In the name of God, Who so loved the world

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

I was about 11 years old. My brother was a teenager. We were together in the kitchen early one morning eating breakfast before school. It was chilly, and my brother was wearing an old overcoat over his pajamas. He was huddled over his wheaties reading the comics.

I was heating something on the stove. My pajama top touched the burner, and burst into flame. I remember thinking that I should try to get to water to put out the flames. I moved quickly across the room to the sink. Of course, my quick movement fanned the flames. I turned on the water in the sink, and watched it run uselessly down the drain. I couldn’t think what to do next, and it was beginning to hurt.

The next thing I knew I was engulfed in my brother’s embrace, and the flames were suffocated in his overcoat. This all happened very quickly—almost more quickly than it takes to tell it—which is why I was very little worse for the wear. What burns I had were very mild. I went to school later that morning, and I had a story to tell. “My brother saved me this morning. I was burning, and he hugged me!”

Hypothetically, there were other responses my brother could have chosen—the kind of dodges that we are all sometimes tempted to use when confronted with a person in real need. My brother could have said, “It was stupid and clumsy of my sister to set herself on fire. It isn’t my fault, and I’m not going to get involved.” Or, he could have said, “Those flames are dangerous! I should stay away; maybe I’ll call the fire department.” Thank God, my brother didn’t think that way.

God saw a world filled with sin, and suffering, and death, but He did not abandon this world. God moved closer. God moved so close as to become one of us in the life and death of Jesus Christ. In the life and death of Jesus, God embraced the world. On the cross Jesus took upon himself the full weight of evil, what has been called “the concentrated calamity of the cosmos”, so that the power of evil would be annulled, and the new world would be born. (1)

Henry Nouwen puts it this way, “On the cross all history is concentrated, and all evil is overcome. We are saved by that knowledge, when we realize that suffering is suffered by God, embraced by God, and overcome.” (2)

The Kingdom of God is among us now by the Holy Spirit, but none of us needs to be told that we still sin, we still suffer, we still die. The culmination of the Kingdom of God, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, is not yet.

How then do we live the Kingdom, inaugurated by Jesus, in this time of Now and Not Yet? How do we respond to God’s embrace?

Miroslav Volf writes the following in his book, Exclusion and Embrace, “Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents . . . Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others and invite them in—even our enemies.”(3) We can be the recipients of God’s grace only if we do not resist being made the agents of God’s grace. We must pass on to others what we have received from God.

Several years ago, and in a church far from here to which I belonged at the time, I was having a conversation with a friend. I was complaining vigorously about a member of the clergy. My friend, who is a retired Episcopal priest, listened to me patiently for a time, and then said, “Be kind.” I talked some more, and he, again, said “Be kind”. Actually, that was about all he said in that conversation, and it has been echoing in my head ever since.

The ancient philosopher, Philo, wrote something that seems very contemporary. He said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.”

A while ago a headline in the Washington Post jumped out at me. It said in part, WE ARE ALL A LITTLE BIT BROKEN. As it turned out the story was about human genetics and how we all have some irregular genes, but still manage to live more or less normal lives. But the headline said something quite different to me. WE ARE ALL A LITTLE BIT BROKEN. We are to be kind, not in the sense of “I am whole, and you (poor thing) are broken so I will reach down to help you,” No, we are to be kind because we are all a little bit broken, and therefore we must help each other. The root and source of kindness is our recognition of our own brokenness, and our gratitude for the great kindness of God.

God’s embrace of this world through the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, is our absolute assurance that neither sin, nor suffering, nor even death, will have the last word. In the end, the last word is God’s, and God’s word is always loving kindness.

Let us pray: Gracious God, whose Christ stretched out arms of love upon the hard wood of the cross to embrace all the peoples of the earth. Make us agents of your Grace and Love.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen

—Mary Young
March 18, 2012

(1) N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus, p.176

(2) Henry Nouwen at Shalem Institute

(3) Quoted in Christian Century, March 7, 2012, p.25