Rev. Danielle K Bartz March 27, 2022
1 John 4:7-12 “They Know We are Christian by our…”
I want to begin with a story that for those who are participating in the Lenten book study will find familiar. In fact, I am reading right from Holy Envy by Barbara Brown Taylor.
“In her book Out of Africa, the Danish author Karen Blixen (writing under the pen name Isak Dinesen) tells the story of a young Kikuyu boy named Kitau who appeared at her door in Nairobi one day to ask if he might work for her. She hired him on the spot. Kitau served her household so admirably that she was stricken when, after just three months, he asked for a letter of recommendation to a Muslim in Mombasa name Sheik Ali. Since Blixen did not want to lose Kitau, she offered to increase his pay, but he was firm in his desire to leave.
“He had decided that he was going to become either a Christian or a Muslim, he explained to her. His whole purpose in coming to live with her had been to see the ways and habits of Christians up close. Next he would go to live with Sheik Ali for three months to see how Muslims behaved. Then he would make up his mind. Aghast, Blixen wrote, “I believe that even an Archbishop, when he had had these facts laid before him, would have said, or at least thought, as I said, ‘Good God, Kitau, you might have told me that when you came here!’”
I have never read Out of Africa so Taylor’s retelling of the story of Kitau was my first time encountering it. And it is a story that has lingered in the front of my mind ever since. I have found myself often thinking back on my interactions with people, outside of the pulpit, and wondering what they learned about Christianity through how I acted and treated them. Let me be clear, I am not talking my interactions with people whom I have somehow declared myself to be a Christian, whatever that may look like. I am talking about my everyday interactions, the strangers I meet and befriend. The people I sit next to on airplanes or trains who are eager to chat. The neighbor around the corner who says hello to me every time I walk past with my dog.
What do people learn about our faith and our religion by watching us either up close or from afar? Do people understand Christianity to be a source of love, giving us strength to do good in the world? Or do they see something else? Do they see only words, but no actions? If Kitau from Out of Africa came to live in our homes, what would he learn about Christianity? Lent, a time of deep reflection on our lives of faith, is a good time to consider this question.
And we can do so by standing on the foundation of one of our faith’s creation stories, the story of Eden and the first humans who lived there. The story begins with God forming the first human from the soil of the earth and breathing life into that human. That breath of life, that inspiration or spirit, is what gave the human life, turning the human into a living soul. God gave the first human a piece of God’s spirit, something that I believe we all carry within us. Some people may call it the soul, others that sense of self that is mysteriously connected with others. Christian mystic Meister Eckhart says it this way: there is “something like a spark of divine nature, a divine light, a ray, an imprinted picture of the divine nature” in the soul. Perhaps another way to think of it is that we all have within us a bit of God’s divine love.
That is what the author of the scripture we read for today seems to think. Hear verse 7 again: “Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” Our capacity to love comes from God, is that thing of God that we carry within us. And, the scripture goes on to say, because God loves us we ought to love one another because that is how God’s love is made complete.
Do you hear what this is saying? The love of God, the divine, mysterious, over-whelming love is only complete when we love one another. When we share that piece of God we carry within ourselves with others. This makes us not passive recipients of God’s love, but rather the source through which God’s love is fulfilled.
It may seem naïve for me to stand here and talk about God’s love and loving one another in the midst of the war, division, violence, and apathy that is plaguing our world. So I want to make myself clear – I am not talking about a Hallmark card version of effusive love, wrapped up in pleasant feelings and romance. I am talking about fierce, unyielding love – that type of love that compels people to action, the type of love that is unwilling to back down in the face of violence, the type of love that stands strong in the midst of doubt and fear. The type of love that is found throughout the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Sitting with those considered outcasts, speaking truth to power, calling out hypocrisy, and offering grace to those who were ready to accept it. That type of love made him enemies because it challenged the forces that kept people divided and over-turned the systems of injustice that focused on the weak. That fierce love of Jesus is our guide to how we too can make God’s love complete.
Is that the type of love that people see when they interact with us? Is that what people learn about our faith and religion when they observe us either up close or from afar? Is that powerful, mysterious, over-whelming love of God made complete by us? These are the questions that must undergird all of our decisions and actions – not just as individuals but as a community of faith. And this is especially vital now, as the world begins to emerge from two years of trauma and chaos, and are looking around at everything they thought they knew with fresh eyes. What do people know about Christianity through us?
In an interview upon being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, poet and author Maya Angelou described perfectly the on-going task of Christianity. She said: “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.” To make the love of God complete is a forever task of our faith. We will never get it perfect. We will make mistakes, become over-whelmed, struggle with indecision, and choose the easy path. We are human after all, not God. But we can learn from those missteps and use them to guide us in the future.
Never has the world needed a people to be more determined than ever to claim our creation heritage of carrying within us God’s love and sharing that love with one another. Never has the world needed a people to be more unashamed and undeterred in our drive to fulfill the greatest commandments of our faith – to love God with our whole mind, soul, and being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Never has the world needed a group of committed people willing to draw from the deep well of God’s love and make that love complete.
If Kitau, the young Kituyu boy from Out of Africa, were to spend time in our midst, what would he learn about Christianity and our habits as Christians? Would he find in our midst a compelling reason to join our efforts to make God’s love complete? I don’t want to answer this question for us or for you. But my fervent hope is that you will sit with that question and see where it leads you. Because, my Beloved Community, we have within us the capacity to do extraordinary things – this I know for sure. Amen.
God of love, we begin our prayer to you, as always, with gratitude. We thank you for that gift of love that you breathed into us in the moment of creation. We thank you for the ways you always hold us in your love, even when we do things that try to separate ourselves from your presence. We thank you for this love and ask that you help us to share it with the world.
In the midst of all the hurt in this world, God, we ask that you help us to be a people of peace, justice, hope, and healing. We ask that you compel us to act in ways of love that help people to know more about you just by our actions. Help us to make your love complete by loving all those we encounter.
God, it is with this hope in you and your presence in our lives, that we now turn over to you all the prayers of our hearts, those prayers that are too deep for words…
Great and Just God, we know you hear our prayers and we know you answer. Help us to discern your calls for our lives.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, whose fierce love for this world and his service to you is our example and guide. And we pray in the way he doubt by raising our voices together…Our Father…
 Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy. HaperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2019. Pages 93-94.