Accepting God's Acceptance:
The Certainty of God's Love
For Sunday July 27, 2008
Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
Genesis 29:15–28, or 1 Kings 3:5–12
Psalm 105:1–11, 45b, or Psalm 119:129–136
Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52
A few years ago my wife and I took a break from our Presbyterian church to worship at historic Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. Founded in 1929 at the corner of Ellis and Taylor Streets in the seedy Tenderloin district, Glide stepped into the national limelight in 1963 when it hired the young Afro-American firebrand Cecil Williams as its pastor. Across the last forty-five years, Williams has boldly proclaimed God's unconditional acceptance to a spectacle of radical and radically disenfranchised groups — including a Hookers Convention, the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, and, of course, the city's considerable gay community. In 1964 Williams founded the Council on Religion and Homosexuality, five years before the 1969 Stonewall riots between gays and police in New York City that marked the beginning of the gay rights movement.
I especially loved one song that the Glide Ensemble sang that morning, the refrain of which captures Paul's words from Romans for this week: "God will take care of you." That Sunday at Glide also coincided with San Francisco's Gay Pride weekend. As my wife and I stood among the thousands of people along Market Street and watched the three hour extravaganza, I thought how far I was from the little town and church in North Carolina where I grew up, and I don't mean in mere miles. It's hard to relate to something so far removed from your personal experience.
But it's not hard to relate to experiences of exclusion, indifference, disenfranchisement, hate, humiliation, and separation. It's natural to long to believe that God is really and truly for you, and that in the words of the hymn that morning that he will take care of you. Most people have experienced some sense of separation from God, whether by others or even by one's own self.
The genius of Glide has been to stand in the swirling vortex of almost any and every form of human pain, violence, despair and hopelessness that you can imagine — homelessness, unemployment, HIV-AIDS, psychiatric disorders, racism, drug abuse, and the like, and standing there to proclaim without equivocation, "God is for you!" Their free health clinic, a meal program that serves a million free meals a year, job training, and 50 other ministries underscore their commitment to that pastoral proclamation: "God is for you, and nothing can separate you from God's love!"
The epistle for this week contains Paul's famously debated comments about God's election, foreknowledge, calling, and predestination. But instead of theological speculation about who is excluded by these mysteries, his focus is pastoral consolation about who is included in God's love. His message is uncompromising: "nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God" (Romans 8:39).
I count at least twenty demons that threaten to undo us mentioned by Paul — suffering, weakness, frustration, bondage to decay, ignorance, trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, death, life, angels, demons, powers, the present, the future, heights, depths, and, as if he might have overlooked some tragedy, he includes "anything else in all creation." None of these can separate you from God's love. You can personalize your own list, too: parents, children, your boss, employees, colleagues, foolish choices, bedeviling sins, public failure, private disappointments, anxieties, school, a bad business deal, and on it goes. Paul is adamant and uncompromising: nothing can separate you from God's love.
When you consider Paul's own Christian journey you realize that his unequivocal language is not pious cliche, not mere metaphor, but a deeply held conviction born of his personal experiences. A few days after his conversion God promised him that he would suffer much for His kingdom (Acts 9:15–16), and that "prison and hardship" awaited him in every city (Acts 20:23). And so it did. Brutal treatment, constant harassment, and strong opposition were his regular fare (1 Thess. 2:2, 2 Cor. 7:5, 1 Cor. 4:11). In the book of Acts, Luke records at least eight murder attempts on Paul's life (Acts 9:23–24, 9:29, 14:5–7, 14:19, 20:2–3, 21:31, 23:12, and 25:3). Paul compared himself and the first apostles to sheep headed to a slaughter; people in last place; public spectacles; dishonored fools; vagrants who were hungry, thirsty, homeless, and in rags; and in those memorable words, "the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world" (1 Cor. 4:8–13). Is anyone weak without my being weak, he asked? Ultimately, he was martyred in Rome. Through all of this, Paul remained insistent: nothing in all of creation can separate you from God's love.
Glide's pastor Cecil Williams and his wife Janice Mirikitani.
When you feel alienated, separated and estranged, by others or by the tapes playing in your own head, when you sense that everyone and everything is against you, it's easy to forget Paul's declaration that God is unequivocally for you. But reality can be different than appearances. In the Gospels for this week Jesus compares his kingdom to a tiny mustard seed, something insignificant rather than extravagant, fragile and not mighty, unlikely rather than obvious. His kingdom can also be imperceptible, like yeast leavening a batch of dough — something difficult to detect unless you look carefully, not apparent, even though you know it must be there somewhere. His kingdom is also like a fishnet containing the good and the bad together, or a field of wheat infested with weeds (Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52). Despite these and other outward obscurities, the ultimate reality of His kingdom is that God's love is unconditional and inseparable. Everything else is penultimate.
In the Old Testament passage for this week King David's son Solomon had a dream that is the stuff of childhood fantasies: God invited him to ask for anything he wished (1 Kings 3:5–12). I can easily imagine wishing to change any number of my outward circumstances. I am sure that the many people in San Francisco's Tenderloin district would feel the same. But Solomon asked for "a discerning heart." Authentic Christian discernment looks beyond personal failures, social stigmas and cultural conventions to affirm that despite your sense of alienation, nothing in all of creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ. A discerning heart believes that God is unconditionally for you, and in so believing accepts God's acceptance.
The Glide Ensemble.
For further reflection:
* Though the mountains be shaken and the hills removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken. —Isaiah 54:10
* You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you don’t know…Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens, we experience grace. —Paul Tillich
* Grace tells us that we are accepted just as we are. We may not be the kind of people we want to be, we may be a long way from our goals, we may have more failures than achievements…but we are nonetheless accepted by God, held in his hands. Such is his promise to us in Jesus Christ, a promise we can trust. —Donald McCullough
* The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference toward one’s neighbor who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease. —Mother Teresa
Image credits: (1)–(5) Glide Memorial Church.