Relationships

Part 2 of the Sermon Series “Sharing Faith in a Pluralistic World
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
February 20, 2011
Job 6:14-23; 1 John 4:19-21; Matthew 28:16-20

Job 6:14-23 • “Those who withhold kindness from a friend forsake the fear of the Almighty. My companions are treacherous like a torrent-bed, like freshets that pass away, that run dark with ice, turbid with melting snow. In time of heat they disappear; when it is hot, they vanish from their place. The caravans turn aside from their course; they go up into the waste, and perish. The caravans of Tema look, the travelers of Sheba hope. They are disappointed because they were confident; they come there and are confounded. Such you have now become to me; you see my calamity, and are afraid. Have I said, ‘Make me a gift’? Or, ‘From your wealth offer a bribe for me’? Or, ‘Save me from an opponent’s hand’? Or, ‘Ransom me from the hand of oppressors’?  ”

1 John 4:19-21 • We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Matthew 28:16-20 • Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I. BEGINNING

Poor Job.

Illustration by Kathleen Kimball

Talk about tough luck.  He’s a good and faithful person.  So good and faithful that God even brags to Satan about how good and faithful he is.  Satan points out that Job wouldn’t be so good and faithful if he weren’t so blessed in life: remove everything that Job has and he’ll curse God.  God responds by telling Satan to take as much as he wants from Job without harming Job himself and they’ll see whether he’s faithful or not.

And so in rapid succession, Job loses his oxen and donkeys, his servants, his sheep, his camels, and his children.  When he remains faithful, God permits Satan to afflict Job directly.  And so Job suffers terrible sores on his flesh.  Still he does not curse God—even though his wife tells him to do so.

But what compounds insult to injury are Job’s friends: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite.  I’m sure you remember them from Sunday School and the many hymns we have that mention them.  They come to Job in the middle of his distress after he has lost everything and is suffering greatly to “console and comfort him”.  And what a help they are.

When Job laments his suffering, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar basically give him this comforting advice: we all know that God only causes bad things to happen to bad people and so what you’re suffering is something you deserve.  So, think harder about what you’ve done wrong.

Now, it should be noted that these three friends are not saying anything different from one of the prevailing ideas at the time that good things happened to good people and bad things happened to bad people.  A great karmic distribution of just desserts.  And so there’s nothing new about their attitudes.

But what about the way that they relate to their friend?  How would you like to be friends with these guys?  You lose your job and over come Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar to console you: you probably deserved it, you must not have been a great employee.  Or your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you and you’re sad.  Over come Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar: you were probably a lousy boyfriend or girlfriend anyway.  Or you didn’t get into the grad school you wanted and over come Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar: well, it’s probably for the best.  You’re not the best student anyway.

These are not the kindest, most supportive friends.

II. FORSAKING THE FEAR OF THE ALMIGHTY

Job himself later says, “Those who withhold kindness from a friend forsake the fear of the Almighty.”  Two things leap to mind in looking at that passage.  The first is that the word that is here translated as “kindness” is the Hebrew word hesed, which means something more like covenant-loyalty.  It is not simply kindness that defines relationships between individuals, but faithfulness.  It is the same word that defines God’s relationship to God’s people.  It is a word that carries with it connotations of fidelity beyond mere convenience or politeness.  It is a word of deep and meaningful relationship.

The second thing that leaps out here is the connection between being faithful in relationships and the “fear of the Almighty”.  That is, there is an intrinsic connection between one’s reverence toward God and the fidelity and faithfulness one is supposed to have in relationships.

III. IF YE LOVE NOT EACH OTHER

The same idea is found in the epistle lesson for tonight.

The letters of John are part of the same theological tradition and likely produced by the same early Christian community that produced the Gospel of John.  (That may seem obvious given their names, but trust me, the findings of Biblical scholarship rarely confirm the obvious). These letters follow that same tradition that produces the teaching of Jesus that his disciples should love one another as a sign of his love for them:

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.” (John 13:34-35)

The first letter of John follows in this vein, but adds a corollary.  If we are to love one another because God first loved us, then we can only truly love God if we love one another:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Thus, loving one another is not only a response to the love we have received from God, it becomes a way we demonstrate our  love for God.  We demonstrate our faith by demonstrating our love for one another.

It’s worth pointing out that we Christians are not the only ones who have heard these instructions.  These are not secret words that are whispered only inside the walls of the church. No, the broader world is well aware that Christians are supposed to be about love.  The broader world is well aware of what kind of person Jesus of Nazareth was and what he preached.  And so, the world holds us accountable when we fail to live up to the standards everyone knows we’re supposed to follow.  When we fail to love one another, how can we love God whom we have not seen?

What we find is that Christians’ inability to be loving to each other in ordinary relationships preaches a whole different Gospel from the one we’re supposed to be proclaiming.

In Judaism, they have a sin called hillul ha-Shem, profaning the Name.  It means doing anything that causes Judaism or God to come into disrepute.  Acting in such a way that outsiders come to believe exactly the wrong things about God and your faith.  It’s a serious sin in Judaism and is the only one that cannot be atoned for before death.

Would that we had that.  Or at least that sensibility that the things we do speak a message not only about ourselves, but about the God we worship.  For, what does it say about God to have believers act in a hateful manner toward one another?  What does it say about Christ that his followers often break faith with one another?  A master is known by his servants.  A teacher by her students.  What portrait of God do we present when we do not vest our relationships with the same faithfulness, grace, and love we proclaim God defines?

IV. GOD OF RELATIONSHIP/GOD IN RELATIONSHIP

All our relationships should reflect our deepest understandings of God.

A.    Friends

The way we relate to our friends should be with the openness, the grace, and the fidelity with which God relates to us.  They should reflect the faithfulness God showed to Israel.  The ability to call to account in love, the way the prophets did when the people strayed. The willingness to forgive after they’d turned away and to offer words of comfort when the consequences of their wrong actions fell upon them.

Job complains that his friends are like icy streams that “in time of heat disappear”.  Fair weather friends who when the going gets tough, get going… in the other direction.  We are not called to relationships of convenience or benefit, but relationships that may require something of us: loyalty and faithfulness.

B.    Lovers

This past week was Valentine’s Day, a holiday on which we are told that relationships are measured by chocolates, or roses, or carats.  Gifts of material goods designed to demonstrate love by the ounce.  But that is not now we are to relate in a romantic context.

The way we relate to those with whom we are romantically involved should be vested also with fidelity, rooted in a deep abiding passion.  God’s relationship with Israel is characterized by a willingness to be vulnerable and to experience the sorrow and the suffering of the people.  Our relationships with those whom we love are likewise to be characterized by vulnerability: a willingness to know the pain of the other.

C.    Enemies

The way we relate to our enemies says even more so.  We could meet hate for hate, violence for violence, insult for insult.  Or we could adopt the ways of the one who embodied godliness: love of enemies, responding in kindness rather than anger.  Demonstrating a commitment to love that overpowers even the sharpest of hates.

Let’s not underestimate how powerful this kind of love can be.  This community’s witness of love during the Westboro Baptist Church protest has had repercussions across the country.  In fact, a lay leader at a congregation in Michigan was so moved by the way this community demonstrated love, even for the hateful, that he contributed money to us so that we could have a pizza party and celebrate being such a community.  And so we will, right after services tonight.

And so we understand that we define all our relationships by the love of God that we know and proclaim.

D.   The God of Relationship

For the love of God is what is at the heart of God.  God is love.  And love in relationship.

We Christians confess a Trinitarian God.  We believe that God is Father, Son, and Spirit.  We sometimes get hung up on the fact that two of those persons are described with masculine words that we overlook what they are meant to describe: not gender, but relationship.  Though the nature of the Trinity is mystery to us, we understand that at the heart of God is relationship.  God is not love in the abstract.  God is love in the relationship between the Father and the Son, the Son and the Spirit, the Spirit and the Father. If we would pretend to know anything about God, then we would admit that relationships and love are at the heart of God’s being.

God is love: love in relationship.  Within God and with us.

V. END

There are a lot of ways we can share our faith.  There are the ways with words that we talked about last week.  There are the ways with actions and justice that we’ll talk about next week.  And there are the ways that we don’t often think of but that communicate volumes.  First and foremost are our relationships with one another.

For these are the first points of contact for so many.  These are the ways in which all the things we claim to believe and all the things we say we value are actually lived out in ordinary, everyday ways.

One of the best ways we can share our faith is to model our relationships on the relationships we have with God. Especially in a pluralistic interfaith context.  Because living out our faith in relationships does not require us to be dogmatic.  We don’t need to challenge people’s beliefs or engage in disputations.  All we need to do is live out authentic relationships, loving relationships.

The more people see us relating to one another in love, the more they will want to know about why it is that we do so.  The more we model God’s love in actuality, the more people will see God’s love as a transformational force in their own lives and their own relationships.

See, people are already making judgments about us based on the way we relate to others.  If we fail to love one another, it can legitimately be asked how it is possible to love God, or even to know God.  In the words of the old Shaker hymn: “If ye love not each other in daily communion, how can ye love God whom ye have not seen?”

Or we can go the other route.  We can vest our relationships with openness and love.  With care and compassion. With empathy and vulnerability.  With abiding faithfulness.  And doing so, live out a transformative love that inspires others the way it did one anonymous pagan who centuries ago said, “Look at those Christians! See how they love one another.”

A love that is whole.  A love that is transformative.  A love that conveys the very heart of the God we proclaim.

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