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We love because he 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. – 1 John 4: 19-20

As we work our way through this “Be the Church” series, so many of the phrases seem like no-brainers. We hear, “how to be the church: protect the environment, reject racism, embrace diversity” and most of us nod and say “well, of course.” I doubt there’s a single one of these phrases that we’ve read and been really shocked.

But this one: Love God. Isn’t this the most evident one? Isn’t it really our reason for being here? This one phrase, towards the end of the banner, feels more like a starting point than a goal toward which we, as a church, need to strive.

The idea of loving God echoes throughout scripture, from the phrase in Deuteronomy that has become a crucial prayer for our Jewish cousins: Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might. This phrase reappears in the Gospels, where it is both quoted and added to: we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And one might argue that all the rest of our Bible is just commentary on this one point that Jesus called the greatest commandment – commentary to which he added in abundance. And if we spend page upon page of scripture, parable after parable of gospel story, point after point of history and prophecy and reflection exploring what this one commandment actually looks like in practice, then maybe it’s safe to say that “Love God” isn’t nearly the no-brainer we’d like it to be.

In his extrapolation on the greatest commandment, Jesus reminds us to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. The author of the epistle we read this morning emphasizes this point: that love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor, from the love of those who are created, as we are, in God’s image. Which doesn’t leave much wiggle-room, though we seem to keep trying to find a loophole.

Several years ago, the British actor Russell Brand had a short-lived talk show, one segment of which has stayed with me. He invited two members of Westboro Baptist onto his set, to explain why they picketed funerals, pride celebrations, and churches like ours. Brand took the opportunity to ask how, in the light of such scriptures as we heard today, the folks at Westboro could preach such hatred? Their answer: it wasn’t hatred, but love. They did love the world, they said, so it was their duty to save it from the sins they saw as pervasive in our culture. And though I think that we can all recognize the corruption of the word love here, from a group whose signs often read “God Hates [fill in the blank],” it strikes me that the clear example here underlines the slipperiness we sometimes experience in acting out of a place of love. Because I have heard, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, the shaming of women – over  their weight, their clothes – supposedly for the sake of their health, their attractiveness to a partner, their safety in this world.  All of which are seemingly benign, even positive reasons; all of which leave tremendous scars and can have devastating consequences to their physical and mental health. I have heard the loving parents who seemingly don’t want their child teased – again, a reason that seems utterly benign! – and so enforce conformity to social norms around what toys they use, what sports they play, what clothes they wear, until the child loses their self entirely, loathing their own impulses and doubting their own dreams. Is this love?

I have heard the people, bare-faced yesterday in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting their torch-lit certainty that only certain people are worthy of love, and that the rest are an infestation to be removed rather than beloved children of the creator. I’ve heard the assertion, in the name of fairness and love, that both sides – the armed and the unarmed, the prayerful and the threatening, the murderous and the self-defending – bear equal responsibility for violence.

I have heard corrective love, which says, “I love you so I’m going to tell you how wrong you are.”

I have heard inward-focused love, which says, “I love my people so much I’m going to get rid of the people not like us.”

I have heard conditional love, which says, “I love you, but I’d love you so much more if you’d change.”

I have heard tremendous harm done to human hearts and human relationships in the name of love, in the name of a loving God.

Having heard all of that, I tell you truly that we are failing at that greatest commandment, whether by constraining our own willingness to love, or by remaining silent in the face of an unjust, unloving world. And if we are failing at this commandment, I’m not sure how well we’re doing at loving God.

Because the person who quizzed Jesus about what it would take to achieve the Kin-dom knew the commandment. He knew to love God, knew to love his neighbor… but he still had to ask the question that we so often seem to ask, which is as much about how we love, as it is about whom we love. And Jesus told him a parable: about how the people who did things differently, the people we’d be tempted to “lovingly” correct in their beliefs, their manners, their ways of worship, might be the ones who could teach us a thing or two about what it really looks like to love. Jesus told a parable about how love is going to mean getting our hands dirty, about how it might cost us emotionally and financially, about how it might be the way into the Kin-dom of God.  Jesus told a parable about how the refusal to see the suffering of another, no matter how different, is a form of violence; not how we bring about the Kin-dom. Jesus told a parable in which we are reminded that love cares for a person as they are; that love seeks to heal, not to harm; that love sees the image of God in another – even the most different, despised other – and makes God visible in this world.

The love that we are called to embody is the love that we have known first from God: the love which is uncritical, unconditional; which sees in us the reflection of the divine, the creation which is blessed by God from the beginning of the world. The love that we are called to embody is is both incredibly simple and extremely difficult, because it calls us to see each other – beyond the familiar, beyond the known, beyond the comfortable; to see each other as we have been seen by God, to see each other as though we were seeing God. It calls for us to care as much about the stranger as we do about our own people; to remember that we are all kin, we are all siblings – of all shapes, all sizes, all genders, all colors – images of our one God walking through this world.

To love God is to love the presence of the divine made visible in that which God created, made present in our care for each other, without condition, without reservation; without harm, or shame, or correction.

And I hope that is, in fact, why we are here.

I hope that this is our starting point, when we come into worship, whether or not we consider this love a no-brainer. Because the love of God, present here in us all, is indeed the foundation on which we build all the other ways we are the church.  The vision we cultivate here of God’s image in us all – those who look like us, who think like us, and those who do not; those who are familiar to us, and those who are not – is the beginning of faith, the beginning of discipleship. I hope that we come here to begin the practice of seeing God in those who are not just like us, and of being seen as carrying God’s image within us. I hope that we come here to begin the practice of loving, and of being loved, in this place as we are with God, so that we can carry that practice out into the world and love our God by loving one another: all of us, who are created in God’s image, all of us, who are held by God’s grace, all of us, who are siblings to one another in God’s love.

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O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God! Even now your enemies are in tumult; those who hate you have raised their heads… Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin and the Wadi Kishon, who were destroyed at En-Dor, who became dung for the ground.  Ps. 83: 1-2, 9-10

image courtesy of the United Church of Christ.

 

 

In 1969, psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a paper in which she outlined the  five stages of grief.  These have been popularized and repeated, until most of us know the concept, at least. However, as just about anyone who’s really been consumed by grief has likely felt, knowing that there are five stages doesn’t always mean we allow time for them. Much more common, in our culture, is a certain impatience with the process of grieving. “Aren’t you over it yet?” and “just move on” have become common phrases in a society which no longer honors at least a year of mourning – as we did a century ago. Modern America would much rather not dwell in the pain of grief and loss.

This may seem an odd entry point into a sermon on forgiveness, but I wonder if it really is: as with grief, our culture pushes us to “get over it” and “move on” from the pain not just of death but of all broken relationships, all hurts that we receive. And where at least with grief, there is some acceptance of a need for time to heal, with other hurts we are pushed to “forgive and forget” quickly as possible. Yet the very human inability to do so, in many cases, sends people into my office time and again, ashamed of the time it takes to do the work of forgiveness.  We hold up the communities around the victims of the shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston, or the school in the  Amish town of Nickel Mines, PA, as paragons of Christian faith for their early public declarations of forgiveness… and then fear for our own faith when we can’t do likewise.

We forget that as with grief, forgiveness isn’t really a once-off thing, but a process of restoration and healing by oneself and in community.

Just as the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – are all aspects of the grieving process, so too there are aspects of forgiveness which we tend to lump into one. And this makes the task of preaching on the idea of forgiveness a very hard thing indeed. Because I don’t even know what forgiveness means, half the time; we use this word in so many ways, assign to it so many meanings, that, for me, at least, it’s become meaningless. “Forgiveness” has become simply a catch-all word for a myriad of little steps towards a still-slippery end goal.

In a lot of ways, I think I’d be more comfortable if this sermon series included the topic “repent often.” Despite the possible  connotations of hellfire and brimstone which we associate with repentance, I like the sense of responsibility: if you do wrong, own it. When you apologize, mean it. Turn your heart with compassion on the person you hurt and make it better.  “Repent often” at least speaks to the power dynamic involved, and suggests that the one who does the hurting, rather than the victim of the hurt,      is responsible for repairing the breach. Such a stance is scriptural, even – repentance makes up the meat of whole books of prophecy, we see it as a frequent theme of Gospels. Jesus said it, so it must be important, right?

But the chosen phrase is forgive often. You, who have been hurt, you get to do the work… which seems unfair at first. But here, too, we encounter key themes of Scripture: in the Jesus who reminds us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; to not let our victimhood define us but to reclaim our humanity, our dignity, and to insist that even in our hurt, we are treated as an equal. It is likewise a theme of scripture to feel deeply the injustices done, even to feel anger at being so hurt. There are many instances in which we are reminded that it’s okay to rant at God, as the Psalmist does, for the sake of acknowledging the depth of our hurt.       There is a reason the stages move from denial to anger, in forgiveness as in grief, as we measure the impact of pain on our lives and claim the unfairness of it, in the face of our inherent worth.

For particularly in Gospels, we hear clearly the phrase “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and recall that it means we must start by loving ourselves.  We must start by seeing ourselves as worthy of being well-treated.

A lot of times, when I hear people talk about forgiveness, this is what they mean, and forgiveness is the reclaiming of the self:        the refusal to be bound by the act that harmed them. I heard this clearly in a conversation with a woman who had been assaulted, who noted that she can’t undo what happened, and doesn’t now know who she would be had it not happened. The key, for her, was in learning to love herself as she was, despite a painful past.

 

Is this forgiveness? the release of resentment, the learning to be at peace with one’s past and its influence on our lives? Is this forgiveness? the understanding of another and what would push them to hurt us? Is it the forgiveness of oneself for whatever sense of responsibility we feel towards the situations in which we’ve been hurt? Is forgiveness the peace one finds in accepting ourselves as we are, given everything that has impacted us, good and bad?

Perhaps.

Certainly this is something we should do often, this self-love that insists on our own worth and dignity, on the image of God that no act of violence should be able to remove. In this alone – in this building up of each person, in sure knowledge of our worth and in confidence that each of us is made in God’s image – to do the work of forgiveness is to be the church.

Sometimes this is the only stage of forgiveness that we can achieve: that of release of resentment, that reclaiming of our sense of worth, that finding peace with all that our experiences have made us. For to move into the next stages of forgiveness requires the active repentance of those whom we might forgive, which is not always possible.

But that’s the messy part  about the word “forgive.” It’s why I so often struggle with its meaning: we forgive *someone.* Whatever was meant, the survivors of Mother Emmanuel forgave Dylann Roof. The families of the Amish school shooting victims forgave Charles Roberts. Forgiveness, in English, has an object. Which makes the line between the stages of forgiveness a very tenuous one indeed.

If forgiveness begins in the love of ourselves, it seeks eventually to invoke the love of our neighbor; to reincorporate community. And even when that is possible, it’s hard.  Because when forgiveness turns outward, away simply from our own hearts and our own sense of self; when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship broken by hurt then forgiveness is not simply about the victim seeking peace, but about recognition of harm done to another, the possibility of reconciliation.  And that requires two people, in a mutuality of understanding.

I can imagine the Psalmist sharing her wrathful poem with the people on whom she cried vengeance, in the hopes that the depth of her pain might move them to repentance. And it is clear that when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship, there is vulnerability in honesty. This forgiveness is a very different matter. This forgiveness does not depend solely on us, on our own vision of our worthiness, but on the hope that the one who hurt us can be led to see that worth as well, can be led to do the work of healing and restoration.

And let me be clear: to conflate the release of resentment and peace with oneself with the restoration of relationship with the one who hurt us; to conflate the understanding of, or even the compassion for the reasons someone might have hurt us with excusing their behavior and all its consequences is to dramatically misunderstand forgiveness.  No amount of Christian faith and compassion requires us to enter back into a relationship that will render us unsafe. Loving our neighbor as ourselves  does not mean putting ourselves at undue risk, or allowing ourselves to remain in abusive relationships, or excusing harm on the basis of understanding its origins.

When forgiveness goes beyond the self, when forgiveness enters the territory of loving one’s neighbor, it requires the active participation of that neighbor; it requires the person who did harm to be as active in the process of reconciliation as they were in the process of creating the hurt in the first place.

And it requires the loving presence of the community: around the one harmed and the one who did harm.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church: the community who stands with the victim in support and in reminder of their worth; the community who sees in them the image of God, the presence of the divine within them, even when they cannot; the community who reminds them that the hurt is not all in their head, that it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to stick up for themselves and love themselves through the hurt.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church, who asks repentance of the one who has done harm, who seeks accountability firmly and compassionately, who maintains the boundaries that keep the entire community safe.

The process of forgiveness, like the process of grief, compels we who would be the Body of Christ to set aside our discomfort and walk one another through the pain, walk one another through the anger and the sadness, walk one another through all of the stages until there is forgiveness.

And it requires us to do so often.

Not only for the many ways in which we hurt one another, but for the many times in which even old pain echoes down throughout our lives, popping up afresh at unexpected moments even when we thought we actually were over it.

For being the church is not about forgiving easily, no matter what our culture tells us, but about committing to the possibility that we might get there eventually. Being the church is about a commitment to the process of walking all the stages, to the hope that our hearts might fully embody the forgiveness we profess. Being the church is about doing the work of making space for the pain we feel, and reminding us that our hurts do not make us any less worthy of being children of God. Being the church is about being the safe space in which the process of forgiveness can take place, in all its messiness, in all its stages.  Being the church is about being the one place in our culture that doesn’t tell us to get over it, to move on, already; but where we can bring our brokenness, our woundedness, our repentance and our heartbreak, and begin, in this community, to do the work of healing, of reconciliation, of learning to love ourselves and our neighbors as we have been loved.