Saturday, February 23, 2019


Lk. 6:27-38[1]
We all know that love is one of the defining features of our faith. The “great commandments” are to love God and to love our neighbors. Our Scriptures, our hymns, our liturgies constantly reinforce the fact that love is at the center of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. After all, he did give his life for us all in one of the greatest acts of love a person can do for others. As he put it, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13). While none of us perfectly embodies this, we do our best to live up to the example Jesus set for us, as we sing together “they will know we are Christians by our love”!
Our Gospel lesson for today, however, takes us beyond loving our friends. Jesus says it this way: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk. 6:27-28). This takes us to a whole different level of what it means to love another person. In fact, here I think Jesus is intentionally calling us to love those who do not treat us like friends. He is calling us to love those whom we perceive to be a threat, or those against whom we may harbor hard feelings, or even those who may have actively harmed us. When you put it this way, the words to “they will know we are Christians by our love” may not be so easy to sing.
I think that one of the essential components to this kind of love is mercy. Jesus said it: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36). I think we learn what it means to love by working to develop the character of God in our own lives. The essential definition of God’s character is that he is “merciful and gracious, … abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6). Throughout the Bible, God loves us simply because he chooses to have mercy on us. And God never stops loving us this way. If we read the story of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, that’s the way God showed love for them time and again. That’s how our Father is merciful, and it’s a good way to measure the extent to which we practice our love.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus points out that God does not just extend this kind of love to those who love him. In fact, reading the story of Israel makes it clear that they abandoned God and betrayed his love for them countless times. And in response, God continued to show mercy, kindness, and love to “the ungrateful and the wicked” (Lk. 6:35). That’s the kind of love that Jesus practiced in dealing with Pharisees and sinners and everyone in between. And he demonstrated it most clearly when, hanging on the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).
I don’t think anyone would argue that this is quite a high standard of love. It may seem impossible to us “mere mortals.” We all have various types of baggage that get in the way of loving even our friends and families, let alone those who are “other,” or those who are “enemies.” In my experience, the two biggest obstacles to being able to love in this way are fear and pride. Fear says, “if I get too close to you, you may hurt me.” Pride says, “If I let down my guard, you may damage my self-worth.” In both cases, our fear and pride lead us to at best keep others at a distance and at worst they turn into hatred. It’s impossible to love anyone when we’re caught in our own fear and pride.
I think the way to overcome our obstacles to practicing this kind of merciful love toward all people is compassion. If we can “walk a mile in their shoes” as the old saying goes, it can make all the difference in our ability to love others. I think the task is to try to imagine ourselves in their place. When we can try to understand what it must be like for those whom we deem to be “others” or “enemies” to live their lives, it can help us to find some compassion for them. When we can learn to see that them as human beings, perhaps not pleasant to be around, but human beings nonetheless, with the same needs as ours, we may find ourselves taking the first step toward the mercy that enables us to love them.
As Jesus pointed out, this is a love that goes beyond loving those who love us back. I think we may have a tendency to overlook this part of Jesus’ challenge to us. It’s hard enough for us to love those who are our friends and family. Part of the problem with loving anyone is that you make yourself vulnerable to them. And that means they can at times hurt you. Even with our friends and families, we have to make the choice to be merciful in order to love them at times. And the way we do that is we let people off the hook. Again, that’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. But if we can remember that God continually lets us off the hook, maybe it will help us.
When Jesus calls us to love our “enemies,” he’s calling us to something that may seem out of reach to us. Most of us have lived long enough to have someone whom we would consider an “enemy.” We perceive them to be a threat to us. It may be too much to start with trying to love that person. We may have to start with those we simply consider to be “other,” those we just don’t like to be around. If we can learn to have compassion for them, if we can learn to practice mercy toward them by letting them off the hook, we may find ourselves able to love them. Once we learn to love the “difficult” people in our lives, we may find ourselves drawn to extend that compassion to our “enemies,” extending the same mercy to others that we have received.

[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon written by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm for worship 2/24/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Changed for Good

Changed For Good
Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11[1]
Many talk about the Christian faith as if it’s the simplest thing in the world. That kind of approach may lie behind the fact that we “Christians” don’t look very different from anybody else. From how we spend our money to what we do with our free time to whether or not we stay married. The statistics don’t really show much difference between those of us who identify as Christians and those who don’t. Part of the problem is that most of us are afraid of real change, change that makes a difference in the way we live. In order to make that kind of change, we have to be willing to take a hard look at ourselves. If don’t like what we see when we look that closely, we don’t look and we don’t change.
Part of the problem is that changing the way we live can be incredibly difficult.[2] We’ve all been programmed with the way we’re supposed to live our lives. We’re supposed to do well in school. And afterwards we’re supposed to get a good job. And get married, settle down, and have children. And raise our children. And be successful enough that by the time our children are having their children, we’re ready to enjoy retirement. But as most of you know, that “script” for the way life is supposed to go doesn’t always work out. And yet, it’s incredibly difficult to change the mindset that our lives are supposed to follow one of these “scripts.” And so it’s incredibly difficult to change the way we live.
I’m not excluding myself from this challenge.  Here I am—I’m up here doing my best to relate the teachings of the Bible week after week. Sometimes I have an insight into my own life that makes me think that all these years I’ve been preaching and teaching I’ve just plain missed it myself. It’s very humbling when we see our own shortcomings. Many of us don’t much like to feel humbled. We don’t like the discomfort of feeling like we’ve missed the point. It can be unpleasant to really expose our lives to the light of God’s truth. When we do, we see the flaws and weaknesses that remain inside.
Our scripture lessons for today are about two people who encountered God, and that encounter left them changed for good. Both Isaiah and Peter encountered God in a way that left them feeling exposed. And they responded to that encounter in the way that people typically respond to an encounter with God in the Bible: with fear! When Isaiah experienced the glory of the LORD’s presence while serving in the temple, he cried out, “Woe is me! I am lost!” (Isa. 6:5). When Simon Peter realizes that in Jesus he has encountered the presence of God, he responds in his typically blunt way: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk. 5:8). We find this pattern reflected throughout the Scriptures—whenever anyone experiences the presence of God, their first response is one of fear!
I think what these encounters from Scripture shows us about ourselves is that we’re not really very comfortable getting that close to God. One contemporary prophet says that we’re comfortable fishing with Jesus of Nazareth who teaches us wisdom about life, and even occasionally points out our social injustices. But when the Risen Lord rocks our “dead and dying world” with yet another demonstration of God’s saving power, we’d rather not be around for that.[3] And yet, whenever and wherever we truly experience the presence of God, we must expect the foundations of our lives to be shaken!
The truth about us all is that we prefer to keep God at arm’s length. We like our religion good and shallow. We’re very happy with God as long as we don’t really have to undergo any real change. We want to do all the “religious” things we’re supposed to do, as long as it doesn’t really affect the way we live our lives. We want a God who is “domesticated” enough that we can stand before his presence without having to endure any kind of “fear and trembling.” But that is not the God we encounter in the Bible.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that the point of Epiphany is about celebrating the good news that in Jesus the promise of Christmas has been fulfilled that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5). What that means is that in Jesus we encounter God’s presence, God’s power, God’s redeeming grace and love in such a way that it transforms us completely. The glory of God is finally revealed “over all the earth” not in some religious setting but with God’s being present with us so as to enable us all to experience God’s grace and mercy and love.
The glory of God that fills the whole earth with grace and mercy and love is a glory that will not leave us where we are, but instead radically changes us all. It convicts us where we need convicting; it cleanses us, and it commissions us all, just as it did the prophet Isaiah and Simon Peter the fisherman. Yes, we celebrate the glory of God in the process of filling the whole earth with God’s grace and love even as we speak. But we must also remember when we come face-to-face with this kind of experience of God, it will leave us trembling as we are being changed for good.

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/10/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 6: “What the ego hates more than anything else in the world is change ... . Instead, we do more and more of what does not work ...”
[3] Will Willimon, “Get Out Of Here,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004): 21.

An End to Childish Ways

An End to Childish Ways
1 Corinthians 13:1-13[1]
Children can be wonderful. The beauty of the unconditional love they give so easily is almost indescribable. Their natural exuberance for life is a joy to behold. And when they utter those magic words “I love you” for the first time, it naturally melts our hearts. At the same time, children can be challenging. After all they are people, just moving at something that can seem like the speed of light to the rest of us! And moving that fast means that they get tired and grumpy and want what they want right now! We call it being “childish,” but in reality, we can all be demanding when we get tired and grumpy!
One of the greatest challenges as a parent is to allow your children to grow up. The process begins with what we call “the terrible two’s.” For the first time they are discovering their own identity, separate from mommy and daddy. It’s hard on the parents, and it’s hard on the children. But as we help our children through the various passages from childhood to adulthood, it can be a fulfilling experience. I find that the greatest challenge for parents is to learn how to let go just enough for our children to mature in a healthy way. As they do so, we find them leaving behind their “childish ways,” and becoming responsible adults.
As we’ve been taking a look at the church at Corinth, I think we’ve found that the process of putting “an end to childish ways” is one that doesn’t necessarily happen for everybody in the same way. This troubled congregation was struggling in part because some of the members were behaving in rather “childish” ways. Some of them were insisting that they were right and all the others were wrong. Others were demanding recognition of their spiritual superiority. Others were simply doing as they pleased, without much thought to the way it would affect others in the church. Though they may have been adults, they were behaving in “childish” ways.
As we have seen, one of the causes for this childish behavior was confusion about “spiritual gifts.” These were the various abilities that Paul said the Holy Spirit had given to the members of the church in order to build it up, gifts like preaching, teaching, leadership, and service. One gift in particular was causing problems: “speaking in tongues.” While there has been some confusion about what this means, it would seem that, in this context, it was some kind of non-rational prayer language. Unfortunately, those who practiced this gift at Corinth seemed to have developed the attitude that because they could speak a “heavenly” language, they were on a higher spiritual plane than others. As we have seen, St. Paul was trying to bring some balance to the church by pointing out that all of the gifts are important for the common welfare.
In our lesson for today, St. Paul says he is showing them “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). I think what he means is that this way is “more excellent” than squabbling over whose “gift” is most important. In fact, he begins by stating rather bluntly that even the most impressive spiritual gifts are as useless as “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” if they are not practiced in the right way. And the “more excellent way” that St. Paul advocates for the church in Corinth to work together is the way of love. St. Paul’s view was that no matter how significant we think what we do may be, when it’s not motivated by love, it is “vain, selfish, [and] fruitless.” In other words, it is an example of “childish ways.”
By contrast, St. Paul describes the kind of love that he has in mind in profound terms: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor. 13:4-5). The kind of love St. Paul advocates in our relationships with one another in the church is the kind of love that Jesus embodied. It is the kind of love that God has freely given us all. He describes it further in this way: it is a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). He’s not talking about love as a feeling, but rather love as a way of life, love as a basic attitude toward others. It is a love that sacrifices for the sake of others. It is a love that is unselfish and giving and generous. It is a love that bears with others despite all their flaws and shortcomings. It is a love that goes beyond the sweet but unpredictable love that belongs to “childish ways.”
St. Paul calls us all to put “an end to childish ways” by practicing sacrificial and unselfish love. This kind of approach to relationships with others is not something that comes easily or naturally. It is a way of life that has to be taught and learned. And I will be the first to admit that it’s not something that we learn easily. While some of us may get it earlier in life, it takes a while for it to sink in for most of us. When you really pay attention to the way St. Paul describes love, it becomes painfully obvious that the process of putting an “end to childish ways” is one that takes place over a lifetime. I would have to admit that I’m still in the midst of that process. I haven’t arrived yet. But fortunately, in the church we all get to keep learning how to do this with the help of friends who are farther down the road. They offer us encouragement and hope as we continue to learn to put an end to “childish ways” and to relate to one another with a love that is unselfish and generous.

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/3/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.