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How Do We Love God

I started something last week that I think we need to finish.  The idea of faith.  If you recall last week, we talked about faith as if it were a mustard seed, that begins life, as in all of us; faith begins very small and seemingly insignificant and powerless.  But then our understanding of who God is expands and we learn deep down who Jesus really is, and we increase our faith. Or should I say, God increases it for us.  Life challenges us to go to God on our knees, and when we respond affirmatively, it is because we know we are loved.  As love deepens, we shed suffering. Oh, we will still experience the losses of life, but less and less feel as if we are suffering under their weight. Jesus shows us how to do that. By going to the cross, he does not suffer. His courage is remarkable.

You all, as my church family, have helped me with this.  You have opened up your homes, your lives to me.  You have taught me a lot about faithfulness.  Losing my dad just a little over a year ago, and my brother about 7 years ago has taught me a few things.  Losing uncles, aunts, grandparents, brothers, neighbors, church members, so many friends . . . these losses pile up. But our faith grows through the loss. Loss and Faith transforms us.

Mary Miller, one of my mom’s best friends, is 84 years old and very active.  She is one of the thrift store’s most regular volunteers.  Mary just lost her daughter, Julie. To cancer; its very sad.  Mary stood up in front of the congregation in her home church in Amherst yesterday and told stories about Julie. A gleam in her eye, she said what a natural leader Julie was; how she earned 4 or 5 different university degrees. How she made people feel comfortable around her. How she would always fight for the underdog.

There was the story told of she and Julie sitting in a restaurant, having coffee. A homeless woman was sitting nearby, apparently nursing a cold cup of coffee, who was approached by management and was asked to leave.  Julie stood up and said, “I am paying her bill.”  A moment later, a police officer came in to take to woman out. Julie stepped in between and said, “this woman is my sister and she can stay.”  The officer said, “do you want to go downtown with me?”  Julie held out her wrists to receive the cuffs.

Guess what her favorite Gospel reading is:   Matthew 25.  “Whatever you did for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”  And they shared another Bible verse, the passage from Hebrews 13:2 that says:  “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

And so all day yesterday I was thinking about how Mary lost her daughter, and also about how strong Mary was throughout the service.  She says how Julie used to be the one everyone turned to for answers; for direction. How courageous Julie was to continually offer hospitality to strangers.  By offering hospitality, we show our love for God.  But, many times, it is not easy.
How we treat strangers tells a lot about us.  Who’s to really say which person among us might be an angel in disguise?  Here is a story told by a friend of mine Bart Campolo, who is the pastor of a Cincinnati  Church:

Stanley is a dirty old man, and by that I don’t just mean he talks about young women in inappropriate ways.  He smells bad, too.  Really bad.  On the other hand, Stanley is about as gentle a fellow as you are likely to meet in a soup kitchen, which is why the rest of us put up with his stink, even at the dinner table.  He’s our friend, after all.

After dinner the other night, we held our annual show-and-tell talent show, which is kind of a homey cross between American Idol and The Jerry Springer Show.  Just after one of our teenagers proudly modeled her pregnant belly (her talents, unfortunately, do not include good judgment), I was getting ready for “Cincinnati’s loudest burp” when Karen tapped me on the shoulder.  “Della says Stanley has bedbugs all over his jacket,” she whispered urgently.  “What do we do now?”

I quietly moved next to Della, who sadly shook her head.  Sure enough, Stanley’s back was literally crawling with bedbugs.  How did I know they were bedbugs, you ask?  Around here we learn to spot our bedbugs the way an endangered horror movie heroine learns to spot her zombies.  Della knew too.  “You gotta get him out of here, or my family’s leaving,” she told me. “I love y’all, Bart, but we can’t be getting no bedbugs.”  And just that quickly, everything changed between Stanley and the rest of us.

I called him outside, but there was no way to avoid embarrassing him.  He didn’t argue or minimize the problem.  He just shook his head and told me he didn’t know what to do.  I shook my head too.  Three weeks later, I still don’t know what to do.

If all this seems overly dramatic, then you must be unaware that bedbugs, which were largely wiped out in this country by DDT in the 1950s, are in the midst of a major resurgence, especially in poor neighborhoods who are least equipped to fight them.  It only takes one hitching a ride on your clothes to infest your house, and after that they are incredibly difficult to get rid of, even with the help of an exterminator, and even if you can afford to throw away your bed and most of your furniture. They feed on your blood every three nights, but you can’t just leave and starve them out, because they can survive without feeding for more than a year.

Spiritually speaking, bedbugs are a kind of modern-day leprosy.  Della and her family aren’t the only ones afraid to touch Stanley these days; all of us keep our distance.  Until we can find a way to shower and dress him in clean clothes each week, we don’t even let him come to dinner anymore.  He’s a gentle old crackhead who needs our love, but we shun him.

We’re still not safe, of course.  Every day we hug people who might be carriers, or invite their kids into our homes, or go to visit theirs.  A few months ago, when Marty and I had a false alarm in our house, our whole ministry here flashed before our eyes.  Bullets in the backyard we can handle, I think.  Bedbugs … I don’t know.  How can you love anybody if you can’t sleep anymore?
So here we have a story about a modern day leper. A stranger; one of the least of these my brothers and sisters.  And it reminds me that we will always have the outcasts, the strangers with us. And turning to Jesus, we hear his story of the One former leper who turns back, praising God and thanking Jesus. He's so full of joy and gratitude that he returns to Jesus, throwing himself on the ground at Jesus' feet, and he's talking too loud, and really making a spectacle of himself. The disciples standing around are probably rolling their eyes. I mean, it's okay to feel grateful and all, but does he need to get so carried away?

This outsider, this Samaritan, is never going to fit into the Temple crowd, anyway.  The Temple isn't a place he'd be welcome even if he is cured of his leprosy. There's no cure for being a Samaritan, a big-time outsider. There's no certification by the priest that can make him acceptable, and there's no ex-Samaritan program he can enter to change that, that can "rehabilitate" his otherness. Of all of them, he has plenty of time to say thank you to Jesus.
Samaritans are outsiders/strangers/migrants.  The Samaritan ex-leper would have been the brown skinned one, still untouchable, even with no leprosy. Xenophobic Jews might have yelled:   “Go back to your own country, you wetback!”

The disciples would have been considered outsiders, too, following a heretic who thought he was the son of God . . . and they must have wrestled with this issue of dealing with strangers, too . . . what do we do about all these Gentiles coming into our church.  We are like them. Find your place in this story. Are we the disciples, watching the former leper dance with joy?  Are we wondering to ourselves, like the disciples, "Who is this fellow, anyway, who can cure lepers with a word?"
Are we the ones who, like the nine, go to church because we are obedient?  Saying:  I want the certification from the institution of God, assuring me my place in the heavenly mansion upon my departure from this earthly form.

Or maybe we know what it feels like to be the tenth leper. This one wants nothing to do with organized religion. He returns to Jesus; he can’t help himself. He is mesmerized.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her beautiful sermon on this text, agrees.  She writes that "Ten behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love." She writes: "I know how to be obedient," she writes, "but I do not know how to be in love" (The Preaching Life).

We're commanded to "love God," and our efforts to do so are usually expressed in faithful acts of worship attendance, charity, faithful giving and regular prayer … that is obedience.  But how often does anyone in our church really act as if we're in love with God? What does it mean to be “in Love” with God?

This story gave me new insight into the difficulty of loving God and neighbor. Especially when talking about another modern-day leper: the sex offender.  I saw a news story recently that describes one’s mans business to help sex offenders, upon release from prison, to get registered, live in group homes in safe neighborhoods, check in regularly with their parole officer and stay away from children and families. They may be free to roam the city streets but they are locked into an unhealthy mindset that keeps on repeating itself. Their lethal cocktail of mental problems make these “children of God” lepers to us.


So we ask ourselves:  what would Jesus do?  And we don’t like the answer.  Love your neighbor as I have loved you.  Love God; love your neighbor. 
Blair Pettyjohn, singer, preacher, author in Washington, DC, breaks down Jesus’ teaching on this issue into two fundamental principles that can help us love others as God intends. First, Jesus saw all human beings as sacred, including the most wretched—criminals, terrorists, dictators, molesters. To Jesus, everyone was a brother and a sister, deeply loved. Once we begin to see and love everyone the way Jesus showed us, seeing all people as sacred the way Jesus did, the way we respond to people will change.

A second necessary principle of Jesus’ love that follows from the first is a willingness to die for others, but never to kill. Gandhi put it this way: “Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for war and violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for nonviolence.” He also said that he was prepared to die for his cause, but there was no cause for which he was prepared to kill. Even though Gandhi was not Christian, he recognized Jesus as the greatest practitioner of nonviolence who had ever lived.

The hard part is putting this love into action.  God’s love, modeled through the actions and lessons of Jesus the Christ, increases our faith.  As our faith increases, we are able to love more.  As we love others more we see their suffering diminish.  As we our society sheds human suffering, we will still experience the losses of life, but less and less we feel as if we are suffering through them. Jesus shows us how to do that. By going to the cross, he does not suffer. His courage is remarkable.  Mary has it.  Her daughter had it. The disciples had it. Paul and all the apostles had it. Even our modern day saints have it. Faith. Either you learn it in church, and it increases as you get older; or you have a life changing, mind-altering experience in which your faith is handed to you by God on a bed of pain and discomfort.  You choose your path. Most likely, you have chosen already.