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Sunday August 15, 1999 ~ Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon Text:  Isaiah 56:1-8
Matthew 15:21-28  *   Romans 11:1-2a & 29-32   *  Psalm 67

"The Trouble With God's Love"

It was one of the most startling things I've seen in a long time!

Matthew Shephard, the University of Wyoming student who was killed last October was buried from his home church in Casper, Wyoming.   While the 650 mourners attended, a crowd was gathered behind police barricades across the street.  In the crowd was Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas along with a group of his church members.  Some carried signs that sent a chill down my spine:

"God Hates Fags!"

Perhaps more frightening than the sign itself were the twisted faces of angry, hateful people who called themselves Christian as they reviled Shephard and anyone who grieved for him.  Their faces wore that, "I am 100%, without a doubt, certain that God is on our side!"

They call to mind the old quip:

Me, myself and I...
we three,
Are more than certain...
God loves,
Just we!

Do you remember the old line...   "The road to hell is paved with, _________________  (Good intentions)  There is a more accurate version of that line -- namely, "The road to hell is paved with spiritual arrogance!"  In a sermon I heard some time ago, I heard the advice,  "When -- and if -- you get to heaven, don't stare.  It is more than likely that those who are already there will be staring at you -- wondering...  'How did he get here?"

The core of Divine love is an active passion to draw every person into a life-giving relationship with God.  This relationship means loving and obeying God and allowing the character of God to transform our own character -- until we become what we were designed to be.  One of the surest signs that we have understood and embraced the love of the Lord is an ability to see others with the eyes of Christ and a waning of prejudice, bigotry and a waning of intolerance in our spirits.  One of the surest signs that we have not understood, nor embraced the love of the Lord is an inability to see others as objects of God's love -- no matter how much the other is in need of redemption.  Certainly to suggest God "hates" anyone betrays, at the very least, a twisted soul.

Isaiah 56:8 is an amazing description of who God is.  God is the One who "gathers the outcasts of Israel."  In fact, the whole biblical drama is filled with unlikely people who love and trust God and become heroes of the Kingdom of God.

I want to look with you today at two key dimensions of Divine love which are addressed by today's readings.  [1] God's love is wonderful!    [2]  God's love is problematic!

[1] God's love is wonderful!

The most wonderful, life changing, encouraging news any person can ever hear is that the Lord God of this Universe, the One who hung the stars in space and set the worlds in motion -- loves me! 

Wonderful because of who God isWhen I take a really good look at who I am -- and then take time on a clear night when stars fill the night sky to think about who God is -- I'm amazed.  The Psalmist felt that way, "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?"  [Psalm 8:3-4]  To know that One so great and powerful cares for me is an amazing thing.

Wonderful because of what God did:   When we mortals turned away from God, God did not give up on us.  The prophet Isaiah said, "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way..." [Isa. 53:6] With Paul it was, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." [Rom. 3:23]  I personally have no argument with that -- do you?  I would not presume to march into the presence of the Lord and demand what's coming to me -- would you?  If God had said, "Okay, I am loving and merciful -- so when you decide to turn and come home to me, there will be a place waiting for you."  That would be good news.

But -- the news is even better than that.   Not only is there a place for us -- God takes the initiative to search for us, come to us and rescue us.  And, there is more!  Not only does God search for us and send Christ to redeem us -- even the consequences of our sin are removed from us through the sacrifice of Christ.  Listen to the complete quote from Isaiah.  "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."  To know that God would go to such limits for me is astonishing.

Wonderful because of who is included:   The one term which sets the love of God apart from every other love is the fact that it is unconditional and it includes anyone who will receive it.   You and I likely use the term unconditional love with respect to some people -- like our children.  However, the fact is that authentic, unencumbered, unconditional love is rare.

During a children's time one Sunday morning, I was discussing unconditional love in terms I thought they would understand.   "Does your mom love you?"  I asked.  "Yes." the chorus of voices went up.  "Does your mom love you no matter what?   Like even when you're naughty -- every once in a while?"   "Yes." they replied once again.  Then one little girl said,   "My mom loves me all the time.  But, she really loves me when I practice my piano lessons!"

As hard as we might try, we have enough trouble loving unconditionally with the people we are closest to, much less people beyond our immediate family. (And some of them we're not so sure of.)

God's love, on the other hand reaches out to anyone who will reach back.  The most familiar verse in all of the bible for Christians is, "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." [John 3:16]   Isaiah describes God as, "...the Lord God who gathers the outcasts of Israel."

During the most difficult moments of our lives and in those times when we are down on ourselves -- it is life changing to know that the amazing, self-sacrificing, wonderful love of God will never turn away from the one who reaches out.

[2]  God's love is problematic!

The thing that make God's love so wonderful is also the thing that makes it problematic.  This love of God's includes everybody!

God wants to include everybody:  I am glad everybody is included, because that means I am included too -- and I am quite sure there are some people who would rather that God not include me.  (In fact I know there are people who feel that way!)

However --  when I look at my own prejudices and consider the people with whom I am not so tolerant, God's desire to include all persons begins to nudge me where I would rather not be nudged. An old Irish blessing points to the all-too-human tendency to draw lines of exclusion:

May the Lord bless them that loves us,
And for them that don't love us,
May He turn their hearts,
And if He can't turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles,
So we'll know them by their limpin'!

I might be able to deal with the fact that God wants to include all people in the circle of Divine love, but there is a complicating factor for those who want to receive God's love -- namely...

God wants us to include everybody:  Jews will have to accept Canaanites, Greeks and Romans will have to accept Jews, Koreans will have to accept Japanese, Arabs will have to accept Jews -- on and on it goes -- marching through history like a double edged sword whenever it is understood.  God's people are under divine orders to reach out to everybody!

You can look around your city or town or neighborhood and be challenged by God's desire to have you represent the unconditional love of Christ to those around you -- especially those you would rather not associate with -- much less love!

Now here's an essential concept about our call to represent God's unconditional love.  Unconditional love does not mean that we are to have warm, fuzzy feelings and get all "tingly" about reaching out to the unlovable!  The formula for this goes something like:   God has commanded it.  I will obey it.  And the feelings that attend my obedience are within God's jurisdiction -- not mine.

Here's something I've found helpful when struggling with this mandate God has given to extend this radical, unconditional love to everybody.  Every once in a while, God puts someone in my path who really needs to know how much God cares for them.  To complicate matters, it is someone I would otherwise really like to have someone else reach out to.   When this happens, I put myself through this little routine:

* Supposing I could talk the Lord into not loving this person -- would that be good?
* Or would I have just talked God into not loving me?
* If there is anyone God does not love...
* Would there be anyone God does love?

In other words, God's unconditional love for me is precisely dependent upon the fact that God's unconditional love is for "...whosoever believeth in him..."   If God does not love us all -- then God does not love at all.

When we truly understand the love of God, we will understand that this is the central place in our spiritual lives where we can experience the work of God's Spirit.  This is the place where we may be most challenged to grow and change.  This is the place which holds the most powerful potential for discovering authentic spiritual transformation.  This is the heart of Isaiah's vision of a consummation when "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together...   They shall do no harm or evil in all my Holy Mountain says the Lord."  [Isa. 65:25]

The trouble with God's love, namely its all-inclusive aim, is also the treasure of God's love!

Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

There is a tension in the texts between the "chosenness" of God's people Israel and the "inclusiveness" of God's love which reaches out to all who will choose God.  Even within Israel, the "outcast" is accepted by loving and obeying God. The list of people who receive the touch of God for their lives is amazing in the gospel lesson and Isaiah:  * The Canaanite woman, the eunuch,  the foreigner and the outcasts of Israel. One of the major themes in all of scripture is that those who should "get it" don't get it and those who are presumed to have no place in God's kingdom are the ones who reach out and receive it.

The key is that one must not presume upon the goodness and love of God.  There is no upper class, privileged group or elite with God.  Indeed arrogance is one of the "killer" spiritual sins and the proud have no room for God in their thoughts. (Ps. 10:4)  Spiritual pride ("My church is better than your church," or "I am closer to God than you are," or "We are holier than you are....")  is, amazingly the guarantee of ungodliness!

There is a sense, however, in the epistle and psalm, that God's mercy will at last triumph and righteousness will rule.

Matthew 15:21-28

A woman, whose ancestors are ancient enemies of Israel, is driven by her daughter's desperate need to reach out to Jesus. The response, "But he did not answer her at all," is so uncharacteristic as to call attention to the point and purpose of this story.  We are used to reading that Jesus "had compassion" on those who came to him.  Here, he seems stone cold.   Even the disciples (who would have gladly rejected any Canaanite needs!) plead with Jesus to send her away because she troubles them so much.

And this brings out the writer's point.  "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  In the words of John's gospel, "He came to what was his own..."  Messiah, the Son of David, has come to call the people of Israel back to God.  But the rest of the quote from John is, "...and his own people did not accept him." [NASB] The Canaanite woman calls Jesus "Son of David" -- those who Jesus came to minister to -- call him a blasphemer.

The principle Matthew (the most "Jewish" of the gospel writers) wants to make is the familiar, "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved."    Even if there is a "crumb" to be had, this woman begs for it.  Jesus is the source of help and hope and healing and no matter who he has come to -- or how restricted his ministry might be -- this is her only hope.

And Jesus is impressed!  This is faith!   There is no more powerful affirmation of the inclusive nature of God's love, nor the universal efficacy of God's grace than this story.  The character of the Lord is such that hope and help and love can not be refused the one who humbly asks!

The key here is this...  Humble request breaks through any possible barrier to the response and compassion of the Lord!

Isaiah 56:1-8

Ancient taboos are eliminated here.  It is not the "outward" circumstances of our living nor the external religious actions that count with God -- it is those who embrace the covenants of God and who "...join themselves to the Lord"  who are genuinely the people of God.

Significantly, this is not the Apostle Paul, nor some post-prophetic writer who is including eunuchs and foreigners. It is the prophetic school of Isaiah saying that God's love and our heart's desire can override the old restrictions.  Note specifically, "No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD." [Deut. 23:1] And, "No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation." [Deut. 23:3]    i.e. No Foreigners of any nation.

Isaiah 56:8 is the gospel - good news of the Old Testament.  "Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered."

Romans 11:1-2a & 29-32

Paul can not imagine that God will finally reject the people of Israel.  He is himself a descendant of Abraham and even more -- a member of the tribe of Benjamin.  With chapter 11 in Romans, Paul begins to conclude a long section on the nature and destiny of Israel.  This has been a great heartache and serious theological problem for Paul.  God's love has gone way beyond the limits of Israel.  Matthew and Isaiah both demonstrate that well.   However -- does all of this mean Israel is finally doomed?  No, Paul affirms, the love of God will come full circle and be extended to all who were disobedient -- including Israel -- precisely because God is merciful and all-inclusive.   As strange as it may sound, God accepts even the rejecters and redeems even the rebellious!

The lectionary selection for the epistle today jumps from the problem (Israel's relationship with God) to the conclusion (God's mercy will finally be extended to those who rejected it).  The reasoning of chapter 11 is rather strained for most readers -- (Paul was a lawyer!) -- but the heart of the argument is necessarily tortured to a legalistic mind because God's love smashes every convention.  i.e. There is no explaining it!

It is a humbling thing to deal with the radical nature of God's redeeming love.  I've frequently said that I am personally intolerant of intolerant people -- or prejudiced against prejudiced folk.   But God would not have it so.  One of the central characteristics about the love of God is that it will sniff out and reveal even the most secret unloving parts of our spirit!

Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 67)

Leader:  O God, be gracious to us and show us your mercy,
People: Let your face shine upon us and light our way!
Leader:  Enliven our hearts to sing your praises,
People: And our voices to shout for joy!
Leader:  O Lord our God, may your blessing remain upon us,
People: And may your name be revered in all the earth.  Amen!

A Prayer of Dedication

Our hearts can not contain the greatness of your love toward us,
O Lord.  It is greater than our minds can conceive and more than
our hearts can contain.  We can only bring our praises, our prayers
and our possessions, to affirm our love for you.  Bless these gifts,
and make them instruments of your love.  Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Thank you God.  Thank you for a love that goes beyond anything our
minds could ever perceive.  We especially thank you for loving us at
those times we were much less than lovable.

We gather here today to proclaim your love, grow in your love and
affirm your love for all people.  O give us grace and mercy that we
might become faithful servants of your all-inclusive love.  Help us to
so embrace all you have been to us, that we might become
fully given, to unconditional love toward others.  Amen.