Speaker: Steve Ratzlaff
James Killen in his book What Does the Lord Require? writes, “Love is that force that is committed to pulling things together and building things up and making life truly good for everyone.” By contrast, he says that, “Hate is that force that pulls things apart. It sets people and groups and races and nations against each other in destructive conflict.” He also identifies another path that is all too common for many of us: indifference. “Indifference,” he writes, “is basically a selfish way of life. We go happily along thinking of ourselves, pursuing our own dreams, and evaluating everyone and everything in terms of how it affects our personal interest.” If we are honest with ourselves, we all fall into the trap of indifference all too easily.
The good news – and the bad news – is that this is not an option for us as Christians. Jesus told us to abide in his love and that we will do so by keeping his commandments. To make sure we get the point, he says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” There’s an interesting subtle meaning here. We are to love one another, not because Christ loved us, although that is true. But it is the way that we are to love. We are to love “as Christ loved us’, in the same or similar way. We are to see Christ as the example of what love looks like and how it acts. Then again, he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Here’s where it gets sticky. There’s more to this love than just having a warm fuzzy feeling about someone else. Christ’s kind of love calls for sacrifice. It calls for commitment. He reminds us, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. … I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
For the early church, a very practical question or dilemma for them was to try to figure out who it is that God loves. It’s much easier to love if we can pick and choose who we will love. It’s much easier to think of ourselves as the Body of Christ if we can choose who will be part of that body. What we discover in the Bible is that love has no limitations. Love has no boundaries.
Love is the fire that kindles faith and turns hope into certainty. Our Anabaptist ancestors, especially the first generation, also understood this. They were known by how they loved one another. In fact, love was the driving force that moved them to reach out to others. Many risked their lives to show this love to others. And people around them marveled at their commitment. However, like all spontaneous movements of this type, even the Anabaptists got caught up in legalism and doctrine and confessions of faith and lost the spark that characterized their life together as the years went by. And, by the time Menno Simons died, only a generation after the movement began, the prolonged persecution from the outside and the infighting within the church reduced their life together to that of living within a certain set of rules and guidelines. The ban became an often used method of discipline, excommunicating people from their midst. Doctrine became more important than love. The spark was lost. Mennonites have never been quite the same. Oh sure, we have our moments when we remember that love is the engine that drives the train, but most of the time we rely on doctrine, rather than love.
Those who love as Christ loved also understand that that means everybody, no exclusions. Peter discovered that in the reading from the Acts this morning. Prior to what we heard read, Peter experienced a profound vision in which he confronted his ideas of what was not acceptable to God and what was. The vision involved a sheet being lowered from the sky and containing all kinds of animals which were forbidden foods in the dietary codes. Three times Peter was told to get up and eat and three times he refused. Each time he heard the message, “Do not consider anything unclean that God has declared clean.”
While he was trying to understand this vision, visitors showed up at his house. They had come from the home of Cornelius, a captain in the Roman army – an enemy. Peter learned that God was using him to respond to Cornelius’ honest desire to know more about God. At the end of the reading today, the Holy Spirit came upon all those in Cornelius’ home – Gentiles – and Peter understood that God’s plan included even those whom he, Peter, wanted to exclude.
The sheet in Peter’s vision contains a variety of creatures that we will meet in our lives: people we may not like, people with whom we would rather not associate, people with different ideas and different viewpoints, people who irritate us just by being themselves. The sheet in the vision tells us that God loves them and wants them to be part of the church on an equal par with us. God chose them just as God chose us.
The Mennonite church today needs a similar vision on inclusion and love regarding whether to include people in our midst who have a different sexual orientation. The Open letter, drawn up by Pastor Weldon, Sheri Hostetler, pastor of First Mennonite Church in San Francisco, and Cindy Lapp, pastor of Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Hyattsville, MD, and which has been signed by over a thousand Mennonite clergy and lay people, asks the church to consider being the loving body Jesus calls us to. To love as Jesus loves. To love all those that Jesus chose. Right now, in MC USA, we are being asked exclude some people whom Jesus loves. The Open Letter calls us to once again realize that love is the greatest commandment. That love trumps doctrine. No exceptions. No exclusions.
Loving others is not a superficial act. Love is deeply honest. Love is willing to discuss difficulties and problems, not sweep them under the carpet. Love is willing to face hurt and pain without running away. Love does not call us to be a doormat – to be abused, and nothing I am saying should in anyway be construed to mean that a person should stay around in a dangerous situation. That is not loving ourselves – and we are called to love our neighbor in the same way that we love ourselves. We are not to allow another to abuse or hurt just as we are not to abuse or hurt another. But when one of our companions on life’s journey is going through a tough time, love calls us to stay around even when the going is rough, to hang in there and be a model of God’s love. This is one of the places where Christ’s command to love gets so difficult. We are only able to do this to the extent that we are ourselves connected with and abiding in Christ. “Jesus came to show us God’s love, to teach us how to love, to love us into loving, and to send us out into the world as agents of love. That is what it is all about.”
Christianity has never been a “sit back and feel comfortable” faith. Yes,it provides comfort to us in pain, sorrow, illness, death, and tragedies of life, but it also calls us to continue to reach out, spread out, go to the outcasts.
I am old enough now to know a lot about this congregation, and have been privileged to have played a small part in this church’s development from a small group of about 50 people who met in a small church south of the SeaTac airport, on Military Road of all places, to today – a growing, diverse, compassionate, discerning body that is actively involved in the community around you. It has meant a move from that little church on Military Road up into the city where a closer connection to the pulse of this city got us involved in a number of issues. Over the years, that involvement has meant taking part in protests at Ground Zero-the Trident submarine base at Bangor, resisting wars in Iraq, practicing war tax resistance, led to the creation of a VORP and, starting a 10,000 Villages store here in the Seattle area, spinning off Evergreen Mennonite Church congregation in Bellevue, working at environmental concerns, hunger and homelessness. Along the way, Walter Thieme popped into our lives and eventually gave millions of dollars to SMC, which created a lot of discussion and some consternation, but also led to involvement in issues of mental health and homelessness on a much larger scale. Many people have come and gone over the years but SMC has remained a loving, caring, diverse congregation . . . fully embracing the idea that loving those whom Jesus loves means reaching out to the marginalized in this community.
It will continue to take that same kind of understanding and commitment if we are to tackle the looming problems of economic reform, healthcare reform, homelessness/affordable housing, global warming. To love as Jesus loved involves working with and for the marginalized, even being willing to lay down our lives for those Jesus loved. It means a renewed commitment to justice, to “undoing injustice” as Walter Brueggeman describes the ongoing work of shalom in the world. It means a renewed commitment to the environment along with energy for the extraordinary effort required to stop global warming. It will take a greater commitment to the concept of the common good, where all people are deemed worthy of an equal share of the pie. It will take all of us working together, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or culture, to help bring in the reign of God on earth as it is heaven. That is what the Lord requires of those of us whom he chose to be ambassadors of his love. Indifference is not an option. Love in action, Jesus’ style reaches out to all, no exceptions. It also includes laying down one’s life for one’s friends – those whom God loves.
There is an ancient tradition about the last days of John, the Apostle, who is thought to be the author of the Gospel of John. He lived to be quite old and became so feeble that he had to be carried to the meetings of the faithful. There, because of his weakness, he was unable to deliver any lengthy teachings; so at each gathering he simply repeated the words, “little children, love one another.”The people in the congregation, weary of hearing the same words over and over, asked him why he never said anything else. And to them, John always replied, “Do this alone and it is enough!”
If we ever get this love thing right, Christians will change the world once again.