"Love that bears all things"
UCA President Rev Sharon Hollis shared this sermon as part of her Installation Service of Worship on 17 July 2021.
As I came to write today’s sermon and reflect on today’s readings I thought it could probably be done in two words: God loves. Or a sentence: God loves all of creation and each of us. Or maybe a paragraph: God loves. We see and know God’s love in God’s refusal to give up on us even when we deeply disappoint them. We see and know God’s love in Jesus Christ coming amongst us, in his rising and dying in love. We see and know God’s love in her ongoing gifting of the Christian community for loving engagement in the world. So beloved of God let all you are and all you do be with love and for love.
If you were only expecting a paragraph then you can pop off and make a cup of tea come back in a few minutes. For those of you that were hoping for a little more here is what I think these readings, my paragraph might mean for the 16th Assembly, for the Uniting Church and for our witness in the world.
First, as Christians any talk about love has to be grounded in God’s love for all that God creates. Creation itself is an act of love, an outpouring of God’s creative love in making something out of nothing and vesting it with God’s goodness, God’s image. God’s nature is to continuously love creation and all God’s people. God’s love is not overcome by our failure or faithlessness, it is not defeated by the evil of empire or the death dealing of idols. It does not give up on us even when we give up on ourselves. It lives amongst us blessing, giving new hearts, rising to keep on loving.
This love is God’s unshakable grasp upon our lives. It is the source of our greatest security and freedom. It is what makes it possible to act courageously in love and for love. And it shows us what it means to love.
There is nothing sentimental in this image of love that Paul sets before the church. Such love is active, tough, resilient, and long-suffering. It risks the fragility of human flesh, crosses boundaries, raises up those religion and society have excluded, endures the cross, rises again.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is addressed to a community that is divided over the hierarchy of spiritual gifts and who has greater standing in the community. They are fighting over whose gifts are better and in that fighting they are distorting the purpose of spiritual gifts which is to serve the world not to create hierarchies of inequality.
In the previous chapter Paul uses an image familiar to his community - the body metaphor for the community in an unprecedented way. This metaphor was typically used in the Greco-Roman world to support the prevailing hierarchy, but Paul uses it to reverse that hierarchy. Those members of the body/community of apparent lesser honor and value in the Corinthian context, a reference to those with spiritual gifts deemed mundane, are actually, by God’s arrangement, of greater honor and status. God’s love is a reversing love, upending the social order, disrupting our attempts to make certain ideologies or groups more powerful.
Paul raises up gifts and actions that work for the well being of the community and calls everyone to love, not as a spiritual virtue to be mastered but as an action, a way of living in the world, a way of creating new non hierarchical structures, strengthening hope filled loving action for justice, mercy and compassion.
Pauls’ writing on the primacy of love, Christ’s enfleshing living in love can help us understand that there are some things more important than being right or powerful or honored. So often the powerful insisting on their own way wreaks havoc with other peoples, with cultures and with the earth we live on. Love means we must ask when we are acting in ways that hoard power, maintain unjust structures or seek honour that is not ours. Love means I must ask ourselves whose voices have we marginalised, who have I turned away from, who have I shouted at, who have I preventing from hearing the good news of God’s enduring, unquenchable love.
This love is not what has often passed for love in the church where we smile and are polite often saving our real thoughts and feelings for the post meeting carpark conversation. It is not niceness that refuses to have the hard conversations about issues that matter, that seek to draw us more deeply into God’s radically inclusive, difference honouring love.
When I think of dwelling in love I think of the women and a few men who went before me who have made it possible for me to stand here today. I think of the way in which in love for themselves as made in the image of God and in love for the church worked and argue and prayed and fought for the fuller inclusion of women in the life of the church. I think of the people today who continue to say because we know we are beloved of God and beautifully made we must speak the truth about the idol of patriarchy, the way it claims a place at the top of the hierarchy it has no right to claim, the way it distorts our understanding of gender and gender roles, the way it tries stops so many people from living the fullness of their humanity and exercising all of their gifts. Dwelling in love means we will continue to fight against death dealing patriarchy until there is full gender inclusion.
Loving engagement so often discomforts me, confronts me with the smallness of my vision of God’s way, challenges my exclusionary practices and calls me to the painful work of change and transformation.
Love that bears all things will keep speaking this truth and acting in love until it becomes a reality in all places and for all people. Love that believes all things will listen, will stay in the conversation will repent and change, will give up, make space and create new communities that seek deeper, richer inclusion.
Those of us who have an honoured place in the hierarchy of our own Uniting Church body often find it hard to give up our ways and our place and make space for the other, for other languages, different ways of gathering, different expressions of gender and sexuality.
We most certainly have not yet finished the journey begun in the Covenant with UAICC to find ways to really hear and listen to and learn from the First Nations members of the Church about what it means when we say that God was in their lands from the beginning and we need to act on what we hear and learn. This is the beginning of what it might mean for us as Second Nations members of the Uniting Church to dwell in love with Congress. To continue to dwell in love will require much much more. It will require us to give back that which was not ours, to act on our recognition of the sovereignty of First Nations, both in this land we now call Australia and in the Uniting Church. It will not be easy but it will be loving. Love will sustain us for this hard work, but make no mistake there is hard work to be done.
The same is true of our engagement in our local neighbourhoods and communities, whether that is the physical neighbourhood you live in, the online community you are part of or the global community you participate in, seeking only their welfare and no return for us. I want us to be participants in creating life-giving communities of faith that love their neighbours with respect, integrity and kindness. To dwell in love means trusting that God is already at work in your community, it means listening to our neighbours about where they might see God at work, it means trusting that our neighbours have wisdom to share with us.
These are not easy things. It is easy to say these things in a sermon, it is even relatively easy to pass resolutions about these matters. It is not so easy to live them. We have said these things many times, we have passed resolutions, we have made a covenant and added a preamble. But in the living of them we discover afresh that loving is hard and those of us who like the early Corinthians have made our systems work for us need to listen again and again to those who are wanting us, in love, to make new more just, compassionate systems, ways of being of being, worshipping and acting in the world.
So beloved of God, members of this beloved community we call church, remember God loves. Go and live as witnesses to this love and for no other purpose than to act in love. For faith, hope and love abide and the greatest of these is love.
You can find the sermon on the video below from 2:13:36 - 2:31:33.