Monday, May 14, 2012

Loving Each Other in an Age of Social Media and Culture War: Sermon, Christian Family Sunday, May 13, 2012

“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you. You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. As a result, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.
John 15:9-17, Common English Bible

Jesus says, love one another as I have loved you. What a great verse on this Sunday to celebrate families. I’ve been thinking a lot about love in families this week, as I led two funeral services and I watched as families expressed their love for their deceased member and for each other, and I listened to stories about love in families. I had been with both families as their loved one was dying, and saw hands held and foreheads wiped and comforting words spoken as life drained away. And this week Kirsty and I were speaking with a mother whose two year old daughter had been diagnosed with an extremely rare childhood cancer, and we heard about that family’s love persisting through the treatments and operation and recovery.

"Love never ends." That’s what the Apostle Paul says in the First Letter to the Corinthians, in a chapter on love that we often read at weddings and could easily be about a mother’s love:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. We know this because of Easter, when Jesus died and it seemed that his love for us died with him, but he was raised from death. In the letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul writes about this, in a passage we read at a funeral on Thursday:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Love never ends. But sometimes in families, love sure can seem to be on its deathbed. I’ve had other funeral services. One was for a mother who had two daughters, with whom she had not spoken in years; there was some incident in the past and she had destroyed all of the pictures with her daughters in them and never spoke of them again. I was told that this woman’s children were not to be mentioned during the funeral. One of her daughters saw the obituary in the Standard Freeholder and came to the funeral service. Another time a woman had children by birth and by adoption, and again there had been a falling out and the two sets of children put separate obituaries in the paper that left out the names of the other children. I’ve spoken to members of families where parents and children are estranged and have not spoken for years.

Now, in a family it usually takes a lot, a lot of provocation and a lot of time, to damage a relationship so badly that such a severe estrangement takes place. It takes a lot less in our church family, in which we are all children of God and all sisters and brothers in Christ, but we don’t always act as if Jesus gives us this commandment to love one another. Just as everything in the 21st century takes place at a faster pace, relationships end faster. When we choose not to love, we do it more quickly these days. That’s true within the church, and in our society.

This week on CFRA Radio the host of one of the talk shows was complaining that younger people and women were no longer calling in. He said this is because young people and women aren’t interested in issues, but I disagree; I think that people are tired of trying to express their opinion and being told that it’s worth less because it’s not the opinion the host has, or having their motives questioned. They’re probably also tired of the wild exaggerations and insults that are typical on these shows.

The host did say that people are increasingly turning to social media like Facebook and Twitter to express themselves, which is probably true. At the United Church’s Montreal and Ottawa Conference annual meeting next week I have been assigned to tweet the proceedings for people to follow online. People can find the relationships they have with online friends to be very supportive, even if they have never met in person. Perhaps it’s a new way to love one another. But it’s not always loving. If you follow Twitter, or read posts on Facebook or Google+ or the comments on news stories and blog posts online, or get those chain emails that people are always forwarding, you know that, just like talk radio, there’s lots of wild exaggeration, and name-calling, and indignation, and hatred. It’s getting especially bad now, with hyperpartisan attitudes about Canadian and American and Ontario politics, and divisive issues like same sex marriage and abortion and bilingualism all in the news, so proponents and opponents advance their own agendas by tearing apart the other side. Often they do it in the name of Jesus, speaking as Christians. There are even hateful exchanges, saying the most mean-spirited, hurtful things, in online groups devoted to church and the Christian life.

I’m reminded of the verses from the Letter of James:

A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth.

If this letter was written today, it might add the fingers that type emails and Facebook posts. The same fingers can write an email to comfort a sick relative far away, and type a post that is full of toxic language and threats.

I have political and theological opinions, and sometimes when I listen to talk radio or read postings online or listen to the debate within the church I find myself agreeing with what’s expressed, and other times, many times, I’m appalled at how little obedience there is to the command of Jesus to love one another. Although my friends online may be friends only in social media, and many of them are ministers, often they rely on labels and stereotypes that prevent them from seeing anything valid in their opponents’ points. I do that too - too often. When Jesus tells us to love one another as he loved us, we need to ask, how do we love in today’s culture war environment of constant outrage and crisis, when every issue is seen as a battle to the finish between good and evil?

Well, we can think about families. People in families may have different opinions about issues, hold different political allegiances, attend different churches, even support different hockey teams. There may even be cases when mothers and their children have different views. I have probably mentioned before that my cousin Richard was the Conservative candidate for a seat in the New Brunswick Legislature, and his brother in law Gerald was running for the Liberal Party. Richard’s sister Reta, married to Gerald. never revealed who she voted for in that election, but the family’s love wasn’t threatened by this political competition. They laughed about it.

I remember back in the 1990s when the Meech Lake Accord was a big deal. No one even mentions Meech Lake or the Charlottetown Accord now, but they completely dominated politics at the time. And there were loud, passionate family debates about it. But everyone kept loving each other. Families don’t collapse because members express differing opinions. Even if a member goes beyond reasoned debate into outrageous ranting, they will likely be forgiven – well, maybe not right away, but eventually. Love never ends.

And so, if we are able to debate the issues of the day and put across our views in our families while staying in right relationship, we should be able to do so in our church family, and in our human family, without insulting and attacking each other. This doesn’t mean that we don’t feel passion or even anger when we see injustice. This doesn’t mean that we avoid speaking the truth. This doesn’t mean that love requires us to keep our deeply held beliefs hidden. But we can be passionate and powerful without speaking malice and slander. As we express what we believe with conviction and intensity, we are to stay away from personal attacks, and we are to treat those who disagree with us as sisters and brothers and their opinions and beliefs with respect. That is how we should act in a family. That is how we should act as children of God. That is how we should act, this is how we must act, as followers of Jesus Christ, who tells us: "This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you...You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last."

Go and produce fruit, Jesus says. If we love each other, love by listening, love with honesty and respect, then we will produce a harvest that builds up God’s realm of peace and love.

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