HERE I STAND
TEXT: 1 Cor. 13:1-13; Luke 10:25-37
As far as the church calendar is concerned, there could hardly be a better day than today to come and stand together against a mission of hate. In the life of the Church, today is All Saints Day. Back in the earliest years of the Church, Christians were tortured and put to death for their faith. It still happens in some places today. Those who remained did not want to forget the lives of these faithful witnesses and began to celebrate the incredible faith of these "saints" on the anniversary of their martyrdom.
But soon the numbers became too many for the calendar days available. Under Nero and Diocletian especially the numbers soared, with Nero going so far as to use Christians as torches to light his garden. By the 4th century, the Church had settled on a common day to remember the faith of all the saints...all those who had stood up and given witness to the love of God with their lives. Today we stand with the faithful across time and space to remember those whose faith cost them everything...and I would add to our list of Saints the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust as well as victims of anti-Semitism both before and since.
I believe it is a day to remember all those who have been cruelly butchered by the forces of hatred, whether because of the color of their skin, their gender, who they choose as a life's partner, or because of the country or tribe of their birth.
In Protestant Churches across the world, there is also a second celebration on today's calendar. Today is Reformation Sunday, the day when we remember Oct. 31, 1517, the day that Martin Luther first protested the abuses of the Medieval Church. The surface practice that pushed him over the edge was the sale of indulgences, which was corruption, pure and simple. The Church advertised that you could basically buy passage from purgatory to heaven for your loved ones. "When a coin in the kettle rings, a soul from purgatory springs!" they cried.
Luther called their greed and corruption for what it was, but there was another underlying issue for him. The abuse of indulgences came out of a belief that God kept some sort of ledger book where our sins and good deeds were recorded. To enter heaven, they believed, you needed to have more in the plus column than in the minus. Priests heard your confession of sins and told you what prayers or good works would make up for what you did and put your account back in the black.
Luther was terribly aware of the sin in his life. He knew that many things he did were wrong and he knew that he had probably done a whole host of sinful things that he never even realized. He began to despair of ever being right with God. He was constantly at confession, pulling up every possible sin so that he could get right with God. The story goes that finally the beleaguered priest who heard his confessions told him to go out and do something worth confessing!
Then one day Martin began to read his Bible and came across Paul's letter to the Romans. For the first time he heard the amazing words, "It is by grace you are saved through faith, not by works, lest anyone should boast." His life changed. God was not an unrelenting bookkeeper, ready to open the trap door to hell if the ledger was in the red. God was loving and gracious. Jesus had shown us the nature of God...and it wasn't nasty. God's nature was love, and God's loving nature was willing to overlook all manner of sins, as long as we were really trying to live good and loving lives ourselves. "Sola Fides!" he cried. Grace alone!
The Church called him a heretic and put him on trial. He stood before them as they asked him to recant his teaching or face the consequences. "Here I stand," he replied. "I can do nothing else." From that stand that insisted on the love and gracious forgiveness of God came Lutherans and Presbyterians, Baptists and Episcopalians, Methodists and Pentecostals and all those churches that today we now call Protestant. We may differ on a lot of things from church to church, but all of us still stand today where Luther stood 1500 years ago. Our salvation...the thing that determines our ability to stand in the presence of God is fundamentally about who God is, not about what we have or have not done. And the fundamental message about the nature of God is spelled out in the Scripture verse on our signboard this morning. "God is love."
The fuller passage from 1 John 4:7-8 reads this way, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and anyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who doesn't love, doesn't know God, for God is love." Paul bears this out in his letter to the Corinthians that was read earlier. Love is the only thing that matters. Even if you have faith so incredible that you can work great miracles and actually move a mountain from here to there, all of that counts for nothing if you don't have any love in your heart. The last line of the chapter confirms that love is greater than faith.
It doesn't matter who you are, what you do, how much you have, or how much of the Bible you can recite from memory. If you don't have love, you have not even registered on God's radar screen. On the flip side, it doesn't matter what you have done in the past. It doesn't matter if all your good intentions blow up in your face. It doesn't matter that you can't hold a job. It doesn't matter if you are rich or poor, gay or straight, black, red, yellow, brown or white, male or female, Jew or Palestinian, Protestant or Catholic or nothing at all. If you have learned to love, you have tapped into the power of God and the God who loves you infinitely more than you can imagine will never drop you.
Paul knew this, because Paul had experienced it. Remember that Paul was once just like that group outside. Before his conversion, Paul spent his time promoting hate. He traveled all over Asia minor hunting for Christians that he could arrest and execute. It's ironic that on this day when we remember all the martyrs, we read from a letter that Paul wrote, Paul who cast his vote to kill the very first Christian martyr, Stephen, and who was zealous in the very first wave of Christian persecution. Paul knew that if God could forgive what he had been and done; that there was no one who could be considered outside of the love and mercy of God.
Because of all that, he could write at the end of Romans 8: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." In the end, he too could do nothing else but stand for the love of God as it was revealed in Jesus and it was the Emperor Nero who ordered him beheaded for it.
And what did Jesus have to say? Well, we read it. A legal expert stands up and asks Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answers with two verses from the Hebrew Scriptures: to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live."
There is no specific list of do's and don'ts. There are no magic words. What does it take to beat death and participate in the eternity of God? Love. Period. Love God with every last ounce of your being. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Love and you will live. Forever. Back in 1 Corinthians Paul says that Love never ends. It is a physical impossibility for love to die, so if you love, you will live...you will outlast the destruction of your body and even the destruction of the world. Love and you will live. When you dig down to the foundation of all I believe, you will find that at the bottom. That is where I stand, and I couldn't do anything differently, even if I wanted to.
There are some who hear that message who believe it is a spineless position. They interpret love as some milktoast, Pollyanna response that denies the hard realities of our world. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more you try to live a life of love, the more you see how terribly difficult it is. After the lawyer asks his question of Jesus, the lawyer is immediately trying to find a loophole so that he doesn't have to really do it. Well, he thinks, maybe we can narrow the definition of "neighbor."
Sorry. No. If you really want to feel the impact that the story of the Good Samaritan had on its original audience, try replacing the characters of the Jew and the Samaritan with an Israeli and a Palestinian or with a straight man and a gay man...with the Palestinian and the gay man being the lauded hero. It's the same message that Jesus puts more plainly back in Matthew 5: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
Love doesn't mean you have no enemies. Love means that if a bus should go out of control and run over the hate group at our entrance, we should be the first on the scene to bind their wounds, take them to the hospital, sincerely pray for their healing, visit them in recovery, and pay for their care. If they spewed hatred at us the entire time, we would take what measures we needed to protect ourselves...love of self is also a command of God...but we would still ensure that they were cared for.
Love is not a warm, fuzzy feeling. Love is action that provides for another's needs. Love of neighbor sometimes means sending a loved one to prison or to rehab. Love of self sometimes means leaving an abusive relationship. Love of God means not sitting idly by when the loving nature of God is being slandered by individuals, churches, or organizations that would try to tie God's name to acts of cruelty, greed, or prejudice. And if you think that's easy, look back across the history of the saints...those that we know about, but also those whose witness never made the news or registered in anyone's awareness except perhaps the person who stole the life that God had given to them.
If we are honest about our own lives, we will see that far from being able to love our enemies, we are still stuck on trying to love our friends.. Many of us have never even managed to love ourselves. We get upset if we're asked to love God for more than 60 minutes on Sunday mornings, and some of us can become so angry that love might take away our ability to retaliate or take justice into our own hands that we turn from love altogether.
I can't stand here and tell you that real love...balanced love of God, neighbor, and self...is easy. But I can stand here and tell you that it is the only truth of which I am certain. God is love. It was on this day 23 years ago that I knelt beside my father, dead of a heart attack at 47, and knew like I have never known anything else that love is all that matters. It just doesn't. I should have known that before then. I had read the Bible and the message is as plain as the nose on your face in Scripture. But I guess that experience moved the knowledge from my head to my heart where it sits to this day. God is love. Love is all that ever has mattered and all that ever will. It isn't easy, but it's the truth. Here I stand. I can do or say or believe nothing else.
And where do you stand? For what principle would you be willing to look down the barrel of a shotgun and say, "Here I stand."? What are you here for? What is the purpose of your life? It's time to think about it. It's time to make it an active reality in your life. For me, and for this church for as long as I lead it, we will stand on God is love. Everything else is a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
(c) 2003, Anne Robertson
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