Sermon, December 18, 2016

Universal, Uncondtional, Unstoppable Love
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
December 18, 2016
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Sunday of Love
Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-55

Mahatma Gandhi insisted that nonviolence
is the highest truth of the human soul,
and our most natural inclination.
He said that nonviolent, Christ-like love
is the most powerful force in the world.
People would scoff at him and point to wars
and all the horrible things people do,
and he would admit that violence is real,
but he would say look at any city in the world.
If lovingkindness and nonviolence were not stronger
and truer to our nature, no city could exist.
We would tear ourselves to pieces
and every community would fall apart.

Gandhi was a Hindu who studied and admired
the teachings of Christ. The Sermon on the Mount
was one of the foundations of his life work.
Today we are here to celebrate the triumph
of this force that Gandhi recognized and used.
We are not celebrating how it overcomes empires,
although it has done so many times.
We are not celebrating how it has lifted up and freed
the impoverished and oppressed, although it always does.
We are here to celebrate this all-powerful force being born
in a humble child in an impoverished and oppressed setting.
We are here to remember how this force was at work
guiding and empowering his mother and father.
We are here to see how it still is at work in his church
and in every one of us, this force of universal, unconditional,
unstoppable love and life and light.

The First Letter of John puts it so beautifully:
“God is light….Whoever loves a brother or sister
lives in the light….We know love by this,
that [Christ] laid down his life for us—
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
How does God’s love abide in anyone
who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need
and yet refuses help…? God is love,
and those who abide in love abide in God,
and God abides in them.”

This love is universal. Whoever loves as Christ loves,
lives in its light. One winter in the mid-20th Century
the scarlet fever struck a Michigan farm community
just as Christmas was approaching.
The families were too sick to get Christmas trees
or prepare presents or cook meals.
One of the few that remained healthy
was a family of Jewish farmers who had fled the Ukraine
and found freedom and welcome in America.
The first night of Hanukkah as they began to celebrate
they thought of all their sick neighbors
and the children for whom Christmas would not come,
and their hearts ached. They decided to play Santa Claus.

They went out into the night and cut fir trees
and decorated them. They roasted chickens
and packed a feast for each family into baskets.
They worked all night, their hearts full of love
and full of joy at the thought of their neighbors’ surprise.
They went around at dawn
leaving their gifts in each farmhouse.
A week went by, and on the eighth night of Hanukkah
they heard a knock and found their closest neighbors
at the door, weak but recovered.
They brought a menorah they had made
and decorated in return. That night they celebrated
Christmas and Hanukkah together,
they feasted and sang and laughed
in the beautiful, warm light of beloved community.
(adapted from The Trees of the Dancing Goats,
by Patricia Polacco, one of my favorite books)

God is love, and that love is universal, and makes us one.
St. Francis of Assisi showed that God’s love
embraced Muslims and Jews, sinners and enemies,
birds and fish and ravenous wolves,
Brother Sun and Sister Moon,
nothing short of all the universe.
He showed that God’s love is also unconditional.

Mary referred to herself as lowly, and she was.
If God required conditions of perfection
by human standards of accomplishment,
Mary would not have qualified. But as Paul wrote,
“God chose what is foolish in the world
to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world
to shame the strong; God chose what is low
and despised in the world, things that are not,
to reduce to nothing things that are.” (I Cor. 1:27f)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison that
“Out of love for human beings,
God becomes a human being.
He does not seek out the most perfect human being
in order to unite with that person.
Rather, he takes on human nature as it is.”
(from God is in the Manger)
Imagine writing those words when the human closest to you
was a Nazi guard outside your locked cell door.
Christ-like love is unconditional.

The Protestant Reformation happened in part
because the church had made its love too conditional,
and yet the mainstream Reformation compromised
and still based its love on human conditions and rules.
Anabaptists like the Amish and Mennonites
wanted the church to love as Christ loved.
They practiced nonviolence, they refused to compromise love.
The mainstream Reformation saw them as a threat
and arrested and killed them by the thousands.
An Anabaptist man named Dirk Willems was
about to be executed for his beliefs.
Willems escaped out of his prison window
and started to run across the frozen moat
surrounding the fortress. A guard saw and ran after him.
Willems was emaciated like a prisoner of Auschwitz,
but the well-fed guard broke through the ice
and could not get out. He cried for help,
and Willems turned back to save the life
of his pursuer, knowing he would be recaptured,
knowing full well what it would mean.
Willems was burned at the stake not long after,
but like all the Anabaptists,
he went with complete forgiveness,
proclaiming and showing unconditional Christ-like love.

God’s love cannot help but be universal,
it cannot help but be unconditional,
just as the light of a candle cannot help but shine
and transform any and all darkness around it.
Love is just what God does, it is what God is.
Christ insists that love is all we have to do, too,
and love is all we have to be.
There are no other rules that we need,
no other conditions. Just those.

They burned Willems at the stake for his love,
the Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer for his love,
but this universal, unconditional love
is also unstoppable. In the beginning the force of love
and life and light exploded into being.
It formed the stars and galaxies, it created Earth,
it gave rise to all living things.
Cataclysms have caused massive extinctions,
but the spirit has resurrected life in new forms.
Persecutions and executions have attempted to wipe out
the force of Christ’s love and life and light,
but it has risen again and again. As Mary said,
“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

The force of this love is unstoppable.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “There comes a time
when an individual becomes irresistible
and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effect.
This comes when he reduces himself to zero.”
Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Saint Francis and Gandhi all proved
that when we empty ourselves of everything selfish
and let God’s force of universal, unconditional,
unstoppable love and light flow through our lives,
we can work miracles, we can change situations,
we can change our lives, we can change the world
in ways we may not dare to dream now.
All we need to do is open to that love,
and it will do the rest—
opening to it even as we fall or fail,
even as we face ridicule or rejection or death,
turning and saying as Mary did,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.”

Let us pray in silence, saying to the God who is love,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.”
And then wait and watch for what
universal, unconditional, unstoppable love
will move you to do in your life now,
what light it will lead you to shine.
Let us pray in silence…

Our children with the Church World Service kits they made.
We share God’s love!