Sunday, March 18, 2012

It's About Love

“For God So Loved”
John 3:14-21
March 18, 2012/Fourth Sunday in Lent

“He’s got the whole world in his hands.
He’s got the whole wide world in his hands.
He’s got the whole world in his hands.
He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

            This was one of my favorite songs when I was a kid.  We sang it in Sunday School and we sang it in Vacation Bible School.  I think we even added hand motions to it.  I was never one to be shy when it came to singing so I just sang it at the top of my lungs whenever the song would roll around. 
            It’s an uplifting song, which is probably why I liked it so much.   But I also distinctly remember liking the sentiment of the song when I was a child.  I liked the idea of God holding the whole world in his hands.  When I was a child I got a picture in my head of God as a great big person, with large and capable hands, holding onto the earth.  I still see that picture, even today.  As a child that image made me feel safe and secure.  As an adult, it gives me hope. 
            But either as a child or as an adult, the idea that God holds the world, all the people, all of creation in his hands, is a positive and inspiring thought.  So it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why I chose this as a way to talk about our passage from John, the third chapter, verses 14 through 21.
            More specifically, John 3:16.  This is probably the most famous verse of scripture.  It’s known to believers and unbelievers alike.  We see it in the most unlikely of places … like sporting events.  There always seems to be some guy with a homemade banner proclaiming John 3:16 at every major sports contest I watch. 
            “"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.”
            For God so loved the world.  Verse 17 further explicates the idea of God’s love.  "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.”
            It’s about love.  For God so loved the world.  The Son is sent into the world not for punishment, not so the world could be condemned, but for love.  For God so LOVED the world. This seems so simple and straightforward, I should just stop now.  We can finish up worship and all get to lunch before the Baptists. 
            Except for the reality that nothing in John’s gospel is fully straightforward or simple.  John’s gospel contains layers of meaning.  This is the only time in John’s gospel when the world, or kosmos in Greek, is used in a positive way.  All of the other references to the world are negative.  John speaks of the world as darkness.  It is enmity and brokenness.  It is separation from God.  It is that which works against God’s purposes in the world.  Yet this kosmos that is negative and dark and broken is also the same kosmos that God loves enough to send his Son, the incarnate Word into. 
            God loves the world, but this is also scandalous.  Surely if the world is as broken as John implies throughout his gospel, then the world deserves condemnation.  That is what should happen.  But the impulse for God is love.  The motivation for God is love.  It isn’t condemnation.  It isn’t for death, but for life.  For God so loved the world that the world was destined for life, not death. 
            Claiming this, claiming the love of God for the world, does not mean that we can gloss over the verses that follow. 
            18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
            There is condemnation, but as one scholar wrote, it is a passive condemnation.  God is not actively seeking to condemn the world.  Instead condemnation comes from our own inability to move into the light.  It comes from our own resistance, reluctance or just plain stubbornness to claim the Light of God.
            David Lose wrote about this passage saying that we have to choose which side of the coin is predominant in our thinking and in our faith.  Love or Judgment?  Are we more concerned about what it means that God loves us enough to give us his Son or about the judgment that comes if we don’t accept that love and the light it brings? 
            And it is not that the two are completely separate concepts.  Both are informed by the other.  But it is one thing to think that the reason God sent Jesus into the world to bring love and because of love.  It is another to believe that the ultimate reason for the incarnation is punitive.
            I take a stand on the side of love.  God sent the Son into the world for love.  Yet as I’ve said in other sermons and will most likely say again, this kind of love is not merely sentiment.  This kind of love is a verb.  Love is embodied and enacted.  Certainly Jesus’ death on the cross is testament to the fact that the love that motivated God was not just warm and fuzzy, sweetness and happiness. 
            The love God had and has for the world demands a response of love from us as well.  How do we love?  Who do we love? 
            I attended a conference on Stewardship in North Carolina this past week.  It was a positive experience for the most part.  I learned a lot, and came away with new ideas and inspiration for stewardship in my own life and in the life of our congregation.  However, I was disturbed by the fact that so much of the conference seemed to be centered solely on fundraising.  I do not question the fact that money is a fundamental part of stewardship and something that must be discussed honestly and forthrightly.  But I also understand stewardship to be about all of life.  It is how we spend our money, how we interact with our environment, how we live in relationship with each other and with creation. 
            So I was disturbed that one of my workshops, entitled “Creating a Culture of Generosity in Your Church,” was more about fundraising than about the full spirit of generosity.  But at our worship service on Tuesday night, I was renewed in my understanding of generosity.
            Reverend Susan Andrews, former moderator of our denomination’s General Assembly, and Executive Presbyter of the Hudson Valley Presbytery in New York State was our preacher that evening.  She moved through her sermon giving examples of generosity, but it was the last illustration that I found most moving.
            A few weeks before the conference, she and other presbytery representatives were invited to a meeting by the stated clerk of a small church in her presbytery.  The congregation has only about 20 active members, and Jerry, the stated clerk, is in his 70’s and is one of the youngsters.  Like so many of other congregations in our denomination, like us, they are a small membership that resides in a large church building.  The thing about this congregation is that they have plenty of money to continue without change for a few more years.  The question has been, though, is that what they want?  That’s why this meeting that Reverend Andrews described was called.  Not only was Jerry there along with the congregation’s part-time pastor, Andrews and the presbytery reps, another minister had also been invited.  The other minister was the pastor of a vibrant, growing, Pentecostal, Hispanic congregation.  Its members come from the growing Latino community in the Hudson Valley.  Many of their families are low income and, yes, undocumented workers are part of the mix as well.
            The reason the other minister was invited to attend is because Jerry and the rest of the congregation realize that holding onto a building for the building’s sake is not what they are called to do.  Their building is too big for their needs, while this other church needs something much larger to fill their needs.  So Jerry, speaking for the entire congregation, expressed their desire to give their church to this Pentecostal church. 
            They don’t want to sell it, lease it or rent it.  They want to give it.  Their congregation will still be able to have a small place in the building.  They will use it for worship on Sunday mornings at 9, finished in plenty of time before the dominant congregation begins their own worship service.  And that will remain that way until the congregation comes to the place when they ask the presbytery to dissolve their congregation. 
            The current congregation knows, as Andrews put it, that the church will change.  Their sanctuary will be filled with instruments and screens and things it never had before.  Aromas of exotic foods will emanate from the kitchen. 
            But this is their gift.  Their dying gift.  And to symbolize theirs and our fervent belief that death does not win, but gives rise to new life, they want the first Sunday for the new congregation to be Easter Sunday.  That is the resurrection. 
            There are still hoops to jump through.  I am proud Presbyterian, but we are the keepers of the hoops.  The presbytery must vote on this.  Andrews realizes that this could be hotly debated.  Will the presbytery retain the ownership of the property?  Will they require the new congregation to become Presbyterian in order to be in the building?  All of that has yet to be worked out.  But the hope is that the presbytery will hear the conviction of Jerry and the other members and remove any obstacles that might inhibit their amazing generosity, their amazing love. 
            For God so loved the world.  For God so LOVES the world, that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  The world is in God’s hands, and they are hands of love.  God loves the world, God loves us, so let us love in return through word and deed.  Let all God’s children say Amen!

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