The Abiding Love of God- Sermon for May 2, 2021 from Pastor John

Sermon for May 2, 2021

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     In my Canadian days religion was taught in the public school, probably a World religions class. A confirmation student approached me and told me she knew a great deal about God. She made it clear this did not come from my confirmation instruction, but from her school class. To understand God, she said, you must think of the three big O’s. She explained God is all-powerful or omnipotent. God is also all-wise, or omniscient. And finally God is everywhere or omnipresent. She sounded quite impressive speaking terminology that was inspired by Latin.

The reading from the first letter of John also talked of knowing God. The text did not talk directly about God’s wisdom, power, or presence. The emphasis was love: “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.” It is very clear and simple reminding us of the verse many of us know by heart, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” God is and will always be a lover, and all those other attributes we mentioned, power, wisdom, and presence come from God’s love. The love of God did not just show up when Jesus came to the world for the confession of Israel proclaimed “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

So we may ask, how does the love of God reveal power? We heard in the lesson, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” I have this wonderful devotional written by a Roman Catholic priest who is now a cardinal, Timothy Dolan. You may have seen him on TV, often interviewed because he has such a friendly and kindly demeanor. He told of a time when he was bringing Communion to a man who could not move at all, confined to his bed. But he could blink his eyes, and that was a way of communicating with his wife. Father Dolan would visit with the man, and his wife would translate her husband’s eye-blinking. Through this she could see that he was requesting some water, so his wife excused herself for a moment as she went to her kitchen. While she was gone Father Dolan noticed that her husband seemed agitated and upset about something. When the man’s wife returned the priest told her that her husband seemed upset about something. She knew what it was at once. She told Father Dolan, “You are standing in the wrong place”. This was perplexing so she said “Where you are standing is blocking his view of the crucifix on the wall.” What a statement of this man’s faith. In his bed of illness and suffering, he wanted to look at the cross of Jesus. There is a well-known evangelical hymn “There is power in the blood, power in the blood of the lamb”. This is what atoning sacrifice means. The all-powerful Son of God revealed power by giving up power and coming to the world, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. And on the third arise again. There is power when we gaze at the cross; he gave up power so to reveal the power of love that takes away sin and heals the broken relationship with God.

So we ask yet another question, how does the love of God reveal the wisdom of God? The love of God is meant to change our lives. The text said, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” An epidemiologist often interviewed on the news, Michael Osterholm said he “worries that we are trying to get through this pandemic with a vaccine without truly exploring our soul.” Naturally with a deadly virus so virulent we are worried about staying physically healthy. So it may be a new thought to ponder the well-being of our souls, what guides our attitudes and actions toward others in the world. We hear of people who want to return to normal activities—without thinking of the dangers to themselves and others. How many times do people complain about wearing a mask thinking it is a violation of their freedom? There are deeper fault lines as well, such as why are the poor and often people of color often left defenseless against the virus? Church leadership has been encouraged to promote vaccinations so to help the country reach what is known as ‘herd immunity’. But what can protect our souls from selfishness and attitudes of hate? The wisdom of God anchors our souls in the love of God: “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 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.”

Health for the soul depends on how we see, know, and understand one another. Tensions and hate-filled thoughts and words arise when we do not truly see the other person we dislike. We become hateful and troublesome when others do not think like us, look like us, speak like us, or have the same political views as us. We find others a threat due to fear. People perpetuate hate-crimes against Asian Americans because they think the Chinese are at fault for the COVID virus. People may have no compassion for people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras coming to the U.S. seeking asylum thinking they are criminals or they will become a burden on tax-payer funded social services. Such attitudes cause the soul to be sick. Yes, wisdom is needed for dealing with such issues in society, but hate groups are not wisdom in action. The text today talked about fear: “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.” Fear has its own power which can hurt the soul and stop the progress of God’s love living through us. But we all can be afraid, and in this time of pandemic fear can be an invading force that can push back the better angels of our natures.

But we are not left alone with our fears. The power of God’s love is known in God’s presence in whatever our situations. The key word we heard in the second lesson and the Gospel is ‘abide’. From the second lesson we heard “By this we know that we abide in him, and he in us, because he has given us his Spirit. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Savior of the world, and so we have known and believe the love that God has for us.” In the gospel lesson Jesus said “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” We are to be connected to Jesus, as the branch is to the vine, to receive the nourishment of his steadfast love and steady presence. We also heard in the reading from 1 John, “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 the world.” We are to have confidence for the Day of Judgment since we trust Jesus who has taken away all our sins and remembers them no more. So we are to be bold followers of Jesus, for as he is, so are we. Confident of his presence we are to step out in each day boldly asking Jesus to guide us and be instruments of his love.

I read a story about a man named Denver Moore, an African-American who spent some time homeless. One day, a car drove up, and an elderly man was pushed out on the sidewalk. The man was drunk, and when Denver Moore tried to help him up, the man spat at him and cursed him and used vile racial slurs against him. You would think Denver Moore would take the hint that the old man did not want any help. But Denver decided to be bold and helped him off the pavement and into the homeless shelter. The elderly man’s name was a Mr. Ballantine. He learned that Mr. Ballantine hated people of color and Christians. But Denver was both of these, and he did not stop looking after the old man.

Even when Mr. Ballantine was put into a government operated nursing home, Denver would visit and cleaned his room. At every visit Mr. Ballanine cursed him and called him names. This went on for three years and still Denver Moore would not take the hint. Then one day Denver bought him a package of cigarettes. Ballantine seemed troubled finally asking “Why are you doing all this?” Finally Moore told him, “Because I am a Christian.” Finally Mr. Ballantine had a change of heart, and even apologized for all the hateful speech. Denver Moor even took Ballantine to church, and he enjoyed it. It was the first time the 85 year old man had set foot inside a church. Denver Moore said the reason he helped Mr. Ballantine for three years was he knew God loved him. For years Denver Moore endured abusive language and would not take the hint he was not wanted. His boldness came from the Holy Spirit, the abiding love of God who guided him with love for the man.

I smiled last Wednesday during the snack time with the Confirmation class. One of the students had trouble unwrapping an ice-cream bar, the wrapper was sticky and hard to remove. But another member of the class helped her with that little dilemma. The student turned to me and said, “This is why I need people in my life.” We can be wrapped up in our fears and this is why we need the church, the people of God in our lives. May we be bold and witness to the power, wisdom, and presence of God, all centered in the perfect love of Jesus for us all.

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