Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 29, 2018
“Stop Those Random Acts of Kindness”
1st John 4: 7-12, 17-21 - The Message
7-10 My beloved friends, let us love one another because love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know God if you don’t love. This is how God showed love for us: God sent God’s only Child into the world so that we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we “once upon a time” loved God, but that God loved us and sent God’s Child as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.
11-12 My dear, beloved friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and God’s love becomes complete in us—perfect love!
There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.
19 We, though, are going to love—to love and be loved. First, we were loved. Now we love. God loved us first.
20-21 If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.
I grew up in a church that my family had been members of for generations – a small church with a cemetery in the back at the intersection of two gravel roads, surrounded by fields of wheat. A real-life Field of Dreams. (The picture above is from "Tractor Transportation Sunday.)
People don’t move in or out of places like that very often, so during my entire childhood, I remember only one family joining our little Methodist church. The Springs were Baptists from Oklahoma stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base. They fit in well enough, but there was one “problem.” Throughout the sermon, the father was accustomed to saying “Amen,” boisterously. We were the frozen chosen, so such expressions kind of frightened us. But we were also too polite to say anything and he was too caught up in the Spirit to notice. They became valued members of the community, even if people were still jumping years later whenever Frank belted out another “Amen!”
When I moved away to college, I went to the only Methodist Church in town. That’s what we were. It never occurred to me that I would look anywhere else.
It wasn’t until I moved to Minneapolis that I first understood the process of “church shopping” and could appreciate how difficult it is. Having left my Methodist upbringing, I tried the Unitarians, Episcopalians and the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly LGBT denomination. But ultimately, I chose to pursue ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ, so I had to find a local church where I could belong.
How many of you have ever gone “church shopping?” As many of you know, it’s easier said than done. A few months later, I found and finally joined Lyndale UCC, which I learned later, just so happens to be the church that Park Hill’s second pastor, Dick Kozelka, went to when he left here.
When I moved to Washington, DC, I had to go through the process all over again. I joined First Congregational, which just so happens to be the church where Park Hill’s first pastor, David Colwell, went after he left here. Although I joined it, it never really felt right and I found myself worshipping most of the time at Peoples Congregational, a Black Church, where I felt more at home.
But then, I had to go through the process all over again when I moved to Cleveland. Cleveland was harder. Cleveland had a fundamentally different dynamic than Minneapolis and Washington, DC. People moved to Minneapolis and Washington, DC. All the time. In contrast, in the early 90s at least, people did not move to Cleveland and the difference could be felt in how open people were to new-comers. It seemed like everyone had all the friends they needed. It was hard to break into a group that had all gone to high school together. Many churches had the same dynamic, or so it felt. It’s not always easy to enter a community of people who have been together for decades. Some seemed indifferent, and others even blind to our presence. Some churches could be described as a little too eager to see a visitor, but the worst was a church that was scared when I entered, or rather, stumbled in.
I tried to enter through the front door at the time indicated on the old sign with fading letters on the front lawn. The first door was locked. So I tried another door. And with a sufficient enough push, I sort of fell into the narthex where a small group of people looked horrified. I had to pry a bulletin from the clutched hand of an usher and find my own way to the sanctuary. I later learned that the members of the church parked in the back and used that as their main entrance. As I tried to remember what the service itself was like, I realized I had excused myself to go to the bathroom and left instead.
Being a pastor is obviously a different experience, but I have continued to experience first times, sometimes even second and third times, while visiting churches on vacations and sabbaticals. Art and I visited a church in Las Vegas a few years ago. We immediately felt welcomed. And when we went back a year later, they remembered our names. That’s our church in Vegas. We used to drive to Toronto regularly. We claim a church home there because on our first Sunday, Irving took us with him to coffee hour and introduced us to folks, always paying attention from a distance to make sure we were being taken care of. How do I remember his name? His genuine welcome alone made that our Toronto church. I have a church in Chiang Mai, Thailand, too. I can’t wait to go back and visit my church home next year.
The experience of being welcomed is often intangible. A gut reaction. Although I’m convinced more churches lose their visitors during the passing of the peace than its worth as guests stand and watch the members be friendly to each other. But with all my experiences, I realized the most important factor, to me, has been whether people look at you as they walk by. Not being spoken to is one thing, but not being looked at is a whole other psychically disturbing experience. A smile is nice; a nod, maybe; one word can make it “wow!” But more than anything? Eye contact! Being seen in an anonymous world. You may have other criteria.
I’m sure we have all had variations on these experiences and have stories we could tell. Your first day at work, being welcomed into a new family, neighborhoods…
During seminary I spent a semester in Washington, DC. As part of that experience we were guests in a dozen embassies, most of whom have impressive buildings and expensive furniture. The only country that didn’t, Bangladesh, had a collection of mismatched plastic chairs and, among other things, desperately needed some new paint. But it was also the only embassy that, on a hot, muggy day in DC, thought to welcome us with little Styrofoam cups of red Kool-Aid. The image of those cups, that experience of hospitality, has stuck with me for 30 years. Along with Irving and the face of the usher clutching her pile of apparently members-only worship bulletins.
So, where am I going with this? Well, in church settings at least, to experience anything other than extravagant hospitality is unchristian. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.” Jesus told us that all the law and prophets could be summed up in two great commandments: to love God and to love our neighbor as yourself. Jesus later answered the question, “And just who is my neighbor?” He told the story of a man most people didn’t want as their neighbor. Jesus even went so far as to command us to love our enemies, too. Clearly, neighbors are not only those with whom we went to high school and share a common history.
As Christians, Jesus gives us a clear expectation, an aspiration, yet we still might struggle with questions like: “How can I love people that I don’t know?” “How can I love people who may not love me back?” What if I love but they don’t love me? Think of the anxiety that comes with saying “I love you” for the first time, not an usher to a visitor!, but to someone you really care about and hope they feel the same about you. Filled with anxiety, do I dare say it?
But what about people I don’t like? Or people I don’t trust? This passage in 1st John even answers our question, “If I don’t have enough time for the people already in my life, how can you ask me to love more?” Simple. Because love is from God. We don’t create it. We just live it. Breathing and loving should be the same kind of thing. We need both to survive. In and out. Breathing, along with compassion and kindness. Loving, along with food and water.
1st John is really just saying we need be channels of love. Love flowing through us, beyond us. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.” But of course, lots of things can block that flow, particularly fear and trauma. Past experiences may cause some people to be convinced that they are supposed to love, they’re even commanded to love, but that they themselves are utterly unlovable. I’m always shocked when someone can quote the first part – love your neighbor – but has seemingly never heard the second: “as you love yourself.” They’ve never noticed it or seem to think it means instead of yourself. Love your neighbor instead of yourself. No. Some people think they are unlovable. And even go so far as to say, “I was abused because I deserved it.” Or “I have done something that is unforgiveable.” Persuaded they have no value.
But the fiery social justice preacher William Sloane Coffin said, “God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates it. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved, we have value.” I am somebody.
To make it crystal clear, 1st John asserts, “We’re able to love because God first loved us.” I might mention, without conditions met first. There is no “if you do this, then I’ll love you.” People get that wrong about God all the time.
God, who we remember, IS love, even loves us without fearing that we may not love in return. Throughout history, God repeatedly established covenants with people with whom God had the experience of broken covenants. Why did God keep trying? Because God IS love. Not just that God loves us and so loves the world, but God IS love. Verb and noun.
Love is the very definition of God. And a relationship with God is by its very definition an experience of being loved. Valued. Seen. Therefore, beloved, there is absolutely no reason not to love one another.
But, that doesn’t mean we don’t still try to find reasons. Verse 18 speaks of fear. “There is no room in love for fear.” Or as the traditional reading of it says, “Perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
However, William Self reminds us “fear does protect us and warn us. Fear is just the parent of caution. It’s an incentive to preventative action.” It keeps us safe. “Stranger danger.” Doesn’t fear have an appropriate place in our lives? In fact, both Proverbs and the Psalms speak of the “fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom.” But fear in that context is really talking about awe, wonder, amazement, respect, and reverence of God, not the fear of punishment.
But think about all the politicians and preachers who seek to make us afraid. They don’t want us to be compassionate. They have no interest in building sympathy or encouraging us to love. They want to divide us and consolidate their own power.
1st John even calls it out: “If anyone boasts, ‘I love God!’ and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar.”
If you have Netflix, I encourage you to watch the movie “Come Sunday” about Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson, a protégé of Oral Roberts in the 90s. Pearson’s fall from grace came when he disputed the concept of hell as a punishment, recognizing the destructive power of using the fear of hell as an incentive to love God. He seemed to grasp its absurdity when he finally said it out loud. And suffered tremendous consequences.
But whether religious or political, fear cannot generate compassion. Fear cannot generate sympathy. Fear cannot generate kindness. Fear cannot make America great. Fear will never bring healing and wholeness, only its opposite. Only love can. And I want to add, if anyone working on the mid-term elections to unseat those currently in power only focuses on making people afraid of this administration to win, they will be no better. And there will never be healing for our minds and our bodies and our spirits. Or our divided nation. We must aspire with our whole being to love each other, not make a counter-attempt to heighten our fears of the other.
If we want to live in the way of God, love won’t have it. Perfect love casts out all fear – theirs, mine, and yours. Letting God’s love flow. Which I believe is sometimes just getting out of the way. Look what love can do!
So, when I think about all the places where I haven’t felt welcome, which really means I didn’t feel loved, were they just afraid? Was I just afraid? Certainly, that church in Cleveland made it seem that way. The look of fear as I stumbled through the door has been forever seared on my brain (and heart). Just as powerfully as that little Styrofoam cup of red Kool Aid. And Irving in Toronto. And smiles all day long in Thailand.
I love the idea of “random acts of kindness.” But as someone once reminded me, the world needs more than “random acts.” Stop being random about it. The world needs people who adopt a lifestyle of kindness, who look around the see the world’s needs. To see people often not seen, hiding in the shadows. And churches don’t need a few more people here and there to be friendly, but a congregation of people always on the lookout to offer hospitality. To see our neighbors, blending in among our friends.
Beloved, love is from God, let us love one another. Not randomly, but always and everywhere. Aspire to a lifestyle of Christian kindness, compassion, justice, and love. What’s the first change you can make?
 William Sloane Coffin, The Courage of Love, New York: Harper & Row, 1982, p. 11
 William L. Self, “Homiletical Perspective” on 1st John 4:7-21, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, page 467-471