Better Than a Bumper Sticker: Sermon for April 24, 2016

When I lived in Atlanta, a lot of churches had bumper stickers that members would put on their cars as a form of advertising. Other Christians would just put another ubiquitous symbol, the Christian fish, on their bumper. Decorating your car in order to tell the whole world you were a Christian was apparently a big deal for a lot of people.

At about this same time I was getting ready to head off to seminary, and a friend of mine was working as a barista in a coffee shop. She would frequently tell me stories of customers who were rude to her and to her co-workers. These were people who would yell at the staff for minor mistakes, get angry when their orders were taking too long, or complain about prices.

The worst days, though, were when she had to work the drive-thru. People were particularly rude there, perhaps because they felt like they had more distance from the employees and more anonymity. But there’s one thing they couldn’t hide: those bumper stickers on the backs of their cars.

And so one day my friend said to me: “You know, every time someone in the drive-thru line is rude to us, I just look at the back of their car…and it’s always one of your people.”

Ouch. And yet, you can’t argue with what she saw. We all fall short from time to time, but the behavior of those people in the drive thru line who professed to love Jesus so much was a little less than loving when it came to everyone else.

The irony, of course, is that Jesus was pretty clear about this whole love thing, and he was very clear it wasn’t meant to only be for him.

In today’s passage, Jesus tells his disciples “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In other words, Jesus tells us that the way people will know we are his followers is simply this: how well we love.

It means the measure of who we are as Christians is not what we say on Sunday mornings or whether we wear a cross around our necks or anything like that. We don’t profess our faith by symbols because Jesus says none of those things will identity us as his followers. To put it another way, talk is cheap. So are bumper stickers or Facebook memes or anything else that requires little more than passivity from us.

But action…action isn’t cheap. And it also isn’t easy.

Love isn’t either. Not the kind Jesus is talking about here, anyway. It’s easy to love our families, and our friends, even when they do things that hurt us. It’s harder to love the people we don’t like very much.

Don’t believe me? Think of the political candidate in this presidential election that you most dislike, the one whose values are so antithetical to yours. Now think about loving them.

It’s not for the feint of heart, is it? And yet, Jesus requires nothing less of us. We can disagree with one another, we can think the other is dead wrong, we can find nothing in common with them…and yet, if we are serious about following Jesus, we have to love them.

Now expand that out even further. We are called not to love just people, but whole groups of people. We are called to love this whole world. And in that sense, love is not a feeling alone, but it really is an action. It is our way of relating to the world, and it’s the world’s way of knowing who we really follow.

And yet, too often Christians are not exactly known for their love.

But have you ever noticed that a lot of people don’t trust Christians? I’ve been at dinner parties before where someone, before they knew what I did, made a comment about all clergy being con artists and all Christians being hypocrites.


Christians protesting against equal marriage in New York, 2011.


They talk about all the bad things that have been done in the name of our faith: wars, discrimination, the treatment of women. Even now friends of mine are quick to remind me that new laws aimed to reinforce discrimination in places like North Carolina and Mississippi were authored by Christian.

I sort of understand what they’re saying about the hypocrisy. In a way it’s a good sign, because people know we are supposed to be better than that. People know we got our marching orders from a loving Christ who wanted us to be loving as well.

And the truth is this: we are hypocrites. We are, not because we are Christians, but because we are human. And being human means none of us is always the person we want to be.

But our job as Christians is to try anyway. It is to not only say the right things on Sunday mornings, but to live them out every of the week.

We won’t always get it right. None of us do. We may have the best of intentions, but when the rubber meets the road, it’s hard.

When we actually have to give up our time to go volunteer at the food pantry or anywhere else,we may sometimes find other things to do. When we are asked to open our checkbooks and help out, we might rationalize that we really would rather use that money for something fun. After all, we worked hard for it. When that friend comes to us needing someone to lean on, we might make excuses on why we can’t get together.

And yet, we try. And that’s a noble endeavor, to try to make sure your actions reflect who you say you are, and reflect the love of a Christ who first loved us.

That matters for our life together as a church too. A church should ideally be the kind of community where if someone walked through the doors, without us saying a word about what we believed, they would know we were Christians.

After all, that old song says, “they will know we are Christians by our love”. It doesn’t say, “they will know we are Christians because we say so.”

It means as well that churches exist not just for ourselves, in fact, not even primarily for ourselves, but for others. It means that when we measure who we are as a church community, we should start by asking what we have done for our neighbors, and for those who would hope to see the love of Christ.

That’s not always easy. And yet, if we are going to claim the title of Christian, it’s not optional. The world has plenty of self-avowed Christians. It needs more followers of Christ.

And so my question to you is this: how are we going to be people not of word and speech, but of active love? How are we going to be the people that our world needs us to be?

I think we as a church are already doing a lot to make sure we are not just paying lip service to the Gospel. We have missions we support. We give generously to the greater church. We open our doors to those who ask. And we have more ideas in the works.

But just as our community is always changing, God’s call to us is evolving as well. God is opening new doors to us so we can better serve our neighbors and our world. And as we talk as a community about what comes next for us, as we prepare for the church retreat this Saturday, I’m excited about what God is doing with us.

I know also that God has a plan for each one of us. I know God has brought you here today first for worship, but then also for service. The love of Christ may have gotten you here today, but God doesn’t want your Christian journey to end here in a church pew. God has something greater in store for you beyond these doors.

And so, every week the journey of faith starts here. But this is not where it ends. Think of your pew as your launching pad. Here we say, and sing, the words of our faith, we get ready to become people of loving action. And when you leave here, you go out into a world that needs that action. It’s a world that needs followers of Christ, not just Christians n name only.

The good news is you’re not in this alone. We are a community of people who want to do just that. We want to be people of action, not just words. But we need you, and we need everyone who comes through our doors. You are all a part of God’s call on this church, all a piece of the divine puzzle, and all important. God is ready to do great things in this church. Are you ready for God to do great things in you as well? I hope the answer is yes. For all of us, and for the world. Amen?

The Love Mandate – Homily for Maundy Thursday

The most common question I get asked during Holy Week is about this night, the Thursday before Easter. People get Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, and Easter, but tonight, Maundy Thursday, is unclear. And the one thing people want to know the most, is this: what does “Maundy” mean?

It’s a good question. Who uses the term “maundy” in their daily life? For those on the outside of the church, and even for those of us inside, it might just sound like a church service where we know we should want to go to it, but we have no idea why.

But before I talk about what the word means, I want to go back to that story we read from the Gospel. In it Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his twelve disciples there at the table. And he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain.

And yet, there he is. Breaking the bread and pouring the cup. Eating with them. Blessing them. Getting down on his knees and washing their feet, showing them his love and grace and compassion, in a time when we might have better understood his wrath or anger.

In a world where we are often surrounded by messages of retaliation, or vengeance, or an eye for an eye cries for justice, it’s a different message. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He’d lived a life of non-violence, he’d healed the sick, raised the dead, and freed the captives. He’d brought hope and life to those who needed it the most.

And in the end, he knew that he was not about to be thanked. He was about to be killed. Because in the end, the goodness, and the kindness, and the compassion he had brought were more of a threat to the Roman authorities, and clergy of his day, than any weapon or any army. He so radically upset the status quo that they decided their only choice was to kill him.

The night before, he wasn’t running away. He wasn’t preparing for a battle. He wasn’t plotting his revenge. Instead he was with the ones he loved most. The ones who loved him, but who weren’t perfect. The ones who knew who he was, and what he had done, and who would be the witnesses to his life after he was gone.

And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in. Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do if you know you are not going to be around much longer, and you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone?

The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment”. And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday”. We’re talking about the night that Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected of them.

And if you read a book or watch a movie about almost anyone else, you might think the lead character right about now would be saying something like “avenge my death”, or “make sure there’s payback”, or “don’t let them get away with this…strike back”.

But this isn’t any other story. This is a story that turns everything on its head. The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do in this passage is this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It probably wouldn’t do well at the box office. It wouldn’t get Nielsen ratings. The story wouldn’t soar to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list today. But it’s a story that transcends all of those things. Because it’s the beginning of a story about what happens when the world does its worst through violence, and hatred, and fear, and yet love wins anyway. It’s a story of love that was rejected and buried, and yet was still too strong to stay in the ground.

It’s not my job to rename Christian holy days. But if it were, I might change the name of Maundy Thursday. I might change it from this word that none of us really know anymore to something we would all understand. Something like “Love One Another Thursday”, or “The Last Thing Christ Really Wanted Us to Know Thursday”.

Because this is a message we Christians all need to hear. We don’t need to hide it behind fancy terms. We don’t need to just check it off as another night in holy week. We need to hear that this is how Christ said other people would know us: by how we love one another.

Maybe it would help us remember. Maybe it would help us remember not just what this night is about, but maybe it would help us remember what it means to be Christians. And maybe if we always had that reminder, if we always had that commandment to love in the front of our head, Christ’s dream for us would come true.

Maybe we wouldn’t be known as Christ’s disciples by the fact we put a Christian fish sticker on our car. Or wore a cross around our necks. Maybe we wouldn’t be know by what we said about what we believed. Maybe we wouldn’t be known by our what we voted for, or against.   Maybe we wouldn’t be known by the anger some Christians express on the evening news, or the mean-spiritedness others show in their day-to=day lives. Maybe instead we would just be known by the one thing Christ wanted us to be known for: by how we love.

In a few minutes we will be celebrating Communion together, and you’ll hear me repeat the words of institution, the phrases we are told Christ used as he broke bread and gave it to his disciples for the first time, on this same night many years ago. I’ll say to you that “on the night Christ was betrayed he took bread, and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples.”

You hear that all the time here, and if you are like me, you are uplifted by it.

But what if you heard this just as often too? “On the night Christ was betrayed he turned to his disciples and said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We don’t say that often in service. Not in so many words. But I think we try to say it in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. It’s no coincidence Christ said these things on the night of his supper, but we sometimes forget the say the words.

This year, let’s not forget. Between this Maundy Thursday and the one next year, let’s not forget what the mandate is. It’s so simple, and yet it demands our whole lives and our whole attentions. But here in the church, we can give Christ nothing less. Tonight as we eat this bread and drink this cup, as simple as it seems on the outside, know that we are choosing no less than to feast upon Christ’s love for us, and to bring that feast out to others. If every Christian would do that, no one would ever have to ask us who we follow. By our love, they would already know. Amen.