We begin this time of reflection with a poem from Seasons of the Spirit:
We rise on Sunday morning
and discover creation is already awake,
pulsing with Spirit energy.
If we pay attention,
we recognize in the bird’s song, the rustling of leaves,
the kind word spoken, the flower’s opening,
the music of community,
Love is calling
deep within and all around.
What is your answer?
Seasons of the Spirit, Congregational Life Pentecost 1, p.97, adapted
We hear in these poetic words God’s call to each of us as part of God’s wondrous creation. God calls, inviting us to participate in the creative and powerful influence of love in our world. These are the essential themes which I gleaned from our scripture readings this morning: God’s call and our mandate to respond with love in action.
The story of Moses and the Burning Bush is a well known “call story”. It embodies the mysterious qualities of a mystical encounter with the Holy One and the divine urging to respond with faith-filled action. God calls Moses by name and Moses responds, Here I am. The story tells us, that in this encounter with God, Moses is standing on holy ground. God has a mission for Moses which is to send him back to Egypt, the place from which he fled, and lead the Hebrew people out of bondage to a place where they can experience liberation and fullness of life. Moses knows this to be a nearly impossible mission and feeling ill equipped questions why God would choose him for this daunting task. God’s response is simply, “I will be with you”. (Beautiful words of assurance and encouragement that we could all do well to remember when facing the challenges of life.)
And then there is the excerpt from Paul’s letter, to the early Christian community in Rome, that we also heard this morning. Paul begins this portion of the letter, which was later entitled Marks of the True Christian, with the essence of Christian life which is love. According to Paul, love is the basis from which all Christian behaviour and action should flow. Paul’s more well known quotation about love is found in his letter to the early Christian community in Corinth which says, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. …” and so on. (1Cor. 13:4) Although this passage is commonly used in wedding ceremonies, it was originally written to encourage Christian communities to act lovingly in their interactions with each other.
Paul’s epistles (long letters), were originally written in Greek. There are many words for love in Greek but the word which Paul uses in both today’s excerpt from the letter to the Romans and the letter to the Corinthians is agape. Agape is love in its fullest and most expansive meaning and relates to love in community. It is the love of other human beings on a deep spiritual level which encompasses compassion and justice. Agape was the basis for Jesus’ life and ministry and was Paul’s guide to continuing Christ’s example in the Christian communities in which has was a mentor.
Paul, as you may remember, never met Jesus in the flesh but had a conversion experience in an encounter with the risen Christ. Paul based his experience of Jesus’ life through the stories of Jesus’ ministry which were passed along through oral tradition. Paul would know well the stories of Jesus telling his followers to “love one another as I have loved you”
(eg. John 15:12); the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet; (John 13); and the countless other stories which reflect Jesus’ compassionate response to those he encountered daily in his ministry.
Paul would also have been familiar with Jesus’ passion for social justice which was rooted in the belief that every human being is God’s beloved and deserves to live in the fullness of life which God intends for everyone. Paul’s writings to the early Christian communities were meant to encourage them to embody Christ-like living in their own congregations and also to reflect the love of Christ in their actions in the wider world.
Recently I heard a story of a contemporary Christian church in the United States which is interesting in light of Paul’s emphasis on Christ’s embodiment of God’s love in the world. The church is a mega-church with hundreds of members. One Sunday, inspired by Jesus’ gospel imperative, the pastor stood to deliver his sermon and simply said, “love one another as I have loved you”, then he sat down. The congregation was surprised by this turn of events and waited patiently to see what was coming next. The pastor didn’t move, or speak, so after a few minutes someone stood up and introduced herself and said, “welcome to our church”. Then people began to introduce themselves to one another. These were people who sat next to each other who were virtual strangers. The conversations that ensued produced an energetic buzz in the sanctuary. The next Sunday, when it was time for the reflection, the pastor stood up and said, “love one another as I have loved you” and sat down. This time more people got up and talked with each other than the week before and some even went out into the community and brought others back to the church. The third week, the pastor stood up to deliver his sermon and simply said, “love one another” and sat down. Three hundred people left the church in a huff telling the pastor, “We’re not paying you not to preach!” But a strange and wonderful thing happened to those who remained as part of that congregation. No one could quite define how it happened but the quality of life in their community of faith was improved and the quality of life in the wider community was also positively changed. It seems that the people of this congregation began to seriously listen to Jesus’ call to “to love one another as I have loved you” and they responded by more intentionally embodying God’s love in Christ through the actions of their own lives.
A commentary which I read this week notes, “…the early Christian communities were actively self-aware of their identity and calling as ‘alternative societies’ vis-à-vis the wider world, particularly the imperial Roman context.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p.16) With respect to our current context the author notes, “What the church really has to offer is an invitation to a new community that nurtures believers to live differently and to live out their calling both within the faith community and the wider society.” (Ibid)
I hope we all know people who embody this depth of genuine love in action and I’m sure we all strive to live the ideals which Christ embodied. The struggle to live an authentic life, to be true to one’s beliefs and values, is a constant challenge in a world which doesn’t always reflect the same values. In this time of transition, of getting to know one another in this new pastoral relationship we’ve embarked upon, over time we’ll begin to understand some of the reasons we may do things the way we do. Listening with patience and understanding, asking respectful questions of one another and holding as our essential mandate Christ’s call to loving service is a good beginning. These past few weeks have been, for me, a time in which these ideals have been embodied. I’ve witnessed, and been part of, a community which strives to work together both in celebrating our diversity and embracing our common values. I have intentionally tried to follow the flow of worship you have become accustomed to in the past few years but, of course, there have been some differences in content and style. For instance, all of you will have noticed that I don’t preach from the pulpit and some of you may be wondering why that is. I assure you that it is not a negative statement, on my behalf, about the pulpit as a place of preaching in which many people are familiar and comfortable. In ministry, as in life, it is important to act with authenticity and be true to one’s calling in the way we best understand that to be. My understanding of my call to ministry is very relational; it’s all about my relationship with God, Christ, the congregation in which I serve and with the wider community. The first month that I served in paid accountable ministry I did preach from the pulpit because that was customary. It was a very large pulpit and not being a very tall person all people could see of me was my head. I felt very uncomfortable behind the pulpit and felt like the proverbial “talking head”. So, for the past 11 years I have preached only occasionally from a pulpit preferring the sense of connectedness with the community of faith that I feel without a physical barrier in the way. I’m telling you this so that you will understand my desire to build a strong and lasting relationship with this community of faith, based on love, respect and appreciation for the different gifts and styles that we all bring to our ministry together.
In this community, and in our country, we are blessed with people of integrity who embody their beliefs in the actions of their lives. One such person who Canadians, regardless of their political affiliations, are mourning this week is Jack Layton. Jack was raised in the United Church, which is not surprising given his commitment and proactive stance with respect to social justice issues. Like many others before him, Jack Layton believed it is possible to work together to create a more just and equitable society for all Canadians and I commend him for his dedication and life’s work.
Jack’s letter to Canadians, dated just two days before his death, reflects the optimism, courageous determination, and the unfailing love and dedication with which Jack lived his life. I’ll close with the last few lines of Jack’s letter which reminds me very much of some of the apostle Paul’s own sentiments:
My friends, love is better than anger.
Hope is better than fear.
Optimism is better than despair.
So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.
And we’ll change the world.
May it be so, dear God, may it be so.
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