A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Grafton MA UCC on September 11, 2016
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.
1 John 4:16b-21 – There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
[May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.]
It’s all about joy.
It’s all about love.
Life isn’t about our failures. . . though failure happens.
It isn’t about illness or death. . . though there’s no denying that happens too.
And life isn’t about drawing tight little circles around those who are in the “in group”, or the right skin color, or the proper backgroun.
Life, for those of us who have chosen to follow the Christian way, is nothing more, and nothing less, than a dedication to creating joy by living in love.
Joy and love are the hallmarks of a faithful Christian.
Failure can pull us off course.
Pain, illness, death, can so drain us that we can’t even see the way.
Anger and hatred, can make us want to quit the journey
And then there are those folks who seem to want to suck the air out of our lungs – they ask us, even on the train to work – you can’t really believe that stuff, can you? There’s no scientific explanation of the Resurrection, you know…. As if faith were judged on scientific standards.
Or you meet one of those good folks – down in East Providence, they show up at my door regularly – who believe that because I don’t share every particular of their interpretation of Christianity, that I am not really a practicing Christian. As if wrangling about the petty details of how Heaven will be organized is going to make it easier to love my neighbor.
We who are practicing the Christian way find it all to easy to mistake the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forest. But really, we know there is more to life than we can see, more to our world than just what can be demonstrated.
God created a way for us to live purposefully, and then, sent us Jesus Christ so that we would see that purposeful life lived to its fullest. Finally, God gifted us with the Holy Spirit, so that we would have a constant guide, something of a compass, in us to remember the way when we get lost.
When we try to subordinate God to a scientific explanation, or when we try to tie God eternally to pieces of theological conversation, we miss the boat. And we do – miss the boat – all too often.
That’s why we’re going back to the beginning this morning – to re-center ourselves on the firm foundation of God’s love, that we see and love in Jesus Christ, who came singing love.
In the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish Bible, there’s a story about the last sermon ever preached by Moses. Knowing he was dying, he gathered all the Israelites together and said to them: “See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey….by loving the Lord your God, walking in [God’s] ways…then you shall live. . . .And if you do not, but are led astray to bow down to other gods…you shall perish. Choose life”.
Choose life. That’s what love is all about. It’s the keystone and center of our faith. When you get right down to it, choosing life is another way to talk about salvation, because we are saved by choosing life, and we experience being saved when we live in love, when we live with joy.
It’s all about living in a way that makes for life, for vitality, for the prosperity of a healthy community, healthy relationships.
Every single thing we do as Christians, we do because we have chosen life. We believe there will be a tomorrow, and we are determined to plan for it. We believe that we can become better people, and we are determined to work towards that goal.
It all sounds great, and it is, but the theory falls short of our execution. Or to put it more clearly – we fail, early and often. Being a Christian, following the Christian way, putting life first, isn’t easy, isn’t always clear. Sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be an answer to the challenges we face.
Over the summer, I’ve been reading Anthony Lukas’ book COMMON GROUND, about race relations in Boston in the late 60s & 70s, and how forced busing to end segregation played out in that city. If you lived here in those years, even if it was out here and not in Boston, you know how painful those days were. Angry parents, terrified children, inadequate schools, deeply rooted ethnic enclaves, systemic racism, and a truly dysfunctional city government all contributed to conflict which nearly destroyed the City of Boston.
One of the things which comes through Lukas’ book clearly is how many of the players really wanted to do the right thing. They wanted to solve the challenge of racism. They wanted to support good schools. They wanted everyone to have a fair chance. They wanted peace in the city. But all that was laced with a poisonous level of distrust, hatred, fear and contempt for the other – whoever the other was.
In those times, when there’s no one clear right answer, when right for one can be so very wrong for the other, then we need to come back to what’s basic in our faith.
We choose life. We choose what builds up, what makes community stronger. We choose love over hate.
We choose life, and we choose life with questions.
Jesus was twelve the year his parents went up to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They lost him there for a while and when they found him, he was in the Temple, sitting among the teachers and asking them questions. Questioning is part and parcel of “choosing life” for us.
The Preamble of the Constitution of the United Church of Christ says it is “the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.”
We ask questions. We aim to present the faith of Christ in ways which speak to the needs of this generation.
Like Jesus, we don’t take “we’ve always done it this way” as the final answer.
Like him, we seek to deepen our understanding, especially when we hit one of those desperate times in our lives. A parishioner shared with me the experience she’d had that summer.
It began with a conversation with her cardiologist. It was clear her heart was failing, and she was 91 years old, so she was pretty well resigned to just letting things take their course. Her doctor explained that, while the surgery he was suggesting was not risk-free, if it worked, she would be much stronger, more vigorous, and able to enjoy life.
As she thought about it, it seemed to her that if life was made for joy, and she wasn’t able to be joyful now, she ought to opt the risk. If she died, well, she had had a good run; but if she lived. . . We talked together about how Jesus seemed to be saying that life was good, worthwhile and to be enjoyed, and how much more she appreciated that since the operation.
The author of the First Letter of John had heard that same Jesus, and with his example in front of him, wrote that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” “Perfect love casts out fear. . . We love because [God] first loved us.”
To choose life, to choose the way of Jesus, is to choose to live with love. Every other things we believe about God, about Jesus, about even the Trinity, is something we’ve observed, discerned or deduced because it helps to illustrate the vision of a God who calls us to choose life, a Savior who came singing love, and a Spirit who calls us into community, to be for each other, living proof of that reality.
It’s a challenge; we don’t always live up to it; sometimes we fall flat on our feet, mess up terribly, but a church built on love offers second chances, encourages us, in the face of our failures to return to the core of our faith, to recognize what we’ve done wrong, and to begin again.
That’s who we are; a community of folks who try, and fail, and try again, always looking towards the goal of love, always choosing life.
© 2016, Virginia H. Child