If you could pinpoint your favorite pastor or preacher or Sunday School teacher, why would they be your favorite? What was it about them that drew your appreciation, your admiration, your openness and reflection?
Was it the way they dressed?
Or the accent they did or didn’t have?
Was it the candy they may or may not have offered?
Was it the tenor of their voice?
Was it their height or weight?
Was it because they wore glasses or had a nice smile?
Was it because they were a Kansas City sports fan?
Why were they your favorite?
I know we aren’t supposed to pick favorites, but when you think back on those people who’ve made an impact on your life, I dare say it’s not because of superficial reasons.
They impacted you because they invested in you — with their time, with their energy, with their affirmation, with their love.
They modeled what love can do, how it can change us. They showed us that love isn’t conditional upon performance or appearance or affluence; love is unearned, it is deserved simply because you are you.
As we read today’s text, and as we modeled with the WooKids this morning, God’s love is unconditional. It’s unending, unstoppable, everywhere.
We can’t escape it. No matter how hard we convince ourselves otherwise.
I used to believe, growing up fundamentalist, an independent Baptist — which if you are unaware of degrees of theological conservatism, that’s a hard shade to the right of Southern Baptists. That is to say, when we moved to the Deep South of Mississippi from Florida, by moving North even back then, we actually moderated noticeably by becoming Southern Baptist. But I digress.
I grew up in that part of the Christian world that doesn’t feel very Christian — to anyone. Not to those on the outside of that faith tradition, and not even on the inside. And probably not to God either. In that framework, God is always angry and full of wrath for sinners and those who even come close to the line of thinking about sinning. God is that angry parent, based entirely on misunderstood experiences as recorded in some of our Old Testament, ready to inflict some stern discipline on wayward children.
It’s no accident that many of our parents approached our behavior in much the same way. But what this reared in me was a decrepit theology of a temperamental God with cosmic powers to determine our eternal fate based on one single mistake. We were all damned to hell without the bloody sacrifice of God’s own child, and you never really knew if you’d accepted that belief deeply enough, sincerely enough, to ensure you wouldn’t end up there anyway.
Love was embodied only in some gruesome transaction. Somehow the only way God could fix the world was to slaughter God’s own son. The most creative and creating force in the universe, who wished it into existence, couldn’t think of any other way to save us than requiring a crucifixion.
Love was embodied in a gruesome transaction.
Which meant it was only a small step for us to get to the day-to-day practicality of this theology: that if I misbehaved, or if I had thoughts that this faith tradition deemed bad, if I sinned, then God withheld love from us. Like a faucet offering water, God would simply turn off the flow of love until I repented and felt adequately forgiven.
It was a beastly theology. And that’s as a person who didn’t have to endure assaults on my sexual orientation or gender identity. My image of God was harmed by dangerous theology, and I wasn’t gay or trans or gender fluid.
I share this not for pity, but for perspective.
When I think about my favorite pastors and teachers and friends, they are the ones who showed me what love reallyis.
We can’t escape it no matter how hard we convince ourselves otherwise.
These verses today always resonated with me. I was told one thing from my churches, but this, the poetry, the cadence, the rhythm, the truth, held me even when I couldn’t believe it was always true.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
For I am convinced that neither life nor death, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
As I introduced this series last week, I shared that it’s been two years in the making. Indeed, as I was working on my report for the annual meeting in a couple weeks, I looked back at last year’s report, and I noticed I slipped in the series title way back then. Our church desires to be a space where everybody is somebody.
But if that’s been two years in the making, then today’s sermon turns 39 on March 4th. You have heard me say it time and again:
You are loved.
You are God’s beloved child.
Before anything else, more than anything else, that is who you are.
The most creative and creating force in the universe loves you.
Not because you’re good, or not bad, not because you rent a home or own two, not because you have a healthy retirement or a mountain of debt, not because you’re healthy or in need of a miracle, not because you give to your church or serve on a team, not because you dress up on Sunday mornings or laugh at the preacher’s jokes —
You are loved regardless of all of that.
You are you, and to God, that’s enough. That’s the world.
To God, you matter.
To God, you are somebody.
You cannot escape God’s love, not just because there is no faucet to turn off, but because God’s love is within your very being. You can no more escape God’s love than you can escape your own cells and plasma and breath.
The breath of God is within you, the love of God comprises you.
It’s not a new message for many of you, thanks be to God for a church and other churches like this one. A church who strives to communicate this unbelievable notion of our belovedness to God in constantly evolving ways. Evolving ways, not because the love of God shifts or changes, but because the way of our societies and world shift their hatred and exclusion all the time.
In our founding, we showed that God loved outlaws, those who were fined or imprisoned for simply being Baptist — even though the Constitution said it was allowed, the state laws said it was illegal. We said that God’s love extended to Baptists and outlaws even as churches and their pastors demeaned us.
As slavery continued in our nation, we showed that God’s love extended beyond that barbaric torture and dehumanization of our black enslaved neighbors in the South by progressing forward in how we believed and professed our faith.
Similarly with issues of equality for women, we began ordaining women as deacons and ministers.
We became open and affirming during a time when churches and the nation were not (and still aren’t) practicing inclusion for LGBTQ+ persons.
We have been welcoming to and supportive of our immigrant neighbors and refugees and asylum seekers as they’ve experienced the hardship of relocating from their homelands for a new opportunity in this country.
In those times when the hatred and exclusion of the world shifts its energy and focus, we have shifted our own, combatting fear with an embodied love and kindness and acceptance.
We haven’t been, and aren’t always perfect, and I know we aren’t supposed to pick favorites, but my goodness if you don’t model a better way of mending this world than anything I’ve seen before or experienced firsthand.
This message is and isn’t my own. It’s my own message in that I know it at the core of my being, that God is love, and God loves me, and God loves you, always and forever. Always has, always will. God’s love is undeterred.
But it’s also not my message, because it’s not unique or new to me. It’s uncommon perhaps that people believe it or profess it, but it’s been God’s message to this world from the very beginning, played out over the millennia, for each and every person — this truth that the God of it all cherishes them, values them, cares about them.
It’s not only my message because others too, have told it over and over through the years:
Revs. Roy and Torgersen,
Revs. Miller and Scrogin,
Revs. Barbara and Gary and Archie and Hugh and Ralph Elliott and John Dick and Ken Swenson,
Revs. Scott and Lindsay and Tom McKibbens,
Revs. Dixon and Still and Swan and Harvey,
Revs. Natalie Webb and Catherine Allard and Sharron LaMothe and Elizabeth Clinkscales and Katherine Blaisdell,
Rev. Amy Butler and Rev. Saraí Rivera and Rev. LyAnna and Rev. Zach and Derek and Rev. Timothy and Rev. Paula and Rev. Tina and on and on, names you remember and those unnamed, some of whom may have been your very favorites because they walked into your lives to tell you this truth.
This gospel truth that is not just my message, but is your message, too. That you embody and model and live with your very being, this gospel truth that:
To God, you matter.
To God, you are somebody.
To God, you are beloved.
Thanks be to God.