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February 27, 2000
Eighth Sunday after Epiphany

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LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Hosea 2:14-20
Psalm 103:1-13, 22
2 Corinthians 3:1-6
Mark 2:13-22

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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On Loving an Obnoxious Neighbor

"People need love the most,
when they are the most unlovable!"

I saw this on a poster some time ago, and it stuck with me.  Frankly, I didn't care for the poster when I saw it because I saw it on a day when I was having a hard time with a neighbor. This neighbor had - not one - but two dogs who barked incessantly all day and long into the night.

And these were not your average dogs.   They were Saint Bernards penned up in a cage not more than fifty feet from my study.   When they barked, the windows rattled - the bark was deep and penetrating.   When I approached my neighbor about the problem I was having with his barking dogs, he essentially told me to take a long walk on a short pier.

Not an hour later, I was in a bookstore when I saw this poster:

"People need love the most,
when they are the most unlovable!"

I can tell you -- I felt as though my neighbor was, in my humble opinion -- quite unlovable.  At the same time, my interest in returning his rudeness with love pushed me beyond the limits of my spiritual maturity.   If God wanted me to love this guy, I was in a bit of a jam!

On what basis could I possibly return love for affront?

You understand how I felt don't you?   Town regulations would have been squarely on my side.  The ordinance concerning barking dogs (which I had looked up), was clearly in my favor.  A petition of four neighbors asking relief from the disturbance of the peace would require the removal of those offending canines from the township within 24 hours!

Do you see?  The law was very much on my side.  The dogs would have to go.  The neighbor would most certainly loose his case if it went to court.

Now let me ask you again -- On what basis should I return love for this neighbor's insult?

***

And therein lies the easy to understand, but difficult to apply truth of today's scripture readings.  Think of this amazing truth in the form of a question.

"On what basis do we expect God to love us?"

Reflect on this question for a moment as you personalize it and ask yourself,

"On what basis do I expect God to love me?"

The law, if you will, is clearly on God's side.  "... all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..."  Paul wrote.  [Romans 6:23]  Remember the familiar words from Isaiah 53:6 ?   "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way..."

And as for telling God to take a long walk on a short pier...  well, certainly we have not been that crass, but the reading from Hosea shows an utterly amazing divine love that reaches out to the people of God who have been unfaithful in the extreme.

I have a hunch that if we were called before an assembly of angels to detail our relationship with God, we would be hard pressed to present evidence of a life so well lived God would be compelled to offer us the kingdom.

If there was ever a human being who turned their life around and went from really bad to really good, it would be the Apostle Paul.   No one tried harder to wipe out the infant church than Saul of Tarsus.  And no one in history ever did more to spread the gospel throughout the world.  Paul endured hardship, suffering, imprisonment and finally gave up his life for Christ and the church.

So how did Paul see himself after he had turned the corner and become a champion of the gospel?  Listen to these words from 1 Timothy 1:15,  "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the foremost."

On what basis did Paul expect God to love him?  

The conclusion to his words about being the foremost of sinners goes like this, "...But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life." [1 Tim. 1:16]  In other words, Paul believed deeply that he had no personal basis at all on which to expect God to love him.  God loved him because of who God is -- not because of who he was.  The reason for God's love did not reside within Paul, but within God!

Paul said simply that he was an example of just how patient Jesus Christ is and how merciful God is.  Jesus, you see, came into the world to save sinners.

***

"Aarrghh!"  Does this mean that Jesus Christ came into the world to save people like my neighbor?  And more than that -- if Jesus came to town to have dinner with someone tonight -- and the choices were between having dinner with a nice guy like me or an obnoxious person like my neighbor -- who would he choose?

When I think in these terms, I can for once understand the question of the Pharisees who were always pestering Jesus about the company he kept.  "Why does he eat with sinners and tax collectors?"

Note they didn't go to Jesus directly with their question.  They asked his followers.  You see, like you and me, the followers of Jesus would likely be thinking in the same terms as everyone else.  There are the "good guys" in this world and there are the "bad guys".  You and I are the "good guys" -- right?  And Jesus would want to associate with the "good guys" -- right?

Wrong!

Jesus bails out his disciples and answers the question for them.  "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."

***

In order to take some practical application of the lessons for today, we need to understand that there are two components to understanding the love of God.  [1]  We are to embrace the love of God,  and  [2]  We are to embody the love of God.

[1]  We are to embrace the love of God

Embracing the love of God means we will come to terms with the fact that we can not make ourselves acceptable to God.  We are, like Paul, sinners in need of mercy.  We do not expect God to love us, we rejoice because of God's love.

Embracing the love of God means we come to understand how radically different this love is.

God's love reaches out to all regardless of their ability to deserve it.

God's love is redemptive.  In other words the Divine Physician comes to heal, not just to love.  We are in the process of healing from all that turns us away from God.

God's love is renewing.  Baptism, new birth, renewal, transformation and regeneration are all terms we use in theological ways that point to the fact that God's love changes our condition.  The reading from Hosea points to this in the picture of God taking the People of Israel back to their beginnings where they will be like a brand new bride to the Lord.

God's love is forgiving.  When God forgives it is a complete removal of that which separated us from God.  The Psalmist said it this way, "...as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us." [Ps. 103:12]

The redemptive love of God is an entirely new thing.  Jesus called his message and ministry new wine which had to be put into new wine skins."  Which takes us to the second point.

[2]  We are to embody the love of God

We are the new wine skins!  Having been made new by the merciful, forgiving, redeeming love of God, we are now the containers for that new wine of God's love.  Without containers, or persons who embody this love, God has no way to give it to others.

Including my obnoxious neighbor!

Paul wrote to the people of the Corinthians church -- a church that had lots of trouble -- that they were letters of Christ.  That is the Spirit of God had placed the love of God within them and this love could now be seen by others.  It was a new thing.

***

perhaps the best way to conclude this message is to tell you how things turned out with my neighbor.  I wish I could say that I reached out in love and that because of my Christian example we became the best of friends.

Not!

The barking did not stop and I gathered enough signatures to take the fellow to court.  The judge told him he could be required to remove the dogs from the township f I wanted to press the case.  I told the judge if my neighbor  would simply do his best to keep the dogs from barking -- especially at night, I would drop the case.

The neighbor agreed, we shook hands and the case was dropped.  The barking stopped -- for two weeks!  Then it was all as before.

Except.  I did feel that the Lord helped me to lead with a forgiving attitude instead of a punishing one.

Resolution came when circumstances brought about a move shortly after this incident.  I can not say for sure how the Lord figured into this move.

But as the Psalmist says, "As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him."   [Ps. 103:13]

May the Lord be gracious unto you and give you the blessing of embracing and embodying the amazing love of God!


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

One of the most familiar, yet most difficult to grasp concepts in all of scripture for many of our folks is the absolute depth of the gracious, forgiving, redemptive love God has toward us. Psalm 103:10 points to the reason.   Speaking of the Lord, the Psalmist writes:

"He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities." 

This is totally inhuman.  Human history is littered with the ravages of a spirit that will not and can not let the sins of others toward us go. In some cultures, "honor" means essentially, "getting even."   We delight in bad folk getting "what's coming to them."   Hollywood took in millions from people who cheered as Rambo got revenge on the enemies of the "good guys."  And why not?  They got what they deserved.

Who can love people who consistently do you wrong?

And therein lies the difference between divine, unconditional love and human love.  We are not able to love as God loves and therefore have difficulty getting a firm grasp on the meaning of God's grace.  It takes a miracle of sorts to accept, embrace and be changed by God's love to a point of maturity where we can begin to offer that love to others.  Paul gets a handle on this in Romans 5:5, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." Then Jesus commands his followers to "love one another as I have loved you." [John 13:34]

This love of God is a "New Thing."  In Hosea it is God bringing Israel back to the wilderness to rediscover her first love.  The Psalmist gives praise for a God who is, "...merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love."  Paul speaks of Christian people as "ministers of a new covenant" of the spirit.  Finally, Jesus tells the gathered supporters and detractors that he has come to help the sick who need a physician.  There is a message here along the line of, "God's New Thing."

Hosea 2:14-20

The thought of the Lord God Almighty of this universe being a jilted lover is unthinkable.  If there were such a thing as a "council of gods," would they not encourage the Lord to maintain a certain image a god must have.   Would not retribution for such treatment not be in order?

And so along the line of our discussion of connections in the text, the whole book of Hosea in our bible is a drama of how God longs for a restoration of the relationship between the Lord and the people of God.

In our text, the Lord draws the people back to their beginnings in the desert when they were dependent upon God and gratefully clinging to the provision made for their journey in the wilderness.  The text portrays a "rebirth" of the time when Israel was shaped into a people for God.  The qualities of this relationship between God and the people of God is characterized in the last two verses.  This is a union characterized by righteousness, justice, enduring love, mercy and faithfulness.  Not bad concepts for any union of persons.  This could make a wedding text with a focus on these characteristics.

Mark 2:13-22 & 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

This text continues the series of stories in Mark that highlights the conflict Jesus had with the religious authorities which led finally to a plot against his life. The focus in this section is on the fact that the ministry of Jesus is a part of a "New Thing" God is doing to bring about the redemption of those who are truly the people of God.  See last week's notes on Isaiah where God does a "New Thing."

There is a play between our reading in Mark and the reading from 2 Corinthians.  The scribe and Pharisees are scrutinizing the ministry of Jesus -- almost from day one -- to catch him in breaking the religious law.  Their focus is entirely on the rules and regulations of the religious establishment. And yet, a focus on keeping the "letter of the law" never really enables the intent of the law.   The gospel of Mark is filled with examples of how those who were stuck on the letter of the law found themselves holding ridiculous positions.  When we get to Mark 3, there is the spectacle of a man with a withered hand being healed -- the people are amazed and praise God, the man is freed from personal agony and the religious authorities are choking on the finer points of regulations about working on the Sabbath.

A focus on the rules and regulations of religion almost always winds up missing the point -- and in fact -- has the result of creating a substitute religion where the form becomes more important than the content.  The letter of the law becomes more important than the intent of the law.  The law, which was intended to free the people from worldly entanglements and for the worship of God now brings about a new bondage.  While the people of God may no longer worship idols, they are separated from God by a set of rules and regulations which become the point. Instead of worshiping God, the opponents of Christ worship rules about God.

If I were doing a message in a church which was a bit stuck in rules and regulation, I would use the readings from Mark and 2 Corinthians and focus on the phrase, "...the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." 


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 103)

Leader:   Bless the Lord all you people,
People:  For the deeds of our God are wonderful.
Leader:   The Lord forgives all our sins,
People:  And fills our lives with love and mercy.
Leader:   The Lord is merciful and gracious,
Unison: 
Who restores our souls and gives us new life.  Amen

A Prayer of Confession

God of compassion and mercy, look with favor upon us as we confess our sins.  Our faith weakens in times of crisis. Our hope collapses when we are threatened or maligned.  We seek our own safety and abandon those you love. But you, Lord, have given us your promise that you will never forsake us.   Forgive our failure to trust in your word and help us to strengthen our faith in you.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Leader:   The Lord is gracious and merciful and ever willing to forgive us our sin. Yet we must be willing to turn away from our sin and take up the cross of Christ as we follow the Lord in faithfulness.  Friends, believe the good news.

People:   In Jesus Christ we are forgiven!

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

We give you thanks and praise O Lord, for all the ways you have touched our lives and given us hope.   We gather on this day to hear your voice and receive your promises.  We sense your glory and your presence as we come to worship today and our hearts are opened by the power of you Holy Spirit to be filled.

We thank you for the presence that goes with us from this place each week and for the strength you give us to face every challenge.  We thank you for the miracles you place before us day by day and ask only for the vision to see your work all around us.

Your promises sustain us for living in these hectic times and you have given us spiritual riches than can not fade like earthly things.

Make us grateful and faithful followers of Jesus Christ, O Lord God, as we take all we have received into our daily lives.  We praise and thank you for opportunities to serve in Christ's name and so fulfill your call for our lives.

Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

The gifts we give to you, O Lord, are but a reflection of the bounty that has come from your hand into our lives.  We dedicate them to you and to the winning of our world for the sake of your son Jesus Christ.  May we go to give as we have received.  Amen.