Tag Archives: Lent

“The Pursuit of Love”

This is a sermon I preached during Lent at Wesley United Methodist Church in Concord, NH on 25 March 2012. I have been wanting to post it, yet it took me some time to do so. May any truth in it help you to pursue love on your journey of faith.

Primary Text: John 3:14-17; Secondary Text: First Corinthians 12:4-7
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-17 CEB)

Ceara has a new phrase that she started using a week or so ago, and while the phrase makes us smile, the timing of when she chooses to use it started me thinking. She will say something like,”I draw a picture, that make mommy happy.” Or, “I get shells at beach for you daddy, that make you happy.” Now, it is not that Courtney and I are unhappy or walk around the house sulking all the time. Rather, she chooses to use this phrase when we start doing the three-count. Some of you know the three-count: “Please put on your shoes one, please put on your shoes two…” Maybe it is her attempt to avoid being placed in timeout… Our response is usually something like, “What will make mommy and daddy happy is when you obey.”

Please don’t get me wrong, we like the pictures and the shells, yet we want her to learn to obey. I wonder if she thinks that maybe we won’t love her and she wants to do something to make it up to us or to earn back our love. We make sure that we let her know that we love her – no matter what, and that is a choice we have to make multiple times each day.

But what does ‘Love’ mean to a 2 1/2 year-old?
What does ‘Love’ mean to us?
What does it means that God loves us?

Love can be an ambiguous word at times, and it can mean different things to different people.
Society portrays “Love” as an ecstatic feeling that just hits us, makes us starry eyed, and causes us to do crazy things. Sometimes the World tells us that Love is an outside factor over which we have no control. It is erratic and unpredictable. So, one minute we can ‘fall in love,’ and the next minute we are ‘out of love’ as feelings wane. Sometimes we see Love used as a commodity in our world in that people either give it or withhold it based upon performance.

As Christians, though, we have a bit of a quandary because we are commanded to love.
It is no different today than it has been throughout history, which is why the story we belong to as Christians can make such a significant difference in this World.

In scripture we hear the command: Love God, Love Neighbor, Love Enemy. But what does it mean to love God with our heart, soul, and strength? Does the love of neighbor and love of enemy look the same? Does the evidence of this mean that we issue ecstatic, spontaneous proclamations of, “I Love You!” to God, Neighbor, and Enemy?

I want to suggest to you the Apostle Paul’s words, “The pursuit of Love,” – a pursuit which affects and determines other emotions and actions. I am not saying that Love as an emotion is a negative thing. In fact, saying, “I love you,” to convey deep care, emotion for, and connection to someone is a good thing. Nor am I saying, “Choose to Love.”

Rather, I am saying that the pursuit of love is a choice that transforms us. This transformation can determine our actions – and sometimes in ways that we may not necessarily be able to explain, yet in ways that we can witness their effects and witness to their effects. In this way, maybe society has it right, because love can cause one to do crazy and, at times, unpredictable things. For example, pursuing love can cause people to do the crazy and unpredictable actions of forgiveness and reconciliation. In Wesleyan language God’s choice to pursue love for us and work transformation in our lives continually is called sanctifying grace.

John chapter 3 begins by talking about transformation. It tells how transformation occurs in ways that we cannot always understand or explain, yet in ways that demonstrate real evidence – just like the wind. We cannot see it or totally explain it, but we can feel the wind or watch the effects of the wind – from the slight rustle of leaves to fallen trees; from coolness on our skin to chasing our hats across parking lots.

Today’s scripture follows this portion on transformation with John mentioning Moses, the Israelites and their sin and healing (a story found in Numbers 21), and likening Jesus to the serpent on the staff, which, when the people afflicted looked at it, they were healed. This is a seemingly obscure reference, yet one which John uses to foreshadow the extent to which God will pursue love for us.

God So Loved The World… Does God have emotion for us? For Creation?

I would like to think yes.

Scripture is the story of God’s love for all of Creation. In this story we see the emotions of happiness, anger, jealousy, and sorrow – just to name a few, and we see the pursuit love expressed as grace, redemption, transformation, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

We see in God’s human form, in Jesus, the range of human emotions and feelings, yet that is not all. In Scripture we witness that God has made a choice for Creation – for all of us – for each of us. As Christians we experience and we witness to God’s choice for us. A choice to forgive; a choice to do whatever it takes; a choice to go to the cross in order to reconcile and be in a relationship with us, and not to give up on that relationship no matter how much we have failed and probably deserve to be dropped.

The World’s predictable way of dealing with sin is condemnation and guilt. However, God’s love responds unpredictably by redeeming and reconciling. That is Love! This is the Good News – that God chooses to pursue love for all of creation.

But still, what does the pursuit of love mean for us?

First Corinthians has some great descriptors and evidences of love. If you have been to more than five weddings chances are pretty good that you have heard this read – even if it is a non-Christian wedding – because this is a beautiful piece on love. Those who are Christians may say something similar to “a reading from the love chapter in First Corinthians.” Those who do not wish to have God and the Church involved may say, “A reading from Ancient Semitic Poetry…” The point is that even the World recognizes there is something unique about God’s love even if they are not willing to name it as such.

I invite you to listen to this possibly familiar passage: “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t joyful with injustice, but it rejoices with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.”

This is a beautiful list, yet notice that none of the descriptors of love are sentimental feelings. These descriptors are choices people make. Choices made possible for us because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. In choosing pursue love differently we allow God to transform us – to sanctify us. Loving like First Corinthians 13 witnesses to the possibilities of living differently in this world. Pursuing love bears witness to the power of God to transform us because God pursues us in love. God pursues this world in love, and we bear witness to this by pursuing love in the way we live every day.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he told the disciples and the crowds the trajectory of his life – the cross and the resurrection – and they didn’t seem to understand him. He spent three years with people who didn’t seem to get his message or receive him, and many of whom end up wanting him dead. Jesus’ journey to the Cross entailed pursuing love each and every day – choices that transformed this world.

Sometimes Lent is described as, “Journeying with Jesus to the Cross.” We are a bit more than halfway through the Lenten Journey – In what situations do each of us need to pursue love in the ways that we Love God… Love Neighbor… Love Enemy…? Pursuing Love is a choice we must embrace each and every day, and sometimes multiple times each day.

The bad news is that we can’t do it on our own. The good news is that we don’t need to do it on our own, because God wants to helps us. God wants to do transformational work inside each of us. When we allow sanctifying grace to work in us, then we no longer need to live out love strictly as an emotional feeling in the flesh.

The feeling of falling in love is nice. Yet to pursue love – each and every day and, at times, in spite of circumstances – is hard, and it is the best thing we could ever do.

In John’s Gospel we hear: “God so loved the world…,” and another way to translate this is: “God loved the world in this way…” God loves Creation so much that God does the unpredictable and crazy act of becoming human living among us, dying, resurrecting, ascending, and promising not to leave us alone but to come as the comforter to stay with us until Christ returns in final victory.

Later in John’s Gospel we hear Jesus’ words, “As the Father has loved me so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:9)

We love because that is what Christians do. We love because God loves us. We love, yet not by having gooey feelings for people at home or at work or in the store or on the street. Rather, we love by choosing to feed, to clothe, to visit, to stand in solidarity with others, to speak truth – just to name a few things.

Pursuing love drives us to engage our World when we may not feel like it – it drives us to give of our time, treasure, and talents when we may not feel like it. Pursuing love helps us to engage in Missions – here or abroad – through prayer, giving, or going. Pursing love can lead us to forgiveness and reconciliation when we have lists as long as our arms of reasons why we are justified not to forgive and not to reconcile.

Jesus invites us to pursue love like he does. When we choose to join God pursuing love for this world we participate in God’s holy work of healing this world, and that is Good News.


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Did Jesus Have A Shiny Cross? (scraps on the sermon cutting-room floor)

[ A note about this entry: This blog entry started as bits and pieces of reflections for a sermon that didn’t make the final cut. Yet I also felt like I couldn’t leave them on the sermon cutting-room floor. While some of these thoughts were already floating around in my head – others came as I read what a few others had thought about John chapter 12 and as I listened to music in the car. Read it for what you will, and receive it how you want. Hopefully some truth will resonate with you and inspire you.]

John 3:14-15 has a seemingly obscure reference to Moses (Numbers chapter 21), and likening Jesus to the serpent on the staff, which, when the people afflicted looked at it, then they were healed. John foreshadows the in which God will pursue love for Creation and implies that when people look upon Jesus, then they will be healed – redeemed.

The cross is to be seen, it is not necessarily to be understood.
And in the seeing, we are transformed.
In seeing God’s love displayed in the patient, disfigured, suffering, and Lenten colored Jesus we are transformed.

Later in John’s Gospel (chapter 12, verse 32) the author mentions Jesus saying, “When I am lifted up I will draw all people unto me…” Jesus is saying that when people gaze upon the lifted, bloody, rejected, persecuted, sin-bearing God in flesh – they may not understand or articulate love, but they will SEE love.

Sight, not understanding…So I guess the saying is true that “seeing is believing,” and in our day and age of technology that manipulates images, we see what we want to see or what others want us to see. Which can mean that seeing is often believing a truth obscured or an edited and cropped version, because then we might be able to understand it.

The crosses on many altars in churches are beautiful. The Cross – a symbol of God’s love for us. Gold plated / bronze plated / sterling silver – polished and shiny, or serenely backlit.
In some ways the Cross is edited to our liking, making it easier to digest that God would die for us. A clean and shiny cross makes more palatable the reality of Jesus dying for redemption and reconciliation than a dirty, mangled, bloody mess, because then we can get on with the business of rationalizing love, cross, redemption and mission.

We can intellectualize mission, attempt to understand mission, and even rationalize and justify why now is just not a good time to engage in mission, especially because mission is out there and what other people do.

Mission won’t happen out there unless we go, because mission, begun by God in Jesus, continues with us.
Transformation occurs when we see, maybe not understand – but when we see. And sometimes we learn to see in new ways by going.
People ask me why I do what I do, or how my passion for mission grew, and I tell them that it was by going and seeing.
Most churches that get involved in mission do so because some members’ experiences. Yes, before they go they understand there is a need – joining with brothers and sisters… yet when the people return, the articulation of understanding takes a back seat to the experiences of what the members saw.

Seeing poverty – not trying to understand it necessarily, but just seeing poverty transforms us. Seeing homelessness, sickness, hunger, orphans, and war – transforms us. Experiencing both the beauty and the horror transforms us, and gives us a taste of God’s love for all of Creation each and every day. The amount our heart breaks does not compare to God’s. The amount we want to pursue love is a fraction of God’s. God was there before we went, and will remain long after we leave, and God will remember our brothers and sisters around the world even when we forget.

Looking upon the cross transforms us. How does that transformation happen when what we gaze upon is shiny and polished? I’m not saying that we replace all of the shiny and lighted crosses with rough, bloody, wooden ones. Rather, I am suggesting that evidence of transformation occurs by pursuing love of God, of neighbor, and of enemy. When we gaze upon them – those in poverty, the homeless, the punk in school who just creates trouble, the destitute, the bully, the rich whose status can shield them, at times, from the dirt and blood – and see Christ in them, then we see them as loved by God.

As our sight is transformed our hearts are transformed.
We cannot always understand or explain the ways that God pursues us in love and works transformation in us – a process which, in the Wesleyan tradition, is called ‘sanctifying grace.’
This transformation – this sanctification – is a daily occurrence, and it testifies to God’s pursuit of love for all of us – for each of us – every day.

The Lenten Journey leads us to the cross – to Jesus lifted up – and this should not surprise us. It shouldn’t have surprised his disciples and other followers either, because for three years he told them that the cross was what would happen, but it did. Yet the journey does not end there at the cross. In fact, it does not really end at all. It moves from cross to resurrection to Jesus calling his followers to engage the world with his love.
The journey continues with each of us, and missions continues, too.
They do not end with seeing a child sifting garbage in a landfill.
They do not end in seeing effects of war and drought in refugee camps.
The journey does not end with seeing homeless or impoverished or orphaned or imprisoned or even the abused, single parent…No!
Transformation continues the journey…
– a transformation that continually witnesses to God’s pursuit to love the whole world
– a transformation that continually witnesses to God’s pursuit to love each of us.
We have hope. We have God’s promises of resurrection, restoration, and redemption.
Christ’s command for us to love one another as he has loved us is really an invitation into this work – loving is an invitation for us to engage in mission. It is an invitation for each individual and every congregation to join in God’s Holy Wok or healing the World.
And that is Good News.

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Marked By Joy

Last week, Christians around the world observed the beginning of the journey of Lent by having ashes smeared on their foreheads or the back of their hands while hearing words similar to, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Over the years I’m sure more than a few people have found this perplexing and rather morbid – especially if Christians believe in abundant life and resurrection and the like.

Courtney and I were not marked by ashes last Wednesday, which was odd considering that we were in Ireland – an island steeped in centuries of Church tradition. We spent the day walking around the monastic ruins of Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains, about an hour south of Dublin. We passed through doorways of stone built around 625A.D., and we stood among the ruins of a cathedral that served as place of worship from 600A.D. to 1300A.D. We touched stones that have been stacked on each other for 1400 years. We wondered what the lives of the people were like back then – and what the lives of people have been like since then who have come to experience this place.

Grave markers spanning the centuries cover the land between the buildings – the oldest with their dates worn off just a stone’s throw from the freshly poured concrete and polished granite of recent additions. We wished we could have attended an Ash Wednesday service that day, however this year we didn’t need the ashes to remind us that our lives belong to a story richer, deeper, and longer than our brief life’s span. We reverently marveled at our surroundings, thankful that we belong to a story that is bigger than our lives – a story of God’s compassion and wild love for creation and the invitation for each of us to participate in God’s holy work of healing the world each and every day.

We were surprised, though, too at Glendalough.

As we strolled out towards the car park we took a final look to say good-bye, and we noticed something at a distance on the stone of the old cathedral that we didn’t see while standing directly next to it. Some of the stones, exposed to rain, had slight variations in their color pattern. It looked a bit like graffiti at first. Both of us did a double-take and asked simultaneously, “Does that say, ‘Joy?'” We stopped and stared. It didn’t appear quite as clear when we looked at it straight-on, but for us we saw joy scrawled on the wall in a brief glance – and that was enough. A reminder. The wall was marked by joy, and we smiled as we remembered that was how we wanted both our Lenten journey and the next steps in our journey to be – Marked by Joy.

We don’t know where God will open doors of opportunity in the months and years ahead, yet we want to choose to approach those steps with joy, remembering, thanksgiving, and maybe even a pint or two of Guinness.


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