The Inordinate Love of God

NB: This is a sermon that I had written for August 18th, but the cards came up differently in the life of the parish that week and Mother Laurie took over for me with a timelier message.

Grace and peace are yours from the Triune God. Amen.

When I first got assigned today’s sermon, I took a look at the passages and had a sinking feeling about whether I were up to the challenge of preaching on family being turned against each other. I remember my own upbringing, how consistently my sisters and I seemed to be at each other’s throats about something or another, how my mom and I Imagewould have spats about the location of my personal effects, how my dad and I would get into an argument over how to tell when steak is cooked medium well (we still have that argument on a regular basis, by the way).

Sometimes these are inane squabbles, and sometimes these are serious arguments. Some of us have a lot more family tension than others; some of us are from broken homes, or abusive homes, and some of us don’t have a place to call home. All that said, we seem to do pretty well at dividing ourselves, so, thanks Jesus, but this message of being turned against one another in the very relationships that seem to give our life structure isn’t exactly news, much less good news. Really, Jesus? You bring division to families? Yikes, I don’t know if I can handle that. Rather, I don’t know if I want to handle that.

Jesus had a lot to say about families, including his own. We know from the other places in gospels that Jesus probably had just as much family dysfunction as the rest of us. His brothers thought he was crazy, and along with his mom they probably worried about his safety, not to mention the shame he was bringing upon the family. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ mom and brothers show up to one of his sold-out teaching events and try to get him to come home, and Jesus says, “my mother and brothers are the ones who hear the word of God and do it.”

Jesus is not beholden to first century cultural norms, which would dictate, in essence, “like father like son.” Merchants’ sons don’t grow up and become priests, they become merchants. Shepherds sons don’t grow up into governors, they become shepherds. Carpenters’ sons don’t grow up into messiahs, they grow up into carpenters. And if you’re a daughter? Well, forget it. At least your brothers get to have careers. I say all this aware of the acute irony that I’m a preacher’s son, and here I am preaching.

But Jesus pushes back against this concept of family-as-identity. He trades his expected family and instead makes a family out of all those who have no family, who have no identity other than their sin: prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves, drunkards. Because for Jesus, a person’s identity isn’t determined by whose genes they have in their blood, but rather by whose breath they have in their soul.

The breath of God himself gives us life and existence. God is love, and God breathes that love into each of us. We exist because we are loved. And that is our identity: we are God’s beloved, without exception, without exclusion.

That is what we proclaim at baptism, that we are God’s beloved. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. And nothing, nothing, nothing can ever break, remove, efface, or deny that fundamental, sacramental reality–as real as the earth under our feet, as the air in our lungs, as the skin on our bones. As real as the bread which we break and the cup which we share.

That’s why we don’t say “I was baptized.” We say “I am baptized.” That is the core of our existence, indelible, unshakeable.

And because this God-love touches us and sustains us, it changes us–we are baptized by its fire, which burns away the strictures and structures of the world that say we are but slaves, that say we are strangers. When the Spirit opens our eyes to see our fundamental identity as that of beloved, we realize that the world has gotten it wrong: we are not slaves or strangers. We are sons and daughters of God.

And THAT is good news!

But for some reason, this love is divisive. Indeed, God’s love is divisive because it is a threat. God’s love is a threat to a world in thrall to death. God’s love is a threat precisely because God’s love is the final word; c’est pas tout ça! That’s it, that’s all!

And nothing–not people, or things, or hell, or death itself–can separate us from it. It is the criteria by which all human activities and relationships are shored up. It tears up vineyards that sprout injustice, it breaks down walls. It robs us of our safety and demands that we trust in God as he forgives our sins, which too are burned away.

We remember in the Eucharist: “when our love failed, your love remained steadfast.” That steadfast love is always present, always holding us, always enfolding us, always embracing us. It is arrests us, it transforms us, it burns us. We are called by him whose love drove him to the cross to destroy death for us to embrace this same love and to be set ablaze by it.

When we proclaim something so extravagant, so wasteful, so irresponsible, so dangerous, it’s little wonder that our families should show up at our door wondering whether we’ve lost our grip on reality, because it seems so at odds with the pattern of the world. But behind this outward appearance is the deeper reality of God’s unrelenting, never-failing, never-giving-up love. This extravagance breaks into our tragedies and holds us so tightly, so intensely, that nothing can separate us from it. And that love will not let us go.

Oh love, that will not let me go!

I rest my weary soul in Thee;

I give thee back the life I owe

that in thine ocean’s depths its flow

may richer, fuller be.

For some this love really did take them all the way to the point of giving up their lives for its sake. Jonathan Daniels. Maximilian Kolbe. And sometimes this love faces us in the wake of loss, entering into our grief and reminding us that those whom we have lost are still beloved by God. Not were beloved by God; are beloved by God. When the world seems so unsafe, so violent, so brutal, so utterly divided, we remember that the brokenness of the world is a reality that is giving way to a greater, truer, brighter reality. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

So thanks be to God for his extravagant, burning love. Thanks be to God for love that divides. Thanks be to God for the love that creates our identities, that redeems us from sin, brokenness, and death, and sustains us in eternal life.

If any of you are like me, which I suspect you are, you know that it’s very hard to stay cognizant of our belovedness. Life piles up. Dishes go undone, papers get turned in late, tires go flat, bank accounts overdraw, jobs get lost, relationships end, loved ones pass on. In those moments of blackness it’s very hard to feel beloved.

But thanks be to God that our belovedness has naught to do with feeling beloved. It is a fact. Fire is hot, the sky is blue, we are beloved. It’s non-negotiable. You are beloved. We are all beloved. And all means all, no exceptions.

Thanks be to God.

Lent I: Deserts of Life

“Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Thus says St. Paul in the epistle for this Sunday, the first in Lent; in this same melange of texts we’ve also read about Jesus’ temptation by the Accuser in the midst of his desert time, and we’ve been reminded of the magnificent promises made to our Hebrew ancestors. How interesting it is that our Lord’s sojourn in the desert is placed right next to the reminder to the Hebrew people that their own sojourn in the desert was for a purpose: the salvation of a people, and what more, the salvation of the whole world.

But the epistle–what do we do with this? In the southern United States this is an oft-emblazoned slogan on billboards and automobiles, needlework and banners, tracts and tattoos. There’s something curious about this message that St. Paul gives us, that those who simply confess belief in the Lord and in his resurrection will be saved. It’s simple to draw a reduced message of salvation from this passage, like a wine sauce with all of the alcohol cooked off. That’s what gives shape to the evangelistic programs of so many of the ecclesial communities here: professions of faith leading to believer’s baptisms with no follow-up discipleship. You get your card punched, and you’re in the kingdom, no sweat.

Of course the gospel of easy-believism has been rightly criticized on all sides by Evangelicals, Catholics, Mainliners, and on. We acknowledge that salvation is not simply a free pass to heaven. We affirm that salvation entails a radical change, something that fundamentally reorients us in the direction of the Kingdom. It’s easy enough to say what salvation isn’t. But how can we understand salvation in light of the desert time of Jesus and the sojourn of Israel? I think understanding these texts rightly is key to understanding what salvation is over against the false American gospel.

Let’s turn our attention first to the Israelites. Nigh five centuries of bondage, without a place to call home, they are suddenly delivered from captivity through a bizarre and historically improbable series of events whose veracity is attested to by the very existence of the Jewish people today. They are brought home, but home is not the promised land. Indeed, the climax of the Exodus is not at all the entrance of the Hebrews into Canaan; the climax of Exodus is an undoing of the alienation from God wrought in the first chapters of Genesis. The Exodus is a story about God taking up residence among God’s people. God doesn’t leave them in the lurch until they enter Canaan; indeed, God has traveled with them throughout their desert sojourn, being led onward by the pillars of flame and cloud. And in one glorious moment after years of journeying towards a home that no one knew, the glory of YHWH fills the tabernacle and they are brought home, right there in the desert. The text from Deuteronomy this week is shaped by the presence of God dwelling among his people, and the desert shapes them for this.

What then, of our Lord’s desert time? Of course, God is with him there as well. It is the Spirit who drives Jesus out into the wilderness, and the communion of his Father sustains him through that desert time. He is never abandoned. He is never left to wander without a sense of belonging. No, indeed for Jesus the desert time is a time of preparation, a time of sharpening, a time of dogged focus on the task at hand.

I believe that when we as Christians come into faith (whether we have been baptized as infants or not), we begin walking in the desert of salvation. God takes up residence in our hearts and fills us with the glory of God-presence: we receive a new name, a new identity, a new mark on our souls as part of the people of God. And then God’s Spirit drives us into the wilderness to shape us, to give us cause to work out our salvation, to give us an opportunity to grow into an identity of a people marked to bring about the inversion of the world in love and life. In a sense at our salvation we cross over into the Promised Land and are bade to conquer it–not with sword or bloodshed, but with words of life and acts of love as the avant garde of the Kingdom of Heaven, to “shed abroad the love of God” among all peoples and nations, as Wesley would say.

And as we walk through the wilderness, as we travel in our sojourn on earth, God prepares us for our home in the kingdom that we are helping him to establish, where every soul may at last find home in a land flowing with milk and honey.

So, salvation is freedom from bondage to sin and death. Salvation is the embracing of the promise: “you are my people, and I am your God.” Salvation is the hope of a future. Salvation is the overabundant, teeming, writhing life-giving love that makes us hale and whole in spite of any evidence to the contrary. Salvation is the new heart of flesh that beats and bleeds for a broken people. And salvation is for all people: may God’s will be done.