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Celebration and Support, Foundation of Love (April 7, 2019)

John 15:9-17

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Audio clip, stops at 1:06 (Theme from Cheers, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”)

Recognize that song? Do you ever yearn for something like that? “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” Doesn’t that touch something deep in your heart?

That gets at part of what my vision for the church is: a community where you are fully and authentically known, valued for who you are, and loved without condition. Where you get to be part of it not because of what you believe, but because you can experience God’s love.

My dream is that whenever someone has something exciting and wonderful happen, they run to a church community because they know arms of joy will be wrapped around them! And whenever they have something tragic and difficult happen, they run to a church community because they know arms of support will be wrapped around them.

Who among us doesn’t yearn for a community where we can just breathe because we can trust that we are known, loved, valued, and respected exactly for who we are at our deepest level? A community where we can be loved without condition, without judgment, without question. A community where, no matter what we’re going through, feeling, thinking, experiencing, we are held and loved. A community where we don’t have to hide our failings, weaknesses, our insecurities, and inadequacies because people still recognize us as worthwhile and valuable. A community where people will stand with us no matter what it is we’re going through. A community where we can be our authentic selves because the foundation of that community is absolute love. A community where we don’t have to prove how strong we are, or pretend we’ve got everything together because the community surrounds us with God’s own strength.

That is Jesus’ vision. It’s this kind of community he yearns for on our behalf. And that’s what he’s actually talking about in this text from John. He’s pointing out that God already loves us without restrictions, without boundaries, without conditions. And that this love is the foundation for our relationship with God and with each other. Jesus affirms this, reveals this, and shows us what this kind of community looks like. Jesus makes this kind of community real in the world.

What’s more, Jesus is telling us that this is the kind of relationship he already has with us because it’s the kind of relationship he already has with God. He understands how fully he is loved by God and then openly loves us in the same way. Rather than just being our teacher or our master or our lord, he now says we are his friends. As our friend he would do anything for us because he lives God’s love for us.

This is what forms us as a community. As we live more and more in Christ’s love for us we are shaped and influenced by that love. As we live in Christ’s love we grow in our capacity for expressing that same kind of love toward each other—the love God already has for us. Authentic relationships of love without restrictions, boundaries, or conditions. That love is already present in us and among us. In Christ we are now set free to live together as a community in that love—not only with Christ, but with each other.

At some point in everyone’s life they’re going to yearn for a community like that. But we have a cultural bias toward autonomy, the false thinking that there’s something wrong with us if we can’t handle everything by ourselves; that we’re somehow weak if we need support and care from others.

Which is why people usually seek out a supporting community when something unforeseen and tragic occurs in their lives—something that turns out to be out of their control and beyond their capacity to deal with alone. And here’s the thing: it happens to everyone. Because no matter how hard you try or how organized you are, life always gets messier, and bigger, and more unpredictable than any one of us can handle. At that point people seek out a community where they can be held and supported through those times.

You can easily see that after national tragedies. Worship attendance went up across the country after Columbine and after 9/11. But then it goes right back down again. Because although at those times we see a need for a non-judgmental community of love and support, we tend to expect it to simply appear instantly and without effort. And when that doesn’t happen easily, we just try to soak up what we can in the moment and once the crisis is over, go back to our neater, smaller, more predictable lives with proof that “the church doesn’t work.”

But what relationship of that depth and authenticity happens easily or instantaneously? Authentic relationships require an investment of time, of commitment, of vulnerability. And when you consider the depth of Christ’s love that is the foundation of this community, it means at the least being deliberate about it. That kind of deep trust and unconditional love simply can’t happen in a minute or on an occasional Sunday morning. Though the foundation is already here in Christ’s unconditional love, in all honesty we need to marinate in it. And for those who have been deliberate about it, they find that this community reveals astonishing love and surprising support!

I am someone who has had to be converted to the need for authentic, supportive communities. I’m here to tell you to pay attention to the innate yearning for a community “where everyone knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”

Christ’s unconditional love gets shown here. This is a community where you can bring your celebrations and your difficulties. Because this is a community that will hold you both in joy and in support. Christ reminds us that the foundation of this congregation is his love. And we’re always glad you came.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Forgiveness: Giving and Receiving (March 17, 2019)

Matthew 6:14-15

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

One of our priorities this Lent is recognizing there is some difference between “belief” and “discipleship.” They are most definitely related, but they are not the same. They certainly inform each other, but they are not the same.

Our emphasis right now is more on the discipleship side. That’s the one that’s usually received the short end of the stick in our history, yet it’s also what Jesus emphasized much more.

The difference between belief and discipleship is, in a nutshell, that discipleship is how we live out what we believe. We can believe anything while sitting on our couch, but in discipleship we are compelled to get up and live that belief. So, actually, discipleship reveals what we really believe.

We continue this journey of “Authentic Relationships” as one large category of discipleship.

Specifically this week, forgiveness is our discipleship topic. Forgiveness is more than being forgiven by God. That can too easily fall within the realm of couch-sitting belief. But as a discipleship practice, forgiveness as following Jesus is living forgiveness with one another—both the giving and the receiving of it. Discipleship involves both. As we’re doing through Lent, each Sunday we’ll talk about “why” forgiveness is a discipleship issue and on Wednesday we’ll talk more about “how” we can live it more fully.

I’ve discovered that we can’t really assume we all know what forgiveness actually is. We use the word so much its meaning can get lost.

  1. Forgiveness is a deliberate action. It’s not automatic and it’s not necessarily easy. Whether it’s God forgiving us or us forgiving each other, it is a conscious choice.
  2. Forgiveness has nothing to do with whether or not the recipient deserves it. It’s an action taken by the forgiver independent of the forgivee.
  3. Forgiveness is a conscious release of resentment toward a person or a group who has harmed us.

It’s just as important to know what forgiveness is not, especially when it comes to dangerous situations, like cases of abuse. That’s one way this word gets misused with potentially very serious consequences.

  1. Forgiveness is not glossing over or denying the seriousness of an offense against you.
  2. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses.
  3. Forgiveness does not obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from legal accountability.

Instead, forgiveness brings us peace of mind and frees us from corrosive anger. Forgiveness means we need to acknowledge the pain we suffered without letting that pain define us. That’s why forgiveness enables us to heal and move on with our life. Forgiveness is much more about the forgiver than the forgivee.

Research at the University of California at Berkeley has found a direct correlation between forgiveness and improvements in happiness, physical health, mental health, productivity, and even generosity (Stewardship campaign?).[1]

Forgiveness as an act of discipleship is more than just being nice. It’s following Jesus in God’s vision—God’s intention—for the world. Our health and well-being certainly are part of that.

Each of these texts approach the topic of forgiveness differently. One is more about receiving it and the other more about giving it. But both are grounded in the same principle of forgiveness from a discipleship perspective.

The first text from Luke, usually called “The Prodigal Son” is pretty well known and is more about God’s willingness to forgive us. The father in the parable is a God-figure, whose attitude of forgiveness is evident. In fact, there’s some speculation as to whether the son actually is repentant. Some scholars believe he was simply playing his father in order to be able to eat.

But forgiveness means that this doesn’t matter because it’s not about whether or not the son deserves it. The father, out of love for his son, runs out to meet him while he’s far off, even cutting off the son’s rehearsed speech of repentance.

The same with the older son who is holding on to his resentment. The father includes him, invites him in, acts of forgiveness. Whether the older son forgives or not isn’t known. But the choice is his: celebrate or cling to his anger.

Forgiveness is God’s way. Therefore it is Christ’s way. Therefore, as disciples, it is the way we follow too.

The other one from Matthew is Jesus postscript to the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer. It sounds rather harsh, like, “you better forgive others or else!” More accurately it points out that there is a connection between our ability to give forgiveness and our ability to receive it. If we aren’t able to forgive others (again, a deliberate action of letting go of resentment) it’s likely that we aren’t able to receive forgiveness from God either.

Discipleship involves both. Receiving forgiveness from God and from each other, and also offering it—to ourselves and to others. Receiving forgiveness from God changes us, frees us to live in that very same image of God in which we were created. Receiving forgiveness allows us to offer it. And the more we practice, the more deliberately the image of God in Christ is reflected through us.

[1] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/forgiveness/definition#why-practice-forgiveness

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2019 in Sermon

 

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