June 12, 2022 -Cobleskill United Methodist Church - Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
First Sunday after Pentecost
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
I had lunch with a friend this week on her birthday. We’re pretty close to the same age and we were talking about how it feels like we’re getting …. old. I know you laugh, but we’ve gotten to the point where we are now definitely closer to 40 than we are to 30 and it was requiring a lot mutual consolation. As we grow older no matter what age we are, and I think many of the adults in the room can relate, it seems that with every passing year, we want less of a celebration and instead more time to ponder and reflect. How did we get this old, again? And what are we going to do with our next year because no amount of time can be taken for granted any more.
Well, if my friend and I thought going from 37 to 38 was getting old, we had nothing on the Church. Last week we celebrated the birthday of the Church at Pentecost and I think we came up with an age of nearly 2000 years old. Now if the amount of levity due at a birthday is somehow proportional to the number of years old, then we’ve got some serious reflecting to do here. How long do you have? Just kidding. Kind of. The truth is we do need to take a moment and think about what our future holds, but if anything, I hope this conversation will be inspiring and hopeful.
You see, several months ago right as we were beginning to see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel a bunch of us sat down after church for a few Sundays to begin thinking about where God was calling us to go in the next years as our church and our world began a new chapter. One of the first things we decided was that we needed to have a clear sense of our identity and vision. So, a committee was formed. Oh how we love our committees in the Methodist church. If there’s a job to do, there’s a committee to do it. I actually love committees because they are, at their best, a group of diverse people bringing all of their different ideas and experience to the same room to help solve a problem together.
So a diverse group of people worked together on a new vision statement…A succinct phrase that would sum up who we are and where we want to go as a church. (You can actually see the statement on the front of your bulletin. Be loved. Belong. Be the difference). And so as a birthday present for the church, we’re going to explore each piece over the next three weeks. This week, we’re talking about “Be loved.”
As our small vision committee met, it was abundantly clear that any vision statement would have to begin with love. Everything about who we are as a church, as Christians, as humans and as a community begins with love. One of the church’s most important reasons for existing, we believed, is to let people know they are unconditionally loved. If you don’t know you are unconditionally loved you will have a hard time loving anyone else either. So listen very closely to me when I say this because this is the beginning of everything else. God loves you. You are loved deeply and without any strings attached. There is nothing that you can ever do that will make God stop loving you. Nothing. Just as you, you are God’s beloved.
The reason it’s so important for us to not only stop and remind ourselves of this message, but to embrace this as part of the vision of our church is because every single day we are bombarded by messages in the world tell us we are not loved or that our love is somehow conditional, with strings attached.
Sometimes we get this message in the innocent seeming commercials that slyly make us think we’re not good enough the way we are and that more things or better products will make us more lovable and worthy.
Or maybe it’s the pictures and the feeds on Instagram or Facebook that show other people whose families are so perfect that you feel like you and your life are just not good enough.
Or maybe it was the way you never quite felt loved by your parent in the way you so deeply desired to be loved.
Or maybe it’s the way the news is a constant cycle of horror stories in which hate and violence seem to constantly defeat love.
Or maybe you feel like you have to be more successful; a harder worker, or a better student to be loved.
Or, perhaps worst of all, maybe it’s the church itself that has, at some point, made you feel like God’s love for you was conditional. That you had to act a certain way and be a certain kind of person in order to be loved.
This past week this exact thing happened again. Sixteen people in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church wanted to be pastors. They had been interviewed and approved to move in the next step to becoming pastors. They were excited and ready to follow God’s call. But in order to be officially granted their commissioning, 75% of the already ordained clergy in the conference had to approve these 16 pastoral candidates. In a vote that was unprecedented, only 72% of the clergy approved them. Only 72% approved and they needed 75%. All 16 candidates were denied their commissioning. Why? Because two of the 16 were openly gay and for some people in that conference this made them unfit to be a pastor, along with everyone else standing by their side. While this exact thing happening may be a first for the United Methodist Church during this painful chapter of disagreement over LGBTQ inclusion, it is certainly not the first time nor the last time that some Christians will choose to use their religion as a weapon for denying the full and unconditional love of God to each person.
Every single day, in the tiniest and most subtle ways and in the loudest and most egregious ways, the world wants to put conditions on our belovedness. But God does not. Every single time Jesus was asked about what was most important in faith and life, he minced no words. Love! Love of God; love of neighbor and love of oneself. If we can’t love one another then we are nothing.
Listen, life is not easy. It’s full of suffering, some of which we put on ourselves; some of it we endure at the hands of others, and still more comes at no one’s fault at all. But this is what the Apostle Paul says about the power of God’s love in the midst of suffering. “…Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” To know that you are loved is to know that you will make it through life’s greatest suffering. To know that you are unconditionally loved is the greatest gift you will ever receive.
I am so proud of the way this church has already started letting our community know it is loved. Last month when we voted to become a Reconciling Congregation we affirmed that all people, regardless of who they love, can be and will be called by God to serve the church as leaders at every level. We said as a church that we will not stand in the way of God’s love. In a world where the opposite message is coming loud and strong even from people in our own denomination, you have made a stand to say that you believe in the power of God’s unconditional love to affirm and support all people. I cannot tell you how significant that is.
But this is just the beginning. If we want our community to know they are loved, in what ways will we keep doing it? What can we do with our actions and our words that says “you are loved” to people who have come to believe they don’t deserve love, especially not God’s love?
As we begin this next chapter as a church, I have a feeling that helping people to know they are loved begins with the simplest of things. Meeting a new neighbor and remembering their name the next time you see them. Sitting down with someone new at the summer lunch program this summer and having a genuine conversation. Encouraging someone you know who needs a boost to come with you to potluck. Listening without judgement to someone’s story about a time when they felt rejected. Volunteering for our church’s children and youth programs so that you have an opportunity to affirm a child or a youth when they are having trouble believing they are loved. Giving a little extra today toward our Peace with Justice offering that supports community initiatives that help overcome a culture of hate and oppression, instead lifting people up who have historically been marginalized.
These are small things that show love, but they add up in big ways. And if we are a church that professes to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, we will strive always to be a church where first and foremost every person knows they are loved. By us and by God, and maybe someday soon, by themselves, too.
As we close, I want you to join me in a prayer that goes like this.
Put your hand on your heart. Sit here for a moment and feel the beating. You are God’s beloved. Pulsing through veins is the beautiful uniqueness that is you. No one is like you. And that’s just the way God made you. You are God’s beloved child. As we all grow older, may each year add to our deep understanding of your unconditional love. You are enough. You are loved. This moment, this one right here, is the beginning of something that will change the world.
May it be so. Amen.
Grace and Peace,