Mission Possible sermon series – #5 Caring for Each Other and the Stranger

We continue our sermon series looking at Crestwood’s new Vision and Mission Statements. Here they are:

Our Vision

Connecting People to God And Each Other

Our Mission

Crestwood Christian Church connects people to God and each other by being a community that welcomes and accepts all people; invites questions about how faith and life intersect; encourages people to take the next step in their spiritual journey; cares for each other and the stranger; and serves God through serving others.

SCRIPTURE – I John 4:7-21 – 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.God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 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. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

SERMON
Mission Possible sermon series
#5 – Cares for Each Other and the Stranger
Oct. 5, 2014

We continue our sermon series today looking at our new vision and mission statements, found on the front of your bulletin. Our vision is “Connecting People to God and Each Other.” The mission statement spells out how we will do that by giving us five statements for applying our faith to real life. So far we’ve talked about the importance of welcoming and accepting all people, inviting questions about where faith and life intersect, and encouraging people to take the next step in their faith journey. Along the way, we need to make sure we are caring for each other and the stranger. Interestingly, this was to be our sermon topic long before all that happened this week. I love the way God works.

Paul writes in Galatians about the importance of caring for each other when he says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” We are not supposed to focus solely on our needs and challenges, as tempting as that can be. Living this life is about more than ourselves, so we are supposed to be mindful of those around us and stay open to the ways we can extend God’s care and comfort to them. Sometimes life gives us more than we can handle, and our burdens are too heavy for one person to carry.

I love my dad. I need to say that up front, because after I tell this story you may think otherwise. I really do love my dad. But there was one year when I almost gave him up for adoption. It was the year I helped him move three times. I didn’t mind helping him the first time. Or the second time. But I knew I was in trouble the third time when didn’t start the conversation with his usual, “Hey boy! What’s up?”, but with, “Greetings, my beloved offspring….”

This third move was to a second floor apartment that required negotiating a narrow, twisting set of steps. That would be OK if Dad didn’t have a treadmill, a waterbed, and one of those old console TVs, the kind that came in the heavy wooden cabinet. We managed to get everything up there, but along the way I had an insightful revelation. I used to think I got my bad back from my dad, but now I realize it wasn’t inherited, he voluntarily gave it to me. A body is not meant to carry that kind of load alone.

The burdens we carry can have the same kinds of debilitating effects on us. We try to shoulder the weight, thinking that it’s up to us to carry around this troublesome diagnosis or this dark depression or this work-related stress. And it’s usually only after we’ve passed the breaking point that we finally reach out for help. That’s one of difficult realities of being human: we can only be cared for if we allow others to care for us.

That’s where the church comes in. A church community is meant to be a place where people can come and unload their burdens without fear of judgment or criticism. No matter what our baggage looks like, no matter the size or shape of the skeletons in our closet, the church should be a sanctuary, a safe place to receive welcome, acceptance, and care, the same things God has graciously given to us in abundance.

That’s what John talks about in our reading for today. He’s telling his congregation that no matter how different people are, no matter whether their colors are red or blue (for their politics or their sports affiliation), no matter how much the other person acts like a self-righteous jerk, the foundation of their relationship with each other should be love, the love that comes from God. He says if you claim to have love but you don’t care for each other, then you’re just fooling yourself, because God is love.

The Greek word for love here is agape. The Greeks actually had several words they used to describe love, which makes sense when you think of all the different kinds of love that exists. There was eros, which was the romantic, sensual kind of love, best demonstrated by Joey from the show “Friends,” when he would greet an attractive female with the words, “How you doing?” There was philia, a love between friends, from which we get the name for the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. There was storge, a kind of family love, like the love siblings would have for each other.

But none of those describe the kind of love John is talking about here. He is talking about agape, a selfless, other-focused love that knows no boundaries. Agape is a deep soul love, a love that is not dampened by what a person does because it is focused on who a person is. Agape love is the kind of love God has for us and the kind of love we are called to show as we care for one another.

This understanding of God’s agape love brings with it some major implications for how we offer care. It means that, if we’re loving with God’s love, there’s no criteria someone has to meet in order to receive it. We don’t care for them because we like them; we care for them because they need caring. That’s a big relief to me, because I have to admit I’ve said and thought and done some things in my life that at times make me pretty unloveable. My guess is you have, as well. If we were to share these things in a room full of people and asked everyone who thought less of us to leave, when we finished only our mothers would still be there.

Caring for others with agape love also means we are willing to enter into their situation, to help bear the pain and sadness and anxiety they are carrying while helping them stay grounded in Jesus’ love for them. We have to be careful, because we can err too far one way or the other. We can stand too far back, observing a person’s pain from afar but not walking alongside them. Or we can get so enmeshed in their situation that we end up needing more care than they do. The balance is best illustrated in a drawing from Stephen Minister training. It shows a person down in a pit, the one who is in need of care. Then it shows a person with one foot in the pit and one foot on solid ground, holding onto a tree limb as they help pull the other person up. The tree is Jesus Christ, who provides strength and grounding and safety as we care for one another. We care for others by putting one foot in the pit with them and keeping one foot grounded in reality, all the while connecting them to God’s healing power and love.

Ultimately, the best way to care for someone is not to do for them what we think they need; it’s to do for them what they need done. I may think someone needs a meal when what they really need is a listening ear or a hug. I may think, “If I were them, I would really like someone with me” when what they really want is a quick phone and then to be left alone.

In my previous church, we used to put together Thanksgiving boxes that went to a local Hispanic ministry. We filled the boxes with all the goodies we enjoy on that holiday: mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and a big juicy turkey waiting to be cooked. But we found out in most cases, the turkey stayed raw and the pumpkin pie went uneaten because that’s not what Hispanic families traditionally eat at Thanksgiving. Instead of asking them what they wanted, we assumed they wanted to be cared for the same way we would. Agape love is other-focused; it asks the other what they most need.

Sometimes offering this kind of care means putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations for the sake of caring for another. When I was in seminary the pastor of the church where I was working asked me to visit one of the shut-ins. He said Florence could be a bit cantankerous at times, but that she would probably welcome a visit. “It will be good experience for you,” he said. When I got to her house, I noticed the lights were off and the blinds drawn. I peered in through the door and saw Florence sitting in her darkened living room. I knocked on the door. “Who is it?” she shouted. I hollered through the door who I was, but she said, “Don’t bother yelling, I can’t hear!” So I held up the Bible in my hand to show her I was from her church. She shouted, “Oh my God! You’re one of those! Don’t come in!” Finally, I nudged open the door and said, “I’m from St. Peter’s United Church of Christ.” “Oh, well in that case, come on in!” I spend a lovely hour with Florence, learning about her life and the sadness in which she lived after her husband died. It was time well spent.

The care we’re called to offer is about writing cards and making casseroles, but it’s about more than that. It’s about phone calls in which we listen to the other person. It’s about not only delivering the casserole, but staying a few minutes to ask the other person how they’re doing. Caring for someone can be time-consuming, it can be messy, it can really throw off our schedules. And yet, I believe caring for each other is the primary reason God calls us into relationships. No one can carry their burdens alone.

Caring is something we do well here at Crestwood. Several of our ministries are designed to extend Christ’s compassion to our fellow church members. Our Stephen Ministry program, our Heart-to-Heart shut-in ministry, and our Caregivers Ministry Team all live out this statement. Certainly Robyn and Jordan and their family have been the recipients of the kind of genuine care we are able to offer. I believe we are committed to taking care of our own..

The challenge our mission statement gives us to is to care for those unlike us with the same agape love as those who are like us. There will be people passing through the doors of this church that we don’t know, that we don’t care about, that we may not even like. As our congregation continues to grow, you will begin to see names on the prayer list and in the Crest that you aren’t familiar with, and you may be hesitant to help care for them, to provide meals for them, to reach out to them. And yet, God calls us to care for them as a brother or sister in Christ. Our care for them is not dependent upon our approval; it’s driven solely by the fact that the other person bears the image of God in them.

In Hebrews, the writer urges his readers to provide hospitality to those who pass through, because by doing so, they may be entertaining angels without even knowing it. We have angels among us, even now, and a kind word, a smile, or a handshake of welcome may be the offering of care that person needs. If we only care for ourselves, we’re not being ambassadors of Christ; we’re a country club, attending to the comfort of its members. And I for one believe we are called to so much more than that.

The wonderful thing about this part of our mission statement is that we don’t have to do anything special to fulfill it. We simply have to take the agape love that has been poured out on us and share from our abundance with others, both those we know and like and those we don’t know and don’t like. We are the body of Christ, and each of us needs each other to live out our faith in this world. May the care we extend to each other and the stranger reflect the care we’ve been given by our Creator God.

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