Reckless love – 5 – Value the vulnerable

Our first reading today is sort of the anthem text for the study we’re doing for Lent. That is the book Reckless Love by Tom Berlin. The reading comes from Luke 10:25-29.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Our next readings are from Matthew chapter 23, where Jesus rails against his foes in the religious establishment. First verse 13, then verses 23 to 24.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

This week’s chapter in Tom Berlin’s book is titled “Value the vulnerable.”

I find that notion especially relevant in these perilous times of a raging pandemic, when those people in our society who are always the most vulnerable are now critically vulnerable, and yet some politicians appear eager to write them off as expendable, so we can “get back to business” as quickly as possible.

Who is my neighbor whom I have to love? That’s the question the lawyer asks Jesus in the story from Luke. Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. There are many possible takeaways from that story. Surely one of them is that your neighbor is anyone you encounter who is in need.

Tom Berlin notes that one of the easiest ways to make this commandment manageable is to identify large groups of people to whom it does not apply.

The fewer people we have to love, the easier it is to do. The lawyer is hoping that Jesus will post some limits here. Perhaps he’ll say, “No, you don’t have to love those people; you only have to love these.”

And of course those people will be the ones you most want to hate and exclude, and these are the ones you most admire and want to include.

Jesus could have made it a lot easier if he’d given us some clever rules for how to work this out: who we could hate without feeling guilty, who we could refuse to associate with because they’re the wrong kind of people, and so on.

I once knew a guy who thought he had pretty much everything figured out, especially spiritual things. He was always saying, “Judge a person by the company he keeps.”

There are a lot of problems with that statement, among them that by this criterion, Jesus was a dismal failure. Jesus kept bad company. He associated with the down and out, the poor and those without hope, sinners and reprobates. He valued the most vulnerable people around him, if only because practically no one else did.

W.C. Fields was a great comedian from the early days of radio and film. He was known for hard drinking and riotous living. One day one of his friends found him studying a Bible. “What in the world are you doing?” the friend asked. Fields said: “Looking for loopholes, looking for loopholes.”

Of all the texts in the Bible that we’d like to avoid, this love commandment from Jesus is the one we’re most afraid of. When it comes to loving people we’d rather not even think about, we’re all looking for loopholes.

Really, Jesus? You expect me to love them? You gotta be kidding!

Jesus blasted the religious leaders of his day. Rather than inviting people to love God, they drove people away. They acted like gatekeepers locking people out rather than door openers inviting people in. Maybe even worse, having kept others out of God’s kingdom, they never went in themselves.

Blind guides! They followed the tiniest rules, Jesus said. They even offered God a tenth portion of the mint and other spices they grew in their home gardens. But they ignored what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law.” These matters are justice, and mercy, and faith.

These are matters of the heart. These are matters of loving others as God wants us to love them. It’s so much easier to do the flashy stuff that shows everyone how religious we are.

The scribes and Pharisees may have been “religious,” but they were not loving. And the full testimony of Jesus and the prophets before him is that God cares not one bit for your religious piety if your actions are not motivated by love and expressed by active love to others.

If religion is only a matter of looking holy on Sunday mornings, it’s not worth squat. If religion is not something you live out every day of your life, it’s worthless. In Philippians 3:8, the Apostle Paul describes such religion as “trash.” At least, that’s how the word is often translated. In the original Greek, the word he uses is much more colorful and coarse.

Think for a moment of who might be the most vulnerable today, when a deadly virus is sweeping the planet.

  • People who are older and have existing health conditions are most vulnerable to getting the disease.
  • People who were barely hanging on before this crisis and now don’t know where their next meal will come from.
  • People who have lost income or their jobs because so many businesses are shutting down.
  • Health care workers who are working, literally on the front lines, to save those who are infected and to keep others from becoming infected.
  • Those “essential employees” who are working longer hours with fewer and fewer workers beside them to keep certain operations running.
  • The clerks in your local grocery who are nearly exhausted after working so many days overtime to keep the shelves stocked with food and other supplies – yes, including toilet paper, if folks would stop hoarding it.

Pray for these vulnerable people. We need them, and they need our support.

There are those, of course, who are looking for loopholes.

There are those non-essential businesses that refuse to close because they think they’re somehow exempt from the rules that govern everyone else. There are those churches who think they are so holy that germs won’t get to them.

There are those politicians, such as that clown in Florida, who think we should ignore health experts and return to business as usual – and, hey, if we lose a few hundred thousand old folks along the way, somebody has to make sacrifices, right? Somebody – as long as it’s not me.

What’s the right thing to do to love those who are most vulnerable? Is it to lift restrictions and let people interact freely, and hope the virus will just go away? Or is it to continue to follow the guidelines of health professionals and stay away from each other for awhile longer? What is the just and merciful and faithful response here?

Friends, I am not going to risk your lives by parading my piety and pretending to be faithful while I am not doing the right thing.

Next Sunday is Palm & Passion Sunday, the doorway to Holy Week. The doors of our church building will remain closed. We’ll again worship online. Sometime during Holy Week, probably on Good Friday, we’ll offer a special time of worship, perhaps in a way that is more interactive than simply you listening to me talk.

On Easter Sunday, we’ll offer a unique worship experience, but it also will be online. We’ll celebrate together soon – not soon enough, but only when the time is right for us to gather safely.

Pray that the time will be right soon. Pray that God protects the most vulnerable among us – and give us the strength to do the same. Continue to love one another by keeping a certain physical distance – not a social distance, but a physical distance. It’s the best we can do in this dangerous time.


This message was delivered March 29, 2020, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, via FaceBook Live.

Reckless love – 4 – Openhearted love

This is the Apostle Paul writing to the church at Corinth, carried down to us in a document known as 2 Corinthians 5:16-20. Paul writes:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view. Even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

            So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. See, everything has become new!

            All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

            So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.


If you joined us for our Ash Wednesday worship, you heard part of this passage then. That was three and a half weeks ago. Hard to believe this is the fourth Sunday of Lent. Our world and our lives have changed so fast.

            Change is what this passage from Paul is all about. Change is also what the fourth chapter of Tom Berlin’s book is all about – and, of course, what Lent is all about.

The book is titled Reckless Love. That title seemed outlandish enough a few weeks ago. In these days when we’re all practicing “an abundance of caution” to stop the spread of a deadly virus, it seems foolhardy, even dangerous, to speak of loving recklessly.

            Yet that’s what Tom Berlin says we must do if we are to love the way God loves us and wants us to love as well. To love God’s way, Berlin says, we need to learn “openhearted” love, love that is open to encounters with others, knowing that those encounters could change us in profound ways.

            I think that’s exactly what Paul means when he says that “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” Rather we now, regard everyone from God’s point of view.

            From a human point of view, we are divided into warring camps. It’s liberal versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat, pro-Trump versus anti-Trump, straight versus gay, black versus white, male versus female, young versus old – on and on, ad nauseum.

            Seems like some people just gotta have somebody to hate. Hey, if you don’t hate the right people, we’ll tell you who should hate, and then you’ll be just like us and not like them – and isn’t this what life is all about? No! That attitude sums up the human point of view that Paul says we’re supposed to put behind us.

            There’s a string of “therefores” in this part of Paul’s letter, and each “therefore” points back to Christ. Knowing Christ is supposed to change us. We’re supposed to love God’s way now. That’s agape love, love without reason, love without hope of reward, love inspired by God’s love for us.

God’s love makes us different people. At least, it’s supposed to. Tom Berlin says most of us were perfectly happy with the way we were until we met Jesus, and sometimes we’re not so sure about the outcome of that encounter, because meeting Jesus sure did change us.

            In fact, there ought to be a huge difference between the way we were Pre-Jesus and the way we are Post-Jesus. If there isn’t, maybe we really haven’t been following Jesus. Maybe we’ve been following an imposter.

            You have to wonder, considering how much hate there is in some churches these days, who some folks are following. Seems like some are still following Jesus from what Paul calls “a human point of view.”

            We don’t want to know Jesus that way. We see him as our Savior, our Deliverer, our Lord and our God – and, oh yes, the one who commands us to love one another.

Tom Berlin notes that Jesus does not suggest that we love our neighbors. He commands it. He’s not even polite about it. He just says “do it.” And if we do it, if we are truly “in Christ,” as Paul puts it, we will love openheartedly because we are a new creation.

Everything has become new. Most of all, we have become new. We just aren’t the same people we once were. God’s openhearted love has liberated us to love openheartedly.

So how do we live with an open heart in a time of social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine and great suspicion, if not fear, of the other? First, of course, you have to open yourself to the other. You have to open your heart and your mind.

            A common division in our society is that of race.

            If you were a young black male, it would be commonplace for you to be walking down the street and see a white woman walking toward you, but before she gets near, she walks across the street to avoid passing close to you.

That action, and others like it, may stem from conscious racism.

            Or it might be a bodily response that has become so ingrained in her that she isn’t even aware of it. It’s unconscious. She does it without thinking. Call her on her behavior, and she might not recall that she did anything out of the ordinary. In fact, she did not do anything out of the ordinary. But it being ordinary doesn’t make it right.

            Such attitudes are very difficult to change because it’s hard to find their source. Bigotry is a twisted form of self love. It is buried deep within the heart, and it can be rooted out only by an experience that turns the heart from fearful to accepting.

            Jesus offers us such an experience – probably many of them, in fact.

            When we follow Jesus, we seem to be always finding ourselves in human interactions that stretch us, that agitate us, that shake us all up. Jesus once suggested that following him requires us to live like new wineskins that will expand as the new life within us ferments. By contrast, if we behave like old wineskins, the fermenting new wine will cause us to explode.

            But we are new wineskins – new creations, as Paul says. With hearts and minds renewed through the love of Christ and through more open contact with others, our actions can be transformed.

            We can choose love as a way of life. We can make love a habit of the heart that expresses itself in everything we do. Only then can we join God’s ministry of reconciliation and be ambassadors for Christ, entreating others to be reconciled to God, as we ourselves have been.

            It’s hard to feel like a good ambassador when we’re supposed to gather in groups no larger than 10 and stay 6 feet apart.

            But maybe we can use this time of imposed isolation to prepare ourselves for those days ahead when we can interact freely with others. Maybe Lent is the perfect time for each of us to be forced to stay away from others while we get our acts together spiritually and relationally.

            Maybe Lent should last as long as it takes for us to decide to set our prejudices aside and step forward to new life with an open heart.        Maybe then, when we hear the bells proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus, each of us can proclaim, “I am risen with him!”

            May it be so with each and every one of us!

This message was delivered March 22, 2020, the fourth Sunday of Lent, via FaceBook Live.

Going viral

Nothing like a pandemic to bring out the crazies.

Naturally, they reflect the fractures in our culture.

Ÿ “The best way to love our neighbors is to do so from a distance right now,” says one Episcopal priest. Yup.

Ÿ “We feel we are being persecuted for the faith by being told to close our doors,” says the pastor of a church in Baton Rouge.

Really? When all large gatherings are discouraged, you do you really think you’re being singled out? Of have you just run out of other things to whine about?

Ÿ “I’ve got news for you: This church will never close,” says a pastor in Florida. “The only time the church will close is when the Rapture is taking place.”

I’ve got news for you, pastor: The Rapture is a theological fiction, and your phony bravado does you and your church no credit. How many people will you expose by never closing?

Ÿ Jerry Falwell Jr. speculates that the virus is the work of North Korea. Evidence for this claim? None.

But to seal his reputation as a false prophet, he says: “I just think it’s silly to be wringing your hands and worrying about something like this…”

Ÿ That’s essentially been the response of Missouri Gov. Mike Parson. A good ol’ boy Republican, he refuses to take action because his philosophy of government will not allow government to be a force for good.

Ÿ Meanwhile, in Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly is criticized by GOP legislators for acting too aggressively. She’s a Democrat, after all. She could be planning to take away their guns or impose a dictatorship or something.

Ÿ Trump insists on calling this the “Chinese virus.” He insists this isn’t racist, though it is, thoroughly and calculatedly. He’s playing to the bigotry and ignorance of his base.

Ÿ Take the clown in government in Riley County, Kansas, who says the virus won’t be a problem there because they’re aren’t a lot of Chinese people living there. That just doesn’t make sense any way you look at it.

Ÿ Some say it’s not racist to call it a “Chinese virus.” After all, we called earlier epidemics the Hong Kong Flu, the Spanish Flu, and the like. And those weren’t tinged with racism?

Ÿ The Chinese, for their part, insist that the virus was introduced to their country by Americans. Iranians say the same. Both have governments that can’t be trusted.

Ÿ The Chinese government bungled its handling of the virus at first, allowing it to spread like wildfire, to change the metaphor. Trump’s response has been remarkably similar. That should not be a surprise because Trump and Xi both work from the same authoritarian playbook and will not listen to experts on any issue. We’ll see if Trump can lie his way out of this one.

Ÿ At any rate, health experts say testing for the virus is no longer necessary in most areas. We have already failed to contain it. It’s everywhere now.

Ÿ Worst-case scenario: 1 million or so deaths in the U.S. Pray that the right people are allowed to make the right decisions to keep it from getting that bad.

Ÿ As for those who continue to downplay the threat, and insist that they always took it seriously when clearly they did not, never believe a word they say about anything ever again. Never. Not one word.

Reckless love – 3: Lavish love

Ed Doherty, my father-in-law, Linda’s dad, died Feb. 8 at the age of 98. He lived his last years in an assisted living center. As our family sat with him in his final hours, staff members frequently came by to comfort us and to let us know much they appreciated knowing Ed.

Ed went out of his way to get to know the staff personally. He knew everyone by name, and he knew some of their children by name, even if he had never met them. And some staff members who had never met us nevertheless knew enough about us from talking with Ed that they could figure out who we were, just at a glance.

It’s not that Ed wasn’t occasionally demanding. He could grouse with the best of them, especially about the food. But he was not unpleasant about it. He didn’t treat the staff as servants or wait persons. They were friends.

I only wish that I might act with such benevolence toward everyone I encounter.

“Benevolent” is one of those words we sometimes toss around without fully taking its meaning to heart. To be benevolent is to have “good will” toward others. It’s that feeling that’s so pervasive in the Christmas season – you know, as the angels said, “peace on earth, good will to all” (Luke 2:14).

Good will is agape. It’s one of the four kinds of love mentioned in that “love commercial,” where it’s called “the most admirable” kind of love because it’s love in action. It’s love toward others not because of anything they’ve done or you hope they will do, but solely because they are.

In his book Reckless Love, which we are studying for Lent, Tom Berlin calls it lavish love. It’slavish because it’s so much more than you might expect. If love is lavish because it’s is more than you expect, you might wonder if your expectations are set too low.

Certainly in America today, our public discourse has become so corrupted by partisanship and the vicious put-down of others that we have very low expectations of how people should behave.

Pass someone on the street, and instead of a smile or a nod, you’re likely to get a glare or a snarl. Wave at someone when they drive by, and you risk them chasing you down and demanding to know what the blank you thought were doing gesturing at them.

Boy, have we got it all wrong.

One of the greatest minds of the modern era was Martin Buber, who died in 1965. One of the greatest books of the modern era was Buber’s book I and Thou, published in Germany in 1923.

Buber was widely known as a philosopher and theologian and teller of stories about Jewish life. He humbly contended that all he did was write about relationships, chiefly about human relationships with God, as shown in their relationships with other humans. If you think that sounds like Jesus, you’re right; it does.

I and Thou is maddeningly difficult to read. Buber says that’s because he wants to challenge people to think, not merely accept what he says without question. Here is one of his challenging assertions: “In the beginning was the Relation.”

Actually, Buber did not capitalize the “R” in “relation,” but I think that’s how he understands it. Buber maintains that to talk about God is idolatry. You can only talk to God.

You can’t talk about God because God is not an object you can observe. God is a subject you must encounter. To even speak of God, you must have a relationship with God, because God is the ultimate relation and the source of all relation.

All of life is encounter, Buber says. The chief task of human life is to become “holy” – that is, to have a genuine relationship with God.

Buber describes two kinds of encounter.

First is “I-It.” This is the kind of relationship you have with an inanimate object such as a tree or a chair. You can also have this kind of relationship with people. For example, when you buy something at the store, you may exchange pleasantries with the cashier, but you don’t establish a real relationship with that person.

Most of the time, you might just as well be using an automated check-out where you interact only with a machine. Your relationship with the cashier is instrumental. It’s transactional. It’s limited to the task at hand. Your encounter is brief and generally impersonal. Outside of an occasional glance, or maybe a smile, there is no genuine relationship here.

It’s different if you know the cashier from outside the store, of if you’ve done enough business with the store that you have started to form a friendship with the person. The relationship may no longer be “I-It.” It may be closer to “I-Thou.”

The chief difference is that now you experience the other person as a genuine human being. The cashier is no longer an object you encounter but someone who is a subject just like you. The cashier is someone who has a personality and a past and hopes and dreams and all those other things that define persons as persons.

The cashier is no longer an It. The cashier is now a Thou. Actually, the cashier is not a Thou but a You. When he saw the English translations of his book, Buber wasn’t happy with the King James English. He thought the language was too formal, too distancing, and put an unnecessary barrier between people. I also want to depose King James. To me, you are not a Thou. You are a You, and I want to relate to You as openly as possible.

And it is through recognizing you as a You that I become more fully myself. My life has meaning only in my relationships. “All real living is meeting,” Buber says. I can find wholeness only through encounter with You and others like You.

And the more whole I become through encounter with You, the closer I can come in relationship with God, who is the Eternal You, the Eternal Thou, the Relation who was there from the start of things.

You want to cultivate I-Thou relationships because those are the relations that give your life meaning. But you cannot live without I-It relationships.

I-Thou relationships also have their I-It moments. Imagine yourself at the Price Chopper and you’re behind a person who is having a half-hour catch-up conversation with the cashier. The Price Chopper checkout may be a time for brief acknowledgements of deeper connection, but it is generally not the place for deep engagement with another person.

If you engaged in nothing but I-Thou relationships all the time, you would never get anything done besides talking and hugging. But if all your relationships are I-It, your life would be an emotional desert. You move between I-It and I-Thou relations all the time.

I think here of Fred Rogers, host of the longtime children’s TV show “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” One of the things that made him such an extraordinary person was his ability to focus entirely on another person.

If you saw the movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” you may recall a couple of times when he literally stopped what he was doing to devote his time and full attention to someone. I-Thou relations with Mister Rogers could be intense. When he engaged you one-on-one, he didn’t just give you part of himself. He gave you all of himself.

Even he couldn’t do that full-time. Perhaps no one can. Perhaps only Jesus could. Maybe that’s one of the things that attracted people to Jesus and held them by his side. Whether he was talking to one person or twelve or a thousand, there was never any question where his focus was. It was on those he was facing. It was on you.

Don’t you hate it when it’s clear that someone is paying only partial attention to you?

In the spring of 1982, I flew from Michigan to Kansas City to interview for a copy editing job at the Kansas City Star & Times. I was introduced to one of the top editors. He stuck out a hand and said, “Good to meet you.” But even as he was shaking my hand, his eyes already were moving from me to someone else, and even before we were done shaking hands, he was starting to move away to talk to that other person.

I’m sure he was busy. Fatally busy, I would say. I told myself, “I do not want to work for this guy.” I did get a job there – but, happily, not working for him or directly with him. A few weeks later, when I had started to work there, I re-introduced myself to him, and he appeared to have no memory of me at all. Why should he remember me? I was never anything more to him than a piece of furniture – job applicant, desk, lamp, same thing.

You’ve probably heard the maxim: “Use things, not people. Love people, not things.” Yet how often do we treat people instrumentally, as instruments of our will, to be used for our personal advancement and set aside when they’re no longer useful.

I’ve always had trouble at Chamber of Commerce coffees and similar events. When the ribbon cutting or other program is over, you’re all invited to mingle and network – that is, you’re supposed to make or renew contacts that might be useful to your business.

I’m terrible at this kind of networking. It makes my inner shy boy very uncomfortable. I feel like I’m walking up to someone and saying, “What can you do for me?” On the other hand, I’ve discovered that if I show a genuine interest in another person without an agenda, I can have a great conversation and maybe even make a new friend.

When you treat someone as a Thou, as a You, they most likely will treat you the same way. And isn’t that what Jesus said you should do – treat others the way you want to be treated? (Luke 6:31, Matthew 7:12)

No one wants to be treated like an It. Each of us wants to be treated as a Thou, as a You, as a valued human being and as a friend. That doesn’t mean that you must have an in-depth conversation with every person you know every time you run into them. Sometimes it’s enough just to say, “Hi, how are you?” But if the conversation moves past the superficial, be prepared to listen with both ears open.

Listening is one of the ways you love others as your love yourself. Be a good listener.

I was once in a checkout line at a Wal Mart in the days approaching Christmas. Yeah, I know; not a good time to be at Wal Mart. The guy ahead of me in line was furious about something, and he yelled at the cashier. It was not something she had done, or could do anything about, but he was mad, and she was a convenient target, so he took it out on her.

As she was checking me out, I said something about being sorry she had to endure such treatment. She sighed and said, “Some days it’s hard working at Wal Mart.”

I doubt that anything I said made her feel any better about her day. But at least I didn’t make her feel worse. A little kindness can go a long way in a world like ours. Benevolence is all the more valuable because it is so rare.

Jesus tells us not only to love God and ourselves and our neighbor but also to love our enemies. Some people seem to have a lot of enemies. In fact, the whole world seems to be lined up against them. Or is it that they love no one, not even themselves, and they are taking it out on the world by making so many others their enemies?

When we speak of lavish love, we ought to realize that it’s really not lavish at all. It’s the way love is supposed to be.

Love begets love, Henri Nouwen says. But Tom Berlin reminds us, “All God’s children have to be taught to love.” It’s also true that all God’s children have to be taught to hate. Which are you teaching to those you encounter day by day? Do you treat people like an It, or do you try to love people as a Thou? Remember how God loves you, and do likewise.

This message was delivered March 15, 2020, on the Third Sunday of Lent, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Mark 5:43-48. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, it will be the last message delivered “live” and in person until April.

Reckless love – 2: Expand the circle

When you’re a kid, or you feel like a kid, and you get together with a bunch of friends to play a team sport, what’s the first thing you do? You choose up sides! The captains of the two teams stand over there, and all the players stand together over here, and one by one the captains choose who they want on their team.

Depending on how good you are, or how popular you are, this may be the best or the worst part of the game. Ever been the first one chosen? You get to high-five all those chosen after you. Ever been the last one chosen? Humiliating. No high-fives left for you.

With me, it mostly depended on the game. If we were playing basketball, I was one of the last chosen. I couldn’t dribble. Well, I could dribble, just not while running. Major handicap for a basketball player.

Softball or baseball, I was an OK pick. I didn’t have a strong throwing arm, but I was a good hitter. You could depend on me to get on base, and I was a fast runner.

You know the dynamics of the team selection process. Each team captain has to choose the best first, or the other team captain will get them. You can play nice guy and choose friendship over ability, but every time you pick a loser, you forfeit the chance to add a winner to your team. The object is to build a team with the strongest players on the field. You want all those on your team to be winners, so you can smoke the other team and claim bragging rights.

If those factors go into selecting a team for a pickup game in somebody’s back yard, what more must go into selecting a team to help save the world? When you look at the 12-man roster Jesus chose for his team of disciples, you may wonder what he was thinking.

Consider the some of the variables. What kind of person would you choose to proclaim that God’s kingdom is coming right here and right now? What kind of person would you choose to proclaim that God’s love is all that matters in the world, and however important other things are, this is the most important?

What kind of person would you send out “like a sheep among wolves” to represent you and heal people and drive out demons in your name? (Matthew 10:1, 16) What kind of person would you choose to learn from you and carry on after you when you know that your message is going to get you killed and probably will get them killed, too?

Is there one special kind of person you would choose to be your disciple? Or are there several kinds of personalities and temperaments you might want to include? And how do you get these very different people to work together, not only when you’re leading them but, maybe more importantly, after you’re gone?

From the stories we read in the gospels, it appears that Jesus purposefully enlists five of his disciples and chooses the rest from a crowd of hopefuls. He goes to a mountaintop and spends the night in prayer. Next morning, he calls up all the disciple wannabes, and from them he chooses the final 12 who will be his closest followers.

The number 12, of course, is highly symbolic. It’s the number of the original tribes of Israel. Jesus begins his mission calling all Israel to repentance, so that number is important. The 12 seem to represent not only Israel but also some of its major religious and political factions.

The first four personally enlisted by Jesus are the Johnson brothers, Andrew and Simon Peter; and the Zebedee brothers, James and John. They’re all commercial fishermen on the Sea of Galilee.

All Galilean fishermen are under great pressure from the local despot, Herod Antipas, who taxes them heavily so he can build a big new seaside resort named after the emperor Tiberius.

That makes the fifth disciple enlisted by Jesus a very interesting pick. That’s Matthew, also called Levi. He’s a tax collector. He’s got a kiosk right on the lakeshore, and he charges a tax on every fish hauled out of the water. Some of it he gives to Herod and Tiberius; some of it he keeps for himself.

It’s an understatement to say that he is not well-liked, especially by fishermen – maybe especially by the Zebedee brothers, whom Jesus calls the Sons of Thunder, as if they were part of a motorcycle gang.

The remaining seven disciples are a mixed bag. Simon the Zealot is called Zealot because he wants to fight the Romans. Judas called Iscariot is a special kind of Zealot, a Sicarrii. He and his buddies specialize in cozying up to someone in a crowd, sticking a knife in them, and then quietly disappearing. You can bet both of those guys really get along well with that tax collector fellow.

Thomas is a staunch loyalist to Jesus, but he’s such a literalist; he demands proof of everything. There’s a second James, sometimes called James the Younger. He’s a brother of Matthew/Levi. The brothers are cousins of Jesus, sons of Alphaeus, who is the brother of Jesus’ foster father Joseph.

About the last three, Philip, Bartholomew and Thaddaeus, we know little if anything beyond their names. Perhaps they represent the major sects of Judaism at the time: the liberal Pharisees, the conservative Sadducees and the ultra-conservative Essenes.

We don’t know what makes these 12 potential winners. All we can be sure of is that Jesus wants all of them on his team. He has not chosen them willy-nilly. He has given careful thought and much prayer to each one. And I haven’t even mentioned the female disciples who follow with them. They may represent constituencies of their own.

Viewed politically, it looks as if Jesus is building a team of rivals. That’s what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin calls the cabinet that President Abraham Lincoln forged to guide the Union through the Civil War. The men in Lincoln’s cabinet represented very different viewpoints and were rivals in many ways. A couple of them really wanted Lincoln’s job, too. It was Lincoln’s genius not only to get them together in the same room but to get them to work together productively.

Viewed theologically, Jesus is creating what theologian Scot McKnight calls a “fellowship of differents.” That’s the word “different” with an “s” on the end. It’s a fellowship of very different people. Though the disciples spend much of their time with Jesus not listening very well and often missing the point entirely, all but Judas eventually become of one mind when it comes to proclaiming who Jesus is and what the kingdom of God is all about.

That suggests that Jesus chose them more for their strength of character than for their ability to get along. In fact, you might say that he intentionally creates a team of people who rub against each other. He knows that they will stretch each other, if they didn’t kill each other first. And stretching one another is one of the major goals of Christian fellowship.

So says Tom Berlin. His book Reckless Love is guiding our study this Lent. This is the second Sunday of Lent and the second message in a series inspired by the book. (You probably thought I’d never get around to announcing that.)

Living God’s way means loving God’s way, Berlin says, and that means loving recklessly. To love recklessly means to enter every situation and human encounter with love. Loving recklessly means expanding your circle of love – loving more people, especially those who are not at all like you.

When we think of love, we tend to think of it as a precious resource that is limited in supply – sort of like your favorite pie. When you cut up a pie, it gets smaller with every piece you give away. But you don’t have to divvy up love to share it. Love involves multiplication, not division. Love multiplies exponentially. When you love, your share of love doesn’t diminish. It expands in explosive fashion. There’s always more than you started with. Don’t you wish pie were the same way?

Expanding the circle of love starts with you. Remember, Jesus says you should love the Lord your God with every fiber of your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. It has to start with you. You can’t love your neighbor the same way you love yourself. But you can’t love anybody if you don’t love yourself.

Fact is, a lot of us don’t even like ourselves, let alone love ourselves.

Maybe it started with one or both of your parents. No matter how hard you tried, you were never good enough. Nothing you did earned praise or affirmation, only criticism. You yearned to hear those simple but powerful words, “I love you.”

Relatives, friends, teachers were all the same. Your extended family saw you through your parents’ eyes. Your friends were always asking for something but never giving much in return. From the first day of school, your teachers put you in a box labeled “hopeless.”

As you got older, it didn’t get much better. You were always “less than.” Even when you got married, you never felt secure. You were burdened by shame and guilt over minor things – maybe even shame and guilt over some big things you did to get attention, any attention, from anyone who would pay attention.

You know the hardest person in the world to love? Yourself. You know the hardest person in the world to forgive? Yourself.

Whatever your story is, you can love yourself and forgive yourself because God does. Any capacity for love that you have springs from God’s love. You can love only because God loves you first. (1 John 4:19)

If God loves you and God forgives you, who are you to keep beating up on yourself? You are a valuable human being. Live like it. Be the wonderful person God created you to be. Bust out of the cage others have built around you. Bust out of the cage you have built around yourself.

“Come to me,” Jesus says. “Come to me, all you who are struggling and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

Jesus wants to set you free of your burdens. Jesus wants to set you free to love God, yourself and others. And that he will do. By loving you and forgiving you, Jesus removes the barriers between you and God. By loving and forgiving you, Jesus heals the inner turmoil that alienates you from your very self. By loving and forgiving you, Jesus drives away the fear that keeps you from embracing the other.

Fear of the other is what keeps us in homogeneous camps, surrounded by people who look like us, eat like us, act like us, hate like us – who for all purposes are just extensions of our fearful ourselves. But to be fully ourselves, we need to expand ourselves. We need to expand our circle of love and spend more time rubbing against others who aren’t like us at all.

Sure, it can be kind of scary, especially at first, when it feels like everyone rubs us the wrong way. But quickly we learn that others are more like us than not like us, and if we have a common goal, we can work together as a team.

Maybe that skinny kid can’t dribble, but he sure can sink one from the outside. That big kid moves slow, but nobody gets past him. There could be a place for both of them on God’s team. There could be a place for you, too.

God’s team isn’t limited to 12. Its circle is constantly expanding. If your circle is expanding, too, those circles could come together in a new and much larger circle of love. Ask yourself: Who’s on your team? Whose team are you on? On God’s team, everyone’s a winner!

This message was delivered at Edgerton United Methodist Church, in Edgerton, Kansas, on March 8, 2020, the Second Sunday of Lent, from Mark 2:14-17 and 3:13-19.

Reckless love – 1: Begin with love

When you hear the word “love,” you may first think of romantic love, or some other kind of love that can be conveyed with a heart-shaped Valentine.

More than a thousand pop songs have the word “love” in their title, and thousands more tell stories of loves found and lost. “All you need is love,” the Beatles assure us. Love makes the world go ’round, another song says. Love is central to the plots of movies and plays and novels and poems and TV commercials.  

About the last place you’d expect to find a heartfelt and sober-minded appreciation of love is a commercial that appeared for the first time a month ago during the Super Bowl. But there it was, plain as day: a slow-paced, carefully worded message from, yes, a life insurance company – New York Life, to be exact.

If you haven’t seen it, Google “love commercial” to find it. As the commercial shows various scenes from several stages of life, the narrator says:

The Ancient Greeks had four words for love.

The first is Philia. Philia is affection that grows from friendship.

Next is storge, the kind you have for your grandson or brother.

Third is Eros, the uncontrollable urge to say “I love you.”

The fourth kind of love is different. It’s the most admirable. It’s called Agape, love as an action. It takes courage, sacrifice, strength.

On its website, New York Life says Agape stands out above all the other kinds of love. Why? Because it inspires us to put the needs of others above our own. It’s about doing what’s right, being the best person you can be, building better futures. Since 1845, the company says, “we’ve been helping people put their love into action for their families and loved ones.”

There are lots of ways of doing that beyond buying more life insurance. We’ll be looking at some of those ways for the next six weeks, throughout the season of Lent.

The focus of our study is a book by Tom Berlin titled Reckless Love: God’s call to love our neighbor. Tom Berlin is pastor of a large United Methodist Church in Virginia. He’s co-author of several good books on church growth. As a key figure in UMCNext, he represented several progressive groups in the recent negotiations that led to the Protocol for dividing the church.

If you join the small group discussions that follow worship each Sunday during Lent, you’ll see video presentations by Tom. He is not a slick presenter. He is a thoroughly real guy who struggles with what it means to love God by loving your neighbor.

That New York Life ad is right about several important things. Agape, love as an action, is hard. It takes courage, sacrifice and strength.

It’s not that other kinds of love don’t involve action, and may not also require courage, sacrifice and strength. It’s that Agape love is special because it is not directly motivated by personal interest in, or affection for, the one you love.

That’s why Jesus can command you to love not only God and yourself but also your neighbor. And who is your neighbor? As Jesus makes clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan, your neighbor is anyone you encounter who needs the help you can provide.

That’s also why Jesus can command us to love even our enemies – because agape love is radically inclusive. It covers everyone, whether we like them or not, whether they like us or not, because we’re all made in the image of God and we’re all precious in God’s sight, no matter how messed up we are.

Agape love may involve emotion but it is not necessarily motivated by emotion. It is simply wishing the best for another. It is willing good for another. It is acting for the best and for the good of another.

Wishing, willing and acting. We’re talking about an attitude of the heart that finds expression in our actions.

There is no way that this is remotely easy. That’s why we’re talking about it during Lent, which is a season of repentance, a season of turning from one attitude to another.

During Lent, we hope to turn away from the way the world does things and turn toward the way God want us to do things – and, don’t you know, those two ways are so often diametrically opposed.

During Lent, we hope to turn away from the world’s way and turn toward the Jesus way. As Tom Berlin says in his book, there ought to be a difference between the way you think and act and live and love Pre-Jesus and the way you think and act and live and love Post-Jesus. If meeting Jesus doesn’t change you thoroughly, you haven’t met the real Jesus. You’ve met an imposter.

Being changed by Jesus and learning to love God’s way is the primary commitment of your life, Berlin says. Being changed by Jesus and learning to love God’s way is the only way you’ll break out of the vicious circle of life the world’s way and find your way into the virtuous circle of life the Jesus way.

Loving God and loving neighbor are intertwined. You show your love for God by the way you love your neighbor. You can’t see God, the first letter of John argues, so you must show your love for God by the way you treat those you can see.

That’s why the great Hebrew prophets are always railing against pious shows of devotion and phony shows of religion. These are all hypocritical and meaningless unless they reflect a genuine love for the other whom God loves just as much as God loves you.

OK, love is hard enough. What’s all this about “reckless” love? Love sounds reckless enough. Why make it worse?

Obviously, the word “reckless” has many negative connotations – reckless driving, reckless gambling, reckless living in general, the way we imagine the Prodigal Son lived in that parable Jesus told. Now attach the word “reckless” to the word “love,” and you might conjure up all sorts of visions of wild sexual encounters.

The kind of reckless love God is talking about is nothing like that. God’s reckless love is not eros, or attractional, sexual love. It’s agape “wishing the best for another’ love that crosses conventional social boundaries. It crosses boundaries of race and ethnic origin, language, social status, income, where you live and so on. Cross the wrong social boundary and some people will think you’re weird, at best – at worse, subversive and dangerous.

God’s reckless love also crosses boundaries of personal convenience. Am I the only one, or are there just some people you cannot get along with; people who are so hard to deal with that you would just as soon avoid them altogether?

Tom Berlin issues this warning. When you try to love recklessly, you will encounter so many difficult people that you will start to think that God is messing with you. And the truth is, he says, God is messing with you. God keeps putting you in contact with difficult people so that through loving them you will learn to love everyone, and therefore you will grow in your love of God and neighbor.

We’ll spend the rest of this series of messages looking at the various kinds of difficult people you can encounter, and how you can best deal with them in a recklessly loving way.

Here’s a powerful thought from the great Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. She says that loving another person “as is” is the hardest spiritual work in the world. Why? Because, she says, when you meet someone, you want to “use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control” that person.

You don’t want to accept anyone “as is.” You want to change them. But the only person in the world you can change is you. If you truly want to help someone, you have to let God change that person. To do that, you have to give each person you enough freedom and personal space for God to act.

Theologian Tom Wright says that you have to not only accept each person as other but also affirm and celebrate that otherness. You have to want everyone to become not who you want them to be but who God wants them to be.

You have to cherish and yet let go. That sounds a lot like parenting, doesn’t it? Treating someone that way is truly reckless and radical love.

Tom Berlin reminds us that love is not a principle we believe in or an aspiration we hope to achieve but an orientation to life that sets the course of everything we do. It’s an orientation to life that has to be renewed moment by moment. We have to begin every day and begin every encounter with love on our minds.

How can you do that? Let me show you a way. As I list some encounters you might have in a common day, please respond to each with the words, “Begin with love.”

When you wake up in the morning, what do you do? You…

When you first encounter your spouse or your housemate or your dog or your cat, you…

As you head out to buy groceries or run other errands, you…

When you’re accosted by a grouchy clerk at the store, you…

When you dread the meeting you have to attend, or the task you have to do at work, you…

When the lights go out or the cable service fails, even before you dial the help number, you pause to remind yourself to…

When the person trying to help you is in a noisy call center in India and you can barely hear him, let alone understand him, before you start yelling, you…

When you’re watching the news on TV and some politician says something blindingly stupid, before you scream in outrage, you…

When your spouse, or another person you value highly, unthinkingly says something so hurtful that your eyes sting, you…

At the end of the day, when you’re trying to lift up the good in your thoughts and set aside the bad, how do you pray? You…

And as you drift off to sleep and your mind wanders, what attitude journeys with your thoughts? You always …

Whatever happens day or night, you always…

When you do that, don’t you know, love does make the world go ’round.


A message delivered March 1, 2020, the First Sunday of Lent, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Mark 12: 28-34a.