Above all, maintain constant love for one another,” says the book of First Peter in the Bible. It seems that the author was unaware of how many jerks there are in the world. Rev. John Weems considers our reality, and what it means to love “with the strength that God supplies.
1 Peter 4:8-1
Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
A pastor stood before her congregation, preaching on Jesus’ command to love enemies. She invited the congregation to raise their hands if they had more than five enemies. Several people sheepishly raised their hands. “Raise your hands if you only have one or two enemies,” she said. A small number of people kept their hands up. “Now raise your hand if you have no enemies at all,” she said. The pastor looked all around the sanctuary. She could only see one hand up. The pastor recognized the person as Mrs. Patterson, a longtime member of the church. She approached Mrs. Patterson with a microphone, “What an inspiration you are! How do you manage to have no enemies?”
“I’m 101-years-old,” answered Mrs. Patterson. “All the jerks have died.”
“Above all, maintain constant love for one another,” writes the author of today’s Scripture lesson.
How on earth are we supposed to do this?
The author of the letter of First Peter had some firsthand experience with the challenge of human dynamics. The letter was likely written approximately 80 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Professor Pheme Perkins of Boston College explains that First Peter is a response to “The danger that persistent, local harassment and persecution might weaken the faith of Christians in Asia Minor.” Roman imperial policy wasn’t to blame for persecution of early Christ-followers–neighbors were going after neighbors.
Some of you may associate the name Pliny with one of the most coveted beers in the world. The historical figure did not work for the Russian River Brewery. Pliny the Younger was the governor of Bithynia, an area in modern day Turkey. Pliny wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan seeking guidance for handling local cases in which local people filed charges. Trajan did not find evidence that Christians were causing problems, but Pliny still had to manage the situation to avoid chaos. For instance, if someone accused a Christian of failing to worship state gods, Pliny could give the accused three chances to denounce their beliefs and reaffirm the emperor as God. If they refused, he could sentence them to death.
This placed immense pressure on the young faith community.
Neighbors were looking at neighbors with great suspicion. If someone subscribed to a different belief system, he or she could be condemned as a lesser being or even unworthy of living at all.
Can you imagine such a world?
The author of First Peter called his people to rise above us versus them thinking.
He knew that we could not do it alone, stating that, “whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies.” Jesus was able to look at those who put him on the cross and say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) He was able to exhibit this superhuman strength because it transcended human ability.
Think about something truly awesome for a moment. The particles that were present in the beginning of the universe are in us. Some physicists estimate that at least 93 percent of the mass of the human body is made of stardust. We know we are very capable of hating one another and finding good reasons to separate by tribes, even within the walls of this church. If our Creator is capable of breathing life into stardust, I refuse to lose hope that God can provide the strength for us to live into Christ’s model of selfless, agape love.
“Love covers a multitude of offenses,” says 1 Peter 4:8. The sentiment is drawn from Proverbs 10:12 in the Hebrew Bible. “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”
Love doesn’t mean you will necessarily want to cuddle someone or go riding along Marina Green on a tandem bike while singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
God’s agape love is deeper than that. Her Holy Spirit is continuing to breathe it.
Sometimes we miss the love by holding on so tightly to the views of our tribes.
This past week, Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, pastor at Glide until being elected as one of the Bishops of the United Methodist Church, faced that reality. Methodist Judicial Council ruled that though she is technically in good standing as a Bishop, her installation to the post was in violation of church law because she is a lesbian. Whether or not Bishop Oliveto keeps her position, the decision paved the way for the persecution of other LBTBQI people.
If you’ve ever crossed paths with Karen, she exudes Christ’s love. Karen is so loving that she actually injured herself from hugging too much! In her own comments as the trial began, Bishop Oliveto said, “What is fascinating about today’s hearing is that no one questioned the gifts and graces I possess for ordained ministry and specifically for the episcopacy. And no one has looked at my work and said my abilities for this task are lacking.”
Before her trial results, Bishop Oliveto shared a quote from John Wesley, a founder of Methodism: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”
In her most recent post, Bishop Oliveto wrote about an experience in which she was asked to discuss the religious right to a government agency. After her talk, she says she was approached by a prominent conservative who said, “You spoke about me, but you don’t really know me.” Reflecting back, Karen says, “He was right. How dare I speak ABOUT someone else and not allow them to speak for themselves the truth of their life and faith. There is a lot going on in our churches. We are talking about one another, without opening our hearts to each person’s life story and experience of God. Our eyes are closed to each other.”
I know in this congregation and in your circles of families and friends, we are not of one opinion.
I do not assume that just because we are in San Francisco, everyone is ready to hoist a Pride flag. I do not assume that if you have concerns about Black Lives Matter that you are a racist, or that your heart is filled with hatred if you worry about receiving refugees.
When we talk about difficult issues here, we aren’t seeking to get political.
We are acknowledging that within any “issue,” there are people.
Though he feels loved and received by this congregation, my brother in ministry Rev. Victor H. Floyd still bears the scar tissue of being told by religious people that he wasn’t fit to be a minister because he was gay. And he is one of the most talented, loving humans you will ever meet!
We have African American children of God in our lives who have been impacted by community and police violence.
We have people here with loved ones who serve in law enforcement who are out risking their lives every day and work to be part of the solution.
We are seeking to faithfully follow Jesus, who came to break down barriers.
Jesus knew to look beyond issues. He looked at people.
When we become so entrenched in our own views that we cannot see the people within the issues, we miss out on God’s intention for us.
In Beyond Religion, the Dalai Lama says that religion is like tea, while compassion is water: “While we can live without tea, we can’t live without water.” His Holiness does not dismiss religion as useless, but challenges us not to allow the system to overtake its source.
Jesus was a faithful Jewish man who knew that we couldn’t walk through this life and this faith alone. He surrounded himself with disciples—including some who would deny and betray him—and broke down barriers around gender and race, clean and unclean, sitting at tables with those the religious elite had deemed unworthy.
They were drinking their tea so strong that they forgot the primary ingredient.
Tea leaves without water are just tea leaves.
Religion without love is _____________?
The tribalism of this world can leave us jaded and cause us to miss seeing the image of God in those around us.
A woman named Marleen recently returned home and found this note on her doorstep:
“Would you consider to become my friend. I’m 90 years old – live alone. All of my friends have passed away. I’m so lonesome and scared. Please I pray for someone.”
Marleen had never met the woman who lived on her street. She shared the note with KTVU news anchor Frank Somerville, with the caption, “Makes my heart sad, but on the bright side it looks like I will be getting a new friend. I wanted to post this as a reminder that there are a lot of lonely people out there.”
Marleen took a tray of cupcakes to the 90-year-old woman whose name is Wanda.
Wanda told her that she had lived on the street for 50 years and didn’t know any of her neighbors. One of her three sons died last year of cancer, and the other two live far away. Wanda is on oxygen, has congestive heart failure and osteoporosis.
But she is no longer alone. She is not a stranger.
She is now reminded that she is a beloved child of God.
The grace of God in Jesus Christ, the Living Water is flowing all the time.
May we recognize it in one another. May we abide in agape love, with the strength that God supplies.
 Pheme Perkins, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude: Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 15-16.