One of the most loving people it has ever been my pleasure to know is an amazing woman by the name of Miriam Stern. Out of the many people I have known, she has exemplified for me what today’s text is about. When I was in my early 20’s I rented an apartment from Mim and her husband Pete and worked with them in teaching English to international students. Mim organized ESL classes in the two apartments they rented and provided support to students that were far from home and struggling with navigating the crazy life that existed in Philadelphia. Mim’s classes were places of calm in a hectic world, a place where homemade cookies and cakes and pies were consumed by students learning to speak English. There was always a bible study after the class that students were invited to, and the love they received led many to faith in the Jesus that Mim and Pete served. When Pete died Mim lay down that ministry and began helping a church plant that reached out to young people. Mim, then in her 70s attended a church filled with loud music, untraditional worship styles, and a structure that was different from the traditions she had known all of her life. For a long time, Mim was the only person over 50 in that church and she told me one Sunday that it was so good for her to witness God’s work in the next generation. Her love for people was continually poured out into many lives, especially the lives of those she didn’t necessarily understand. I have to say that Mim is one of my role models, and I hope to be able to live into her example if God grants me the opportunity. Mim’s hope and faith are set on God and that hope led her to love people she normally wouldn’t have contact with, let alone relationship. With her example in our minds let’s listen to the words of Peter:
18You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. 20He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. 21Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. 22Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. 23You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. 1 Peter 1:18-23
With Mim’s example of reaching beyond cultural boundaries in my mind as I read this passage, I was struck by an exercise in futility that fills our culture. This futile way that we as the church are called out of and redeemed from is the fear of “other”. Now, unfortunately, the church still needs the reminder that Peter sent out so long ago that we are redeemed from the fear of other with a price that is beyond money. Jesus’ sacrifice was for all and we must be extending that grace to all lest we lose sight of our own unworthiness. Every person no matter their circumstance can receive the gift of Jesus, and at times I wonder if refusing to share that gift is in some way a rejection of Jesus’ work on the cross. Well, if we really believe the gospel we have to start asking ourselves tough questions like why our churches are so divided. We have to ask ourselves why the church’s reputation in our culture is one of bigotry. Friends, even us Quakers don’t have that great a track record on dealing well with diversity or other cultures or even people who disagree with us politically, so we do indeed need to look closely at the log in our own eye. We need to ask “What about ourselves do we need to change in order to better represent what heaven will look like while we are still here on Earth?”, because I don’t see a full representation of the kingdom here yet. I may not see that in my lifetime and my daughters and theirs may not see it either, but we have been bought with a price, and so have they. What does it say about the truth we cling to if it does not transcend human divisions? I can’t tell you who the “they” are for you, but I can say that my own fear has driven people away from the church and away from accepting Jesus’ sacrifice, and I mourn over that.
Another futile way in our culture is what I like to call the “performance treadmill”, and I think Peter might even have had this in mind as he wrote these words. The highest value in our culture is given to productivity. What we accomplish in terms of making money or goods or good works is the measure of a person’s worth to our society. In religious circles we can succumb to valuing people or ourselves based on what is contributed to the institution or whether someone is able to live up to all the rules. These futile ways forget the imperishable blood of Jesus that covers all who accept it and values each person regardless of ability or righteous action. Before the world was made Jesus knew what kind of sacrifice would be required of a loving God. Jesus loved us enough to commit to creation, covenant, becoming human, living, suffering, dying and returning from death so that every imperfect person had access to the love of God, so that imperfect you and imperfect me have access to the love of God through the Holy Spirit. It is through the love of Jesus and none of our own actions that we get that access, and Paul tells us in Romans that there is nothing that can separate us from that love. Our value comes from the blood that was shed for us and that means when we look at ourselves or others we cannot base value on performance or accomplishment or righteous acts. The adulterer, murderer, thief, and idolater are washed in the blood of Jesus as are those who have managed to outwardly obey. Every one of us can come to trust in the God who resurrects and by that resurrection redeems our brokenness, even the brokenness we can’t quite seem to escape.
Now don’t hear me or Peter saying that our actions, that obedience to the truth, obedience to the living Jesus isn’t important. What I am saying that our value as human beings in God’s eyes is not determined by our obedience or even our acceptance of Jesus, but by the fact of God’s love for every human being. Jesus died for us while we were his enemies and said of those who were actively murdering him “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” The truth of Jesus is not easy because it calls us to love the people we disagree with. The truth that God’s love was destining him to die before the universe was brought into existence calls us to a genuine love that is patterned on the sacrificial love of God. We will know the purity of our souls by our ability to love the brother or sister that offends or sins against us. Some of us aren’t exactly there yet, but I believe that is one of the reasons that God calls us imperfect human beings together, so that we can actually practice these disciplines like that of forgiveness. We will hurt each other and sin against each other, but we must see this as an opportunity to show our purity to the world in our obedience to the loving forgiveness we have received and are called to extend through Jesus’ actions within us. Love expressed through forgiveness will display the truth better than any honeyed words. The truth of God’s reconciling power will be best shown when we fail and hurt each other and then forgive.
Because we are new creations, we have been reborn, and this second birth comes through a death. We must truly die to the allegiances, priorities, values and norms of the world around us and let our evaluation of ourselves and others based on perishable things like cultural identity, race, gender, degree of brokenness, ability to produce, or money to be replaced by our obedience to the forgiveness and mercy embodied in the divine Word: Jesus. When we choose this death we are born into a life that can truly be called the good life. We become citizens of a new land that operates on the values of love taught by Jesus and the better we live as citizens of heaven the greater we show the fruit of the imperishable seed of the kingdom of heaven. We then can see how incredibly valuable the people we call disabled are, we see how valuable the people who we absolutely disagree with are, we see the value in people that don’t look, act, or think like us and can by grace operate from the love God given us to share. As we enter into our time of open worship I invite you to take the opportunity to recommit yourself to living out the forgiveness, grace, and mercy of God. I invite you to go to someone that has hurt you and extend Jesus’ forgiveness to them. I invite you to love as Jesus has loved you. Let us pray.