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Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 26, 2014

In the name of God the Source of who we are, God the Example of how we should love, and God the Presence with us now. Amen.

To tell the truth, it's been a tough week at my house: broken-off ends of bones, torn ACL in both legs, pain and disability. My friends had it worse, however: emergency open-heart surgery and potential amputation of feet, breast cancer metastasized to the brain, spinal fluid leak no one can explain or fix, frequent loss of consciousness no one can explain or fix, sudden loss of a job without warning, and there's more. Is your week looking pretty good to you right now?

In the middle of tough times...that's where it’s absolutely essential that we tell the truth, especially about God. You see, when you're going through some stuff, people will try to "help" you, with cute little internet slogans and platitudes about a plan for your life and -- worst of all -- lots of advice about what you've done wrong to deserve such suffering.  The word for that advice involves farm animals, and I ought not use it in church.

What I will do is try to tell the truth, and hope you are able to hear it with a love for truth in your heart, because this will not be easy.  First, bad stuff happens; it comes with life in this world. No matter what the Prosperity Gospel folks may tell you, living good and clean does not guarantee you freedom from disaster, sorry.

Second, it is not the bad stuff that matters. What matters is how we respond, and the criteria for responding are three: faith, hope and love. 

Faith. It takes courage to trust God when times are tough, especially when we face the ultimate transition, for ourselves or for those who matter to us. But God understands broken hearts: God’s heart has been broken many times, and God knows to send evidence that we are cared for, that a future is possible, and that gives us hope…a hope that is always, always justified. So, even if our hands are shaking and our tears are falling, we will ourselves to trust God, and we watch for the signs and wonders that point us to the future and its hope.

Think of the legal term called justifiable reliance.  The more times we rely on God, the more things we trust to God’s mercy, the more we find that God is in fact trust-worthy.  That’s the truth.

Here’s the truth told by the great Frederick Buechner, after his child had received a horrible diagnosis. He writes:

"I remember sitting parked by the roadside once, terribly depressed and afraid about my daughter’s illness and what was going on in our family, when out of nowhere a car came along down the highway with a license plate that bore on it the one word out of all the words in the dictionary that I needed most to see exactly then. The word was TRUST. What do you call a moment like that? Something to laugh off as the kind of joke life plays on us every once in a while? The word of God? I am willing to believe that maybe it was something of both, but for me it was an epiphany. The owner of the car turned out to be, as I’d suspected, a trust officer in a bank, and not long ago, having read an account I wrote of the incident somewhere, he found out where I lived and one afternoon brought me the license plate itself, which sits propped up on a bookshelf in my house to this day. It is rusty around the edges and a little battered, and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen."

You may have heard that story before; can you imagine how many times Buechner told it? Trust God and watch for the signs and wonders…that’s a good definition of faith, and it leads to hope. But remember, the greatest of the criteria is love. To tell the truth, that’s not only the hardest to define, as Beth reminded us earlier this year, it is surely the hardest to do.

My sisters and brothers, there are folks who will try to convince you that Christians are better than Jews, but these two of the world’s great religions teach the same truth; they even use the same words.  Put Paul to one side for a time and listen to Deuteronomy 6, Leviticus 19, and the Jesus of all the Synoptic Gospels. In good times and in tough times, our job on this earth is to love, to love God passionately and love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

To tell the truth, I do not know what actions will be required of you in your time of trial, so I cannot give you any advice.  On the other hand, not giving you advice is a good thing!  Our God of the Good Future will tell you how to hope and what to do. Let the Holy Spirit guide you in love, and you will respond in love.

However you translate them, no one can tell you what the words mean…to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your might….with all your being. However we understand the words, two things can make a difference: we can prepare ourselves for the time of troubles by studying, so we’ll know our own God values, and by keeping the words before us. It works best if we don’t just say those words in the negative (as we do in the confession), but that we set the positive command before us each day.

To tell the truth, we need a kind of training day for this. Here’s an idea: how about we take up the tradition of the mezuzah. It’s a tiny scroll holder nailed to the doorpost; it contains the Viahavta, so that “in our going out and our coming in from this time forth forevermore” we touch the words and touch our hearts. God, help us with the words we are to hide in our hearts…the criterion that is love…the goal that, despite all the bad stuff, we are to love. I am going to get the test results today, Viahavta…I am going to the parole hearing today, Viahavta…I am going to deal with my in-law conflicts today, Viahavta…I am going to…

Viahavta: Literally, “and you shall love.”  Try pronouncing the Hebrew, Viahavta. Do some beta testing during good times. I got the test results, and the turmor is benign, Viahavta…I saw the most beautiful red tree, Viahavta…I got a warning instead of a ticket, Viahavta…I met the love of my life, Viahavta…I won the lottery, Viahavta indeed!  Training day for love in action, yes.  Viahavta.

The Rabbi of Nazareth is the master at loving. When Peter betrayed him, he knew: Viahavta. In the darkest hour of Gethsemane, when the disciples fell asleep on him, he knew: Viahavta. He loved God completely, with his whole being, and he loved these closest ones, the ones who broke his heart, whatever they did…he loved as God loves. He taught them that God sends his rain on the just and the unjust, and they were to love in the same all-encompassing way.

That is what he and the sages teach us, and that is what he shows us: Viahavta. And you shall love. Not just when it’s convenient, or when we’re treated kindly, or when things go our way, but also when times are tough.  Like, you know, this week. Or possibly next week. Viahavta. And you shall love. With passion.

Amen.

     - Prof. Patricia Bleicher