When I was in Licensing School, one of the requirements was to lead the morning or evening vesper service. I was so excited that the last vesper service we would have together slot was open when the paper came around. I wanted the slot. I envisioned a message that would send us off in the spirit of #2279 in The Faith We Sing, “Trees of the Field” also known as “You Shall Go Out with Joy” or UMH 667, Shalom Chaverim (Farewell, Dear Friends). Upbeat and joyful, congratulatory and triumphal. After all, we survived Licensing School! Yay, us!
I feel it’s only fair that I tell you all the Spirit is A) usually pushing me to talk about anything but what I planned to talk about and B) a technophile who often feeds me inspiration through social media posts, user profiles, faxes from Jewish Rabbis living in Florida, and by taking possession of my car stereo and/or music apps on my phone.
Spirit, God love her, gave me a “tweet” for that evening’s message. For those not familiar with tweets, you tweet on Twitter and, while rare, some tweets are “profound, noteworthy, thought-provoking, or otherwise powerful statements made in 140 characters or less.” The tweet that she put under my nose said this:
Want to be like Jesus?
- Learn to love everyone w/out condition.
- Yes, your enemies too.
This is the narrow way.
This is the hard part.
That was it. No additional explanation by the author(s), no discussion, no “unpacking” of the scripture. Just that simple little 140 character message.
I was confused by why Spirit would bring me back to this when she and I had just done a message a couple of weeks earlier about Eiréné, peace … God’s gift of wholeness, passing the peace, our role as peacemakers, what I needed to do to find and rest in God’s peace, about how the main obstacle to my own peace was failing to really, genuinely, sincerely love others … any others … even myself … as he loves me, and my need to pray for and receive Sola Sancta Caritas (only holy love) so that I could better love others.
And, of course, I want to be like Jesus. I don’t just want to be like him, I need to be like him. I mean, it would be kind of weird to (hopefully) become a pastor and not “be like Jesus” as much as humanly possible, amen?
I was figuratively scratching my head and questioning whether this was really the Spirit talking to me when, about that time, the Hillsong tune, Oceans, popped into my head. You know the one:
“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders, Let me walk upon the waters Wherever You would call me. Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith will be made stronger In the presence of my Savior.”
I groaned. Audibly. If you’ve listened to K-Love or Air-One over the last 3-4 years, you know that Oceans is a bit overplayed. It was clearly time for Spirit and me to have a little talk.
Me: “Why are you bringing me back here, and will you puh-leeeeze not play that song in my head anymore?”
Spirit: “Because you aren’t practicing what you preached, and I like that song. So, consider not getting it out of your head penance for not practicing what you preached.”
Me: “Not practicing what I preached? I’m so committed to peace and loving everyone and I mean everyone, I actually had Eiréné and Sola Sancta Caritas tattooed on my arm! See?!”
Spirit: “That’s not good enough. Just talking about doing it isn’t the same as doing it. Just writing it permanently on your arm is a nice reminder, but it’s you that has to walk that talk. It’s you that has to make peace happen, it’s you that has to show love for all without condition.”
Me: “I’m trying to do that!”
Spirit: “Oh, really.”
I could hear her eyes rolling. She went on,
Spirit: “What did you call the guy that cut you off in traffic as you left church that day? How about your *koff* favorite politicians every day since? And what do you always call Jay Leno? Where was the unconditional love in any of that?”
You would think I would learn not to argue with her. I never win.
It’s that without condition part that trips us up, isn’t it? As a pastor, as Christians, we’re supposed to be walking, talking, living role models of loving others without condition, of actual peacemakers in a world that is anything but peaceful.
Now, there was a reason I was delivering this message at that final vesper service. Licensing School met one very long, three-day weekend per month for three months. And, by very long, I mean that we met from 8 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. each day for three days.
The month before, there had been a verbal … discussion … during which, all of us there in that school including the teachers failed the peacemaker test … right there in that group. We all failed to be peacemakers to one another: Some of us – especially myself – openly, verbally, and some of us through our silence.
Now, this is purely speculative, but I kind of figured that, based on the previous session, we were failing that test more often than we were passing it. I know that I have been. One thing I’m betting we all did subconsciously that day was firmly affix labels on each other. And if we were doing that there, in a school for people who were called to be the shepherds of congregations throughout Holston Conference, we were doing it everywhere to everyone.
The Number One step to being like Jesus according to that tweet, however, was, “Learn to love everyone without condition.”
What if one of those “without condition” conditions was the very labels we make for each other? Labels like conservative, liberal, progressive, literalist, democrat, republican, racist, fascist, socialist, woman, feminist, hawk, pacifist, gay, straight, trans, colored, white, believer, non-believer … I’ll skip the more derogatory labels, but we all – at a minimum – occasionally think them about someone we know or encounter, amen?
And we apply them, silently, to one another based on a whole bevy of observations we make about each other, such as attitudes, ideologies, beliefs, yard signs, flags hanging from front porches, lifestyle choices, tattoos, hobbies, membership in organizations, bumper stickers, living conditions, race, culture … a host of labels to choose from and hand out.
Think about those labels for a moment. You do realize that a label is far more than just a word on a sticky “Hello, my name is” square, don’t you? The word “label” is really just an abbreviation of all the things we attach to those labels. When we label someone, we judge them, we form a silent opinion of them, we categorize them into friend or foe, we drag up every stereotype the label carries … You need a suitcase to carry all the stuff that goes with each label. Heck, some labels might even need steamer trunks.
Sometimes, we give more than one label to a person. You might be carrying 1-10 suitcases per person, dependent on the number of labels you’ve assigned them. That’s a lot of baggage to tote just for the labels we place on others.
If we’re toting all that baggage, how are we ever going to navigate the difficult narrow way and go through that Narrow Gate?
But navigating the difficult narrow way is what we’ve been specifically called to do. In fact, not just to travel the narrow way and enter through the narrow gate ourselves, but to lead those we shepherd through it as well.
Labels, to me, are the greatest sin I can commit. They lack integrity because I can assign a label to someone without that person ever knowing I labeled them. They’re silent killers of relationships, connection, hopes, and dreams. They’re divisive and damaging when spoken out loud. They’re hurtful. They’re harmful. They’re horrible.
Learn to love everyone without condition. That’s the narrow way. That’s the hard part.
Remember what John wrote in 1 John 4:8? “God is love.”
Remember also that Paul defined love for us in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” Since God is love, it’s safe to assume God is all those things in Paul’s definition of love.
Shouldn’t we be all those things as well? Shouldn’t we be patient, kind, without envy or boast, humble? Aren’t we called to not dishonor others, to not be self-seeking, easily angered, to keep no record of wrongs? And, yet, we continue to label …
And I know that it’s hard. I’m living testimony to both the difficulty in it and the fact that we can learn to love unconditionally …
I grew up with a father that was a closet racist simply out of lack of knowledge and understanding of the people he was denigrating, and because his daddy was a racist. I grew up a racist who resented American Indian kids in college because I believed they were getting a free ride and who’d been taught to believe that a messy yard meant “it looks like a bunch of Mexicans live here.” God used my grandfather to send my mother a box of family papers and old letters and, well, guess who found out she was, in part, the very label she hated … Indian. God gave me red ancestors. I spent the next roughly 20 years learning not only about them but to love and embrace that part of me. It was a Muskogee Creek elder that taught me how to read the scripture in a way that I could understand, and my longhouse elders that taught me what “connection” really means.
But God wasn’t done with me. God went on to give me red and brown and black grandchildren and all that comes with them to love, to learn with, to embrace.
I was a small-town girl for the first half of my life from very rural parts of the country, living almost exclusively in towns with populations of 900 or less. I didn’t know anyone who was gay. It wasn’t something anyone talked about … except for calling each other a certain name when one was angry or being a bully. I was homophobic and God gave me a gay child to love. It took some time and I’m the one that had to learn to understand and to accept her, but eventually, I did.
I resented addiction and alcoholism. I watched those two behaviors tear my family apart more than once. I didn’t understand why people I loved kept letting their alcoholic spouses cause them so much grief, or their addicted kids steal from them again and again and again. Why couldn’t they just stand up for themselves and say, “Enough! Begone! I deserve better!”
Then God gave me a child who self-medicates with alcohol so I would understand that, no matter what he’d done, no matter what he said, he’s always my child that I love, that forgiveness isn’t a one-shot deal, and that unconditional love doesn’t come with an on-off switch.
God gave me firsthand experience in loving all these people in spite of the labels I had given them. If I can love these children and grandchildren of mine, how much greater is God the Father’s love for all of us? If God can love everyone, surely we can, too. Real love. Genuine love. Label-free love.
Remember when we leave here today and return to our jobs, our neighborhoods, our communities … remember to drop the baggage of labels – silent or spoken – and see people through the lens of God’s eyes, not our own.
Remember to love everyone without condition and, yes, your enemies, too, because that is the narrow way. That is the hardest part.
In John 3:1-17, John wrote: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Nicodemus knew Jesus was sent from God. He said so. He said the things Jesus had been doing, the signs, could only be done by someone sent by God, only done with God’s authority. Yet Nicodemus hid his meeting with Jesus in the dead of night when it was highly unlikely anyone would see them together. The Pharisees … and remember, Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews … were already labeling Jesus and his followers. While Nicodemus clearly recognized Jesus’ authority as being from God Himself, Nicodemus wouldn’t take a chance of those same labels he and the other Pharisees had placed on Jesus to be placed on himself.
Jesus, however, treated Nicodemus like he treated everyone else. He sat down with him and answered his questions clearly. There was no mistaking his message to Nicodemus.
Believing in Jesus brings eternal life. God loves the world … no addition of labels there … nothing to separate or exclude … God loves the world. We all know that verse. John 3:16 is one of the first verses we memorize. But we overlook John 3:17 … that Jesus didn’t come to condemn or judge the world. He came to save it. We just need to listen to what he said, to get on the narrow path … the path less traveled.
Now it’s up to us. We can continue through our lives taking the easy wider path, or we can change directions, we can turn … and take the path less traveled.
Father God, Creator of heaven and earth, sea and sky, and all that flows, grows, crawls, walks, swims and flies upon it, You have created each of us – called and yet to be called, saint and sinner alike – in Your image, and we thank You, God, for loving us when we are clearly undeserving.
Today, God, we stand before You and ask Your mercy and forgiveness. Please, Lord, help us empty ourselves of the ways, the labels, the opinions, and the anger of the world, and fill us so full instead with Your blessed holy love that we glow like candles in the darkness to all others who desperately need to see You, to know You, and to know Your love.
As we prepare to leave here tonight, hold us to the Narrow Way, Lord, and teach us Your ways. Strengthen us for Your work. Lead us where You would have us follow.
Fill us with holy love, God, and bless us with eiréné – with Your gift of wholeness, Your peace. Guide us to become the peacemakers for this, our time, in Your Kingdom on earth.
In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
This message has been modified from “The Narrow Way,” a sermon I delivered to the 2017 class of the Licensing School for Local Pastors, Holston Conference.
Matthew 7:13-14 (The Voice)
There are two paths before you; you may take only one path. One doorway is narrow. And one door is wide. Go through the narrow door. For the wide door leads to a wide path, and the wide path is broad; the wide, broad path is easy, and the wide, broad, easy path has many, many people on it; but the wide, broad, easy, crowded path leads to death. Now then that narrow door leads to a narrow road that in turn leads to life. It is hard to find that road. Not many people manage it.