Love in Action

Faith Lutheran in Seward, Nebraska
Faith Lutheran in Seward, Nebraska

This past weekend I was invited to preach, lead worship, and lead an adult forum at Faith Lutheran Church in Seward, Nebraska on Sunday November 20th, 2016. My sermon was part of the congregation’s three week stewardship focus on “Faith in Action. Grace in Action. Love in Action.” It was a great pleasure to be with the congregation, and what follows is the majority of the text that I preached. The message based on the day’s theme gospel passage, Luke 6:32-38, as well as lessons from Isaiah 58:3-8, and 1 John 4:13, 16-20

“But love your enemies… Be merciful… Forgive… and Give.” These are some of the things that love looks like. These are some of the attributes of what God’s love looks like, and point to who God is. They are also charges for us today.

Taking a step back, what a rich text this is. And what a challenging gospel passage it is for this Christ the King Sunday, the day we traditionally celebrate Christ’s victory over death, remembering that Christ’s kingdom, kingly authority and rule is grounded in an active love, like that of one who gets down on their knees to wash their neighbor’s feet clean.

Today is also a day that allows us to remember that no matter what may happen in the world, no matter how exciting or deeply troubling an election cycle, God in Christ is present, with us, and for us. As today is Christ the King Sunday, it is also the last Sunday of the church year. Next Sunday, begins a new year in the life of the church, with the first Sunday of Advent. Pastor Rob will be back up front leading and preaching, and I will be at my wife’s church in Fontanelle for her first Advent as a pastor, being the good pastor’s spouse helping hang the greens and put up the trees.

The stewardship theme on the church sign outside for all to see.
The stewardship theme on the church sign outside for all to see, “Faith, Grace, and Love in Action.”

But for today, it is a great privilege to be with you on this the third Sunday of your three week stewardship emphasis, “Faith in Action. Grace in Action. Love in Action.”

What might this love in action mean? We get a glimpse in this week’s gospel. Love in action is far greater than just showing love and sharing with those you like, your closest family and friends. This love in action is a genuine willingness to be in relationship with people you might otherwise choose to not spend time with. This love in action, is a genuine love and concern for the neighbor, and it is grounded in our joyful response to the love and pure gifts of God who we know most clearly through Jesus Christ in the stories of the gospels.

Pastor Rob described it well in the stewardship letter he wrote writing that, “in Christ Jesus, God has not only loved the unloveable, God has put God’s love into action, healing, helping, and feeding even God’s enemies, and given us God’s own Spirit, so we too may love.”

This love for the world and for the neighbor is a central part of the Gospel of Luke. Biblical scholar Justo Gonzalez writes that Luke “wants to make clear that Christian love is not just a sentiment or a feeling, but also an attitude leading to concrete action,” like “do good to those who hate you.”[1]

Today’s passage comes as part of Luke’s recounting of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, similar to the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Today we started in verse 32. But the immediately preceding verse in chapter 6 is “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”[2] This is commonly held as a “golden rule.” For Luke, however, this goes a bit further, and is explained in the way the gospel continues about the importance of loving your enemies, forgiveness, and giving without expectation of any return. According to theologian Luke Timothy Johnson, “The ‘golden rule’ of ‘do as you would want done’ is not the ultimate norm here, but rather, ‘do as God would do.’” [3] The core then of what neighbor love means, or what it means to love your neighbor, is to “do as God would do.”

How on earth can we do that? We’re not God, and thanks be to God for that. Thanks be to God, that it is not up to us to earn salvation. Thanks be to God, that it is not up to us, to figure out the mysteries of life, and God’s promises. But because of these promises, and the pure gifts of God, we are able, and perhaps even called to respond to them, through our love in action.

I mean think for a second. Here we have a God, who loves us so much, that God sends God’s Son, to live among us, to die, and rise again for us. That’s the work of salvation. And it’s a gift, we can’t do anything about, but say thank you and then choose to live a life of a joyful response to that good news. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can, as a community, discern how God is calling us to live and be in the world.

Through the Holy Spirit, we are led and shown ways to bear God’s love in this beautiful and exciting yet broken and hurting world.

One of the many ways that this congregation is showing love in action.
One of the many ways that this congregation is showing love in action.

We heard some of them in the different readings for today. As the prophet Isaiah reminds, when the bonds of injustice are loosened, when the pressure or weight of the yoke is relieved and removed, when the oppressed are set free, when we share our food with the hungry, when we offer warmth and shelter to the homeless, and clothe those who are naked, without any qualification, other than people needing help, that as when we do as God would do.[4]

When we welcome the refugee and stranger, sharing in the work of organizations like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and Lutheran Family Services here in Nebraska, doing the important work of refugee resettlement, that is as God would do, as we remember soon that the Holy Family itself was refugees shortly after Christ’s birth.

When we speak up and work with and for those who are at the margins, people who are victims or pushed aside because of perceived differences, walls, barriers, or fears, that is as what God would do.

We sing with the psalmist, that “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”[5] This is a love that abides even in times of fear. This is a steadfast love that continues, even when we lose our way and think that we cannot do it. This is a love that is slow to anger, but it doesn’t mean, that God doesn’t ever get angry.

When we don’t do as God would do, and willingly don’t; when we don’t heed God’s call to love, then the woes that the Gospel of Luke shares a little earlier in chapter 6 become very real. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”[6]

I should step back. I am passionate about this, as I hope all of you are. This was the central idea of my thesis in seminary, so when Pastor Rob invited me to preach and told me of today’s gospel passage I was overjoyed, yet a bit dreading it, because it is such a central passage to my faith understandings.

This idea of neighbor love, love in action, can be convicting, and one that calls us all to confess and seek God’s forgiveness, grace, and steadfast love.

We may see all the needs around us, the challenges and problems in the world, and choose to recoil, retract, and hide. It might be a natural “flight” response. However, we can’t fly away and hide. Because, we believe in a God who shows up, that means we need to too.

We know that “God is love.”[7] We also know that this love is both beautifully simple, and overwhelmingly complex. “We love because God first loved us.” Yet, we also know that, Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”[8]

We are created by a God who knows and loves us. We are called by this God, to be bearers of this love in the world.

We are called, “to love our enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return.”[9] What might this mean for us two weeks after our country, state, and local elections? What might this mean for this congregation, a vibrant community of faith here in Seward, a loving community, but like many, one where conflict has probably surfaced over the years for one reason or another as it responds to a changing world?

We are called, to “be merciful, just as our Father is merciful.”[10] What might this mean for us, in the midst of one of the most divisive and polarized chapters of our country’s history? What might this mean for us as Lutheran Christians, bearers of a wonderful theology of grace, that allows us to live in the tensions of a Kingdom of God that is both “now and not yet?” What might this mean of a tension that Martin Luther describes of us both being “free, bound to none; and yet, also at the same time, servants, bound to our neighbors”?

We are called, to “forgive, and you will be forgiven.”[11] When we passed the peace this morning, did anyone seek out someone they needed to forgive, or seek forgiveness from?

If my wife was here today, I would have walked over, given her a big hug, and asked for her forgiveness. You see, being that we’re new to Nebraska we just moved into her church’s parsonage a week ago Friday, so there are still boxes everywhere. The stress of that, and of figuring out what it means for us both to be rostered leaders of the church, has reared its ugly head in the form of my impatience lately. And I, like I assume many spouses, have not been as loving and kind as I am called to be. And that’s something I need to seek forgiveness for.

But beyond our partners in life, to be in relationship with each other in general, our neighbors, and our strangers, means to be willing and vulnerable to admit when we are wrong, and to forgive. This is perhaps the biggest sign of God’s love in action, the reconciliation that is made possible through it. It’s also perhaps the hardest aspect of showing that love in the world.

We are called and reminded to, “Give, and it will be given to you.”[12] How are you giving that which God has entrusted to you? How do you steward your finances and money for the sake of God’s work in the world? How do you steward your time responding to the needs you see here, in your homes and families, out in the community of Seward, across the state of Nebraska, and the larger world? How do you steward your passions, vocations, and gifts, responding to God’s unique call to each and every one, to use what has been given, for the sake of our neighbors in need? The answers to these questions are different for everyone. But they start to tell the story of who you are as a steward of God’s love. And they point to “love in action.”

This love in action, unique to each and everyone’s own individual stories, is grounded in a love that we know through Jesus, who, as we know through baptism and communion, is the king who is, “given for you,” “shed for you,” and “with you to the very end of the age.” These promises of Christ’s relationship with us, send us out, and allow us to be in a relationship with each other, and all others, who have been created and are loved by God.

I have only been on the ground in Nebraska for two months, but one thing is very clear to me. This synod, its 245 congregations are very generous, and understand what it means to be the church together by showing ‘love in action.’

“Love in action” in Nebraska means sponsoring Campus Ministry at college campuses across the state. It means supporting the work of serving arms of the church like Mosaic and Lutheran Family Services in responding to the needs of people in our midst, who otherwise, might be pushed to the margins or forgotten in the shadow behind one of society’s many walls.

Sharing the Children's Message at Faith, while the kids and much of the congregation are wearing their "God's Work, Our Hands" shirts for service projects and ministry after worship.
A photo taken by one of the members of Faith, while I was sharing the Children’s Message, while the kids and much of the congregation are wearing their “God’s Work, Our Hands” shirts for service projects and ministry after worship.

Love in action means supporting new and transforming ministries, and the raising up of new leaders for service in the church and the world. Love in action means sponsoring food banks, care closets, community gardens, sewing and sending quilts, building homes, wearing your yellow “God’s Work, Our Hands” shirts that you are wearing today as signs of your love in action, and so many more local congregational responses to the needs in the community.

Love in action means equipping each and every one of the 100,000 members of the ELCA in Nebraska, like you, to know that each person is loved by God, called, and created for unique vocations, and doing God’s work in the world whether it’s easily seen or not.

Also, in my first two months here, I have come to believe, that your pastor, Pastor Rob, is a wise and loving pastor who deeply understands God’s love and stewardship, who also shows ‘love in action.’ In his stewardship letter, he also wrote, “God has given us God’s spirit, living in us, tugging at our hearts when we don’t hide from our neighbors in need. That is love. Stewardship of the gifts God has given us is Faith, Grace, and Love in action.”

How do you steward all that you have been entrusted with and all that you are?

How you answer that, is how you show love in action.

And for each and every one of your answers to that question, I say, on behalf of the larger church, the other 244 congregations of the Nebraska Synod, and as a fellow participant with you in God’s work in the world, thank you! Thank you for showing love to your neighbors. Thank you for living and doing as God would have you do. Thank you, for your shared ministry together. And thank you, most importantly, for being you, for sharing your stories, and showing God’s love in your midst. Amen.

Works Cited and Referenced:

[1] Gonzalez, 94.

[2] Luke 6:31.

[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina 3, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 112, as quoted by Justo Gonzalez in Luke, 94.

[4] Isaiah 58:6-7.

[5] Psalm 103:8.

[6] Luke 6:24-26.

[7] 1 John 4:16.

[8] 1 John 4:19-20.

[9] Luke 6:35.

[10] Luke 6:36.

[11] Luke 6:37.

[12] Luke 6:38.

Building Bridges, Not Walls

This past weekend, I was consecrated as a deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It was a wonderful day, full of celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit. I was excited to write all about it and share my joy this week here on the blog. That will have to come in a later post. Because today, I am about as a joyless as I have ever been.

I have been raised to believe in the power of communities to come together.

I have been raised to believe in the power of people working together, so that all might do well and have an equal opportunity regardless of ethnicity, skin color, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, relationship status, and any other forms of identity and experience.

I believe in the importance of working for the common good.

I believe in building bridges, not walls. 

Build bridges, not walls.
Build bridges, not walls.

That’s why today is so sad. It is so hard. There is no way to find joy in knowing that my country, has voted for someone who openly ran on a platform of division and building walls between people and communities, not bridges. My country has voted for a man who created and fed off an irrational  sense of fear of the other.

My country has voted for a man who claims to be a Christian, and whom many Christians believe to be one. But there is no way to square his platform with my understanding of the Christian faith. For, if you open up the gospels, one can easily see that where ever society creates walls and tries to separate communities, Jesus shows up on the margins or the other side of the wall in relationship with the other, the outsider, the Samaritan woman at the well, the leper long since forgotten with sores, the tax collector Zacchaeus, and many more.

I am sad today, because if the person who has just become president-elect makes good on his campaign platform rhetoric, communities will be broken, relationships will be torn apart, rights will be stripped away, and many people at the margins of society may rightfully be scared to wake up in the morning.

I have no joy in writing this.

But I also know this, I believe in a God who shows up and is always present.

I believe in a God who calls us all through the waters of baptism to lives of service, and vocations for the sake of the world and our neighbor. Through the water and the word, we make promises:

  • to live among God’s faithful people,
  • to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
  • to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
  • to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
  • and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

And it is because of this, that we cannot hide. It is because of this that we cannot back away in despair. Today is a sad day, perhaps even a terrifying one. But it is also a day where we are called to be the church just like every other day, but perhaps even more importantly now.

Many are legitimately afraid of being pushed aside on the other side of a wall. I will play no part in building any wall. And I invite you to join me.

Join me by building bridges and connections. Join me, by choosing kindness and love over fear and suspicion. Join me, in talking to the person you meet on the side of the street or inside the grocery store. Join me, in sharing how your faith compels you to be a servant leader to your neighbor.

Martin Luther famously wrote, “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to all.” The paradox Luther points to is that we are called and created to be free, but also servants to one another. This is leadership, and speaks to how we are created and called to be in relationship and community. So this is what I choose to do, but more importantly, feel called to do today, and all the days after.

We have work to do. It’s God’s work. The work of God’s kingdom breaking in. The work of showing love, peace, and justice for all people and all creation. The work of finding common ground and peace in the midst of great divisiveness.

I pray for President Elect Trump. I pray that God’s wisdom fills him, and that he turns out to be a good leader who works to build bridges and not walls.

No matter how the days and years ahead turn out, I promise to be one who builds bridges and works to promote the dignity of all people, my neighbors, and fellow Children of God. I promise to be one who resists any attacks on the vulnerable, marginalized, and the oppressed. (And I invite you to join that promise by signing this petition.) I promise to be an ally, even if that means putting  my own life and work at risk, because if one member of the Body of Christ is threatened, we are all threatened.

Please join me in this work. This is not something that can be done alone, but rather in community, with a God who calls us together, sustains us, fills us with the Holy Spirit, and reminds us that each and everyone is loved by God, simply because they are one of God’s children.

No matter who you voted for, I want to build bridges with you. I hope you want to build bridges with me, and I trust that with God, this is still possible. Thanks be to God for the hope we know through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and the peace which sustains us especially on days like this.

An important reminder today and every day.

Image Credit: Build Bridges Not Walls, Light Shines in the Darkness