Saturday, May 2, 2015

Loving From a Place of Privilege

1 John 4:7-21


One of the most significant challenges in preaching is taking a text that is 2,000 years removed from us and finding a way to talk about it so that it comes alive and is found to be relevant to the audience. The importance of who we are and what we do as Christians extends far beyond the hour we warm pews on a Sunday morning. It is nice, certainly, to attend a service once a week and hear the feel-good, not-so-fresh, “news” that God loves us. And love is clearly a repetitive idea in this morning’s 1 John passage.

The word “love,” or some derivation thereof, appears in our passage 29 times this morning. Twenty-nine times! That’s almost two times per verse. “Let us love one another,” “love is from God,” “God first loved us,” “God is love.”

The central point of this passage, however, is much deeper and far more significant than the warm rush of joy that often accompanies being told that one is loved. The central point of this passage is that “we have known and believe the love that God has for us.” The word “know” in this context is about more than an intellectual understanding; it means to recognize, perceive, or realize. It means that the love of God for us has been made real, experiential.

It reminds me of the time that my partner first told me that he loves me. Of course, my heart sped up a little, and my cheeks got warm as I glowed with joy and delight at hearing him profess his love. But the words had substance and were made more significant by the fact that I had already experienced his love for me - in the way he cares for me when we’re together, offers comfort when I’m anxious or sad, takes my dietary needs into account, is mindful and intentional in the way he communicates.

We know the love of God for us, not merely by words that profess God’s love for us, but rather by the realized experience of that love. The love of God for us was made real for us in the life of Jesus and his sacrificial atonement for our sins.

Atonement, in this context, means the reconciliation between God and humans; and sin is the very real issue of social and systemic injustice perpetuated by the wealthy and powerful elite - systems of oppression and injustice that still operate today.

In and through his life, Jesus exemplified the reality of God’s love for the least, over and against these systems which seek to vilify, invalidate, oppress, and destroy the “other.” God’s love was made real by a humble man who lived a life of service to others, seeking to call out injustice wherever he saw it, and who ultimately sacrificed his own life by standing for what was right, rather than cowering in fear on the day he was judged by the powers of this world.

To “believe the love that God has for us” means to be entrusted with that love. God’s love for us is not just something that we hear about, learn about, maybe experience in a rush of warmth and affection from time to time. It is a power with which we are entrusted. It is a gift abundantly given and a gift that we are expected to share.

Sharing the love of God means being in this world as Jesus is: standing against sin, fighting systems of oppression and injustice, speaking against these systems which seek to vilify, invalidate, oppress, and destroy those was are “other” than ourselves. And if we truly know - recognize, realize, experience - the love of God, we can do so without fear, because we know that at the end of all things, we stand on the side of justice, just as Jesus did, just as God does.

This does not mean, however, that such a feat will be easy. Love is about abiding - remaining with those who are oppressed.

Through the power of social media and 24 hour a day cable news-entertainment channels, we are more aware than ever of the oppressive abuses perpetuated by those in power. This has also led to a “slactivist” culture in which we can sooth our conscience, if we’re paying attention at all, by posting pithy remark of sensationalist headline on face book before our severely diminished attention span is redirected to the latest celebrity gossip or internet cat meme.

But abiding is about far more than pithy status updates on facebook or hashtags on twitter. Abiding is about a sustained effort to understand, know, and to the extent that we are able, live into the experiences of the oppressed. It is about hearing their stories and validating their experiences. It is about recognizing our own role in a system that privileges a few at the expense of the masses and continually working to change these unjust systems.

Loving others is not a sprint, a short burst of concerted effort, and where we all go home at the end of the day feeling refreshed and self-congratulatory that our voice maybe made an impact, helped bring about a change. While using our voice from a place of privilege to challenge systems of injustice is vital and necessary, loving others is about being in it for the long-haul. It’s about paying attention and being present to the daily lived reality of millions of people who are different from us, who do not share in our privilege.

Privilege is a result of one group oppressing another; privilege is the ability to deny the experiences of the oppressed because they are not the personal experiences of the privileged. Being part of a group with privilege, however, grants us enormous power to love the oppressed, and in so doing, make tangible the very real love of God for the world.

We can enact the love of God entrusted to us through creating space for the voices of the oppressed to be heard; abiding with them, hearing and participating in their stories; affirming their experiences without judgment, offense, or defense of our own.

In so doing, perhaps we can make real the prayer of the traditional African American spiritual:

Guide my feet, Lord, while I run this race,
Guide my feet, Lord, while I run this race,
Guide my feet, Lord, while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain

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