One of the challenges of growing as human beings is expecting perfection when we try something new simply because we are pretty good at something else. I thought I could pick up the violin because I’m a fairly good guitarist. Not so much. We humans do not like doing things we are bad at because our egos get in the way. The older we get, the more solidified becomes the subset of activities that we think we are good enough to engage in. Does that resonate with you? I can still play soccer because I’ve been playing it since I was a kid. But don’t expect me to pick up lacrosse any time soon. I don’t want to feel foolish when the ball stubbornly fails to stay in the little net for the hundredth time.
All right. So why am I talking about this? The innocuous music and sports examples are one thing. But we need to grow in so many ways so we don’t become static and stagnant – ways that we naturally resist because growth takes energy and focus. We need to keep growing in kindness and compassion so we outgrow selfishness and callousness. We need to keep growing in the desire to be of service to others while also understanding our own healthy boundaries and limits. We need to keep growing in all facets of our identity – as spouses, family members, friends, neighbors, citizens, and followers of Jesus.
Sermon for Sunday, April 22, 2018 || Easter 4B || 1 John 3:16-24
I know it’s Easter season, but please permit me to begin this sermon quoting a piece of an epic poem about Christmas. Okay, here goes:
The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! Now please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason. It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. But I think that the most likely reason of all May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
My kids are on a Dr. Seuss kick right now, so when I read this morning’s lessons, the famous character of the Grinch immediately jumped to mind. In the entire canon of English literature, the Grinch is the best example of an anti-hero that I can come up with. Most stories are about a good guy, a protagonist, who overcomes some obstacle to achieve a goal. But in the Dr. Seuss classic, the main character is the bad guy, the antagonist, who thankfully is redeemed, in the end, by the selfless witness of his victims. I hope I didn’t spoil anything there. (How the Grinch Stole Christmas was published 61 years ago, so I think I’m in the clear.)Continue reading “Heart Expansion”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 26, 2015 || Easter 4B || 1 John 3:16-24
Many of you met (or at least saw) my sister Melinda two weeks ago when we baptized Charlie and Amelia on this very spot. She’s one of the strongest and most loving people I’ve ever known, and I’m glad that my years spent being her “annoying little brother” didn’t damage our long term prospects of maintaining a close connection. This may sound funny, but I think one of the primary reasons we survived our young years with our friendship intact was the movie The Princess Bride. We both loved it, and no matter how long it had been since we last watched it, we would quote it to each other at every conceivable opportunity. And we still do sometimes. Rest assured, you can mute the film, and Melinda and I can supply the dialogue.
So it should come as no surprise to you that when I’m doing pre-marital counseling with couples preparing to be married, wisdom gleaned from The Princess Bride tends to slip in. As of last count, I’m officiating at ten weddings this year, so I’ve had the golden opportunity to give the “As you wish” talk to many couples, with many more to come.
The film opens with a grandfather reading S. Morgenstern’s “classic” tale to his sick grandson. As he reads, the picture melts into a bucolic setting where we meet two beautiful people. Buttercup commands the farm boy, Westley, to do several menial tasks – polish her horse’s saddle, fill buckets with water, fetch a pitcher. Each time, he responds, “As you wish.” Then we hear the grandfather, voiced by Columbo himself, the inimitable Peter Falk, say, “That day, she was amazed to discover that when he was saying ‘As you wish,’ what he meant was, ‘I love you.’ And even more amazing was the day she realized she truly loved him back.”
This discovery, of course, leads to a sunset kiss, a leave-taking to seek fortune across the sea, a supposed death, and (eventually) a harrowing reunion, a second separation, another supposed death, a rescue, and (finally) an escape together from the homicidal schemes of the evil prince. (It’s a fantastic movie.)
I bring up Westley’s “As you wish” with couples preparing for marriage because I’ve found that often they don’t realize or haven’t processed the ways in which their partners show their love. Rarely do both members of a couple display their love in the exact same ways. Because our husbands or wives show love differently than we do, we have a tendency to miss it and thus fail to appreciate this love.
Our New Testament lesson this morning speaks to the “As you wish” exercise. “Little children,” says the writer of the first letter of John, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Just before this, the letter gives an example from Jesus: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
The writer of First John knows that saying, “I love you,” is all too easy – just three little monosyllables. Subject, verb, object. Meaning it is the hard part. Too often, the abused wife returns to her husband because “he says he loves me.” Too often, the college freshman wakes up crying the next morning, after being duped by “I love you.” Too often, “I love you” hurts more than it heals. The abusive husband and the collegiate predator weaponize the phrase, with no thought to its destructive consequences.
But this is where action comes in. This is where service separates truth from manipulation. You may be tempted to say that action is needed to prove that a spoken “I love you” is real. If this were the case, however, there would still be regular jousting tournaments throughout Christendom. Rather, active service is a spontaneous symptom of love – one that makes the spoken words extraneous (even though they are still nice to hear).
Loving and serving – we really mustn’t separate the two. Love expresses itself not only in poetic protestations: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” No. Love expresses itself in holding the beloved’s hair back when she’s bent over the toilet with stomach flu. Love waits all night in the hospital room, visits the prisoner, builds affordable housing, donates mac & cheese. Love gets its uniform dirty.
We will be reaffirming our baptismal covenant in just a few minutes. One of the promises echoes Jesus’ great commandment: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
Will you serve? Will you love? “I will, with God’s help,” you’ll say. How will you serve? What will your love propel you to do?
This week I invite you to talk to your spouse or child or sibling or friend. Ask them how they see you demonstrate love. What ways do you show it above and beyond the spoken “I love you?” To whom are these displays of love directed? How can you employ your unique set of gifts to become an even better version of the loving person that God made you?
Do the same thing for your spouse, child, sibling, or friend. Discover together the ways God is calling you to be God’s loving servant. Discover together how God prompts you to be servants of one another in the power of mutual love. And discover together where God is inviting you to turn that internal love into external service. The writer of First John continues on this theme: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” How indeed?
In The Princess Bride, Miracle Max reminds us that “True love is the greatest thing in the world.”* But unless we display that true love through our service to one another and to our brothers and sisters in need, what good is it? After we share Holy Communion with each other this morning, we will orient ourselves away from the table and toward the door. And we will pray, “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” God sends us out to love and to serve. I pray that we will respond, “As you wish.”
* “Except for a nice M.L.T. Mutton, lettuce, and tomato, where the mutton is nice and lean. They’re so perky. I love that.”