God loves you more than any church has ever been able to show you

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

In the name of God, the Creator who is our source, the Christ who is our guide, and the Holy Spirit who fuels the journey.  Amen.

Earlier this week I watched, for the first time, the TED Talk video that happens to be the most popular, most viewed video that has ever been released.  It’s been viewed nearly 60 million times!  The video is by Simon Sinek, the best-selling author of the book Start with Why, among others.  His influence was profound in the business world about a decade ago.

In the video, Sinek is talking about theories of leadership, but really, what he’s talking about is communication.  He describes what he calls “The Golden Circle” as three concentric circles with “why” at the center, then “how”, and finally, “what” on the outer ring.  He says the failure of most communication is that it starts with “what” – a description of what the speaker wants from the listener.  From there, the speaker typically moves on to how the listener can give them what they want.  In rare circumstances, he says, the discussion may move on to why it’s important, but usually, it doesn’t.

Better leaders and better communicators, he says, instead start with why.  What is the motivating factor?  Why is it that what the speaker is about to say is important?  What makes it meaningful?  From there, you can move on to how one might achieve that goal, before finally resting on what specific actions will get us there.

In the church, it’s easy to see how we fall victim to this same dominant, yet largely ineffective communication strategy.

For example: we ask people to come to church.  That’s the “what” that we’re hoping to achieve – at least initially.  Usually, from there, we move on to tell them how to do it.  “Sunday mornings at 10:00 am in the church, or anywhere on our livestream.”  And that’s usually where it stops.  You have to stick around a good long time before any sense of “why” people might do this comes up in conversation – if it ever does at all.

So, it got me to thinking – what is the why?  I can’t, on my own, answer that for this whole congregation.  I have some ideas about what I think the “why” is for this church, but a more effective place for me to start is to ask what the “why” is for me.  Why am I a priest?  Why have I devoted my life to this?  Why do I think it’s important?

These are certainly the kinds of questions that are posed when one considers entering the ordained life, but they’re important to revisit, often – and not just for ordained people, but for all of us who claim this faith.  As I revisited this question this week, this one particular phrase kept coming into focus for me.  I kept saying, “God loves you more than any church has ever been able to show you.”

God loves you more than any church has ever been able to show you.

That is one of the biggest motivating forces for me as a priest.  I truly believe that God loves each one of us more than any church has ever been able to show any of us.  And that belief makes me want to share that truth with others.  It makes me want to strive to reflect that truth more clearly in the church.

The parables that we read today are two of the most widely recognized and intimately known in the canon of scripture around Jesus.  The Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin.  In each of these stories, the one that is missing becomes the focus.  Extreme measures are taken to recover the one – the sheep or the coin.

Part of the message there is that every “one” is important.  It’s easy to say that everyone is important, but to really focus in on the individual – on the one coin, the one sheep, the one friend – that takes more.  It takes a reordering of our lives and priorities.

One of the promises of the faith is that God’s life is ordered in just that way – a way that focuses on every single one.  The promise is that the kind of love that values each one is an essential element of God’s “why”.  It may seem irrational to push aside the needs of the whole for the purpose of supporting the one who is lost, but that’s exactly how we are loved by God and that’s exactly how we are being called by God to love.

At our best, the church is about love.  At our best, the church is about trying to emulate the kind of extravagant love that God has for us.  But even when we’re at our best, God loves every single “one” in the world, more than any of the best churches have ever been able to demonstrate.

Last week, the Gospel was hard – it was about what we’re being asked to give up – a lot about our elevated views of ourselves and our own needs and preferences.  But this week, it turns from the giving up to the getting – from the cost to the benefit.  And what we get from God is love beyond imagining – love strong enough to find us when we’re lost.  Again, it’s not a promise that we’ll all win the lottery or we’ll never know pain, but a promise that through whatever comes, for good or ill, we’ll endure it with the unsurpassable love of a God who will drop everything for us.  The reckless love of a God who promises to make us the focus.  Every one of us.

These parables give us a glimpse of what that love might look like.

We’ll never love like God.  This church, no matter how much we focus ourselves on trying to emulate the love of God in the world, will never reach that height.  As a priest, I will never perfectly center myself on the love that motivates me.  But even so, we try.  Even so, we strive.  Because, no matter how meager our efforts might prove to be, there is always someone who hasn’t heard the truth – or, someone who at least hasn’t heard it often enough or clearly enough to actually believe it.

We can’t love perfectly, but we can love better.  May we always strive to love better.  Amen.