7 My dear friends, we must love each other. Love comes from God, and when we love each other, it shows that we have been given new life. We are now God’s children, and we know him. 8 God is love, and anyone who doesn’t love others has never known him. 9 God showed his love for us when he sent his only Son into the world to give us life. 10 Real love isn’t our love for God, but his love for us. God sent his Son to be the sacrifice by which our sins are forgiven. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us this much, we must love each other.
This text from which I am preaching is not assigned for today. The theme for this fourth Sunday in Advent is love. What I found in the assigned texts was politics. You who know me are surprised that I wold pass up any passage that encouraged talk about politics.
Micah 5: Jerusalem, enemy troops have surrounded you; they have struck Israel’s ruler in the face with a stick.
2 Bethlehem Ephrath, you are one of the smallest towns in the nation of Judah. But the Lord will choose one of your people to rule the nation—someone whose family goes back to ancient times. 3 The Lord will abandon Israel only until this ruler is born, and the rest of his family returns to Israel. 4 Like a shepherd taking care of his sheep, this ruler will lead and care for his people by the power and glorious name of the Lord his God. His people will live securely, and the whole earth will know his true greatness, 5 because he will bring peace.
If Micah were speaking today, would we think he was talking about his favorite political candidate?
Luke 1: 51 The Lord has used his powerful arm to scatter those who are proud.
52 He drags strong rulers from their thrones and puts humble people in places of power.
53 God gives the hungry good things to eat, and sends the rich away with nothing.
54 He helps his servant Israel and is always merciful to his people.
55 The Lord made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his family forever!
Even the idealized world in Mary’s song is about conquering and dividing people.
Both the Micah passage and the Lukan passage imply winners and losers, lines drawn strictly between those who are God’s favorites and those who are God’s enemies.
The passage I chose from 1 John is about loving each other. I had some lessons on love this week, especially about loving one’s neighbor, especially the neighbor one has never met, but still needs my friendship.
I went to a meeting of Quad-Cities Interfaith, a group I’ve been curious about. The focus of this particular meeting was relations between police and people of color. At this meeting, the members, mostly white pastors, were trying to figure out how establish relationships with both the law enforcement community and with the community of those who are abused by law enforcement. Let me give you a couple examples.
Just that morning, one of the members had received a phone call from a friend. The friend’s husband had not seen a stop sign and had therefore driven through it. Have you ever done that? I have. Probably several times. The police saw the husband run the stop sign, arrested him, took him into custody, slammed his face into a desk and called him names. That has not been my experience and I hope it has not been yours. What made the police treat this gentleman so badly? Two things: his appearance and the way he spoke English. He looked like he might have come from a sunnier clime and his English had a different accent than that of the policemen. That was in the Quad-Cities.
I’ll give you another story: when Miriam worked at The Place2B, a drop-in shelter for homeless youth, one of her clients had become well-known to the police. The police walked into the social room full of teens and arrested this young man in front of everybody. They could have easily asked Miriam to bring him to any of several rooms and arrested him privately, but it never occurred to them that they would be embarrassing him. You may think, well, he broke the law, he deserves to be embarrassed. However, in this country, we say we are innocent until proven guilty. If Sheriff LIncoln walked in here right now and arrested one of you in front of all of us, what conclusion would leap into our minds?
Let me tell you one more story. This is a very old story, so old that no one knows who first told it. There are many versions of this story; here is one:
The Monk and the Rabbi
The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once it was a great order but now there were only five monks left, the abbot and four others, all over seventy years of age. All its branch houses were lost. Clearly, it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation, the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in the hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if, by some possible chance, he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot into his hut. But, when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed, “the spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read holy scripture and spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other.
“It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet like this after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose in coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice that you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery, his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the rabbi say?”
“He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving – it was something cryptic – was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days, weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance in the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of the monks here at the monastery? If that is the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes. If he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.
On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas, Certainly, Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.
Certainly he could not have meant Brother Eldred! Eldred gets miserable at times. But, come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Eldred is virtually always right. Often, very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Eldred. But surely not Brother Phillip.
Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course, the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet, supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for you, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to pray. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate from them and permeate the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play and to pray.
They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while, one asked if he could join them. Then another, and another and another. So, within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant centre of light and spirituality in the realm.
What happened? In a sentence, the monks treated each other as if they loved each other. And love conquered, love won, love triumphed.
In the passages assigned for today, Micah and Mary are expecting the triumph of a dynasty, of a government, of a political ruler. They are expecting God’s love to appear as political power. As it turns out, God had had enough of trying to make governments work for God’s people.
God came up with this other incredibly radical, contrary, anti-establishment plan: love one another.
The QuadCity Interfaith members are initiating God’s plan by getting to know the police community and the community of those who are the targets of police frustration. The police are not bad people; they don’t know what else to do, how else to do their job. The members of the black and HIspanic communities are not bad people. They don’t drive over the speed limit or run stop signs anymore than any of us. QCI is following the lead of the monks. The plan is for each committee member to get to know police and community members one-on-one. It will not include lectures or accusations. The conversations will be about the person, not the problem. Conversations build friendships. Friends treat each other with love and respect. That is the plan. It is challenging. It requires lots of time. It requires building trust. These pastors come from congregations of many sizes; in many of these congregations, it is so much easier to write a check than to immerse oneself into the waters of reconciliation. A nice, big check is a panacea and a protective barrier. The pastors are risking their time, their commitment, their hopes to love.
So, this is why I chose this text today:
1 John 4: 7 My dear friends, we must love each other. Love comes from God, and when we love each other, it shows that we have been given new life. We are now God’s children, and we know him. 8 God is love, and anyone who doesn’t love others has never known him. 9 God showed his love for us when he sent his only Son into the world to give us life. 10 Real love isn’t our love for God, but his love for us. God sent his Son to be the sacrifice by which our sins are forgiven. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us this much, we must love each other.
The fourth Sunday is about love. Jesus instructs us, I preach, you believe: Love God. Love your Neighbor. Praise God for all the ways we can love our neighbors. Praise God that we don’t need guns or treaties to win hearts. Love grows in many ways, in the opening of a greeting card, in a smile across the room, a wave from a car window. Anything that grows also changes. Think of those tiny seeds that turn into the beautiful trees that surround us. Let us continue to plant seeds, in our prayers, in our actions, in our words. Let us especially pray for those who need love the most. Amen.