Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I suppose we’ve all heard it. I imagine most of us have been told at some point in our lives that there is something, or more than one thing, you have to do to be in good with God, usually expressed as in order to be saved. You have to take Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. You have to believe the right things about him and not believe the wrong things about him. You have to behave the right way and not behave the wrong way. More foundationally, you have to be the right kind of person in your very essence. And, though it’s not always made explicit, the implied threat in all of these things is that if you mess up, God’s gonna get you. After you die, your soul will go to hell for eternity., We’ve all heard things like that, haven’t we?
In the near future we will lift up and celebrate two varieties of human being who, at times at least, Christians have said are the wrong variety of human being. Tomorrow is Juneteenth, a day connected with the coming of the great good news of emancipation to enslaved human beings in Texas, all of them of course being Americans of African descent. For over 200 years by Juneteenth, Christian churches in the United States (though mercifully not all of them) had told these enslaved women, men, and children that they were less than fully human. American white supremacists had concocted the diabolical, and nonsensical, theory of “the curse of Ham,” which said that Africans, most of them at least, existed under a curse from God. And there wasn’t anything they could do about it. Many white slaveowners insisted that God prefers white people over Black people if they even considered Black people to be human beings at all. That’s just how it is, they said.
Next Sunday is Pride Sunday here in Seattle. Indeed, the whole month of June is Pride Month. I don’t have to tell any of you what Pride it is that we’ll celebrate next Sunday. This church has been Open and Affirming longer than most ONA churches have been. I’m sure I don’t have to recount to you the sinful, toxic way that most Christians have treated LBGTQ+ people and that, tragically, many Christians still do. Christian churches have told God’s LGBTQ+ people over and over again, “Get straight, or you’ll spend eternity in the torments of hell!”
Now let me ask: What sort of God do people who have said these despicably false things believe in? More specifically, how did and do they think God relates to creation generally and to us human beings more particularly? Even more specifically, how did and do these supposed Christians understand God’s grace, that is, God’s love in action in the world? It’s actually quite easy to answer these questions. All of these hellish positions assume that God is primarily the great Cosmic Judge. As the Cosmic Judge God is continually staring down at each and every one of us looking for us to make some mistake, or to be the wrong sort of human being, so God the Cosmic Judge can convict and condemn the souls of those who believed or acted wrongly, or who are just the wrong kind of person. Yes, the Bible says God is love, but these people I’m talking about understand God’s love, God’s grace, in one particular way. They think that God’s love and God’s grace are conditional. They always attach the word “if” to it. They say that if you believe right, act right, and are the right sort of human, God will love you. But if you don’t do all of those things, God will damn you to hell.
That’s what most Christians have thought for most of Christian history. They have believed that God would kick “sinners” out of God’s grace precisely because they are “sinners.” Most Christians for most of the faith’s long history have seen God’s love not as absolute but as conditional. They have believed that God will save us only if.” They haven’t always agreed on if what, but they’ve all believed that there is an if. And they’ve all agreed that if you don’t comply with their if, you’re in big, eternal trouble.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of support in the Bible for this way of thinking. We heard one passage that supports it in a way in our reading this morning from Exodus. In that passage, the Hebrew people have escaped from Egypt and are wandering around in the harsh wilderness of Sinai. We’re told they camped in front of “the mountain,” presumably Mount Sinai. Moses goes up the mountain and talks with God, as only he could. God tells Moses to tell the people that God will make them a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” if they obey God’s voice and keep God’s commandments. And there is a necessary, though here unstated, correlative to those words. They necessarily imply that if the people do not obey God’s voice and/or do not keep God’s commandments, God will not make them a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. Indeed, the Bible is full of statements that God has inflicted great harm on God’s people precisely because they have not fulfilled this if.
This passage presents God’s grace as conditional. It says there’s something the people must do or they won’t get God’s gift of grace at all. So we need to ask: Is God’s love conditional? Does it come with an if? My answer to that question is an unequivocal No! God’s love is not conditional, nor is God’s grace. Those divine blessings apply equally to every human who ever lived, who lives now, or who ever will live in God’s good creation in the future. There simply is no if about it.
We’ve seen that there is biblical support for the proposition that God’s grace is conditional, and the passage we heard this morning isn’t even the strongest passage to support that contention. If you really want that notion blasted in your face over and over again, read Deuteronomy. Though it also has some good things in it conditional grace is mostly what Deuteronomy is about. Mercifully, however, there is also good biblical support for understanding God’s love as completely unconditional. There are several passages in both Testaments that do it, but I’ll give just one here, the one that happens to be my favorite passage in the whole Bible. We heard it this morning. At Romans 8:38-39 we read:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, not height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Friends, that’s the best news there ever has been or ever could be. Paul lists a few specific things that can’t separate us from the love of God, but then he adds “nor anything else in all creation.” The great good news is precisely that. Absolutely nothing in all creation can ever separate us from the love of God. Nothing in all creation ever does separate us from the love of God. We humans all stand in God’s universal, never-failing love no matter what. Period.
Of course, the Bible presents God and God’s love in both of these ways. It has that love being both conditional and unconditional. So which is it, and how do we decide which it is? I suggest that we determine which it is by discerning which of these two sorts of alleged divine love is more like human love. Human love, it seems, is almost always conditional. We fall in love, but we also fall out of love. Many of us love our relatives until they say or do something we just can’t accept. Then we reject them. None of us can honestly say that we love everybody. Do you love Donald Trump? Maybe some of you do, but I don’t. Our human love is, I’m afraid nearly always conditional.
Which means that God’s love is always unconditional. Why? Well, let me share a couple more of my favorite Bible verses. At Isaiah 55:8-9 the prophet says:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Now, apply these verses about how different God is from us to our question about God’s love. Surely Paul’s vision in our verses from Romans of God’s love as absolutely unconditional is the correct one. Making God’s love conditional makes God too small, too human. Yes, we can relate to God as a person, and I hope that you do. But at the same time God is utterly different from us. Absolutely more than us, and one of the most important ways God is more than us is that God’s love is absolutely unconditional. Sometimes we stop loving. God never does.
Now, there’s something I need to say before I go on. In what I am about to say, I refer to God’s Black people and God’s LGBTQ+ people in the third person, and I need to explain why I do. I am white, and while I think I can have wonderful discussions with Black folk and learn a great deal from them, I would never be so arrogant (and racist) as to claim to speak for them. I am straight and cisgendered. I know, love, and respect many people who are neither of those things, but again I must say that I would never be so arrogant and disrespectful as to claim to speak for them. So I use the third person when I refer to both sorts of God’s people. I don’t know how to do it otherwise.
Tomorrow, on Juneteenth, we remember and honor the ancestors of today’s African-Americans who our white ancestors enslaved. We celebrate the emancipation of all enslaved people in the United States, essentially all of whom were Black. As we do, we acknowledge the full human dignity, autonomy, and worth of Black Americans. We know that God loves Black people every bit as absolutely and unconditionally as God loves all other people. God always has. The slavery in our history oppressed beloved people of God. It is meet and proper for us to celebrate the end of that diabolical institution. And of course we need to work to end the racism and white supremacism that continues to this day even though slavery does not.
This month, and especially next Sunday, Pride Sunday here in Seattle, we celebrate the full equality, equal dignity, equal autonomy, and equal worth of God’s LGBTQ+ people. As we all know, they are people Christians have hated, oppressed, condemned, and excluded essentially from the beginning of the faith. Only late in the twentieth century did churches like Prospect begin to understand that sin lies not in minority sexual orientation or gender identity but in the traditional Christian negative thoughts and actions against those people of God. Only than did some churches, like this one, commit themselves to changing that sinful legacy. God loves LGBTQ+ people absolutely and unconditionally. God always has. Who then are we straight, cisgendered people to attack, condemn, and discriminate against them?
That is of course a rhetorical question. God’s call to all of us is to love our neighbor as ourselves. People of all races (and yes, I know that race is an artificial human construct not a natural one) are each other’s neighbors. People of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and forms of gender expression are each other’s neighbors. God loves everyone absolutely and unconditionally. Love that divine may be beyond us, but at least we can give it a try, can’t we? There is no if in God’s love. May there be none in ours either. Amen.