Jul 09

Discipleship 101: The Call of Love

He calls to us. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Will we yield to his call? Will we cross over the wall we have built between him and us? He has come to us eagerly, longingly, leaping on the mountains, bounding over hills: noble, graceful, delighted with us, yearning for us. Not content to wait for us to show up at his doorstep, he has come to our house, he has peered in through our windows, and, seeing that we are still here, he has cried to us, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” There’s no recklessness in his call; he comes to us with abandon, but he also knows it is the right season for love: winter is past, flowers bloom, figs ripen, cultivated vines show their blossoms. Creation plays peacock while our Lord prances to meet us, but we wait to hear his voice. Will we shy away, or will we embrace his transport and delight? Continue reading

Dec 08

Light of Fire and Love

The days are getting shorter this month, each day marked by a little less sunlight and a little more night, as we head into the winter season. The shadows are lengthening and earlier than even a few weeks ago. Darkness reaches out sooner and sooner, and releases its grip more reluctantly in the mornings, too. It’s as if, in our northern hemisphere, the world is tensing up, drawing in on itself, like our hearts, fully compressed, waiting to release in the moments between the beats. Continue reading

May 04

Easter People: God is Love

This past Tuesday I joined a group of fellow United Methodist clergy at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in West Baltimore. We met for an hour in the basement of the church, where earlier in the day children had found a place to be on a day of no school and where volunteers from all over had prepared and delivered meals for 500 people. After we met, our little group drove a few blocks, first to New Shiloh Baptist Church and then to Ames Memorial UMC, on the edge of Sandtown, just a couple blocks south of North Avenue. Once out of our cars, we walked north up Pennsylvania Avenue. We stopped and joined a sidewalk worship service in front of Simmons Memorial Baptist Church. Then we walked the rest of the way to North Avenue to join a crowd of a thousand or more people demonstrating peacefully in front of the burned-out CVS.

The scene on North Avenue was joyful and disquieting at the same time. On the west end of the block was an unmoving line of police officers standing shoulder to shoulder, shield to shield, dressed in full riot gear. Hovering overhead were several police helicopters. One circled regularly only a hundred feet above us; the others were further up and away. Flanked the streets were journalists from all over the world: television crews, cameramen, newspaper reporters, interviewing and taping and taking notes. And in the middle of the street, in the midst of all these outside influences, were people who clearly belonged to this neighborhood. And they weren’t screaming or throwing rocks or setting cars on fire. They were dancing. With all their strength, they were dancing. A drum corps, playing as loud as anything I have heard in my life, accompanied them as they moved up and down the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues. Children and teenagers. Boys and girls. Almost surrounded by a police force they do not trust and journalists ready to call them thugs and delinquents, they danced over and over, beautifully, powerfully, fearlessly.

Friends, a lot of nonsense about the City of Baltimore has shown up in the news this past week. Some it has come from journalists, some from talking heads, and some from politicians and government officials. But I went down on Wednesday to bear witness to the truth. That’s what we’re about, as Christians: we bear witness to the truth. And the truth is this. In Sandtown and Penn North and Druid Hills, the love of God is on the move, breathing life into communities on the verge of death. The love of God was at work in worshipers who stood in the streets to sing and pray. The love of God was at work in clergy and gang members who gathered together to talk children back to their homes Monday night. The love of God was at work in a city councilman who dared to call the media out on its thinly veiled racism. And the love of God certainly was at work in those passionate dancers. Yes, the spirit of antichrist, in the negative stream of reporting and the ill-chosen words of so many and the way some seemed to hope for a heavy-handed crackdown, stole the spotlight. But the Holy Spirit, the Love of God, the Spirit of Christ, was perfecting love this week in Baltimore City.

Love is maybe the worst word in the Christian vocabulary. It is a horrible word, a word that distracts us from the demands Christ makes upon our lives, a word that offers us false comfort when we decide that we will only follow Jesus so far. So often we fall back on the word love the way a recovering addict runs back to his dealer at the start of a relapse. We sentimentalize love to death; we hollow the word out until the only thing left is a vaguely nice feeling; we chase a love that asks nothing and promises everything. There are days when I’d like to just throw the word out entirely, ban it.

But my favorite passage in all of Scripture—and it’s been my favorite for 25 years and counting now—is 1 John 4:7-8: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

Because we have sentimentalized the word love to death, most of us most of the time believe love and knowledge have very little to do with one another. We think that if you have strong feelings about God, then you love him. And if you have lots of book-learning about God, then you know him. And once we buy into this split, most of us choose one or the other. We tend to harbor a lot of contempt for people who choose differently from us. But there are some things you can only know about God if you love him passionately. And there some ways you can only love God if you use the intellect he has given to study and think and understand as best you can.

Because, as John tell us, God is love. God is love, so God’s love comes before we can destroy the word love with all our useless babbling. God’s love shows up in Jesus Christ, demanding that we love real people, people who are hard to love, who challenge us, who are angry and complicated. God’s love binds us together with such difficult people, and God’s love insists that we proclaim the good news to others so that we can have a bond with them, too. God’s love even dares to suggest that you might be the difficult person. God’s love doesn’t care about your sentimental feelings, because God’s love delivers cold, hard truths about God, about you, and about this world.

God’s love comes first, so that you and I are not lovers of God, we are beloved by God. Our love, if it is to be anything more than a false comfort or a drug of choice, is and can only be a response to the love we receive from God the Father in Christ Jesus the Son through the Holy Spirit. This is why humility comes before love. Humility is living your life as a response to a gift. In Jesus Christ we have been offered God’s love, the greatest gift anyone could ever want, which means that if we want to love as God loves us, we need to be humble beyond all measure.

In Baltimore last week I witnessed a complicated love: a love that was joyful and exuberant and repentant and sorrowful and angry and outraged and agitated and peaceful. And this is a far cry closer to the love of God than our strong feelings or even John Wesley’s heart strangely warmed. There is no difference in God between truth and love and justice and anger and righteousness and peace. We can’t divide God up into little bits and say, “This part of God is love”; “That part is just”; “This bit is angry”; or “This much is righteous.” God is one, and God is love.

Now maybe some of you think I’m just trying to be provocative or that I’ve got an agenda. I do have an agenda: I’m bearing witness to you this morning so that you and I might share a common bond, with each other and with our brothers and sister in Baltimore City. And the common bond we share is the Holy Spirit, the Love of God in Person, who unites us in truth with the Father and the Son and the whole body of Christ. Sharing a common bond, being church together, means wrestling with a difficult love and being confronted by truths the Spirit will not allows us to escape.

So I invite to come to the table this morning where difficult love and difficult truth are poured out on us and on the gifts of bread and wine, uniting us with Christ, with each other, and in ministry to all the world. Come ready to receive; come willing to give. Friends, I went to Baltimore to witness to the truth and love of God at work in the city. Maybe you’ve had trouble seeing truth and love this week. Maybe you’ve been looking for the wrong kind of truth or the wrong kind of love. Come, and receive healing for your vision. Come, and have your sight restored. Then go, and bear witness by your words and your lives to real love and real truth, united in and by the one true God who is love; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mar 16

Memorial Service for Iris Winternitz: On Love

Love has the power to change everything. This is one of the deep truths of the universe, one of the greatest secrets of creation, one of the most essential tenets of our Christian faith. So it’s a shame that we hear about the great power of love more from sentimental Hallmark cards and sappy TV movies than from anywhere else. In our time, love’s power has been cheapened, and expressions about “the power of love” have replaced anything like reflection and meditation before love’s great power. In fact, for someone even to begin speaking about love’s power is enough to get people rolling their eyes and shutting down their attention. But for all this cheap love, real love still retains its power to change everything. Continue reading

Sep 29

Strike the Rock

            Two years ago I was in the mountains of Western Maryland for a week of vacation at my family’s stomping grounds just west of Deep Creek, near Oakland. My mom’s family is all from out that way, and we’ve made annual pilgrimages since I was a kid, but it was my first time back in years. A lot was familiar; the eighty-year-old cabins hadn’t changed much. Some things, however, were different. The biggest difference that I remember was stepping out to take in the mountain landscape and seeing, about 10 miles away, gigantic wind mills cluttering the skyline. New construction for cleaner energy. They were huge, and they were ugly.

            Now, I’m a fan of renewable energy, and I’m not going to play the “Not in My Backyard” card. I don’t want those turbines torn down. They’re better than the destruction wrought by the coal industry, which has blown the tops off mountains just to get to hidden deposits of anthracite. Still, I’m saddened that the price of this renewable energy source is damage to the beauty of this special place.

            I couldn’t help thinking about that place and those wind turbines when I read the lesson from Exodus 17. At first I couldn’t figure out why—the lesson is about water, not wind. Eventually I realized what it was: in Exodus 17, the Lord says to Moses, “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” The Israelites are thirsty. They need water. And God tells Moses to strike—not to ask, not to touch, but to strike the rock with his staff. Even this good thing, this necessary thing for God’s own people, comes at the expense of another part of creation. The rock must be struck.

            The rock must be struck for water so that they people may drink. The ground must be furrowed to plant food so they can eat. The trees must be cleared so that they can build shelter against the elements. It seems that we human beings can have nothing without attacking some other part of creation. In fact, I heard recently that with every major human migration has come an equally significant event of species extinction—whenever a large group of human beings moves from one place to another, we inevitably destroy a species that had been thriving in our new location. Wherever we go, we strike the rock—or whatever else is at hand—for our own needs.

            Friends, this is not how things ought to be. God did not create the world so that human beings could destroy it. In fact, I imagine that if the Israelites had found themselves in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, instead of in the wilderness, Moses could have walked right up to the rock and said, “Excuse me, rock, but could I trouble you for some water?” and the rock would have gladly bubbled forth streams delicious and refreshing. The world of Moses and the Israelites, however, is not the Garden of Eden. Their world is our world, the world after sin has entered. Moses must strike the rock.

            The reality of human sin is three dimensional. Sure, our sin messed things up pretty badly between us and God—the first dimension. But it also dramatically altered the way we relate to other human beings—the second dimension—and to the rest of creation (the third dimension). We see all three dimensions even in the seven verses out of Exodus 17 we just read. The Israelites, who can’t seem to go forty-eight hours without finding a reason to doubt the Lord, start complaining that they are just dying of thirst. You’ve heard of doubting Thomas, right? Here we have doubting Judah, doubting Manasseh, doubting Benjamin, doubting Israel. It’s as if they’re saying, “There’s no way God could save us now.” Sin, in the form of stupid doubt, has crept in again, rupturing the relationship between Israel and the Lord. The first dimension of sin.

            Israel’s complaining targets Moses, too. Moses, their leader, the one who stood up to Pharaoh, the one by whose arms the sea parted for them and then swallowed up the Egyptians, Moses the great prophet; the Israelites say he’s brought them into the wilderness to die. They’re angry. So angry that Moses tells God he’s afraid the Israelites will stone him to death if something doesn’t change quickly. Relationships among human beings, damaged almost beyond repair. The second dimension of sin.

            Then there is the rock Moses strikes. The third dimension of sin.

            It’s unfortunate that environmentalism has become such a political football. For Christians, the matter should be pretty straightforward: first, we are called to good stewardship of creation; second, because of our sin, we cannot completely avoid damaging other parts of creation in this life. And when we do harm creation, we shouldn’t celebrate it as if God had made us to be tyrants of his creation. At least the Israelites have the sense to name the rock Massah and Meribah, an enduring reminder of Israel’s sin in the wilderness. Lament is also faithful worship.

            There’s one more thing about this story, something that really gets me. Did you notice where the Lord is in this story? Not what God says or does—whereGod is. God doesn’t remain in heaven, distant from all that’s taking place in his creation. The Lord says to Moses, “Go ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.” God places himself directly in Moses’ path, on the very rock Moses must strike for the people to drink. As he always does, God places himself on the side of his creation, taking on the same burden that fallen creation must bear.

            Imagine. Moses is in the middle of the wilderness with a weary people, a people parched and impatient. They have risen up against him, demanding something to drink. Moses doesn’t have a drop more of water than anyone else—they are in a desert, after all. He turns to the Lord, afraid and frustrated. God responds to Moses and to his people’s bitter complaints with a generous offer of water. All Moses has to do is walk over to a rock, accompanied by a few of Israel’s other leaders, and hit the rock with his staff.

            So Moses chooses elders, good people who can witness to God’s faithfulness and calm things down. He gathers them together; they walk toward the rock. And there, standing between them and the font they so desperately need, is the Lord. There’s no way around. If Moses wants to save his people, he’ll have to strike the rock. And if he strikes the rock, he’ll have to strike the Lord first. So Moses walks up to the rock, looks his God in the face, raises his staff, and strikes the rock of his salvation. Water—just water this time, though one day it will be water and blood—water gushes forth, streams in the desert run as never before, fountains pour out from the rock for the sake of the people of God. And that rock was Christ.