Wednesday, January 10, 2018

True Love (Guest Sermon by Dr. Carole Patrick)

We just celebrated Christmas, and today we celebrate the Epiphany. To me, Christmas is a symbol of love – the entire concept of Christianity is based on relationship, and loving and caring for each other. At Christmas, I love the smiles on people's faces, holiday music, the brightly colored lights, and the over the top decorations. In the middle of winter, when it’s colder and darker than any other time of the year, everyone takes a little break – and in small ways and big ways we celebrate and reflect.

Last week, as we approached the end of the year, we looked back and asked ourselves if we accomplished the previous year’s resolutions and we know the answer is "No, not really."  But rather than getting overly anxious about it, we raised up evergreen trees dressed in outrageous hope in our homes – small beacons of optimism that signal a pause in our lives to celebrate.

What do we celebrate? LOVE. Our Scripture this morning says God loves us and we should also love each other. It says if we love each other, God’s love is complete.

Back in the 1980’s, James Diddy’s wrote about what he called the Frozen Joseph Complex. It was based upon this idea that we look at a nativity scene at Christmas and we give a lot of credit to Jesus for being born, and to Mary for being so brave, and to the angels singing so lovely, and the wise men for traveling so far, and the shepherds for dropping everything and showing up so well – and mostly we see Joseph as this frozen dude standing in the background. We don’t give him much credit and we don’t give him much thought.

Pastor Debra pointed out in our Christmas Eve service that Joseph really had a choice to quietly send Mary away or to humiliate her in public – but the choice he made was to believe Mary and her vision and believe he ALSO was part of the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. He helped his family escape danger. Interesting? That quiet frozen guy accomplished a lot!

I was thinking about Frozen Joseph because I’m also thinking we as humans have this tendency in a church community to see ourselves conveniently frozen. It’s comfortable to show up, stand in the background and take pleasure in watching all the others in the nativity scene have speaking parts – but I think we’re called to more.

And it’s OK if you don’t want a big speaking part in church at Urban Abbey – because the role to which you’re truly called every time you’re here is to love – and that love is uniquely about you.

One of my all-time favorite books is a compilation of short stories called True Love. The author, Robert Fulghum, set up a card table with a sign that said, “Tell me a love story, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.” And although the book contains the romantic stories you’d expect, it’s also full of many other kinds of love stories that celebrate the power of the impact we can have on each other’s lives.

Here’s one of my favorites:

When I was a junior in college I took an English course in the writings of DH Lawrence. I know this sounds really stupid, but I thought this was about Lawrence of Arabia – you know, the eccentric British desert warrior guy. I had seen the movie and I wanted to be him. Let’s just say I wasn’t completely alert in college.

I went down to the local book store to get the books for my class, and I was surprised by all the books with the word “love” in the title.  This was a side of Lawrence of Arabia I didn’t know about. The bookstore clerk explained my mistake.  WHOA - bad news. But I had already registered for the course and now I had the books and I really needed an English class to graduate – so I was stuck.  I went home to read.

Like many college students, I bought used books hoping someone else would have already underlined the important stuff.  The books I bought were thoroughly underlined, and when I read some of the paragraphs about love, I was blown away.  To heck with Lawrence of Arabia; this DH Lawrence was my kind of guy! 

All the books I bought had the same female name in the front.  I figured this girl must have taken the course then sold the books. I looked her name up in the telephone book and she was there.  So I figured I’d just call her up and see what happened. I was hoping for anything from a date to copies of the papers she’d written because college guys play all the angles.

I called her up, introduced myself, and told her what I wanted.  WHOA again. She was not a girl but a retired college professor of English literature. She laughed and said she would be glad to have a date with me and she would explain about Lawrence and tell me how to pass the course.

Well, we liked each other right away. She lived alone and her eyes were failing. She said if I would drive her to the grocery store once a week, she would tutor me in Lawrence. During that semester, she taught me volumes about love. I’m a better man because of her. A long time later I told her if she had been 20 instead of 70 I would have asked her to marry me. She said she would have accepted. She’s died now, but I still have her books and her wisdom and her definition of love. I also got an “A” in the course . . . 

When I think of the love we are intended to be for each other, I think of two things: (1) God’s love for us, and (2) Our obligation to share that love through our own unique lens.

God’s love for us: a seminal Scripture about God’s love is John 3:16. Most of us are familiar with it – For God so loved the world… But my favorite part of this Scripture is what I call the “whoever policy” – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that WHOEVER believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

Think about it – who isn’t a WHOEVER? Everyone’s a WHOEVER, right?

God could have placed conditions on his love and used “whatever” . . . whatever man, whatever Jew, whatever beautiful, good, honest, ethical person believes in me . . .

But God said WHOEVER
1. Whoever you are
2. No matter what condition you’re in, my friend
3. Wherever you are in life
4. Don’t worry if you’ve not met your own or others expectations
5. Don’t worry if you’ve messed up
6. Don’t worry if you’ve disappointed
7. Don’t worry if you don’t feel worthy
8. God’s love is yours – “WHOEVER believes”
9. Receive it and move to the next step, because step 2 is . . .

Our obligation is to share that love through our own unique lens: and the key is if God didn’t put conditions on the WHOEVER policy, you don’t get to either! The intention of church is not that we all to fall into step, believing the same thing and correcting each other if we fall outside some man-made boundaries. That would be laborious and boring and REALLY wrong.

Our job – our role - is to create a spiritual community and an environment where each person is free to build and share his and her own relationship with God. Because we are responsible for our OWN relationship with God.

You could say, “Carole, we do this pretty well at UA, don’t we? We create a good environment. Why are you reminding us?” Because as we celebrate the fact that Urban Abbey has grown a lot, we’ve also become even more diverse and, as a church community, we have greater needs than ever before. As we continue to grow, we can’t be a Frozen Joseph in the background.

Please – I encourage you to risk being just a tiny bit vulnerable to reach out just a little bit more to those around you. That responsibility belongs to all of us.

As a Graduate School psychology professor, I taught my students that we all carry baggage. That’s not really a negative connotation. Think of it as a suitcase we all carry attached to our back-sides – and our personal suitcase contains all of our experiences that impact who we are. That’s what makes you so dang cool! Some of us carry a fanny pack; some of us pull a giant trunk on wheels behind us!

When you’re a therapist, the best thing you can do is help people recognize those things they carry with them in life. At Urban Abbey, I guarantee you that as we’re carrying our own suitcases, there’s nothing better we could do for each other than be a fellow traveler. Not your job to carry another’s load, but encourage and walk alongside. And please, don’t let anyone walk out of here without feeling welcome!

1 John 3 says let us not love with words, but actions. Actions that show everyone is welcome, everyone is included, everyone is encouraged to struggle and ask questions and walk their personal spiritual path. This is who we are.

I asked Kyle to sing a song during the offering this morning called “Come to the Table.” Would you listen especially close as he sings this song? It’s about recognizing that we bring so many pieces of ourselves to this place we call church. The song calls us a “motley crew of misfits” – and the truth is, I can think of no greater honor than walking alongside you as we each figure out our own paths.

This is a place where you come to the table just as you are. No apologies. Fully human. And as we walk into this New Year, may we be a source of love and acceptance for all who enter these doors. May we throw an extra leaf in the table, pull out a few more coffee cups, and welcome all to sit and love life alongside us . . .