Worship Where You Are

The Worship Where You Are blog contains what we think of as "first drafts" of the sermon for each week.  They are prepared mid-week for people who might not be able to be present on Sunday morning but wish to still participate in the worship experience.  They contain scripture, the sermon text, a few questions to ponder and a closing prayer.  May they help you in your faith journey.

All Bible verses come from the Common English Bible

Love in a Time of Hate: Love the Stranger

Matthew 25:31-46

Judgment of the nations

31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

 

 

 

Thoughts on the passage:

There was an experiment done on selective attention involving people passing a basketball and a person in a gorilla costume. The experiment was simple, people are asked to count how many times two basketballs are passed back and forth among the six participants. It is hard to do because the people are moving and with two balls there is a lot to focus on. About twenty seconds into this, a person in a gorilla suit walks right through the people passing the basketball, pauses to beat its chest and then continues off the camera. Through it all the people keep passing the basketballs. That is not the odd thing. The odd thing is that a number of people watching the video never see the gorilla. Their attention is so selectively focused on the basketball that their brains ignore the gorilla.

One of the greatest challenges when it comes to loving the stranger is the reality that our brains, our hearts, our lives, are so focused on other things, like our jobs, our families, our churches, and a host of other things, that we can miss the strangers in our midst. Just like the people watching the video who missed the gorilla and the people in our gospel lesson who did not see Christ, we too are left wondering where the strangers are in our lives. I think loving the stranger is the hardest thing to do because we do not see them. Loving our enemy is hard, but we know who our enemy is even if it is by the harm they are causing us. The stranger is unknown to us, and it is hard to love something we know nothing about. It is hard to love something we do not see.

What makes someone a stranger to us? Usually it is because we do not know them, but often there are other things that separate us from the stranger and keep us from getting to know them. The stranger often is someone who is, or at least appears, different to us. They might not share our skin color, our gender, or our sexual orientation. They might come from a different part of the country or even the world. They might be a part of a different social class than us. All of these are superficial differences, but they have the same effect, they separate us and drive us apart.

Jesus does not want us to be apart. Jesus wants us all to be a part of God’s beloved community. He did not come to earth to show just a few of us how to live or to save a couple of us. Jesus lived, died, and rose again for the salvation of everyone. In Christ the distinctions that we cling to vanish. Paul teaches the Galatians, and us, that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free. This lesson is reinforced in the scripture today. It stresses in the least, the last, the left out we will also find Christ.

I once heard about a nun who only referred to people using the “we” pronoun. She felt that our very language creates a separation and a distinction that drives us a part. Think about it. The very use of words like “them” and “they” creates a distinction because opposite them is us. In our language we have made a distinction that God does not make. It is just another reminder of the ways that we make it harder for ourselves to love the stranger.

Only thinking about people terms of “we” and “us” is hard. It is hard because of the habits we have formed but it is also hard because it forces us to see the strangers in our midst and to recognize ourselves in them. It forces us to take those differences that we experience in the world and to make them unimportant. It changes how we think and act. People who look different, act different, vote different than us are a still a part of us.

When we talk about helping homeless people, what comes to your mind? How many of you think about the guy, sitting on the side of an off ramp in downtown Minneapolis with a sign asking for help? Those are the homeless we do see. The homeless we do not see are the ones who are working a job, or maybe two, and still cannot afford rent and food for their families and so are living in the car or bouncing between couches of their family and friends. Those are the ones we do not see. All of them are strangers to us. All of them are children of God. In all of them we will find Christ.

The United Methodist Church has been struggling for over forty years to come to an agreement around our beliefs about human sexuality. In 1972 we put language into our Book of Discipline stating that we believed that homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teaching. Ever since then we have been fighting with each other about whether to remove that language or make it stronger. Who is the stranger here? For some of us, it might be people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, or something else. We find it hard to understand them because their experiences are different from ours. For others the stranger is the person who does not read the scriptures the same way we do. The stranger might be United Methodists in the Congo or California or Alabama or the Philippines. These people experience God and scriptures in different ways than we do. They live different lives and they can seem like strangers. All of these people might be strangers to us, be we are called by God to see Christ in each one of them.

I am not going to tell you what to think or believe when it comes to matters of sexuality. I have my thoughts that are grounded in how I read the scriptures. I also believe that many of you might have different beliefs that are grounded in how you read the scriptures. I do not think that what we need now is more divisions and disagreements. We live in a time of divisions. More and more we find that our opinions are shaped less by solid facts and more by our political preferences and views. We all like to think that we are smarter than that, but study after study finds that we are not. We cling to the ideas and views of people like us and we become increasingly isolated from those who are different.

I believe that God is calling us to get rid of those differences. I believe that God is not only commanding us to do it, God is imploring us to do it. We need to open our eyes to see those people who are not like us but are still children of God. We need to see their hurts, their needs, and to help them, because in them we will find Christ. We need to love the stranger because we are the stranger, and God loves us.

Questions to Ponder:

What comes to your mind when you hear the word stranger?

Who are the people you struggle to love in your life?

What can we do to open our eyes to see those people we have missed because of our own blinders and distractions?

Prayer:

Open our eyes God that we might see you in our midst. Help us to recognize you both in the presence of our friends but also in the strangers we pass by and sometimes never even notice. Give us the courage to reach across the divisions we create that in those who seem so unlike us, we might also find you. Amen

Love in a Time of Hate: Love Your Enemies

Matthew 5:38-48

Law of retaliation

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

Law of love

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

Luke 10:25-37

Loving your neighbor

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31  Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32  Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33  A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34  The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35  The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36  What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

 

Thoughts on the passage:

One of the worst things we have done in Christianity is turn it into a personal faith that focuses on each of us. I believe we do this because we as individuals are genetically wired to be self-interested. We also do it because we live in a society that was founded around principles that focus on the individual. It makes it very easy for us to focus on the question of, “What is in it for me?” when it comes to our faith. Even our methods of reaching people with the message of the gospel have leveraged this self-interest. Fear of Hell and damnation have long been used as a selling point for Christianity. The motivation to follow Christ is oriented in our own desire for eternal self-preservation, we have made it personal.

The problem is that the Christian faith is not meant to be a about us. It is not about our own personal salvation. The Christian faith is focused on God’s redemptive work in the world. We believe that God is in the process of “making all things new.” We believe that God’s mighty acts in creation are an ongoing work and we are asked to be a part of it. Our faith is not meant to be focused on us, but it is about following God and joining with God in working in the world.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Jesus’ command to love our enemies. This is a point where we are asked to not only resist the culture of our world, but to also resist our own natural inclination. When we are pushed, it is hard to not instinctually push back. I have been learning to play racquetball as a way to get in better shape. The Lutheran pastor I have been learning from is obviously much better than me. Invariably, when I make a good shot, his instinct is to make an even better one back. He usually is quick to point out that if I am going to make it hard for him, he is going to make it hard for me. He does not do it to be mean, it is just the instinctual thing to do. Our call to love our enemies challenges that natural response.

Many of you have probably heard the quote, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” that is attributed to Mohandas Gandhi. While I love the sentiment of it, and strongly believe a lot in the practices and teachings of Gandhi, I fear the quote falls into the same trap of self-motivation. It teaches us to be nonviolent and loving out of self-interest, emphasizing the negative repercussions of a cycle of violence that leaves us all blind. The reason to not respond is oriented in what is best for us. Matching violence with violence feels good emotionally in the moment but will cost us in the end is the message the quote drives home.

When Jesus teaches us to love our enemies as well as our neighbors, he does not focus the motivation on what is best for us. Instead, like in all things, Jesus points us back to God. We are called to love our enemies because God loves them. Being a Christian means seeking to be like Christ. We know that Christ loved his enemies, not only did he pray for them while he was on the cross, but he bled and died for them. So great is God’s love for us that not only is God willing to die for us, God is willing to do it even when we are the ones that are seeking to kill God.

Jesus reminds us that there is nothing great or noble about loving the people who love us. Such a reciprocal love is easy for everyone. When someone does something nice for us, we find it easy to do something nice for them. How much harder it is to be nice to someone when they are being mean to us? Our faith teaches us to look for ways to extend love to others even when we have no hope of getting it back. We do not love others because they will love us. We love others because God loves them, and we are called to love them as well. It is not about us, it is about following God.

Gentiles are often used as a rhetorical device in the teachings of Jesus. In our text in Matthew, Jesus contrasts the actions that he challenges us to do with the actions of Gentiles. “Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Do we really want to only do as much as those people we think are inferior? In Luke, Jesus uses a similar comparison with the story of the Good Samaritan. Again, we are left to wonder if a Gentile can show acts of love, how come we cannot do the same?

The story of the Good Samaritan is a great example of a love that is not self-interested. The priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all have reasons to not help the injured man. Only one of them, is able to get beyond what is best for himself and think about what might be best for the injured man. What is most striking is that the person who does so has the least motivation to help. Samaritans existed as second-class citizens. They were constantly looked down on and mistreated by the Jewish community. Good Jews would often avoid Samaria, taking a longer route to avoid being around people they felt were unclean. A Samaritan helping a Jew was not unlike a black person helping a white person in the 1950s.

When we think about what it means to love our neighbors, we realize that it also means loving our enemies. It means getting past the feelings of personal animus and dislike we might have towards someone. It means letting go of the grudges we bear. It means overlooking the harm they have caused to us and instead showing them only love and respect. It is not easy. It is what we are called to do.

We follow a God who loves us even when we turn away from God. We follow a God who cares for us even when we refuse to care for God’s children. If we want to be true followers of God, we need to reflect the love and care that God shows to us to others. We need to look past our own personal disagreements and grievances to reflect the love and grace we experience from God. We love our enemies, not because it is the smart thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do. We love our enemies, because God loves us.

Questions to Ponder:

Who are the enemies in your life?

When is a time you have struggled to love someone because of what they have done to you?

What are the ways we get past our own tendency to be self-interested?

Prayer:

Ever-loving God, even when we stray, you love us, call to us, and seek to bring us back into the fold. Help us to show that same love to each other when we cause harm to one another. Help us to offer love in the midst of brokenness. Make us instruments of your peace and love. Amen

Love in a Time of Hate: Neighbor

Matthew 18:10-18

Parable of the lost sheep

10 “Be careful that you don’t look down on one of these little ones. I say to you that their angels in heaven are always looking into the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go in search for the one that wandered off?13 If he finds it, I assure you that he is happier about having that one sheep than about the ninety-nine who didn’t wander off. 14 In the same way, my Father who is in heaven doesn’t want to lose one of these little ones.

Sinning brother or sister

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16  But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. 17  But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18  I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he says that we are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. For Jesus, all 613 laws of the Old Testament can basically be summed up by these two simple commands: to love God and love our neighbors. In a time where love seems to be in short supply, I think it is good for us to explore again what Jesus means by this idea that we are supposed to love our neighbors. What is it about that command that makes it so central to the message of the gospel?

The passage for today contains something that we often refer to as the Rule of Christ. It contains important instruction on what we are supposed to do when another member of the church, our neighbors, sins against us. The idea behind the rule is that we first seek to tell them ourselves that what they are doing is wrong. If that does not work, then we bring one or two other people to try and reach a resolution. If that also does not work, then we bring the matter to the whole church.  If even that group cannot solve the problem, then the church is to treat them as a gentile or a tax collector. They are now outside of the community, but not outside of Christ’s love. After all, Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to reach these very same people.

 The Rule of Christ is very illuminating when it comes to the idea of loving our neighbors. First, it provides a mechanism for resolving differences within a community. We all know that it can sometimes be the hardest to love the people we live with all the time. Differences are inevitable in a group larger than one person and disagreements can lead to things being said or done that hurt or offend other members of the group. Finding ways to resolve those differences is key both to preserving relationships and when it comes to loving our neighbors.

I want to take a minute to highlight a couple of key points in the understanding of the Rule of Christ. First, the initial way of dealing with the problem is one on one. There are several reasons for this. One is that the person who is hurt (sinned against) is the one who can speak for their problems. They are the one that knows how they were harmed, and they are the only one who can say when the problem has been solved. The other reason to settle this one on one is that it helps to avoid escalating the situation. When more people get involved, it is easy to make a mountain out of a molehill. We are all defensive by nature. We are wired genetically for fight or flight, not forgiveness and resolution. The more the situation feels like a confrontation, the more our fight or flight instinct will kick in. Neither flight nor flight will help resolve things in a helpful and loving way.

Love is ultimately at the heart of the Rule of Christ. The whole theory is built around an idea of a loving community. When someone does something wrong, it harms the love in that community and there is a need to repair that love. How we approach that problem says a lot about the love that exists in the group. Do we leap to assumptions and convict the person before talking to them about it? Certainly, that would not say much about how loving we are as a group. Ignoring the problem is also equally problematic because it does not address the harm that a member of the group feels. The final goal of all of this is to restore love to our community.

The Rule of Christ is technically really the teachings in Matthew 18:15-18, but I included a larger section for our reading today. I think this larger context helps to frame this essential teaching. The Rule of Christ is all about restoring love to the community. It comes however, as a part of a larger message on the need for redemptive work. The reason we talk to the person who is sinning is that we want to find all of the lost sheep in the world. We care about everyone. We care about the person who is causing harm and we can care about the person who is harmed. The work of loving our neighbors means attending to the brokenness in our community and seeking to make that right. This is done both with a goal of redemption in mind, but also a recognition that there are ways that communities do need to be separated. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to create separation.

One of the hardest things in the church is dealing with what it means to love our neighbor and forgive them when they sin against us. Jesus tells us we have to keep forgiving them, but this can run counter to what seems to be our best interests. I believe that this teaching from Matthew perhaps helps to shed some light on this very real challenge. It gives us an understanding of how we can both maintain community and also respect the need for space. In treating someone as a Gentile or tax collector we are able to both see them as outside our community but not outside of God’s grace.

When you become a pastor, you get to attend Clergy Session, which is a meeting of all the clergy in the Annual Conference. At one of the first meetings I attended we had a big discussion about what we were going to do about one of our fellow clergy members. This person was accused (and I think had even confessed) to inappropriate behavior with members of his congregation. There was some desire within the clergy to look for a way towards reconciliation. Seeking to mirror Christ’s great love and forgiveness, people were anxious to reach out in love to their fellow brother. In the end, however, we decided that we could not do this. While harm had been done to us as clergy, the greater harm was what had been done to the church members. We could not offer grace and restoration when that had not been addressed. It was a hard thing to do, but it was done out of love for all our neighbors, not just the one who was clergy.

Jesus reminds the disciples, and us, about the seriousness of the task that is laid upon us. What we fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven and what we loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. We have serious work to do. Loving our neighbor is serious business and determining what love looks like is not easy. To do it we need to be grounded in the idea of what is the most loving things for everyone involved.

Most of you may know by now that in our family, I am the marshmallow and Pastor Marianne is the disciplinarian. She is far better at handing out consequences and sticking by them than I am. I am trying to get better at this, but it is not easy. The reason I want to get better is that I recognize that simply reacting with superficial love to my children is not the most helpful thing. Giving a child another cookie might seem like a loving act in the moment, but in the long run it can lead to problems such as obesity and diabetes. On the flip side, punishment that is arbitrary rather than restorative is also not helpful. The goal is to help our children be the best people they can be and that is done by acting with a deeper love than just resolving something in the moment.

We are called into act of loving our neighbors. One of our core values as a congregation is being committed to each other. This means we need to care for the well-being of each other. When we are harmed, we need to seek resolution. When we see others causing harm, we need to say something. I know that this can also be uncomfortable, but I will never tell you that being a Christian is easy and it is certainly not always comfortable.

I think one of the greatest challenges in our lives is knowing when we need to stop and talk to someone who is struggling and reach out to them in love. Jesus wants us to care for the lost sheep. When we see someone who is straying from the flock, do we sit by and watch? Or like Christ, do we reach out to them and try and bring them back in? When we see someone who is losing themselves to abusive habits like drugs and alcohol, do we reach out in love or do we watch them drift away? Being committed to each other means caring deeply about how we are doing. It means going beyond the superficial “hey, how’s it going” to asking the deeper question of “how is it with your soul.” That is why we encourage people to be a part of Connexion groups and why we encourage you to participate in fellowship time. Through our groups and through our community, we can build relationships where this deep love of neighbor is possible. It all starts and ends with that love we know from God. Christ reaches out to all of us when we are lost and never stops trying to bring us back into the family of God. We are called to do the same.

Questions to Ponder:

What does “love your neighbor” mean to you?

Who is someone you know who is good at extending love to his or her neighbors?

When is a time when someone reached out to you with love when you were not expecting it?

Prayer:

Ever-loving God, even when we stray, you love us, call to us, and seek to bring us back into the fold. Help us to show that same love to each other when we cause harm to one another. Help us to offer love in the midst of brokenness. Make us instruments of your peace and love. Amen

Love in a Time of Hate: Love of Self

Genesis 32:22-32

Jacob wrestles with God

22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river.24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”

29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.32 Therefore, Israelites don’t eat the tendon attached to the thigh muscle to this day, because he grabbed Jacob’s thigh muscle at the tendon.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

Even if we are not on social media like Facebook or Twitter, most of us are familiar with how it works. You post something to the website that might be profound, inane, offensive or just plan boring. Your friends and sometimes strangers then can see what you posted and comment on what you said or give you a “like” or thumbs up. While it is not for everyone, it generally seems like a harmless enough activity. What we can fail to realize however is the insidious ways that it is affecting us biologically.

Dopamine is an organic chemical found in the brain. It is a neurotransmitter that is released by neurons in our brain as a way of sending signals. One of the main signals that dopamine is used to send is as a reward for actions. Like a treat for a good dog, the brain uses dopamine to signal rewards for us.

Dopamine plays a role in the rise of social media as well. All of those positive responses you get when you post something funny on Facebook are like small rewards and your brain responds by releasing dopamine when you get them. This positive feeling then motivates further interaction on social media. We crave the good feelings and affirmations we get from social media and so we keep posting and replying in hopes of future rewards. The theory is that dopamine can play a part in making social media addictive.

The same dopamine hit we get from posting on social media is often realized when we take various drugs. Just like a smoker craves cigarettes, our bodies can become dependent on the good feelings we get from the dopamine and are left wanting more. What starts as a friendly way to connect to our friends and neighbors can easily morph into something much more.

Now I am not saying that all social media use is bad. Just like not everyone who eats develops and eating disorder and not everyone who drinks becomes an alcoholic, not everyone who uses social media gets addicted to the feelings it creates in us. What I am saying is that we need to be aware of how social media acts on our brains because it is part of a great challenge, we all face. Deep down we all want to be loved.

Last week we talked about the need for love in the world and in particular we highlighted the need for us to love God. If you remember the greatest commandment from Jesus, it is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, once we love God, the next thing we need to do is to love ourselves. We cannot love our neighbors if we first do not love ourselves. In fact, I think this need for love is a driving factor in the use of social media.

In our text today, we learn about the time that Jacob wrestled with an angel. The line that always stands out to me is this cry from Jacob, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” All night long Jacob wrestles with this angel and the thing that he is longing for is a blessing. Put another way, what he really needs is to know he is loved. Like a child acting out for attention, Jacob is wrestling with the angel in hopes of getting a sign of divine affection.

Are we any different? Have we had our moments where we wrestled with angels or cried out to God, longing for a blessing? How often have our actions served as a cry for attention? When have we done things to try and get another person to acknowledge us and show us that we are loved? I know that I have done all these things at one point or another. Sometimes our actions are sincere and helpful attempts to be noticed and other times they are more destructive, like pulling the pigtails of the girl we like so that she notices us.

I believe that we all are longing to know we are loved. I think this need starts with our own struggles to love ourselves. I often believe that we are our own worst critics. No amount of bullying or harassing can do more to put negative thoughts in our minds than we already have put there ourselves. We struggle to love ourselves because we can see so much that is wrong in our lives. We know we do not eat as healthy as we should. We know that we need to exercise more. We know the bad thoughts we have in our heads about other people. Our own internal monologue can drown out the good voices that are coming from outside of us, or inside of us.

Fortunately, there is good news, God loves us. In his book, “What are We Fighting For,” Bishop Bickerton accurately states that despite all the flowery language and technical theological jargon that pastors learn in seminary, those three simple words, “God loves you,” have far more meaning and power for us. These are the words that we need to hear. We need to remember that God, who sees our sins, knows our faults, and is far more aware of what is wrong with us than we are, looks at us, loves us, and calls us good. That love from God should give us the strength to love ourselves as well.

We see that same love in the story of Jacob and the angel. Jacob is already a blessed man. In his life he has experienced God’s blessings over and over. He has received the promise that was made to Abraham and Isaac and yet he wants more. This is a familiar tale for us. Most of us, even when we are blessed with something quickly find ourselves wanting more. One cookie is not enough, a new car quickly gets old, the Christmas present we longed for all year is “boring” before the end of January. Is it any wonder that Jacob too finds himself longing for another blessing?

God does not punish Jacob for wanting more. God understands the longings of the human heart. In our brokenness and our sin, we are constantly trying to fill the pain we have in our hearts, the longings we have in our souls. Jacob wrestles with an angel and lives. This is not because Jacob is some wrestling master, but because God does not want to hurt us, even when we are mad at God and wrestling with angels. Instead, God wants us to know that we already have all that we need. God love us, all we need is to love ourselves as well.

I am always leery of making things sound too easy. Loving ourselves is not as simple as the cookie-cutter answer of “remember that God loves you.” Anyone who has wrestled with the dark demons of depression and mental illness knows that just thinking happy thoughts will not overcome a chemical imbalance in the brain. Simply repeating “God loves me” might not be enough to overcome a hereditary dependence on drugs or alcohol as solutions to our problems. The work of loving ourselves can be long and difficult. Ultimately, it starts with remember that love which flows from God. The love of God is pure and powerful. It overcomes our weakness and sin. It gets past our self-interest and personal desires. It flows over us like the tender love of a parent for their child. The love of God sees us, claims us, blesses us, and call us very good. Thanks be to God

Questions to Ponder:

What are the ways that you struggle to love yourself?

How do we balance the need to love ourselves with the temptation to focus solely on loving ourselves?

Who is someone you know who has a humble, but steadfast nature that is grounded in God’s love?

Prayer:

God, like a parent you love us all as your children. Help us to remember in the dark nights of our lives, when love can seem absent, that you lover remains. When we look in the mirror, help us to see ourselves with your loving eyes. Give us the courage to look past our failings and faults and find ways to love ourselves as you do. Amen