This week’s scripture lessons are so very rich and full, they stand on their own, almost like the time I added too much cornstarch to a cream chicken recipe, and each spoonful stood up on the plate like a monument to the heavy lifting our stomachs would need to do to digest our meal!
As always, if God in Christ can help us listen and learn, these and all scriptures deeply challenge us, even as they uplift our spirits and encourage our journeys as people of faith, as co-conspirators for building a more peace-inspired, loving and compassionate human race, dedicated to the care of God’s earth and the care of one another.
And as always, the richness of God’s transcendent presence in scripture is bigger than any one meaning, while also having one central purpose: the revealing of God’s reconciling and redeeming purposes throughout eternity, most fully realized in Jesus Christ our Savior.
As we come to God’s feast in scripture this week we find several encouragements for our journey. Let’s begin with the words of Psalm 98:
“O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things…Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.” (Psalm 98:1,4)
Psalm 98 reminds us that one of our chief roles as human beings, as created creatures of the God who has, is, and will do wonderful things, is to praise God!
Make a new song that gives glory to God: do this by actually making songs as some of our children and adults will do today in worship, and as still more folks at Redeemer did when we held a blessing of the animals outside last fall. Yet also praise God by taking time to look other people in the eye to acknowledge they are part of God’s beloved creation as well. In an article from Living Lutheran this month, a pastor in the Washington, D.C. area talks about being between church calls, and going to work for Uber in order to support his family.
Pastor Elijah Mwitanti soon found that driving for Uber gave him an amazing opportunity to practice God’s welcome and to minister with all of the people who came in and out of his back seat. Pastor Mwitanti writes that:
Among the many lessons learned while driving for Uber was the realization that behind the political, racial and religious fray that we’re contending with currently, there are people who are willing to engage in meaningful and uplifting conversations when approached in a nonjudgmental and nonthreatening way. (Living Lutheran, May 2018)
Pastor Mwitanti’s story reminds us that praising God includes meeting people in a way that praises God, including praising God by building bridges and re-humanizing one another, remembering that though we are a fallen people, we are also all made by God in God’s image. It may seem easier or more comfortable to dehumanize or criticize others with whom we do not agree, especially when what they say and do may threaten us and those we love in very real ways, but this is God’s commandment, as you heard me say last week and as we hear again in our gospel lesson this week: to love one another.
And the writer of 1 John reminds us, and I quote:
…the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. (1 John 5:3-6)
So we are called to love one another as God first loved us, and the love of God is expressed by obeying his commandments. And as we seek to praise God in all of who we are and what we do, God’s commandments can support these loving efforts.
Redeemer’s confirmation ministry, which is comprised of youth, parents, and mentors, were studying the Ten Commandments just last month. The commandments, as Martin Luther reminds us, do not just tell us what not to do, they also point us, like scripture, towards all that God longs for us to do in a positive way. So not only do we not take the Lord’s name in vain but, as psalm 98 reminds us today, we use God’s name as part of praising God wherever we possibly can, all the time. The commandments do not only tell us not to kill people physically or verbally or in any other way, but they tell us that should we seek like Pastor Mwitani to build bridges, and build people up in their lives by acknowledging our common humanity, and becoming part of God’s restoring work across perceived differences.
And every time that we or another person choose to help build up life and all that is good in this world, rather than break others down, we can catch a glimpse of God’s faith conquering the dark powers of the world. This is what the writer of 1 John means when he says that “this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” The faith God plants in us through Jesus Christ, a faith made possible by God choosing to suffer and die on our behalf, this faith is brighter than any darkness, any smallness of human fashioning. It goes high when others go low. It welcomes in when others would build walls to keep people out. It builds bridges when others would break down the basic frameworks of truth and love, respect and dignity that make us, at our core, human creatures designed for redeeming by God’s love.
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:9) And again, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
So we are to praise God by loving God and love God by following God’s commandments and in striving to follow the commandments we give praise to God. It’s really just a big circle of praise and love, kind of like that cream chicken made with cornstarch – a lot to digest, but also deeply nourishing and sustaining.
And did you notice that Jesus also says that he has shared these things with us so that the joy of God that is in Jesus might also be in us? So if we would know true joy then we should look to the seeds of faith and love that God in Christ is planting within us and as when a person starts a fire, blow gently until a steady flame is going, so that as more healthy fuel is added to this fire of love, God’s joy in Christ will also increase in us and through us.
There is nothing that says this will be easy! There is nothing that says that God’s perfect love will triumph in a given moment or scenario. Yet our confidence is not in a picture perfect scenario according to our planning and designs. Our confidence is in the faith and love of Christ Jesus, who whether we see it or know it or not, is constantly planting faith and love in us, and this world, through the resurrection. The pain and challenges of this life are real, and Jesus has really taken them on, taken them to the tomb.
But Jesus is in the tomb no longer. And neither are we.
So in the end, whether we are pastors or Uber drivers, teachers or counselors, retired and “re-fired,” young or old, confused or inspired; we all have one call from God, of which we are reminded again and again through scripture: to love one another as God has first loved us. This loving, this deeply challenging and rewarding work on loving is perhaps the most rich and amazing song of praise we can bring to God. And it is a song of new life, sing by the people of God as we realize that we have been brought and are continuing to be brought out of death into new life for the sake of the world. Amen.