Sunday, February 23, 2020

Rev. Tracy Heilman

Journeys in Faith

For God so loved the world

Like many of you, I can recite John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but shall have life eternal.
I’ve volunteered at the John 3:16 Soup Kitchen in Illinois. I unpacked canned goods at the John 3:16 Food Pantry in Oklahoma, and I’ve sorted clothes with my youth group at the John 3:16 Ministries Thrift Store in West Virginia. It’s a very popular verse, even called the Gospel in a nutshell, and some people really love it. I’m not one of them.
Here’s the thing. I’m a mom, and I love my children fiercely. I love my biological daughter, Sophia, and I love my bonus sons, Jacob and Abraham. I treasure their lives, their spirits, their dreams. I would stand between them and harm’s way without a thought. But, I would never, ever sacrifice one of them for the other. That’s just wrong, isn’t it?
Why then, do so many find such comfort in the idea that God loves us so much that God would sacrifice a son for us? I know there is the argument that God and Jesus are one and the same, but John 3:16 doesn’t say that God’s love for us is so great that God will die for us. It says that God’s love is so great that God will sacrifice another’s life for us. I find it odd at best, and dangerous at the worst. Divine child abuse? That is not the God I worship.
I think this traditional way of hearing and understanding the scripture is dangerous, but I also believe that is misses the point – it skips right over the beauty of the passage! For God so loved the world. Did you hear that? God so loved the world. Aaahhh. Just rest in that a minute.
Our ancestors in the faith must have known how important it would be for future generations to be reminded that God loves the world. In case we were to forget the first creation story, in case we were to forget the wonderful litany that after each day of creation, God looks over the day’s work and says “it is good.” Creation, the stars and the moon, the land and the sea, the plants and the animals, and the human-male and female created in the divine image. All of this, the whole world, it is good! And God loves it.
But in case we were to forget, our ancient ancestors also included the story of the rainbow. A sign for all future generations that God loves the world so much that God will never destroy the world. Every time we see a rainbow, we can be reminded that God loves the world.
God loves the world. Isn’t that amazing, and wonderful and beautiful. And maybe, it’s also a little startling. We are often led to believe by religious sorts of people that God’s love really only extends to those of us on the inside, believers and followers, and members and regular attenders. While the outsiders, the world, is evil. Religious sorts even seem to warn us of the dangers of the world, cautioning us to not be “too worldly.” We probably all have friends or neighbors or know someone who fears the world, wants to protect their family from the world. And often, their religion is the justification for this fear.
But God loves the world. Shouldn’t we as well? If we are going to be people of faith, followers of God’s, then shouldn’t we love the world just as God does, see it as good, and promise that we won’t harm it? Can you imagine the transformation we could wage if we banded together and pledged to love this world as much as, and in the way that God does?
Loving as God loves is no easy task. It takes determination and courage. Those who would be willing to attempt it must be prepared to fail, but never give up. Loving as God loves means coming face to face with fear and moving beyond it. These two obstacles, failure and fear, have been used over and over again to stand in the way of our call to love the world as God loves. But we do not have to allow them to block our path.
Fear. It gets in the way of so much good, doesn’t it? I suppose that’s why we have angels, prophets, and others throughout the Bible who call out the sound advice “fear not!” Fear not, for I am with you. Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy. Fear not for it is our God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom! Brothers and sisters, be not afraid. Be not afraid of the world or those who live in it. Be not defined by or boxed in by your fears. Don’t be afraid to welcome someone who prays differently than you pray. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.
Let’s be people of faith who have the courage to see beyond our fears and have the determination to love this world. Really love this world by all the means we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, for all the people we can, as long as ever we can.