Sunday, November 09, 2003

Miracles in the Church:
The Miracle of Love
Mark 12:28-34

[shared with the people of Friendship Church, November 9, 2003]

Many of you didn’t know Karen Hendrickson. I’m sorry for that because she was one extraordinary human being! Karen was the wife of Tom Hudson, mother to Paul and Katie. She was also a guitarist in our ensemble, a fun conversationalist, a professional person, a good friend, a devoted follower of Jesus, a one-time Peace Corps volunteer, a prolific writer of thank you notes, get well wishes, and birthday cards, and an absolute prayer warrior.

On her thirty-seventh birthday, Karen learned that she had cancer. Shortly thereafter, she underwent surgery at Jewish Hospital. The morning of her surgery, just before she was wheeled into the operating room, I was with Tom and Karen’s friend Lesa as we shared a prayer with Karen. I had just said my “Amen” and was looking up, preparing to say a few more words to Karen before she went to surgery when I saw that her eyes were still closed. She then prayed for people that she knew who had needs, for all the people of Friendship, and for everyone who had reached out to her and her family since they’d gotten word of her illness. She was facing something horrible. Yet, Karen prayed for others!

Fast forward some sixteen months later. It had been a time of ups and downs and hospital stays for Karen. The future was filled with uncertainty. In spite of that, she called me one day. “I’ve been thinking about the vacant vice president’s position you have right now on Church Council,” she told me. “I’ve prayed about it a lot and if you’re willing, I’d like to do that.” I was taken aback. “Karen,” I said, “are you sure you want to do that right now?” I'll never forget what Karen told me next: “Mark: I’ve decided that whatever time I have left on this earth, I want to give it to Jesus Christ.”

Now, what is it exactly that makes it possible for a human being to militate against the natural human inclination toward self-absorption and selfishness to live the kind of love of God and love of neighbor that Karen demonstrated?

Was it because Karen was just intrinsically better than anybody else? Karen would tell you no. And as extraordinary as I observed her to be, I would agree. Karen, like the rest of us, was a human being with a full complement of faults and failings, doubts and missteps.

So, how did she come to be a person with such a passionate love for God and for other people?

The apostle John, writing in his first letter toward the back pages of the New Testament, gives a simple explanation of how:

"We love because God first loved us." [First John 4:19]

The love of God is a powerful thing.

It compelled God the Son, Jesus, to leave heaven and to go to a cross and die for us.

It compelled Him to rise again and to promise all who turn from sin and follow Him, everlasting life with God.

And through His agents in the world–like Karen Hendrickson–God’s powerful love is still reaching out to us, assuring each of us that in spite of our sins and faults, God places eternal value on our lives. God is head over heels in love with us.

Over the next several weeks, I want to talk about the miracles God unleashes among ordinary people like you and me, the people who make up His Church, the people who make up this church. Today, I want to talk about the miracle of love in the Church, a miracle that starts with God’s love for us.

The fact that real love only starts with God and not us, is driven home for me in our Bible lesson for this morning. Jesus tells a man that the greatest of God’s commandments is to love God totally and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

The man is impressed with Jesus’ answer and agrees with Jesus completely. But instead of telling the guy that, since he understands the rules of the game, he’s part of God’s Kingdom, Jesus tells the man that he isn’t far from the Kingdom.

I always was puzzled by that response from Jesus. It seemed like Jesus was telling this guy, “You passed the test with flying colors, but you get an F.”

But here’s where I think the man’s problem lies. It’s one thing to know that God calls us to love, it’s quite another to actually love. And fact is, we can’t be commanded into loving God and loving neighbor.

Our faith as Christians is not about accepting a series of rules. It’s about welcoming the Savior of the world into the very center of our lives. It’s about letting the God Who gave us everything on the cross have every part of us. It’s about allowing the love of God to soak into every molecule of our lives–whether it’s at work, in our families, or when we find ourselves lying on a hospital bed fighting cancer.

The love God extends to us as a free gift through Jesus Christ demands and deserves a response.

Until we respond to that love with our lives, with trusting faith, the everlasting life and everlasting hope that Jesus offers to us remain unopened gifts.

Pastor Mike Foss of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota identifies three major ways in which you and I can trustingly respond to God’s love. It’s when we respond in these three ways that the miracle of God’s love is visible in our lives and we’re able to share it with others.

First, we respond with our attitude. We respond to God’s love with what Foss calls an attitude of “grateful self-giving.” Researchers are telling us these days that one of the best ways for us to fend off dementia in our old age is to keep on using our brains–learn new things, acquire new skills, read, solve problems. In essence, they’re telling us, “Use it or lose it.”

To avoid what I would call spiritual dementia, we need to apply a similar principle. Want more love in your life? Respond to the awesome love of God by looking for more ways to love others– volunteer to help out at church, read to a child, send a note of appreciation, pray for others when you yourself are sick. Respond to God’s love by living with an attitude of love. You’ll be happier and God will use you as a deliverer of love to the world.

The second way to respond to God’s love is in practice. We can have a wonderful attitude of love toward God and others. But until we live that attitude, it doesn’t mean much. One thing that makes Friendship Church so special is that you folks are willing to put the love of Jesus into practice. And it isn’t that you just care about one another either. You welcome and are open to new people and new ideas. You pray for others. You fill shoe boxes with gifts for children in faraway places. You enact the miracle of love by putting the love of Christ into practice. May that always be a trademark of this church!

The third response that extends the miracle of God’s love deeper into our own lives and the lives of others is nearness. We let God’s love fill us and be transmitted to others when we dare to get close to others.

One night last year, I was part of a meeting going on here in the building. Judy Jordan and Steve Snoke were finishing the beautiful tile work out in the lobby. A rather destitute-looking pair walked through the door. I came out to the lobby to find Judy and Steve talking amiably with these two. Judy hugged them. Steve found out what they needed and was whispering to me about what an opportunity this was to share the love of Jesus. Pretty soon, a number of you had donated items that we were able to share with this family. Most people would have turned these folks away. But you got close to them and served them. The miracle of God's love happens when we dare to share it with others up close and personal!

For many years, W.A. Criswell served as senior pastor of a huge Southern Baptist congregation in Dallas, Texas. He was extremely conservative. For a long period of time in his life, he had a running feud with a theologian who was very liberal. Through books, articles, sermons, and presentations they'd gone after one another repeatedly.

One day, Criswell was booked on a flight for London and who should he find himself sitting next to but that theologian. Criswell said both of them probably would have loved it at that moment if they could have been doped up for the entire flight. But after some uncomfortable time, Criswell finally asked this theologian a rather innocuous question: How was he doing?

The theologian explained that he and his wife had just buried their five year old son. He'd had a fever which grew progressively worse. Finally, they took him to their doctor and after the boy had gone to a hospital for testing, they learned that he had meningitis. There was nothing that could be done for him.

That liberal theologian had stayed up night after night with his little boy in the hospital. On the night before the boy died, he said, "Daddy, it's getting late, isn't it?" "Yes, son, it's getting late." "I'll be going to sleep soon, won't I, Daddy?" "Yes, son." "I'll see you in the morning, Daddy."

After telling Criswell about this conversation, the theologian looked at him with tears in his eyes and said: "I can't wait for the morning!"

There are two things I want you to remember from that story:

(1) Life on this earth is too fragile a thing for us to waste any of it on hating anybody. We all are subject to the pains and difficulties of life. Why would we want to add to people's burdens or our own by engaging in hatred or in holding grudges?

(2) Everyone who trusts Jesus Christ has the hope for an endless morning. That means that nothing or nobody should threaten us so much that we feel the need to hate.

Love is the only appropriate response to the love that God gives to us through Jesus Christ!

Methodist bishop and theologian Albert Outler said near the end of his life, “For forty years, I’ve gotten it wrong. I’ve been telling people, ‘You’ve got to love! You’ve got to love!’ But the truth is that through Jesus, we get to love!”

Loving God and loving others may not always be easy. But deep down, it’s the way we all want to live. None of us want people to say at the funeral home over our bodies, “He or she was the most selfish so-and-so I ever met.” We want people to remember us for our love. That can happen when we let the miracle of God’s love into the center of our lives through our responses to Jesus.

A few weeks ago, I got a telephone call from Karen Brock, another sister of Kathy Luccasen and Stefani Hines, and the owner of the Goddard School. She wanted to know if the school could put on a musical program here in our church building. I think that Karen was a bit taken aback when I immediately told her, “Sure.” You see, I didn’t have to ask, “What will the people of the congregation think about that?” I knew what you would think about that. You’d say, “This is a great way to extend the love of Jesus to others.” I’ve seen how you respond to the love of Jesus in your attitude, in your everyday practice, and in the way you communicate God’s loving nearness to others.

We love because, through the crucified and risen Jesus, God loved us first. We love God and neighbor not because Jesus commands it; Jesus commands it because living in the miracle of love is the best way to live. May God always give us the power to militate against our selfishness and to instead, love God completely and love our neighbor as we love ourselves!

[The W.A. Criswell story was recounted by Gerald Mann in a sermon. The quote from Albert Outler--actually a paraphrase--appeared in a book by Martin Marty years ago and I can't remember which one of his books it was. ]