Guest Column by Welling Hall
The 9:15 a.m. ecumenical service Monday, Aug. 8 in the Amphitheater opened with selections from Matthew 22:34-40, John 13:34-35, and 1 John 4:7-12, about God’s love for people and the great commandments to love God and to love each other.
Building on the Scripture readings, the Rev. Teresa “Terri” Hord Owens began her sermon, titled “Start With Love,” recalling Billy Graham’s message that God always remains the same. The Bible itself is unchanging and has always said what it has always meant to say.
“But what do we do,” Hord Owens asked, “when the Bible is used to justify hate, slavery, misogyny and xenophobia?”
Yes, God’s word has not changed. We, however, have failed to read God’s word through the eyes of love. Christians have often interpreted God’s words in ways that are profoundly counter-Biblical.
At one time, Hord Owens served as the pastor of a small, white congregation that wanted to learn more about God’s word. Many Christians, she learned, have conflated Christianity with a nationalistic interpretation of the Bible. Many Christians see the church as simply a “do good” organization: not as the Body of Christ called to be faithful, but as another social organization like the Lions Club International, the United States Junior Chamber, or a sorority. Hord Owens emphasized that Jesus has not given us a suggestion for our civic service resumes, but a commandment. If we do not practice love, we do not know God or Jesus. Jesus is the reflection of God’s limitless love for humanity.
We ourselves must reflect God’s limitless love. And who is God actually? Hord Owens reiterated the week’s theme that everything in our faith journey and the practice of our faith begins with our understanding of who God is, and who Jesus is.
To begin, people should understand that there are no limits to God.
“Who are we,” Hord Owens asked, “to place limits on a limitless love? Who are we to draw lines?”
Hord Owens cited passages of Scripture in which God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The problem is that we do not know how to love ourselves. Humans suffer problems of low self-esteem, imposter syndrome and inferiority, as well as an inflated sense of their own wonderfulness. Jesus upped the ante considerably when he taught that we should love as God loves us. We are called to read Scripture through the lens of love because God’s love is both limitless and mandatory.
Hord Owens referred to governance documents of the denomination she leads. The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) states: “We rejoice … in God’s covenant of love which binds us to God and to one another.”
Theologians, she said, do not know it all. When we follow philosophers like Kierkegaard or Tillich, we can get in trouble with our theological imagination. On the other hand, when we start with love, there are roads that we cannot go down. Christian love is not about whether or not I “get” you. Unconditional love is both required and possible as the gift from the Holy Spirit. Bigotry, xenophobia and hate are anathema to God.
Hord Owens emphasized that God cannot be limited by human understanding. It is inappropriate for Christians to claim the right or ability to limit a limitless God and deploy their own understanding to determine who stands inside and who stands outside of God’s grace.
“I don’t want you to do that to me, and you don’t want me to do that to you,” she said.
At one point, Hord Owens led a congregation that was working through a process of discerning whether they would become open and affirming in welcoming LGBTQ persons to their church. In the discussion, some members of the congregation turned to “clobber passages” in Scripture that have frequently been used to condemn people who are not welcome. As a pastor, she told her congregants that she would not be the one to stand at the church door and tell anyone that they were not welcome and that God did not love them.
Hord Owens asked worshipers to embrace the understanding that as Christians, we are called to always start with love, to pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to understand limitless love and to have faith that if we start with love, God will always be with us.
The Rev. Natalie Hanson, interim senior pastor for Chautauqua, served as liturgist. The Rev. James Paul Womack, pastor of Hurlbut Memorial Community United Methodist Church, read the Scripture. The anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Motet Choir, was “If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandment,” by Thomas Tallis. Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, played Prelude, op. 31, No. 5, by Louis Vierne, and Paul Ayres’ Toccata on Omne quod requiris amor est (“All you need is love”). Support for this week’s service is provided by the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund and the Robert D. Campbell Memorial Chaplaincy. Mary Lee Talbot will return as the morning worship columnist in the coming days.