Open/Close Menu A Reconciling in Christ Congregation in Charlotte, NC

I was cut off in traffic the other day.

The lane I was in was ending so I needed to merge right. I had my turn signal on, hoping that the person next to me would let me in, but every time I inched forward, he inched forward as well. He wasn’t going to let me in. So I waited for him to pass and then merged behind him.

He was in a truck that was advertising his construction company and I thought to myself, “That is not a good way to get customers!”

And then it dawned on me: Though I like to think of myself as a pretty considerate driver, I sometimes cut people off in traffic, too. And what’s worse–it’s not a construction company that my car advertises; it’s the church.

The sticker in the corner of my back window tells the whole world that I’m clergy–a requirement to park in clergy parking at the hospital–and the HTLC magnet is stuck to my back bumper. Ouch.

It’s been just a little over a year now that I’ve joined you in your mission of “Loving Not Judging” and here’s what I think: It’s a lot easier said than done.

You could argue that perhaps letting someone over in traffic doesn’t actually qualify as love. After all, you may have heard that while Inuit people have 50 words for snow, we only have one for love. That word needs some qualifying. But even so, but it doesn’t change the fact that though we like to think we’re not judgmental and that we love all people, sometimes we’re just as judgy as the worst of them. Relationships are hard and love is hard–even in this place where we claim it as our mission.

The 15th chapter of John could be one of a number of scripture passages we could use as the basis for our “Loving Not Judging” mission. It’s part of what’s often called Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse”–the long speech he gives to his disciples before he heads to Jerusalem and the cross. His parting advice for them is this: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

It’s an echo of the same commandment he told them when he stooped to wash their feet.

Of course it’s good advice–perhaps the best advice. In a world where we’ve grown accustomed to road rage and cutting one another off in traffic, we need this advice. Relationships are hard to maintain and support. Love is hard, which is why we need it more now than ever.

I’m really glad that it’s our mission statement. For one thing, it aligns our own mission with Jesus’ teachings. Any good church mission statement should do that.

Second, it says that we’re less concerned about determining who’s in or out than we are about welcoming all people. Sadly, the larger church has not done a great job following this commandment. The church has a pattern of saying one thing–all are welcome, we love all people–but behaving in a way speaks otherwise. We want people in the pews so we can pat ourselves on the back for what a great job we’re doing, but we don’t necessarily want fully to embrace those people.

In fact, I think it you were to ask a whole bunch of people who do not currently attend church why they choose not to go, my guess is that they’ll say something about the church’s hypocrisy over the years–of how its words and actions don’t pair up, or of how people with church stickers on their cars are jerks on the highway. By claiming Jesus’ teaching of love as our mission, we’re at least claiming that we are making a conscious effort to love. And because of that, I think we do a much better job than most congregations at welcoming and including others. And that’s great.

But, I also wonder if Jesus–and our mission statement–have not set us up for an impossible task and therefore failure. Is it really possible to love and not judge?

That’s been one of my questions since joining you in this mission, especially when you realize what does Jesus meant by loving one another. What did he mean? He meant dying for someone else. This is not a feel-good emotional response he’s talking about. This is an active verb that means striving for another person’s well-being even it means laying down your life for that person. It’s not simply letting someone merge in front of you in traffic. It’s not scooting over in your pew so someone else can sit down. It’s not even helping someone pay a bill. It’s dying.

Would you–could you–do that?

Theologian Frederick Buechner suggests that each of us probably has someone for whom we would volunteer to suffer great pain out of great love. And I think he’s correct. Having just heard that sentence, you probably already have that person in mind.

But Jesus doesn’t say, “Lay down your life for the person you love the most.” Jesus says, “Love one another.”

Would you–could you–do it?

It’s not supposed to be easy and I think we’re supposed to wrestle with this questions. It’s why I love how our mission statement seems to stop me–us–in our tracks sometimes, as if calling us back to who we are. I’ve even heard some of you quote the mission statement when you’ve come to the realization that you haven’t been so loving. But even then, laying down your life for someone else is a whole different ball game. Aren’t we told it’s better to put our own oxygen masks on before helping others? Aren’t we told to save ourselves first?

Do you see why I think it sets us up for failure?

Do you see why people turn away from the church?

Do you see how it’s an impossible task?

Well, lucky for us, Jesus has a few more words to say about love. Jesus’ command here to love one another is an echo of the same command he gave his disciples as he washed their feet–with one main difference. Now, Jesus calls them “friends.”

Remember how the Inuit people have 50 words for snow and we only have one for love? Well, at least the Greek language has several words for love. Jeff reminded of this in his sermon a few weeks ago. It’s particularly helpful that the word for “friend” and one of the words for “love” are one in the same. So, when Jesus calls his disciples “friends,” he’s literally calling them “loved ones.” The disciples–we–are the objects of that sentence. Jesus is the one who is loving and not judging, the one who would and could lay down his life for his friends.

Until working on this sermon, I had assumed–as you may have, or even as was intended–that the subject of our mission statement was Holy Trinity–us. We are loving not judging. And as much as I love to claim that, the more I try to live in to this mission, the more I realize that it gets me into trouble.

Now, I think the subject of the mission statement is Jesus and that our mission is not to claim that we love perfectly, but that Jesus loves perfectly.

It doesn’t change what we do. In fact, it necessarily shapes what we do and how we seek to follow Jesus’ command. It’s doesn’t get us off the hook or keep us from the guilt that comes when we don’t feel like we’ve been living up to this mission.

But it is more accurate. And it makes a huge statement about what we believe about God. And it is complete truth. Jesus is loving not judging and we’re doing the best we can to follow his example. We hope that we are a loving not judging place, but the truth of the matter is that we’re going to mess up. We are not Jesus. And as a result, we cannot escape the stress of being in relationship with one another and the challenge of sharing differing opinions and priorities. We’re going to cut one another off in traffic (just ask Jim and Julia–I cut them off in traffic a couple weeks ago). But we’re also going to remember that Jesus loves perfectly and then we’re going to let that love shape who we are so that we do all we can to maintain our relationships and love and welcome as best as we know how.

Amen.