Advent 1, November 30, 2016
This is the year of Sharing God’s Love through word and story.
From the first Sunday in Advent until Christ the King Sunday – November 19, 2017 – we—the members of St. Paul Lutheran Church—will emphasize Sharing God’s Love. We will practice using the name of Jesus in conversations. We will tell stories of how God has blessed us, encouraged us, and changed us. We will listen to others as they share their encounters with God.
For several months now I have been asking God if this is an idea that comes from me or does it come from God. I prayed about this on retreat last month and have become convinced that this is something God is calling us to do. This is a part of our mission.
The mission statement of St. Paul Lutheran Church is: Living and Sharing God's Love
Personally I would like our mission statement to read Living in Grace, Sharing Grace, but I know that grace is a concept and experience that is foreign to most people, even to many Christians. For to live fully in grace is to live as if you are cherished by God, aware of the greatness of the gifts of God that you have received, and filled with the God’s love to such an extent that all you do and say comes out a divine love for people, for creation, and for God.
If “grace” is a foreign word in our world filled with its emphasis upon self, stuff, and striving, “love” is a diminished word that is used from when we say “I love my latte” to “I love my Lord.” Nevertheless, at its core we all know pure love is a rare and treasured gift that calls forth from us that which is uniquely human and impossible to fully accomplish without divine presence and power. How else would we be able to accomplish Jesus’ command, “Love your enemies?”
One of the great blessings of the Lutheran heritage is our emphasis upon Grace alone. We reject the notion that our work or efforts cause God to favor us more, and we stress that our service and work are a response to the love that we have received. “We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19.
And, we here at St. Paul Lutheran Church are great at doing loving service.
However, we are less adept at conversation about Jesus and shudder at the thought of calling for conversion in others.
As you are—hopefully—aware our fuller description of our mission statement declares:
We live and share our faith in Jesus Christ by:
*Trusting God with all our heart,
*Learning God's desire for us,
*Telling others about God's love, and
*Caring for others using the gifts God gives us.
We emphasize trusting, learning, and caring. Telling, not so much.
Why is this?
One of the reasons we are reluctant to tell others of our faith is that our understanding of God does not compel us to say, “Believe in Jesus or go to hell.” A large segment of American Christianity defines the world into two camps, the lost and the found, the unsaved and the saved. Those who are the saved are told to go and rescue their brothers and sisters from hell by pressuring them to have a conversion experience. Using guilt and fear these folks encourage their fellow members of the body of Christ to make sure everyone that they know will make the profession of faith—the sinner’s prayer—that will enable them to join us in heaven, that place of eternal joy found in the presence of Jesus.
I applaud my brothers and sisters in Christ who are forthright in declaring, “Your faith matters. What you trust in has eternal consequences. Sin destroys. Jesus saves. Forsake sin. Follow Jesus.” I commend my brothers and sisters for making it clear that how you live makes a difference, that in whom/in what you place your trust brings about life or death.
What troubles me about this approach is that it presupposes that I know the heart of the other and that I can judge whether that heart is right with God or not. In particular, that theology often defines a right heart by doing a specific set of behaviors and not doing other behaviors. The list of the good behaviors and bad behaviors is defined by the particular denomination. Judgment of others is not the way of God.
Most troubling, however, is that fear is the motivation: fear of hell, fear of judgment, fear of God’s wrath. This leads good and godly people to question, “Am I good enough? Did I really, really, change my heart towards God? Am I doing enough of the good behaviors? Will I really go to heaven?” Motivation by fear creates anxiety. Anxiousness is not the way of God.
Our understanding of heaven and hell are different. In short, heaven is where God is. Hell is where God is not. It is far more than a destination after death. It is a present reality. Where there is truth and beauty there is God. Lies and ugliness are not the way of God. Where there is generosity, forgiveness, and goodness there is God. Selfishness, vengeance, and wickedness are not God. Freedom, community and belonging come from God. Addictions and bondage, loneliness and alienation do not.
Our goal is not so much to get people into heaven but to get heaven into people.
We who know and love Jesus want to become more like him. We are keenly aware of the ways that we are not like Jesus and most likely not as aware of the ways that we are like Jesus. We hunger to be transformed more fully into the character of Jesus, to have the mind of Jesus, and to do what Jesus does. We often are not able to fully articulate this. Sometimes, it is merely that innate longing simply to be a “better” person. This longing is God’s desire for us working in us and we dimly perceive it. We want this change for ourselves, for our children, for our family, for our community, for our church, for our nation, for our world.
The greatest power to change others comes from our own stories.
The paradox is that we can change no one. We can only change ourselves.
So, how do we get someone—like a spouse, a child, a sibling, a friend—to change? Of course, with enough force or pressure anyone can be coerced into doing what the other wants, but as soon as the coercion is gone, so is the behavior. That is why fear of punishment as a motivation to love God ultimately fails, for that fear has to be ever present and constantly increasing for it to work. Eventually a person will either turn away from God in despair because God is impossible to please or will turn on God because God is seen as the source of the pain and problems and not as the one rescuing us and saving us from those troubles.
The stories of faithful people are what bring about transformation. This is one of the main reasons that we read the Bible. We call it the Word of God, and there is much in it that is instructive and words to live by. What is most compelling, however, are the stories of the people of who try to live by those words.
- The story of Joseph forgiving his brothers after they have sold him into slavery invites us to consider whether we might forgive our brothers for telling our secret shame.
- The story of God looking into the heart of David, declaring him to be “man after my very own heart,” and choosing him to be king, despite the wickedness of his adultery and premediated murder, then perhaps God looks upon my own heart similarly.
- When a woman spent thousands of dollars to express her gratitude and love for Jesus, then her example encourages us to be lavish and generous in our response to Jesus.
- Paul believed that the message of grace is for everyone and was beaten to the point of death over that belief. This story invites us to be bold in our proclamation of that grace.
We tell our own stories of where God found us, of the hope that came from our faith in God’s protection, of the presence of the Spirit that gave us courage in a challenging situation, of the forgiveness of Jesus that enabled us to turn away from an addictive behavior and to begin to live in freedom. The telling of these stories reminds us of what God has done in the past so that we might have faith and hope in the present. It also offers to others the glimpse of a future different from the present.
The emphasis during this year will be on how we can share those stories with others.
We live in a story telling world. Movies and television shows are stories. News reports are stories. Even our athletic contests are presented as stories, such as the story of the underdog seeking a victory, the story of the coach using his wiles to confuse the opposition, or the story of destiny fulfilled, i.e. the Cubs.
Advertising tells stories almost better than anyone else and they invite us to change our behavior and buy their product so that we can have that “better” life.
The challenge for us is to know our own personal story, the story of the Scriptures, the story of the church, and, most of all, the story of God. That story is life changing. Let’s tell it.