In looking over the readings for this week I started thinking about one of my pet peeves. It’s something I’ve noticed in recent years everywhere from restaurants and coffee shops to retail stores and gyms. People don’t ask for things anymore. We don’t say, “may I have” this. Or “could I please have” that. We say “I want.” I want this and I want that. Have you noticed this? Now, you can argue that it’s just not good manners but I think it’s deeper than that. I think it speaks to how we view ourselves in relationship to other people. I think it suggests that we’re far too isolated from each other and to each other’s problems. When we purchase something from someone in a store, too many people see that salesperson not as a fellow child of God, but simply as someone who is there to give us what we want.
Our readings for today, however, present a very different worldview. In Galatians, Paul is speaking about a group of Jewish followers of Jesus who insisted that new male believers had to adhere to Jewish law, which meant they had to be circumcised. This was, as you can imagine, a challenging issue for the early Christians. Friendships and family relationships were actually torn apart over this issue. And in a section of this letter that immediately precedes the portion we heard today Paul lays out what he says should be the underlying relationship we should hold onto when we have disagreements. He tells the Galatians that in disagreements, as in everything, we are to be caretakers of each other and to relate to each other in a spirit of gentleness.”
GENTLENESS. Not reluctant acceptance. Not isolation or manipulation or brute force, but gentleness. Regardless of how we want things to be, or want people to be, we are called to bear one another’s burdens with gentleness. We are to see our brothers and sisters as part of the Body that we are part of. We are to care for each other and care about each other as much as we care for and about ourselves.
Then, in the Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus sends 70 of his followers to prepare the way for His arrival in new places and to announce “peace” to each household. They are to cure the sick and proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near.” He instructs them to do so not because it’s his first big evangelical effort, but because the act of going into the world and sharing peace is part and parcel of how Jesus says we are to be caretakers of and for each other. Jesus sends us out into the world to find people who need healing and, then, to help them see that the Kingdom of God is in their midst by being the caring, loving people that God calls us to be. God calls us to do what we can to help mend the broken places of people’s hearts so that those who are in despair can have hope, and so that people will know there is a way of relating to one another that is different from manipulation or neglect. And that way is the way of love.
Our mission is simply to love the people in our world into becoming receptive to God. Wherever there is brokenness or sickness, God sends us to proclaim that the people in those places are part of God’s kingdom.
Unfortunately, rather than being welcoming and accepting, Christians have, over the years, been seen as aloof and self-righteous. We have developed a reputation for lamenting the sins of other people, while never seeing ourselves as really connected to them. And when we have felt connected, they become the problem and we, of course, have the solution.
But Jesus says, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” Don’t come with the things that you “think” will fix the problems with other people. Our tendency is to give people something—whether by telling them what they need to do to “fix” their life or by giving them things they need like food, money, or clothing. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re all called to help people in whatever way we can. But sometimes the way we choose to help people keeps them at a distance. And more than anything, God calls us to help our sisters and brothers by inviting them to join us at God’s Table. Because Jesus’ charge to us is first and foremost to see others as our brothers and sisters. Not to pass judgment on them. Not to “cure” their problems. Simply to see everyone we meet, every single solitary person, as our sister or brother and to act accordingly toward them. Jesus’ command is simple: Go and encounter and love.
In the reading from the Hebrew scriptures today, Isaiah hears God speaking these words, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” That’s our model. To love unconditionally as a mother loves the child God has sent her. But it’s hard for us to see this. Hard for us to imagine it and almost impossible for us to see it in practice if we don’t do it for each other. Not manipulation. Not force. Just gentleness and kindness shown to each other in love.
Whom do we comfort to stop violence? Whom do we comfort to stop anxiety and fear? Whom do we comfort to end neglect and alienation? The answer is not what we expect. Because the problem is, we’re asking the wrong question. God does not ask us to choose whom to comfort to accomplish these changes in the world. Because God calls us to comfort everyone—regardless of the circumstance or the outcome of our comforting.
The way to promote the love of God is by loving as Christ loved us—turning a complete and total blind eye to someone’s life situation—the choices they’ve made or the things they’ve done. Because, if we want to bring in the kingdom of God, we must first acknowledge that it is already in our midst. Yes, we must acknowledge that there is brokenness in our world. But as stewards of this world, including the people in it, we must show that love is the only redemptive power that can heal that brokenness. Not legalism. Not adherence to scriptural laws. Not completion of religious rituals or the reciting of particular prayers. Just love.
I believe that we could spend all of our time as a society coming up with solutions to the world’s problems. We could develop programs or courses in an effort to get people to change their ways and change their lives. In doing so, we might coerce people into behaving the way we want them to or the way we think they need to behave. But we will never change their hearts that way and we will never experience the presence of God in our midst that way.
But, one person at a time, simply by focusing on the face in front of us and looking for the presence of God in each person, we CAN make a difference. That’s the test. Can you love the person in front of you at the bank or at a restaurant or in the mall or on the street the same way you love the person in front of you at church? Can you approach in gentleness the people you most fear because they are going to hate you no matter how much you love them? Can you imagine comforting them as a mother comforts her child? Because that is what God did for us in the person of Jesus Christ.
The world is always going to be different from you in some way. And often it is going to be different in ways that you not only don’t like, but in ways that you disagree with or are threatened by. Ways that you think are downright wrong. But God’s love for us is not conditional. And our love for others cannot be contingent upon their changing to be the way we want to or think they need to be.
We are called by God simply to love. Nothing more and nothing less. It is the easiest and the toughest thing you will ever learn to do. But with God’s help, you can do it. Amen.