children without a second thought, and do such evil 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 calls us to live and who God calls us to love, everyday.

The Hands of God

Cash
Army Captain Christopher S. Cash, 36, died on June 24, 2004 in Baquabah, Iraq when his Bradley Fighting Vehicle came under attack by enemy forces using small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. He was assigned to the Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 120th Infantry, Jacksonville, North Carolina. 

Isaiah 49:8-16

If I am to be truly honest with you, I must confess, that I suppose I am just like most of us here, in that, from time to time, I have my doubts.  I cannot help it, and I’d be a hypocrite to deny it.  It’s just part of my fragmented human nature.

What I believe makes the Bible so great is the sheer honesty of it.  When I slip into the doldrums of doubt and despair, I can always pick up the Bible to discover that I am not alone.

Listen again to these words of Isaiah to the people of Israel in exile:

“Thus says the Lord”—what a powerful statement. This is not a mere prophet’s voice, but the voice of Almighty God, the Holy One, the Redeemer of Israel.

“Thus says the Lord… who is faithful…who has chosen you.” Israel did not reach up and choose God. God reached down and chose Israel. Here, God is the actor, the mover, the shaker. And listen to how God has acted…

“Thus says the Lord…I have answered you…I have helped you…I have kept you…I have given you….”  In other words, “I answered your cries in Egypt, I sent Moses to deliver you, I protected you in the wilderness, and I gave you a promised land.”

“And not only have I acted in the past, I promise to continue acting, reaching out and reaching in… giving you light in your darkness…feeding your hunger, quenching your thirst.  I promise to protect, lead and guide you.  I will transform mountains into roads, lift up highways and show you the way out of captivity…”

“So shout for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth O mountains into singing!  For the Lord has comforted God’s people, and will have compassion on God’s suffering ones!”

And what did the people say?  “Halleluiah!  Thine the glory?”  No, not even close.

The people in exile responded to the voice of God, the divine acts of the past and the divine promises for the future the same way I suppose you and I sometimes respond—with a lot of doubt.

In verse 14 we read…But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.”

Deep within, we know that God has always been with us, never away from us. We know God is for us, not against us.  And we believe in our hearts that whatever our future brings, God will always work all things out for the good. However, due to, I suppose, our sinful, finite nature, the reality is that, sometimes, we have our doubts.

I can go to church on Sunday and experience the love and grace of Christ through my family of faith. I’m greeted each Sunday at the door with handshakes and smiles. I listen to the choir sing. I hear the word of God being read. I sing the great hymns of faith, and through it all, I sense the nearness and the intimacy of God. But then, during the week, a thousand different things can happen and change everything.

Fifteen years ago, I became good friends with Christopher Cash, a member of the National Guard.

On October 1, 2003, his unit was deployed to Iraq. As the only person I personally knew in Iraq, I specifically remember praying for my friend Christ the following year, on the Sunday morning before Memorial Day the following year.

About a month later, I picked up the Saturday newspaper and read the headlines on the front page: “Captain Christopher Cash Killed in Iraq.” I tried my best to read the article, but couldn’t. I never made it pass the sub-title: “Cash leaves behind his wife, Dawn, and two children.”

The room started spinning. I felt sick to my stomach. I was lost.  And I had never felt more alone. With Zion I wanted to cry out, “The Lord has forsaken me. The Lord has forgotten me.”

One moment we’re filled with faith and hope; we sense the intimate presence of God. And in the next moment, we sense only God forsakenness.

A thousand different things can happen…the telephone rings in the middle in the night…there’s been a terrible accident…your child is sick…your spouse is laid off from work…someone who you are supposed to be able to count on for encouragement, lets you down…a terrorist or a crazed gunman attacks…a tornado or earthquake strikes…war rages…the doctor gives a grim diagnosis…a loved one dies.

One day we are basking in the presence of God. We know we’ve been chosen. Our prayers have been answered. We’ve been helped. We have received and kept by an eternally faithful God. We have confidence that as God has not let us down in the past, God will certainly not desert us in the future. God will continue to reach out and reach in, transform, protect, shed light in our darkness, feed and quench, protect, lead and guide.

But then something happens; and just a short time later, with Zion we cry out, “The Lord has forsaken me. The Lord has forgotten me.”

This is why I love the Bible. I love the sheer honesty of it!  In spite of everything we know about God, what God has done, and what God promises to do, like Zion, we fragmented and finite human beings still have our doubts.

Now listen to the good news. The good news is that our God never gives up on us. God never leaves us to our own devices. God never deserts us with our doubts, but always responds to our doubts. God keeps moving, keeps reaching out and reaching in.

In verse 15, we read God’s response to our doubt.  “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands…”

Tomorrow, our nation remembers those members of our armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Today, our church remembers members of our family of faith who have died during the past year. But this is not why we have gathered here for worship. We gather to worship this day, not because we remember them, but because our God remembers them.

For our remembering is shallow and weak; our remembering is fraught with doubt; laden with despair. God’s remembering is deep, unfailing. God’s memory endures forever. God responds to our doubt with the assurance that we and our loved ones will never be forgotten by God because they, with us, are in the very hands of God.

And, as Christians, we know something about the hands of God, don’t we? The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ teaches us that the hands of our God are always responding to our brokenness, always working, always doing all they can do to work all things together for the good, always creating and recreating, healing and transforming and resurrecting.

As my heart broke upon learning about by friend’s violent death in Iraq. I must confess I had my doubts. I am sure that his wife Dawn had her doubts. But thank God that God did not give up on us. God responded to our doubts the hands of God kept working, kept moving, kept creating, kept resurrecting. And today, nearly 14 years after Chris’ sacrifice for this country, Dawn has helped to raise nearly a half million dollars in scholarship money in Chris’ memory to assist needy students with college educations.

And for me, well, I still have my doubts from time to time; however this Memorial Day, because of Chris and so many others who gave their lives serving and protecting this country, I possess a deeper appreciation for our country and for this miraculous gift we call life. Because of their sacrifice, I possess a profound desire to serve others more faithfully, to love others more deeply, and to preach the message of peace more fervently.

But here’s the true miracle: Because God never gives up on any of us, because we are indeed in the very hands of God, each time in our humanness we have our doubts, each time we wonder if our faith is even real, that God is even real, our faith miraculously grows stronger.

Thanks be to God that as the very hands of God picked my friend Chris up from the battlefield to hold forever, those very hands also hold us.