On Being Christian

On Being Christian

December 27, 2015
by Sara Wilhelm Garbers
Preaching Pastor, First Covenant Church, Minneapolis

1 John 4:7-21

Our scripture today is 1 John 4:7-21.
Beloved let us love one another because love is from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, whoever does not love does not know God for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way, God sent His only son into the world so that we might live through Him and this is love. Not that we love God, but that He loved us and sent His son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God, if we love one another God lives in us and His love is perfected in us, by this we know that we abide in Him and He in us. Because He has given us of His spirit and we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent His son as the savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the son of God and they abide in God.

So we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this that we may have boldness on the day of judgment because as He is, so are we in this world? There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because He first loved us. Those who say, I love God and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. For those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from Him is this, those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
The word of the Lord.

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Well, good morning. And welcome to the last Sunday of 2015, kind of crazy. Hasn’t felt like it could be that late in December. Has it?

I’m so glad to be here with you all this morning. And for those of you who don’t know, Greg Meland and Linda Rich Meland have become adopted family, have adopted us –I’m not sure which way– to my spouse, Andy and I. So we’re so glad to be here with you. As I was thinking and contemplating about what I wanted to preach about for this morning, I thought I wanted to talk about being Christian. And I wanted to get at it in a particular way, which was to think about love and to think about fear and the interplay between the two and how an invitation might be there for all of us as we look towards 2016 regarding how we might live and be as persons who claim the name of Christ. Now, I come to this work, having for sure not been the first person to ever think about doing a sermon on fear, let alone a person who has written or talked about fear before.

They come to this by way of one of my favorite ethicists, H. Richard Niebuhr. He was a long time professor at Yale and his brother wrote a prayer that many of you may know –The Serenity Prayer. In the prologue to his book, The Responsible Self, he makes an apologetic for his position that he takes in his book, that of Christian moral philosophy. And what he says is he’s doing the work of philosophy thinking about what it means to be human. And he says, that work isn’t so disconnected from the work of other face or of other secularists. But I come to this work from a particular location, as a person who follows Christ, as a person who can’t, but for the way I even know, and conceive of God is as I have come to know this God through Christ. And so when we speak about fear and love, it’s something that all of us, whether we’re thinking about it as people of faith or not, we’ve thought about these things. And yet today I want to ask us to think about them as we think about what it means to be Christian.

Now, my interest in thinking about fear and love, isn’t that out of the blue for me I suppose, faith first became enliven into me because of John 3:16. For God so loved the world that God gave the only son. The other reason that this isn’t so far away from me is because the other side of love often seems to be fear. And I found my way into this I think because in my own years as I was growing up, I lived with a deep sense of fear about this God, and a fear that though God loved me, maybe God didn’t really love me. Maybe none of you have ever struggled with that. Okay. Maybe at least a couple, but what does it mean to have a faith that is actually permeated by and rooted deeply in the sense that we are loved? How does love change and transform us? Maybe another way that I came to wanting to preach a sermon about fear and love is because of my own work in my PhD program. Last spring, I wrote a paper with a colleague of mine about the ethics of belief.

And why is it that though we say things like we believe in the golden rule, or we believe in love. We all know that we fail at it. What is that failing about? How does that come to be? And we ask that question. One of the themes we took up was the operation of fear, which I’ll say a little bit more about. Now, fear maybe you’ve read a little bit about fear, there’s some wonderful psychology books on this topic, some kind of pop self help books. There’s some really great Facebook posts about fear, which again, I’m sure none of you go on Facebook ever. So a few of my favorite Facebook posts about fear in the last few weeks. One was fear has only two causes, the thought of losing what you have or the thought of not getting what you want, fear. Or this one, F-E-A-R, forget everything and run. I like that one or face everything and rise. Or this one, fear is the mind killer.

Well, one doesn’t have to pay too much attention to the news to notice that there’s fear. I’m not going to spend my sermon talking about all of the various stories that we could regarding fear, but we know we could. And in the wake of the Paris shooting and bombings, in the wake of San Bernardino, there’s been an uptick in violence against our Muslim brothers and sisters. I would argue that that’s because of the way that fear operates. There was a wonderful piece written a few weeks ago by a man named Omar Hammed Al-Rikabi, he starts off, I have a Muslim problem, I am a Christian pastor in North Texas, I am also the proud son of a Muslim immigrant family from the middle East and I have a very wonderful and large Muslim family. He continues in his blog post to recount the tension that he himself feels, being both a Christian and a man with a Muslim name, a Muslim family, and a Muslim ethnic identity.

And he talks about how sometimes in the midst of our fears, we lose the ability to remember that his family and others like his family, they’re wrestling with the same things that all of us do. Will my kids grow up and flourish in their life? Will I leave a legacy that’s in line with how I wish to be remembered? Does he like me? I hope that one does, Andy. That’s my spouse in case you didn’t know. He goes on to say that the acts of violence, that that’s not actually a Muslim problem, it’s a human problem. And he says that we need to get our story straight because the Gospel of Christ doesn’t discount anyone from grace and salvation, even terrorists. For instance, take Paul. I don’t know if you remember him, he seemed to have quite a pension for killing Christians and he ended up being the author of most of the New Testament. So what does that play when we fall into a space of fear? And where we don’t see one another as human and where loved becomes impeded from being able to be lived out in our relationships with each other.

Forgive me for one moment for doing something that I never thought I would do in my life, let alone in a sermon, which is to quote, Husserl and speak about phenomenology, neither of which I understand really, but here we go. That’s always a great entry, isn’t it to something? I don’t really know what this is, but, actually I wrote a paper on it, so I’m kidding. But so Husserl, is a philosopher and phenomenology is about the study of the phenomenon basically that you see in front of you. And he argued that when we see that which is before us, we’re rational beings, we should be able to understand it and to apprehend it. I can look at that and I can say, poinsettia those are lots of poinsettias, right? That’s what they are. I should be able to understand this. However, he leaves open the possibility that we can engage in self deception, either willful or due to valuating or other reasons.

And one of his students, Edith Stein talked about this a little bit more, and she talked about how sometimes our empathy becomes blocked. And we’re living in this space sometimes that’s really structured by fear and which fear becomes this way that operates, so we have this tension between identity and difference. And how do I live in this space with this sphere? That fear actually can then prevent us from seeing the realness of the object or the person’s before us. This becomes in a way what we could call a hermeneutics of fear, meaning we see the world then not as it is, but we see the world through fear. And when we’re in this space, it transforms how we see each other and not for the better. But if we just celebrated Christmas as the time of God’s greatest gift of love, I would ask, what type of faith will we have? What type of Christians will we be in this new year? Will we be a people who live in fear or people who believe that love always wins?

And that love has come near and love does restore and redeem and transform even the most broken of anything or anyone. One of my favorite films is a 2000 film, so now you know about how old I must at least be. It’s called Chocolat, anybody seen the movie Chocolat? Okay. Oh, a lot of you. Okay, that makes me happy. So here’s the thing, I actually think it’s a really great image for what faith can look like in our times. What happens is there’s this woman who comes in and she’s this free spirited person. She comes into this small town in France, in the middle of lent and opens a chocolatier. Oh, scandal. Now the vicar or the priest in the town is really not quite happy that she’s tempting all of his parishioners during lent of course with chocolate.

But there’s something more than chocolate that’s happening in her little chocolatier, for the chocolate itself, goes into the space where people, like a woman who’s abused comes and find safety, comes and finds that life can be filled with delicious goodness and joy and energy that they didn’t know because they were too busy being really good French Catholics. And how many times does not faith operate that way for some of us? Where faith becomes a list of morality, do and don’t do this, make sure that you come to church and if you don’t, God will send you to hell or something. But what if instead, faith, isn’t about abstaining from the wrong things, but faith is actually about letting oneself be found by love. Because it seems that that’s actually a much more vulnerable thing, is it not? For those of you who are partnered or those of you who have ever loved anyone ever, you know that love brings with a great joy, but also can bring with it great pain.

Love brings with it a type of vulnerability that opens us up in ways we never thought or expected. And yet, even as a song that was just sung before, now, some of us have known the pain so greatly, but it feels a lot easier to close our hands and say, I’m not going there. And when we live in this space where we say, I’m not going there, we have acknowledged, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what might happen if I opened my hands. And when we live in this space of fear, we have a few options of how we might interact and engage with the world. We either live in that fear where we feel constantly terrorized, we try to avoid our fears and then we’re obsessed, you know anyone like that? They’re terrified of oh no, I can’t fall back into that pattern, so I’ll just actually sit and clench my fist because I’m terrified that it might get me again. And it controls your life. Or we learn to live with our fears and is this not courage? It’s not that fear disappears and goes away.

The verb here actually in Greek, in the passage from 1 John, it’s not a past tense word, love, isn’t a one and done sort of thing. Love is something that changes and transforms us over time. Love is that which invites and calls us forth over and again, it’s the way we turn towards each other. It’s the way that we wake up and actually look ourselves in the mirror and try to give ourself grace. It’s the way that we move into a world that might look a lot less certain, but a world that is so much more rich and filled with the color and life that love gives and provides. I wanted to share a poem with you about this, it’s called, The World I Live In, it’s by Mary Oliver. I have refused to live locked in the orderly house of reasons and proofs, the world that I live in and believe in is wider than that. And anyway, what’s wrong with maybe? You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I have seen, I’ll just tell you this. Only if there are angels in your head will you ever possibly see one.

So as we move into this new year, I wonder what it would look like for us to move into the love of God, to be a people who are so transformed by it, who are so marked by this in ways that don’t make sense. Turn the other cheek, love your enemies, be willing to go to the point of death for people who’ve rejected you. Love invites and calls us all and love also heals and restores its mystery. It gives us dreams, it enlivens the future and it humanizes us to each other. Love humanizes us to ourselves. This is not about the absence of fear, but it’s about the way that we, to quote a book, feel the fear and do it anyway. It’s about the call of this Christ and a faith that says to us, dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God, whoever does not know love, does not know God, because God is love.

This is how God showed loved among us, God sent the one and only son into the world that we might live through Christ. This is love. Not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent the son as a sacrifice for our sin. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another for no one has ever seen God. But if we love one another God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we live in God and God in us. God has given us God’s spirit and we have seen and testified that the God has sent the son to be the savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know, and we rely upon the love that God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love, lives in God. This is how love is made complete among us, so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment.

In this world, we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love, but perfect or perfecting love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because He first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar, for whoever does not love their brother or sister who they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. And God has given us this command. Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. May our 2016 be filled and transformed by the love of God and may it change our fear into a faith that changes our world. Amen.