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2-24-19 — Uncommon Sense — Luke 6:27-36 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Really? Do you think Jesus really means for us to do all those things?

       I made a list of objections to what he said in this passage, and the list took up a whole page.

       -Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. Enemies are those who want to harm you. Why would you want to do them good? It makes you look weak and encourages them to keep doing you harm.

       -Bless those who curse you. That is an affront to our honor. When someone cuts me off in traffic, that’s an insult, and I want to use that modern curse, my horn, to lay into them. What am I supposed to do when someone drives by me and makes an obscene gesture? Smile and say “Bless you”?

       -If we turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, how can there be peace and order in society? People who strike out at others have to know that they’ll suffer for it or they’ll keep striking us.

       -“Give to everyone who begs from you.” There are signs posted in downtown Lancaster asking you not to give to beggars on the street because it only enables dependence.

       -What about letting people take our property? Where would the rule of law if we couldn’t be assured of property rights?

       -Lend without expecting anything in return. How many bankers would do that? It would undermine the whole basis of our economy.

       Just imagine what it would be like if you took Jesus seriously. All those things that he tells us to do go against what we think is natural and right. It makes no sense at all.

       That’s why the older son in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son was so upset. You remember the story. His younger brother had asked their father to give him whatever money he was going to inherit and then he went off and squandered it in loose living. Then he had the nerve to return home, and rather than making him pay for wasting all that money, the father welcomed him with open arms and killed the fatted calf. That appalled the older son who had done everything right and never received so much as a goat to roast so he could have a party with his friends. It was a travesty of justice that the father did not treat his sons as they deserved to be treated.

       But that’s the point. Those who follow Jesus don’t treat others the way they deserve to be treated. We treat others the way God treats us. Jesus calls God Father, and good parentsdon’t treat their children the way their children treat them.

       Imagine what it would be like if parents treated their children the way they were treated. When my children were infants and woke me up at 2:00 a.m. to face smelly diapers and screaming demands to hold them or feed them, totally oblivious to my needs, there were moments when I wanted to treat them the way they were treating me. Fortunately, there are laws that keep us from doing that.

       As children grow up, parents expect them to do what they’re is told, and there’s nothing that makes parents angrier than when a child is outright disobedient. But if a child sneaks some screen time after the parent has told her to put the device away, or snitches a cookie after being told not to have one before dinner, what parent is going to stop loving the child? The parent will be mad and discipline the child, but still  do everything in her or his power for the good of the child.

       And what if a parent’s love depended on the child’s love being returned? How would we have survived adolescence if the love of our parents had depended on the way we treated them? There’s a book by Eugene Peterson called Like Dew Your Youth that I recommend for parents of teens. Peterson encourages parents not to think of their children’s adolescence as something like the flu that will eventually go away, but instead to think of that time of life as God’s way of deepening your understanding of how strongly God loves us. Parents of teenagers develop an appreciation for what it must be like for God when we totally ignore God, live as if God didn’t exist, and treat God as if every blessing we receive is an entitlement rather than a gift of grace that springs from love.

       Treating our family the way God treats us is a wonderful thing, and would that all families treated each other that way. There are some for whom God the father is not a helpful image.  The way their fathers treated them was cruel and abusive, anything but the way God treats us. Thankfully, there are many other images in the Bible that help us think about God: a mother hen that gathers her chicks, a kind shepherd, a strong fortress. But if we want a standard for how parents should relate to their children, God’s example is the one for us to follow.

       Yet, loving your family is not what sets Jesus’ followers apart from anybody else. The Corleone family in The Godfather movies loved each other. They were criminals, but they loyal to each other and would do anything for members of their family. What makes the Jesus’ followers different is that they treat all people with love. The way God treats us is not just the model for how we treat our friends and family, it’s the model for how we treat everyone. The Golden Rule is all inclusive: “Do to others” – not just those you love –  “as you would have them do to you.” 

       Being merciful like God and treating others as we would be treated is not easy. It’s not something we can do with the flip of some internal switch. All those things Jesus tells us to do don’t come naturally to us. They’re not human nature. It’s only when our nature is changed do they make sense. On the cross Jesus reoriented the way we see things. He gives us different standards for how we relate with other people. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God showed that love is more powerful than hate, prayer more effective than abuse, forgiveness mightier than condemnation. Jesus reorients us so that we see everything in this new way. When we belong to him, we are transformed so that his new way of life makes perfect sense.

       Even with that transformed nature, even when we are a new person in Christ, it takes patience and practice to live as children of God. Forgiveness doesn’t always come quickly and easily. It often takes time to let the Holy Spirit work through us before we are ready and able to be merciful and treat others as God treats us.

       In 1987 Terry Waite was in Beirut as an envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury trying to bring peace among the warring factions of Lebanon. He was kidnapped by a radical Shiite group backed by Iran and held captive for five years. During the first year he was tortured and subjected to mock executions. For most of his captivity he was in solitary confinement. During his captivity, the Spirit of Christ worked in his heart. He developed a deep empathy with those who have no control over their lives, especially the victims of violence and war who are confined to the refugee camps he had visited in the course of his work for the church. He experienced what it is like to live year after year without control of your own life, to have every day determined by the power of others. When he was finally released after five years, he could have let bitterness control him and dedicated his life to seeking revenge for all the wrong that was done to him. Instead he devoted his life to reconciliation and peace. It took a long time for him to readjust. He had to work through his nightmares and relearn how to interact with his family. But for the next 20 years, through his writing and his teaching, he bore witness to a power that had sustained him in captivity and that continues to sustain him. It’s a power that is stronger than hatred or revenge. He was free from the burden of having to sit in judgment on those who had harmed him because he knew that God judges us all, and God is just and fair.

       Then in 2012 he knew it was time to face those who had done him so much wrong. He returned to Beirut and met with leaders of Hezbollah. They gave him a warm welcome, but denied that they had been his kidnappers. Waite wasn’t there to settle scores. He was there to exercise forgiveness, just as he knew God had forgiven him in Christ. While he was there, his former captives asked what they could do for him now, and he asked if they could use their influence to get supplies to refugees in Syria that he had visited on his way to Beirut.

       Did that encounter make up for the five years that his captors had taken from his life? No. Did it bring peace to the Middle East? Not really. But it showed that there’s more going on than what we hear about in the headlines, something like a grain of mustard seed that is small and grows in due time, like leaven in a loaf of bread that is hidden but works imperceptibly to change everything.

       Don’t let anyone deceive you into thinking that living the way Jesus tells his followers to live is easy. It takes discernment and wisdom to know if giving a dollar to that panhandler is really helping him or if would be better to give that dollar to the Rescue Mission to help get him off the street. There are times when we need to support our government when it wages war against enemies, but we do it not with triumphant glory but with a certain sadness that we are still so far from the reign of the Prince of Peace where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. That’s why we need the community of the church, the family of faith, to help us discern how we live as children of God in an imperfect world.

       What Jesus tells us defies what passes for common sense. Following him is not just sitting back and letting whatever happens happen. It’s not ignoring wrong and injustice and abuse. Following Jesus means being proactive in love, preemptive in grace. It means wielding the most powerful force in the universe, the power of God who raised Jesus from the power of death. To most people that makes no sense at all. To those who are children of God that makes uncommon sense.

2-17-19 — The World Turned Upside Down — Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Did they laugh?  Did they shake their heads in disbelief?

       Try to imagine what Jesus’ disciples expected to hear as they gathered around.  Matthew sets the stage: “His fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.  And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” (Matthew 4:24-25) Something extraordinary was happening, and you can only imagine the elation his disciples felt.  They had cast their lot with Jesus, and it sure looked like their decision was paying off.  Now Jesus took the twelve aside to instruct them about what it takes to get ahead in this kingdom he was ushering in.

       “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he told them.  “Blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  Jesus took everything they valued and turned it on its head.  We’ve heard these words so often that they’ve lost some of their punch.  But think about them.  They go against many of the things we value most.

       And what do we value?  If you watched the Super Bowl ads, you saw. Who doesn’t want to live the life they portray?  They appeal to our desire to be at the top of our profession – which we can achieve if we use the right office supply company.  They mirror our longing for a life that is carefree, fun and easy – which comes with drinking the right beer or taking the right pill.  They tap our desire to be free to do as we please and go where we want – and we can go in style with the right car.  They touch our concern for our future and the security of our families – which the right insurance company will help us achieve.  Those things are important to us.  But Jesus doesn’t offer help with any of those things.  He doesn’t offer success or fun or style or financial security.  He says those who are blessed are those who are poor in spirit and meek and mourning and persecuted.  He turns everything upside down.

       Carol and I always enjoy reading our friends’ Christmas letters.  We enjoy hearing about the things that gave them joy over the past year and the challenges they faced. One friend related a number of difficulties his family had during the year – the death of some relatives, some challenges in their jobs, that sort of thing.  He ended that paragraph of the letter by saying, “But we have our health, and that is the most important thing.”  I said to myself, “Yes, yes,” as I nodded my head in assent, but then I thought, “Wait a minute.  Is it really?  Is our health really the most important thing?”  I thought of some of the people who have taught me the most about life and faith and what is really important, and so many of them have taught me from a hospital bed or a room in a nursing home.  I remember one man, John, whom I visited in the hospice wing of a medical center.  John gave me lessons in how to die and how to live.  We would talk about his life, his failures and his triumphs, and he valued them all.  He could talk about his life with deep gratitude for all he had experienced and all he had learned.  He was sad to be leaving his family, but he was confident he could entrust them to God.  John was teaching me about what was really important.  He was ready for what came next and trusted that the one who blessed him in this life would be faithful in whatever came next.  John didn’t have his health but he was blessed.  He blessed me.

       Just think about it.  It’s those times we’re stripped bare of those things we’ve built our security on that we’re most likely to be filled with the power of God.  One of the most memorable worship services I’ve ever been to was the one I attended in Akobo, Sudan.  It was in the finest building in the village, a long cinderblock building with a corrugated tin roof and a dirt floor.  There were chairs in the front for those of us who led worship, but the congregation sat on the dirt floor – infants and elderly side by side.  Before we went into the service, my host, a Canadian missionary, slipped me a bar of soap to put in the offering plate.  When he saw my puzzled look, he explained that no one had money.  It was useless out there in the bush. When the offering was collected, the worshipers gave what they had: a cup of grain, a hunk of cheese, bars of soap.  Later these were distributed to those who had the least.  The music for the service was led by a blind boy who played a stringed instrument made from a giant tortoise shell.  The worshipers sang and sang and sang.  After the service was over, groups gathered in the dusty courtyard outside the church to sing some more.  They were poor.  The government in Khartoum was persecuting them for their faith.  They were blessed.

       Barbara Brown Taylor, a noted preacher from Georgia, says that when she was little she liked standing on her head.  “…By standing on my head I could liven things up a little.  Grass hung in front of my eyes like a green fringe.  Trees grew down, not up, and the sky was a blue lawn that went on forever.  For as long as I kept my balance I could tap dance on it, while birds and clouds flew under my feet….  My house seemed in danger of falling off the yard – just shooting off into space like a rocket…  I liked standing on my head because it made me see old things in a new way.  I liked it because it made life seem exciting and unpredictable.  In a world where trees grew down and houses might fall up, anything seemed possible.”[1]

       Jesus shows us a world where anything is possible.  Once some disciples of John the Baptist came to him and asked if he was the one from God for whom they were waiting or if they should keep waiting for someone else.  Jesus told them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:2-6) Anything is possible when Jesus turns the world upside down.

       His Sermon on the Mount, which begins with these beatitudes, is Jesus’ inaugural address, his state of the union message that describes how things are and what we can expect in this new world he introduces.  And everything is upside down:

       -Instead of getting ahead by accumulating accomplishments and accolades, you get ahead in this realm by emptying yourself completely so he can fill you.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

       -Instead of finding comfort and satisfaction by escaping from the world’s hurt, you go out and find the poor, the sick, the homeless and the outcast.  Your heart breaks every time you see a homeless person on the street, with every report of a new death in Syria, every time a friend tells you her child is in trouble.  Your heart is continually breaking, but breaking open to God and to others and to the power of grace and love that is the healing balm for all the world.[2]  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

       -Those who inherit the earth are not those who conquer it and exploit it and make huge profits from it.  Those to whom God will give the earth in all its pristine glory are those who are meek, those who don’t try to overcome the world but who let God care for the world through them. 

       -Those who will be vindicated won’t be those who stand up for their rights as Christians, who go to court to demand equal time in the public square, or who make the headlines because they insist that their prayers be heard in public.  No, it’s those who are persecuted that receive the kingdom, not those who try to force the kingdom on others.  It is those who will be satisfied.

       There’s more, but you get the idea.  It’s the merciful who are blessed, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for Jesus. 

       A minister friend of mine has a prayer hanging in his study.  It was allegedly found on the body of a Confederate soldier at Gettysburg. 

       “I asked God for strength that I might achieve;

              I was made weak, that I might learn to

humbly obey.

       I asked for health, that I might do great things;

              I was given infirmity, that I might do better

things.

       I asked for riches, that I might be happy;

              I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

       I asked for power, that I might have the praise of

men;

I was given weakness, that I might feel the

need of God.

       I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;

              I was given life, that I might enjoy all

things.

       I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hoped

for.

       Despite myself, my unspoken prayers were

answered,

       And I am, among men, most richly blessed.”

       May God bless you, and turn your world upside down.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 145.

[2] Ibid, p. xi.

2-24-19 Bulletin

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2-10-19 — Body Building — 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Anyone who has been married more than three weeks knows that you have to be selective about where you put your foot down. You don’t live with your spouse long before you start to discover that she or he does some weird things. You’d always heard that there were people who squeezed the toothpaste tube in the middle without rolling it up from the bottom, but you never dreamed you’d live with one. Who in the world folds towels like that? Your family does what for Christmas? If a marriage is going to last, you have to put the relationship first, above your individual preferences. You have to go beyond thinking about how I do things or how you do things to thinking about how we do things. And since my wife isn’t here this morning, I’m going to admit that I’m really glad that she’s changed me to do lots of things her way.

       Paul was writing to people who were in a marriage of sorts, although it was more like an arranged marriage. In Corinth people from every race and class and level of education had been brought together to worship and serve Jesus Christ. Not only were they from very different backgrounds, they had come to Jesus by different ways. Some had ecstatic out of body experiences where they spoke in tongues. Some had been miraculously healed. Some of them had dramatic encounters with Jesus who turned their lives around on the spot. They could tell you the exact date and time that he had changed them forever. Others had come to him gradually, through a slow and deliberate process of learning and nurture. Each one thought his or her experience  was the one and only way to come to Jesus. For many whose experience of the Holy Spirit was so powerful, they couldn’t imagine how anyone could come to Jesus any other way. Some insisted that speaking in tongues was how you knew if a person was really a follower of Jesus. Those who could pinpoint the moment they were saved were adamant that if you couldn’t name the moment, then you weren’t a believer. Those who had been miraculously healed were certain that unless you’d experienced a miracle you hadn’t met Jesus.

       About the only thing many of the Christians in Corinth had in common with each other was their faith in Christ, and many of them weren’t sure about that. The church there was like one of those families that you look at and wonder how the siblings who are so different from one another could have been reared under the same roof. In making sense out of that diverse family of faith, the church, Paul uses a different metaphor. He describes the church as a body. Each part of a body has a different function. The eye and the ear do different things. They are put together differently and they function differently. Different parts of the body have a different perspective on things. The way your hands interact with the world up here is different from the way your feet interact with the world down on the ground. But for all their differences, the parts of the body exist for the good of the whole. A hand that is cut off from the body is useless, and the body suffers for the loss. That’s how it is with Christ’s body, the church. There is lots of diversity, but it all works for the common good.

       Now, in many ways what Paul is describing goes against nature. If you ever took physics, you learned about Newton’s laws of thermodynamics that describe how the natural world works. If there were natural laws like that describing people, one of the laws of social dynamics would be that people tend to split apart to be with others like themselves. And the longer they are together, the more they realize how different they are from each other, so there is always a shifting among groups of people trying to find those with whom they’re most comfortable.

       It’s so much easier to break apart and form separate tribes than it is to work together for the common good. We build walls to define our kind and to keep out those who are different. But the book of Ephesians in the New Testament says that Christ came to tear down the dividing wall of hostility. That is what makes the church so different. It is the place where Christ brings together those who, if they followed their natural instincts, would be apart.

Now, that doesn’t mean that in Christ we are all the same. Paul writes, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?”

If Christ’s body consists of many different parts, we need to know what makes our part distinctive so we can do our best for the common good. For instance, one of the things that make Presbyterians distinct from other parts of the church are our conviction that God calls us to service as well as salvation. We’re not saved just to get our ticket to heaven, but so we can serve the world in the name of Christ. So we’re a church that is involved in the world. We don’t just sit in our sanctuaries and enjoy being saved. Another thing that makes us distinctive is that we have a disciplined concern for order. We resonate with Paul’s advice elsewhere in 1 Corinthians that all things should be done decently and in order. We shun ostentation and try to be good stewards of God’s creation. We recognize the power of human sin and our tendency to selfishness, so we have a healthy skepticism for all human endeavors. We don’t think that any human institution, whether government or corporations or churches is perfect and beyond need of repair.

Presbyterians aren’t the only ones who value those things. We just emphasize them more than some other branches of the church do. And we have more in common with other parts of the church than we have differences. With Baptists and Episcopalians and Roman Catholics and all Christians we affirm that we know God in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We trust in the saving death of Christ on the cross and his promise of resurrection to eternal life. We affirm that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are our rule for faith and for life.

Over the years, as we’ve split apart from each other, it usually seemed like the right thing to do at the time. If the church is a body, then bodies do get infections. Pathogens grow in the body that don’t belong there, and if the body is going to be healthy, it has to get rid of the germs. Elsewhere in the Bible, Paul warns against false teachings. There is such a thing as heresy and wrong doctrine. It’s important that we be vigilant and self-critical so that what we proclaim is the truth. But Paul is clear that what is most highly valued is the unity that shows the world that there is one Christ, not many versions of him. God, in God’s Providence, has made the most out of our differences. Over the years, even as we’ve divided into separate traditions and denominations and congregations, we’ve learned from one another in ways that have enriched our faith. We no longer burn heretics or drown Anabaptists like they did in centuries past. The Holy Spirit keeps showing us over and over that no one part of the church has it all, and we are strengthened by other parts of the body of Christ who do things differently.

One of the most powerful witnesses of a local congregation can be how it brings together diverse people to worship and serve the Lord. American Presbyterians don’t do too well reflecting the racial or ethnic diversity of our communities, but we often reflect a diversity of perspectives. Once I was preaching in a congregation that I admire very much. Standing in the pulpit I looked out over the congregation and sitting in one of the pews near the front was one of the presbytery’s strongest opponents of the ordination of homosexuals. Just down from him was the president of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays who was leading the fight for their ordination. In one part of the sanctuary was one of the biggest contributors to the state Republican party, and nearby was a Democratic activist. Some people say that the church has to take a stand against the culture by coming down on one side or the other on the issues of the culture wars. But that church was being truly counter-cultural. They didn’t sweep those under the rug. They had some lively discussions in their Sunday school classes about hot-button issues. But the people respect each other and trust that the Holy Spirit, working among them when they’re together, will lead them to see things and do things that they would never do on their own, separated from those who disagree with them on certain things.

Paul told the Corinthians to strive for the greater gifts. Those are the things that draw us together in love, so the world will know that there is one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all in all. To him be the glory and the power now and forever. Amen.

2-3-19 — Into The Light — Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:19-36a — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Every Sunday people come into this sanctuary wishing to see Jesus, people who are responding to some deep longing to make sense out of life, looking to find meaning and purpose in what they do. 

       I remember at one church I served, a young man would slip in the back just as worship started and slip out during the closing hymn.  I noticed him doing that for months.  He never introduced himself or signed the fellowship pad that was passed down the pew during the service.  One day I got a call from someone wanting to come by the church and talk to me.  When he came into my study I recognized him as this mysterious man.  He explained to me that he was trying to put his life back on track after some fits and starts.  He had a rough hitch in the Army after high school.  He’d tried going to college but had a hard time of it.  He had some issues with substance abuse.  He was looking for something, he wasn’t quite sure what, and wondered if what he was looking for could be found at church.  To make a long story short, he found what he was looking for and was baptized.  Soon he moved away, but I heard from him occasionally.  He got a steady job, started going to graduate school at night and joined a congregation near his new home.  What he had been looking for was given to him by Jesus, whom he encountered on those Sundays he sat in the back row.

       There’s something that draws people to Jesus, something about him that resonates with the depths of the human soul.  Right after Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, some people approached Philip, one of his disciples, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  I can imagine Philip responding to that request the way people respond to so much in the John’s gospel – by misunderstanding what is going on.  John’s gospel is almost comic in that way.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that the way to eternal life is to be born again and Nicodemus thinks he’s talking about obstetrics.  Jesus tells the crowd he is the bread of life and they think he’s talking about dinner.  Philip hears some people say they wish to see Jesus and he starts to arrange a cameo celebrity appearance. 

       But Jesus always knows what’s really going on.  He knows what we are really looking for.  Those Greeks weren’t celebrity spotting. They weren’t looking to see the latest personality in the news cycle.  They were looking for life’s meaning and purpose.  They were looking for the one who could call forth in them something that they felt was there but couldn’t bring forth. So, instead of giving them his autograph, Jesus gave them life. He spoke to their deepest need.

       Jesus began by being straight with them. Soon he would die and be buried. His body would be placed in a grave, the way a seed is planted in the chilly and barren soil of spring.  Whoever wants the new life he gives has to follow him. They have to allow the old self to die. Like a seed that germinates, he would be raised, and as that seed grows, straining toward the light of the sun, it produces fruit to feed the hungry and sustain life. So, you want to see Jesus? He is on the cross. He is lifted up to be buried. He dies to be raised. We give our old self to him to receive the new self we were made to become.

       It’s a challenge to talk about all this because human language is inadequate to describe what Jesus does. Jesus uses metaphors to describe who he is and what he does, images that we can understand which lead us to a deeper meaning. He says he is a good shepherd, although he doesn’t really tend sheep. He says he is living water, but we know he’s not liquid. There are so many metaphors describing Jesus in the Bible because none of them is adequate to describe him. Sometimes he mixes metaphors in a way that my high school English teacher would disapprove. In this one passage, he switches from describing himself as seed which has to die to the metaphor of light. He tells those who are looking for him to walk in the light.

When you turn on a light in a dark room, what you thought was one thing turns out to be something different.  When something is hidden in the shadows, it fools us.  In the dark what is bad can look good and what is good can look bad.  The shadow we thought was an intruder crouching in the dark turns out to be a quilt spread over the chair.  When we see something in the light, we know it for what it really is. 

       Jesus casts light on those deep longings that draw us to him.  He shows us that what we yearn for is our deepest and truest self.  In Jesus we find who we truly are.  You see, we were created in God’s own image.  To say that we are made in the image of God doesn’t mean that God physically looks like you or I. It means that God made us to reflect the essence of God.  And God is love, love that gives for others. We see what that love looks like in Jesus, who gave himself for us. 

       It’s hard to make sense of that kind of self-giving love apart from the cross. Without the light of the cross, the love that sacrifices itself for others looks like a recipe for failure and death. 

       The novelist Ayn Rand, who wrote in the mid 20th century, has been growing in popularity in recent years. Many political leaders who have come to power lately cite her as their inspiration for the vision they offer their countries. In her books like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Rand praises individualism, maximizing the self, and advocates a Darwinian belief that the way for society to thrive is to support those who are strong and leave the weak and helpless to fend for themselves. You hear many of those positions advocated in the current political debates. A magazine devoted to Rand’s philosophy, which is called Objectivism, proclaims that “Altruism [selfless concern for others] is not good for one’s life.  If accepted and practiced consistently, it leads to death.  This is what Jesus did….  An altruist might not die from his morality – so long as he cheats on it – but nor will he live fully….  Why not live a life of happiness?  Why sacrifice at all?  What reason is there to do so?  In the entire history of philosophy, the number of answers to this question is exactly zero.”[1]

       Jesus beams light on that argument that seems to make so much common sense, that philosophy that says we have to look out for ourselves first.  He exposes it by beaming the light of love, God’s love that gives itself for us. Now, this isn’t the kind of anxious self-sacrifice that tries to win approval.  It’s not the kind of compulsive giving that wears you down because you’re desperate to be loved.  The kind of giving to which Jesus calls us is the kind of giving that brings life because you’re confident you’re already loved and accepted completely by God through Jesus. You don’t give of yourself to win love. You give of yourself because you are loved.

Six months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, a group of people from the church where I was pastor in Louisville went to help with the rebuilding. They stayed in a temporary village of trailers set up by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program. The man in charge of the village was a man named Victor.  He was the one who told the other volunteers where to find the supplies they needed.  He worked alongside them all day mucking mud out of houses and tearing out wet drywall. When the others returned to the village to collapse from exhaustion, Victor pulled out the lawn mower and cut the grass. 

After the people from the church had been there a few days, someone told them Victor’s story. Victor was a homeless man from Indianapolis.  Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis had worked with him when he was out on the street, and when they put together a team to go help the hurricane victims, they invited Victor to join them.  After the team from Indianapolis had been working for a week, it was time to return home.  Victor informed the team he was going to stay for a few more weeks.  He asked the team members if they would keep an eye on his belongings that he had stashed under a bridge in Indianapolis.  This homeless man threw himself into the work of rebuilding homes for those whom the hurricanes had made like him – homeless. He saw Jesus there among those Christians who were pouring themselves out for others because Jesus poured himself out for them.

Those Greeks who wanted to see Jesus made their request to Philip because they knew he was a friend of Jesus. That young man who sat in the back of sanctuary in the church I served came to worship because he knew it was a place where he might see Jesus. Victor saw Jesus because that light shone through those whom the light of the cross led to New Orleans.

       Jesus showed the power of love when he died on the cross.  He showed how love overcomes everything that can hurt or destroy us, from the power of a category 5 hurricane to the power of addiction, to the power of human hatred.  He gave his life for us so we can give our lives for others.  It’s in that self-giving love that we discover who we are and why we are here.  It’s a light that shines on our souls and lets us see everything differently, starting with ourselves. The opening of John’s gospel says it best: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 


[1] “Rand Redux,” The New York Times, “The Week in Review,” March 26, 2006, p. 3.