“The Birthplace of Love”
“The Birthplace of Love”
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
February 27, 2022
I came across a booth selling a collection of vintage items, including a pocket watch that was one of the many standard-issue ones used by KGB agents decades ago.
Having been a history major in college, having grown up on a healthy dose of James Bond adventures and Get Smart humor – I was genuinely intrigued and kept going back to look it over. “How much?” The man does not speak English, but our Russian guide steps in and translates. “$100.”
A graduate student at that time, I figured this was not going to work, but my in-laws actually decided they would like to give it to me. Looks good. Our story begins with Jesus being invited in by a religious leader who looks good what with his cups, plates and hands washed just so, his monetary donations proportioned to the standards of the law, his home open for hospitality.
And Jesus’s first words: “You clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”
“It looks good on the outside. The actual substance is a mess.”
It had been a one day visit to St. Petersburg. A stop on a weeklong cruise ship through the region. The next day we arrive at a port off of Estonia lined with a few market tents right as we de-boarded. Wouldn’t you know it? Three or four the same watch I had just purchased yesterday.
The man in the tent sees me looking them over. “The watch? $15.”
And though he did not mean it, he added insult to injury with his follow up: “2 for $25.” Looked good on the outside…
At first, it becomes somewhat emblematic of a country that puts a beautiful foot forward if you dock for a day or two, tour the wonders of St Petersburg or Moscow or listen to the state sponsored news…but then never nearly appreciate the depth of some of the poverty and injustice.
And true as that may be, at the same time it is also true and discomforting to recall that Jesus is speaking his scathing words in a small home setting to good, religious people who clean up well.
And perhaps we pause here to say: “Look, these recent days we have been praying. We have been praying for the people of Ukraine. And Russia. And neighboring countries and one another and all the uncertainty…we have been praying for peace and asking for Jesus to show up.
And Jesus walks in among us on Sunday morning, and he wants to bring up the ways we look one way on the outside and have something else going on inside?! Not that that isn’t important and we shouldn’t all consider our blind spots, but Jesus…even in the past 48 hours there have been bombs dropped all over Ukraine and also Yemen and Somalia and Syria. Jesus, let’s deal with the big stuff first.”
To which Jesus would say, “That is precisely my point.”
The Message translates the next section of our passage this way as Jesus’s remarks continue unto the religious people who clean up well:
“You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but manage to find loopholes for getting around basic matters of justice and God’s love. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required.”
You tend to the smaller, external things with such cleanliness and detail –
- Did you give the right amount to ensure you’ve kept the religious law
- Did you keep up with this or that expectation down to the last detail?
- Did you keep up with the many good and necessary things that often fill the to-do lists of good, religious people?
Or…“Bobby, thinking through a purchase is fine and being frustrated by the lie is fine…but wrestle first with the fact we are living in a world where you are on a boat with more food than anyone can eat and you are docking in some ports with many neighbors quite nears whose reality is quite opposite.”
“Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but first and foremost basics are required – justice and God’s love.”
And this past week our eyes have been awakened to what it looks like for the church to prioritize justice and God’s love.
In the Pastoral Letter that went out to the congregation, I included an article from Christianity Today, and if you clicked on it you may have seen that there was a vignette of stories relating to what various pastors and churches were saying and doing last Sunday in worship.
Volodymyr Nesteruk, pastor of Regeneration Baptist Church located about 200 miles west of Kyiv said this: “We very much hope that our house of prayer will not be needed to shelter people, but we are preparing so that people can come here, if necessary, to find safety and shelter.”
Similarly, Yaroslav Pyzh, president of the Baptist seminary in Lviv declared to any who might face the loss of home, “If something happens, we will open our homes and our churches to you.”
Yuriy Kulakevych with the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church said this in his sermon last Sunday, “Go closer to meet those who are against you or fighting you. We are not only to enjoy peace ourselves, but to share it.” Love your enemy.
Likewise, in Russia, pastor Vladimir Tripolski recognized the likelihood of mass displacement being known and said to his church, “Let us turn our hearts toward the refugees.”
Love the vulnerable. Love the refugee. Love the enemy. The basic priorities.
How might we, the church in North America, join in this bold posture that risks life and location in the name of God’s love for the displaced, the dispossessed, and even the enemy in these coming days? How might we be equally clear-sighted about our priorities?
We all know how the groundswell of goodwill and passion can and does ignite all of us for a season unto the right priorities, but how easy it is to fall back to the worries of smaller things and keeping up appearances and all the rest.
How do the people of God lean into the priorities of God for the long haul?
The great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky offers this insight in his Brother’s Karamazov as he speaks through the words of Father Zossima. Father Zossima is talking with other monks at this monastery where they live and telling them what their focus is to be…and why:
“Love God’s people. For we are not holier than those in the world because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, but, on the contrary, anyone who comes here, by the very fact that he has come, already knows himself to be worse than all those who are in the world, worse than all on earth…For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth. This knowledge is the crown of the monk’s path, and of every person’s path on earth.”
The priority is named at the outset: Love God’s people.
But then the way that focus is maintained is through a profound humility that recognizes one’s brokenness. One’s guilt. One’s part in all of the mess.
Jesus’s words – “You wash the outside but inside is full of greed and wickedness” – they are deeply uncomfortable but they are not fundamentally worded of condemnation as if Jesus’ ministry was about going around and saying “gotcha!” No, “I came that they might have life and life to the full.” At their best, the hard words of Jesus are not condemnation but invitation.
Invitation to humility.
Invitation to slow and consider that maybe we do get caught up in polishing our surfaces and secondary matters… and maybe we can’t nearly see all our hearts carry. Maybe we can’t nearly see our part in all that unfolds around us and around the world.
This knowledge is the crown of every person’s journey – because only from that space of great humility can the priority of great love be accomplished.
Indeed, that is the Good News of Jesus Christ who humbled himself to the point of being a servant to all…
…and from that posture alone did he love all.
From that posture of complete humility came the kind of love that dies for us. The kind of love so great it proves stronger than death.
Isn’t that amazing? The heart of our faith declares that it is the humblest of loves which is the singular thing that conquers the most recalcitrant evil of all – death itself.
And goodness knows that in our world today we need a kind of love that is stronger than tanks and bombs and politics and death. We need resurrection love. We need Jesus love.
And the birthplace of that love is profound humility (the cross).
The church that this world needs today cares not for all the little debates and details that so easily consume our hours and our days and our years.
The church that this world needs today cares not whether our surfaces are shiny or not; whether people think this of us or that of us.
- The church this world needs, open hearts and doors and prayers unto those most vulnerable to warfare and famine and injustice of any kind.
- The church this world needs, open hearts and doors and prayers unto the brokenhearted, the ailing, and the children.
- The church this world needs, open hearts and doors and prayers unto even and especially our enemies (cross).
This is the church of Jesus Christ fueled by a resurrection love.
And so what if the strongest thing we do today is drop to our knees and open our hands?
Let our hands drop the many secondary things and surface things that so clutter our hearts and even our church.
And then open them in confession.
A Fundamental Dependence.
For God’s power and God’s love through us are perfected in weakness. And always…always only from a space of great humility can there be great love for all. Amen.