Sunday, January 18, 2015

Becoming Convinced

Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
January 18, 2015

Preface to Worship:
I am becoming convinced that it is not nearly so important what we do or what we leave undone that matters most in this life. What matters most is that we are loved. No matter what we do or what we leave undone, we are loved deeply and steadfastly. Whether we are right or whether we are wrong; this is of no consequence to love. We were created because it pleased God to have us here—just as we are. Each one of us is an expression of God’s love. In fact I am becoming convinced that love is the only thing that really is. Everything else is an illusion we have created.
John 1: 43-51
Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1822. Historians are not certain about the year of her birth because accurate records of slave births are not always available. But it is certain that she grew weary of her life, trapped and abused by the whims and demands of a white slave-master. At the age of six she was given her first job. Her master rented her out to work for a poor white farmer, Mr. Brodess and his wife. She recalled one morning being beaten five times before breakfast.

In 1844, Harriet married John Tubman, a free African American. When she learned that she was to be set on the auction block and sold to slave dealers from Georgia, Harriet decided to run. She told her husband that she planned to escape and when he said, “It’s too dangerous to run for freedom,” Harriet replied, “There are two things I have a right to in this life: liberty and death. If I can’t have the first one then I’ll take the second.” She ran for liberty, risking everything, headed for Pennsylvania where slavery was against the law. 

“I felt like I was in heaven!” she said about her first deep breath of freedom. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania had made the state a good place to learn and work for runaway slaves. Harriet got work as a servant and a cook in private homes. She earned money and saved money. And she could have remained safe and free in her new life. But the taste of freedom lost its luster when she thought about her friends and family back home. 

Freedom wasn’t freedom unless she could share it with those she’d left behind. So Harriet Tubman went back where her life was not her own so that she could keep it—so that she could live it freely and abundantly, courageously leading group after group out of the awful grip of slavery and into the light of liberty. 

She first had to taste the sweet refreshment of freedom for herself, discover that she could find her way there, and then she discovered how much she had to offer to others.
She became convinced that she had particular gifts, strength and courage to be used for the good in the world she knew. She was convinced that love knew her, claimed her and called her to set others free.

In today’s scripture (John 1:43-51) Jesus finds Philip and says, “Follow me.” Apparently there is something adequate enough in what Philip sees and experiences of Jesus that he immediately becomes convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, the one he has been looking for, praying about and hoping to know. Then Philip finds Nathanael and tells him the good news. “We have found love and it came to us from Nazareth!” 

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

A good question. The question reveals more about Nathanael than it reveals about Nazareth. We can see the man’s opinions and prejudices. Love has to do an awful lot of hard work and stage multiple miracles to get through our set opinions and our deeply ingrained prejudices. Once we learn and become convinced that a place, a town, a neighborhood is bad news, we rarely change our minds about that. Once we learn and become convinced that people are not to be trusted, it takes a heap of miracles to undo the attitude. Once we become convinced that only the strong survive it takes something like an awful injury followed by a miraculous healing to make us consider the value of vulnerability and admitting our weaknesses. Once we learn and become convinced that people who look like us and live at the same level of economic security as we do are the only ones we care to know and befriend, it takes some kind of local disaster and a period of miraculous rebuilding for love to be revealed and recognized in the face of the different, the “other.”

Always there, always at work, love tries to break through the dense fog of our misconceptions and illusions to let some light in, to set us free. Because we’re never free and we can never really allow others around us to be free until we know ourselves as an absolute expression of love in this life. There’s so much useless baggage to shed, so much meaningless weight we carry around while we avoid or deny the light of love that comes from our very soul.

Jesus lets Nathanael know that he sees the light of love in Nathanael. Jesus sees and knows what’s real in Nathanael-- underneath the man’s opinions, prejudices, cultural training. Jesus is love and so he can see beneath the resistance and fears that defend Nathanael. Being known is miracle enough to turn Nathanael’s world upside down. He leaves his world and opens himself, following Jesus to see with new eyes, to hear with new ears, to taste with a new expectation, to touch and be touched with an openness to love in every fingertip, every hand shake and hug. Love knew him and he let go of his culturally influenced reality long enough to know love. His life became a life of love, devoted to loving himself and others, setting himself and others free. A true disciple.

Sometimes all we need is an open window, just a crack in our defenses, to see there’s so much more than what we had thought or believed, to be convinced that life has more to do with love than we had ever before imagined. 

“You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending …”

I went to see the film, “Selmer” this week. I highly recommend that you see to it too. The camera shows close up and fiercely the faces of people who have allowed their fears to harden into rigid, seething hate.  We all recognize ourselves in those faces. I mean, it requires that I be fearlessly honest to admit it. But I have been so hurt and so afraid of people or a person that I have hardened the love right out of my perception of them, made them into lifeless, loveless objects and given myself permission to hate the objectified frame. Maybe you have too. Maybe you know that experience and can admit how much damage it has done to your soul.

I have been known to close the door on anything other than hate, nurtured a thirst for revenge and a deep desire to erase the one I see as my “enemy.” I saw my own face in the face of Selma’s sheriff. I may not have participated in the same level of physical violence against the other as some participants in that story- but I have felt the hunger for violence that can be awakened in any of us. It is part of the illusion we live with in our world. 

Dr. King and his wife, Coretta lived with the constant threat of death’s reality in their home, at the table and in their bed and in their children’s beds. Dr. King’s nonviolent strategy was shining the light of love full blast into the faces of hate—inspiring absolute rage. While at the same time, the light of that love was inspiring tremendous courage and hope in the hearts and lives of Selma’s African American people. They were seen, recognized and called out by Dr. King as people of great worth, people with a proud history. They were people with so much to contribute to the world around them if only they were free to give, free to vote. 

So they got together with all that courage, strength, collected gifts. And other people were attracted to the light of love in Selma. People came from all over the world to join them. Love led the way in the march from Selma to Montgomery. 

Dr. King gave everything he had and all the light within him to set the people of Selma free—not just the African Americans but—more miraculously—the ones who had closed up and shut down their vision because of the opinions and prejudices that had blinded them to the best thing that life offers to any of us…love, love that lives deep within our souls.

Love brings us into this world and, for a time, that is all we know. But as life happens to us and we get hurt, we find ways to defend ourselves from love. We create barriers and defenses that distance us from our own soul and prevent us from recognizing, valuing and sharing our love with the soul of others. We find ways to trap and abuse ourselves in slavery to all kinds of illusions.

Until something happens, until some Savior comes into our town, until some relationship surprises us with its unexpected goodness, until some book or film or sermon awakens our hunger to return to what we once knew and trusted about love.

Then we start becoming convinced that love is the main thing. We recall that it is the real thing, the only reality, the thing that can set us free and give us the courage, strength and gifts to turn around, go back and set others free.