This Is Love

A sermon delivered at the Lutherans Concerned/Twin Cities worship service
Psalms and Lessons (Series C, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost): Psalm 138, Genesis 18:20-32, Colossians 2:6-15, Luke 11:1-13
Offertory: Psalm 84:3-4

Wrestling with the text

“Who decided I should preach on August 17th?” That was my question to Jan at the LC-TC board meeting back in March.

I had agreed to preach tonight without having looked up the lessons, and when I started to do my sermon preparation I found that the Old Testament lesson was Abraham talking with the Lord about Sodom and Gomorrah! Then I turned to the Epistle lesson and found these words: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” By this time I was wondering what exactly God was trying to tell me with all this.

Then in my personal reading I came to this scene in The Great Divorce where C. S. Lewis is in hell waiting for a bus to take the damned on a day-trip to heaven: “A moment later two young people in front of [the big man] also left us arm in arm. They were both so trousered, slender, giggly and falsetto that I could be sure of the sex of neither, but it was clear that each for the moment preferred the other to the chance of a place in the bus.” [1] And that little gem was followed by my coming upon Psalm 69 in my morning devotions: “You know my folly, O God; my guilt is not hidden from you. May those who hope in you not be disgraced because of me, O Lord, the LORD Almighty; may those who seek you not be put to shame because of me, O God of Israel.”

Well! Thus the question: “Who decided I should preach on August 17th?” Jan said that I could preach on another verse or take the “hospitality” approach to interpreting Sodom and Gomorrah. Yes, there is that. Last month we heard Jodi give an excellent message on hospitality, but I don’t see that I can add anything to what she said. If I was to have anything of value to say to you, I needed to wrestle with this text myself, even if, like Jacob, I had to get my hip dislocated to get a blessing out of it. Since the theme of the day for this Sunday was “Prayer,” the best I could do was pray and go on.

What about this “hospitality” thing?

So what about this “hospitality” thing? A couple of months ago I came across a triptych by Xenia Pokrovski titled, “Trinity.” The right panel was superscribed, “God’s Anger Against Sodom.” The left panel was superscribed, “The Holy Hospitality” and showed Abraham entertaining his three guests. Ronald L. Ecker in his useful little book And Adam Knew Eve, A Dictionary of Sex in the Bible states:

It is from Sodom, of course, that we get the word sodomy. According to Raphael Patai (writing in 1959), homosexuality was “rampant” in the ancient Near East, with the mob at Sodom, like the one later at Gibeah, “addicted to homosexual practices.” Robert Gross offers an alternative explanation for the mob’s behavior: anal penetration was an ancient way of asserting domination over “strangers, the conquered, and trespassers.” (According to Jewish legend, there was even a law in Sodom that all strangers were to be so penetrated.)

Whatever the mob’s motive, there is a consensus among scholars that the basic sin of the Sodomites on the night in question is their violation of the code of hospitality, a code of vital importance among ancient Near Eastern nomads.[2]

That’s a start, and I assume we all know it, but I think there’s more to be said than a discussion of Near Eastern culture. Granted, we are talking about more than being a bad host or hostess. This was more like news reports of visitors to Miami being afraid to ask for directions because it marked them as targets for robbery and murder. But still, to me, this was not quite satisfying. It didn’t speak to me. I’m Lutheran; I need to hear God’s words of law and gospel for me.

What was the “basic sin of the Sodomites on the night in question?” The apostle Jude said, “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion.” (Jude 1:7) What sort of “sexual immorality and perversion?” The prophet Jeremiah compared the hypocrites of his day to Sodom: “They commit adultery and live a lie.” (Jeremiah 23:14) Hmm… Doesn’t sound like homosexuality to me. Jeremiah goes on, “They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his wickedness.” (Jeremiah 23:14) The prophet Isaiah concurs: “The look on their faces testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! They have brought disaster upon themselves.” (Isaiah 3:9) So also the prophet Ezekiel: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) This seems to me to be a loveless arrogance that looks down on anyone they consider “beneath them.”

While I was struggling with where this was all taking me, I also came upon this quotation by C. S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves, “I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness.” [3] And this took me to the words of Jesus, “You have heard that it was said ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-48) Aha! Prayer: the theme of the day!

Prayer for whom? For those who show a loveless arrogance to others. And who would I pick out as the primary candidate for that? Why, Jesus always picked on the Pharisees, so I would pick the Pharisees of today. I would pick the established church! In their delightful book, Falling in Love with Jesus, Dee Brestin and Kathy Troccoli quote Jack Deere:

It is not the New Age or secular humanism that is crippling the church today. It is a lack of love for God, the lukewarmness of the church, that is its greatest enemy. A lukewarm, loveless version of Christianity may succeed in propagating a little religion here and there, but it will never capture the heart of a dying world.[4]

This lukewarm lovelessness reminds me not only of the lukewarm church at Laodicea, but also of the church at Ephesus: “I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (Revelation 2:2-5)

Lee Frances Heller in one of her Christian Love Letters wrote:

Each of us is one of God’s created beings that He loves and wants to save and indwell. What hurts me more and more as time goes on is the gross denial of God in the lives of our people. That denial comes from ignorance of God’s love. They have fallen under loveless legalistic teaching and preaching of “Religion.” Religion says you have to clean up your act if you expect God’s love.

In his book, Guilt and Grace, the Swiss doctor Paul Tournier, a man of deep and personal faith, admits, “I cannot study this very serious problem of guilt with you without raising the very obvious and tragic fact that religion — my own as well as that of all believers — can crush instead of liberate.”

Tournier is a Christian psychiatrist and he goes on: “what the patients seek is grace. Yet in some churches they encounter shame, the threat of [divine] punishment, and a sense of judgement. In short, when they look in the church for grace they often find ungrace.”[5]

For some people this ungrace of legalism is the only message they hear. Why else would you be able to buy bumper-stickers that say, “Jesus hates me this I know for the Christians tell me so.” Because the church is made up of humans, it has a blackness in its soul that comes from the human soul. And that blackness is what the world sees most often. Its history includes the violence of crusades and witch-burnings. Paul’s accusation is still true: “You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Nations because of you.'” (Rom 2:23-24) I have personally heard one person advocate the burning of all Christians.

And perhaps that call to the pyre is justified. It seems like the goal of the loveless church is to remake the world in its image. “Jesus said, ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.'” (Mt 23:13-15)

So my brothers and sisters, I must ask the question, “Who are the Sodomites?” It is the established, legalistic, loveless church that is walking in the ways of Sodom. And in that remarkable way that God makes “the last to be first and the first to be last,” we are called upon by God to pray for the salvation of the church lest we be found to be loveless and arrogant ourselves.

What is “love”?

Pray for the church? The loveless, legalistic, arrogant church? How hard that can be when you are arrested at a synod convention for protesting the church’s lack of action! Or when you have been denied an internship assignment or placement because of who and what you are. Or when you have been asked to leave a church or to stop serving a visible ministry because of how you dress. Or when bishops are asked to resign for ordaining the “wrong” sort of people. Or when your congregation is disciplined because of who your pastor’s partner is. Or when you are removed from your calling because of who your child’s partner is. Or when your home church votes to not be a welcoming congregation.

Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your alters, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who dwell in your house,
ever singing your praise! (Ps. 84:3-4)

But not us. How can the average GLBT person love a church that turns them away at the door? Terry M. has said, “[We] need to watch out for temptation. Perhaps the most tempting of all being the temptation to hate those who hate us.” And still we are commanded, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” Terry also said, “I don’t mean just praying prayers like, ‘Lord, make them see the error of their ways.’ I mean praying for their healing when they are sick. Praying for their financial situation. Praying for their families. Praying that God will bless them in every way. In short, praying the sort of prayers you would like others to pray for you.” [6]

We cannot look this command to love and pray in the face without seeing the righteous demands of God’s law. “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10) Even when Jesus says it, it still comes out as law: “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35)

Yet, we do not love. We just got through passing judgement on the established church, calling it legalistic, arrogant and loveless. And Paul says, “You have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemned yourself, because you who pass judgement do the same things.” (Romans 2:1) No, we cannot love. “No one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” (Romans 3:20) We fail.

This is love.

Remember the Epistle lesson?

“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ?”

Now this verse makes sense. It tells me not to fall into the loveless, legalism of the established church. Paul gives the solution: “When you were dead in trespasses and uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” (Col 2:12-15)

If then we are to truly love, we must turn away from our own vain attempts at love and, like Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce [7], really fall in Love; fall into the One who is Love, who has taken our lovelessness upon Himself on the cross; and allow His love to shine through us. He really is the only one who can show us what true love is. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) The Lord has said, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness. I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful.” (Jeremiah 31:3-4) Falling in love with Jesus really is what it’s all about. It is an awesome thing.

My song is love unknown,
My savior’s love to me,
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be.
Oh who am I
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh and die?[8]

What about Sodom and Gomorrah? Abraham gives us a model of how we should love and pray for the church. We could be loveless and pray for God to sweep it clean or even to sweep it away. Have we the love to pray as Abraham? “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the church; will you then sweep away the organization and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?… Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole church for lack of five?… Suppose forty are found there…. Suppose thirty are found there…. Suppose twenty are found there…. Suppose ten are found there.” And the Lord answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”

There is the promise of the power of prayer in that story. God’s ears are always open to our prayers, and as long as we look to his mercy we need not fear his judgements. So Jesus has taught us to be unceasing in our prayers: “I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)

When our faith is placed in Him who is Love, then the Holy Spirit will enable us to naturally love our neighbors, even love and pray for our enemies. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love…. You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge your sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Galatians 5:6,13-14) Not that we have kept this commandment, but that God has kept it for us and sends his Holy Spirit to make it alive in us. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Col 3:12-14)

If we will do that, if we will fall in Love, if we will place our faith in Him, then we will be in a position to face that church which refuses to love us into itself. We will be in a position to love that church into us. As Dr. Becky Allison has said, “Love — the love of God as manifest in Christ — can empower us to respond to our antagonists in wisdom and love. By our example we will do more to cause others to accept us than by any argument.” [9] It will not be easy, nor will it be swift. But, by the power of prayer, someday that love will be reflected and it will no longer be remarkable to be accepted into a church the way Lee Frances Heller tells that she was:

On the day of [my] appointment [with the pastor], the butterflies were a’flying and when I stepped into the office, the secretary hugged me and said how happy she was to see me…. With that the butterflies left and I was calm. I knew I was in friendly territory. She ushered me into the pastor’s office and we shook hands and he immediately started telling me how, a couple of years ago, four crossdressers came to church one Sunday and one of the church ladies went to him and told him she thought some CDs had just come in. She wondered if it would be proper for her and a couple of other ladies to sit in the row ahead of them and welcome them and see to their comfort and invite them back when the service was over… The pastor and I talked for an hour and now I have a church where I can worship and be the person God has made me.[10]

Let us pray that our love will help make it so. On the day I called, you answered me, Amen.


[1]Lewis, C. S., The Great Divorce, 1946, (New York, The Macmillan Company), p 13.

[2]Ecker, Ronald L. And Adam Knew Eve, A Dictionary of Sex in the Bible, 1995, (Palatka, Hodge & Braddock, Publishers), pp. 147f

[3]Lewis, C. S., The Four Loves, 1979, (Glasgow, William Collins Sons & Co.), p. 112

[4]Brestin, Dee and Troccoli, Kathy, Falling in Love with Jesus (Nashville, Word Publishing, 2000), p. 10.

[5]Heller, Lee Frances, Johnson, Julie, ed., By the Grace of God (Wheaton, SSP Publications, 2001), p. 141

[6]Ibid., p 285.

[7]Lewis, The Great Divorce, pp 106-114.

[9]Crossman, Samuel, “My Song Is Love Unknown,” Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, (Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House), hymn 94.

[9]Heller, p. 269.

[10]Ibid., p. 97

Scripture generally taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION

Copyright Elisabeth Anne Kellogg, all rights reserved. You are expressly granted permission to copy this article provided you do not modify any portion of the text, including this copyright notice.