Monday, May 25, 2009

Only the Lonely

Sermon preached May 24, 2009

Texts: Psalm 88 (The Message); I Kings 19:1-13a; Mark 1:35-39

There is a red box in the atrium in which you can place suggestions for sermons. One of the suggestions in the box asks about what we might read that could be helpful, and while I am preaching today on a question drawn from the box, it is not that one. I will use that one some other time this summer.
While the question for today is not about reading, I want to begin by sharing with you a short passage from a book I just finished reading this week – Jon Hassler, North of Hope. Hassler was a Minnesota writer and North of Hope is set in Minnesota. It is the story of a young man who becomes a priest and of the young woman he loved in high school who has come back into his life now that they are both in their mid 40s. Libby is the woman’s name, and Libby has had a difficult life. You need to understand a little about this for the passage I want to share to make sense. Libby has been divorced twice, and her third husband is a doctor who has been sleeping with Libby’s daughter. It began when she was 16 and now the daughter is twenty-six and has been hospitalized for mental health reasons. The doctor has also been supplying drugs to a local tavern owner who has been selling them. Because she had discovered that this man had been sleeping with her daughter, Libby has left him. Just before the scene I am about to read Libby has just found out that her husband has died and she has asked her friend the priest to sleep with her, but he wouldn’t. This is just the kind of book you would expect your pastor to be reading – I know.
Rising from the bed, she had gone into the front room and looked out at Noonan’s Car Wash and the Buena Vista Apartments and was struck by the absurdity of living alone at age forty-four on a grimy street in a frigid city of strangers. She was unable to afford a used car. She was unable to get along with her daughter. She’d had a dolt and two perverts for husbands. She was so unbearably lonely that she’d frightened off the only good man she’d ever known by stripping like a whore in front of him. It was a relief to recognize after forty-four years of mistakes that they could all be gathered together and thought of as one overriding mistake. The mistake of having been born. (411)
Know what? I recommend this book.
The question that I pulled from the box was this: How can we experience loneliness in satisfying ways? How can we find God when alone? It is a good question for this weekend - the weekend of gratitude and remembrance. My earliest memories of Memorial Day are going with my mom and dad to her parents graves at Park Hill cemetery. Her parents died about a year apart when my mom was in her twenties – and I was only about 4 or 5. Loneliness is often a part of the experience of grief. This week I lost a great aunt, a woman who was like a third grandmother to me, and grief has again visited my door – and loneliness often comes calling as well.
Loneliness. The passage I read from North of Hope, set in the context of the story, may seem dramatic. But the experience of loneliness is real and sometimes deep and dramatic. It has always been so. Why God do you turn a deaf ear? Why do you make yourself scarce? For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting…. You made lover and neighbor alike dump me; the only friend I have left is Darkness. (Psalm 88) Can we experience loneliness in satisfying ways? Where is God in the midst of loneliness and can we connect with God there? What might our faith have to say about loneliness – about those times in our lives when we sing “only the lonely know the way I feel tonight”? I want to offer four succinct points.
The first point is that we will all know loneliness in our lives. I sometimes marvel at the paradox. We live in a crowded world. I believe that we are relational beings at our core, created for relationship and constituted by our relationships. Yet in this busy, crowded, relational world we experience loneliness – sometimes fleetingly and not too deeply, and at other times very deeply and profoundly. What makes Hassler’s novel work in the passage I read is that we can imagine unbearable loneliness because we have brushed up against it. The Psalmists words make sense because we may know at least something of what it is like to have darkness as our only friend. Henri Nouwen in his book Reaching Out, writes perceptively about loneliness. “Loneliness is one of the most universal human experiences…. It is an experience that enters into everyone’s life at some point” (14). Ironically, you don’t even need to be alone to feel lonely. Some of us know what it is like to feel quite alone in a room full of people. Teenage years, when we are often with people almost constantly can yet produce times of crushing loneliness, when we are afraid to share some important facet of ourselves for fear of being ridiculed or ostracized.
We will all know loneliness. Can there be some positive responses? What might our faith have to say to us?
My second point about loneliness is the first of three responses I think our faith suggests. Sometimes we should seek to work our way out of loneliness by finding friends. Okay, so this is not necessarily the most profound advice ever given, but still it is true. Maybe that begins by admitting our loneliness. One of the beauties of the Psalms is the range of human emotion they capture and Psalm 88, by expressing a deep loneliness invites us to admit to ourselves that we can be lonely. We don’t need to hide that. Some days we are going to have lousy days, and a part of that could be feeling terribly alone. One response, then, is to reach out to make friends. I didn’t quote a Scripture text for this point today, focusing readings on other parts of loneliness, but there are plenty of places in the New Testament where Christians are encouraged to embrace others, to love and care for others, to make friends. When we are lonely, we can seek out friends, and one irony in all this is that after admitting our loneliness, we often need to bracket it to be a good friend to others. It is my experience that beginning a conversation with “I am desperately lonely, will you be my friend,” is not often the best first move in a friendship. It may be what we are feeling, but we would do well to open ourselves to the other, to make friends by being a good friend and asking how others are doing.
But loneliness is not that easily avoided. We have friends, and still will have times of loneliness. Can it ever be satisfying? Where is God in the midst of this? Knowing that loneliness cannot always be avoided through friendship, we also need times when we embrace loneliness. I appreciate the way Henri Nouwen puts it: Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude (22). The Scriptures have many examples of people turning loneliness into solitude, some even seeking solitude. Elijah, lonely and despondent, has the desert of loneliness turned into solitude as God speaks to him in “a sound of sheer silence.” Jesus takes time away to go to a deserted place to pray.
What do we discover when we embrace our loneliness, stay with it awhile, and let it become solitude? I think we discover something of ourselves in that process. Jazz critic Stanley Crouch wrote a review of a new book about Duke Ellington in the most recent issue of Harper’s. I read it in-between chapters of Hassler’s book. In his article, Crouch makes this profound observation. People are uncomfortable in silence because it can breed needless contemplation and may engender a floating into the deeper world of the self (June 2009, 73). In silence and solitude, we can plumb depths within that remain hidden in a busy and noisy world. Not everything we discover within will be to our liking, but it is there and needs to be acknowledged and woven more or less helpfully into our lives. When those deeper dimensions of ourselves are woven into our lives unconsciously it is usually less helpful than if we can do this consciously. Solitude allows for that.
But this plunge into the deeper self is not narrowly self-absorbed. Knowing ourselves more deeply makes us better able to enter into relationships, friendships, love. Thomas Merton, a writer and Trappist monk once wrote: It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them. It is pure affection and filled with reverence for the solitude of others. (in Nouwen, 28). The poet Rilke, whose Letters to a Young Poet seem to be finding their way into recent sermons, wrote in one of those letters about the relationship between love and solitude. Solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person… it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself…. Love consists in this: the two solitudes protect and border and greet each other. (Seventh letter).
When we embrace our loneliness, stay with it awhile, and let it become solitude, I think we also discover something more of God. Next week we will celebrate Pentecost and the encounter of a crowd of people with God’s Spirit. But if the history of Christian spirituality is any indication, God is often encountered in quiet, in solitude. So strong is this tradition that a person like the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead could write in his book Religion in the Making: Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness…. Religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never religious. (Religion in the Making in Anthology, 472). In solitude we discover the truth proclaimed in a statement of faith used by the United Church of Canada: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.” Elijah, lonely, despairing, wondering if his ministry is over and if his life should be, discovers solitude in the desert and hears the voice of God in the sound of sheer silence. Jesus, in the morning, while it was still dark, got up and went out to a deserted place to pray. The techniques to seeking God in solitude are many – verbal prayer, meditative prayer, silent prayer, focusing on the Scriptures – but God can be found when we are alone. In fact, God is often found when we are alone, when loneliness becomes solitude.
I cannot leave a discussion of loneliness and Christian faith without making a final point. Loneliness is a part of the human experience. We will all know it, and sometimes we will know its deep pain. If we sometimes know that, we need then to remember that others are lonely. Ah, look at all the lonely people, and these lonely people are people loved by God, people who God might want to reach through us. Psychologist Anthony Storr writes in one of his books: “to be able to be totally disregarded as a person is a kind of death in life against which we are compelled to fight with all of our strength” (quoted in Leo Buscaglia, Living, Loving, and Learning, 144). There are people in the world who feel totally disregarded as persons, people whose experiences of loneliness are long and painful and whose experiences of loneliness tend only toward isolation and not toward solitude. As Christians we need to reach out to such people in love and care. One wonderful part of the wedding liturgy in The United Methodist Church is the charge given all those at the wedding to “bear witness to the love of God in this world, so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.”
When a song comes on the radio that sings: “only the lonely” we know we are included, or when we hear “this is for all the lonely people” we know we are among them. Yet the truth of our faith is that God is with us always, so that our loneliness might be a solitude in which we learn more deeply about ourselves, a solitude in which we hear the voice of God in the sound of sheer silence. Out of that solitude we are to love, to seek friends and to be good friends, especially to the most desperately lonely people in the world, those who feel completely disregarded. May we so bear witness to the love of God in this world so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends. Amen.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Uno Dos Tres

Sermon preached May 17, 2009

Text: John 15:9-17

I want to begin this morning with a confession. I sometimes search the internet for humor to incorporate into my sermons. Searching the internet has its associated risks. For instance searching the internet for information about pasties might lead you to recipes for Cornish meat pastries or to sites about burlesque costumes.
So I was searching for humor about the complexity of life the other day and I came across a site with over thirty pages of math humor – it is almost as if the number of math jokes is infinite! One of the humor lines goes like this: Math is like love; a simple idea, but it can get complicated.
Life is like that – simple and complex. When our thinking about life gets too simple, we probably need to be reminded of its complexity – and when it gets too complex, some simplicity might be a good thing. The jazz artist Charles Mingus is quoted as saying: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
So in our complex world, where can we look for creative simplicity, for a simplicity that does justice to the complicated beauty and mystery of the world yet helps guide us to a better life, for a simplicity that is not simplistic?
As Christians, we look to Jesus for that kind of creative simplicity, and we find it. Remember that Jesus’ faith tradition was a faith tradition that understood the purpose of God to be embodied in over 600 commandments. Now that is not a bad thing – boiling life down to 600 plus commandments – at least it is a finite number. But Jesus seemed dissatisfied with the way some understood these rules, these commandments. It is not that he necessarily objected to any of the commandments themselves, only to their misuse and misinterpretation. He seemed to think that there was a core to these commandments that some of the religious teachers of his time were neglecting, and he sought to make that core clear. He argued that one’s relationship to God and to others could be simplified. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you abide in my love…. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…. You are my friends if you do what I command you…. Go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…. Love one another.”
In the midst of this complex and complicated world, how do we find our way, how do we make sense of our lives, what does God ask of us, how should we treat each other? Jesus, with creative simplicity says, “Love.” He asks us to imagine our lives as fruit bearing plants – grow, take in nourishment from the sun and the earth and grow, spread, and bear fruit – and the fruit is love.
Love is certainly not simple in what it asks of us sometimes. The poet Rilke, in another place in his Letters to a Young Poet, writes (Seventh letter): Love is a high inducement for individuals to ripen, to strive to mature in the inner self, to manifest maturity in the outer world…. This is a great, demanding task, it calls one to expand one’s horizons. Maturing, expanding – these are not easy tasks and often not simple tasks. Another writer I have recently read argues that “the more honest we are with ourselves, the better our chances for living a satisfying and useful life” - - - something like Rilke’s love inviting us to maturing the inner self and manifesting maturity in the outer world. She goes on to say, however, “honesty about our own motives does not come easily to us” (Nancy McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 1). What love asks of us is often not simple, especially in our complicated world.
Yet when we see in love our life’s work, the fruit we should bear, the way we should reflect God in our lives, there is a creative simplicity in that. We know something of the way forward, something of who God is and what God asks of us.
But perhaps just a little more elaboration would be helpful, and for that we might look to the person whose interpretation of the Jesus tradition, of Christian faith, started the movement which became The United Methodist Church – John Wesley. John Wesley believed that love was our life’s work, the fruit our lives should bear, that love was the nature and name of God and that when we loved we best reflected God in our own lives. Wesley also thought we might need just a bit more direction than the single encouragement to love provides – so he came up with a simple plan for loving – as simple as one, two three - - - or in our global world as simple as: uno, dos , tres; an, der twas; eins, zwei, drei; or (especially for my friend Armas) yksi, kaksi, kolme.
John Wesley, as he was providing some structure for spiritual renewal groups, offered three rules that became known as “The General Rules of The Methodist Church” and have appeared in The Book of Discipline of our church since 1808. Here they are, the three simple rules Wesley used to elaborate on what it meant to live love: Do no harm, do good, attend to all the ordinances of God (things like worship, Scripture reading, prayer, communion).
Like love, these three simple rules can get complicated pretty quickly, and Wesley was not always good about keeping the simple rules simple. He often elaborated with lengthier lists about what each of these rules meant – and sometimes those elaborations were more helpful than others. When Wesley thought about do no harm he included things like wearing gold and costly apparel, but he also included “the giving or taking things on usury – unlawful interest” – perhaps a more applicable concept in our time. On doing good, Wesley is most often quoted as saying: Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can. Wonderful and inspiring, but maybe tiring, too. Wesley was not always a model of self-care.
But even if these rules can get complicated sometimes, they remain helpful sign posts for living a life of love. They seem a fine example of creative simplicity, and part of the testimony to that is their recent updating by retired United Methodist bishop Rueben Job. Job has recently published a wonderful brief book entitled Three Simple Rules: a Wesleyan way of living. And how does Bishop Job update Wesley’s rules – as follows: Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. Bishop Job’s words about these three simple rules are moving, and I share some of them with you.
There are three simple rules that have the power to change the world. While they are ancient, they have seldom been put fully to the test. But when and where practiced, the world of things as they were was shaken until a new formation, a new world was formed.
We live in such a fast-paced, frenzied, and complicated world that it is easy to believe we are all trapped into being someone we do not wish to be and living a life we do not desire to live. We long for some way to cut through the complexities and turbulence of everyday life. We search for a way to overcome the divisiveness that separates, disparages, disrespects, diminishes, and leaves us wounded and incomplete….
I believe we have reached a place where, as a people of faith, we are ready to give serious consideration to another way, a more faithful way of living as disciples of Jesus Christ. This way must be so clear that it can be taught and practiced by everyone. It must be accessible and inviting to young and old, rich and poor, powerful and weak, and those of every theological persuasion. It is a large order, but we already have in our hands the blueprint for this way of living. And with God’s help and our willingness, it can change our world….
Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.
These rules are simple, but the way is not easy. Only those with great courage will attempt it, and only those with great faith will be able to walk this exciting and demanding way. There are many other options for us to choose, but they are all lesser options and lead to lesser results that range from poor to disastrous.
[7, 9, 10, 62]
Life is complicated and complex and I have little interest in searching for a simplicity that simplifies by ignoring the richness of life. I yearn for a creative simplicity, though, that gives direction and shape to life. I hear that in the invitation of Jesus to love, to let my life bear the fruit of love. I hear it in the Wesleyan elaboration on the Jesus tradition to love – do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. Of course these three simple rules might themselves be complicated sometimes. There will be times when I am unsure of what they ask of me, but in a creative way they can shape my life, our lives. They point a direction. They invite forward movement.
I believe that as we seek to follow Jesus command to love by following these three simple rules – do no harm, do good, stay in love with God – our lives will change as we mature and ripen within and expand our horizons, our church will change as we grow in our ability to be a transformative place, our world will change as we manifest love and maturity in it.
The way is always open, and we can always begin again – one, two, three; uno dos, tres; an, der, twas; eins, zwei drei; yksi, kaksi, kolme. Go! Amen.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Choosey People

Sermon preached May 10, 2009 (Confirmation, Mother’s Day)

Texts: I John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

A Mom asks her son who has just rushed in from school, “Do you want dinner?” “What are my choices?” he asks. “Yes or no,” replies his mother. The comedian Buddy Hackett used to say that his family menu when he was growing up had two items – take it or leave it.
As human beings we make choices. It is an important part of what it means to be human – making choices. We are a “choosey people.” But just because we are a choosey people in that sense does not mean we are a choosey people in the other sense – people who tend to make good choices. The fact is in all our choosing, we will make some good and some not so good decisions. I recently came across this list of signs that tell you you made a poor hotel choice:
• The complimentary news paper tells you that President Nixon just resigned
• The mint on the pillow starts moving when you come close to it
• Behind the picture on the wall are holes left by previous guests
• You have to wait until the guy next door is done with the towel so you can use it
• There’s a chalk outline on the bed when you pull back the covers
• The continental breakfast comes from the day old bakery next door

Unfortunately, we have all probably stayed at a place like that at least once in our lives. I remember the year I was appointed a district superintendent and had a training meeting in North Carolina. Our family decided to take a few vacation days and travel to Florida. We made an on-line hotel reservation in Orlando. When we arrived at our hotel we discovered that the room we had had a door to the outside and that door had a big enough gap on the bottom to accommodate small animals. We left that hotel.
Hopefully, the poor choices we make in life are about little things like hotels, or meals, or clothes (you know, the shirt you buy that looks great in the store but when you get it home somehow the trip transformed it into something hideous). We can probably not avoid every poor choice we will make in life, but one thing is certain, we cannot not choose - we are a choosey people.
The Scriptures that members of last year’s confirmation class, read, affirm that about human beings – that we have to make choices. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples over and over again, “abide in me.” They have a choice. They can abide in Jesus or not. They can continue down the road of faith, they can choose to endure, or not. Eugene Peterson translates “abide” as “make you home with.” Jesus is telling the disciples that they will need to choose again and again to make their home in Jesus and let him live in them.
In I John, early Christians are also asked to choose. They are asked to choose love – “let us love one another.” The writer makes his point strongly. You cannot claim to love God while not loving others – your sisters and brothers in the community of faith, your sisters and brothers in the world around you.
God created us as choosey people, as people with the power to choose.
Confirmation is about choices, about informed choices. This year’s confirmation class has been together and Julie and I have been their teachers for the past two years. It has been our pleasure to work with you. Before saying more about the content of confirmation, I want to say a few words about the class members.
Edited for privacy purposes

And so we have all been together for these past two years learning about being choosey people, learning about making informed choices.
Confirmation is about informed choices. At the end of confirmation you get to choose – will I celebrate the completion of confirmation, will I also affirm Christian faith, will I also join the church? Confirmation is about making adult choices about life and faith and church, but making such choices requires some information. How do you make choices when you don’t really know what the choices are? So we have talked together about Christian faith. Last year we focused on different passages from the Bible to talk about faith and life: the creation story to talk about God’s creativity and our responsibility for the environment, the story of Moses to talk about what it might mean to be a reluctant leader, the story of David to see how God uses even very flawed people to accomplish wonderful things, the prophets demand for justice, Jesus as teacher and healer, his death teaching us that God never leaves us even in the bleakest moments, and his resurrection which tells us that we are never without hope. We looked at New Testament letters to discover what living together in faith and grace is about. This year we spent time focused again on Jesus, God and the Bible. Then we talked about the church and The United Methodist Church. We talked about prayer and prayed. We talked about living Christian faith through compassion, justice, care for creation and breaking down barriers, and we concluded by discussing making choices as Christians.
Making choices – God created us to be a choosey people, people who need to choose. Now you in this year’s confirmation class know more about what choosing to be a Christian is all about, and the choice is yours. But the choice to live as a disciple of Jesus, to live Christian faith is not a once and for all choice. It is a part of the choices we make every day – not so much the choices of what to wear or what to eat, but the choices of who we will be, of what kind of person we want to be, of how we will treat others, of how we will live in relationship to others and to the world and to God.
In a few moments I am going to ask you – “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?” Evil and wickedness will not disappear because you say “I do.” We watched part of the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” to help us understand the strange language of “spiritual forces of wickedness” – and we saw them. Spiritual forces of wickedness are those attitudes and structures that dehumanize others. Tom Robinson, an African-American man is routinely called “boy.” It is a spiritual force of wickedness which entrapped many. The prosecuting attorney is shocked that Tom feels pity for a white woman, as if an African-American is incapable of this human emotion. While the film is set in the south during the depression, such dehumanizing attitudes have not gone from the planet, and you will choose whether or not to continue to reject them. We see spiritual forces of wickedness when we hear the story of a man whose entire life was torn apart by drug use, and he ended up shooting himself in a police stand-off – not in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, but up the North Shore (Quincy Pederson). We see spiritual forces of wickedness when we see stories about human trafficking, as on Frontline this past Tuesday night. There I was at home thinking about confirmation and how best to explain the strange language of spiritual forces of wickedness, and there they were.
Then you will be asked, “Will you use the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” And we watched as Atticus Finch used his freedom, his intellect, his integrity to defend Tom Robinson, and we can look to Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others to teach us what this means. But we will have to choose again and again and again to use our freedom and power wisely and well.
Then I will ask you, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all people.” As I think about this question I am reminded of the words author David Foster Wallace used at the commencement address for Kenyon College in 2005, now published as This is Water: Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship eats you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life –then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough…. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you…. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. You don’t get to choose whether or not to worship, but you do get to choose what to worship, and you have to make that choice again and again.
Such choices, even when informed choices may seem like a lot to ask of fourteen and fifteen year olds, but you are making all kinds of choices about your lives right now, and the choice of how you will use your freedom, your power, your gifts, the choice of what you will worship happens now. But this choice is not just made once, now. All of us need to keep making choices about how we will use our freedom and power. All of us need to keep making choices about who or what we will worship. All of us need to make choices about renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, about resisting evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
So today as you are making choices about abiding with Jesus, about living with integrity and love, about renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, about resisting evil, injustice and oppression, about who you will worship and who you will follow, we make these choices again. Today you make choices and I invite you to build on these choices in the years to come. We are here as a church to help you do that and you join us to help us do that too.
The writer Ernest Becker once wrote: religion is an experience and not merely a set of intellectual concepts to meditate upon, it has to be lived (Denial of Death, 272). Christian faith is not a single choice, but continuing choices about life. It is not simply what you learn in confirmation, it is how you live your life from here on out. Continue to look to Jesus. Continue to struggle against all that dehumanizes. Continue to use your freedom and power to love. We are with you. God is with us all. We can love because we were first loved by God. It is up to us to respond to that love as we choose, day in and day out. Amen.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Gospel According to Elton John

Sermon preached May 3, 2009

Texts: Acts 4:5-12; I John 3:16-24

Last week I asked you about a singer, Susan Boyle, and many of you knew who she was – the woman who has gained fame from the YouTube broadcast of her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent. So this week I am going to begin with another question about a singer – Elton John. How many of you have heard of him? Shout out some of the songs you know sung by Elton John.
I don’t remember the first Elton John song I ever heard. I would guess that it might have been “Rocket Man” or “Crocodile Rock,” but I do remember one of the most memorable songs of his I have heard – and I want to play it for you. I hope you will be patient and listening for the next three plus minutes. [see end of the post for a link to YouTube and this song)
It is a simple song simply titled “Love Song.” But the first time I heard it was not in the Elton John version. I first heard “Love Song” at a place called the Solid Rock in Superior – a Christian coffee house. Among those in the band playing the song were Mark, who is now an Episcopal bishop in Canada; John, who is a physician here in Duluth; and Larry, a hippie turned Christian whose family lived across the street from mine when I was growing up. They played the song along with others in order to share and celebrate Christian faith, and I think they were right to do so. The gospel is here in this Elton John song.

The words I have to say, may well be simple but they’re true
Until you give your love, there’s nothing more that we can do.

Love is the opening door
Love is what we came here for
No one could offer you more
Do you know what I mean?
Have your eyes really seen?

Love is the key we must turn
Truth is the flame we must burn
Freedom the lesson we must learn
Do you know what I mean?
Have your eyes really seen?

This is what we hear in our Scriptures for today. “Let it be known to all of you, and to all… that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (Acts 4:10). There is certainly more to this story from Acts than this, but it is certainly one important part of the story – Jesus Christ heals and frees, and Peter and John have done a good deed for someone sick out of love for that person and out of love for Jesus.
“Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action…. And this is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.” (I John 3:18, 23) Love is the opening door, love is what we came here for, no one could offer you more. Do you know what I mean? Have your eyes really seen? The man healed by Peter and John had been healed and freed by God’s love known in Jesus Christ. That’s the good news – God’s love is powerful to heal our broken places. That’s the good news, we are invited to know that love and to share that love in truth and action.
This past week I received an invitation to speak next fall at the College of St. Scholastica. I was asked if I would be a part of a series, “What Do Protestants Think About…” The topic for Methodists is “what do Methodists think about perfection.” In some ways it is a daunting task, though I have already said “yes.” It is daunting in part because it is hazardous business to try and say what United Methodists might say about anything. When you get two United Methodists in a room, you probably have three opinions! (I might use that!) One place I will turn is to John Wesley, and especially to his brief definition of Christian perfection. By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes, words, and actions. (“Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection” January 27, 1767). These words remind me of the words of another British subject: Love is the opening door, love is what we came here for, no one could offer you more. Do you know what I mean? Have your eyes really seen?
Last week I also said we, as Christians are flawed but called people. We are called by God to know we are loved. We are called by God to nurture love in our innermost beings. We are called by God to let love flow through us to touch the world for its healing, its well-being - - - good health in the name of Jesus Christ.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who I also quoted last week on loving and living the questions, wrote in the same Letters to a Young Poet: Love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. (Letter 7, p. 68)
Love is difficult. We may be flawed people, but God calls us to the difficult task of love – the difficult tasks of love, for love is encompassing. Love is the opening door - Love is what we came here for - No one could offer you more - Love is the key we must turn - Truth is the flame we must burn - Freedom the lesson we must learn. Somehow all that is encompassed in love – truth, freedom - - - to which we would add justice and peace and reconciliation and beauty. Love is difficult in many ways, but it is difficult in one way because of how much it asks: concern for the hungry, justice for the poor, inclusion of the excluded, care of the earth, peace-making, healthy interpersonal relationships – including marriage and parenting, love of self, and maybe hardest of all – love of enemies. Even as we strive diligently in love to reduce the number of enemies anyone may have, we realistically know that there will be enemies, and we are to love them. It is difficult – as difficult as discerning whether or not harsh interrogation techniques are consistent with love of enemies.
Good songs and good poems share similarities. They seek to move us with their words, they seek to open the world up to us just a little more. “Love Song” does that, and does it in part because of the way it communicates the gospel. Here is a poem that also does that.

Late Fragment Raymond Carver (All of Us, 294)

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Do you know yourself beloved on the earth? Do you feel that? Love is what we come here for and if we as a church are not communicating our belovedness before God, then we need to make some changes. Do you know what I mean? Have your eyes really seen?
We are beloved by the God of Jesus Christ who wishes us well, desires our well-being in community with others and the world. As beloved of God we are to share that love lavishly, difficult as that task can be.

Sabbath Poem I, 1998, Wendell Berry, Given, 55

Whatever happens,
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
to the lasting world
and will not leave,
whatever happens.

Love is the bottom line of Christian faith, of the good news in Jesus Christ, of the gospel. Love is the opening door, love is what we came here for, no one could offer you more.
This week I attended a workshop on worship and one of the speakers was hymn writer Marty Haugen. Marty shared a story told him by a friend, a pastor. In Albuquerque a single mother had two children, the oldest of whom was five. One day the five year old ran out into the street and was struck and killed by a police officer. During the time following the death, while the pastor was visiting the mother, the chief of police paid a call. When he arrived the first thing the mother said to him was I forgive the police officer, the police department, the city. It was not your fault. The chief of police was stunned to tears. On the day of the funeral the pastor noticed a quiet Latino man at the back of the church, and soon determined that he was the officer whose car had struck the dead child. After the service, during the dinner that followed, the pastor noticed the single mother sitting with the officer, and the pastor told Marty Haugen, looking in that young man’s eyes, I saw salvation.
That pastor could see salvation because that mother had given love to someone who desperately needed to know he was beloved on the earth. He was now standing before others in good health, better health, in the name of Jesus Christ. A young mother, grieving the loss of her child, loved in truth and in action. Love is the opening door, love is what we came here for, no one could offer you more. Do you know what I mean? So whatever happens, love and be loved, whatever happens. When economic downturns happen, love. When the flu threatens our world, love. When terrorism strikes fear, love. When you hurt and grieve, love. Whatever happens love. Know yourself loved, call yourself beloved. Do you know what I mean?

Elton John, "Love Song"