It All Begins with Love
Feb. 3 “It All Begins with Love” Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
Our insert today is an older article but gives a good summary of the upcoming Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church. At our last General Conference in 2016, held in Portland, Oregon, our Church almost split over the issue of homosexuality. Since nothing could be agreed upon then, a request was made to our Council of Bishops to come up with a solution. Several different plans were developed, and one was selected as the best, the One Church Plan, which essentially leaves it up to each conference to decide how to proceed, which is already taking place anyway. The Plan also calls for changes to the Book of Discipline, which will probably be the more difficult issue. After so much work on the issue and so many years of bickering, it is hoped that this upcoming meeting in Atlanta will be anticlimactic, and we can get back to the business of creating disciples for the transformation of our world.
What this all means for us as a local church, I don’t know. Whether or not the world is paying attention to us anymore as a denomination is also a good question. This church was around long before the creation of the United Methodist Church, and will keep going no matter what happens at the denominational level.
Like most pastors in our Conference, and being generally left of liberal on most issues, I support the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in pew, pulpit, and everywhere else. I won’t love you any less if you disagree. This comes from the conviction of what is called “prevenient” grace. I mentioned this when we celebrated Jesus’ Baptism and renewed our own baptism. “Prevenient” is a Latin word made up of two parts: “pre-” or “before” and “venio” or “to come”. In centuries past, when the Church sang George’s favorite hymn in Latin, “O Come, O Come Immanuel”, we sang it as “Veni, Veni, Immanuel.” Together, “pre” and “venio” literally means “to come before”. So, when we talk of God’s “prevenient grace”, we mean “the grace that comes before.” God calls us first, even in the smallest of ways, and we respond. Anyone who walks into our church, whether it is a new person or one of us, whether we have had our coffee or not and are awake or not, is here because God wishes them to be here, and has called them to be here. He draws us to himself.
Yes, there are some difficult passages from Scripture that cause ceaseless bickering on the issue of homosexuality, but what strikes fear in my heart the most are Jesus’ statements such as:
"Allow the children to come to me," Jesus said. "Don't forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.” (Mat 19:1 CEB)
"I assure you that if you don't turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and be drowned in the bottom of the lake. Be careful that you don't look down on one of these little ones. I say to you that their angels in heaven are always looking into the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Mat 18:3-10 CEB)
As someone who has spent most of his life looking for where he fits in, it is my calling as a pastor to provide a church where anyone will be welcomed and feel like they belong. The fact that a person walks through our door is proof to me that God wants them to be here, if they are not here to do harm. My heart goes out particularly to young people struggling with issues of sexuality and identity, who often can’t find the guidance and acceptance they desperately need from the Church. They often find themselves in no-win situations, being told that God doesn’t make mistakes, that something is wrong with them, that they should try to be someone that they are not. For such kids, the grim reality is that suicide is too often the only perceived way out. In trying to keep the letter of the Law, we have failed “the least of these.”
Over the years, it has been made clear to me that those who advocate for the inclusion of certain people in the church and elsewhere at one time had their hearts changed by loving someone who identifies with a marginalized group. This isn’t always the case, but generally if you love someone, you can empathize with the pain they feel in being excluded, marginalized, and insulted for what makes them unique. From that place of love, you can then work to improve things for them. Likewise, if you feel animosity towards someone, the best way to counter that in a positive manner is to see something in them that you love.
Our reading from 1st Corinthians was not originally written just to be used at weddings. As nice as that sentiment may be, it dilutes the original meaning and purpose of the text. The Corinthian church was deeply divided, with the more powerful excluding the weaker. Like just about everywhere else, those in control were taking advantage of those who needed the most help. Instead of serving “the least of these” they were jockeying for the best seat at the table. Let’s face it, you meet some pretty strange people at church, not this one, of course, but especially bigger churches that have more resources and events. A church should be a place where those who feel like they don’t have anywhere else to go can be welcomed and cared for. Sometimes we are the odd duck looking to fit in, and sometimes we are called to reach out to that person who is lost or lonely, rejected perhaps and feeling bad about themselves. Some people are harder to love than others, but all of God’s children deserve to be welcomed and loved.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
All of us here know what it feels like to be loved. God first loved us and calls us into his family, accepting us as we are, even those of us who are not always easy to love. We are now called as God’s people to love one another other in return for his eternal and infinite love for us. In doing so, we become God’s agents, as he shares his love with that person who needs it, through us.
Paul provides a list of gifts to show us that even though we may have been blessed, we can still lack love. Certainly, this is not an inclusive list, Paul just gives a few examples. If we don’t identify with any of them, that doesn’t let us off the hook! Even if I have none of these gifts, but do not love others, I am nothing. If I do not love others, I am not fulfilling my calling as a child of God. If I cannot love myself, I am denying the goodness of God, who created me and loves me. He forgives me and accepts me, even when I struggle to that for myself.
God said to Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." We may not be prophets, but each of us was created for a purpose. We may not understand ourselves or others, but God made us the way that we are for a reason. We may not find out exactly what that is in this lifetime, but we still live our lives in obedience to God, doing what he calls us to do. All who come here deserve the same consideration from us. If someone feels called to serve in some way, it is up to us to listen and support them as we are able. We may not agree with what they are trying to do, but we must treat them with love and respect. We may not always know what to say, so we pray for help. Jeremiah said:
“Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD." Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth.”
If we still don’t know what to say, we then act with love.