One of the most powerful things that I have ever encountered is stories. Stories help us glimpse the world in new and imagined ways. They help us imagine a world in which we may hope, provide for us a cautionary tale, or allow us to experience the world from a point of view we may never be able to. With today being Valentine's Day, it is fitting to think about love stories. This subject has captured the imagination of countless authors and readers throughout history. Love is often a motivator for characters in stories, driving them to do incredible acts for better or for worse. Whether it is romantic love, like those romance books one may find in the grocery store, or deep, knotty love, that you may read about in Steinbeck novels, it is an integral part of human experience. Sunday, we will focus on how Jesus loves, but it fits us to think and pray on who Jesus loves just the same.
Scripture provides numerous examples of God interacting and guiding His people in the ways of love. As we approach Lent and Easter, we will think intentionally of how far God has gone because of His love for us. Jesus provides for us specific teaching on this when he gives the sermon on the mount. For two chapters, Jesus outlines the bounds and expectations of the kingdom of God. He gives the disciples, and us by extension, the mission that we are to measure our actions. Jesus clarifies and deepens the disciples understanding of who is blessed, their role in the world, Jesus' mission, their understanding of anger, sexual relationships, divorce, oaths, revenge, acts of mercy and justice, and the maintenance of spiritual life (Matthew 5:1-7:21). Jesus describes the various people who are blessed. Many of those groups relate to us, some not so much, but Jesus mentions them for a reason. Jesus connects them to the hope given by the Kingdom of God and wants to join us to one another. In several ways, Jesus touches on each of the people as he makes his way through the sermon on the mount, challenging us with compassion, mercy, and action. The question becomes, who are the people that we are to love?
To be honest, it is everyone. Scripture highlights several groups of people that would make the people of Jesus' day stop and think, "Wait, love them? They are savages! They are dangerous. They spread disease. They hate the God we worship and us!" (Luke 10:25-17, Hosea 1:1-11; 3:1-5) I know that in our world today, people use these same words to describe others.
Jesus teaches the disciples that they are to love the poor, meek, lonely, the oppressed, and those who oppress. In other words, Jesus instructs the disciples to love everyone. This does not make loving everyone easy, nor does Jesus give us concise bullet points on how to make this happen. It would be hard to love those who oppress you, those who smear you with insults. It is hard to remember to love those on margins, unless they are at the forefront of our minds. It is hard to love those who are poor and avoid the temptation of pitying them. My suggestion would be to listen to their stories.
In my recent adulthood, black history and the stories of African Americans have become dear. People ask me now and again, "Why is it always about race with you?" With some thought, reflection, and prayer, I can say with assurance that it is the space of the table that I am. On one hand, I see that race has and will continue to have an impact on my life whether I like it or not. On the other hand, I see it as a responsibility to speak early and often about it because there are millions of brothers and sisters who do not have that opportunity or will ever. There is a book that I read every February to remind me of my responsibility to keep my ears open to hear the cries of the needy. Howard Thurman has a small book called Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman speaks of the ways that his community (African American) copes with their lot in American society. Written in 1949 Thurman describes how his community survived, the wounds and baggage they all carried, and the challenge of Jesus' love in their lives. This book is essential not only to people of color such as myself, but to white Americans because it gives voice to the impact and consequence of their actions as well. To be heard and recognized is significant for people who are usually not. It matters especially to those who historically have not had a voice. So, this is an encouragement and reminder of our communion confession to hear the cry of the needy. My prayer is that with open ears and compassionate hearts, we will not fail to be an obedient church.
One significant story that resonates with our African American brothers and sisters is the Exodus story. The people of God are enslaved and oppressed by their Egyptian rulers. The generation at the time cried out, seeking relief from the lot that they had been given. And hearing this cry God calls upon Moses, the first prophet, to tell God's people that he has heard them and will rescue them from their oppression. God listens to the people and saves them. (Exodus 1:1-11:42) This community can identify with the feeling of having their back against the wall and looking for something that would bring them hope.
Hearing the stories of people begins to bridge the gap between differing experiences. There is an opportunity to form an understanding between two seemingly disconnected people and change the way they treat one another. It is not an instantaneous effect mind you, but with enough patience and persistence, friendships form. The fostering of love between people is part of the mission of the Kingdom of God.
Love is that emotion that drives humanity to the most considerable lengths, nobleness of causes, and the neckless of actions. Our culture fixates on love. It is mostly romantic, but we must understand that love has a deep and complex history. It goes farther than the romantic feelings that February 14 would have us believe. As pleasant as chocolates, red roses, pink hearts, Valentine's cards, and fancy dinners are, we as Christians have an example of the most reckless and humble love in the person of Jesus Christ. Being a practical part of the faith family, Methodists have historically sought ways to embody that love. That love is not easy and left for our thoughts and convictions; we as faithful people will misstep and not love one another as God loves us through Christ. Things that help us include the stories in scripture that remind us of the type of love we are to show and to who we are to show that love. The love from God challenges our pride and the questionings of our heart's priorities. This love says to love the whole of the person, the positive and the negative, the things we adore, and the things we revile. This love is a hard one because it requires so much effort and intention.
It is relatively simple, but sharing our stories of faith, struggle, injustice, joy, and hope are the first steps of reconciliation. Much like our prayers, we do not receive instant transformation. We are called to a life of transformation through small incremental changes and growth. It can be painful at times to share, embarrassing, or hurtful wounds with one another. (Galatians 6:2) But it is the awesome and radical love that Jesus offers that leads to healing and reconnection. Whose stories have you yet to hear?
I hope to see you on Sunday at 8:15, NINE45, or 11:15 for worship. You can also go to SAUMC.NET and join us via Livestream. Blessings upon you, and I cannot wait to see you!