We Can Be Better

We can be better.  It’s not about you or me or the things that divide us.  It’s about believing in Jesus and loving one another.

Read 1 John 3:14-24

It’s not about me.  I don’t normally wear t-shirts to church, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but today I couldn’t resist wearing this one.  I received it some years ago as a thank-you gift for leading our church through the 40 Days of Purpose program using the book The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.  The first line of the book is “It’s not about you.”

If it’s not about us, than what is it about? The scripture on my shirt gives us a clue: It is Isaiah 26:3 which says to God:

You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you,  all whose thoughts are fixed on you!

The t-shirt creator chose that scripture because it points us to the one who it is about – It’s about God.  It’s about Jesus.[1] 

I don’t know how it sits with you to hear me say, “It’s not about you,” but I can tell you the first time I saw that statement, I disagreed.  I remember thinking, “It’s my life.  If it’s not about me, who is it about?”

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, explains:

“The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness.  It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions.  If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God.  You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.”

Our reading today from 1 John 3 sums it up this way:  “We must believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us.” (1 John 3:23)

Believe in Jesus. Love one another.  It sounds so simple. Almost too simple. But it’s vitally important.

When Jesus was talking to the disciples on his last night with them before he was crucified, he told them to love one another four times. He even made it a commandment so they would pay extra attention, and he demonstrated it by washing their feet. The disciples must have been listening because, Peter and John say it a bunch of times in their letters. Paul wasn’t there, but it’s in his letters too, and he even writes a whole chapter about what love is in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13).[2]

In today’s reading, John says that whenever we “love our brothers and sisters . . . it proves that we have passed from death to life.” (v14)  By loving one another, we demonstrate that Jesus is alive and living in us. 

John also says:

“We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (v16)

This is a call to love one another sacrificially.  Because it’s not about me, and it’s not about you, but it’s about God, who cares for us all, and about Jesus, who gave his life for us.

In today’s reading, John doesn’t pull any punches. He says, “If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? 18 Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. 19 Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. (v17-19)

Our actions show the truth.  If we show no compassion, do we truly love one another?  If God’s love is truly at work in us, we will show that by our actions, in how we love one another.  Some say that the church has lost sight of that, and that this is one of the reasons churches decline.

A couple of weeks ago Gallup published the results of a poll that showed that church membership has dropped below 50% for the first time since they started tracking this back in 1937.  For decades church membership had been around 70%.[3]  That doesn’t necessarily mean that people have lost their faith.  Belief in God still comes out around 80%.[4]  What it does mean is that people have lost faith in churches.

John 3:16 says that God so loved the world, but sometimes the hateful voices are the loudest instead.  For example, have you heard of the Westboro Baptist Church? It is a very small church, but when they show up to protest, they get lots of attention with their shouting and giant hateful signs.  They aren’t representative of most Christians or of Jesus, but people know who they are.  Those sorts of hateful messages have been too loud in the public forum.

Those sorts of messages have prompted people to share an alternate message on social media that says, “If your religion causes you to hate people, you’re doing it wrong.”

Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a Christian writer, commenting on the results of that Gallup poll, says, “Church decline is not a rejection of our message of love, it’s a rejection of our movement’s failure to model that message for the world.”[5]

How are we modeling Jesus’ message for the world?  How are we telling and showing God’s love?

Sometimes we act more like this:

A man was walking across a bridge one day, and saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off.  He immediately ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”

“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.

The other man said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”

“Like what?”

“Well … are you religious or atheist?”

“Religious.”

“Me too! Are you Muslim, Christian or Jewish?”

“Christian.”

“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”

“Protestant.”

“Me too! Are you Presbyterian or Baptist?”

“Presbyterian.”

“Wow! Me too! Are you Presbyterian Church (USA) or Reformed Presbyterian Church?”

“PC(USA)”

“Me too! Are you northern PCUSA or southern?”

“Southern.”

To which I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.[6]

We can be better.  It’s not about the things that divide us.  It’s about believing in Jesus and loving one another.

We had an opportunity to consider how we love one another in a more long-term way this week when we celebrated Earth Day.  The emphasis of Earth Day is to love our planet by doing things that help the environment.  It can seem, though, like doing those things doesn’t matter because we don’t see immediate results.  The impact of our actions might take weeks, or months, or even years to have affect. 

For some actions, that means that the results will not happen in our lifetime.  And so we might think, “Well, then, I don’t need to worry about it.”  Maybe not.  But what about our children and grandchildren?  Our actions now will affect future generations.  And, actually, that’s the accusation we’re hearing from our younger generations, that we don’t care that we’re leaving them a world full of problems.  But we need to care.  If we love one another, we will care.  We show that we love one another and care by taking action.

How did you celebrate Earth Day this week?

Bill Gates, in his latest book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” tells us that scientists are projecting climate disaster by the year 2050 unless we make drastic changes.  When I first heard that date, I thought, “Oh good, I’ll be dead by then, so I don’t have to worry about it.”  But then I did the math and realized that I probably will be alive in 2050, God willing.  Uh oh.  But even if I weren’t, my children will be, and so will their children.  To love one another is to care about what happens even after we’re gone.  And not just my family.  Climate disaster will have less impact on middle class America than it will have on those living in poverty, and much greater impact on those who live in more vulnerable parts of the world.  To love one another is to care about what happens to them, too.

We can make a difference in so many big and small ways.  There are several websites that have calculators for estimating our carbon footprint.  Have you ever used one of these?    They take into account how much you travel, how much electricity and gas and water you use, the type of food you eat, all of which have an impact on the environment. Years ago when we lived in California, I used one of these websites to calculate my carbon footprint.  I was flying every few months for work, and I was driving at least 250 miles a week, and eating poorly, and so my footprint was rather large.  It turns out that moving to Kansas has greatly reduced my carbon footprint. Now I rarely fly, and I only drive about 20 miles a week.  And I eat healthier, which, it turns out, is also better for the environment.

But I want to do more, and we need to do more, which is one of the reasons I’ve become quite stuck on the idea of planting trees.  To make a difference, we need to plant a lot of trees.[7] I like trees. We have such beautiful old trees here in Sterling. I’d love for there to still be some after the current ones get old and die, so we need to keep planting them.  I’d love for us to do this together.

Another way to love one another is to help out with the Hearts for Homes painting project on June 19.

Believe in Jesus. Love one another. But knowing how to love one another is not always so clear.

Sometimes we are good at doing the things we know how to do, but that may not always be what is needed.  For example, our ministerial alliance here in Sterling has been prepared to help people with power bills or other emergency needs, expecting that with the pandemic we would see an increase in those requests, but we have not.  So we have been inquiring about other needs, which is how we got started providing lunch during the few weeks each summer when the school has to take a break from providing lunches.  We’ll be doing that again this year, and we’ll need your help.

Another way they have changed their approach is that at Christmas we gave $500 to the city to use for paying power bills.  We didn’t know whose bills got paid.  We just ask the city to help those who need it most.  This is another way to love one another. Any one of us that has the means can do what the ministerial alliance did and give money to the city to help someone who is having trouble paying their bill.  Or give money to the medical center and ask them to use it to pay someone’s medical bill.

Loving one another also means paying attention to how things are impacting the people around us. For example, this week we were all waiting for the jury to announce the results of their deliberation in the George Floyd murder case against former police officer Derek Chauvin.  When the judge read the verdicts – three guilty verdicts – there were a variety of reactions.  There was shock and disbelief because many of us expected the judge to say NOT guilty, since that’s how these cases so often go.  There was joy from those who were hoping and praying that the defendant would be held accountable.  But there was also discouragement about what this might mean for our police who are also experiencing retaliation and violence.

  • To love one another is to acknowledge that we are not all reacting the same way, and to be sensitive to that. 
  • To love one another is to acknowledge that this was a significant event and to not ignore it.  

For me it showed me that there is hope that we can be better, that we can overcome the oppressive systems of poverty and racism that are so deeply ingrained in our culture, that we can change.  That hope gives us courage to keep working.  Hope does not disappoint us, because we have God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  We can be better because God is better.

Jesus told us to love one another.  John says, “Beloved, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. 19 Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. 20 Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”

Whenever we’re struggling with discouragement, it helps us to take action for someone else.  This can be a prayer for them, a phone call or a card or text, or a visit or food or mowing their yard, or taking a stand against racism and poverty, or paying a bill or planting a tree.  Come to the community development meeting this Thursday and help us make plans to take action together.

Even if we feel inadequate to the task, or incapable of knowing how to love, we can turn to God and ask God for help, knowing that God is greater than our hearts and will help us. As John tells us in verse 22, “we will receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey him and do the things that please him.”  God will help us to love one another.  May God bless our asking and our acting and our loving.

Thanks be to God.

Merciful God,

we confess that we have sinned against you

in thought, word, and deed,

by what we have done,

and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you

with our whole heart and mind and strength;

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

In your mercy forgive what we have been,

help us amend what we are,

and direct what we shall be,

so that we may delight in your will

and walk in your ways

to the glory of your holy name.[8]

Thank you for your grace and patience with us,

and for your forgiveness that we have through your Son Jesus Christ,

in whose name we pray.


[1] “We look at [Jesus] and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible …everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him.” (Colossians 1:15-16 MSG)

[2] See a list of all these verses here.

[3] https://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/article250389211.html and https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx

[4] https://news.gallup.com/poll/268205/americans-believe-god.aspx

[5] https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/03/opinions/easter-jesus-gallup-poll-church-decline-graves-fitzsimmons/index.html

[6] Adapted from https://www.makeitclearnow.org/relhumor.html#Love%20one%20another but I think the joke was originally by comedian Emo Phillips.

[7] 1025 per person.  More about that here: https://makrabbe.blogspot.com/2021/04/one-thousand-trees.html

[8] Book of Common Worship © 1993 Westminster/John Knox Press, p551.

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