Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon: Unbounded Love

Sermon for March 15, 2015
Fourth Sunday in Lent (7:45, 11:15)
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
St. Philip’s In The Hills, Tucson, AZ
John 3:14-21

Listen here (on Sound Cloud)
Lord, Open our Lips, that our mouth shall proclaim your praise.  Amen

When I was growing up,
we had a family tradition for giving.
On birthdays, Christmas or anniversaries,
someone would give a gift wrapped in a giant box
that contained a somewhat smaller wrapped gift box
that contained a smaller gift box…
until the last, smallest gift actually contained the gift:
a gift card, or a tiny piece of jewelry or an ornament. 
You get the idea?  I’m guessing that this was not a unique-to-the-Hesse family practice?

In a strange way, our Gospel reading today reminded me of that family practice, well, the opposite of it.  

Here’s why.  In my young adult years, before I knew God
the seemingly narrow, tiny, tightly wrapped “gift”
of John 3:16
made me wince and turn away from the Church. 
But as I gained a broader understanding of God’s love,
this gift has been wrapped and been given to me
in bigger and bigger proportions
and now just fills me with wonder.

For context, just prior to the reading for today,
Jesus’ was talking with Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, you may remember,
was the Pharisee who came at night,
under cover of darkness, to meet Jesus. 
Nicodemus asked Jesus about his personal salvation. 
It was a very narrow, tiny request.
Jesus taught Nicodemus about being “born again.”
Jesus then took this “teachable moment”
to offer an important lesson to all listeners
(including us), not just Nicodemus.

 Jesus’ tells of God’s love that grows and grows
until that climactic verse, John 3:16. 
“God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son…” – that proclamation affirms the unbounded love of God.

John 3:16 – probably the best-known bible verse.

In the South, it is not uncommon
for an entire billboard to state, simply, “3:16.”
Many football fans will remember
Tim Tebow’s eye-black delicately inscribed
with this reference. 

Feelings about this ubiquitous verse range from
fondness to ambivalence to flat out dislike.  Why? 
Well, motivations for John 3:16 being a favorite
are sometimes curious…
Is it because people really believe
that God loves the world?
Or is it because the repetition of the verse
is a reminder they are saved while others are not?
Or is it used as a threat for those
unwilling to accept God’s love? 

Suddenly, rather than hearing an invitation
to participate in spreading God’s love, it’s an excuse for excluding those we think God does not love.[1]

For many Christians, this concise summary
captures the whole of the gospel.

For those who hold a dualistic framework
of heaven and hell,
the verse justifies that we are saved (go to heaven)
by believing that Jesus is the only son of God,
who died for our sins.
The trouble is that necessity of belief
makes God’s love conditional. 
I don’t buy that.  That’s a misunderstanding.

The late Marcus Borg offers some guidance
to unpack this four-part phrase with an expansive heart:[2]

First, “For God so loved the world…”
That is, God loves the divinely created world –
not just Nicodemus, not just Christians,
not just people, but the whole of creation.  (show globe)
God’s love is the gift that started out small
and becomes bigger and more expansive
with broadened understanding. 
God loved The World – the cosmos!
From the billions of galaxies visible only through
the telescope at the top of Mt. Lemmon
to that annoying fly in your kitchen.
God loves the world.

Second, “That he gave his only Son…”
The gift of God’s Son in GJohn refers to incarnation
of the whole cosmos - the universe, the created order. Everything that is, is the gift, not just the death of Jesus. 
Christ emerged from God’s love for the world,
not God’s love for a new world, a perfect world,
or a redeemed world, but the world as it was and is.[3] 
Last week Fr. Richard Rohr spoke at a Diocesan retreat. 

He reminded us that
“…the incarnation of God did not happen
in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. 
That is just when we started taking it seriously.
The incarnation actually happened 14.5 billion years ago
with a moment we now call “the Big Bang…”
Two thousand years ago
was the human incarnation of God in Jesus,
but before that was
the first and original incarnation
through light, water, land, sun, moon…
this “Cosmic Christ” was how
God revealed God’s mystery. 
Christ is not Jesus’ last name,
but the title for his life’s purpose.”[4]
God loved the world so much that
God was willing to become incarnate in Jesus,
became part of it, vulnerable to it, participating in it. 

Third, “So that everyone who believes in him...”
The use of “believe” here translates from
a pre-modern understanding of “believe.”
That is, it is not “believe” as in our head, or our brain,
but “be-love” of the heart.

So, “everyone who beloves in him,”
means that you don’t have to be perfect,
you don’t have to be righteous,
you don’t even have to be the “right” race, vocation,
or sexual orientation.  Any of that.

To be-love in Jesus means to engage God with singularity,
to love with your heart, in loyalty to the beloved, God,
and with commitment to the way of Jesus –
the theme of Lent.
To be-love in Jesus means you love because God loves.

Fourth and finally,
May not perish but may have eternal life…”
Eternal life, in the Gospel of John,
means not the afterlife,
but our current experience,
filled with a spirit of abundance and possibility and hope.
It is the present and the age to come.
To know God and belove in Jesus gives us
eternal life of participating in God’s dream
of wholeness and healing –
when God’s shalom will exist for all creation.

This four-part verse,
this gift so cleverly wrapped up in the bow of 3:16
affirms that the well-being of the world is God’s passion. 

Today, we unwrap this narrow gift and
find out how truly expansive and gigantic it is. 
Today, we can see Jesus’ message
filled with the good news of loving God
and following Jesus in a path of
love-life for all of creation.

Knowing this 3:16, however,
may not seem to address our struggles in life: 

We still yearn deeply to know God and be known by God.  
We still hope to see explicit acts of God’s grace in our life,
for the manifestation of Jesus’ healing power
for our ill loved-ones.
We still ache for a time when
·         unjust laws do not break up families just for the sake of the law,
·         children who are hungry find healthy food in abundance,
·         fear of refugees and immigrants dissolves into generosity and hospitality,
·         and a spirit of justice drives our political process, not a spirit of scarcity.

Knowing this 3:16, instead,
points us to God’s great love for the world
– and for all of creation. 
This unbounded gift of love
spurs us to respond:

We can love and care for all of creation,
the world that God loves,
and we can, practically speaking,
by attending the upcoming “Green Team”
gathering this coming Thursday evening (p. 34),
We can use our voice to tell government representatives
of our community needs.
We can notice and name
times of reconciliation in our relationships,
We can welcome everything, not resisting,
knowing that God loves the world,
and us, even us.

With this gift of love, God spurs us to respond. 

Poet Mary Oliver suggests one response; she writes:  

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention,
then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.[5]

Perhaps our response to the gift that we have been given
– God’s love for the world in all of creation –
is simply to receive the gift. 

And in receiving the gift of love,
God invites us, today to work together with all of creation,
not just for humanity but for the whole world.

In receiving the gift of love,
we can recognize the face of Jesus in our neighbor. 

In receiving the gift of love, we, too, can give it away.


[1] Inspired by Karoline Lewis in Working Preacher commentary, at

[2] Inspired by Marcus J. Borg’s book Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored, (New York, Harper-Collins, 2011), p.161-163

[3] Inspired by Earth Ministry’s offer by the Rev. Dr. Rodney R. Romney, preached at Seattle First Baptist Church, “Earth Sunday,” 1995, at

[4] Huffington Post article, “Creation as the Body of God,” Posted: 03/04/2011 by Richard Rohr captured his ideas nicely, at

[5] “Praying” by Mary Oliver

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sermon: Servant to the Servants of God; Meditation on Gregory The Great

 Image of Pope Saint Gregory the Great
Sermon for March 12, 2015 ~ 11:00 HE 1
Feast Day of Gregory the Great,
Bishop of Rome, 604
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
For online access to the readings click here
I speak to you in the name of One God:
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Today is the Feast Day of Gregory The Great, Bishop of Rome (aka Pope), who died in 604.
He assumed this title for his office, “servant of the servants of God.” 

What do you know about him?

Biographical information includes:

·        Born into a ruling class family 540
·        Became appointee of Roman emperor 573,
o   During time of plague (1/3 died)
·        When father died, retired to monastic life
·        Appointed by Pope Pelagius II to be “ambassador to Constantinople 579
·        Pelagius died 590, elected successor
·        Organized defense of Rome at Lombard invasion and arranged food from papal granaries in Sicily to be used to feed people
·        Gift of administration and smarts: educated in grammar, rhetoric, literature, sciences, law
·        “Unremarkable” in theology, but prolific in writing and documenting (“Pastoral care”)
·        Ordered church liturgy
o   Revised Mass to move the Our Father to the end of the mass and before the fraction
o   Created divine liturgy of the “presanctified gifts” (which we use for LEMs or Deacon mass)
o   Established “plainchant” which took the name of “Gregorian chant”
·        Organized Almsgiving and offerings (pre-systematic accounting methods) to the church, making it well-funded (to feed the poor)
·        Influenced several key missionaries/evangelists
o   Appointed Augustine, first Arch Bishop of Canterbury and evangelist to the Anglo-Saxons
o   Arranged for baptism of King Ethelbert in UK, ~601 (first Christian king)
o   Wrote of Benedict’s “Life” in his “Dialogues” and used this style of monasticism as an instrument of evangelization for Augustine
o   Appointed Remigius as Bishop of Rheims, influencing the Franks to cooperate
·        Encouraged “unity in diversity” with the English Church by adopting customs that are “acceptable to God” and by learning from that – this was early ecumenical work.
Clearly, Gregory the Great was a gifted administrator and yet, can you see a thread through all his life? 

Serving others. 
Accepting ambiguity.
Exercising gifts.
But especially, serving others.

Gregory adopted the moniker,
“a servant to the servants of God.”

I think that is why the lectionary authors selected the Gospel reading today about “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all…not to be served but to serve.”

So, I wonder how this is relevant to us today? 
We all have gifts from God,
some for hospitality,
some for administration,
some for manual labor…

Can you think of a time
when you have offered your gifts to someone
so that they could serve others? 
Imagine how the chain of service happened… what stories might you think of?

I believe the good news today is in
God’s serving others, through us. 

God’s gracious loving-kindness is manifest in the gifts that we have been given and then give to others.

The very first gift that God gives us is love.  Think about the first time you found yourself in love – from where did that love arise?  In your heart, but originally from God.

God loves – so we love.
God gives – so we give.
Jesus served – so we serve.

May this day when we commemorate Gregory the Great arise as a beacon of hope and example how God is still working in our lives,
Every day and in every way.