Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
May 10, 2009
1 John 4: 7-8, 17-21
Many years ago in another church, when I was being introduced to the congregation as its next senior pastor, one of the search committee members took me to five or six of the homebound members who were not going to be present in church the next day for the vote. We knocked on the door of a room in a board and care residence for seniors. The woman who came to the door saw my escort and her face lit up. But when my escort introduced me as the ministerial candidate, the woman’s face turned to stone. “I don’t agree with women ministers. You might as well just turn around and go.” We managed to stay for at least a few minutes but the woman was clearly very unhappy with my presence in her little apartment. As we were walking back to the car, my escort said, “It’s good people can tell you how they really feel”. right.
I tried to visit the woman a few more times after we moved to the town, but she was always hostile so I gave up. When she died, her son asked to have the funeral in our church but with a minister from one of the other churches in town officiating. He took that request to the Church Council. I was hoping they would say no but of course they didn’t. I stayed home that afternoon while the funeral for a woman who hated me took place in the church that had called me to be their senior pastor.
I never tried to love the woman. I should have. I might have been unsuccessful, but I should have tried to love her. Instead, I nursed feelings of hurt, self-righteousness, even superiority. I never tried to love her.
All of us have people in our lives, people with whom we are required to interact, who are hard, mean, and hurtful. We have all been on the receiving end of unkind words. We have all processed those words in a variety of ways – dismissing them with a kind of moral superiority, or carrying them around as badges of honor, or holding them in lockets next to our hearts, pulling them out from time to time to remind ourselves how unkind people can be and how undeserving of their unkindness we are. Rarely, and now I’m speaking more of myself than of you, rarely do we receive those hurtful words as reminders that God first loved us.
“We love because God first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
Well, that’s fairly clear. We’d have to be obtuse to misunderstand those words. John was not talking about loving our enemies so much as loving everyone, anyone, any brother or sister. John was implying a kind of hypocrisy to which we are all vulnerable, that of practicing public piety, our faces turned heavenward, aglow with our love for God, while harboring in our hearts just a little antipathy for that person who hurt our feelings a few months ago (or was that a few years ago?) or that person who betrayed a secret we had entrusted to her, or that person who we think snubbed us, or that person who laughed at us, or that person who needs to make himself feel better by putting others down, or that person who hurt one of our children, or that person who didn’t do what we thought she should do, or that neighbor who keeps letting the animals get into his trash, or that boss who arbitrarily sets up new rules for computer use, or that kid who refuses to move her car a few feet away from our driveway, or that woman who doesn’t agree with women ministers, or that governor who is finding it difficult to do the right thing, or that son-in-law who is in jail, yet again, for drug possession, or that teacher who demeaned us in front of everyone. Well, I’m going to assume we all know those of whom John wrote, our brothers and sisters, you know the ones I’m talking about, those pesky people who make themselves so unlovable. You bet it’s easier to love God, whom we have not seen, than those people who are in our face.
But that’s not what John said, is it?
Do you know one of the things that delineates us as Christians? It’s that we are required to love people, every person, our enemies, those who persecute us, those who mean us harm, strangers, Jihadists and Rush Limbaugh and the person sitting next to us in the pew. It is mandated that we love, that we never intend them harm, that we keep to ourselves angry, judgmental words, that we look for Christ in their faces. We have no choice in the matter – that is if we are going to be Christian – no choice. So how do we go about doing that, do you think? How do we actually love those people we have seen who just make us crazy or who mean us harm, or with whom we profoundly disagree, or who dislike us intensely for no reason we can understand. How do we love them?
Well, since I’m not likely to ever meet a Jihadist in person or Rush Limbaugh for that matter, I’m going to keep this closer to home and focus in on loving those people with whom we actually have a relationship, those sisters and brothers we have seen, those sisters and brothers who are also members of our community, or our schools, or even our church, for example. And I’m going to suggest we do two things – just two little things we can each do in private, no one will ever have to know we do them.
The first thing is to pray for that person. A few years ago, a stranger, someone I’ll never meet, did something really terrible to someone I love. I wonder what it says about me that it has been easier to pray for that stranger than for Jim Kenyon, say, whom I have also never met but who just irritates the hell out of me. Well, Jesus never said it would be easy to pray for black flies. And when you pray for that person who irritates you, be careful that you’re not actually praying for yourself. You know, I pray John Doe will be nicer to me. I pray that Jane Moe will see how she has hurt me. Nope, that will not do. Pray for the wellbeing of the other person. Pray for the genuine happiness and success and serenity of that other person. Pray that that person will know joy.
Let’s try it. Bring to your minds someone you know who has really irked you recently, hurt your feelings, disappointed you, snubbed you, been unkind about you. (pause) I’m not going to take it personally that you’re all still looking at me. OK, do you have that person in mind? Now, quietly, to yourself, ask God to be kind, loving, and generous to that person. Now, do it again. And again, and again, and again. Pray for that person’s happiness, serenity, and success until you mean it.
Second, look, closely, at whether there may be any truth, any glimmer of possibility that I am, you are, we are even partially, even for just one teeny, tiny, little smidgeon of possibility, responsible for the broken relationship. Of course this is harder. Confession is always harder, because it means you have to relinquish all that self-righteousness, all that martyrdom, that protective layer of vindication and justification and rationalization.
But, here’s the thing – it’s pretty difficult to be hurt by someone else if only that other person was involved. And maybe there was just a simple misunderstanding or perhaps one or the other of you was too quick to form an opinion. But whatever the circumstances, if you are going to find your way clear to loving someone who is difficult for you to love, then you’re going to have to look closely at your own behavior, your own words, your own thoughts.
Well, the woman I told you about when I began this sermon today? It’s too late now to ask her forgiveness for not loving her. But it’s not too late to ask God to forgive me for not loving her. And it’s not too late to think of her whenever I encounter some bias or prejudice that hurts me. It’s not too late to pause, bring that painful situation to mind, and make a different choice, a choice to respond with generosity, honesty, and gentleness of spirit, even humor. It’s a pretty straightforward concept – “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” I want to know God, don’t you? Amen.