This week, we start our new series, “The Way of Love” talking about the life of Jesus as we face a divided world. That division in our world is evident even in my own life. Growing up in West Texas as a gay kid wasn’t always easy. Even in the 21st century, the LGBTQ community is still often only tolerated. Evangelical culture pervades even traditions which are relatively moderate in other parts of the country. The denomination in which I was raised, The United Methodist Church, even today is still working to figure out how to bring LGBTQ inclusion into is rules as traditionalists fight to keep LGBTQ exclusion codified in the way they do church. The local church which raised me is part of a region that is likely to leave the United Methodist Church altogether to join the new traditionalist movement to maintain that exclusion.
With these kinds of thoughts prevalent even 25 years ago, I was taught by the actions and words of others that who I am was wrong. This often unspoken oppression caused me to ignore and deny the fact that I was gay. I never personally faced homophobia or had anti-LGBT comments directed toward me because I never told anyone; I couldn’t even confront it for myself. I ended up with all-too-common internalized homophobia. I wasn’t always kind to others who were like me and felt uncomfortable around those who were out with their orientation. I found it very hard to accept myself at times and sought validation from others. As someone with ADHD, it was easy to ignore who I was. I was able to put off dealing with who I was attracted to for when I was older. Nonetheless, I never felt like I truly fit in. Even with my closest friends, I often felt like an outsider. Any time I was excluded from something, I could never know if it was on purpose or accidental; I usually assumed they knew there was something about me that was wrong. I didn’t know how to love myself for who I was.
So often, Christians proclaim that we must love God first and foremost often at the expense of loving ourselves. It’s as if accepting who we were created to be in some way gets in the way of our love for the One who created us. We are taught to put ourselves second, or third, or fourth putting God and others before ourselves. I have seen that do so much harm. I have seen others sacrifice themselves so much that they become people of whom others easily take advantage. I have seen others love themselves so little that they turn to addiction, self harm, or even death by suicide. We focus so much on the sin our lives that it costs us experiencing the love God has for us. It leaves us completely out of balance.
This Sunday, we again celebrated the Baptism of Jesus. It’s the moment when he is anointed for his ministry before encountering Satan in the desert in what we call “The Temptation.” When the heavens open and light shines on the Christ, a voice comes from heaven claiming Jesus as God’s beloved child. So often, I focus on the blessing of this moment being the springboard into Jesus’ ministry. Though that is true, I think it rushes past one of the most important things that happens at baptism—for Jesus, and each of us. Jesus is named as one who is loved. It is only as a result of that love that Jesus is able to accept who He is as the Son of God. It is only as a result of that love that Jesus is able to resist the temptation. It is only as a result of that love that Jesus is able to do the work we call His ministry. It is because of God’s love that Jesus accepts and loves himself.
I don’t think the Church’s model of loving ourself second, third, or last. God loves us first so that we can love ourselves first. Loving God is our response to that. It’s like any parent teaching their child what love is. My own toddler knows what love is because we have shown him. He can’t even fully express that he loves others yet, but he knows that he is loved. It is by our example that he will learn to love and express that love. Just looking around, we see that the way this world loves falls so short of the way that God loves. Thus, we must learn to love differently, starting with ourselves.
If you see any sort of sidewalk evangelists around, usually with those yellow signs proclaiming the need for salvation and reminding us how we are sinners, they will often be quoting that often-quoted verse from the Gospel according to John, chapter 3. Verse 16 begins, “For God so loved the world…” Everything that comes after, any notion of salvation is a result of that love. I believe we offend the love of God if we reduce things to an equation of our receiving love only being possible if we love others first. It’s kind of like the safety demonstration on an airplane. If you’re traveling with small children, place your own oxygen mask on your face before helping others. If you can’t breathe, you’re not going to be of much help for very long. If you can’t love yourself, you’re not going to be much help to anyone else either. I think it’s time to reclaim the message that we are loved, just as we are. Yes, there is sin in our lives, but it is already defeated by our God. The love of God is far more powerful than the ways we fall short.
Each year at Epiphany, the season of which continues through February until we start the season of Lent, I am reminded of the tradition which I have experienced but never shared of Star Words or Epiphany Words. Small cards or other items are inscribed with different words which can guide us in the coming year. People are invited to blindly select a card guided be the Holy Spirit and to then adopt that word as a focus for the coming year. I wanted to share that tradition with the people of Sacred Place last week on Epiphany Sunday, but I accidentally forgot them on the copier. In retrospect, I think it’s a happy accident. What better time is there for adopting a new theme for the year after we have talked about learning to love ourselves?
We have to be secure in our love for ourselves before we can share that love with others. We have to be secure in our identity as a child of God before we can do what God has called us to do. Only then can we live into a Star Word which will guide us in the coming year. For to follow the way of love, the way of Jesus, we must first love ourselves. I pray that you will experience that love in your life. It is because of that love that we are doing this ministry together. It is because of that love that this is your Sacred Place.