Preacher: Rev. David Exley
As we begin this four-week sermon series, I want to take a moment to have us open by thinking about what it means to be engaged in this process of learning to love. Learning to love like God loves. Learning to love like Jesus. There are so many teachers that have taught us things in life. Just this past week I was thinking about a master painter who gave me some painting tips many years ago. One of the things that he passed on to me was the importance of having a damp rag at your side every time you paint. I can’t help but think about that image and how it relates to our living. For there is always a need to have a damp rag at our side as we do the work of co-creating this world with God. With that in mind, let us begin this four-week journey as we listen to God and learn how to love…
Opening The Pathway To Love
Ezekiel 33 contains some sharp words that are not easy to read. We may have this beautiful English translation of the text, but it really gets us no closer to understanding what the prophet is saying when we have no concept of how his audience lived—what their day to day reality was. We may have a passing understanding of what they were going through when we remember that Ezekiel writes this text during the Babylonian exile. The Temple has been destroyed. The people are either living in bondage in the “Promised Land” or they’ve taken up residence in a foreign land. It is a time of deep despair for Ezekiel’s people. A time where the voice of their God seems distant or, most likely, non-existent. It’s in this world that the prophet speaks to them and begins to rebuild them. Ezekiel speaks plainly about darkness and light; death and resurrection. You may remember one of the most famous passages from Ezekiel that appears just a few chapters after the one we heard this morning. In that image, the prophet has a vision of a valley of dry bones… and God invites him to see life where there is no life; hope where there seems to be only despair. In the section of the text that we heard this morning, the prophet has just shifted from speaking about judgement to talk about restoration… God’s restoration. You (you that are the human one), God says, “say to the house of Israel: This is what all of you are saying: “How our transgressions and our sins weigh on us! We waste away because of them. How can we live?”
The people of Israel are still consumed with the trauma of their past that they cannot move forward into that place of life and love that God wants them to go.
It reminds me of a story that I’ve told before, but it’s worth sharing again when we hear Ezekiel speak of the weight that his people are carrying and how it prevents them from living and loving. There is an old legend about three individuals and the bags that they carry on their journeys. They all had two bags, one tied carried in front and the other one on their back. When the first person was asked what was in the sacks, they said, “In the sack on my back are all the good things friends and family have done. That way they’re hidden from view. In the front sack are all the bad things that have happened to me. Every now and then I stop, open the front sack, take the things out, examine them, and think about them.” Because this first person stopped so much to concentrate on all the bad stuff, they really didn’t make much progress in life. The second person was asked about their bags. They gave a different response. They replied, “In the front bag are all the good things I’ve done. I like to see them, so quite often I take them out to show them off to people. The bag in the back? I keep all my mistakes in there and carry them all the time. Sure they’re heavy. They slow me down, but you know, for some reason I can’t put them down.” When the third person was asked about their bags, they answered, “The bag in front is great. There I keep all the positive thoughts I have about people, all the blessings I’ve experienced, all the great things other people have done for me. The weight isn’t a problem. The sack is like sails of a ship. It keeps me going forward.” They continued, “The sack on my back is empty. There’s nothing in it. I cut a big hole in its bottom. In there I put all the bad things that I can think about myself or hear about others. They go in one end and out the other, so I’m not carrying around any extra weight at all.”*
While we may not fully know what it was like for the people living in Ezekiel’s time to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, we do know what it means to be weighed down by life. We’ve all experienced this at various moments in our lives and we know how difficult it can be to move down the path of love when the weight we carry holds us back.
What so often keeps us weighed down is things like pain and shame… judgement and trauma from our past. It’s easy to say, “Just put that bag on your back, cut a hole in the bottom, and the path of life will be easy!” But, in reality, it’s not that easy. We need to do the work together. We all need tips from those master painters who can say to us, “Have a damp rag ready… don’t be afraid to make mistakes… just keeps moving and keep dreaming of the end product.”
God, through Ezekiel, attempts to share exactly these words as we read this in the text: “The Lord God says: As surely as I live, do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked? If the wicked turn from their ways, they will live.”
As we continue to LEARN TO LOVE in our lives, what a gift it is to know that God looks with hope into the future. God travels down the road of life and does what the third person in the baggage story did—God places our past mistakes into that “holy” bag that will not weigh God down. Life is available to all of us… love is there for all of us despite what the weight of our past might dictate in the eyes of the world. This is what redemption and grace look like in God’s realm. What does that mean for us? It doesn’t mean that we should carry on down the road of life unchanged by God’s way of being. It means that we should strive to do the same. To walk in the way of love (in the way of God) is to let God’s ways become our ways.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had some powerful things to say about learning to love. He, like the prophet Ezekiel, calls us down the path of love in order that God’s dream might become reality. In his “Stride Toward Freedom” essay (Chapter 6) he wrote this**:
At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love. The non-violent resistor would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chains of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.
Can you hear the words of Dr. King guiding us down that path of love, teaching us like a master painter… instructing us and encouraging us to keep walking together down that path of life? Can you hear him urging us to let bitterness and hatred fall from the bags that we carry down the journey of life? If we want to learn to love as God loves, we must understand that the path of love that God leads us down is a path where we must commit ourselves to things like grace, forgiveness, and redemption. Judgement and shame can’t be carried down that road. The weight of those things are what separates us from one another. And so, each day we must work to remove those things form our bag and let them go. We must remember that as long as we live the paint that has been spilled on the floor or the trim of this world we share has not fully dried. We can do the work of wiping it up as we work toward that final masterpiece together.
Even the passage from Matthew speaks to this truth and what lies at the heart of God’s vision of love. It’s a passage where we learn once again that God does not dream of unresolved conflict and division within creation. God does not simply place the stone in front of the tomb of certain parts of creation (and in front of certain people of this world) and leave it there. What does Jesus say? He says, “I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then God who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”
The path of love is one that takes us to those difficult places of division and hate… and invites us to move away from that and toward that place of unity. Walking with God down that path of life means that we do not walk alone. That doesn’t mean that we simply walk with the idea of a transcendent God there next to us as we walk solo down the path. This isn’t a private road. The path of love (as we learn through the prophets and Jesus) is a path where we are all learning to walk with one another. It is a path where I’m not judged on how far I’ve gone, but on how committed I am to spending the journey next to others. It’s for this reason that I do not see the future of the church as one where we can simply sit on the couch with our loved ones and enjoy online worship in the comfort of my own home. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when that is great… days where (like many of you) I don’t have the energy to do anything else but that. Learning to Love (in partnership with God) means that we must seek out communities and other people who don’t just believe what we believe but challenge us to be better TOGETHER.
I love the way that author and researcher, Brené Brown, explains why she goes to church. Listen to this short clip from her audiobook, Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice***, as she talks about her commitment to a Christian faith community.
I go to church for three reasons: To pass the peace, to sing with [others], and to share the rail (the place where we receive communion) with people I would never talk to any other time than at church because I don’t like what they believe and stand for. That’s the only reason I go to church. So that Once a week I break bread with them, I sing with them, and offer them peace in their lives (and I receive the peace from them). Because there’s got to be something and somewhere that is bigger than politics, bigger than ideology, bigger than hate…. Do you know what the hallmark of true belonging is? Dissent. To be a part of something bigger than ourselves with people we don’t agree with. That’s real belonging. And, I think that’s hard to get today without spirituality.
I don’t share this as a way of saying, “See! We need to be back in our sanctuary being present with one another!” No. Actually, this time of being apart will eventually lead us to a place where we long to be with one another; Even those we disagree with. What does it mean to walking down the path of love with God… to learn to love with God? It means that we must learn that resurrection walk that Jesus first took with his followers. That walk of hope and unexpected new life that Ezekiel inspires his people to walk. To walk in this way means that we must commit ourselves to one another. It means that we must not let our past hold us from walking boldly into our future together. It means that we must be brave and open to one another.
I’ll close with these words that Dr. King shares at the end of his essay, “Stride Toward Freedom”. The journey (the march) that Dr. King started is one that continues to move today. It’s a journey that we can still embark on with him and so many others who make up that “cloud of witnesses” who walk in the light of God’s love. Dr. King’s walk was one of non-violence—one that is synonymous with that “agape love” that God has shown us. Listen as King talks about this walk. He said, one of the markers of…
Nonviolent resistance is… based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in non-violence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the non-violent resistor can except suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship.
Learning to walk with God means that we learn what it means to have “deep faith in the future”. And so, as we walk down this path of love with God, we must look within and ask ourselves—Do I have faith in the future? We must listen to others and follow those who say that are best days are not behind us but ahead. We must let go of fear and judgement and celebrate the light that leads us down the path together toward that place where all God’s dreams are realized. Amen.
* H. Norman Wright, The Perfect Catch (Bethany House, 2000), pp.28-29
** Martin Luther King Jr. "Stride Toward Freedom
*** Brené Brown, "Rising Strong As A Spiritual Practice" (audiobook)