(Preached this sermon in response to John 1:1-18 and Jeremiah 31:7-14. You can find the full worship service on our church website – www.ststephenlc.org.)
Which is more loving? To acknowledge and deal with difficult and uncomfortable realities in order to arrive at a resolution and have a path forward. Or to avoid conflict and put those things aside, not talk about them, or even acknowledge them because they are uncomfortable, and we don’t think it would be loving to make someone or ourselves uncomfortable?
The first option can and most likely will be unpleasant and could be painful for everyone involved. It could mean the ending of a relationship. It will require difficult decisions that often times aren’t clear. We will have to live with the consequences of costly decisions. Is it loving though? That is the question. Choosing the first option is really about making a decision to accept short term pain but obtain long-term benefit.
The second option will provide what will feel like comfort in the short term – or at least allow us to avoid the pain of conflict for now. Conflict never really goes away though – it will rear its head again later and we’ll have to deal with it and it will probably be more difficult because we put it off. Choosing the second option is really about making a decision for short term benefit, but at the cost of maintaining long-term pain.
We make these decisions all the time in life. How do we deal with an unhealthy culture of a workplace or organization we’ve been a part of? How do we get our kids to do the hard work of learning in school? How do we deal with a family conflict? How do we deal with a terminal diagnosis for ourselves or a loved one? Do we choose the short-term avoidance of pain of having to deal with reality and difficult unclear choices, or do we choose the long-term benefit, no matter how painful the short term may be? The question is, which is more loving?
The key characteristic of God is love. And so, when we ask, what is more loving, we are really taking a look to see what is more Godly? What is more in alignment with God’s character? What is more Christlike?
Except for the letter to the Ephesians, love isn’t mentioned in our Scripture passages. Yet, Love is the very context and the foundation for these passages. If God is love, then how could they be founded on anything else?
The Rev. James Howell put it this way when he considered our Gospel passage, “Love speaks. Love is not quiet. Love cannot keep silent. The love within God the Trinity overflowed and could not help itself.” I would add that Love acts as a part of that mantra.
Our Gospel exudes this kind of love. And it doesn’t hide from the unpleasant realty that God, in the form of Jesus, faced. We are told in verse 10, “He [meaning Jesus] was in the world, and the world came into being through him;” Pay attention now to the next line. “Yet the world did not know him. He came into what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
This is God making the decision to deal with the short-term pain, in order to benefit all people and all of creation. To deal with reality, as unpleasant as it may be. As painful as it may be. Make no mistake, these words of Scripture are dealing with rejection of Jesus, rejection of God. Exiling Jesus as it were. Pushing Jesus away forcefully.
The Rev. Drew Hart had this to say in his book “Who will be a witness:” Many American Christians are maintaining an unspoken pact: that as long as everyone else remains silent about the radical call of discipleship articulated in the gospel story, we too will not name the contradictions between our lives and the way of Jesus.” This has everything to do with naming these realities. Because disciples live in the truth. And it isn’t easy or pleasant all the time. But discipleship is based on love of Jesus. Following the example Jesus set for us – that love acknowledges the truth and is costly. But it sets us free.
Love deals with harsh realities. Names the sin, the brokenness, the pain and the wrong that happens. Because it is far more loving to do that, than to pretend that sin and brokenness doesn’t exist when they obviously do. It is far more loving to deal with the pain and abuse that happens, rather than sweep it under the rug and never talk about it.
If God is about righteousness, which means being in a right relationship with God and others, then how can righteousness exist if we don’t acknowledge the sin and brokenness that prevents it? If God is about shalom, which means wholeness and completeness, then how can shalom exist if we don’t acknowledge the sin and brokenness that prevents it?
All throughout Advent we heard John the Baptist’s message – Repent. This means we acknowledge the sin and brokenness that exists so that healing and right relationship can happen.
All of this becomes even more clearer in our passage from Jeremiah. Right before our selected passage for today, we hear God lay the foundation for what we hear. In Jeremiah 31:3 God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore, I have continued my faithfulness to you.” Love is the foundation. And God’s love is everlasting and does not depend on human help at all.
And God, through the prophet’s words, is dealing with a harsh and painful reality. The reality of exile. The people of Israel were forcefully removed from their land, sent to a foreign land as slaves – a conquered people. They left behind all they had, not by choice – homes, property, relationships, everything. And we hear God being as a father to Israel, who pays the ransom so that Israel can go free.
You see, God is love and Love speaks. Love is not quiet. Love cannot keep silent. Love acts. Love acknowledges the sin and brokenness that exists so that there is a path forward. So that right relationships can be restored. So that there is a future. There is no future, not even a present, if we don’t acknowledge the sins of the past. Because those sins will hold us in bondage until they are released. If we had shackles on your hands and feet, we couldn’t help but acknowledge that we were held in bondage.
So why is it different when it comes to sins – either for ourself or society?
Humanity has a long history of forced exile on people. A long history of bondage and death. It’s easy to find examples – the Communist Gulags and the millions who suffered at the hands of these tyrants in the 20th century. It’s easy to look at them and say what they did was sinful – there’s really no argument about that.
What about the enslavement and slaughter of tribes in central America at the hands of so-called “Christian” discovers from Europe? It didn’t have go that way. Refusing to see the Image of God in others was the willful decision of these discoverers. And there were deadly consequences. Can we be honest and call what they did sinful?
And while it’s easy to point fingers at foreigners with foreign systems of government, it’s a lot harder to look inward to see how our own nation has been guilty of forced exile and death. Looking at our own nation’s sins is not pleasant. But how can we be in right relationship with God and with our fellow citizens and experience shalom without acknowledging the sins of our past? The sins of slavery, which forcefully exiled millions of blacks from Africa, dehumanizing them and turning them into property.
The sin of forcefully removing native tribes from their lands, all done legally through the legislative process. Approximately 4000 native people died on the trail of tears as a result. Their property was confiscated. Their land and homes were turned over to other people.
And the sin of forcefully removing American citizens of Japanese descent from their homes, families, communities, and livelihoods to internment camps during WWII.
Which is more loving? To pretend that these events didn’t happen? To argue that they don’t have an impact on the generations that came after those who directly suffered them? To make excuses for them? Are we more upset by naming the sin rather than being upset by the sin itself? Is any of this really loving by anyone’s definition?
Or is it more loving to acknowledge these things? To deal with them and their aftereffects? To acknowledge the pain and suffering that was caused? This isn’t about laying blame at our feet for the sins of past generations. It’s about the hard work of discipleship. Of speaking the truth in love. Of living in alignment with Jesus and his way.
How do we move past the bondage of the past, without acknowledging the sins of the past? How can there be a way forward without dealing with the past? How can there be shalom and healing? How can there be right relationships? How can there be love? How can God be present if God’s love is not accepted.
Acknowledging the sins of the past doesn’t make yourself guilty of those sins. It frees you and others from the shackles of past sins. And that is painful to do. Just ask Jesus. Who was rejected and suffered a most painful death – crucifixion. He died in order to set us free from the sins of the past. To take the shackles off. To be in right relationship with God and others. To experience shalom. To know what thriving life in community is all about. To encounter God more fully.
I have seen how powerful this is. Awhile back I participated in a parking lot worship with people experiencing hunger, homelessness, and poverty in Harrisburg. They were waiting for the food pantry to open and a colleague of mine lead worship. Many of the people who were there were doing their own thing. Many of them had suffered abuse at the hand of the broader church – many of them had been labeled by the churches they had dealt with as crazy, lazy, a nuisance, dirty, addicts, and other dehumanizing things. They weren’t seen as people – they were seen as problems to be sent away for someone else to deal with. Some had suffered sexual abuse by clergy members. Others had suffered mental and emotional abuse by the church. And the effects lingered – and had impacted their lives in horrible ways for years. How could they not?
So it is the job of the clergy of the church to cover up these abuses, to pretend they didn’t happen, or defend the indefensible because it would make the church look bad otherwise?
There’s an awfully high cost for doing that. And that is about as far away from what it means to love as you can imagine.
And so here I was with my colleague, with people who had no reason to trust two people representing the church that had abused them. That caused them exile from the church – Exile from the Good News of Jesus that sets people free.
My colleague and I didn’t cause this damage to these people. But what my colleague did was an amazing and life giving act of costly discipleship. At the beginning of the service, she lead them in confession and forgiveness. And at the end of that, she acknowledged and confessed the sins of the church committed on them and sought their forgiveness for the church. And people listened.
And after the service, people came up and expressed their gratitude for having their pain acknowledged. For some of them, healing could finally start, decades after the pain was first inflicted on them. That is powerful. That is what encountering Jesus results in. That is what we proclaim week after week after week. That doesn’t just happen on its own. That happens because Jesus encounters us and sets us free – even Jesus’ own church needs to be set free from the sins of its past. Not covering them up, making excuses for them, or ignoring them. Because it is far more loving to deal with these things than to ignore them for the sake of our own short-term comfort or trying to maintain some idealized image that just isn’t true.
Love speaks. Love is not quiet. Love cannot keep silent. Love acts. Love sets us free.
And so if the church has ever caused you harm in any way – whether that be emotional abuse, manipulation, passive aggressive behavior, sexual abuse, theological abuse, dehumanizing actions or words, or any other ways in which it turned a blind eye to the image of God in you or in a loved one, then on behalf of the church I ask for your forgiveness of the church’s sins.
I do this because Love speaks. Love is not quiet. Love cannot keep silent. Love acts. Love sets us free. Free to be in right relationship. Free to experience shalom. Free to thrive in the present and to have a future. Love sets us free to be people of God. All of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.