Tag Archives: unity

Social Distancing as an Act of Love — A Sermon in Absentia

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PC: Lipscomb University (Kristi Jones)

I spent a significant number of years delivering Sunday morning sermons, but that is no longer part of my life. Even if it was, our local churches are canceling services due to the pandemic, so where would I deliver a sermon anyway? But a sermon came to me nonetheless, so I will just deliver it right here. I have titled it: Social Distancing as an Act of Love—A Sermon in Absentia.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14 (NRSV)

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The Incarnation serves as the foundation of the Gospel. God came and “lived among us”—or as Eugene Peterson put it, “moved into the neighborhood.” God’s love is such that God simply could not stand to be at a distance. God came near.

GOD with us. God WITH us.  God with US.

God did this in the humanity of Jesus, and in Jesus we see “the image of the invisible God.” We see what a walking-talking-breathing God looks like, and in Jesus we encounter one who notices the unnoticeable, one who touches the untouchable.

So we aren’t even surprised when we hear Jesus tell a story in Luke 15 about a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine safe sheep and goes traipsing all over the countryside to find the goofy one who wandered off. And how he is giddy with joy as he carries it home draped across his shoulders. Of course he does. That’s God. So we are even less surprised at the follow-up story about a woman who still has nine coins but turns the house upside down looking for the one that is MIA. And how she throws a party like she won the lottery when she found that crazy coin of hers. Of course she did. That’s God.

But Jesus can be a little hard to figure at times.

That same Jesus, the one who moved into the neighborhood, that God-image who chases after lost folks and embraces them in bear hugs says nutty stuff like, “It’s better for you that I leave.” Um, what? He was apparently serious. (If you don’t believe me, check out John 16:7, MSG.) And back in Luke 15, right after those stories that picture God on a search and rescue, Jesus offers a third story where God is a dad who loses a son—and just lets him walk away. Doesn’t even follow him down the driveway.

That’s what has me thinking today. Love typically seeks people out, brings people close with hugs and high fives and holy smooches. But maybe sometimes love allows for distance.

In this time of pandemic, we are advised that the way to love your neighbor is to keep them at a distance. That feels so counterintuitive because, well, it typically is. But maybe not always.

My wife and I live in Nashville, Tennessee. Our oldest daughter lives in Los Angeles. Our youngest daughter lives in San Antonio. Our family practices social distancing all the time now. How did we let all that happen? Every once in a while it dawns on me how wrong that seems, and every once in a while it really hits me hard how much better it would be to be in close proximity to both of our sweet daughters. But more often I remember that it isn’t always right or better simply to be in the same zip code.

Love might can be gauged, but I don’t recommend a tape measure. Sometimes love draws near. Sometime love stands at a distance.

The last official event before spring break at Lipscomb University as announcements were made about an extended break and online classes was the Welcome to Our World Fashion Show, hosted by our Office of Intercultural Development. It was as beautiful as I anticipated. In a time of global pandemic, it felt so appropriate to recognize that our world is bound together in important ways. The closing line of the show reminded us that there is UNITY in DIVERSITY. That there can be a oneness in our many-ness.

I guess what I am saying is that from time to time there can also be a knitting together of hearts in a period of social distancing, as strange as that may seem.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always ‘me first,’
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
 – 1st Corinthians 13: 4-7 (MSG)

America’s Team(s)

nfl playoffs“They appear on television so often that their faces are as familiar to the public as presidents and movie stars. They are the Dallas Cowboys, ‘America’s Team.’”
– Dallas Cowboys 1978 Season Highlight Film

The Dallas Cowboys: You love them or you hate them. Me, I have done both, often during the same game.

Bob Ryan first called the Dallas Cowboys “America’s Team” when preparing the team’s highlight film following the 1978 season and defended his controversial term by saying that they were the most popular team in the nation both in fan support and television appearances. In the forty years since, the franchise has maintained a huge fan base in good times and bad times, for better or worse, ‘til death do they part. The franchise is now worth $5 billion—the highest of all NFL teams.

I am afraid that I am one of those people. I joined the bandwagon at the height of Tom Landry and Roger Staubach in the late 1970s and survived until Emmett, Troy, and Michael in the glorious 1990s and then survived again until the late 2010s with Dak and Zeke. It has surely not been an easy ride, but it has never been boring.

The first time I saw the Cowboys play in person was a Christmas Eve road game at the Superdome against the New Orleans Saints in the closing days of 1999, which happened to be the game that snapped a streak of 160 games the Cowboys played before sellout crowds. My wife and I were in the stands that day to see Aikman, Irvin, Smith, and Sanders play in person. But we lost.

The second time I saw the Cowboys in person was a Monday Night Football game against the Giants in old Texas Stadium in 2006. It was so awesome to be in a place I had dreamed about as a child with my best buddy, Dave, and see colorful characters such as Parcells and T.O. in action. In the first half things went poorly and the hometown fans jeered starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, and chanted their desire for backup quarterback “Ro-mo, Ro-mo, Ro-mo.” When the second half opened and Tony Romo ran on to the field for his debut as quarterback the crowd went wild! He threw an interception on his first pass. And we lost.

Last Saturday was my latest opportunity—a playoff game at the famed L.A. Coliseum against the Rams. The playoff atmosphere was electric, and I loved hearing the roaring voice of the Rams’ stadium announcer (who also happens to be my Pepperdine friend, Sam). I am not sure why I was surprised at the massive number of Cowboy fans at the game or how vocal they were—from my seat it was hard to tell which team’s fans were loudest. But it wasn’t hard to tell which team was better. I was proud that our overmatched team made it a game in spite of our two major weaknesses in the game: offense and defense. We lost again.

Maybe I should stop attending games for my favorite football team.

I got to thinking. American football really is American in all sorts of ways, particularly the way it displays the adversarial nature of our society. We compete head to head in business, politics, the justice system, and many other ways—even in our entertainment. And the more I think about it, maybe the Dallas Cowboys really are America’s Team. More than any other franchise, they inspire people to choose sides and root one way or another.

Competition isn’t necessarily evil. And yet, it is one thing if we shake hands after we compete and another entirely if we just keep on shaking our fists at one another. I have been watching the news lately and continuing to wonder: What kind of world will we choose to be?

Star Sightings

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One week after the terrible mass shooting during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, interfaith gatherings appeared all over the nation like tender flowers sprouting from the bloody soil.

My new friend, Rabbi Michael Schwartz, who is new to Malibu, graciously invited me to take part in an interfaith service at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue as Sabbath began last Friday evening. Rabbi Schwartz conducted a beautiful service filled with thoughtful songs, prayers, and reflections, and the musical gifts shared by Cantor Marcelo and his special guests were deeply moving.

At the outset of the service, we who represented local clergy from various faith backgrounds, along with important community leaders, were invited on stage to light eleven candles in honor of the lives that were tragically taken in Pittsburgh. We were then asked to share a short blessing. Without knowing exactly what to say at such a difficult moment, I chose to share a quote from Dr. King’s famous mountaintop speech, the last before he was assassinated: “Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.”

Looking at those flickering candles and out at the diverse audience in the synagogue, I can say with confidence that I saw stars shining in the darkness.

There is plenty of darkness to go around. May we see the stars. May we be the stars.

The Party Spirit – Not Necessarily as Fun as It Sounds

george-washingtons-farewell-addressGeorge Washington’s 285th birthday is two days away, my how the time flies, but today marks the federal holiday in his honor.  Close to half of these United States extends the holiday to all presidents, but I live in one of the many states that sticks with the federal designation of “Washington’s Birthday” in honor of the man known as the father of this country.

Washington served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, a position he notably resigned after its stunning victory to retire to his farm in Virginia, but public service called again when he was elected as the new nation’s first president.  Washington never joined a particular political party, however, and warned against “the spirit of party” in his famous Farewell Address—an interesting admonition given today’s polarized society.

Washington argued that the party spirit is natural and pervasive and produces desires for (and acts of) revenge that lead a nation away from liberty and eventually toward despotism.  As a result, Washington argued that it is the “duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain” the party spirit.

“It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”

Now it’s funny, I can picture readers from various political viewpoints reading much more into this than I intend.  My critique is of all and my point is simple: Encourage coming together, and discourage choosing up sides.  Unity good.  Polarization bad.  That would be my party platform should I have one, but ironically, a Unity Party is a contradiction in terms.

President Washington concluded his remarks on the party spirit with the following dire warning: “A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”

Thanks for the heads-up, Mr. General President Washington.  And happy birthday.