April 2, 2000
Rev. Virnette Hamilton
First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT  06776
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Scripture Reading

John 3:14-21 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so

must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have

eternal life.

16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that

everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,

but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe

in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already,

because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And

this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people

loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all

who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds

may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so

that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God." (NRSV)

Ephesians 2:1-10

1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once

lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power

of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3

All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the

desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like

everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with

which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us

alive together with Christ -- by grace you have been saved -- 6 and raised us

up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7

so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his

grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been

saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God --

9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he

has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared

beforehand to be our way of life. (NRSV)

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Sermon: Tolerance, Acceptance, Welcoming, Grace

I have always hated the solicitation material that comes in the mail from the

organization named "Teach Tolerance." I would think - if we only tolerate

one another we are not going to get too far. Is tolerance the goal? NO! I

want to go beyond that - to acceptance - a place where we not only tolerate

each other's differences, we accept them.

This year however, I have begun to send that organization contributions…

tolerance seems like a giant leap today. If only we could tolerate one

another… at least the world would be a less violent place.

It seems that each year we are less willing to look at each other as included

in God's kingdom.

A pastor was telling me this past week, that during her children's story a

few weeks ago she used a globe to demonstrate that God loves all the people

of the world. She would ask - as she pointed to different countries - " Does

God love the people here?" "Yes" the children answered - "God loves those

people." "How about here?" she would ask as she turned the globe in many

different directions - "does God love the people in this country?" "of

course" the children answered. Time and time again, the children responded

the same way - Yes, Yes, yes!

After the service a parishioner approached her and said, you know, I was in

China during WW II - and I met some good Christians there - so you are right

- God does love people there.

She was horrified and knew that she would have a difficult time arguing him

out of that position. It left her saddened.

Unfortunately, in our life time we have seen passages like the reading from

John, used to rationalize that kind of thinking-- "Those who believe in him

are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already,

because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God"

Only believing Christians are loved by God.

But what we need to remember is that this piece of literature was written by

a Jewish believer in Jesus for his own group of believers. It is said that

John had an extremely high Christology. Today he might be classified as

evangelical - or conservative. One of John's problems was that he was not

accepted by either the Jews who stayed in the synagogue or by the less

radical Jewish Christians.

We must remember that he was writing his version of the good news so that it

would edify and inspire his own people. A group that obviously knew

something about prejudice. John wants to assure them that they are on the

right track - that God loves them. John is not concerned with people outside

that community.

So as we read in that passage that God loved the world and therefore sent

Jesus, so that everyone who believed that Jesus was God's own son would have

life eternal we have to remember who was hearing those words.

When John speaks of deeds that can be shown to the world as opposed to the

darkness that covers evil deeds we have to remember that John's intention was

to encourage his people to stay on track and continue to demonstrate their

faith by acting like Christians.

This is still a seductive way to think. We have the answers - we know the

way to salvation is through our belief in Jesus Christ … and our good works

are are the proof and are only going to improve our chances of God loving us.


This morning it is tempered with the cautions from Ephesians: Nice that you

believe in Jesus and great that you can do good works, but don't think that

that is what has saved you - you are saved by God's love which is a gift of

grace - nothing more and nothing less. It is all a gift, pure and simple.

Your existence fuels the love - not your theology, not your good deeds.

So… No boasting allowed.

So how are we supposed to read this passage today - what message does it have

for us?

We need God's love. It is offered. We have to receive it so that it can be

the determining factor in our everyday living. It is what leads us out of

darkness into the light. We worship on Sunday, we pray, we study scripture,

we offer our time to the church, we fellowship with others - all ways in

which we receive the love. We claim that love through Jesus Christ and other

people claim the love they have received through other names. But we share a

common task which is to go into the world and live as though the love we have

received truly matters.

Many years ago a friend - a woman older and wiser than I was, gave me an

embroidered picture for my home when we were in the midst of a move. It

still hangs on my wall. It says: The love in your heart wasn't put there to

stay. Love isn't love 'til its given away.

We all know that infants need love to thrive and grow into strong children.

Love helps children become self-confident, out going, adaptable, flexible,

and inquisitive. It gives them vitality and vibrancy. Otherwise healthy

infants deprived of love dwindle - they become selfish and suspicious,

controlling and demanding.

Think of our world today - where do you see society vibrant and energized?

Where is the creative energy, where are do you find that society quickly

adapts to change? I then ask - where do you see suspicion and selfishness

being the controlling factors? Where do people struggle to define

themselves? Where do political factions create chaos that set up a

suspicious environment? Think of the ways in which the love and grace you

have received could make a difference.

Can the world become more than tolerant - ? Yes, the world can grow through

acceptance to a genuine welcoming of diversity. But only if we live as

though the love we have been given from God is important. Only if we live

as though love and grace makes a difference in our lives and we bring it to

every encounter. Then whether we know it or not - through our hands, our

words, we are offering God's grace to the world.

That is what our giving up prejudice for Lent program is designed to do -

help us to find ways that we can affirm God's love and the love that we

share, not in spite of, but because of our diversity. Tonight we will hear

from Toby Gbhr from Liberia, who will speak to us on experience with

religious intolerance and how he understands our task.

Tolerance, acceptance, welcoming - grace. That is the goal we seek. And

ultimately, that will be our salvation.

This morning we are once again welcomed by God to the Lord's table. God's

own grace will define our celebration of communion. God's love will be

offered - love that overflows into our lives- love in such great quantities,

that it cannot be contained - we must share it.

We share it as a congregation that is willing to struggle with the issues of

prejudice and work toward celebrating diversity. This table is not out table,

but the lords table and it is open to all people who wish to know the

presence of Christ and to share in the community of God's people. May we as

followers of Jesus Christ accept the love and grace offered to us and return

it in good measure to all we meet.


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