Across the Jordan

Scripture: Luke 6:27-36
Given on 10/23/2016 at FPC-Anniston, AL

Last year, for Christmas, my elder son received a most excellent gift from his grandparents, a set of Magna-Tiles. Now, if you have never seen or heard of them before, that’s ok because neither had I until my wife discovered them and put them on Jameson’s wishlist. They are plastic shapes, shapes with hard angles, so squares, rectangles, triangles, you get the idea. And on each of them is a set of magnets with the north and south poles of the magnets pointed outward so that if two magnets repel one another while you are trying to build with them, you just flip it over and the other side attracts. Like I said, this was a most excellent gift because it brought together two of my sons passions, science and building. Neither of which did he receive from his mother or his father, but that is probably another matter all together. But from early on in his life Jameson has been fascinated both with how the world worked, but also with the practice of manipulating objects into greater structures, shapes, towers. At our house with have a large collection of building blocks, from the kind with letters on them, to a set with which you can build Cinderella’s castle like the one that sits at the center of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida. We have more legos that I thought existed in the world and both Lesley and I can testify to the pain that arises when they are encountered walking through the house in the dark of night. And now we have these Magna-Tiles. Now, it should be noted that Jameson’s father has next to no spatial skills whatsoever and, in truth, I count myself as lucky that legos snap together and can hold in place with little knowledge about design, or architecture, or engineering of any kind. Jameson, on the other hand, has a brilliant mind when it comes to envisioning and then building whatever is in his mind. Case in point, a few weeks before we moved from New York, Jameson was down in the basement playing with the tiles and after a while he ran back upstairs to call his mother and I down to see his latest creation and when we got down there, danged if the boy hadn’t used the entire set of tiles to build a two foot tall chicken. The whole thing held together, and seeming to scoff at the physics of the universe, by the magnetic force moving throughout the whole of the creation.

Our world is much like my son’s two foot tall magnetic chicken. Incidentally, “Our world is much like my son’s two foot tall magnetic chicken,” is what Lesley and I have come to call “a statistically improbable sentence” that you only say if you are a parent of children. But our world is like my son’s imaginative creation. We are held together by a force that flows through all of us, binding us together and continually calling us into relationship with one another. It is a force that demands that we forever seek to set aside all that separates us, all that has happened in our lives that drive wedges between ourselves and others, all the pain and hurt, all the struggles and sadness, all the moments when we have been let down or injured, left stranded or in the darkness, a force that calls on each of us to push past all of that until we are reconnected once again. That force is love.

You have to imagine that when Jesus was speaking to the large group of followers that had gathered on the plain to hear his speak must have thought that he was living in something of a fantasy world when he began to speak. This was a group that had lived their entire existence under Roman rule, that had watched their sacred spaces be desecrated by Roman soldiers, that had watched their brothers and sisters be taken away in the dark of night never to be seen again, that had sought to feed their families off the meager wages that they could scrape together while watching Roman governors and generals sup on the finest meats, the first harvest, the best wine. Time and again they themselves had been accosted and hurt by Roman forces. Time and again, denied even the most basic level of dignity and humanity. So when Jesus stood up and spoke about loving your enemies, about praying for those that hurt you, moreover about offering a second cheek once the first had been struck, about giving away freely whatever paltry resources they had amassed for themselves, and even giving away more than was actually asked for, more than was actually taken, they must have looked at Jesus like he was living in another world. And he was. The whole of the sermon on the plain is something of a map, something of a guide towards teaching his followers how to see the Realm of God erupting in their midst, something of a map, something of a guide towards showing his followers how to begin living into the new heaven and the new earth. A map, a guide, towards experiencing and offering a love that transcends all the hatred and separation that too often defined the human experience in first century Palestine and continues to define the human experience in our contemporary world.

There’s a theory of human development that suggests that we seek loving relationships in growing concentric circles, so circles that go around other circles. When we are born, we occupy the first circle. We are completely egocentric because that is all we are capable of. We cannot envision anyone else perspective or experience of the world. As we grow, so, too, does our love and our connection to others. We begin to include our families within our circle of concern and care. In the best of circumstances we develop love for our parents, our grandparents, our brothers and sisters, and for a time love and concern is contained within the circle of family. Then we begin to encounter others who look like us, who speak like us, who believe like us and we draw an even larger circle around members of the same tribe, or nation, or some other accidental characteristic of life, this ranges from the ultimately inconsequential, think the fanbases of Alabama vs. the fanbases of Auburn on Iron Bowl week to that of critical importance being an American over and against another nationality or a Christian over and against another religious tradition. And it is believed that most people stop at this circle, stop with the people with whom you share a common concern, a common lineage, a common worldview. And yet, here is Jesus, telling those who are gathered to hear him speak that in order to live into this new reality of which he is preaching, in order to practice this overwhelming love of which he is speaking, we have to reach out beyond ourselves and love the one who doesn’t just not love us, but who hates us, who does us harm, who steals from us. To always look with caring concern on the one who sits in the street and begs from you for his daily bread. I was once walking in Evanston, IL, where I did my doctoral degree with another student and our advisor and mentor. And we were heading to a restaurant to have dinner and drinks and as we walked together we passed a homeless gentleman sitting leaned up against a building asking for money. Now because my friend Eric and I are children of the debit/credit card generation, neither of us had any actual money on us and in truth, I almost never carry cash anymore. But our advisor stopped and gave the guy a couple of bucks and we continued on our way. But when we got to the restaurant, our advisor admonished us for not giving to the man, and we both said that we had no money and he told us that was no excuse, and this I will remember for the rest of my life. He said to us, “Always carry the poor man’s dollar.” I still rarely carry money, but if you looked in my wallet today, you’d see a stack of ones tucked behind one of the folds because Jesus said, “Give to all who beg from you.”

As good Presbyterians and followers of the Reformed Tradition, we are often quick to point out the brokenness, the sinfulness, the hatred that moves through the world. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, we can see our own participation in it. We can see those places in which we have fallen short of that which God calls us to do and be in the world. We have fallen short of living into the care and concern that we are called to have for all people. We can see those moments when we have done that which we should have done and left undone that which we should have done. And we can dismiss these words of Jesus as pie in the sky thinking, as a reality that exists only after we cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. We can read this passage, hear these words from Jesus and believe that they can only exist in some far off realm, somewhere in the future of creation in which Jesus returns and we are reunited with God, and all the hurts of our lives are subsumed in the healing and grace-filled love of God. And, in some ways that is right. We will never fully embrace the love of God within this world of sin. We will never reach the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding within this life, we will never practice the grace of God in all our relationships perfectly, but we must never allow that knowledge to stop us from striving, keep us from struggling against the bonds of sin, prevent us from inserting just a little more love in this world because there is still so much that can be done when we seek to be more loving, more peaceful, more grace-filled, more faithful.

So I guess we have a choice. We may either be paralyzed by the fear that things are inexorably broken, that humanity is a lamentable mess, that violence has won out and that there is no point in even struggling for a new way to be. Much of the world shares that view. For many, cynicism and doubt have replaced the deepest part of the human soul that demands that we keep struggling, keeping trying to find another way to live with one another, another way to share all that we have that all might simply live, another way to interact with one another that doesn’t end in nearly constant bloodshed. But we come from a different lineage. Grafted to the tree of hope where people see a new heaven and a new earth with all things being made new. Where young people have visions and older folks dream dreams. Where for the history of the world there have been people to stand up and demand that we work together for the betterment of all. Where people have seen everyone they meet as brother and a sister. Where people have the faith to believe in the movement of God. Where people have hope that tomorrow can and must be better than today. Where people love because that is what we are all created to do. Where it is love that draws us together like an invisible magnetic force. Faith, hope, and love, always remain these three. And the greatest of these is love. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, amen.

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