God’s Love Sometimes Surprises Us
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixth Sunday of Easter / Mother’s Day, May 8, 2016
Rev 21:10, 22-22:5 John 14:23-29
The vision of John of Patmos, the vision of an earthly city where all live perpetually in the unmediated presence of God, is a vision of life perfected. There is no temple because there is no need – God is not only everywhere but is known by everyone. There is no need for hymnals because the song sung is life itself. Certainly no sermons, scriptures, priests or prophets … because justice flows in that crystal river and the means of life grow freely and the peoples of the world are healed. This vision puts all this (gesturing to our sanctuary) in rather stark perspective.
For we are not perfect. Not yet.
We need the prophets to call us out of self-preoccupation, the scriptures to guide us, the songbooks to expand our vocabulary of praise; we need a place – this place – to meet again and again as we walk together toward that promised city.
And so Jesus speaks words of comfort to those who follow his way: “Peace I leave you. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid.” These are words spoken for those of us still on our way, still struggling to get it right, to make it right, to be better. But how do we know this peace? How do we let constant anxiety go? What calms our fears?
It is simply this: To believe: God loves us, just as we are, and as we may yet become.
And it is important that this good news, which we allude to so often, sometimes be spoken just this clearly: God loves us. But this can be hard to remember; harder to believe.
I called my mom the other day. Not because Mother’s Day was coming. Rather, I called and asked her if she would tell me a story. Because it was late, she asked if I wanted a bedtime story, and for just a moment I did. Like a child, sure that all was well with the world because I had the security of getting tucked in at night and having my mom tell me a story. But the reason I called was to hear again the story of the time our family was asked to be in the annual Christmas Pageant.
No one in my family remembers the pageant exactly, only that it involved our family curled up as on a winter’s night upon two love seats that had been arranged around the Christmas tree on the chancel. I’m sure it involved my parents telling the story of Jesus’ birth and my sisters and I asking questions. We had an agreement that we were not going to memorize the script, keeping our words close – but I memorized my lines anyway in an attempt, no doubt, to show off.
That’s not the part of the story I was listening for. I wanted her to tell me what happened after the pageant, for I remembered she was upset because members of the church came up and told her we were the perfect family. We were perfect for the pageant, because the Gearys modeled what a “Christian family” should be.
I could hear the scare quotes as she retold the story. I could hear the frustration and the sense that we weren’t being seen for who we were. And a sense of helplessness that angered her. For it is upsetting when people are judged by ridiculous standards. And I still heard, decades later, the rather crushing guilt caused by our not realizing a standards of “model Christian family” that was unrealistic to begin with. Because none of us is perfect. And if we think someone else is, we’re not looking close enough. “We were not awful,” she is quick to say. “But we were not perfect.”
One of the things that I love most about this congregation is that we do not have those kinds of false expectations of one another.
Ten days ago we held the funeral for Carole Larsen here in this sanctuary. We said goodbye to a dear friend, praying our way through grief and trusting Carole to God’s care and keeping. During the service I reminded everyone that Carole often said that this church and Al-Anon saved her life. I had thought about that a lot. For those of us who knew her, Carole is what saved looks like. It’s not a perfect life, free from the troubles that beset us all. It’s not worry free, anxiety free, or even dramatically freed from the past. But it is a consciousness that God walks with us, helping us one day at a time. It is finding a way to bring love into all situations. It is having those around us who can pick us up when we fall, and offering our own hand to those who need one. It is being a part of something much larger than oneself, the community of God’s people with a share of God’s work in the world. Being saved means bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things. It means knowing that God. Loves. Us.
Paul Tillich, considered among the most prominent theologians of the twentieth century, preached regularly for chapel services at Union Theological Seminary during the nineteen thirties and forties. In one of his sermons, he describes the experience of having God’s love break through. God’s love surprises us when
year after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment it is as if a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as if a voice were saying:”
“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will too much. Do not seek for anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual proposition, nothing but acceptance.
My friends, God is here! Offering acceptance, welcome, and love. Will you receive it? God is here! Calling us not to be perfect, but to be perfected by love, which is not our doing, but is God’s. Do you believe it? God is here! Inviting us anew to participate in the great drama of life, the stuff of struggle and hope, as a blessing to the world. Will you answer, yes, yes? God is here!
Lord of all, of church and kingdom,
In an age of change and doubt
Keep us faithful to the gospel;
Help us work your purpose out.
Here, in this day’s dedication,
all we have to give, receive:
We, who cannot live without you,
We adore you! We believe.
 Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted.” In The Shaking of the Foundations. (Scribners, 1948).