Sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2003, dedicated to the honor and memory of the people of Bethany UCC, Cleveland, Ohio, for whom I feel a love that has never let me go and where, 14 years ago today, I ended by ministry with a sermon on I Corinthians 13 and always to the glory of God!
(Part I of VIII in the Lenten Sermon Series: "For the Love of Christ")
Psalm 51 and Matthew 6:1-6, 12-21
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
I arrived in Cleveland, Ohio on a hot summer day in July, 1985. I had many boxes of books, some never opened, all seemed like truth to me. I was 27 years old. I was single. I was ready to serve God's people. And, I thought knew everything there was to know about theology, bible, and liturgy. After all, I was a Yale Divinity School graduate and I had recently been ordained by the church!
When the moving van was all unloaded and the people left to go to their homes, I was handed the keys and told, "It's all yours now, baby! Good Luck!" It was then, that my knees turned to rubber, the color left my face, and I realized I was all alone as the pastor of this 250 member church. The existential crises I had read about in Camus and Kiekgegaard now defined me.
Less than four years later, on a cold March 6th, 1989, I was packing with my wife, Susan, and my 22-month-old son, Luke, to move to North Congregational Church, Columbus, Ohio. In those three years and eight months, I learned a lot about myself, my gifts for ministry, my God and my Savior. But, mostly, I learned about the meaning of love.
I learned that Harvey Thies was a lonely recluse who needed to be loved by people as well as by his cats. I learned that Jennie Dunlap, who appeared to be mad and mean all the time, hadn't been hugged in fifteen years since her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. I learned that Shery and Laurie, whose marriages were titanically sinking, found in each other shared friendship that bound them together out of their hardships. I also learned, along with my wife, that we were the two worst bowlers in any league on the westside of Cleveland - but they loved us anyway!
I learned that children in our neighborhood on Cleveland's westside had been beaten and abused more than they had been hugged and loved and they needed someone to listen to them, pay attention to them, and care for them. I remember evenings and weekends watching Susan in our garden (which shared the same yard with the church), surrounded by little children whose hands were dirty and whose mouths were spewing out stories of their lives because they had someone to listen to them. She was patient, loving and kind with them as long as they didn't step on her plants.
And then I remember, 14 years ago today, standing in the pulpit of Bethany one last time and telling the gathered congregation that I loved them. The love I feel for the people of Bethany United Church of Christ is a love that has not let me go. When I packed up my books and headed south to Columbus, it was a heart-wrenching move, because, what I didn't know at the time, and would take many more years to discover was that they loved me, too. They often had a funny way of showing that love. When I left, I felt like a failure, in many ways. I felt like I had made no difference in Cleveland. I felt like I hadn't stayed long enough, like I had abandoned them. I felt empty for the longest time.
Several months ago, the Bethany newsletter arrived. In it was an article that spoke of all their past ministers. They said, of my ministry, how much they had felt loved by Susan and me. This felt like the final piece of redemption and healing for unresolved feelings and thoughts on past times. Our love for one another - pastor and people - was, and is, in the end, a love that has not let us go.
What is the source of love that will not let us go? For me and I hope for you as Christians, the source of this love is Jesus Christ. Christ's love embodies and symbolizes the love of God in a way that empowers me, inspires me, calls me, moves me, and addresses me to love others.
Christianity is a religion of the Word. The Word is God and the Word is Love. Thomas Merten writes in Thoughts in Solitude:
We sometimes forget that the Word emerges first of all from silence. When there is no silence, then the One Word which God speaks in is not truly heard as Love. Then, only "words" are heard. "Words" are not love. For they are many and Love is One.....The One Word which God speaks is Godself. Speaking, God manifests Godself as Infinite Love.
Ours is a faith full of love. The word "Love" appears 273 times in the New Testament. It is always significant when used. Love is used to speak most often of the relationship between God and humanity - especially in relationship to Jesus Christ. The freedom of faith is expressed in I Corinthians 13:2, "If I have a perfect faith, but have no Love, I am nothing." Love is more powerful than faith! In I John, the "Love Letter to the Church," John writes that "perfect love casts out all fears" (I John 4:18). He says "Anyone who does not love is still in death" (I John 3:14). Hebrews 13:5 captures the voice of God saying, "I will never let go of you or desert you for I am your God. I am Love."
When Hope seems lost. Love is present. When Faith is dashed against the rocks of life and experience, Love is present. When Courage seems diminished and squashed by the troubles of life, love is present. When you find yourself empty, worn out, exhausted from life's troubles, Love is Present.
In the most beautiful of test from Holy Scripture speaking on Love, the apostle John writes:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another...... We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this - that he laid down his life for us - and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us know love in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him, whenever our hearts condemn us - for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. (3:11-20)
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God, everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God for God is love! (John 4:7-8).
Love is an action, It is not a word. Just as God is an action of Love, not a Word about Love. I must tell you, these words from I John challenge and trouble me. When I see the needs of those around me for daily bread, health care, housing, jobs, and education - I can get overwhelmed by feelings of anger and frustration. I see those who have tremendous economic resources sharing little or nothing with their brothers and sisters in need and I find myself feeling overwhelming feelings of un-love - in myself toward those who hoard their goods. I see the execution of people in Ohio with my tax dollars attached and I feel angry and unloving. I see young men and women sent to kill young men, women, and children in the name of freedom, and I feel unloving and charitable towards those who send them to war.
I believe Love is an action. I know that when I truly love it is done by deeds, not words. I see the ways I am unloving and uncharitable and it disturbs me and upsets me. I feel as though, in those moments, I am far from God. I am apart from the plan of God's creation. I feel inadequate to serve as one who is to live love for and with others.
In those moments and days, I am forced to my knees in confession. I am humbled by God to acknowledge my departed-ness, my against-ness, my brokenness. I become aware in those moments and days, that I do not deserve to be called a Christian. I am silenced. I am paralyzed. I am, in the words of I Cor., "Nothing."
It is there that Jesus the Christ needs me. He kneels beside me. He lifts me. He gracefully carries me back into his heart, back into his heart of love. His is a love that will not let me go. His is a love that will not leave me alone. His is a love that holds me and enfolds me; embraces me and never disgraces; loves me and never abandons me. His love lives in me, even when I do not live in his love.
The magnificent, inexplicable sacrifice of Love in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed my life. The Love of Christ will be the focus of my preaching in the Lenten season ahead. Sundays I will look at Graceful Love, Sacrificial Love, Just Love, Saving Love, Transforming Love, Cross Love and Eternal Love, on Easter Sunday. I invite you to join me in worship, prayer, and exploration of love. Amen.
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