December 30, 2018

Love Revealed

Passage: Isaiah 52: 7-10; 1 John 4: 7-12

Synopsis: The birth of a child is a tender, precarious, and magic moment. I love the way this and the care for children is dramatized in the BBC TV series “Call the Midwife.” Jesus’ birth, and the caring life he lived, is the beating heart of Christian faith. This is God’s love revealed. It’s at the heart of every congregation that seeks to live out such love revealed.  


The birth of a child is a tender moment. Ruth was working as a nurse when we were expecting our first child and advocated that I be with her when she gave birth. This had not happened before at the Good Samaritan hospital where she worked, and it was seen as rather avant-garde. The common practice was that the husband paced in the waiting room until called after the birth had taken place.


Our young doctor, who was more progressive than most, agreed with Ruth’s request. The charge nurse, however, was not convinced and gave me strict orders to sit on a chair at the head of the bed and to by no means get up or be in the way. I’m so glad Ruth advocated for me to be there. Being beside her as she gave birth made us love each other even more. I can still hear our daughter’s first cry and see her head full of black hair. It was magic.


Life’s fragile, even in the best of circumstances. We especially feel that as we await the birth of a child. The arrival of a healthy, plump, screaming baby finding its lungs is such a joyous, hopeful thing. The doctor called our daughter pumpkin when he cut the umbilical cord, took her in his arms, and handed her to Ruth. I’ll always remember that. She was our little pumpkin.


How precarious life must have been for Mary and Joseph as she was about to give birth to their first child! I’m sure there was no charge nurse ordering Joseph to sit in a chair. Was there even a midwife? There’s no mention of that in the gospel story. We don’t know. Notice how all the elements of precariousness and anxiety are there as they search for a place to stay in Bethlehem. And then there’s the hope and thrill of a birth accompanied by the message of angels and the adoration of poor shepherds. It’s life writ large. Even more, it involves God’s mysterious presence in the shadows. God is doing a new thing in the birth of Jesus.


Let’s consider what this means for us and our small church here in the City of Fairfax at the beginning of the 21st century. To do that, I will first take a slight detour to one of my favorite TV shows, “Call the Midwife.”  It’s a BBC period drama series about a group of nurse midwives working in a poor, working class neighborhood in the East End of London in the late 1950s and early 60s. It depicts the day-to-day lives of the midwives and those in their neighborhood. It’s based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a midwife who worked with the Community of St. John the Divine, an Anglican religious order. Some of the midwives are nuns of the religious order and others are not.


I especially appreciate how genuinely human the story is. It’s centered around attending to the births of babies and caring for children. I love the way the religious order and the local parish associated with it are woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. It’s a great model for how a church can relate to its community.  Many of the families in the East End of London in the 50s and 60s are living on a shoestring and some things are hard.


Some mothers cannot conceive and then there’s the heartbreak of pregnancies that end in miscarriage and stillbirth. Yet other stories are about families that absolutely can’t afford to feed another mouth. And then there’s the single women who discover they are pregnant. There was lots of shame and involved in that in those days. Young women often went to a facility where they could give birth in secret and put their child up for adoption.


For me, one of the biggest takeaways from “Call the Midwife” is that providing quality care for babies and children ricochets throughout the entire community and lifts up everyone’s living standard. This is something I hear lots about in Ruth’s work with World Vison and my daughter Krista’s work with Save the Children. And I saw it firsthand when Ruth and I worked for MCC in Kolkata, India.


I especially appreciate the fluid social boundaries in “Call the Midwife.” This is something we’re slowly losing here in the United States as rich and poor increasingly live in different, separate realities. That social divide is also seen in the BBC TV series “Downton Abby” set in early 20th century England. I enjoy many of the characters and stories in the series. What bothers me, however, is the fixed social boundary between the aristocracy and the servants—between those who live upstairs and those who work downstairs. I’m sure it’s true to character of early 20th century Britain but hardly a depiction of God’s new world coming where such social stratification is broken down.


A central tenant of our faith is that our God, who is love, is no respecter of persons. We need to put feet under this because it’s so much more than an abstract proposition. This is what the Christmas story can do for us. Images help. I love the painting “Birth of Christ” by Georges de la Tour on our bulletin cover and projected on our screen. It contains so much love, quiet joy, and promise.


Hold on to that picture of love as we turn to the exclamation that God is love in 1 John. Notice how the writer puts this together. We love because God is love. Furthermore, God sending Jesus reveals that love to us. Jesus’ birth, his life of compassionate service, and his sacrificial death make that love come alive for us. This is who God is and this is what love looks like. This is love revealed. As Marty Troyer, the pastor of Houston Mennonite Church, explains.

Care as lived by Jesus and taught in the New Testament is the beating heart of Christian ethics. Love is the more excellent way to live, precisely because God is love. This truth is beautiful enough to heal our hearts so we can be healers of community.[1]


It’s more than any one of us can live out by ourselves. We need each other and the support of every person. Even as a community, we do it haltingly. Yet, when we combine all our personal strengths and foibles, we can accomplish great things. This happens again and again in the stories in “Call the Midwife.” Often times those who are considered the weakest are the most needed. This includes a teenager with Downs Syndrome.


I love the way Paul expresses this in his letter to the Colossians. He tells them that they are all one no matter what their ethnicity or social background. Among other things, the boundary between the aristocracy and the working class as depicted in Downton Abby has to give way. In this new fellowship we practice the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Paul elaborates:

Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (3: 13-14).


I can’t emphasize enough how radical it is when churches live into such love revealed. We tend to think that faith is private, but such faith is anything but private. As theologian Bryan Stone explains:

The Church . . . is not called merely to be political but to be a new and unprecedented politics; not merely in public but as a new and alternative public; not merely in society but as a new and distinct society, a new and extraordinary social existence where enemies are loved, sins are forgiven, the poor are valued, and violence is rejected.[2]


This is radical stuff. It shapes how we relate to each other in our church. It shapes how we engage our neighborhood. And it especially shapes how we respond to our enemies. Yes, Jesus told us to even love our enemies. All of this together is God’s love revealed in Jesus, which powerfully shapes our lives.


We miss the point if we consider such love to be merely a duty. No, it’s a profound joy. This is the message of Christmas. We experienced that in our joint Christmas service last Sunday. Our three small congregations took the risk of crossing denominational and relational boundaries to plan, worship, and fellowship with each other.


Our music teams enjoyed practicing and singing together. The children were central to our worship in the Christmas program David Tassell put together. Mike Han preached a challenging sermon on “hopeful expectancy.” We shared communion, a central ritual that enacts and celebrates God’s radical inclusion.


And our offering went to support needy students and their families at Daniels Run Elementary School. What a lovely Christmas gift! Then we ate a Christmas meal together. Such table fellowship is at the heart of being the church and the people of God. We’re the vanguard of God’s love revealed and God’s new world coming.


Now that’s something to celebrate.


[1] Marty Troyer The Gospel Next Door (Harrisonburg, VA, Herald Press, 2016), 73.

[2] Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 179.

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