Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunday Sermon audio - Secure in God's Love

Text of Sunday Sermon - Secure in God's Love

Luke 6:20-31
Secure in God’s Love
James Sledge                                                         October 30, 2010 (for All Saints)

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  What on earth for!?  What would possess anyone to do such a thing?  Did you pray for Osama bin Laden in the days after 9-11? 
George W. Bush, who probably wore his Christian faith on his sleeve more so than any president in more than half a century, argued quite forcibly for attacking our enemy before  he attacked us, creating the new American doctrine of preemptive war.
And on an individual level, we don’t celebrate the person who calmly “takes it,” who endures abuse.  We celebrate the one who stands up for himself.  I grew up when Westerns were still popular on TV and the big screen, and the hero was often an every day fellow who, when pushed to his limits by the bad guys, rose up gave them what they had coming.
Truth is, we just don’t know what to do with this love your enemy stuff.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ Beatitudes flow right into his words on loving enemies and turning the other cheek.  Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is not as familiar to some of us as those found in Matthew.  Not only are the blessings more concrete in Luke – blessings on the poor rather than the poor in spirit – but they are paired with a corresponding list of woes. 
Those in the blessed category are the poor, the hungry, those who are weeping, and who are reviled.  On the other hand, the rich, those who go to great dinner parties, those who are laughing, and the popular folks are in the “woe to you” group.  But this doesn’t sound right.  It’s backwards, just like loving your enemies.  I don’t know many people who want to be poor, hungry, sad, or unpopular, and the reverse doesn’t sound like a curse to me, far from it.
When I was a kid, The Smothers Brothers were quite popular, with a string of records and a television show.  For those who don’t know of them, this musical comedy team involved one of the two brothers, Tommy, playing the fool.  In real life he was the one who had created the act, but on stage the comedy came from his misunderstandings and foul-ups played against his “smart,” straight-man brother.
A recurring bit in their act was Tommy’s feeling of inadequacy expressed in the line, “Mom always liked you best.”  They even had an album with that title.  The album cover featured the two brothers posed like children.  Dick stands there grinning as he wears a toy gun and holster, surrounded by a wagon, bicycle, scooter, beach-ball, and assorted and sundry toys as a dog gazes at him.  Tommy, on the other hand, is seated, gazing up at his smiling brother. He has not a single toy and is holding a rope, used as a leash for a chicken.  The album title is above him, depicted as his spoken words.  “Mom always liked you best.”
The “truth” of Tommy’s words is clear for everyone to see.  His smiling, happy brother is surrounded by good things while he has almost nothing.  Any fool can see that his Mom favors his brother and slights him.
We humans are quite sensitive to such things. “That’s not fair!” cries the young child whose sibling has gotten a slightly larger slice of cake.   Even if the Smothers Brothers stretch it for comic purposes, we are anxious about what others have, compared to what we have.  From an early age, we compare ourselves to those around us, noticing who is different, who seems to have more, who seems to have less. 
When you think about it, we humans are a rather insecure sort.  I suppose that there are biological, evolutionary advantages to this.  It could provide drive to gather or hunt for enough food to get through the winter.  It’s a good survival instinct to notice which potential mate might be likely to provide enough to raise children.  It makes sense to worry about whether or not a shelter is sufficient to keep out the elements.  From a survival standpoint, our insecurity makes sense.
But once we leave the realm of survival, our insecurities cause more problems than they solve.  It begins when we are small.  We clutch at what we have, worried we may lose it.  We don’t want to share.  And we worry about fitting in.  We will change our appearance, our clothes, so we can belong.  Worse, we will belittle others to make ourselves feel more secure. 
Many of us always feel that we are just short of having enough.  If we just made a little more money, just looked a little better, just had a little hotter boyfriend or girlfriend, just had that latest high tech gadget, we’d be happy.  But somehow we never quite get there.
And when things are going badly, our insecurities really kick in.  As we wind down the current political campaign, candidates on both sides play on our insecurities and fears.  They know that we worry about all sorts of things, and they seek to stoke those worries, telling us that their opponents don’t simply disagree with them, but they’re out to destroy our way of life, to take away our jobs, our things, our money, our happiness.
Even the Church has insecurity problems.  For years mainline churches have looked at mega-churches with a mixture of envy and loathing.  Presbyterians have lamented our loss of prestige and power.  Fortunately there is always some congregation that is much worse off than us, and we can feel better about ourselves when we realize that we look a lot more successful than that sorry congregation over there.
Often we draw God into our insecurities.  Some claim the Presbyterian Church’s woes are because we’ve failed to believe certain things or understand the Bible correctly.  Others say America’s woes are because we’ve abandoned certain religious values, taken prayer out of schools, or said “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” 
We seem to think God operates out of the same insecurities that we do.  Listening to some Christians you’d think God was worried that all creation could come unhinged.  I hear people say God will have to do this or have to do that if people don’t straighten up.  Wow, it must be awful being God and having to worry about all the things that could go wrong.
But Jesus presents a very different view of God.  Amidst our insecurities about having enough, being good enough, being popular enough, Jesus speaks of God’s blessings poured out especially on those who have next to nothing.  Jesus even speaks of those things our insecurities drive us to chase: wealth, popularity, and so on,  as being a curse.  As a 1st Century, Palestinian Jew, Jesus was prone to speak in hyperbole, but still, he warns us that the insecurities that so motivate us, tend to drive us away from God
Tomorrow is All Saints Day, so we are celebrating it today in worship.  But over the years Christians have distorted the original meaning of “saint” so that it now describes a super Christian, someone who has out-Christianed the rest of us.  Out of our human insecurities, we have undermined the Bible’s insistence that each one of us is an integral a part of the body of Christ, and we’ve insisted that some are better and so more valued.
But the good news of Jesus is that God is not like us.  God has no insecurities.  God is not frightened of anyone or worried that someone could undermine God’s happiness or God’s plans.  And so God is totally free to love.  It upsets our human sensibilities sometimes, but God loves us, not because we are good enough or because we believe the right things or because we belong to the right group.  God simply loves us.  God loves you, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done or failed to do, and wants what’s best for you, even if God’s understanding of “best” looks quite different from what our fears and insecurities lead us to chase. 
On this day when we remember the saints of this congregation who have died, we also remember that Jesus calls us all to be saints.  Saints are simply those who have experienced God’s love embracing them, who have discovered that the security of God’s embrace liberates us from our fears and insecurities, and allows us to live as the children God longs for us to be.  And when God’s love frees us from our worries and insecurities, the transformation is remarkable.  Secure in God’s love, we are free to love, even something so foolish as loving our enemies.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - You Talking to Me?

I've blogged on this before, but Peter raises the issue himself in today's gospel. "Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?"  Modern day Christians, especially Protestants, are prone to think of the Bible as an evangelical tool.  We presume that everything in it is spoken for everyone, that if we could just get everyone to read it and believe what it says, the Kingdom would surely come.

But of course this is a relatively modern, Protestant notion.  For the first 1500 or so years of Christianity, almost no Christians owned a Bible.  And no one gave Bibles to non-Christians.  It took the invention of the printing press and the development of high literacy rates before Protestants could insist that every individual should read Scripture for himself or herself.  And this idea needed to become ingrained before handing out Bibles made any sense as a conversion technique.

All of this is to say that for most of Christian history, the Bible and its teachings weren't not necessarily thought to apply equally to everyone.  Jesus himself, in today's reading, suggests that those who weren't aware of what Jesus' return meant would not be held accountable the same way his followers would. 

Some Christians are quick to condemn non-believers, but Jesus seems to say that it is believers who need to be on their toes, that they are the ones who will be held to higher standards and scrutiny.  And I suspect that if we believers did hold ourselves to higher standards, that might prove to be the most effective sort of evangelistic witness.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - What, Me Worry?

I grew up reading Mad Magazine which featured Alfred E. Neuman and his stock phrase, "What, me worry?"  Neuman's lack of worry seemed the product of a general cluelessness, not necessarily something to be emulated.  And yet Jesus recommends something of Neumanesque pose.  "Therefore I tell you, do not worry  about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will  wear."

Jesus also seems to give a nod to another facet of Neuman's character.  Neuman appears to be something of a "slacker," not the sort of fellow who would  knock himself out to make good grades or participate in lots of extracurricular activities so he would be accepted into an elite college.  Our culture rewards endless striving.  Parents pick enrichment activities for their toddlers, already worrying about college applications.  And yet Jesus says, "And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying."

What do you worry about?  What do you expend energy trying to achieve?  Some people assume that pastors have an advantage when it comes to living "Christ-like" lives.  After all, our work is centered on the faith.  And yet we pastors are often caught up in our culture's obsession with success.  Countless books and conferences aimed at pastors urge us to work harder and smarter in language that would sound familiar to business managers and leaders.  And much of this material that tries to make us "better pastors" feeds off of and adds to a climate of worry.  We're worried about church finances.  We're worried about aging congregations.  We're worried about declining church participation.  We're worried about how it looks when a congregation loses membership on our watch.

I don't for a second think that Jesus wants me simply to lounge around doing nothing.  But Jesus says my striving should be for God's kingdom, which is not always the same thing as a "successful" congregation, a to-die-for youth program, or a gang-buster stewardship campaign.

What sort of worry and striving occupies your time?  What sort of worry and striving occupies your congregation or faith community?  I know that a lot of my worrying and striving has little to do with the Kingdom.   I wonder if Alfred E. Neuman might be available for a little church consulting.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Cast into Hell

I readily admit that readings such as today's gospel make me a bit uncomfortable.  When Jesus starts talking about being "cast into hell" or how "whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven," I struggle to fit this in with other images of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, with his call to love and pray for your enemies.  Perhaps, as a modern "liberal," I'm simply uncomfortable with judgment and accountability.

Perhaps... But I also think some of my discomfort arises from texts such as today's being used in an "us versus them" sort of way.  Because we are so accustomed to the Bible being employed for evangelical purposes, we often forget that it was originally written for internal use only.  The gospel of Luke was not handed out on the streets as might be done today by the Gideons.  The vary rare copies of it (all copies had to be written out by hand) were read aloud at gatherings of churches, often house churches.  And so these words are aimed almost exclusively at Christians.

I don't know that removes all the discomfort of these verses, but it does change the focus quite a bit.  Nothing is being said here about believers versus non-believers.  This is about how believers respond when their faith puts them in jeopardy.  In this sense the words seem intended more as encouragement than as warning.  They are a call to stand fast in the face of persecution, to trust in God's care for them no matter the circumstances.

And when they are persecuted, "everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will  be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven."  This is a most curious saying.  Speaking against Jesus is not a deal breaker, but the Holy Spirit is another matter.  There is debate about just what is meant by this, perhaps something along the lines of: If in a moment of fear a disciple speaks against Jesus, that is forgiven, but if a disciple actively rejects the Spirit's efforts to strengthen and encourage them, that is not.

However, what is clear is that the only ones in any danger in this scenario are Christians.  Jesus' words are addressed to believers who face persecution.  And isn't it strange that we can take words addressed to us, and somehow turn them so that they speak words of condemnation against others who don't believe the same as we do.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Ticking Off Jesus

Have you ever wondered what Jesus would think if he visited your congregation?  I'm not talking about his presence being there but about the Jesus we meet in the gospels walking in off the street and dropping in on a worship service, a fellowship dinner, a committee meeting, and so on.  I was prompted to wonder about such things after reading today's gospel and being reminded once again how it took religious people to get Jesus really honked off.

For many of us who grew up in the church, this fact is sometimes missed.  Pharisees, scribes, and such have become such stock, bad guys that we don't necessarily see much beyond cartoon, cardboard cutouts.  (I grew up in the South where sometimes Catholics got the same sort of treatment.  If the Catholics did it, surely it was a bad idea, which explains why Ash Wednesday, Lent, and so on are somewhat new to me.)  But what if we replace the term "Pharisee" with something not having the same negative stereotypes?

Today's gospel features Pharisees and lawyers, and I don't think it is all that much of stretch to rename them pastors and theologians.  (Maybe Protestant pastors; we'll let the priests and Sadducees be Catholic.)  It isn't very hard for me to imagine Jesus lashing out at some of us pastors and theologians for being overly concerned about keeping our churches going, about getting the doctrines straight, about worshiping in the proper manner, without worrying much about issues such as justice.  If Jesus visited our committee and board meetings, I can visualize him getting enraged over how little "good news for the poor" gets emphasized and how the poor are often viewed as little more than opportunities for mission projects, who should show gratitude to us for our noble efforts.

It isn't that pastors or theologians are such bad folks, but then neither were those Pharisees and lawyers Jesus addresses.  But all of us can get terribly preoccupied with running our little religious enterprises and mistake all that work and energy for loving God and serving others.

It took religious people to really get Jesus angry.  Perhaps that is because he thinks we should know better.  Perhaps that means we religious types would do well to spend more of our time getting closer to Jesus, letting him invade every little corner of our lives, and letting him rattle our cages now and then so that we get back on the path he shows us.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - And Also Many Animals

I've long loved the story of Jonah.  It is a remarkable story that contains a great deal more meaning when one listens for its message rather than worrying about historical events.  Like the book of Job, the book wrestles with the ways of God.  But unlike Job, who becomes enraged over God's unfair punishment of him, Jonah is angry over God's graciousness and mercy. 

The story depicts a reluctant prophet who heads off in the wrong direction when God calls him.  Finally forced by God to go to Nineveh, Jonah unenthusiastically fulfills his mission, then is angry that God reverses course (literally "repents") on plans to destroy the city.  Jonah complains that this is why he ran from God's call.  He feared God would show mercy all along. 

The story concludes with a curious little aside that is both poignant and humorous.  Jonah goes out and sits, perhaps hoping God will yet destroy Nineveh.  As he waits, God has a plant spring up to provide Jonah shade.  But then God sends a worm that bores into the plant which withers, taking its shade in the process.  And Jonah is so upset he asks to die himself.  This allows God to respond, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand  persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"

The story ends there with that "and also many animals?"  Jonah is angry that God has not meted out justice to those Gentile Ninevites. Then he becomes so enraged over the loss of a bush that provides shade, he loses all composure.  In a mixture of religious self-righteousness and egocentricism, Jonah cannot even see the thousands of men, women, and children he hopes God will kill, not to mention all those animals. 

"And also many animals?"  Interesting that their fate would weigh on God so.  I know many Christians who seem to picture God as remarkably cavalier over the fates of those who don't get their religious beliefs correct.  And who even counts animals? 

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Too Busy for God?

My wife and I decided to get away for a couple of days, a possibility that comes with no children any longer living at home.  We went to Ohio Amish country for a relaxing weekend.  We stayed in Berlin, OH, visited the many shops on its main street, and watched the Amish families in their buggies.  On a nice Fall weekend, we were hardly alone.  Traffic in Berlin was bumper to bumper.  But we were walking so it didn't much matter.

I had never been to Berlin before so I was not prepared for the contrast between Saturday and Sunday.  We left our little cottage in late morning to discover the streets of Berlin nearly deserted.  None of the shops we visited the day before were open, and there was scarcely a car to be seen.  Berlin, it seems, is closed on Sunday.  It reminded me of my native South when I was very young and Sunday was a "day of rest."

I would imagine that Berlin, OH is quite dependent on tourism dollars, and weekends would seem to be prime time for tourists.  But, perhaps because many of the shops are Amish, the only shopping going on was window shopping.

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
         from God comes my salvation.

God alone is my rock and my salvation,
         my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

I don't think I would want to be Amish, but I do wonder if we haven't become so busy and anxious as a people that we have difficulty finding any time for God.  Despite all those things Jesus says about wealth and possessions being a hindrance to relationship with God, we want more.  More things, more information, more entertainment, more and more, and we want it now. 

The Amish are an exotic novelty to us because they are so foreign, so different from us.  They have not bought into our culture's norms.  I do not necessarily agree with their reasons for this, nor do I idealize their lives.  But still, they do stand as a kind of reminder that happiness and contentment do not always require more.

I often find that when I am swamped with things that need doing in the office, when I am feeling the most stressed, those are the times when I lose touch with God.  At the very times when God's presence would seem to be most needed, I am too busy to stop.  I am too busy for silence.  I am too busy for God?

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Focusing on What Matters

It is a deservedly famous line from the prophet Micah.  "And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"  What God requires is a basic religious question.  In the case of Micah, the answer rejects much of the traditional religious ritual of that day, burnt offerings and sacrifices.  That's not what God wants," says Micah.  You know what God wants, justice, kindness, a humble faith life.

The gospel reading for today also touches on this issue of what really matters.  This passage is often noted for the way it explodes conventional gender roles.  But beyond that, it raises more general questions about priorities.  Someone had to get dinner ready if Jesus and the other house guests were to eat.  I don't think Jesus or Luke is saying that domestic tasks are bad things.  This issue is one of priorities.

All our lives are filled with choices.  We have finite energy and resources.  If we work 65 hour weeks, something else suffers.  Living in Columbus, OH, I've learned of people who live 500 miles away and yet spend every weekend of a home Buckeye football game here in Columbus.  Clearly those weekends are not available for other things.

It strikes me that when the passages from Micah and Luke are considered together, they ask people of faith to consider two different sorts of priorities.  Luke addresses a more general issue of priority.  Where does our faith fit into the other priorities of our lives?  Micah, however, asks about the priorities of our faith lives.  Where does our religious energy go?  It isn't that worship is a bad thing, far from it.  But if religious rituals encompass the majority of of faith lives, what happens to those things God requires of you, "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - What Must I Do?

Today's gospel contains the famous parable of the "Good Samaritan."  The parable is intriguing enough in own right, with its use of a despised Samaritan to demonstrate acting neighborly.  But I was struck by the lawyer's original question to Jesus, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Now I presume that if the lawyer were to ask this question today to a group of Christians, a significant number of them would say something to the effect that "You must believe in Jesus and profess him as your Savior."  But the curious thing is that Jesus' own answer says nothing of the sort.  Jesus simply queries the lawyer (a religious scholar and not what we mean by "lawyer" today) about what the law says. The lawyer responds by quoting Scripture, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your  soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." 

Upon hearing his answer, Jesus responds, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."  There is no "You need something more," no "You lack but one thing."  Jesus simply says that if he loves God and neighbor, that is sufficient.

Now I am acutely aware of the hazards inherent in creating grand theologies from small snippets of Scripture.  But if Jesus thinks that loving God and neighbor is enough, who I am to insist otherwise?

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Folks Like Us

Luke's gospel speaks of the poor and lowly being lifted up while the rich and powerful are pulled down.  In keeping with this theme of reversal, in today's lection Jesus speaks of God having "hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have  revealed them to infants."  He goes on to tell his followers how blessed they are to have been a part of his movement.  "For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see  it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it."

I've never been quite sure how to reconcile Jesus' words about God's revelation "to infants," with a church where wisdom about the faith seems to be lodged with experts.  All that is required to show this is to ask church members to teach a class.  "Oh, I could never do that," is the common refrain.  Sometimes this is false modesty.  Sometimes it is an excuse.  But underlying it is the notion that real information about the faith is held by experts.  Just as I would never have tried to teach my daughters calculus, so a great many church members assume that faith, biblical knowledge, and so on are best handled by specially trained experts.

But Jesus seems to think otherwise.  His disciples are hardly made up of the religious elite.  The first few are fishermen, one of the very last places one would expect to find any candidates to lead the Church.  And in today's reading, Jesus makes a special point about how God chooses to work this way.

My own Presbyterian/Reformed tradition has long valued having "educated clergy."  To be ordained pastors must have a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from an accredited seminary.  We must have had courses in Greek and Hebrew to facilitate handling biblical texts in their original language.  And it is certainly true that things get lost in translation.  There are things one can see in the Greek that you can't find in English, and there is real value in congregations having someone that can see these things.  But when a congregation comes to see faith as primarily the purview of experts, the value of an educated clergy seems to have done more harm than good.

Jesus tells his first followers to "make disciples of all peoples," so presumably he wants to let all of us in on these wonders revealed to infants, these things prophets longed to see and hear.  Presumably Jesus expects all of us to be filled with the Spirit and thus "know" what no expert can know because of learning or study.  And it seems to me that we sell our faith woefully short, that we sell Jesus woefully short if we do not draw near to him expecting him to reveal to us what prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah could only long for.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Changing Ourselves

I read Richard Rohr's Daily meditation in conjunction with today's lectionary passages.  Rohr spoke of how we need mentors to help us stay on track because religious people often think their job is to help other people change.  We forget that faith is about God transforming us, a process that is never quite finished.  And when we focus on getting others to be like us or agree with us, we often forget about the work of transformation in our own lives.

I thought about Rohr's comments in light of the reading from Micah.  Micah, like many other prophets, blasts the rulers of Israel.  In a sense, these prophets seek to mentor the rulers.  King in ancient Israel is a religious position.  Kings were messiahs, God's anointed ones.  Their rule was to be guided by God, but privilege, power, and rich friends made it easy to go astray, and the prophets sought to call them back.  Of course kings often found false prophets who would tell them what they wanted to hear.

All this makes me wonder about who serves as my or your mentor, who reminds us of our own need to change.  Who is our prophet, counselor, mentor, or spiritual director?  Who reminds us to let the Spirit continue her transforming work in our lives?  This is especially problematic for pastors, at least for me.  I often think that if only I could get those people to be more.... things would be better.  But who says to me, "First remove the log from your own eye..."

The tradition in which I grew up didn't have spiritual directors, and it didn't really encourage mentoring relationships.  Faith was mostly about agreeing with what my tradition said was true.  As an avid reader, I was fortunate to find mentors on the printed page, but books are easier to ignore than someone who has a relationship with you. 

Who draws you back when you are going astray?

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Sunday Sermon video - Peering into the Darkness; Glimpsing Hope

Monday, October 18, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Us, Them, and the Kingdom

I just came out of a finance meeting where the topic turned from money to the changing landscape in which the church lives. Our conversation would have been familiar to many. We talked about the fact that the culture doesn't encourage church attendance any longer, about how congregations are often engaged in a competition for a shrinking number of church folks, about how many mainline congregations have trouble connecting with people who aren't predisposed to attend church, and more.

Such conversations sometimes have a paralyzing effect.  Longtime, dedicated church members can see the situation as overwhelming.  After many years of being quite good at doing worship, caring for one another, and doing a little mission work to boot, they fear they must now become marketing experts, that they must relearn how to worship, that they must outshine mega-churches with mega-budgets.

Such thoughts were bouncing around in my head when I read today's gospel.  In it a Samaritan village does not welcome Jesus "because his face was set toward Jerusalem" (and by implication, the cross). The disciples want to punish the Samaritans, but Jesus rebukes them.  Next Jesus speaks with would be followers about what it means to be his disciples.  And the interplay of these events struck me with regards to the situation facing many mainline congregations.

For example, how to we perceive those who do not join us, who have little use for the church?  I know a lot of church folk who not only do a fair amount of hand wringing over "Where have all the people gone," but they harbor a certain anger and resentment towards a culture that has abandoned them.  I've never heard anyone suggest calling "fire to come down from heaven," but the culture is often viewed as a big part of the problem.

But the gospel reading quickly shifts the focus from what to do about those who don't embrace us to what it means to follow Jesus.  Jesus seems unwilling to worry about "them" and instead hones in on what we, who say we do want to follow him, are supposed to do.  And the two specific things Jesus mentions are a single-mindedness about the work of disciples, and "proclaiming the kingdom of God."  And I think that some of the best advice available for worried, mainline congregations may be found right here.

Put simply, our endless worrying about "them," the people who aren't here, tends toward one of two opposites.  Either we blame "them" and focus on being the righteous remnant.  Or we try to figure out how to lure "them" with the latest and greatest offerings.  But Jesus calls us to a different path, taking our own call to discipleship so seriously that proclaiming the Kingdom becomes our central purpose. 

Interestingly, I have seen a number of surveys done with people who have little use for the church that say one of the biggest factors in their attitudes is seeing little of depth and substance in the congregations they've encountered.  They've not met people who seem to be focused on following Jesus and proclaiming the Kingdom, who are willing to live, act, work, and spend their money differently because they follow Jesus. 

This says to me that if mainline congregations become communities where the people who were there spend more time deepening their own spiritual lives, in following Jesus' commandments and embodying the kingdom he says has "drawn near," we might just find ourselves in a much better position to speak to those around us. Then we could say with real integrity, "See what a difference following Jesus has made in our lives and for the community in which we live?  Wouldn't you like to be a part of something like that?"

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Sermon - Peering into the Darkness; Glimpsing Hope

Text of Sunday Sermon - Peering into the Darkness; Glimpsing Hope

Jeremiah 31:27-34; Luke 18:1-8
Peering into the Darkness; Glimpsing Hope
James Sledge                                                           October 17, 2010

I presume that most all of you know about the two young boys from Upper Arlington who were killed by their father before he killed himself.  The father’s depression had apparently become so severe and painful that not only could he not go on living, but he felt he was doing his children a favor by sparing them the sort of pain he felt.  And out of the horrible, twisted logic caused by his sickness, three people are dead, a family is shattered, a community seeks answers, and most all of us shake our heads and wonder how such a thing could happen.
The family lived one street over from me, but I had never met them.  My wife once bumped into them while walking the dog.  The boys ran over to play with the dog.  The father came along behind them.  They all seem like nice, likable, friendly people…
It didn’t happen locally, but in the last month, five gay teenagers have died by suicide, most of them taking their own lives after being tormented and taunted to the point they simply could not take it any longer.  And I don’t care what one thinks about homosexuality, these deaths are horrible, tragic, and the hate that caused them run counter to everything Jesus taught.  Young lives have been cut short, families are torn apart, and communities are left to wonder how this could have happened.
How is it that the world can be such an inhospitable place for so many?  And this isn’t simply an interpersonal thing.  Thousands in Haiti are still living in tent cities all this time after the horrible earthquake there.  Recent tropical storms killed some of these people living out in the open.  And the billions in aid that the US promised are stuck in Congress, held up by a congressman worried that a few million of this aid is going to be used for something he considers wasteful.  Enjoy your tents, folks.
And while we’re on the topic of Congress, our political system seems to have become almost completely dysfunctional.  Democrats and Republicans alike would rather blame the other than grapple with serious issues.  Politics has become a bitter war, and each party is terrified of giving the other any ammunition.  So when it comes to long term issues such as Social Security, Medicare, and how to rebuild a crumbling transportation infrastructure, people on both sides are afraid to work with the other lest that side get credit.  And they are afraid to propose difficult or painful solutions because they know the other sides will simply use them to make political hay, which explains why both major candidates for governor of this state are for improving education, but neither is willing to offer a single, specific proposal about how they will pay for it.
I talk to more and more people who are frustrated, and who are worried.  They’re worried about their own retirement.  They’re worried about what life will be like for their children.  They’re worried that when they graduate they won’t be able to find a job.
It wasn’t so long ago that most Americans had an almost unshakable belief in progress.  My children will be better off than I was.  Technology and medicine will solve more and more of the world’s problems.  Things will get better and better until everything is wonderful.  But I don’t hear as much of that these days.
And yet every week some of us gather and together we pray, “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  Every week we ask God to make the world more like how things are where God lives.  In the Bible, that’s what heaven is, by the way.  It isn’t a place people go when they die.  It is God’s home, and there everything is as it should be.  And Jesus taught us to pray, “God make it like that here.”
I grew up saying the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, but somehow it scarcely occurred to me what the prayer actually asked.  And I wonder how many others had the same experience.  Sometimes I worry that such rote prayers are the religious equivalent of “Have a nice day.”  Nothing wrong with the sentiment, but do we really mean anything by it?
I wonder if we wouldn’t do well to change up the Lord’s Prayer from time to time, to use a different translation or rendition of it.  What would it do if when we prayed the Lord’s Prayer, we actually said what the prayer means?  What if we prayed, “Lord, up in heaven, you see how things are here.  Please make them better.”
And if we prayed this way, would it make our prayer feel more meaningful, or would it only depress us by reminding us of how far from God’s will being done things are?
It is not hard to understand why, over the centuries, the Church gradually shifted the good news Jesus proclaimed from “The kingdom of God has come near,” to “You get to go to heaven.”  It was hard to keep talking about God’s will being done here, on earth, when you looked around at how things were.
And yet…  Jesus says we should “pray always and not lose heart.”  And long before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah, who has told the people of Jerusalem that they will be destroyed and carried into exile by Babylon, can still proclaim, “The days are surely coming.”
“The days are surely coming,” says the prophet, “when it won’t be like it is now.”  “The days are surely coming, says Yahweh, when…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…  No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know Yahweh,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”
“The days are surely coming,” says Jesus, “when God’s dream will be born, when the poor will be lifted up and the captives freed, when all will be as it should be, when God’s will is done here, on earth.”  And Jesus insists that God’s dream, the kingdom of God, “has drawn near.”  And he calls people to repent, to begin living differently because they see what is coming.  And he calls us to not lose heart, to pray always.  But he also adds, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Will he, indeed?  Or will we have looked around at all those ways the world does not conform to God’s will and concluded, “It’s hopeless.”  The best we can hope for is something better when we die.”
I hope this doesn’t offend anyone, but I think it is a lot easier to believe you will go to heaven when you die than it is to do as Jesus tells us, to pray for God’s will on earth, for a new day, and not to lose heart.  It’s even harder to live the way Jesus did, as though that new day was just around the corner.  Believing in heaven is easy.  There isn’t really anything to dispute that belief, no convincing evidence against such a belief.  As a result, all kinds of people believe in a heaven of some sort, even folks that aren’t in the least religious.  But believing God’s kingdom is near when there is so much pain in the world… That’s something else altogether.
There was a time when I dismissed much of the current interest in spirituality, in walking labyrinths, going on spiritual retreats, and having a Spiritual Director as some sort of touchy-feely fad.  It was for “emotional” types who weren’t satisfied with sound biblical knowledge and well reasoned theology.  Worse, I thought that such types detracted from the Church’s mission by focusing too much on their internal, personal, spiritual issues and feelings.  But I have discovered that the people with the deepest spiritual lives are very often the same folks most committed to Jesus’ work of lifting up the poor and oppressed, of proclaiming release to the captive, and the coming of God’s new day.  And I think that’s because their spiritual connection to Jesus lets them see things more like Jesus does. 
It takes a lot of faith to peer into the darkness of our world and say, “See that glimmer over there?  That’s God’s new day dawning.”  I’m not sure it’s even possible if our hearts don’t get folded into Jesus’ heart, if our lives don’t become lost in his. 
Draw us in, Jesus.  Draw us in.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Greatness

A few years ago I attended a denominational meeting at a large church in my city.  As I walked in from the parking lot, I noticed a number of vans and buses owned by this congregation.  As one might expect, the church name was painted on the side of these vehicles.  But curiously, the (now retired) pastor's name was also on the side of the vehicles in letters considerably larger than the church's name.

Now I know nothing about whose idea this was or how it came about, but that image came to mind when I read today's gospel.  Jesus has just told the disciples that he will be betrayed, but they seem not to understand.  Instead they begin to argue amongst themselves about who is the greatest.  "But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, 'Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes  the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.'"

Sometimes it seems that we in the Church have never totally learned the lesson Jesus tries to teach us.  We pastors generally get paid more if we serve bigger churches, and the big church pastors tend to be more influential in their denominations. I once heard Frank Harrington, former pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta, say that he had to drive a car that was comparable to the cars driven by the well to do members of his church.  There may be some practical wisdom in that, but it seems counter to what Jesus teaches.

Congregations also tend to measure themselves with numbers.  Membership size and financial contributions are easy things to measure and we are happy when they're up and worried when they're down.  In fact we probably pay much more attention to such things than we do to the spiritual health of our members.  I wonder if this is what Eugene Peterson was talking about in a quote from him I saw on Twitter this week.  "Why is there still so much adolescent measuring of religious biceps and breasts in American churches?"

The current struggles of traditional churches can be very disconcerting for those of us who are longtime members of those churches.  But one advantage of this time may be the opportunity to rethink what we mean by a vital and successful congregation.  Perhaps we have the opportunity to break away from measures of success and vitality handed to us from the prevailing culture, and seek the sort of greatness modeled and taught by Jesus.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Listen to Him!

I saw a report on one of the cable news outlets today about a Texas church that paid for a billboard that admitted they were a "bunch of jerks."  This mea culpa was this congregation's way of saying that yes, we've often been hypocrites and often failed to live the faith we claim to hold. 

I imagine this billboard will create some interesting conversation.  Whether it will be effective in reconnecting with people who have written off the church is another issue.  But certainly this sign does take on the issue of what it means to be a Christian.  Are we Christian because we believe the right things, or does it require more?

In today's reading of the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John are witnesses to a fantastic vision of Jesus chatting with Moses and Elijah.  Peter feels the need to do something "religious," and suggests erecting some booths or shrines for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  But the narrator weighs in on Peter's suggestion with the tag, "not knowing what he said."

Then God shows up and makes clear that shrines are not what is needed.  The only instructions offered to Jesus' followers are, "Listen to him!"  Not "Believe in him," not "Worship him," but "Listen to him!"  And presumably this includes doing what he says.

Because churches are such well established institutions, and because there are also well established norms about what it means to be a Christian, it is relatively easy to claim Christian faith and somehow missing this explicit command from God to listen to Jesus.  (No doubt the fact that Jesus says some pretty uncomfortable things about money, peacemaking, pacifism, and so on contribute to this.)

So what would you say lies at the core of your notion of being a Christian, a follower of Jesus?

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Self Denial

Self denial is not very popular in our culture.  If you want proof, just look at the obesity epidemic in this country.  Or look at how over-scheduled our children are.  We're terrified they'll miss out on something if we don't have them do every possible activity, don't take advantage of every enrichment opportunity. Why would we deny them anything?

So what are we to do with Jesus' words from today's gospel?  "Then he said to them all, 'If any want to become my followers,  let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who  lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit  them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?' "

I'm not terribly good at self denial.  I measure most things by whether or not they please me, satisfy me, make me feel better, and so on.  I want the same things a lot of people want: to be successful, to make a little more money, to have nice things, maybe get a bigger TV, and the latest smart-phone  Why would I deny myself any of those things?

I've been asking myself lately, "What would I give up in order to live more faithfully with God?  What would I voluntarily let go of?"  And I'm not talking about any self-improvement project such as giving up sweets so I can lose a few pounds.  I'm talking about what I would give up for no personal gain other than to use that time or money or energy for the work of the Kingdom.

I should add that asking myself these questions makes me squirm a bit.  But sometimes it opens my eyes to possibilities I've never seen before.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Too Big for Us To Handle

The world is filled with problems that seem too big to be addressed.  In today's political climate, politicians from both parties are afraid to tackle long term issues such as Social Security, other entitlement programs, or an energy policy.  Everyone agrees something needs to be done, but the task is too daunting for anyone to risk the effort.

Education is another major problem in our country.  Increasingly, students in large urban areas receive an education that pales in comparison to that received by students in wealthier suburbs.  There's more action here than on Social Security, but often the efforts bear little fruit as vicious cycles of poverty, gangs, drug abuse, and more seem to thwart many of the best laid plans.

It is easy to see the scale of some of the problems facing us and throw up our hands saying, "What can we do about problems so big?"

I suspect that the disciples must have felt much the same when Jesus looks out at a crowd of thousands and says to his little band of followers, "You give them something to eat."  Luke tells us there were 5000 men, which presumably means thousands more women and children.  And the disciples have five loves and two fish. 

When we celebrate the Lord's Supper in worship, we tear pieces of bread off a loaf for each worshiper.  A good size loaf will give one bite of bread to about 150 people.  You do the math.  The disciples are going to be cutting bread into incredibly tiny pieces.

I wonder what the disciples thought and felt as they headed out into that crowd of perhaps 10,000 with less than a single grocery bag of food.  This is one of the New Testament "miracle stories," but I think the first miracle is that the disciples even tried.  Surely they thought about responding, "You have got to be kidding, Jesus.  That'll never work."  But for some reason, they took a few handfuls of food and waded out into a sea of people.

But we're a long way removed from Jesus, and we don't much believe in miracles.  Very often I've heard church discussions that sound a bit like, "We've only got a small bit of food.  It's not enough to do much with.  We'll just eat it ourselves."

I wonder what it would take to enable me to head out into a hungry crowd with a single loaf of bread and yell,  "Come and get it?" 

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - What's It Say?

Lots of Christians speak of "believing" the Bible.  I suppose that most Christians believe something about the Bible, but believing the Bible requires first figuring out just what it is saying, no easy task.  We struggle in the United States to agree on what our US Constitution says, and it's only a few pages.  The Bible is a huge document written by lots of different people over hundreds and hundreds of years.  It has passages that seem to contradict one another, and it has many sorts of writing: laws, songs, prayers, letters, stories, history, etc.  How does one believe a song?

Today's gospel reading is a miracle story.  Jarius, a synagogue leader, asks Jesus to come and heal his young daughter, but on the way, Jesus is delayed when a woman comes up to touch him, hoping this will heal her from a long ailment.  Jesus stops to find out who has touched him, and by the time he's finished, word comes that Jarius' daughter has died.

What is this story about?  Is it about Jesus' healing power?  That is certainly there.  Is it about how Jesus, no matter how busy he is with important work, always has time to stop and restore someone to wholeness? (This woman's condition would have made her religiously unclean.)  Is it about Jesus' power over death? 

I suspect that if you asked Jarius and the woman with the hemorrhage what had happened in the story, you might get very different accounts.  They probably saw very different things happen.  Even the gospel writers themselves often tell the same story a bit differently, each thinking the meaning of the story lies in a slightly different place.

Do you, in some way, believe the Bible? We Christians might all get along a bit better if we agreed that different folks can believe in the Bible fervently without agreeing on exactly what it says.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Sunday Sermon video - Rediscovering Passion

Spiritual Hiccups - Collateral Damage from the Kingdom

When Jesus heals a Gerasene demoniac, there is some significant collateral damage.  As he prepares to cast out the demons, Jesus honors their request to be sent into a herd of pigs rather than "into the abyss."  But the pigs immediately charge headlong down the bank into the lake and are drowned.  And while Jews might not have much use for pigs, I'm sure the pigs owners were none too happy about this.  When the swineherds run and tell everyone what happened, all the folks come out to see.  Finding the former demoniac in his right mind, they are afraid and ask Jesus to leave.  Presumably the power of Jesus causes fear, but I wonder if economics figure in at all.  Who else's pigs or livelihood are in danger because of Jesus?

This isn't the only time this sort of thing happens in the Bible.  The book of Acts reports two different times where Paul is charged with causing economic harm.  One time he casts out a "spirit of divination" from a slave girl, costing her owners the money they made from her fortune-telling.  Another time the silversmiths at Ephesus riot, fearing a shrinking income from "shrines of Artemis" because of Paul's converting people to the Way.  I suppose in these two cases, the damage is done to folks who are, in some way, working at cross purposes to God.  But the pigs, their owners, and the folks employed as swineherds truly seem to be collateral damage.

Apparently the Kingdom is threatening to the status quo, even when the status quo looks fairly benign. The people of the Gerasene region seem to realize this and ask Jesus to leave.  But the Church seems to have forgotten this. Despite those other passages in Luke that say God "has brought down the powerful..." and "sent the rich away empty..."  Despite Jesus saying "Woe to you who are rich... who are full now... who are laughing now..." and "when all speak well of you..." we generally view the Kingdom as no threat at all.  And if there is any danger, it is only on a personal, salvation level.

Not so for Gerasene pig farmers.  And I can't help but wonder what parts of our world, that seem perfectly acceptable to us, are likely candidates for collateral damage from God's Kingdom.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday Sermon - Rediscovering Passion

Text of Sunday Sermon - Rediscovering Passion

Luke 17:11-19
Rediscovering Passion
James Sledge                                               October 10, 2010

When I do pre-marriage counseling, I try to prepare couples for the nearly inevitable progression that happens with most serious, long-term relationships.  There is a beginning that is filled with wonder, with joyous discovery and a deepening passion that causes everything else to recede.  It’s the sort of passion that produces such lines as “I only have eyes for you.”  And that is true to some extent.  Nothing else is so wonderful.  Nothing else is so important.  And so nothing else is in clear focus.  Nothing else quite gets full attention.
When people are experiencing the full throes of “in love,” logic and reasonableness sometimes take a holiday.  People will spend hours on the phone even when they have things they need to do.  They will engage in all sorts of extravagant behaviors, from acting in ways they would have previously thought silly and foolish to lavishing their beloved with expensive gifts that require cutting expenses in other places. 
But almost without fail, the throes of “in love” begin to wane.  Over time, as couples settle in for the long haul, as they set up a home together, as they marry and have a family, the passion diminishes.  It’s natural.  That initial intensity is hard to maintain, and lots of other things, sometimes other passions, compete for attention.  Children, careers, hobbies, causes, and so on all vie for their share. 
Sometimes couples realize they’ve come to take each other for granted, that their life together is mostly about routines.  There may not be any big conflicts and the relationship may be comfortable enough.  There is care and concern for the other, but all the passion is gone.  Some relationships begin to falter at this point.  Small things can grow into big conflicts and couples may find themselves wondering, “Can this relationship be saved?”
I think that relationship with God can go through a similar sort of progression.  People can move from a passionate relationship to one that is comfortable to something where the relationship gets taken for granted and is mostly habit and obligation.  Blessings from God are merely what God is supposed do, and troubles in life feel like God failing us.
I wonder if nine of the lepers in our gospel reading today hadn’t fallen into this sort of relationship with God.  I’m assuming that they grew up in the faith and tried to live good lives.  They went to synagogue, kept the law, made standard Temple offerings, and attended the big religious festivals.  But after all this, they found themselves suffering with leprosy.
We need to realize that leprosy in the Bible is not the horrible disease of leper colonies, not the illness portrayed by Hollywood biblical movies such as Ben Hur.  Leprosy in the Bible is a catch-all term for any skin disorder, some serious and some less so.  Things we would call a fungal infection, psoriasis, or eczema would all be termed leprosy.  But regardless of the severity, all of them got you labeled “unclean.”  And when you were unclean, you couldn’t have contact with others without rendering them unclean.  And so leprosy would make life difficult.  Besides physical discomfort, you weren’t going to be invited over for Passover dinner, or any other dinner for that matter.  You wouldn’t be welcome at the synagogue or Temple and so on. 
Given all this it is hardly surprising that when these ten lepers hear about Jesus and his reputation for healing, they go to see him.  They keep their distance from Jesus as the Law mandated for “unclean” folks, and they plead for help.  Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests.  Priests had to certify that formerly unclean people were now clean, and so Jesus’ command implies the promise of a healing, and the lepers head out immediately.  All ten believe Jesus can heal them, and all ten are in fact healed.  But one returns to Jesus, praising God and throwing himself at Jesus’ feet in a grand show of thanksgiving.  And he was a Samaritan.
Samaritans believed in God and the Law of Moses, but they were regarded as heretics by Jews, as well as being a despised ethnic group.  They were outsiders in every sense of the word, and I suspect that explains why this Samaritan is praising God and running back to thank Jesus.  This Jewish rabbi, Jesus, had healed him, a Samaritan.  The other nine, presumable all Jews, seem to take God’s blessing more for granted, and they simply return to their daily lives.
I suppose the Samaritan returns to his old life as well, but before he does, he receives something the others don’t.  All are healed, but Jesus tells the Samaritan that his faith has “saved him.”  Our translation says it has “made him well,” but I pretty sure that’s a bad translation.  Luke has used two other words to say the lepers were “made clean” and “healed.”  But Jesus singles out this Samaritan and tells him his faith has saved him.  This may not be a get-to-go-to-heaven saved the way some of us hear that word, but it is a restoration, a renewal much bigger than simply being made well.
This Samaritan has a passionate experience of God while the other nine do not.  As an outsider, he seems to have an advantage.  He finds it easier to get excited about what God has done for him.  And I fear that we church folks are often more like the nine than this Samaritan.  Sometimes our faith has lots of routine, and not much passion.
How do we become more like the Samaritan and less like the nine?  I think the answer depends on who you are.  If you are more like the Samaritan to begin with – and by that I mean that you’re not a longtime church person, that you’re new to this in some way – then you may actually have an advantage.  Like a young person falling in love for the first time, it may be easier for you.  But as with falling in love, you will need to do certain things.  You will need to spend time with God, with Jesus.  That means prayer and reading the Bible.  It means doing things with God, which is another way of saying finding spiritual practices and activities that suit you, things you and God enjoy doing together.
But what about the rest of us, those who’ve been around God for a long time and have gotten in some pretty deep ruts?  Well, what would you tell couples who had lost their passion in a marriage?  I would suggest that first they need to create some space for passion.  They need to push some other relationships and activities off to the side, to get rid of some of the busy, stretched-too-thin lives many of us lead so that there some room for passion.
And then you have to fall in love all over again.  Like young lovers, you spend time together and find new things you enjoy doing together.  You begin lavishing the other with attention, gifts, and little extravagances.  You want to do things that you know the other enjoys, and you happily cut back on things for yourself in order to do so.
Of course falling in love is a two way street.  The other must move toward you as well.  And in Jesus, God does that with remarkable passion, even to the point of risking death.  Too often the Church has depicted this in the language of contracts and formulas.  But dying for another is the language of love.  “I would die for you” is a line for a love song. 
 A Samaritan, surprised to discover how much Jesus loved him, found himself in the throes of passion that left him yelling, singing, and throwing himself at Jesus’ feet.  And Jesus says this passion is a sure sign of something more than a healing, a sign of renewal and restoration, of being fully alive.
Jesus, let me know this passion.  Let me be fully alive in you.