Sermon May 19, 2019 "The Wide Embrace of God's Love"

Psalm 48, John 13:31-35, Acts 1:11-18, Revelation 21:1-6

In our Gospel Reading for today, Jesus gives us a new commandment: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Henri Nouwen, the Roman Catholic contemplative and writer of soulful books, tells us that the opposite of love is not hate but fear. He says we live in two houses, the house of love and the house of fear, and we move back and forth between them as we go through our days. Living in the house of fear, can bring hate into our hearts, he says.

Our nation today is much in the house of fear: fear of refugees, fear of people who are different, fear of one religious group or another, fear of all kinds of things, and it erupts in horrible, hateful deeds. The struggle between love and fear is a life and death struggle. What we will think about this morning is crucial for the health of our souls and the health of our nation and world.

One of the themes in the writings our scriptures ascribe to someone named John—the gospel, three letters, and the Book of Revelation, speaks to us about God’s all pervasive love. In these writings, this love is an organic connection between God and us and all who live in the world.

Jesus is heard to say in John 15, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” He gives a verbal picture of how loving one another as Jesus loved us is like the connection in the sprouting branches from the grapevines all around us here in Sonoma County.

This love is not something we conjure up or try to instigate. It’s already here. It’s something we abide in like the sprouting branches abide in the grapevine. “Abide in me and I will abide in you,” Jesus says. “Abide in my love.”

So, in these writings, the love between Jesus and God, between Jesus and us, and among us here in Knox Church Santa Rosa are all the same love. When we abide, when we rest, when we relax in this love, we leave the house of fear and enter the house of love, and like a healthy vineyard, we bear fruit into the fearsome world.

Henri Nouwen says the more we live in the house of fear, the less we will live in the house of love. He says our calling in faith is to leave the house of fear and live in the house of love as much as we can. Easy to say, but how do we do that?

One thing we might do is limit our exposure to the fears and hates in our culture. So much of the news and what we call entertainment is violent and fearsome and hateful. Surely it has an effect on our souls.

We had a dear friend Janet who lived to be 93, a beautiful, gracious person. She avoided fearsome or violent things on TV. She would not read or listen to the glorifications of evil and hate all around us. She stayed informed, but did not dwell on the horrible details of current events. Rather, she listened to opera.

I said to her one day, “Janet, operas are full of violence and pain and fear.” And she said, “Ah, but they make something beautiful out of it.”

To move from the house of fear to the house of love, we might take on some of Janet’s practices. There is just too much fear and hate out there for our souls to bear. We do well to look for beauty in the world and give it our attention each day, and say a little prayer of thanks for it. We have beauty all around us here in Sonoma County to help us with this.

In the First Letter of John, we read, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus commands us in our Gospel Reading. “This is how people will know you are my followers.” Clearly, these writings are calling us from the house of fear to the house of God’s far reaching love.

At first, all followers of Jesus were Jews, and there were those in the early church who felt God’s love was limited to the Jews who followed Jesus. They saw themselves inside a restricted circle of God’s love with everyone else on the outside.

This is taken up in another lectionary passage for today in which the Apostle Peter explains his trip to Caesarea to people in First Church Jerusalem, the first church of them all. Peter is being criticized by some church members for going out of his way to hob nob and even eat with gentiles. So Peter tells them his story.

(Please don’t get hung up on the visions and unlikely coincidences in the story. It’s the way of stories in the ancient world. What’s important is what the story tells us about the love of God.)

Peter was in Joppa, a town on the coast, praying on the roof of a house. At three in the afternoon, he became hungry and had a vision of a sheet descending from heaven laden with what a good Jew was forbidden to eat—all kinds of animals, including reptiles and birds. And a voice came to him saying, “Arise, Peter, kill and eat.” To which Peter says, “Certainly not. I’ve never eaten these things. They are unclean and defiled.”

The voice replies, “Do not consider anything unclean that God has declared clean,” and this happens three times. (Gertrude Stein: “What I tell you three times is true.”)

Sometime earlier, a Captain of the Roman Guard named Cornelius also saw a vision in which an angel tells him to send for Peter to come and speak to his household about God. So, lo and behold, just as Peter in Joppa is waking up from his vision, he hears a knock at the door and Cornelius’ men are there to take him north to Caesarea.

So Peter enters a house full of Cornelius’ relatives and friends, all of whom are gentiles, and says, “You know very well that my religion does not allow me to associate with people like you, but just recently God has shown me that I must not consider anyone unclean or defiled.” And Peter gives a speech, and his opening line is, “I now realize that God treats everyone the same.” What a huge idea that is: God loves everyone equally.

This is a conversion as dramatic as Paul’s on the road to Damascus. Peter has seen that Jesus’ command to love one another goes beyond those in his family, clan, ethnic group, congregation, way of faith or his restricted ideas about who is worthy of God’s grace. And when Peter told this story to his critics in Jerusalem, they understood, they stopped criticizing him and praised God, which is a wonder in itself.

This is one of the most important stories in the Bible, I feel. In it we see the love of God leaping over the walls we build against each other. The barriers that bring forth fear and hate are being broken down in the realization that God loves everyone equally.

Last Friday in our lectionary group we had a warm and quite wonderful discussion about how Peter’s story is repeated in our lives today. We noticed we humans are really good at finding reasons to rule other people out. We also noticed, thank God, that Knox Church has pretty much overcome that tendency. For as long as I’ve known it, Knox Church has been on the side of the angels in this regard.

Some years ago we were at a wedding where the son of our dear Jewish friends married a gentile woman. At the end of the service under the chuppah, the little tent under which Jewish weddings are held, the rabbi stepped forth and said, “Some people here say the messiah has already come, and some people here say the messiah is still coming. Whether the messiah has come or is still coming, now is the time for a party.” And we all partied beautifully together in the wider embrace of God’s love.

My sense is that the 148th Psalm is in the lectionary today because when we open ourselves to the height and depth and breadth of God’s love, it seems as if the animals and monsters, the mountains and hills are singing praises along with us.

And I think it’s no mistake we also have this passage from the end of the Book of Revelation in our lectionary for today:

I saw and new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…. And I heard a voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the dwelling place of God is with the people of the world, and God shall dwell with them and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more crying or suffering or any more pain, because former things are passed away.

This is a vision of the world living in the house of love rather than the house of fear. Even if we never see it fulfilled, it is a vision worth holding in our hearts. It comes to us in this tumbledown difficult world in those moments when we move from the house of fear to the house of love, feeling in our hearts the embrace of God’s love for us and all the whole wide world. Amen.

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