Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Rejuvenating Fragrance

A Sermon Based Upon John 12: 1-8
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
First Sunday of Lent,   February 22nd,  2015

…..The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (Joh 12:3 NRS)

Today we begin a new series of messages I’ve entitled, “Object Lessons Around the Cross”.  Some say they get as much, or more, from the children’s sermons, so during this Lenten season, as we journey toward Easter, we are going to consider different ‘objects’ lessons around the death of Jesus.   The first object is based on the smell of perfume.  Mary, the sister of Lazarus, starts us on our journey toward Easter when she takes a “pound” of costly perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet.    As a result, we are told ‘the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ (12.3).

Can you imagine the smell?  I’m not just speaking of the smell of the perfume, but the other smell that filled the house---the fragrance of love.  Mary’s deed ‘filled’ the air, not only because of the overpowering odor, but because of her reckless abandon in giving her all to Jesus.   Do you realize that in today’s money, the value of that pound of perfume would be around $17,400 dollars?  Mary poured out 300 day’s work at minimum wage on Jesus’ feet, in one single moment of reckless devotion. 

Mark’s gospel says the other disciples (Mark 14.1f) all grumble, because they can’t believe what they have just witnessed and what she has done.  Even though they love Jesus too, or in Judas’ case, have loved Jesus, they are all embarrassed by the extravagance, the luxury, or even the waste of Mary’s love.   If we are honest, we will also be embarrassed by it.  It seems so careless and reckless because our own devotion to Jesus is much more reserved, calculated, and predictable.   We love Jesus too, but we love Jesus best when we have him on our schedule or when we need him, but to put all our devotional ‘eggs in one basket” in one act of all-out devotion, or to love Jesus when he needs us,  that’s just  not practical.   Like the actress once said,  “I believe, but I don’t want to get carried away.”  In this moment, Mary got carried away and her deed of devotion doesn’t make any kind of good sense.

THE STENCH OF DEATH
None of what Mary does makes sense, unless you see it through the lens of death.   The price she must have paid for the perfume does not make sense.  Wasting all the perfume on Jesus’ feet does not make sense.  Even if this is for Jesus’ burial, pouring it all out now, almost a week before Jesus will be arrested and crucified, still does not makes sense.  Nothing Mary does has any reason or logic, unless you smell the love being poured out.   More than anyone else, Mary knows this is her last chance to show Jesus just how much she loves him.  How much love would you waste on your loved one, whom you know is about to die?
Several years ago, when I was pastor in Shelby,  the founder of Bost bakery, who was from Shelby, discovered that his wife was terminally ill with cancer.   They had been married many years.  He had made a lot of money in the Bakery business.   Most of us over 55 can remember Arthur Smith saying,  “It doesn’t get any fresher than Bost Bread!”   For those of us who know about Mr. Bost, we could also say it didn’t get any better than Mr. Bost.   I spent my college days on a Baptist campus going to chapel, basketball games, and PE class, in Bost Gymnasum, named after his generous philanthropy.    

When his wife was facing her terminal illness, Mr. Bost used every means he could pay for, and that was a lot,  to try whatever experimental medicine there was to help save her life.  He didn’t think about the money.  He didn’t care.  Newspaper reports said that he traveled all over the world trying to save her life---but she still died.  What a waste?  Right?  Think how smarter it would have been for Mr. Bost to have given all that money for Cancer Research.  Think how much smarter it would have been for his wife not to have tried to many experiments and to have suffered much longer.  Think how unreasonable was almost everything he did to try to save his wife, when it was not probable that he would find a cure.  But Mr. Bost did it anyway.  Why did he do it?  He did it because he loved his wife.

Not long ago, I heard about a doctor whose wife also had cancer.  All the time he treated his own wife, he did not tell her just how serious it was.   He told her that it was not that bad.  He told her that it was treatable and curable.   He told her not to worry.   Every bit of what he told her was not the truth.  She died anyway.  But, according to her husband the doctor,  she slipped into a coma still believing in her husband, still believing in her cure, and still believing with hope.  Do I agree with what the doctor did?  Of course not!   Do I understand why the doctor did what he did?   Of course I do.   Love can do some strange, illogical, irrational things when you are facing the edge of life and death.

If you had been Mary in this moment,  a woman who was completely, wholly, entirely, and absolutely sold out with love, devotion and dedication to Jesus,  and you knew it was the final moment you would ever be with him, what would you have done.  Martha was fixing him a meal, while Mary was preparing him for burial.  Martha was showing her love by giving Jesus her best effort,  but Mary was giving Jesus everything she had.   It was her last moment with him,  and she could not take her eyes off of Jesus.  One commentator reminds us that other people were also at the dinner party.  He admits that if he’d been there, that commentator says, his eyes would not have been on Jesus, but on Lazarus, whom Jesus had just raised from the dead.  I’m sure Mary loved her brother Lazarus, but Mary knows something else.  That if it wasn’t for Jesus there would be no Lazarus and there would be no love.  She can’t take her eyes off of Jesus.  Nothing will hold her back.  She has to give Jesus everything.

What is the first thing we can learn from Mary’s wholehearted, reckless, almost ridiculous love?  We will all love like this when we face death.  We will love life like this.  We will love people like this.  We will love our loved ones like this.  We will love God like this.  We can’t understand why death comes, nor can we understand everything about life or death, but we can understand that we only learn the meaning of love and life within the limits of life by living in the shadow of death.  And what do we learn?  We learn that in the shortness of our lives, only love really matters.  As Alfred Lord Tennyson's wrote in his poem, In Memoriam,  “I hold it true, whate'er befall; I feel it, when I sorrow most; 'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”  (http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/62650.html).  To that great statement, Mary might add one thing: “Love has it’s own reasons, which at times can be quite unreasonable, ridiculous and reckless,  and to live but never have loved like that is like dying with never having lived or loved at all.”

THE STENCH OF GREED
“Why was this perfume not sold….and the money given to the poor?”  Judas asked.  And Judas asks a good question.   Even if he is Judas, Mark tells us that this is what all the other disciples were asking too (14.5).   In fact, Judas asked what any good, thinking, calculating, disciple would ask.  “We could better use this money for the feeding the poor, couldn’t we?”  This is the kind of thinking, rational, calculating people have when they look up at all those giant Cathedral’s in Europe---some of which are lined with gold.   Judas question is also what people ask when they get up on Sunday morning, and they don’t see any value in coming to worship?   “What good, will I, or my family, get out of showing up, coming together, singing hymns, hearing the sermon or turning our hearts toward God alone?”  Many will agree with Judas in realizing just how wasteful and ridiculous worship is?  But the kind of question Judas asks is also the kind church leaders ask, when we are putting together church budgets or when we consider how we should tithe, or how we should share some of our hard earned money.   How can it do the most good?  How will it make the most impact?   What should I do protect my money, even when I give some of it away?  Good questions, every one.

I, nor you, should ever call Judas’ question a bad one.   The gospel does not call Judas’ question a bad one either, but it does say that his question came from a heart going it wrong direction (v.4), and it also tells us his heart was not what it should have been (v. 6).  But whether or not Judas was a devil (6.70) or was being led by the devil (13.2), is not the only problem.   What makes Judas so cold and cruel, was not the question, but it was the timing of it.   His question interrupted an act of pure love.  Judas couldn’t help but interrupt deeds or acts of love, because this was something Judas could not do.  He could not, for any reason, let go of reason for the sake of love.

When someone, a person, a people, or even a church, starts to worship Jesus, I mean really worship Jesus, leaving everything else behind--every other practical matter, every other concern, every other question, every other answer, politic or religious truth, even letting go, at least for the moment, every other good that should be done---when people cast their worship and adoration upon Jesus, people like Judas can’t and won’t stay silent for long.   They have to stop the moment, because they can’t feel what is happening, and have to agree with Judas’ own cold, calculating heart.   They have to side with Judas’ own legalistic logic that must be brought to the table, even if it this table is the table of the Lord. 

Here, Judas is the killjoy.  Judas is the moral gatekeeper.  He is like a queen Victoria, who once stood up and said, “I will be good!”  And because of that she lived a long, but tedious, drab, and over predictable life.   Judas is the one who has to be right---who is always right, has the right opinions, makes the right decisions, and has made good from most every decision he has made, which proves even more, that he is, or has been, always right.   Because Judas is always right, he has everything, included the right to speak his mind.   People will listen to Judas because of how successful he is.  They will let him hold and control their money because he is and has what most people want.  

Judas has it all, including the disciples’ own attention.   But there is one thing Judas doesn’t have.  Judas doesn’t have what Mary has, nor can Judas feel what Mary feels, because he doesn’t know what only Mary and Jesus know.   Judas has everything, but he doesn’t know what true love feels like.   Judas proves by the asking of his question, when and how he asks it, because he is incapable of feeling the same kind of reckless, wasteful, or extravagance---that can fill a room with the fragrance of love.  Either his own heart is not in it, he is not ready to surrender to it, or he is simply incapable of it.  In a moment of pure love, we still only see dollar signs are blinking in his eyes.  He sees the money but he can’t have the feeling of true love.  Nor will any who follow him, unless we too, have a change of mind or heart.  

I say ‘we’ because it is wrong for me, or for you, to stand in judgment over Judas, or to judge any disciple who thinks like him.   It is wrong for me and for you, because there is something of Judas in everyone one of us.   You can’t change a Judas anyway.  Don’t waste your time.  Mary’s are rare.  Judases’ are the norm.   We should not stand in judgment over Judas, but we must pray, hope, and dare to ask ourselves,  like all the disciples  finally did, when they too realized what was happening, and asked  “Is it I?”   

Turning the question of love upon ourselves, asking whether or not we can love like this, is the always the right question,  no matter how right or practical we think we are, because self-righteousness (which is all we are capable of) and practicality  (even our best efforts)  can even  become monstrous enough to bring harm and hurt (v. 4), when we lose the capacity of being wasteful, reckless, even ridiculous with our worship and love, like Mary did.   We must ask ourselves this love question in everything we do, or don’t do, and we must ask it over and over, because only love gives meaning to our very short lives.  Only love keeps religious, righteous people from doing what Judas did or becoming what Judas became.   When you lose the capacity or the capability to love, or to recognize it, not even Jesus can change you, and only the eternal God will finally prove what we’ve missed.

Dorothy Day has been called an American saint. She took her Christian faith right into the most dreadful slums of New York City. There she established the first Catholic Worker House, a place of radical Christian discipleship.

That house became a place of hospitality for the down and out — for men Day later described as “grey men, the color of lifeless trees and bushes and winter soil, who had in them as yet none of the green of hope, the rising sap of faith.” Not long after, the Catholic Worker House began welcoming women and children as well.

One day, a wealthy socialite pulled up to the house, in a big car. She received the obligatory tour of the mission from Day herself. When she was about to leave, the woman impulsively pulled a diamond ring off her finger and handed it to Day.

The staff was ecstatic when they heard about this act of generosity. The ring, they realized, could be sold for a princely sum — enough money to take some pressure off the budget, at least for a while.

A day or two later, though, one of them noticed the diamond ring on the finger of a homeless woman who was leaving the mission. Immediately, the staff members confronted Day. Why, in heaven’s name, would she just give away a valuable piece of jewelry like that?

Day responded: “That woman was admiring the ring. She thought it was so beautiful. So I gave it to her. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?” (From Homiletics Online, March 21, 2010).

THE SMELL OF LOVE
What did Jesus say, when Judas opposed this act of pure love?   Jesus said to Judas and all the other disciples,  “Leave her alone.  She bought it for so she might keep it for the day of my burial.”  Ouch!   I don’t think anyone in the room was thinking that.   How cruel it is to put a price on anyone’s life?  How stupid it is, especially for a disciple, to try to put a monetary value on the pricelessness of Jesus and his love?  Jesus takes us all right to the heart what love means for each and every one of us?   If you can’t smell the fragrance of love now or here,  you never will and you will miss everything life is about.   Can you smell the love?

If you do have trouble with your capacity to feel the love, I’ve got some good news for you that comes through your nose.   I recently learned that our human sense of smell is the only one of the 5 senses of touch, taste, hearing, sight and smell that can completely rejuvenate itself?  Recently, medical science has been able to help a paraplegic solider walk again when they learned how to put nose nerves into their broken spinal cord to trigger spinal nerves to regrow and rejuvenate.   This quite an amazing breakthrough, but it’s still not as amazing as what love can do to regrow a broken, cruel, cold and malfunctioning soul or heart.   If you will follow your nose, especially where we can smell love in this story, love can change you too.

Why can the smell of Mary’s love story change us, because, as Jesus tells us, it leads us to the love story God is telling us through Jesus.   Mary’s gift of love points directly to the costly outpouring of love, God has pour out for us all---that cost him his Son, Jesus.  Even if you can’t  understand the whole story, or even if you struggle with the story itself,  please don’t miss and understand this: at the heart of everything God is and at the heart of everything you are supposed to be is a story that should be a story of love. 

David Buttrick tells the story of how a British pastor, James Denny, once took an 8 foot cross into the pulpit with him and pointed to it, shouting;  “All this he has done for us!  Can we hold back?  Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”   Mary saved this perfume for Jesus’ burial, and when the time came, she held nothing back.  God saved the coming of his Son, for his death on the cross for us, and when the time came, God held nothing back.   So, as the preacher went on to rightly ask, what the fragrance of love asks all of us today, “What are you saving yourself for?”   If not for love, what?  If not today, then when?  If not from you, then from who?   Jesus will not always be here with us, he says, like he is with us right now.  Can you feel the love, or even if you can’t,  will you let yourself begin to smell it and let it do its rejuvenating work in you?    

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Love Endures All Things

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Corinthians  13: 1-13
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Epiphany 5, Year (B),   February 15st,  2015

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. (1Co 13:8 NRS)

I once saw Shakespeare’s most popular play, Romeo and Juliet, performed at the theater built near Shakespeare’s home in England at Stratford upon Avon.  It was done so well and so beautifully, that I haven’t ever wanted to ever see it again.   I want that memory to be the only memory I ever have the tragic love portrayed in that version of Romeo and Juliet

We all know that story, and like that story survives because all true love can be both tremendous and tragic.   According to Shakespeare’s interpretation, Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other was tremendous, because they loved each other and wanted to live no other way.   But there love was also tragic, because it was forbidden, and they made the tragic choose to be united in death rather than be separated in life. 

Whatever we take from Shakespeare’s play,  we must agree that love still does strange things to people.  Love is a power so strong, that people are willing to die for it.  But I wonder if Romeo and Juliet had been allowed to get married, would their passion have endured the reality of their togetherness?   It is one thing to have a love we can’t live without, but do we have a love we can also live with?  

Living with love is the test of true love.  And this is the kind of enduring, unending, redundant, selfless love, Paul writes about in First Corinthians.   Love can be a passion, but love that endures is more like the love we share and show day to day.   In this way, love is not just a feeling that ‘kills us’,  but it is how we live for and live with another that really matters.  It is this living love that makes sense of life and leaves us better for having loved, rather than not having loved at all.   This kind of ‘living’ love includes, but is much more than a physical eros, and it is even more than the brotherly or sister love of philia, as in Philadelphia.  The love Paul recommends to the Corinthians and to us, is a spiritual, unconditional love,  self-giving love---a love which the Greeks knew as agape,  which for Christians, is the nature of the divine love revealed  to us, and commanded, by Jesus Christ. 

LOVE GIVES MEANING  TO LIFE
Love endures because love gives life its meaning.   We exist, not just to exist, but to love and to learn to give and share love.   There is no other purpose worth living for.  Life is not finally about talking, preaching, believing, doing, giving, or sacrificing, only for the sake of talking, preaching, believing, doing, giving, or sacrificing.  No, according to Paul, all the talking, preaching, belieiving, doing, giving, or sacrificing means nothing if we do not have love.  Love is what we can’t live without, because it is also what we live for.   To put it in Paul’s own words:  “If I have tongues, powers, and faith, but do not have love I have nothing.   Even if I give away all possessions and sacrifice my own life, and do not have love,  I gain nothing  (13: 1-3).

What do we gain in life?  What do we show for all our living?  What do we work for, care for, give for, hope for?   Love is the only thing, says Paul.  Love is what makes life worth living and what makes us able to face life and death.  Only when we live our lives for something,  and that something is love, we live for nothing.

When we try to understand what Paul means, we have to go back, once again, to try to understand why he wrote these words about love.  He was writing to tell a divided, conflictive, and alienated congregation why they they existed.   The church at Corinth had great potential and possibility, but that was all going to be lost if they did not understand that love was the reason they existed as a church.  A church that is built on God’s love, can’t exist without continuing to build their relationships on that love.   Without love, they, just like we have nothing to say,  nothing to become, and nothing to do, because only exist to bring God’s love into the world.  Without love, the church has and is, nothing.

It’s the same for us.   We are either a church that loves, or we are not a church at all.  Anytime we let any talk, belief or deed, or plan, even one we would die for, if we allow our difference to get in the way of loving and living together, we threaten our whole existence as God’s people.  Our only reason is to love, or we have no reason and we lose all reason, just like we end up with nothing.    Only love, and only an love that endures anything and everything, gives us existence and endurance we need to keep existing, both as God’s community and church.

In a church in Greensboro, I had an elderly member who grew up Amish in Pennsylvania.  She spoke a lot about her upbringing, and she loved to read and share her books about Amish life and living.  But what separated her from that life today was not her lack of respect or love for the community, but the failure of that community to love her, even when she was young and making unwise, perhaps even unethical decisions. 

I never knew exactly what those mistakes where, failure which caused that church to shun her, but I really did not care to know.   What I knew myself was the kind, loving, caring person she became, and the heartbreak she still felt.   I also knew that the real loss and failure was not her failure to the community, but the failure of that community to find a way to love and to keep on loving someone, even when they fail.   Again, I don’t know the details, but I know that if you lose love, even though you may keep all your ideals, standards, beliefs and morals high---if you lose love--- you still lose.  Maybe the Amish church meant well and did right when they shunned her.  She certainly did turn out to be a wonderful person later in life.   But I think it could have even turned out better in that church community, just like it does in any community or relationship, like a marriage, a family, or any other relationship.  When people find ways to stay together, even if they disagree, or even when they are hurt, it always turns out better when love finds a way to win.  

Maybe I’m dreaming of a kingdom that can’t be of this world, but Jesus thought it could.  He also  taught us to pray for it and live toward it.   I’m not judging, because I love my Amish neighbors,  but I’ve never understood how the same Amish community, who can muster the incredible moral strength it takes to forgive someone for murdering 5 of their precious children, could then turn to shun someone who had one child out of wedlock.  It still happens.  I know what they are trying to do.  They are trying to protect their own children from sin, but if they are not careful, by over protecting them,  they might also be preventing them from learning how to love. 

To keep up the moral standards of a community, of a family, of a church, at all costs---even the cost of love, is a cost too high.  Do you know what you have when you lose love?   Paul says you have nothing.  Besides having nothing,  you end up doing nothing good for the world, because you don’t stop evil by getting rid of evil.   Retaliation just makes the enemy grow.  You only stop evil with love, the kind of love that can even love an enemy.   And do you know the first enemy you are to love?   It is the enemy who is right beside you, even at church.  You must love that enemy before love can begin or go anywhere else.   I know this kind of love is hard, but we must love, because the greatest failure is and will always be the failure to love.  If you have love,  you win, no matter what.   But if you lose love, even when you are trying to win, you still lose.  You can only win something,  when you win with love.

LOVE TELLS US HOW WE MUST LIVE
The love that wins is never mere words, but it must mean action.   Love is patient, kind, not envious, not arrogant, not rude nor resentful….  You get the picture.  Love is a moving target, an action picture of people on the move to do things for love.  

When I read this text, I can’t help but hum that popular songs years back,  “The Things We Do for Love”.  We might think of the kinds of stupid things we once did, but Paul wants us to think of the smart things we should do---the things we should do for the sake of bringing love and meaning into our lives, into our church, and into the lives of those around us. 

The ‘things we do’ for love are these kinds of things Paul mentions here: patience, kindness, not keeping records of wrongs, not thinking too much of ourselves and too little of the other person.   You can fit Paul’s love language into most any relationship, be it social, family, marriage, or church, and you don’t need psychologists, a psychiatrist, a social worker, a book on the 5 loves languages  (And it’s a good book), or anything or anyone else to tell you what should you do to keep love alive anywhere.  These actions Paul mentions will work, because love works. When people do the work of love and not only talk the talk of love, love works.  When both parties want and desire their relationship to work, love will work because love always does the work it takes to love. 

Years ago, the great evangelist DL Moody held revival meetings all over this country.  It was a different day, when people would come together and remain together until something changed, or when something good happened.   That’s why they weren’t just called revivals, but they were called ‘protracted meetings’.   In one particular town, Moody started preaching on love, and he continued to preach 8 sermons on this one topic, love.   After the eight night  someone approached Moody to ask when he was going to preach on another topic.  “When you start loving each other, then I’ll move on.”   I don’t remember the details, but the story makes a point I’ve never forgotten.  Until we show and live the love we talk, we not only have nothing, we are doing nothing.   Love is worth our doing, or nothing is worth doing at all.

The other thing we need to see again,  is how Paul describes love as beyond feelings or emotions.  Love that lasts is based on self-initiated action for each other, not our reaction.  “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal….”  (Rom. 12.10).  In other words, I don’t love because you love me, but I love you because I love and want you to love me too.   You’re love matters, but my love for you matters more, and we can only keep loving and acting on our love, when  we show mutual affection, but the motivation for love is in me and in the ‘things I do for love’. 

This doesn’t mean that feelings aren’t important or that we should not try to bring happiness to each other.  What Paul when he says that love is based on enduring actions of love, means that happiness is a by-product of how we show each other our love through acts and deeds of love.   The love that bears all, believes all, hopes all, and endures all is a love that acts with self-less other directed love.  Even though Paul says, love endures and does not end, he does not mean there is no limit to love.  “Where is the love you had at the first?”  Recall those sharp words to Church at Ephesus.   Love will last because love is limitless.   But even a limitless love has its limits, too.  If we stop loving, love will end  because there is no more love.  To say that love endures shows us quality of love and our capacity to love, but we still have the power in us to decide and determine the quantity of how far love goes---it goes only as far as are willing to show, act upon and do the deeds of love.      

LOVE IS WHAT MATTERS   
This brings us to a final word about enduring love.  Love endures, because it brings life meaning, and our meaning in life depends on doing deeds of love for each other.  But what about the limits?   Even God’s love, a love without limits, will end at a dead end at the cross, unless we respond to that love, by also taking up our cross and following loves’ way.   Do you know the way to love?  Do you want to know the way to love?  I don’t think it is as hard as some people are trying to make it in our crazy, loveless, world.

Last November, I was having some work done on my car, when the news came across the TV about Adrian Peterson being punished by the NFL for abusing his child with a hickory switch.  The mechanic, not knowing I was a preacher, looked up at me and said,  “I wonder what they would do to my mother for the “butt” woopings she gave me.  He didn’t say “Butt”.  He continued:  “My Father died when I was 6, and my mother’s spankings didn’t hurt me a bit.  I smiled at him, and said, “You know, it seems to me they are all missing the main point!”  Of course, I’m not for abuse,  but it’s not simply about whether a Father, a Mother always gets it right, whether they choose to spank or not to spank, but what it’s really about is whether they loved you enough to care enough to make sure you or I got the discipline we needed so we would get it right. 

I’m afraid, if our society, if we are not careful, we are going to miss what matters most.  I’m not defending abuse but I’m saying that love is what matters, and love covers all kinds of mistakes, sins, or human errors.  But that’s not the questions people are asking or searching for these days.  I’m afraid we are setting our sights on things that matter much less than the things that matter most.  But how do we know the difference?  Paul says, only love knows.

Paul concludes his song about love with a call for maturity.   “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, but when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. “   How do we put away ‘childish ways’ of divisiveness for the sake of love?  Paul says love matters most, because all other knowledge, all other wisdom, or even God’s revelations, will always be partial, fuzzy, and incomplete until the day we know ourselves as God knows us.   For now, within our limits, the only thing we can know for sure is what love means, and that’s enough, because love is what matters most.   Love is what we must give each other, because it is the only gift we could ever dream of ever giving back to this loving, graceful, merciful God,  who first loved us.   Amen.  

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Love Hopes All Things

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Corinthians  15:  19-22;  51-58
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Epiphany 4, Year (B),   February 8st,  2015

… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.   (1Co 15:19 NRS)

How hopeful are you?     

In the German Novel, Night Train to Libson, Rainmund Gregorious is a classics teacher in Bern, Switzerland.   The story opens with a very predictable day starting like most other days, with the professor walking across a bridge to arrive at his school by 7:45 AM so he can begin his 8:00 o’clock Greek class.  But on this particularly wet and windy day, just as he crossed the Aare River Bridge, he notices a woman standing at the railing about to jump. 

As she lets go of a book she had been reading and leans into the wind, Gregorious quickly let go of his umbrella and bookcase and leaps to pull her back.  After a moment of confusion, she thanks him, then starts helping the professor pick up his own books and papers now scattered everywhere.   Knowing this woman doesn’t need to be left alone, he invites her to come with him to class.  She agrees, but as soon as he begins his lecture, she slowly rises and then walks out.  Gregorious abruptly leaves his classroom to follow.  But she has disappeared.  The only clue he has is the book she left behind.   This book, which gave her great depression, will lead the professor on an unexpected adventure that challenges and changes his life.

Of course, Night Train to Libson is only a Novel of fiction, but it was based on true events which took place under Portugal’s last dictator, notoriously nicknamed the Butcher.  You’ll have to read to book if you want to know more, or you could rent the movie, which stars actor Jeremy Irons.   But I’ll warn you, it’s a book and a movie that looks deep into the human soul, asking some of the deepest questions of life: What am I doing?  Why am I alive?  Where am I headed?  What is the purpose of my life?  What is worth living and dying for?

Which brings me to ask you today: What kind of hope keeps you going?   To answer this might send you on journey too.   Maybe some unexpected event has caused you to stop and contemplate your own reason for hope?    When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he wrote that ‘love hopes all things’  (13.7).  He went on to focus on a particular kind of hope which takes us to the very core of the Christians faith---the hope of the resurrection---Jesus’ resurrection and ours.  

This should remind us that the kind of love that hopes all things is not an abstract, speculative, intangible hope, but it is hope that is particular, pivotal and even peculiar.   It is a hope that firmly sets at the foundation of everything it means to live and to love as a human person.  “What is needed most is not speculative intelligence, wrote the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein. “It is not just my passionate mind that has need of a hope of salvation, but it is also my flesh and blood….   Only love can believe in the resurrection, or should I say,  it is love that believes in the resurrection…   Without Christ’s resurrection, we only live in a sort of hell where we are roofed in, and cut off from heaven, and can do nothing but dream.   Without resurrection, Christ can’t help anyone. “   (http://ludwig.squarespace.com/wittrs-blog/2009/11/27/wittgensteins-thoughts-in-1937-about-god-the-resurrection-of.html).

HOPE IS RECEIVED FROM LOVE
Paul says that the hope he has in Christ’s resurrection is a hope that he has ‘received’ from others.   It was not a discovered hope, as much as it is a delivered hope.  It is not a hope that is handed down from the heights of political opinions, ideas or ideals, but it is a simple hope that was received and handed down by an experience transmitted from love, person to person.  

Is this how all our greatest hopes always comes--- from and through those we love, who love us, and who have taught us how to love?   It is out of such simple, earthy, relational, and particular connections that we always find our greatest resources for hope.  

When counselors work with people who are struggling emotionally, one of the first things they have to do,  beyond hearing about their particular struggle, is to learn about their background, their family history, and what kind of relationships they had growing up.   If our family was loving, we will have the best chance of becoming a loving person.   If our family was responsible and honest, we will have a greater chance of becoming responsible and honest.  And if our family was hopeful about the future---that is if we received hope, we will mostly likely find some way to claim hope, no matter what kind of struggle we face in life.   While there are always exceptions, both for the better and for the worse, the truth remains that who we become is largely determined by how we were raised and what we’ve known.  Of course we can go beyond it, and we might improve on it, but we can’t remove or ignore it.

Paul says the hope he has in Jesus Christ is a hope that he has received from a loving community of faith.   Isn’t this still the best way create hopeful children, have hopeful lives, and to become a hopeful people?   No matter how talented, how smart, how creative, or how religious---to be hopeful people in a world like ours---where there is always death, always destruction, always disease and there is always evil,  requires that we come together and surround ourselves with whom we receive,  learn, and share hope.    We can’t maintain hope on our own.   We certainly can’t create it for ourselves without help.  True hope must be bigger than ourselves, and hope will always connect us to people who have hope in life.   Hope can’t just be my own hope, but hope must be rooted and connected with people create and sustain an atmosphere of hope.
I’m thankful that I received a heritage of hope from my family.  There were surely enough things that worked against hope in my heritage.  My grandfather died at age 35 of acute appendicitis that led to surgery, then infection and then death.   He left my grandmother with 7 children to raise alone, 6 boys and 1 girl.   It was right in the middle of the Great Depression and after her husband died.  Social Services visited my grandmother and told her that due to her hardship, she should move the children into other homes, but she refused.   With her grit, determination, community and faith, Grandma held the family together to live together as a family of love and hope.   

I didn’t always understand all that my family had been up against.   I was too young to grasp all of it, though I did come to ask Grandma “How she did it?”   Her answer was brief, but always said something about having ‘faith in the good Lord’ and you ‘just did it’.  Through the years, I have come to realize even more the many of the implications of undying faith and hopefulness that was passed on to me and to others in our family.    Most recently, in researching my family history, I learned that my grandmother’s mother,  Mammie Summers, was one of the earliest patients to die and be buried at the mental hospital in Morganton in 1910.  She suffered from Post-Partum depression no one really understood how to treat in those days other than with horrifying shock treatments.   After my great grandmother was committed,  my own grandmother had to grow up without her mother.  This made her strength, faith, hope, and love even more amazing and makes me even more appreciative of what she overcame along with the courage and hopefulness, and faith she passed on to me. 

Your story will be different, (I hope so), but the result will not be that different .  It is through the attitudes, the faith, and through the love of family and friends that hope is passed on and received by us,  most often when we don’t even know it.  

HOPE IS REVEALED WITH LOVE
The hope handed down to Paul is personal, but it goes beyond any kind of private hope.    There are two particular kinds of hope revealed in Paul’s discussion.  He speaks of the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but then, moves on to speak primarily about the coming resurrection of the human person who will one day, be raised to new life, with a new body for living in a brave new world.    

Paul calls this revelation a ‘mystery’ (15.51) and it still is.   But it is a revealed mystery in that we have received as it was revealed through the gospel of Jesus Christ and comes to us through the loving community of faith.   We have received it, but it is still a mystery because we still don’t know how to explain it, nor do we know everything it means.  

The resurrection of the dead, as Paul names it (15.13), is a mystery that goes against everything else we know but it also stands for everything we would ever want to hope could be true.   Who does not want to live?  Who does not want to believe that there is life after death?   Who does not want to believe that in some incredible future moment, those who are buried in the ground will have their DNA spout like a seeds planted in the ground, which is exactly how Paul describes it.  

But here, we need to be reminded again, that this Christian hope of resurrection is not merely a hope of going to heaven when we die, but this is a hope that your flesh, my flesh, our flesh and blood, will one day be transformed and raised to live a human, bodily life on a newly transformed earth (15.21.  Rev. 21).   Who would dare dream of such a hope, if it were not revealed to from God?   It is beyond anything we have ever known or experienced.   Even Christians, still today, have trouble grasping this, for we too mostly think of gaining immortality or of going to heaven when we die.  The mystery Paul speaks of certainly includes heaven, as it comes from ‘heaven’ (15.47), but heaven is just the start, a waiting place Jesus called paradise (Luk 23.43),  where we will wait for what is still to come.  And what is to come is neither the end of this world, nor the end of our flesh, which will one day be transformed and ‘made alive’ (15.22).   Do you have a hope like this?  Do you know that God cares about you, you in your body, not just you as a spirit?   We might get confused about the details, and that’s understandable (I obviously don’t really know what I’m talking about either, but I believe).  What we must do is not miss what kind of realistic ,mysterious, and incredible hope all this talk of resurrection, not just immortality, implies!

In her book, Apostles of Reason, religious historian  Molly Worthen,  tells how two German, Christian thinkers named Karl and Carl, had differing Christian viewpoints about hope, which publically clashed, when Karl Barth, the greatest protestant thinker of the twentieth century, visited the United States.  “At the end of his long 1962 tour, after lectures in Princeton and Chicago, Barth was weary, but he agreed to a luncheon and question-and-answer session at George Washington University in the nation’s capital .”   “On a muggy spring afternoon two hundred religious leaders and a barrage of newspapermen swarmed the room, including a Christian journalist named Carl Henry.  Henry worked in Washington as editor in chief of Christianity Today, the rising “magazine of evangelical conviction” that he had helped found six years earlier.   Henry stated his credentials and, as soon as he could gain the elderly theologian’s attention, and then called out his challenge: “The question, Dr. Barth, concerns the historical factuality of the resurrection of Jesus.”   Gesturing toward the many reporters, he ask: “If these reporters had been covering the news of first-century Judea, would they write up the resurrection? “Was it news in the sense that the man in the street understands news?”

Barth was seventy-five years old, but his hedgelike eyebrows were still black and forbidding beneath his white hair. He quipped back a question to Carl Henry:  “And what of the virgin birth? Would the photographers come and take pictures of it?”  Everyone laughed, except Karl and Carl.  Karl Barth went on to declare that Jesus appeared only to believers, not to the wider world.   Much to Carl Henry’s dissatisfaction, Barth concluded: “Christ’s resurrection is a matter of “personal faith” not (provable) historical fact.  (From Worthen, Molly (2013-10-01). Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Kindle Locations 241-247). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

The Bible gives us a witness to hope, but we still, like Carl Henry, or like doubting Thomas, want to see to believe.   “Blessed are those who believe, without seeing, without proving, only based on their faith and hope.   Make no mistake, Karl Barth believed in the resurrection, but he believed it without any proof, without any pictures, without any photographs or without any news reports.  He believe it because it was a message from love sent personally with love.  

What Karl Barth can still teach us is all is that resurrection, Christ’s and ours, must forever remain a mystery if it is worth believing.   It is only an unsolvable mystery that should give us our greatest hope.  Why is this?   Because this very personal mystery is a hope that comes to us from beyond the world we know, and this is exactly why it remains the cornerstone of all our greatest hope.  Eternal hope cannot come to a temporary world except from the outside,  beyond the way things are, and away from what we now know.   True hope must remain faith without explanation, beyond any theological interpretation,  beyond any imagination or any other hope—because the resurrection is, as Barth has said, is not of human invention or insight, but resurrection is a sheer gift of grace from God alone.   If hope could ever be proven or explained, it ceases to be hope only comes as a gift from God---from and with love. 

Isn’t it interestingly how last year, German scientists, for the first time, landed a spaceship on a comet moving 40,000 miles an hour through space?  It wasn’t a perfect landing.  It took 10 years for the spaceship to reach the comet, and because of the landing position, the fear is that the battery will not receive enough solar power for long to transmit signals back to earth.   That does matter, because the Scientist were still filled with hope about the event.  Why did these Scientist ever attempt such a feat?   Their answer was that they wanted to learn something about the earth, about life, which could only be understood from beyond the earth.  

Perhaps unbeknownst to them, these Scientist are following a path religious believers and seekers have always taken.  We can’t find our greatest hope or understanding for life within ourselves.   We have to look beyond---it has to be revealed to us.   This is what makes resurrection so vital to everything elese.   Without the promise of hope in resurrection, the story of Jesus is just a another story that will eventually be ‘told’ out.  But because this is a story about our own future beyond what we now know,  it substantiates everything else we believe about faith, forgiveness and the future (15: 13-18).  Resurrection give us hope, because it is part of our own story that is yet to be told.   It this story that personally speaks to each and every one of us, addressing our greatest fears, worries, and questions, challenging our with a love that radiates and reveals the hope of all hope into our hearts.

HOPE IS REALIZED FOR LOVE 
In the 1990’s movie Flat liners, the main characters are 5 medical students, experimenting to learn or prove whether or not there is life after death.   They put themselves into coma like states, for longer and longer periods, putting their brains to sleep for up to 12 minutes, and then bringing themselves back to see whether or not they saw anything while on edge of death.  As a result, like in real life, these ‘mad scientists’ ended up just as confused and conflicted about their questions and beliefs at the end of their experiment, as they were before ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatliners).

We must not leave this place more confused than when we came.  Hope comes to us, not just so we will have it for only for ourselves, but hope comes to us so that we will pass it on to those around us, and keep giving a gift of faith, hope and love to the world.  Paul concludes: “Therefore, my beloved,  since you have hope, that is, “be steadfast, unmovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”  (15:58).

Admiral Jim Stockdale, was the highest-ranking US military officer in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp during the Vietnam War.   He was tortured over 20 times during his 8 years of imprisonment. 
        How did he survive?  Writer Jim Collins once asked him.
         Stockdale answered,  “I never gave up faith in the end of the story….” 
        “Who didn’t make it out”  Stockdale was then asked. 
        “The optimists.” 
        “The optimist?”  What do you mean?
 The optimist were the ones who said, “We’ll be out by Christmas!”  But Christmas came and they weren’t out.  “We’ll be out by Easter!”  but Easter came and they still weren’t out.  “We’ll we be out by Thanksgiving”, but those days would come and go and they would finally die of a broken heart.
        ”I didn’t confuse having faith with being optimistic.  Only faith prevails. “
(As quoted in “Contextualizing the Gospel, by Brian L. Harbour,  Smyth & Helwys, 2011, p. 210-211).


Only one comment needs to accompany the Admiral’s prevailing faith.  It is only a faith that comes from love, with love to prevail for love that maintains hope in all things.   The only hope that will survive the worst we can imagine,  comes from the loving Lord, who prevailed over death,  is the only one who has the right to be the LORD over everything in our lives.  In Jesus too, we can have, unshakeable, unmoveable hope.  It is love that brings us this love that keeps hope in anything, in everything, and in all things.   Amen.   

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Love Believes All Things

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Epiphany 4, Year (B),   February 1st,  2015

…God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1Co 10:13 NRS)

A strange thing happened on the way revival services last year at Flat Rock.   As the guest musicians were warming up, I looked up and noticed that one of the lead singers had a pistol strapped to her waist.  It was a very big gun; military style, black and obvious.

When her boyfriend joined her up front, I noticed he was packing the same kind of pistol.  When he came back to sit down in front of me, right before the service started, I asked about the weapons.  
        “Are ya’ll deputized or something?”      
         “We’re residence of Yadkin County.”   
        Not being satisfied, my wife asked him again.   “Now, why did you say you were carrying guns while leading worship? “  
        His answer came again, without apology:  “We’re residences of Yadkin County.”

What amazed me even more were the words they were singing.  “Lord, protect us….  Or something to that effect  I wondered why would you need the Lord’s protection when you already brought your own?      I told you it was strange.

STRANGE THINGS HAPPEN
Strange things happen in life.   Sometimes they happen quite unexpectedly.  Other times they are more predictable,  like the strange thing that happened in today’s Scripture reading from 1 Corinthians 10.   It’s about something that happened on the way to the Promised Land.   The Children of Israel cried out for God to deliver them.   God did.  They followed God in a cloud.  They followed God and passed through the sea.   They followed God in baptism.   They all ate of the same spiritual food and drank from the same spiritual rock----Jesus Christ.   But the Scripture then says,  “The people sat down to eat and drink, but then rose up to play….” (10.7).   This means they were redeemed, they were saved,  but then they started to over indulge themselves and lost their salvation.  We don’t know all that they indulged in, but the text tells us that “some of them gave into sexual immorality”.   Tragically,  it concludes, due to their lack of discipline and self-indulgence, 23,000 of them fell to their death in a single day.

This strange thing that happened in Israel, and can happen to us---any of us.   Every Baptism starts off full of faith and belief.   Just like a marriage begins full of faith.    You know the story.  The proposal.  The wedding.  The bride.  The dress.  The bells.   The cake.  The hopes, dreams, vows and pledges.   Weddings are remarkable moments of faith and belief:  “I pledge you my trough,” is an old English way of saying,  “I put my whole faith in you!”     That’s how every marriage begins, but it’s not, unfortunately, how every marriage ends.   “Until death do us part!”  is not how most marriages end.    I wish all marriages, all relationships, all promises, and all possibilities could end that way, but it’s just not what human reality is.

Strange things can happen also, on the way to raise a child, or when you take a job, or when you move into a community, or when you go back home.   Strange things can happen that makes everything turn out differently than you had hoped.   Even such strange things can happen in a ministry or to a church.   Recently, Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, a large church with 13 locations, and one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the U.S., voted recently to dissolve its churches and ministry.    It ceased to exist on December 31th, at the end of last year.   What happened?   It all began with an attempt to get the pastor, Mark Driscoll, to submit to the leadership of the elders.   He decided to resign instead.   Evidently everybody lost faith in everybody else.  

THE “STRANGE” RETURN TO UNBELIEF
Strange things happen, and they can even happen at church, to a disciple, to family, to a marriage, or to people like us.   What is this strange thing?  In one word we can name it.   We call it unbelief.     

This ‘trail of tears’ goes all the way back to one of Jesus’ own disciples, Judas.  For some reason, this trustworthy fellow, a fellow whom everyone trusted, even once trusted with their money ---- this trusted fellow, one day, lost faith.   He had even been trusted by Jesus, who must have seen great potential in him.   But then on the way to Jerusalem, or one the way to the Great Commission or maybe on the way to save the world, unbelief happened to Judas.   He lost faith.   He lost faith in the gospel.   He lost faith in the Kingdom of God.   He lost faith in Jesus.  After betraying, Jesus, we read that finally, Judas even lost faith in himself.   We are told that full of remorse and regret, Judas went out and hung himself.  

This is the kind of tragic end that can come to those who lose faith.  Paul ‘does not want us to be unaware’ of what happened to Israel, or to Judas, because the same kind of thing happen to us.   We can lose our way.   We can turn against the one who gave himself for us.   I know it sounds impossible, but it happens.  “Now these things happened”  Paul says. “They happened to serve as examples for us….”   Can you hear the seriousness in Paul’s voice?  “We must not put Christ to the test…..Some of them did, and were destroyed!”   You can’t get any more serious.   It’s not a pleasant thing to think about---to think of the possibility of losing faith in God, losing faith in each other, or losing faith in yourself--- it’s certainly not pleasant, but for our own good, we need to think about it, Paul says. “These things were written down to instruct us….because “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”  (10.12).

The most discouraging story of lost faith came from of a personal close friend of Billy Graham, the former youth evangelist Charles Templeton.   It is said that Templeton was not only a friend and preaching partner with Billy Graham, but Templeton may have even been a better speaker.   He had more education.   He preached more sermons, went more places, and touched as many, or more lives than Billy Graham.   Then something happened.   After having increasing doubts about the Bible and about the Christian faith, Templeton lost his faith.   In his final book, Farewell to God, Templeton explained why he abandoned the pulpit and became an agnostic.    In short, he lost faith in almost everything---the truth of the Bible, the truth about Jesus, the truth about any claims of truth from God.   Templeton lost his faith and with it the faith lost Charles Templeton.

Lee Stobel,  a news reporter turned preacher,  did an interview of Charles Templeton, just after Templeton turned 80 and had written the book.   It was five years before Templeton died in 2001 of Alzheimer’s disease.  Stobel wanted ask Templeton once more:
         “What do you think of Jesus?   “He was,” Templeton began, “the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world. What could one say about him except that this was a form of greatness?”
Stobel was taken aback. “You sound like you really care about him,” I said.
        “Well, yes, he is the most important thing in my life,” came his reply. “I . . . I . . . I . . . ,” he stuttered, searching for the right word, ‘I know it may sound strange, but I have to say . . . I adore him!” . . .
        ” . . . Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes . . . yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don’t think of him that way, but they don’t read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus….’      
        “Uh . . . but . . . no,’ he said slowly, ‘he’s the most . . .” He stopped, then started again. “In my view,” he declared, “he is the most important human being who has ever existed.”

That’s when Templeton uttered the words I never expected to hear from him. “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I . . . miss . . . him!”    With that tears flooded his eyes. He turned his head and looked downward, raising his left hand to shield his face from me. His shoulders bobbed as he wept. . . .   Templeton fought to compose himself (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2013/05/09/charles-templeton-missing-jesus/).

LOVE IS STRONGER THAN UNBELIEF
I find it sad, but I really don’t find it strange or surprising, that a brilliant, educated, talented and gifted man like Charles Templeton lost his faith.  What I find strange is that many brilliant, educated, cultured people like Templeton,  have doubts, but then work through them---not by denying them, but by thinking deeper, harder, longer and going further, until they find a light at the end of their own tunnel of doubt.   Charles Templeton never found that light.   But many people do.   What makes the difference?    Listen again, to what else Paul writes about going through the test of faith:  “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, BUT WITH THE TESTING HE WILL ALSO PROVIDE, THE WAY OUT so that you may be able to endure it.”  (10:13).

What I find even stranger than unbelief are the stories and testimonies of people who keep believing in spite of some of the things that happen to them.   Here in this text, we read about those 23,000 Israelites who fell in the wilderness, but what is even stranger, is that about the same number of Israelites who left Egypt finally entered the Promised Land.   That means about 600,000 thousand males, or nearly 3 million people in total,  left Egypt, and according to census, was also about the same number of people, who one generation later, made it through, and entered into the promised land.  

This is why Paul can remain optimistic, even after he warns about those who might “fall” or lose faith, that “God is faithful…”    This is why he also says that God “will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out…..” (10:13).  How can Paul promise something like that?   It’s not that Paul knows everything.  It’s not that Paul’s knows you, or me, nor does he know everything about God.   No, what Paul knows is one sure thing: “God is love”.  Because God is love, God loves and God believes in us, and if we know his undying love,  we can keep trusting,  keep searching,  keep asking, and keep trying,  so that we too, can keep the faith because we know the love.    

Again, it’s strange and tragic that some people lose faith.   It’s stranger still, that many of the people, even people who have almost nothing, have an easier time keeping faith, than those people who have most everything.   It’s not doubt,  struggle, or poverty that causes people to lose faith, but it’s, according to Paul, idolatry.   We lose faith, not because we lose it, but because we put our faith in something else“Flee, the worship of idols”  (10:14), Paul continues.  It’s not what we go through, but it’s what we decide to trust that determines the outcome of faith. 

It’s always heartbreaking to learn of someone who loses faith, but also think of the people who keep on believing, keep on trusting, or keeping enduring, in spite of everything that happens to them?   I think of people who get married and they have tremendous differences---are opposites in most everything, but even with all the friction between them, it keeps lighting a match of passion between them.   Or I think of parents who have children---children who have been wayward and worrisome, but in spite of everything, the parent keeps hoping, keeps praying, and never loses hope for their child.   I also think of people, who have struggles, problems, insurmountable difficulties,  illnesses and all kinds of misfortune, but they keep getting up in the morning, put on a smiling face, and they keep doing the best they can to get through the day, to hold on, to keep up the good fight even to their final, last, dying day. 

How do people keep faith like this?  Paul had the answer:  “God is faithful!”   God is faithful because God is love.   When you love, or when you know you are loved, nothing can stop you from believing in what love has chosen to believe in.   Love is gullible in this way, not because love is stupid, but because love is not based on facts, not based on reality,  love is not based on good or bad,  but love is based on faith---true faith---real faith—undying faith---trusting faith---loving faith.   Love believes all things because love is everything.   If love stops believing, there is nothing else to love, just as there is nothing else to believe. 

When Karl Barth, the greatest known theologian in the world of the last century, came to America in the 1950’s, a skeptical reporter asked him, “Sir, you’ve written many great volumes about God, but how do you know it is true?”  Barth only thought a brief moment and said,  “Because my mother told me so.”   You could revise that song to say, ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for my mother told me so….”   When you think about it, that is most correct,  because it is love that keeps us believing.    It doesn’t matter how high a stack of Bible’s you have, if you don’t have love---a loving family,  ---loving parents,  ---loving people around you,  and a loving church community---you have nothing.  Nothing is worth believing without love, and love makes just about anything worth believing.  

Lewis Smedes has written that “Love is the power to believe, more than the evidence requires.”  (Love Within Limits, Eerdmans, 1978, p. 100).  Love causes us to look beyond the evidence now available and to peer into the heart of everything.    Until we look deeper into our souls, our hearts, and our heads, we cannot find the way back to trust, faith and belief.  Our lives are lived in such a way that knowledge, truth and reality have become much too shallow.   Without having deep roots, even small storms can do us great damage.   We need go deeper.  We need to think deeper.   We need to drink from a much deeper well.   We need belief that reaches beyond the facts of life and extends beyond the faith we currently have.   Paul tells us that it is love that holds us together so we can deal with the facts and keep the faith, no matter what new experience we encounter.   We can deal with the facts and not lose faith because we know that there is nothing more important that we will ever come to know or experience in life, than what true love has shown us.    When you have love, you believe---and you can keep on believing, because “love believes all things.”    Amen.