Love and Fear
I have a love/hate relationship with exercise. I always have. God has blessed me with a high metabolism and with the lack of ability to sit still, so I have always been relatively fit. The only time I have ever attempted to lose weight intentionally was when the weight classes dropped half way through wrestling season in high school. I ended up staying the same, which bumped me into a higher weight class with larger, stronger boys that found me to be about as competitive as a mop.
Unfortunately I have never had much of a need to become more fit, other than general health and a nagging desire to fit into societal expectations of physical prowess. I’ve never had a real goal. I’ve never had any real motivation. As I get a little older - and I am well aware that I am far from aged - there are some new motivations creeping that are not apparent from the surface. Of course, the reality is that all of us, regardless of age and stage, need to care for the fragile vessel we’ve been given.
Yet somehow, we usually need some kind of external motivation to make the internal choice. Many of you know that our family has a new dog. Emma, the dog, has become my external motivation - and my new jogging partner. Yet there are still days that I just don’t want to do it. In fact, most days I would rather just let her run around in the back yard than go through the effort of physical exercise.
Most mornings that I take her for a jog I do end up feeling better for it - most mornings. Most mornings - and most days - I want to be healthy enough to run a marathon and strong enough to complete military style challenge courses. I don’t want to do the work - I just want the reward.
That’s a place of conflict that many of us live with - the desire for reward without effort. There are, of course, some generational differences. Those who have lived long enough and have struggled enough often smile and nod knowingly when younger generations complain. Yet all of us carry around a sense of entitlement at times, whether we feel that we have earned it or not.
Our scripture readings meet us in the place of conflict between actively seeking a reward and feeling that we deserve it regardless of our efforts. The Psalmist speaks of restoration at the hand of God, and the first 21 verses mirror the suffering servant in Isaiah and the gospel accounts of the passion of Christ.
Psalm 21 begins with, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It continues with the enemy mocking him by saying, “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” And then they divide his clothes among themselves, and they cast lots for it. Sound familiar?
Yet the passage we read together today is about the other side of the tomb - it is about resurrection! And I believe that if the Psalmist can speak of his resurrection in the here and now, so can we! Of course, I am equating resurrection with restoration and perhaps even with atonement - but we’ll get to that in a minute.
First I want to come back to this abiding tension between reward and effort - between hope and expectation. Abiding tension - that is an interesting thought, given that we are told to abide in God so that we might know that God abides in us. And God is love. God is not tension. Love is not tension - or is it? Can you think of a single loving relationship you have ever had where there was never any tension? I can’t. Yet when we hear this command to abide in the One who is love, what feelings come to mind? I wonder if we could share that for a moment. Tell me, what feelings come to mind when I say, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them?” (Opportunity is given for response.)
Thank you. It’s very interesting - this idea of abiding. I’ve always thought of it as a very passive thing - like being held like a baby, caressed and cradled. Yet that is clearly not what the scriptures are talking about! We abide in God by understanding that God abides in us. God’s love for us is realized - literally becomes real to us - through our actions of love and care for others.
I think that is why the Fellowship and Mission Committees are so excited about our FPC honors CUPS event tonight! So much of God’s love was realized last Fall when we held a dinner to honor our ecumenical Meals on Wheels partners that some of us said, “Hey, let’s do that again!” I think the desire to experience God’s love is what drives our gift basket ministry. The 300 Easter Baskets kind of went by with a yawn after we did over 1,000 Christmas Baskets, but there were still probably over 1,000 volunteer hours that went into them.
And let’s not forget that we are also working on sending a crew to help with flood relief in Carencro. That’s pretty amazing for a congregation that some may think of as drying on the vine just because of our size and population demographics. Oh no, that is not the case! For we are in the business of bearing fruit! But before we get going too far down the road of self congratulation, I want to come back to the question of atonement.
Atonement in its origin is a particularly English word, having origin in the adverb, atonen, meaning "in accord." And so it literally means “to make unified” or “to become as one.” Now, the Greek word in the text is actually “hilasmon” which translates as “propitiation,” a word that means to gain someone’s favor by giving something up. So, there you have it. Christ atoned for our sins, turning the wrath of God toward some other pursuit as though it were the dreaded eye of Sauron from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Now, I do not wish to make light of the wrath of God - or the sacrifice of Christ; however, I will say that the idea of atonement is one of the most troubling concepts in Christianity for many who are believers and for many who are not. One reason for this, I believe, is that the concept of a God who is love is more reasonable to most people than the concept of an angry God who could love us if we would only say the right prayer or produce the right religious experience.
Still, we have this text that tells us to abide in this God who is love. We have this text that says to us that we will produce good things if we abide in God and become open to God who is within us. We have this text that says to us that apart from God we can do nothing, and that God will lop off and burn up anyone who is not a part of what God is doing. For that matter, even those who are producing good works are going to be pruned.
That does not sound particularly good on either account. Unless...unless, perhaps... perhaps it is not so much about eternal consequences as much as it is a commentary on the tension between living in expectation and living in hope. God is certainly going to do what God is going to do in regards to eternal judgement, but the point of atonement is not simply to issue get out of eternal jail free cards. The point of atonement is that we are loved into understanding that we are, in fact, lovable.
Then again, the natural limitations of time and physics tend to move us toward prisons of our own. Then we, like Milton’s Satan, often decide that the small space of our own pleasures is a heaven of our own construction that we can manipulate when needed. And it works, until someone or something that is entirely out of our control reminds us how inadequate we are for the role of being in charge of the universe. That is precisely when we need to know that we are not only lovable, but in fact, we are beloved!
St. Augustine said it this way, "But our soul... is unlovely by reason of iniquity: by loving God it becomes lovely. What a love must that be that makes the lover beautiful!" What love could it be that transforms us and claims us other than the love of God?
And we know God’s love in this way - by the experience of loving and being loved. We know God’s love by the experience of living in the tension of becoming vulnerable and risking rejection. We know God’s love by the experience being held in a way that encourages our active response - whether that be in the call to pray, the desire to support the ministry of the church financially, or simply wanting to experience God’s active presence through specific actions and expressions of love.
It doesn’t take a church program to do that. It just takes a church. It doesn’t take a church building to express the love of God. It takes church members who can’t wait until Sunday to be with God, because they know that God abides in them and they in God. That’s you. You are God’s beloved.
Some time ago I was wrestling with the idea of even being lovable, and I realized that I was already beloved. I wrote the following words in response. I call it the Psalm of the Beloved.
And so are you.