Too Good to be True? A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

This sermon, offered on April 29, 2018 at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin, by the Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the readings assigned for the Fifth Sunday of Eater in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

Here is a recording of the sermon

And a transcript of the recording

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Please be seated.

I want to talk a little bit this morning about rituals.  Rituals.  The world is filled, our lives are filled, with rituals.  Just yesterday we experienced one of our annual Madison rituals the crazy legs run here in downtown Madison.  The streets were filled with people.  It was difficult to get where you wanted to go…  and if that wasn’t enough, the other ritual that was happening on Mifflin Street, just sort of made everything a little cloudy and obscure…

Rituals, we all have them; whether it’s what we do with the family at Christmas time, or Thanksgiving, things that both reflect who we are and what we believe; and shape us, and who we are and what we believe.

I have a little ritual that I do almost every day and I’m guessing a lot of you have the same ritual in your own context.  I drive home at the end of the day. I pull into the garage. I walk back out to the curb.  I get the mail out of the mailbox.  On my way back in I stop at the recycling can, just outside the kitchen door, haven’t even gone in the house yet, and I start going through the mail.  Ooooh!  Somebody’s offering me a free dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a free vacation in the Caribbean… all I have to…  oh… a timeshare….

Again and again, things that seem too good to be true… aren’t.  All of these great offers that come with the catch.  And so as I throw all of those things into the recycling can there are a couple of things that sort of re cycle in my head.  One of which is “there are no free lunches,” and the other is “If it seems too good to be true it probably isn’t.”  So I think it’s with that backdrop, that ritual that both describes who we are and what we believe, and shapes in and informs who we are and what we believe that we hear this reading from the first letter of John today.

I want you to imagine for a minute that you’re standing there, just outside the kitchen door, in the garage, next to the recycling can, and you pull up an envelope that says “Love is from God.  God is love.”  And then again, “God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.  God is love.”  And then, in the biggest font of all, there on that envelope it says, “There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear.  For fear has to do with punishment and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

So you’ve thrown away the envelope from Ruth’s Chris steakhouse.  You’ve thrown away the thing from the vacation resorts in the Caribbean.  And you’re telling yourself “if it seems too good to be true it probably…   How do you respond to this statement?

It’s really critical, I think to, examine our response.  Do we really believe that God loves us so much that God came to us, walked among us as one of us, before we could do anything to respond to that love from God.  Unearned, undeserved, no interaction yet on the table for evaluation, and God already loves us.

It’s really not that surprising if you look back over the biblical record.  God chose Abram long before he gave Abram any rules about how to behave.  Long before the Ten Commandments were handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai God chose a people as God’s own and loved them.  So before we do anything, God loves us.  I think that that changes everything.

Dr. William Self, a prominent Baptist leader and longtime Atlanta area pastor, writing in the Feasting on the Word commentaries on this passage from the 1st letter of John says, “Against the lovelessness of fear John sets the fearlessness of love.  No longer must we have the anxious self tormenting endeavor to placate God, but rather the response of a loving confident heart to a love already shown and shared.”

I don’t want to speak for everyone in this room, but I want you to just wonder for a minute, or think about, the amount of time and energy that we put into earning another person’s love, to meeting the grade, to measuring up, to doing the things that we believe we need to do in order to be worthwhile, to be seen as good, as strong and as capable, so that the people around us will value and love us.

If we feel the same way about God then we are going to find ourselves driven in a way that is bound to induce fear, because there is no way we can maintain any level of excellence, or productivity, or goodness, that will earn gift God is giving us and the person life death and resurrection of Jesus, and the love that God showers upon us all the time, before we can do anything to respond.

So if we can, if we can, get beyond the conditioning that there are no free lunches, and I’m sorry to any Keynesian economists in the room, if we can get beyond the conditioning that, if it seems too good to be true it must not be true, and believe that what happens in the life death and resurrection of Jesus is in fact representative of who God is and how God loves us, then we can be set free from the fear that something we might do will lose God’s love for us.

Just imagine for a minute how you will walk into the world, set free from that fear, liberated, knowing, that you are loved.  And then imagine for just a minute, what your presence will do for the world around you, if that’s who you are and what you believe.  Because in both his letter to us, and in the gospel narrative, John tells us to abide in God as God abides in us, and to love others in the same way that God loves us.  And that’s only possible if we really are willing to believe that God’s love is true.  So we can go into the world and love others unconditionally, the way that God loves us, and they will find themselves being set free by the love of God expressed in our lives.

Dr. Self, I love that name, wouldn’t you like to be Dr. self, goes on to say, “Fear cannot generate love, sympathy, tenderness, or compassion.  We cannot scare people into tolerance or terrify them into kindliness.  The fruit of fear ends up being distrust, suspicion, and resentment.”

If we can walk into this world loving other people the way that God loves us then the level of fear, suspicion, distrust, and resentment will go down.  The trick is, I think, for us to believe and recognize that God’s love is a true gift and not something that we’ve earned.  That’s why we gather here every week.

Rituals both describe who we are and what we believe, and form us in who we are and what we believe, and the principal ritual for us, as Christians, is to come forward and hold out our hands, and receive a gift; something that we can’t possibly have earned, something that we can’t possibly deserve, and this very posture demonstrates our attitude towards what it is that we need… a gift.

We don’t stand here waiting for our paycheck, for just compensation.  We don’t stand here waiting for our due.  Here in the season of Easter we do stand, but a lot of the year we kneel, and hold out our hands in deference and in awe, to receive a gift.  That gift is mirrored in our love for the world.  That gift comes from, springs from, God’s love for us.

So as you pass the recycling can on your way out the door this morning, don’t throw this in there.  It may seem like it’s too good to be true, but it is in fact God’s honest truth.

Amen.

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