Tag Archives: The Love of God

Lent Lesson #3: Why? Love.

A Sermon for 11 March 2018


A reading from the gospel of John 3:1-21.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.   16 “For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


On Wednesday night, six of us spent a little over two hours together with about 200 other people at the Enrichment Center of First Presbyterian Church, Nashville.  After donning a hairnet and sanitizing our hands, we entered the gym for a short prayer.  Then, the high-energy, full-of-facts Rise Against Hunger organizer took the microphone.  Before explaining in about 5 minutes exactly how we were going to pack 20,000 meals in a short two hours, he told us why we were doing what we were about to do.  He told us:  “815 million people worldwide don’t get the food they need to live a healthy life.  66 million primary school-age children across the developing world attend classes hungry.  Malnutrition in all its forms – from wasting to obesity – directly affects one in three people.”  He told us too that “Rise Against Hunger has a goal to end hunger worldwide by 2030” (https://www.riseagainsthunger.org/understanding-hunger/world-hunger-facts/).  Why we were there was to pack the plentiful food we have here to be sent to those worldwide who do not have enough.  Our efforts and daily efforts by organizations like Rise Against Hunger and others, are working towards the goal of ensuring that from the year 2030 on, no one on this planet again will suffer from hunger.  Indeed, it is a lofty goal to accomplish in the next 12 years, but if efforts get duplicated daily like the ones of the helping hands we saw in one place one night this week; I think we have a shot to make it!

As I reflected upon the experience, I realized that it would have been easy on Wednesday night for our Rise Against Hunger instructor simply to demonstrate how we were supposed to pack the sealed food bags.  Then let us get to work!  With something like 200 excited people from the ages of 4 years old to at least 80 ready to get going, he could have skipped the stories of the families he has met who have only salted clay cakes with which they try to quell the pangs of hunger in their empty bellies.  He didn’t have to tell us that the world produces enough food to be eaten per person each day as the equivalent of something like 17 Big Macs per person per day – if only food was distributed properly worldwide.  He didn’t even have to tell us that Rise Against Hunger is partnering with other global hunger-relief organizations to bring an end to hunger everywhere by 2030.  He could have just told us to put the flavor pack in the bottom of the plastic bag, add a mug-full of crushed soy next, one small scoop of the vegetable mix, the cup of rice on top, to be measured to between 3.89-3.94 ounces, sealed securely so nothing gets out or in in transit, then placed in the boxes for shipping.  We’re famous in the church for jumping right to the how, without remembering that if we do not connect the why of any action to the how, sustainable efforts are likely to fail.

Why do we do any of it?  Why show up to pack meals, or attend a potluck after worship to discover our talents for ministry, or even gather to worship at all?  Why commit to a life of faith when faithfully following the way of Christ is a daily challenge to our time, our ethics, our check books, and our choices?  Why keep trying when our efforts seem lost on a younger generation and the challenges of finding ways to be relevant as a people of faith today appear to be dauntingly hard work?  Why start with the why at all?

In the lengthy gospel of John reading we heard today, Jesus clarifies the why.  Why he even is here.  . . .  A wise man of faith comes to see Jesus one night.  It’s not really clear why he seeks him out, but he must have been curious.  Curious to know more about the one that just put the Temple in an uproar at Passover when, in a burst of great passion, he cleared out the money changers, animals, and coins.  Nicodemus comes to him to state:  “we know you are a teacher from God, for none can do as you do apart from God’s Presence.”  Jesus launches into an esoteric proclamation about needing to be born from above – or as some translations read:  needing to be born anew.  As one great teacher hears in the concrete literal realm, the other great teacher waxes eloquently on a whole different level.  Born of the Spirit, Jesus says.  As mysteriously as wind that blows, though where it starts and where it stops, who can know?  It’s passages like this that remind us that Jesus was less like a common carpenter and more like a sage among his people. Unlike a regular instructor, he stood his ground in the tradition of great Wisdom teachers.  Gurus they’re called in India.  Shaman’s in indigenous cultures.  Moshels, in the Near East – including in Judaism itself:  ones who teach wisdom for the transformation of the whole human being (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, Shambhala, 2008; p. 23).  If we can’t see that, we’ll end up as confused as Nicodemus by Jesus’ words.  We’ve got to be born anew – initiated onto a path that changes us a little bit more each day.  Deepening our trust in God.  Increasing our willingness to follow.  Walking more and more to the Light so that that in us that is contrary to God daily will diminish.

But why, we might be thinking.  Why?  . . .  In what may be one of the most famous verses among Christians, Jesus tells us why – why we do any of it.  John 3:16 part A:  “For God so loved the world.”  And I’m going to stop it there.  Too long the tradition has focused on the latter half of the verse, thinking it the reason why.  Making the promise of some sort of reward here and now and forever yet to be the motivating factor of faith.  Like domesticated pets who perform on command in order to be given a treat; we’ve long lived as if an eternal reward is what Christianity is all about.  When we keep our focus on part A of 3:16, human beings retain dignity while God remains something so much bigger than One doling out eternal treats.  The why of it all is A:  for God so loved the world.

Love is the reason for it all.

As the story goes, it might seem a little ridiculous for love to be the reason for it all.  Why love a world prone to wander?  Why keep covenant with a people who too often turn their backs – and I’m not just talking about all the sinners out there.  Why would God continue to love ones such as us?  Ones settled in our ways and satisfied – kinda – with going through the motions of our days.  Though it’s easier to bring to mind people out there who don’t even seem to be trying, we know ourselves – and all the ways we’re really not that loveable.  Why would God keep on loving the mess which is us?  Another John on another occasion sincerely wrote these words, 1 John 4:7-12:  “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 God’s only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent the 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 God’s love is perfected in us.”  It goes like this, in the words of the translation of the bible called The Message:  “My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God.  Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God.  The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know God if you don’t love.  This is how God showed love for us:  God sent the Son into the world so we might live through him.  This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once-upon-a-time loved God, but that God loved us and sent the Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.  My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other.  No one has seen God, ever.  But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and God’s love becomes complete in us—perfect love!”

Why we do any of it is LOVE.  Why we love one another – which doesn’t mean turning our cheek to let any old behavior in ourselves or another go.  That’s not love, to be so passively disinterested in all of us living our best lives for God.  We love ourselves, each other, and those beyond the walls of this facility because God loves the world.  Because God is love; therefore, we love as deeply as God loves.  We pack meals for the hungry around the world because God loves every one of us – those who hoard and those hunger.  We gather at a potluck to discover our talents for ministry because God loves for our talents to be used for God’s purposes in this world.  God loves those who will benefit from the ways we use our talents.  We invest ourselves in ministry in this community – with the families who bring their children for Playcare, the people who live beside us in this neighborhood, and those who spend their days in Hillwood-West Meade at work, study, and play because God loves them.  God has called us to be a church for this community because God loves this community.  We are here to enact that love.  We don’t have to do everything – but we do have to do something – the something that enlists our talents to embody God’s love from this place.  We’ll get to the how – we Christians are a savvy people who throughout history have figured it out.  But let us remember every day the why:  the why of all of it:  love.  God’s love.  Abiding love for all the world.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018


A Sermon for 19 March 2017 – Third Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of John 4:1-42.  Listen for God’s word to us.

     “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2 —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3 he left Judea and started back to Galilee.  4 But he had to go through Samaria.  5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.  It was about noon.  7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?  12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”  13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”  16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”  Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!”  19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ).  “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”  26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”  27 Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”  28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.  She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  30 They left the city and were on their way to him.  31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”  32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”  33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”  34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.  35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’?  But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.  36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.  37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’  38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor.  Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”  39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”  40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.  41 And many more believed because of his word.  42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.””
This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!
      Monday in Kansas City, the NEXT Church national conference began.  You’d think with a name like NEXT Church, this would be a conference put on by flashy young clergymen from one of those non-denominational, mega, pop-up churches.  But, believe it or not, NEXT Church is a network of church members, youth leaders, educators, pastors, professors, seminarians, and ruling elders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  This national network of Presbyterians believes “the church of the future will be more relational, more diverse, more collaborative, more hopeful, and more agile” (www.nextchurch.net/about-next/).  Their website includes relevant resources, an opportunity to be a part of a monthly web-based roundtable, and story after story of churches telling the ways they are re-imagining treasured ministries.  There’s even a submission from a SMALL church of this Presbytery that created a 20-minute Ash Wednesday pod-cast to reach 1,000 listeners – something they did in addition to a drive-through line in their parking lot for commuters to receive the imposition of ashes on their way to work.  Sounds pretty cool to me!  . . .  In addition to having a website filled with such creative options, NEXT Church also hosts an annual conference.  This year, some 220 first-time attenders joined another 300 or so folks for a week of honest, inspiring conversation around the theme Wells and Walls:  Well-Being in a Thirsty World.  They spent all week around the gospel of John’s story of Jesus, tired out from his journey, breaking down walls as he sought out a local well.
     It may be shocking to hear, as the gospel details early in this story, that even Jesus was thirsty along his journey.  Jesus seems to indicate that it’s four months before the harvest, so likely that puts them in the heat of summer, at noon, mid-way through the five-day trek of the 100 miles from Judea where Jerusalem is, back to his home district of Galilee, where Jesus undertook the majority of his ministry.  Intentionally he takes the short cut.  Maybe because he’s exhausted from the journey.  More likely because he’s not afraid of the long-standing walls between people.  Though the Samaritans may not be included in his people’s definition of one of us; the gospel of John tells the story as if he had a messianic need to go through Samaria.  He may be tired out from his journey so that he sits at a well – likely hoping to quench his body’s thirst.  But within, he also has another thirst.  He has a thirst – a craving inside to encounter those of this world who thirst.  This is the gospel, remember, that one chapter prior tells of Jesus encountering at night the Pharisee Nicodemus.  According to the gospel of John, the last time we hear of Jesus in conversation with another; he tells that treasured truth:  why God sent him into the world.  Out of love, we hear on the lips of Jesus in John 3:16, the Word was enfleshed; not to condemn but that no last one would perish.  The thirst that drives our Christ is to fulfill this mission of God’s.  To complete this work, Jesus explains to his disciples after they return and find him talking with a woman, of Samaria, who has been passed from husband to husband.  She happens to be the one who walked up in this foreign land through which Jesus decided to travel.  So she becomes his first Samaritan disciple who runs off to tell everyone else about the One she encountered at noon at the well.
     It’s hard to tell when we’re thirsty, isn’t it?  I listened to a friend this week who is worried she could end up hospitalized from de-hydration, as she was two years ago, because she can’t seem to remember to stop throughout the day to take in the water she needs.  Due to a recent flood in her area, it doesn’t taste quite as good as it used to, but it’s still right there – with her in her computer case as she travels from place to place going about her daily work.  According to Water.org, an international nonprofit organization that has been working for 25 years to address the global water crisis; 663 million people worldwide lack access to safe water.  That’s one in 10 people on this planet, or twice the population of the United States, without safe drinking water.  That’s a lot of thirsty, prone to disease and death people who literally need water to drink.  . . .  I could tell you stats about how many today describe themselves as spiritually thirsty but not turning to the church for connection with the Divine.  A growing number of spiritually curious people in the United States do not see evidence that church-goers’ lives look any different than their own unchurched life.  But we don’t need the stats to know how deep the thirst.  We know the stories.  Grown children who may still consider themselves Christian but do not participate in a local church; it seems irrelevant.  Siblings who don’t make it a practice to be in worship anywhere – if they ever did.  Neighbors who most likely spend Sunday mornings lounging and catching up as a family rather than racing over here – or to any of the other ga-zillion Nashville church options.  Even those who want to be here, but no longer can be due to illness or mobility or physical capacity.  Everywhere we look today, we see thirst.  We, who come here week after week, also thirst.  . . .  What’s going to quench those parched places in us and in others?
     The gospel of John presents One who stays with the woman.  Locked in what seems like a heady-battle, she questions and queries as one determined to protect her heart.  With every response, Jesus just takes her deeper; deeper to the scorched places within.  He meets her where she is and won’t allow any rules set up between them to get in his way.  He is thirsty for her not to perish, which in the gospel of John has to do with a state of living right now, today.  The eternal life that is God’s will is not just about eons to pass.  Eternal life has a flavor that better matches our understanding of abundance – a state of being now that our Creator wants for us all.  It’s the difference between a stinky, still pond of water and a fresh, gushing spring coming right up from the ground.  Or the difference in a defensive woman at a well and a filled-with-vigor witness who drops her jar to sprint back to the village to tell news too good to be kept inside.  It’s one filled with a joy-ful spirit who finally knows herself accepted in the eyes of the Divine, cherished as one welcomed into the fold.  Standing in the presence of the One whose love will wash over her every morning like waves refreshing a tattered soul.  Simply Jesus reveals himself unto her until, at last, everything within comes alive.
     He wants it for us too.  And for every other person of this world who thirsts.  Somehow the two go together – that when we are filled, the Spirit of God comes pouring right back out.  We know it because in this story, Jesus never does get a cup of cool water from that well.  His thirst is quenched in his encounter with the woman and those of her town to whom she introduced him.  We’d do well to remember:  it is in fulfilling the mission of God, Christ’s thirst is satisfied.  . . .  It’s like that with life-giving water.  Ebbing and flowing between us like waves.  No walls able to stop it.  It just keeps crashing up against any defenses, slowly wearing ‘em down, until we’re drenched in God’s life-giving love.
     For us all in this world who thirst, may the Living Water flow!
     In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
                                             © Copyright JMN – 2017 (All rights reserved.)