I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Love is terrible. It hurts, it’s scary. It makes us do all sorts of things we shouldn’t – it leads to judgment and pain and doubt. Love makes us weird and selfish and annoying. It keeps us awake at night, it distracts us from the rhythms of life, it stings.
Love is the one thing everyone wants and we’ll go through hell to get it.
Love isn’t easy. It requires a commitment that goes beyond what anyone would consider normal. We enter into love knowing full and well that we know nothing of what we are doing. Love is hard work.
And love requires a tremendous amount of hope.
It requires hope because none of us really know what we’re doing when we enter into it – it’s something we have to figure out along the way.
Love is terrible. And yet, love is just about the most important thing in the world.
Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is full of love. I mean, listen to how he butters up the budding little community of faith: I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.
Translation: You’re just the most special little church I ever did see.
Paul writes with confidence that the Lord will bring to fruition all of the Good News made manifest in their community because (and this is the key) God is the one who does the work.
Sure, Paul will praise the people for keeping him in their prayers while he, himself, is imprisoned. He will boast of their faith in the midst of tribulation. He will even long to be reunited with all of them. But only because the compassion of Jesus Christ has changed them and him forever.
And then Paul has the gall to write: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
I love Paul, I love his epistles, I love his theology, I even love his language. But reading this makes me wonder if Paul really knew what it was like to be among the people called church.
I mean: A church with love that overflows? That sounds great to me, but the only problem is the fact that church is filled with sinners like you and me.
Our slogan might be open hearts, open minds, open doors, but we definitely keep the doors locked, we’re pretty stuck in our ways of thinking, and we certainly have a penchant for judgment even though someone once told us: Judge not, lest ye be judged.
The church isn’t a bunch of good people getting better – instead, we’re a bunch of bad people dealing with our inability to be good.
And, of course, this can become manifest in a number of ways. A preacher like me can stand in a place like this only to wax lyrical about how badly you all need to stop being so bad. I can end every sermon with a list of exhortations on how to finally become the best versions of yourselves. And, should the occasion call for it, I could drop some of that good ol fire and brimstone to whip you all into shape.
But here’s the rub: that kind of church stuff never ever works. At least, not really.
A buddy of mine tells this story about how, when he was a teenager, he went to a church youth conference. Big stage with musicians and altar calls and all that. And on the final night of the conference, right at the pinnacle of the final worship service, the fire alarm off. A brief terror ensued as those in charge frantically ushered a bunch of screaming teenagers out of the building and the streamed out in the parking lot. And there, scattered among the spaces were life boats.
Any rational human being might pause and wonder why, but not a bunch of frightened youth. The adults started yelling at the kids to get into the lifeboats. And a moment later the alarm stopped, and someone shouted from a loudspeaker: “Look around, there aren’t enough spaces in the lifeboats for everyone… Are you ready to really give yourselves to Jesus?”
The fear of that moment might’ve led some of the teenagers to something, but it certainly wasn’t the Jesus revealed in the strange new world of the Bible.
Shame is a powerful thing. Like love, it can make us do all sorts of crazy things.
But the church doesn’t exist to bring more shame into the world. In fact, the church exists to proclaim grace, which is the antidote to shame.
Shame teaches us that love is only for those who deserve it and earn it. Shame is the burden of perfection whether it is moral, spiritual, or something in between. Shame destroys us, it eats away at the very fabric of our being because it’s always dangling in front of our eyes, like a carrot on a string, telling us that we are never enough.
But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same, nor does Jesus comes to bring us shame; Jesus comes full of grace. His very being in the world, born as a baby in Bethlehem, runs completely counter to the idea that only when we get it right do we get to see the Lord. The grace of our Lord is given freely before we have a chance to earn it or deserve it because we never will.
According to the strange new world of the Bible the beginning of the Christianity journey is receiving love.
Think about that for a moment. Faith doesn’t begin when we make some sort of change, or public affirmation. Faith doesn’t kick in when we finally get our acts together.
Faith begins when we begin to see that God’s love precedes all things.
And yet, sometimes even God’s love is terrible. God’s love is terrible because it compels us to look at ourselves hard enough to see how wild it is that God would love us at all.
Or, to put it another way, if God loves us as we are, then we (on some level) have to come to grips with who we really are, and that’s not really anyone’s idea of a good time.
Consider the desire to take a holiday picture of your family, or the outfit you want to wear to a holiday party, or any other number of examples from this time of year – it’s all about making sure only the best of us is seen, and the worst of us is hidden. At least, that’s true on a physical level, but we also do similar things with our conversations, in our relationships, in our work.
We are all experts at wearing the masks of our own making such that we, and everyone else, don’t have to see us for who we really are.
But God knows exactly who we are and God loves us anyway.
How odd of God!
In the life of faith we flourish not because we love, but because we are loved.
When we begin to see, and experience, the divine love called Jesus Christ that never ever stops, that never runs dry, that endures all things (to borrow another line from Paul) then we encounter the building blocks of the faith and the cosmos.
We are made to be loved.
In my line of work, you always have to keep your eyes and ears open for the ways the Spirit moves in the world. Whether it’s a show, or a book, or a painting, or a conversation, it’s all about tuning in to God’s frequencies because you never know what you can use in a moment like this.
Well, it’s Advent time which, for most people, means it’s Christmas time. And one of the joys of this time of year is returning to movies about this time of year.
And one of my all time favorites, is Home Alone.
I know that, while growing up, I loved Home Alone because I rejoiced in the ways that Kevin McAllister was able to booby trap his house, the holiday soundtrack was perfect, and because it had the perfect amount of 90’s humor.
But now I love the film because it’s all about grace.
Whether or not you are actually doing it, I can sense the furrowed brows among the congregation, so let me attempt to prove my point…
For those of you unaware of the cultural phenomenon that was, and is, Home Alone, here’s a brief synopsis:
Kevin is a the youngest sibling in a family that fights and argues the night before flying to Paris for the holidays. In the scuffle to make the flight in time, Kevin is left home alone, and his parents don’t notice their mistake until their halfway over the Atlantic.
Kevin rejoices in the freedom from his family but discovers that the neighborhood is under the threat of two criminals who are casing houses for a little B&E.
Meanwhile, Kevin’s mother frantically seeks out ways to return to her abandoned child and the usual Christmas chaos ensues.
Kevin defends his home with booby traps and works to have the criminals arrested.
And then, perfectly, on Christmas morning, the mother returns home and the two reconcile and embrace.
And here’s the grace:
There is a short scene right before the climax of the film when, on Christmas Eve, Kevin enters a nearby church (which, for those of you keeping score, is a United Methodist Church!). He sits and listens to a children’s choir practicing for their evening performance when his spooky neighbor Old Man Marley approaches him.
Kevin, terrified, shrinks in his pew, but the man wishes Kevin a merry Christmas.
They talk about why each of them are there.
Kevin feels bad about how he treated his family.
Old Man Marley feels bad about how he is estranged from his own son, and how the only way he can hear his granddaughter sing is to come to this practice, but that he’s not welcome later.
And then he says: “How you feel about your family is a complicated thing… deep down you will always love them, but you can forget that you love them. You can hurt them, and they can hurt you.”
To which Kevin replies, “You should call your son.”
“What if he won’t talk to me?”
“At least you’ll know. Then you could stop worrying about it. Then you won’t have to be afraid anymore. Will you do it?”
“We’ll see what happens. Merry Christmas.”
It’s so short, and I’m sure its not the scene that everyone remembers most, but to me it’s the most important. These two strangers, reeling from the overwhelming power of love to hurt and heal, heal one another with offerings of grace.
And, recognizing that it is a movie, Kevin is reconciled with his mother and family and then looks out the window to see Old Man Marley doing the same thing with his own family. It’s beautiful stuff.
And yet, life isn’t a movie. Sometimes that hoped for reconciliation doesn’t happen.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
The church exists in the time in between, the time being, as the poet Auden put it. We keep watch for the ways in which God’s love might overflow even for us such that God’s love might flow out from us to others. But even when we don’t experience the kind of love we yearn for, we also have this promise: There is a place where God will always meet us.
God is present in this sacrament. God meets us here, where we are, in the midst of our sins, not in our successes. God knows our mistakes and our short-comings. And in that knowledge God says, I am giving myself for you. For you!
And this is our prayer, that our love may overflow more and more!
Because God love us! We are made to be loved. Amen.