Here we are again, trying to find meaning in today’s Scripture that will help us live more authentically some 2,000 years after its words were first recorded. What I love is that the message still rings true for me. And here’s why.
If I had been raised as an orthodox Jew, I would be expected to follow over 600 laws that govern community life. Those would be in addition to the Ten Commandments that were given to us through Moses in that burning bush episode. And while I can appreciate the value of common expectations for the good of the order, I’m not real good at following rules. For example, in the 7th grade I was kicked out of the church choir because I was caught by the nuns smoking cigarettes. They said I wasn’t worthy to sing for God! And as recently as two weeks ago, Terry and I visited her old convent in Milwaukee, and I was reprimanded by staff twice, because I wasn’t driving and parking correctly.
For me, God apparently knew there would need to be a simpler formula and powerful assistance to help me. I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates the more simplified message of salvation in John 13: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And I’m equally sure I’m not the only one who needs the assurance that God has sent an Advocate—the Spirit of Truth—to supply guidance and sustenance to me every day. So again from John we hear: “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. You know Him, because He abides with you, and He will be in you.”
The title I chose for today’s sermon is “KISS,” which is the acronym used in AA and other 12-Step programs for “Keep It Simple, Stupid”—or “Keep It Simple, Sweetie,” for those who prefer to be a bit more polite. I can picture the many Scripture stories where Jesus is teaching the crowds, and I can almost hear Him summing up His message of the two great commandments as, “Love God, love your neighbor, and keep it simple.”
Today’s bulletin cover helps me separate the wheat from the chaff, that is, the essence of our journey together, from the things that would separate us from one another and from our neighbors. Noted Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong has offered this observation:
God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are systems which human beings have created to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God; I think it only points me to God.
It is this understanding that helps me remember that God is in our hearts, not in our rules, theology, righteousness, power, rhetoric, purity, or clubs—though I’m sure He’s very, very fond of our Adult Fellowship group. But if I’m using my religion to separate myself from others, then it’s not about God, it’s just about me.
My sister Barbara, shares what she learned in her studies for her Master of Theology degree at St. Francis Seminary: “Jesus Christ is Lord, and all the rest is up for grabs!” That’s helpful for me when I look at the diversity even within our caring, accepting community here at Emmanuel. Because a fair number of us were raised in other Christian traditions, it would be hard for us to find agreement on many of the ideas we hold, quote, “sacred,” unquote. We get a taste of this when Pastor Nansi and her beloved husband, Dick, debate theological points in our adult studies or sometimes in their sermons.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. We’re in the season of Eastertide, awaiting Ascension Thursday and Pentecost. Do we all have the same understanding of what the Resurrection means or what happened there? I doubt it. In fact, I came across an interesting list of doubts and criticisms at a church in Oconomowoc recently. Here are some of the ideas presented there.
- The Stolen Body Theory: the tomb was empty because the disciples took the body to preserve it from possible desecration or to create the myth of a resurrected Christ.
- The Wrong Tomb Theory: the tomb was empty because the women went to the wrong one—not remembering which one Christ was buried in. The gardener only told them, “He is not here” and then pointed them to the right one—“See the place where He lay.”
- The Lettuce Theory: the tomb was empty because the gardener reinterred it elsewhere to keep curiosity-seekers from trampling his newly planted lettuce seed around Joseph’s tomb. (This theory was actually recorded as early as 200 AD.)
Then there’s the Swoon Theory, the Hallucination Theory, and the Twin Brother of Jesus Theory. In other words, none of us can, with absolute certainty, explain the Resurrection or any other of our attempts to understand God’s mystery.
So, I hold to what Sister Barbara says, “Jesus Christ is Lord, and all the rest is up for grabs.” We profess to following Jesus, and if that is so, then we would do well to break down His teachings to their essence: love God, love our neighbor, and keep it simple. Looking again at the bulletin cover, I’m reminded of the adage, “I’d rather attend church with messed up people seeking after God, than religious people who think they’re His enforces.”
When we gather to worship God and support each other in a loving community, we can find comfort in Jesus’ words, “Wherever two or three are gathered in My name, there shall I be also.” We can trust that God is here and, as the United Church of Christ proclaims, God is still speaking. We take time during worship to try to listen for the voice of God, but I certainly need to seek God’s voice every day. I need to ask for a knowledge of God’s will and the power to carry that out. What does that mean? For me, it’s asking to be shown and taught how to love. (And when we’re instructed to love our neighbor as ourselves, there is an unspoken presumption that I am first treating myself in a loving, heathy, respectful way.)
So here’s my confession. When I was working on today’s sermon, I repeatedly asked God what I needed to say. The response that I got was to ask instead, what do I need to hear? I need to hear again and again about the two great commandments because I fail so often to do the loving thing. And I need to hear about God’s Spirit being with me and about not being left an orphan. Knowing that gives me a fighting chance to learn to be a decent person, someone perhaps recognizable as a disciple of Christ.
Barbara will be starting chemo this week, and when she and I met with the doctor to iron out all the details, we were told that she cannot empty her cat litter for 18 weeks. Quite simply, I’d rather have a root canal than change her cat litter 126 times over the summer. It took me 24 hours to get my darn ego out of the way and to recognize that her health might well depend in part on my service, and on my willingness to care for her cat. Jesus’ command to love one another does not present an exception clause, where I can say, “Yes, but . . . .” 1st Corinthians 13 describes what love is—patient, kind, etc., and that is where I need God’s Spirit of truth to curb my selfish tendencies and do the next right thing.
It doesn’t have to be that hard. Again, if I can Keep It Simple, God will show me how to love. Here are two examples of love’s simplicity.
- A little girl was holding two apples. Her mother asked for one. The girl quickly bit one apple, and then the other. Her mother held back her disappointment. Then the girl handed one apple to her mother, saying, “Here, this is the sweeter one.” Oh, how quick we can be to judge—or rather, misjudge the actions of others.
- Another little girl asked her brother, “What is love?” He replied, “Love is when you steal my chocolate from my lunch bag every day . . . and I still hide it in the same place.” Oh, for the wisdom of children!
Let me finish today with a quotation from Mother Teresa, whose life of selfless dedication to the sick and poor in India can inspire us all. She said:
I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that He will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
In that spirit of love and service, let us feed the hungry, house the homeless, stop the killing, provide medicine for the sick, and change the cat litter. When we have accomplished all that, we can sit around and argue about religion. In the meantime, let’s Keep It Simple, Sweeties.
In the name of the One who calls us to be church and to love God and our neighbor, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.