Saturday, May 26, 2018

Year B, Holy Trinity Sunday, John 3.1-17, That Kind of Love

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Sacrificial Love.
A love that is willing to lay down one’s life for the sake of the other.
A love that does not seek its own way.
A love that gives life.
A love that is Divine.
I had a friend in the A.A. meeting that I attended.  He was a native of India, and a Hindu.  Hindus are comfortable with the concept of many different Gods. 
He told his daughter, who was going to live her life as a Hindu, that “No, you live in America, and Americans are Christian.  You should be Christian too.  If you ever live in India, then you should be a Hindu.”
He told me that he was rather unique in that he was a Hindu who prayed to Jesus.  Specifically, he prayed to Jesus because Jesus taught about sacrificial love, the only religious leader to do so, and that is what the world needed.
“I pray to Jesus, except when I’m praying for wisdom,” he shared.  “When I pray for wisdom, I pray to the Monkey God, because we get our brains from the monkeys.  Some things are hardwired in.”
Sacrificial Love.
This weekend we commemorate Memorial Day.
One of the problems with Memorial Day is that our country decided to start celebrating Memorial Day, always on a Monday, so that we’d all have three day weekends.
I visited with a person once who was concerned about this.  By making Memorial Day into a three day weekend it became simply the first holiday of summer:
As such, it became a time to go the the lake and fish, or go golfing (that’s what I did  yesterday), or just have a barbeque and drink beer.
Gone for the most part were the services held in the cemeteries that used to be the main thing about Memorial Day.
Ever since I heard that, I’ve had my concerns.
Memorial Day is not simply a recreational holiday.  The beginning of summer.
And No, Memorial Day is not a time to honor all the dead.  That would be All Saints Day, though remembering our dead is never a bad thing.  One of the reasons we have made Memorial Day into a day to remember all the dead, is because All Saints Sunday comes in November, and in November you can’t go to the cemeteries and place flowers on the graves like you can on Memorial Day.  The only harm I see in remember all of our loved one’s on Memorial Day is that it is a distraction from Memorial Day’s actual purpose.
And No, Memorial Day is not Veteran's Day. We already have one of those.  This year, November 12th will be Veterans Day, a time to honor all those who have served in the military.
I once had a parishioner who made a point of insisting that we had all veterans stand on Memorial Day so that we could thank them.  My associate quipped on one of those Memorial Days, “But Susan, Memorial Day is to honor the veterans who gave their life, and they cannot stand!”
And No, Memorial Day is not a day dedicated to remember all deceased veterans.  Many veterans returned home from the wars to live a good and prosperous life.  Others never went to war at all.  Memorial Day is not intended to simply remember those veterans who served in WWII, for example, and then lived another fifty or sixty years and finally died at a ripe old age.
What is Memorial Day?
It is a day to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their life for our country in the armed forces.
In my family we remember Steven Surma, one of my cousins who died during the Vietnam War.
Memorial Day itself began following the Civil War when the nation was reeling from the massive casualties of that conflict.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.”
To give one’s life in order that our Nation may enjoy the freedoms we cherish is one of the highest forms of love.  We remember that sacrifice today, the flag draped coffins, the taps played in the cemetery, and the ‘Gold Stars’ commemorating not only the sacrifice of the soldier, but of the families who lost one they loved.
There is one problem with honoring the sacrifice that our soldiers have made.
The love, with which they gave their life, is not perfect as God’s love is perfect.
Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great theologians of the post war era of the last century, pointed this out in his book, “Moral Man, Immoral Society”.
Niebuhr’s central point of his book was that Society takes the most benevolent of all human actions, the giving of one’s life, and uses it to advance its own self interest.  The soldier sacrifices everything.  But the society uses that sacrifice, not for the sake of the other, but to advance its own agenda. 
One could argue that this is not always the case with war.  Sometimes our own nation has engaged in war, not for our own sake, but for the sake of others.
I believe World War II, in particular, was one such example of that.  The moral imperative to defeat Hitler was overwhelming.  And the sacrifices made not only by our soldiers but by the nation as a whole is an example of self sacrificial love.
Other wars have not been so clear.
If we are honest, our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been more about advancing our own self interest than anything else.  Even if we take into account the attack on September 11th, we cannot totally justify invading Iraq, or Afghanistan.  Al-Qaeda, a terrorist group was responsible for 9/11, not the government of Iraq or Afghanistan.  And eventually, Al-Qaeda’s leader, bin Laden, was hunted down in Pakistan, not Iraq or Afghanistan. 
We were in Iraq and Afghanistan to advance our own nation’s self interests, and some had suggested, it was more about stabilizing that oil rich part of the world in order to insure a constant supply of oil that was our real objective.
Well, history will tell.
But back to the point.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.”
And from today’s Gospel lesson:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Sacrificial love.
Jesus, hanging on a cross in order that we might be redeemed.
Jesus, taking our sins upon himself, that we might be free from our own sins.
Jesus, dying that we might live.
Jesus, becoming accursed that we might be saved.
Divine love.   Sacrifical Love.  Jesus’ love.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus had come to Jesus, recognizing that only one who was from God could have done the signs Jesus did.
Jesus spoke of our needing to be ‘born from above”, a concept Nicodemus simply could not understand.
Jesus spoke about the Spirit, blowing where it wills, to create faith in the heart of the believer.
But most of all, Jesus would speak about the love that God has for the world.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world, but because he loved the world.
One might also say that God did not give his only Son to die for the world, for God’s sake, but for the sake of the whole world.
God did not establish his Kingdom because God had a particular ambition to be King, but in order that we all might live under the gentle reign of his love.
This is hard for us and the world to understand. 
We struggle to see the Kingdom of God.  Jesus says only those who have been born from above can see it.
One might rephrase that to say that only those who have experienced the love of Christ can comprehend the Kingdom of God.
A kingdom founded on love and a love not just for some, but for “the world”.
I think that this is the greatest difference between human love, and divine love.
When a soldier lays down his life in battle, it is almost always for the sake of the ‘country’.
It is about loving our country, our people.
Human beings recognize borders.
We value our own nation, more than we value other nations.
I may be wrong, but I doubt very many of our service men and women who died in Vietnam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, did so with the understanding that it was for those people, those other people, that they died.
Such deaths, such sacrificial love, is most often offered for the sake of our nation, and our people.
In loving ‘the world’, God is different than us.
There are no borders that restrict God’s love.
There are no peoples who alone are the recipients of God’s love.
None of us deserve God’s love because of who we are and what we have done.
God is not ‘ours’.
God’s love is not our privilege.
In Psalm 139 it is written:
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

Where ever you go, and whether you live or die, God will embrace you with his love, for such is the Kingdom of God and his grace and mercy.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Year B, Pentecost Sunday, PSALM 104.24-34, 35b, Spirit World

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
All of them look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.
(Psalm 104:27-30)
On Pentecost Sunday we remember that day in Jerusalem when the Spirit rested on the disciples and they spoke in the various languages of the people who had gathered there.
Remembering that day, there are many things we might say, many sermons that can be preached.
For some the focus will be on the miracle of Pentecost, that the disciples could speak in foreign languages and that through their witness thousands from every nation came to believe.
For others the focus is on the focus is on the new mission of the Church to reach out to all nations, not just the Jewish people, that all may be saved.
And for many the focus is on the gift of the Holy Spirit which Jesus promised when he said:  Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.
Fifty days after Easter.
Another common theme concerning this day is to focus on the beginning of the Church.
3,000 people were baptized as a result of the Apostle’s witness. 
All of these emphases focus specifically on the roll of the Spirit in creating faith in the hearts of those who believe.
And the tendency for us is to view this work of the Spirit in very specific, exclusive terms.
When I was in college, back in the 70’s, the charismatic movement was all the rage.
One of the professors there at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, a man by the name of Stephan Emory, was a charismatic and made it his mission to share the gift of the spirit with the students on campus.
One of the things he shared was that the baptism of the Holy Spirit went beyond what the Church practiced in the Baptism of Water.
Those who were baptized in the Spirit were an elite class of Christians.
And with that baptism came special gifts, such as speaking in tongues.  This was the primary focus and remains so to this day among those who are Pentecostal Christians.
From this perspective, the Spirit’s activity is very specific.  The gift of the Holy Spirit is limited to a very few blessed people.
It’s an exclusive club.
Another professor I knew from seminary was also a charismatic, kind of a rare commodity among seminary professors.  He was an Old Testament scholar.
As an Old Testament professor he had been invited to speak to a gathering of Charismatic Christians, and the specific topic he had been asked to address was the “Spirit in the Old Testament”.
He related that his hosts had anticipated he would spend his time focusing on the Spirit of God as it was manifest in the work of the prophets.
Prophecy is one of the gifts of the Spirit that Charismatics love to focus on.
He didn’t.
He related that his hosts were amazed, somewhat surprised when the central theme of his presentation on the Holy Spirit was not prophecy, but creation.
His conviction was that if we are going to understand the breadth of the Spirit’s work among us, we must start with creation.
All of them, that is, every living creature, look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.

Literally, the Spirit of God is the Breath of God.
The Hebrew word for Spirit means breath, wind, spirit.
When God created Adam he “breathed” his Spirit into him.
When Jesus breathed his last, he commended his “Spirit” to God.
This said, the point is that the primary gift of the Holy Spirit is not faith, or any particular gift such as speaking in tongues, but life itself.
Not just human life, but all life is the result of the presence of the Spirit of God.
In this light, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit is not some exclusive gift reserve for a select few of the most devout Christians.
It is rather what binds us together with all people, and indeed, with every living creature on the face of the earth.
Think of this, the next time you interact with a dog, or cat, or any other animal, even a plant.
We all share in the Spirit of God that gives life.
St. Francis of Assisi took it even one step further when he wrote his “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon”:
Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord, All praise is Yours, all glory, all honour and all blessings.

To you alone, Most High, do they belong, and no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.

Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour,
Of You Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather's moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.

Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.

Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You my Lord through our Sister,
Mother Earth
who sustains and governs us,
producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
Praise be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.

Blessed are those who endure in peace, By You Most High, they will be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord through Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will.

No second death can do them harm. Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks,
And serve Him with great humility.

Paul writes in Romans the 8th Chapter:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
And in Revelation John writes:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
The Spirit of God.
All of creation is filled with God’s Spirit.
And God will redeem it all, bringing forth a new heaven and a new earth, and with it every form of life and being.
Just Wow!
I believe that one of the greatest mistakes and misunderstandings that we have as Christians and people of faith is that we tend to view God’s grace and mercy, and his redeeming activity in very exclusive terms.
We are prone to think that God concerns himself with humans alone, and that Christians alone have the assurance of salvation, and that even among Christians, only a select few will be saved.
And in so doing, we fail to see the breadth of God’s grace, and depth of his love, and the presence of his Spirit throughout all of creation.
I do not believe that any of us can ever rightfully judge that some are beyond the grace and mercy of God, or that they are lost.
Contrary to that, I invite you to recognize that God’s Spirit fills all of creation.
As Paul preached in Athens:
“For 'In him we live and move and have our being';”
It is by the gift of God’s Spirit that anything exists.
It is the Spirit that gives life, even to the plants that surround us.
It is the Spirit of God that breathes life into every living creature.
It is God’s Spirit that sustains and renews all people.
And apart from the Spirit of God, we die and return to the dust.
And yet even then, the psalmist writes:
You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.
Pentecost is about resurrection, it’s a follow up to Easter, and its promise is nothing short of a new heaven and earth, and a redeemed life to all of creation.  Amen

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Year B, Easter 7, John 17.6-19, David, I don’t want to lose you.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Earlier in the Gospel of John, in Chapter 14, Jesus offered this promise to the disciples:
18 "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."
I am reminded of these words, as I read from the Gospel lesson today:
12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.
To be orphaned.
Those words struck me this week.
I was lucky over the course of my life that both my parents lived to a ripe old age.  My mother died a few years ago, my father this last fall. 
They were blessed with a long life.  They were with us long after we left home and began lives of our own.
And yet there is this sense now that they are gone that I am orphaned.
Left alone to stand or fall on my own.
Dr. James Nestingen, one of my seminary professors, used to describe the experience of losing one’s parents as like removing the insulation from the north side of one’s house.  All of a sudden, you can feel the draft of the cold north wind, and you recognize that you yourself are aging, and that your’s is the next generation to face the end of life.
There are many dimensions to the experience of losing one’s parents.
It doesn’t matter whether we are young or old, there are times when we say “Mom, Dad, I need you now.”
And there is the significance of the fact that the people from whom we first experienced love in our lives, can no longer offer it to us, leaving us with just a memory of what it was like to have been loved by them.
Today we give thanks for our mothers.
In a few weeks, we will offer thanks for our fathers.
These are not just “Hallmark” Holidays, designed primarily to sell cards and flowers, though the florists will certainly be busy.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are about gratitude for the love we have received.
For many of us, there is another experience of being a child that we must face in one way or another.
Our parents weren’t perfect.
One of the residual issues from my childhood was that I was abused by a band director during my adolescent years.
Jesus says “I protected them.”
From a very early age, we trust in our parents to protect us, and when they are not able, or simply are unaware of the difficulties we are facing, we feel abandoned.  We feel orphaned.  Where were you?
That was the question I found myself asking as I looked back on those experiences of childhood.  How could they allow such abuse to occur?  Shouldn’t they have been more cautious?
In my own situation, my parents simply were unaware of what was happening with the band director.  Unaware.  I really can’t blame them, for even I was not able to recognize what happened as being abusive for a couple of decades.
And yet the emotional scar remains.  Whether through ignorance or outright neglect, they allowed for a relationship to unfold in my life that was abusive.
And so when I look back on my childhood and my relationship with my parents it is a mixed bag. 
As with all human relationships, there is good and bad.
And then the promise of Jesus:
I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost.
“David, I don’t want to lose you.”
These were the words of my bishop, Martin, during that most difficult time of my life when I hit rock bottom with respect to my alcoholism, and was nearly destroyed by the battle with depression.
Those same words were on the heart of Karla, my children, and my parents.
I was at risk.
In many ways I was at risk.
There were questions regarding whether I could continue in ministry. 
The struggles I faced jeopardized my marriage and compromised my relationship with my children.
On numerous occasions I was borderline suicidal.  The self destructive nature of alcoholism nearly killed me.  At other times, I considered ending the suffering as an option.
Hope had vanished.  And faith was fleeting.
Later I would write that “it is not the desire to end one’s life that results in suicide, but the belief that one’s life is already over.”
“David, I don’t want to lose you.”
When Martin spoke those words, he might have been thinking about losing me as a pastor in the Church, or losing me to the effects of alcoholism and mental illness, or ultimately, to death.  Probably, all of the above.
And likewise with Karla, and my family.
Whatever their primary concerns might have been, those words communicated to me a deeper spiritual reality.
“David, I don’t want to lose you,” are words spoken to us by Jesus.
The most important thing Martin did, in speaking those words, was to bear witness to the love that Jesus had for me in that moment, and in so doing to communicate to me the promise Jesus offered to protect and guard me from all evil.
I will not leave you orphaned.
I will protect you.
I will guard you.
And I will not lose you.
Promises for each of us, from Jesus himself.

Last week you voted to extend a Letter of Call for me to be your pastor.
What you probably didn’t realize at the time, is the significance of that to me.
After all the dust settled, that I might once again receive the Call of a congregation to serve as pastor means for me, that indeed, Jesus did not lose me.
Not only that, but I wake each morning with my wife at my side.  I enjoy the relationship I have with my children, and especially now, my grandchild.
And even more than all that, I have hope and faith.
I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost.

I was not lost.
Nor will I ever be.
What a promise.
There is another threat in the life of Christians today.
Jesus speaks to this when he says:
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
The threatening times we live in are not that we as Christians are under persecution and experiencing violence against us.
The threat is that we might be lost to the ways of the world in which we live, and no longer abide in Christ.
“They do not belong to the world.”
Or do they?
In Romans Paul writes:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
When we look at the Church today, and see so many graying heads, and so many empty places in our sanctuaries, one has to wonder if we are experiencing a “lost generation”. 
Those of us who remain wonder if our children, our neighbors, have indeed conformed to this world, and become one with it at the expense of not being set apart from the world, and transformed by Christ.
Karla and I struggle with this ourselves, as we look at our children, and recognize that they have not yet found their place within the Church as we wish they might have.
And yet we cling to the promise.
If Jesus can say to me, “David, I don’t want to lose you,” he can also say that to my children, our children, all to all who are called children of God.
Not one of them was lost.
Mind you, there are many in our world who have not found their way, and yet even when it appears they are wandering, they are not lost.
They may not have “found” Jesus, but Jesus has not lost them.
It is like a mother who watches her children leave the nest and spread their wings out in the world, yet never ceases to love and care and embrace them.
Oh, children may wander far and wide, but never can they venture beyond the reach of their parents love.
So it is with God, only in a much more perfect way.
Go where you must, face the world as you can, but just know this, that Jesus loves you all along.
He will not leave you orphaned no matter how far you stray.
That’s grace.  The pure unmerited love of God for his wandering children.
I am one such wandering child.
To one extent or another we all are.
And Jesus did not, and will not lose us.
May this peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Year B, Easter 6, John 15.9-17, Nastiness and Love

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Jesus words.  Simple.  Straight Forward. 
In the Old Testament, the Prophet Micah has similar words:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Could God have been clearer?
Is it really so hard to understand?
Love one another as he has first loved us.
How do we do that?
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Do Justice.
Love kindness.
And walk humbly with your God.
This is what God commands us to do.
Here at Peace we put it this way:
God’s purpose for our congregation is to welcome, love and serve all in our local and global community.
To welcome.
To Love.
To Serve.
All ways that we love as God first loved us.
One of the most important words of our purpose statement is one that is quite easy simply to pass over without thinking about it:
In John 3:16 Jesus says, "For God so loved the world. . .”
It would be easier to welcome, love, and serve, if we said “some”, not all.
You know the old adage:  “You can please some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time.”
We could rephrase that to read:  “You can love some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you cannot love all of the people all of the time.”
Unless, of course, you are God.
And the command is that we love as Jesus loved, which means to love all the people, all of the time.
This is difficult for us.
Too often what we practice, and what we have experienced in the church is nastiness, not love.
Mean and spiteful.
Unpleasant, disagreeable, and offensive behavior.
I have experienced both in the Church.  Love and Nastiness.
And if I’m honest, there have been times when I’ve been loving, and other times when perhaps I was guilty of being “nasty”.
And when I think of those times when I have been “nasty” to others, one thing stands out.
There have been times that I have felt so convinced in my own heart that I was right, and others were wrong, that I felt entirely justified in being “nasty”, in pushing hard for my point of view, and in short, simply not being very loving or kind.
It’s why the prophet Micah links humility with loving kindness. 
I’d suggest to you that it is most difficult to love when we are not humble.  And perhaps the only way to love is through humility.
I’m going to spare you a long confession of all the ways I’ve been “nasty”.
I mean, you’re going to vote later on whether I should be your pastor.  Today’s not the day to confess my ‘nastiness’.  But just bear in mind that I am human, and I can be as nasty as the next person.
Often nastiness is combined with pettiness in the church. 
One of my favorite examples was shared by a friend, Connie, long before I went to seminary.
Connie was a pastor’s wife, and at the time they were in St. Louis serving a parish.  She attended the monthly meeting of the womens’ group and two of the women got into a long dragged out fight.  They went back and forth after each other, and neither would back down.
The issue?
The women wanted to buy a new measuring cup for the church kitchen, and the women were debating whether it should be one of those Pyrex ones, or a plastic one.
I remember another member, now gone, who confessed to me that her greatest gift was also her biggest weakness.
“Witty sarcasm” is what she considered to be one of her traits, her gifts, but she acknowledged that too often her sarcastic humor had hurt people, even though she had not intended to.
Another example:  There was a woman in my last parish that was so concerned that the Church was being properly cleaned by the custodian, that she constantly watched over his shoulder.
One time she decided to hide post it notes, with nasty messages, throughout the church just to test whether the custodian was actually cleaning everything.  The result was that the custodian and his wife spent an entire evening searching for each and every note.  Oh, and by the way, it was behavior like this that resulted in their leaving our congregation.
Love as I have first loved you. 
One is Godly and Divine.  The other isn’t.
By contrast, I could go on and on about the loving things people have devoted themselves to over the course of my ministry.
For example, that woman who confessed to hurting people with her ‘witty sarcasm’ was also one of the most generous people I have met.  She was the largest contributor to our congregation on a month to month basis, but it went beyond that.
One of the most joyful things she ever asked me to do, was to take a thousand dollars that she gave, and give it to someone who needed it. 
A gracious loving act.
Or I’m reminded of Elsie.
She was the matriarch of our first congregation, one of the founding members.  She went out of her way to love us and care for me as her pastor and for my family.
She became the adopted grandmother for our children.
She’d have us over for dinner.
Her husband would take me fishing.
And she made sure the congregation took care of us during years that were particularly difficult financially.
Loving kindness.
I think of Francis Crabtree.
Francis was nearing a hundred years old, but she still loved.
She spent her days sewing quilt tops for the ladies to tie for Lutheran World Relief, as our own sewing group does.  It was almost comical; the effort it took to put her quilts together, because toward the end she simply couldn’t sew a straight line.
But the people who received her quilts, people around the world who were victims of natural disasters, or refugees, or simply impoverished, didn’t care.  They were warm.  And that’s all Francis cared about.
And then there was George.
George was a retired, full bird, colonel, a pilot in the Air Force.
He was also one of the most conservative people I have ever met, and used to joke that he was a “Little to the right of Attila the Hun”.  There were times when George’s nastiness came out, and he was accused more than once of being an outright bigot, which perhaps he was.
But he was also compassionate.
Even though George, as a conservative, opposed government programs like welfare, he was the first to support the homeless shelter, or to offer me money to distribute to the needy.
And though he would rant about the sinfulness in our world, he would also absolutely maintain “that if anyone asks our forgiveness, we must forgive them, we have no other choice, because Jesus requires that of us.”
Loving kindness.
Many people.  Faithful servants of God.
Bishops and pastors.  Lay people.  Family members.
Gentle souls.
If we’re lucky, we’ve all experienced the love and grace of such people.  Likely, that’s why we are part of the Church. 
And yes, love is much more powerful than the petty nastiness that too often creeps in.
Love as you have first been loved.
Sometimes I would like to shout to the mountain tops “Jesus wasn’t nasty”, because based on the behavior of many Christian you might think he was.
Thankfully, though, in the end it has been the love people have offered in the name of Christ that has endured.
Over the years, what I have found is that when people have been their nastiest, God has sent others who have shown the most loving kindness imaginable.  God is like that.
That is the challenge for us in the Church.
Can we respond to the nastiness in this world by being a force of love?
There is no greater witness to the love of God, than the love we share with one another.
Sometimes we think that being a faithful Christian mean obeying the law, and requiring others to do likewise.  And that’s where some of our nastiness comes in.
But faithfulness to Jesus Christ is about loving. 
As Paul writes in Romans, chapter 13:
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
God’s purpose for our congregation is to welcome, love and serve all in our local and global community.
That’s why we are here, folks, that’s why we are here.