Thank you for extending the invitation to join you for worship. Let me introduce myself, my name is Jim Kirk and I am the Associate for Disaster Response in the US for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. PDA is a ministry of the PCUSA, it is your ministry. You make this ministry possible through your prayers, with your generous donations and with your actions. I am often asked where is PDA? My answer…PDA is wherever there are Presbyterians engaged in helping those in need after a disaster. If you have ever participated in a volunteer work trip and stayed at a PDA volunteer host site you are PDA. If you have ever assembled a gift of the heart school, hygiene, flood bucket kit you are PDA. If you have even made a donation to a special appeal in response to a disaster you are PDA. And if you have even made a donation to the OGHS that supports PDA, SDOP, and PHP…you are Pres Dis Assist.
I have served in congregational ministry for 35 years so being in the pulpit was a weekly occurrence. In my position with PDA, I do not get into the pulpit very often but when I do and I am still amazed at how sermons come together. Today’s sermon grew out of something that I heard, something that I remembered and something that I read. I heard a medical doctor give a presentation on the importance of emotional care in the healing process. He included this story. There was a particular Hopi (Hope-e) Native American who was doing his chants on the edge of a barren desert mesa. There was an anthropologist who was trying to learn more about this group of Native Americans. The anthropologist was getting frustrated because every time he asked when the chant was finished what was the chant about it was always about water. The anthropologist asked, don’t you talk about anything other than water, don’t you pray for anything other than water, don’t you sing for anything other than water? The response surprised the anthropologist, “…well water is very important to us here, there isn’t much of it and so in fact that is what most of our prayers and thoughts are about…water.” The Native American then said to the anthropologist, “I’ve noticed in listening to American music that almost every song is about love. Is that because you don’t have very much of it?” I was curious about the number of songs that have been written throughout the years about love. So I looked it up on Google…I searched for songs about love…there are 11,700,000 results to that search! I started to think of all the songs about love, I remembered one song in particular. Let’s see how many of you remember this song. The lyrics were written by Hal David and music was composed by Burt Bacharach. It was released on April 15, 1965, First recorded and made popular by Jackie DeShannon, “What the World Needs Now Is Love”; See if you remember the chorus, “What the world needs now Is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love No not just for some But for everyone.” Something I heard, something that I remembered and now something I read. The gospel reading this morning is taken from the Gospel of John. It is a short passage. “When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”
The word, ‘love’ appears 75 times in the four gospels. Over half, 39 of those references, are in the gospel of John. By comparison the word faith appears 44 times in the four gospels and the word hope appears only 4 times. For Jesus it does seem that the greatest of these is love. Consider the Greek word used in this passage. There are at least five different Greek words that are translated love. The Greek word that is most often used in the New Testament and the one used in this passage is Agape. Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus offers a wonderful definition of Agape love, Christian love. In the 15th chapter of John, Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life…” Christian love, agape love put’s the good of others before self, Christian love hears the cries of those in pain and, like the good Samaritan, goes the extra mile to help, agape love moves past our fears and opens our eyes to see the face of Jesus in the least of these.
In 2023 there are more and more reasons why more and more people are choosing not to participate in a community of faith. Over the years I have heard them all…but I have rarely if ever heard anyone refuse to come to a church because they thought that church was just too darn loving, too caring, too kind.
The Native American then said to the anthropologist, “I’ve noticed in listening to American music that almost every song is about love. Is that because you don’t have very much of it?” Not sure of your experience. My experience is that love, agape love, love that centers the good of others is in very short supply. The way people are talked about, the way those considered the ‘other’ are marginalized, the way that some are valued and others are despised, the way that anyone who doesn’t agree is vilified, is inconsistent with Jesus’ command to love one another.
I am frequently asked if I find disaster ministry depressing, interacting with so many people who have just experienced a devastating event. Honestly it is not depressing…don’t get me wrong my heart breaks in the face of so much suffering ANY YET my heart is warmed when I see so many people of faith doing so many extraordinary…LOVING/AGAPE actions. It is in disaster ministry that I see the church of Jesus Christ act like the church of Jesus Christ. If only we loved others on a daily basis as we do when there is a disaster.
I doubt you will recognize the name Fred Craddock. He was the Bandy Distinguished Professor of Preaching and New Testament Emeritus at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He was an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Professor Fred Craddock shared this story. A missionary was sent to preach the gospel in India near the end of World War II. After many months, the time came for a furlough back home. His church wired him the money to book passage on a steamer but when he got to the port city he discovered a boat load of Jews had just been allowed to land temporarily. These were the days when European Jews were sailing all over the world literally looking for a place to live, and these particular Jews were staying in attics and warehouses and basements all over that port city. It happened to be Christmas, and on Christmas morning, this missionary went to one of the attics where scores of Jews were staying. He walked in and said, “Merry Christmas”; The people looked at him like he was crazy and responded, “We are Jews”; “I know that” said the missionary, ”What would you like for Christmas?” In utter amazement the Jews responded, “Why we’d like pastries, good pastries like the ones we used to have in Germany”; So the missionary went out and used the money for his ticket home to buy pastries for all the Jews he could find staying in the port. Of course, then he had to wire home asking for more money to book his passage back to the States. As you might expect, his superiors wired back asking what happened to the money they had already sent. He wired that he had used it to buy Christmas pastries for some Jews.
His superiors wired back, “Why did you do that? They don’t even believe in Jesus.” He wired back: “Yes, but I do.” (David Reynolds, Crossing Boundaries) …Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…”
There is one more story…it is definitely the most important…it is the story of the saints of Central Presbyterian Church. I grew up in a tradition that honored the saints, but the saints were those men and women who lived long ago that did extraordinary…miraculous things. As Christians in the reformed tradition, we have a different (and I believe more complete) understanding of, ‘The Saints’. Those who profess faith in Jesus…those who join together as a community of faith…those are the saints. As we gather this Lord’s Day we are the saints. What is the story of the saints of Central…from what I have experienced your story is a story of Christ-like love. You have hosted the annual conference of the PDA National Volunteers. Seventy National Volunteers and staff have been meeting since Thursday in your narthex and sanctuary. Since first contacting you last year you have shown hospitality, graciousness, and love. We will finish our conference tomorrow. During our stay we have seen and heard how you are putting your faith into practice through New Genesis homeless ministry, Central Visitation Program, The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, and Purple Door Coffee. In addition to these four ministries housed at the church I was particularly impressed with your support of the guns to garden initiative. My understanding is that the two recent events, supporting by this congregation took 100 guns off the streets including two assault rifles. Turning swords into plowshares.
The default of so many and SADLY so many people of faith is to react in fear when reacting to those perceived to be the other/different. Jesus calls the church, Jesus challenges the church to respond in faith and act in loving ways just like he did. My prayer for PCUSA, my prayer for all communities of faith is that priority number one will be to consider the ways the love of Jesus can be brought to bear in responding to the needs of the world. “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love No not just for some But for everyone.”
May the reputation of Central Presbyterian be, “Oh Yeah! Those are the people who love the Lord their God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their strength, and with all their mind; and they abundantly love their neighbor as themselves!” Amen and Amen!!!