Love Is All You Need

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As Coptic Christians gathered in Egypt this morning to celebrate Palm Sunday, bombs rocked their sanctuaries.  Thirty-six people were killed in the blasts.

This week has seen horrific chemical attacks upon the Syrian people, but what is more horrific is that these kinds of atrocities are happening all the time, but only occasionally make it to our headlines.

In the Des Moines area, this week has seen a slew of gun violence, with five people shot last Sunday morning and three deaths in Bondurant this week.

 

When we gather in this sanctuary and wave our palms in the air, we cry out Hosanna!

 

And that very word has a double meaning that is meaningful in our world context.

We typically think of the Hosanna as a call of praise and glory, welcoming the coming King.

 

But Hosanna also is a cry for salvation. “Save us!” the people call out.

“Save us” we cry out.

Save us from our striving for power.

Save us from unending violence.

Save us from the walls that threaten to divide.

Save us from social forces that stomp on the sick, the poor, and the outcast.

Save us.

 

In the Jewish tradition, the laws were given to the people as a guide for how to live as a saved people.  The Israelites had been rescued from the Pharoah’s grip and in the wilderness they were formed as a people.  And the laws were given as a means to help them live in community and to prevent the kinds of personal and social evils that could destroy them.
613 different commandments are given in the Torah to try to accomplish this purpose.

And when Jesus was asked about which was the most important, he referred to only two.

 

The Shema from Deuteronomy 6: Love the Lord

And

Leviticis 19 – love others.

 

When Jesus summarized all of the law and the prophets, he basically took the ten commandments and boiled them down to five words:

Love God. Love your neighbor.

That’s it.

These laws are all about the relationships we have been talking about these past few weeks.

Love is the fence that guards us from harmful activity. Love is the standard for how we are to behave. Love defines who we are.

 

Throughout this series, we have been touching on the surface of some of the conflict that threatens to divide us as a church.  We are not all the same.  Across this great wide world we worship in different languages and sing different types of songs. We live in various political and social and economic realities.

And I believe that is a good and a holy thing.  But it is also a really difficult reality to live in the midst of.

All of our differences, all of our separate gifts and hopes and desires, all of the nonessentials that can tear us apart, they can only be put into perspective if we take the time to truly be in relationship with one another.

This body only works if at the core of who we are and how we live is love.

When the Apostle Paul hears about the mess that the Corinthians have made of their church by squabbling over non-essentials, he writes to them.  He wants to encourage them to be their best selves.   And if you remember from last week, he tells them that they are the body of Christ and that each of them has an important role to play in the church. He tells them that each of them is gifted and that they should pay attention to and rely upon the gifts of others. He tells them they need to give and accept help and to treat all members with respect.

And then he launches into a beautiful part of his letter that is very familiar to us.

 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing

All of this stuff that you think is so important – Paul writes – all of this stuff that you are arguing about, it means absolutely diddly squat if there isn’t love in the midst of your community.

You could have the most money or be the most talented or live in the most beautiful house, or even have the most elegant prayers or know the scripture backwards and forwards…. But all of it is for nothing if there is not love in your life.

Paul’s not just talking about the romantic love between two people. He’s talking about deep, sustaining love. He’s talking about the love that knits people and communities together. He’s talking about the love that only comes from God.

Love that is patient and kind.

That that is not envious or boastful.

Love that doesn’t seek its own advantage and doesn’t keep a record of complaints.

Love that isn’t satisfied with injustice.

Love that endures all things.

 

As the people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, and as the people called United Methodist, we are all have the same calling: to love.

The primary thing that unites us is the love of Jesus Christ.

The love of Christ reminds us we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

The love of Christ shows us what grace and mercy are all about.

The love of Christ is sacrificial and bends down in service to others.

The love of Christ gives life to others.

Love seeks the good of others, no matter who they are, even if it is at our own expense.
Love is not a feeling… love is a verb.

It is a daily decision to choose to love and be in relationship with others.

 

In our prayer of confession this morning, we asked that God might turn us, cleanse us, and forgive us our transgressions.

We asked that God might set us again into the procession of love that makes all things new.

 

When we leave this place today, we are going into a world that praises all of the wrong things and that desperately needs to experience the saving power of God.

We are going into a world where children are hungry and parents are frustrated.  Where the mentally ill don’t have access to care and where innocent people are trapped in the midst of countries at war.  If we took the time to list all of the problems and concerns of our nation and world we might never leave this sanctuary.

And yet, God has called us to be his hands and feet in the world.

God has called us to be the Body of Christ.

And that means that God wants us to be the answer to the world’s cries for salvation and healing.  God wants us to carry these palms into the world as a procession, a parade of love and healing and salvation.

God wants us to bind up the brokenhearted and feed the hungry.

God wants us to welcome the refugees and the strangers.

God wants us to seek peace and pursue it.

God wants us to visit the sick and imprisoned.

And through it all, God wants us to love.

 

You know, we are ending this series with the call to love, but in reality, this is only the beginning of the life that we are called to.  As Bishop Bickerton writes, love is “the source of our being, the fuel for the journey, and the goal for which we live.”

Love God.

Love your neighbors.

Amen.

Save Us!

Some of you sometimes ask what I like to do in my spare time and one of my favorite things to do is binge watching television.  I like all sorts of things, from Grey’s Anatomy to Breaking Bad, but I also have a healthy obsession with British television and sci-fi.  Both of which are perfectly satisfied by Doctor Who. About five years ago, I discovered Doctor Who and I think I’ve watched every episode of the newer material about three or four times.

So, what, you might be wondering, does Doctor Who have to do with Palm Sunday?

Well, this is a show about a time-traveling alien with twelve lives, but of all the places the Doctor could go in the world, Earth seems to be his favorite. One the one hand, he sees its vulnerability and innocence.  On the other, he praises humanity for their survivability and curiosity, their fortitude and spirit of exploration.  He wants to see them thrive.

In the series two premiere, Christmas has come, but chaos is reigning on our planet with a large alien war ship hovering over London.  The Sycorax have seized control of 1/3 of the population and Prime Minister Harriet Jones issues an urgent plea – “Doctor, if you are out there, save us!”

That’s what we all hope for, isn’t it?  Someone to save us?  Someone to make everything better and the monsters and demons and agonies of our lives to go away?

 

When Jesus appeared on the scene in Galilee, people flocked to the countryside, to the houses, to the shores just to catch a glimpse of this man who would save them.  He healed their illness, he cast out their demons, he even forgave sins… He made their worldly pains go away.  He saved them from their current predicaments.  He was amazing.

And then, like any good Savior, he rides in on a donkey, the ancient world’s version of a white horse or a blue box to save the day and make everything better.

You see, that’s what the people thought Jesus was there to do.  He fufills the prophecy, as told in Zechariah 9: the symbolic triumphant entry of a King into Jerusalem on a young donkey:

“Rejoice, greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Unlike conquering forces who rode in on war horses, this was the sign of a true king – the one who brings peace and hope to the people.

And so when he rides into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, when he comes bringing peace and hope, the people spontaneously shout out: HOSANNA!  Which means Save us!

Their lives are full of problems and stresses and this Jesus has shown that he can solve them.

He can heal them.

He can save them.

He is on their side.

HOSANNA!

 

Only, Jesus doesn’t save us in the way we expect.

 

They, and we, expect our hero to be a Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone type hero: riding in to save the day, confident, untouchable, there is no question that they will triumph.

But Jesus appears more like Frodo Baggins: he seems to be facing an uphill battle, he is humble, at times during this holy week questioning his purpose, and yet always willing to sacrifice his own life for the purpose to which he was called.

In our Philippians reading this morning, that picture of a humble servant is painted for us. It has come to be known as the Christ Hymn – a song of praise for the one who gave everything up, the one who emptied himself of power and life rather than grasping at it for himself and for others.

Repeatedly, Jesus demonstrates humility.  He gave up his seat at the right hand of God to be born among us, an infant whose life was in danger from the very start.  He reached out to the hurting and sick and those imprisoned by sin.  He invited them to his table and was rejected for doing so. He touched the unclean and welcomed children onto his lap.

Jesus went to the underdogs of this world.  Those who don’t have power, money, or the system on their side, and he loved them.

 

If that was how he lived his life, I’m not sure why we expect the road to salvation will be different.

We want fireworks and trumpets and victory, but instead the path before us this week is marked by the cross.

Jesus will spend the coming week in Jerusalem, but he doesn’t leave victorious… he leaves carried away to be buried in a tomb.  The people couldn’t understand how his way of humility and love and grace and sacrifice could bring about the reign of God and TRULY save them and us… save us not from our current oppressive problems but save us to the core of our very being.

And so they stubbornly turn their backs on him.  Like children, they stomp their feet and pout: If he refuses to help me the way I want to be helped, I don’t want any part of it.

 

christmas_invasion-1I find “The Christmas Invasion” episode of Doctor Who to be such an interesting parallel, because the Doctor too is rejected in the end.  He stands up for earth and is willing to be their champion in an epic duel for the planet.  And although he defeats the Sycorax, he does so without killing the leader.  He sends them packing with a warning – “When you go back to the stars and tell others of this planet, when you tell them of its riches, its people, its potential, when you talk of the Earth, then make sure that you tell them this… IT IS DEFENDED!”

And the Sycorax leave.  They head back for the stars.

But Harriet Jones… the one who cried, “Save Us!” in the first place is not satisfied.

He didn’t save them in the way she hoped he would.

He didn’t save them in a way that would continue to isolate them from the stars.

He didn’t save them in the way that she was completely willing to do.  And so with a word, Harriet Jones signals for a weapon to be fired and the Sycorax are blown out of the sky.

 

We are not happy when things don’t go our way.  And when our “savior” comes along and isn’t what we expected, it is surprising how quickly we turn to violence.  How quickly we become the very thing we are fighting against.  How quickly we lose our humanity in a desperate attempt to cling to the salvation we think we deserved.

 

Just five days after they shouted in the streets for Jesus to save them, the people reject Jesus, and shout for him to be crucified instead.

 

And as Paul writes in Philippians, Christ was obedient to God’s will, Jesus remained the humble servant, even when it meant death on the cross.

When we praise Jesus, it is not the triumphant entry, but the cross that truly shows us God’s glory. In giving up his power, in emptying himself, in this act of love, Jesus reveals what divine power is all about: non-abusive, patient, never grasping, “power… made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Today, we live on the other side of the cross.  We know the power of the resurrection.  We know that death was not defeat at all, and that Christ has not only risen from the dead but has been exalted on high.

The question is:  how do we live in light of that knowledge?

 

From a jail cell, Paul penned the “Christ Hymn” and encouraged the Philippians to embrace the power of Jesus… to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” (2:5)

We are to let go of our power and live in obedience to God’s will.

Here at this church, we claim a particular vision:  In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.

Our salvation demands that we live as Jesus lived.

And as we adopt the mind of Christ, our eyes are opened to those all around us who are in need of love, and service, and prayer.

We are called to love: we are called to go and stand with the widow and the orphan.  We are called to the dark and lonely corners of this community – to the people who have no one and to carry the love of Christ with us… even if it means putting our own lives on the line.

We are called to serve:  We are called to be in relationship with people and offer ourselves.  We are called to sacrifice time and energy and money to help our brothers and sisters.  And that service extends to more than just a handout… we are called to bow down in service and treat those with whom we minister as honored guests.

Finally, we are called to pray:  Sarah Coakley believes that to be in Christ, we need to practice prayer.  We need to “cease to set the agenda… [and] make space for God to be God.”  In doing so… in praying for our community and our world, we set aside what we think we are entitled to and instead ask for God’s will to be done.  We ask for God to give us the courage and strength to act on behalf of those who can’t.

 

Today, Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem.

He rides not on a war horse, but a humble donkey.

He rides not to conquer and destroy, but  to die for our sins and to set us free.

As one of my colleagues wrote this week:

We thought that we wanted a King.

We thought of all that he would bring.

Power and might and wealth and singing.

We thought we wanted a King.

Instead, we got everything. (Jessica Harren)

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the one who sets the prisoner free!

Blessed is the one who comes to save us!

The praise of crickets

Today, I discovered this recording of crickets, overlayed with the same recording slowed down.  Their song is a hymn… voices in harmony… like the sounds of a human chorus. It got me thinking about Luke 19: 37-40.

Even if we don’t notice, the whole creation is lifting up a song of praise.

Even if we can’t hear or comprehend, the world is singing out.

Next time this verse comes up in the lectionary, I might just play this entire piece as the backdrop for worship.

Save Us, Doctor!

I saw on facebook that a fellow pastor was going to be preaching on Palm Sunday and had a Doctor Who reference to throw in to the mix.  I never found out what his illustration was, but it got me thinking about a recent episode I rewatched.

In the series two premiere, the new Doctor – David Tennant – is still recovering from his regeneration.  Chaos is reigning outside with a large Sycorax war ship hovering over London.  Prime Minister Harriet Jones issues an urgent plea – “Doctor, if you are out there, save us!”

That’s what we all need, isn’t it?  Someone to save us?  Someone to make everything better and the monsters and demons and agonies of our lives to go away?

When Jesus appeared on the scene in Galilee, people flocked to the countryside, to the houses, to the shores just to catch a glimpse of this man who would save them.  He healed their illness, he cast out their demons, he even forgave sins… He made their worldly pains go away.  He saved them from their current predicaments.  He was amazing.

And so when he rides into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, when he comes bringing peace and hope, the people spontaneously shout out: HOSANNA!  Save us!

They are full of problems and stresses and this Jesus has shown that he can solve them.  He can heal them.  He can save them.  He can make it all go away… he’s the Doctor that Harriet Jones was pleading for.

But God’s ways are not our ways. Jesus spent a week in Jerusalem, but he didn’t leave victorious… he left carried away to be buried in a tomb.  The people couldn’t understand how his way of humility and love and grace and sacrifice could bring about the reign of God and TRULY save us… save us not from our current oppressive problems but save us to the core of our very being.  And so they rejected him, crucified him, and left him for dead. If he refuses to help me the way I want to be helped, I don’t want any part of it.

I find this particular episode of Doctor Who to be such an interesting parallel, because the Doctor too is rejected in the end.  Although he defeats the Sycorax in the challenge fight, he does so without killing the leader.  He sends them off packing with a warning – “When you go back to the stars and tell others of this planet, when you tell them of its riches, its people, its potential, when you talk of the Earth, then make sure that you tell them this… IT IS DEFENDED!”

The Sycorax leave.  They head back for the stars.

But Harriet Jones… the one who cried, “Save Us!” in the first place is not satisfied.  He didn’t save them in the way she hoped he would.  He didn’t save them in a way that would continue to isolate them from the stars.  He didn’t save them in the way that she was completely willing to do.  And so with a word, the Torchwood weapon is launched and the Sycorax are blown out of the sky.

We are not happy when things don’t go our way.  And when our savior comes along and isn’t what we expected, it is surprising how quickly we turn to violence.  How quickly we become the very thing we are fighting against.  How quickly we lose our humanity in a desperate attempt to cling to the salvation we think we deserved.

May we have open minds this week.  May we have open hearts this week.  And may God surprise us and challenge us and transform us along this journey so that we might accept the amazing gift of salvation that he offers.

Hosanna!

In my flower garden this spring, I have learned the difference between joy and happiness.

You see, happiness is getting a bouquet of a dozen tulips from your spouse or from a friend and setting them on the counter for a few days.  It warms your heart to be thought of, they are beautiful to look at, and it doesn’t take any work to enjoy them.  It is a pleasant surprise, and unexpected wonder.  That is happiness.

But joy is “refined and thoughtful,” (in the words of Scott Hoezee) “because it has passed through death.” Joy persists through suffering.  Joy persists through doubt.  Joy enables us to look at the cross and still shout, “Hosanna!”

And unlike the fleeting happiness of a bouquet of flowers, a bed full of tulips that you dug by hand and then planted with care… and then spent a whole winter waiting for… is a true experience of joy.

There were moments in the waiting where I worried nothing would happen.  Maybe I had planted the bulbs too deep.  Maybe not deep enough.  Maybe the weather did not get cold enough for them to really do their thing.  Maybe the squirrels would dig them up.  Maybe the nursery I ordered them from was a scam and the bulbs were duds.  A thousand different what if’s could flow through your mind in that long time of waiting, watching and hoping.

And then the miracle occurs.  The bulbs start to peek out of the ground.  The colors start to emerge from the buds.  And before you know it, you are caught in the glorious joy of color and life and aroma that sustains much longer than a simple bouquet… and has the calluses to prove the work and the pain and the sweat that preceded it.

This distinction between joy and happiness is important as we think about this Palm Sunday and the Easter Sunday that is close on its heels.  Because today, we erupted with singing and happy songs and Jesus is enteringJerusalemand maybe you, like the people on the road that morning, are surprised by the light spirit of it all.  You join in and you wave your palm branches and sing with the children and it feels good.

But what we experience on Palm Sunday isn’t costly.  It is cheap and easy happiness.  It is unexpected.  It is a surprise.  It is happy… but it is not joyful.

No, the true joy comes with Easter Sunday.  The true joy comes after we have done the hard work and walked the long journey to the cross.  The true joy comes after we have planted all of our hopes and fears into the tomb… waiting, hoping beyond hope that there just might be a possibility of life in the midst of death.  The true joy of Easter is everlasting, sustained, and does not disappoint.

In contrast, this morning will seem like a wilted bouquet of flowers forgotten on the kitchen counter… the happiness of today simply cannot compare. You see, at the same time as we are shouting – Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  We are also saying the word, “Hosanna.”  We are crying out for God to save us.  We know that the elation we are experiencing is only temporary… we know that there is still work to do.

In fact, ever since I have been here, I have shied away from celebrating Palm Sunday alone.  It is too cheery and happy clappy in light of everything that we are about to experience during this next week.  And too often, folks will skip straight from the happiness of today to the joy of Easter without experiencing any of the difficult road.

So on most Sundays we have included the Passion texts and have really spent some time with the story of Jesus’ last week.  We sat with him through dinner, we pray at Golgotha, we experience his trial and visit Herod, we walk the streets ofJerusalemto the crucifixion.  We jam pack it all into one hour on a Sunday morning so that we at least will have had a glimpse of the cost of the grace we are offered.

But this year, we are walking this road with Jesus.  Our Lenten devotions this week in particular take us through each of the days this last week of Christ’s life.  (And if you haven’t picked one up or used one up until now, feel free to join in for this last week!)

We also have three opportunities to worship and experience Holy Week and to spend time with Jesus.  Our usual Wednesday evening worship is at 6:30pm and we will also celebrate Maundy Thursday at 7:00pm in the fellowship Hall and Good Friday with other local churches at Trinity UCC at 7:00pm on Friday night.  A carpool will be leaving our church at 6:20 for those who are interested in joining us.

So let’s enjoy today for what it is – a triumphant entry – an unexpected surprise – a momentary glimpse of joy, of hope, a glimmer of happiness.

1)    The happiness you experience when you catch a glimpse of someone from God.  The people shouted, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” And we too have experienced people in our lives who are from God.  Who bless us for a moment or two… who exemplify what it means to reflect the light of God… who have helped to make our days brighter and our roads easier.

2)    Catch a glimpse of a way out – a way of peace and not violence.  Jesus on the colt vs. Pontius Pilate and a Roman processional coming into Jerusalem.

3)    Catch a glimpse of salvation

  1. Story of the 7th graders from Dr. Scott Black Johnson… big picture we know salvation is about hell/ life and death… but in the meantime, there are all sorts of things we need saving from. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of hope on a tough day… a reminder that Jesus can calm our fears… the feeling of peace in the midst of stress.

These tulips this morning are beautiful… but like our shouts of Hosanna on Palm Sunday they will wither away… they are unexpected and surprising but they are not permanent. Maybe by the end of the week, our cries of Hosanna will turn into cries of “Crucify Him!”  Maybe by the end of the week, we will find ourselves at the foot of the cross.  Maybe at the end of hte week, we will find ourselves staring into a tomb… but let us walk this last week with Jesus – both the good and the bad –  so that we can experience the true joy of Easter Sunday – a joy that lasts… a joy that endures through even suffering… a joy that comes from Jesus.

Amen and Amen.