Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter: Psalm 98, John 15:9-17

This morning’s song comes from singer/songwriter David Wilcox. I’ve done one of his songs before. David lives in the lesbian mecca of Asheville, N.C., and this song, called “Beyond Belief,” comes from his new CD, Open Hand.

Before we get to the song, however, I have a complaint. I don’t know about you — but I just hate hypocrites — y’know, those people who say one thing and do another. I especially hate people who live by the creed, “Do what I say and not what I do.” They feel free to impose their ideas of right behavior on you, but they don’t feel the need to behave that way themselves.

Has anyone been following the story of Miss California, Carrie Prejean? For those who don’t have as much time as I do to spend on the Internet. Here’s a Reader’s Digest version. During the Miss USA pageant, Ms. Prejean was asked by gay gossip columnist and contest judge Perez Hilton what she thought about marriage equality for gay and lesbian people. Her answer was this:

We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, I think in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised.

Well as you can imagine, all hell broke loose. There has been much ink spilled and numerous internet commentaries written on her answer. She’s become a darling of the religious right and has been working an organization to fight marriage equality around the country. The religious right has hailed her as paragon of purity and morality. Then, as one might expect from these soap opera kind of stories, it was revealed that Prejean had breast enhancement surgery — paid for by the pageant itself. Then — just to make the story even juicier — it was revealed (so to speak) just a few days later that she posed nude after that surgery to show off her new, um, assets — or for you Monty Python fans, her “huge tracts of land.”

So, here is Ms. Prejean — the supposed paragon of virtue — opposed to something she believes to be “unnatural”: marriage between gays and lesbians. Yet at the same time, hasn’t she done something unnatural by enhancing the breasts God gave her? In addition, hasn’t she done something immoral by baring those newly man-made breasts for all the world to see in pornographic pictures?

What a hypocrite! I hate hypocrites.

It reminds me of the story of a woman out one Sunday morning running errands. At an intersection she sees a Coca-Cola truck making a turn, but one of the compartments on the truck is open, so sodas spill out into the road. The Coke truck stops, and the driver gets out and begins to pick up his load. The woman takes pity on the poor driver and stops to help. More cars whiz by through the intersection, and finally the woman asks the man, “Why haven’t more people stopped to help?” The driver shrugs and says, “Oh, they’re afraid they’ll be late for church.”

Some of you old-timers may remember that story. I told it once during communion. A few months after telling that story, Wanda and I were on our way to church when we saw an accident happen right in front of us on I-20. One car went into the median; another smashed into the guardrail and spun around a couple of times. It was truly a scary thing to watch. As Wanda and I passed by safely she said, “Let’s stop and make sure everyone is okay.”

What were the first words out of my mouth — the preacher’s mouth? I said, “No! We’ll be late for church!”

Don’t you just hate hypocrites?

Jesus — called me hypocrite, When I said that I believe
He said, how can you follow me, Without a willingness to leave
Leave the gates and the passwords, Known by just your kind
Walk beyond the divisions that religions always finds
And BE the mercy, my people need the peace
This fight over faith won’t bring them relief
I love them beyond belief

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples about this love he has for them — a love that is really beyond belief. He tells them to love one another as he has loved them — not as servants but as friends.

But what does Jesus mean when he uses the word “love”? There are many variations in Greek for that word. One, we know all too well, or we want to know it well and often — the love known as eros, or erotic, romantic love. Is this the kind of love Jesus talks about? No, that’s not the Greek word used here. Jesus is not talking about the exciting love we feel for a partner or lover.

Perhaps Jesus is talking then about philia, or brotherly love — the kind of love we have for our friends or our family. This would seem to make sense because Jesus is telling the disciples they are his friends. When we exhibit this kind of love we act out of a place of deep affection for another person because they feel like family. But this is not the Greek word used in this passage either.

No, Jesus is asking us to exhibit agape love. This form of love is characterized by a general good will for everyone — not just those we love romantically or as friends or family. Agape love doesn’t depend upon us having warm feelings for the object of our love, but we are expected — no, commanded — to love nonetheless.

I think this is why Jesus commands the disciples to love in this way, because love like this is not easy to do. Instead of being an act of affection or caring — it must be an act of will — something we do even if we don’t particularly want to do it.

I had a young man come to me a few years ago and tell me he couldn’t believe in God anymore.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well,” he explained, “I believe that God is love, but the more I live and experience the world, the less and less love I find. I can’t seem to understand why a loving God would create such a mean and evil world. If God is love, as I believe, why then is there so little love in the world?”

His idea of God as loving didn’t square with what he observed in the world — evil, hypocrisy, meanness. His question is a good one: “How can God be all loving and the world still be full of hypocrites and devils?”

At the time, I don’t think I had a good answer for him — but were he in front of me know I’d tell him this — his idea of “love” is all wrong. God, I believe, is all-loving — but simply because God loves doesn’t mean love will always be warm and fuzzy, full of puppies and kittens and butterflies. Sometimes, love is harsh. Sometimes, love may feel like meanness. When a parent disciplines a child, it can seem harsh — but usually the discipline is meted out because of the parent’s deep and abiding love for the child. Love, working in discipline, can seem like evil, but it’s not — it’s a deep agape love that only wants the best for the object of its love. Parents want a child to be safe, so they punish a child who does something dangerous. We would report any parent to DSS who neglected to teach their children about right and wrong or how to be safe. Neglecting a child is not love — disciplining a child is. It is through our agape love that can “be the mercy.”

If we sit around and complain about the lack of mercy in the world but fail to be the mercy, what does that make us? Hypocrites.

Jesus — called me a hypocrite, When I said I’d spread the word
He said, how can you teach of love Unless you live what you have heard
Hear the hearts of the people, crying out in pain
Pain caused by dominion, and fighting in my name
So, BE the mercy, my people need the peace
This fight over faith won’t bring them relief
I love them beyond belief

Jesus’ message to his disciples is kind of a “good news/bad news” sort of scenario. The good news is — Jesus loves us just as God loves us. Jesus loves us without condition, without expectation, forever and ever, amen. Nothing we can do will separate us from that love and grace, and forgiveness is always available to us. What better news can we receive?

The “bad news” though, is this — we have to love one another in just the same manner. Ooooo. I was feeling good until Jesus said that. Jesus is telling me that I have to love others, even those I don’t like, the way God has loved us? Unconditionally? Without expectation — having grace and forgiveness at the ready all the time?

Wait a second, Jesus. Can I think this over for a minute? It’s not sounding like such a hot deal now. How about you just love me unconditionally and forgive me when I don’t do it to others? That sounds like a much better deal. But, isn’t that kind of hypocritical? Doesn’t that kind of miss Jesus’ point?

Another thing I would have told that seeking and hurting young man years ago is this — if you don’t see love in the world, who is to blame? His answer in that moment was: “God. That’s who.” But we can’t blame God when we don’t see love in the world. We can only blame ourselves.

How does God’s love get expressed in the world? Through a book? Through a religious institution? Through an idea? No. The only way God’s love gets expressed in the world is if YOU DO IT. If you don’t see any love in the world, guess who isn’t doing any loving? You!

We ARE God’s love in the world. Unless we ARE the mercy, we will live in a merciless and uncaring world. God’s love can’t happen without us. Jesus has appointed us to bear fruit — and to bear fruit that will last. Jesus has chosen us to be his ambassadors in the world — to spread agape love whenever we are given the chance.

If we aren’t seeing love in our world, and all we do is sit and complain about how unloving the world is, you know what we are? Hypocrites.

Jesus — called me a hypocrite, When I said that I was saved
He said, how will your soul be judged
With all the judgments you have made
Faith can’t be your fortress, arrogant with pride
Come walk here beside me with the humble ones outside
And BE the mercy, all my people need the peace
This fight over faith won’t bring them relief
I love them beyond belief

The psalmist invites us to sing a new song to God — a song of God’s unconditional and steadfast love. We sing because God’s love for us is faithful and God has done marvelous things in our lives. I invite you this week to sing a new song — a song that extends that unconditional love of God to everyone you meet — to friends, to foes, to strangers, to family members, to your partner. This week, let everyone you meet wonder at your faithful love for them. When you see another person, think only of how you can be the mercy for them, how you can act out of good will toward them.

You, me, them — we’re all hypocrites. Sometime this week, maybe even sometime today, we’ll say and do something hypocritical. When that happens, don’t be so hard on yourself — and don’t be so hard on others you see being hypocritical. None of us is perfect, and we will all stumble and fall from time to time. In those moments, we must uplift one another in agape love and change our tune about the hypocrisy and meanness we see around ourselves.

My fellow hypocrites, let us love one another as God has loved us. My fellow hypocrites — let us sing a new song of love. Let us rehearse it so much it becomes seared in our hearts and minds, now and forever more, amen.

And BE the mercy, all my people need the peace
Your fighting for faith won’t bring them relief
I love them beyond belief, beyond belief
Be the mercy.