Sermon for Sunday, November 19, 2017 || Proper 28A || 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Before my kids were born, I played a lot of video games. My favorite kind of games were set in medieval fantasy realms where you fight monsters and dragons, all the while collecting treasure and renown. And new armor. In the last game I played seriously, I finished it wearing armor made of dragon scales. That was pretty cool. The armor in these games often have pretty cool names, too: The Gauntlets of Might, The Helmet of Insight, The Boots of Running and Jumping. You get the the idea.
I’ve always wondered if the designers of these games originally took a page out of the Apostle Paul’s book, because as near as I can tell, he invented this naming convention. He says in today’s lesson from his First Letter to the Thessalonians, “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” And yet, while the Breastplate of Faith and Love has an awesome name, it’s not even made of metal, let alone dragon scales. It’s made of faith and love. How could it possibly turn aside the weapons of its bearer’s enemies? Perhaps this is armor of a fundamentally different type.Continue reading “The Breastplate of Faith and Love”→
Sermon for Sunday, August 13, 2017 || In response to the Violence in Charlottesville, VA
You might be wondering why I didn’t shave today. I have enough grandmothers in this congregation that I assure you someone is wondering that. Well, at about quarter to six this morning, I scrapped my sermon. I had just finished revising it when I decided to check the news and learned what had happened yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you were tuned out yesterday like I was, here’s the short version. A large group of white supremacists gathered on and near the campus of the University of Virginia to, according to them, protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Counter-protesters also gathered. There were verbal and physical clashes, culminating in a car plowing into a the latter group, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Later in the day, a police helicopter crashed, killing both officers aboard (though foul play was not suspected).Continue reading “God is Love, and Love Wins”→
Sermon for Sunday, March 13, 2016 || Lent 5C || John 12:1-11
Imagine with me a letter written by Lazarus, the friend whom Jesus brought back to life after four days in the tomb.
To my dear sisters, Martha and Mary, by the hand of a trusted friend:
I have written and re-written this letter in my mind, and still any words I hope to scratch here will pale in comparison to the anguish I have in my heart for you. I love you both. My spirit wilts to contemplate putting you through grief yet again. You already passed from grief to joy, as I passed from death to life. But I fear we will reverse this cycle again before long.
Indeed, if you are reading this letter, then I have died once again: not from illness this time, but from malice. I am writing this to help you understand what has happened, and I’m sorry if my thoughts seem like fragments. Fragments are all I have right now. After dinner tonight, Jesus confirmed the fear that has been growing in my mind. His words shattered the innocence I wrapped myself in since coming out of the tomb.
He drew me aside after his confrontation with Judas. I could smell the perfume you anointed him with, Mary. I will remember that scent for the rest of my days. I will remember, too, his eyes set on mine, full of love and agitation. “Beloved,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
I didn’t know what to say. What did he have to apologize to me for?
“I’m sorry for what may be coming soon. I’m sorry that you may suffer on my account. I’m sorry I drew you into all this.”
He looked to be on the verge of tears. “Into what, Lord?” I asked.
“I brought you back from death, only to make you a target for death again. There are powers in Jerusalem who seek my life, and now they seek your life as well. These crowds that come to hear me—they also come to see you, to see with their own eyes proof of the words I speak. And now those who seek to kill me have added you to their list.”
I had sensed this—in the roving eyes of some in the crowd, in the growing sense of foreboding in my gut—but hearing it from Jesus’ own mouth made it real. I hadn’t named the fear I was feeling. I had feigned innocence, hoping that ignoring reality would change it. But Jesus’ words set reality in front of my eyes, and I could not turn away.
Will I die tomorrow? Will I be stoned in a public square or dispatched by an assassin’s blade? Will there be blood? Will it hurt? My sisters, I know you are reading this after I’m gone, so these thoughts must seem wild and misplaced in such a letter. But I beg you: keep reading, for I have not said all.
He kept his eyes on me as I took in his words. I didn’t know whether to run away or to weep on his shoulder. I felt faint. I looked around for something solid to lean on. The walls and chairs looked flimsy somehow. So I reached out and steadied myself on his arm. Finally, words came. “Why did you restore my life if I’m just going to be murdered weeks later?”
“Lazarus,” he said, “I wish I could spare you the prying eyes that have hounded you since that day. I wish I could spare you the pain that may be ahead of you. I cannot. But I can tell you this…”
Dear sisters, coming from any other person, what he said next would have rung pitifully hollow, but the light in Jesus’ eyes held the promise that his words are truth. “I came that you may have life,” he said, “and have it in abundance. This life that I give, beloved, is more than just your ability to move or think or breathe. This life includes those things, just as it includes pain and grief. But ever so much more, this life includes those wonderful gifts from God that reach into eternity: love and joy and grace and justice and peace. You are mine, and I have taught you how to love others as I love you. You are mine, and I make your joy complete. You are mine, and I offer the grace to strive for justice and peace everyday, no matter how many days are left to you.”
I was captivated. I looked him in the eye, and again that light of truth danced behind brimming tears that now began to trace silent streams down his face. “I shed tears now,” he said, “knowing that you may suffer for my sake. But I shed them also for the joy of knowing that such suffering cannot diminish the life I give you. Yes, you will die again. Do not let that keep you from living. And yes, you will live again after you die. Do not let that keep you from living now, either.”
His words washed over me, like clear water from a living spring. I drank them in, and they filled me. The life that he gives is more than life. The life that he gives is more than death. It does not begin when I die, nor did it begin when he brought me from the tomb. His life endures, for I am his whether I live or whether I die.
Dear sisters, while I pray to be spared from pain and suffering, I am not afraid of death. I am afraid that I do not have the strength to live as one who has this abundant life that reaches into eternity. I am afraid that I will live as though I were dead again.
But Jesus chose his words well the day he brought me back to life. Yes, he knew my fears even before I did. Do you remember what he said that day? I do, and those words are imprinted on me like the smell of tonight’s perfume. “Lazarus, come out.” He never spoke a word of resuscitation, never said, “I raise you from the dead.” He just commanded me to leave the tomb. And the gift of life came back to me in order to obey this command.
So until the day I pass through the gate of death again – and I sense it will be soon – Jesus’ command to stay out of the tomb still rules my life. This life he has given me – given each of us – reaches into eternity, so whatever ways we show forth his love now are burnished with the sheen of heaven. Whatever ways we show forth his love now will last long after we are gone, will ripple out to touch more lives than we can possibly imagine.
Mary, Martha: if you are reading this, I have died again. But know that my death will not stop the abundant life that Jesus revealed to me when I was still with you. Do not wait for death to begin your abundant, eternal life. It is yours now. Laugh and dance and sing and serve and love. And rejoice that Jesus continues to give you—and me—the gift of himself, the gift of abundant life that reaches into eternity.
Sermon for Sunday, January 31, 2016 || Epiphany 4C || 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
We’ve all heard those words from the Apostle Paul a hundred times. “Love is patient. Love is kind.” I read them at my sister’s wedding. Perhaps you had them read at your own. Statistically speaking, if you go to a wedding there’s a better than average chance you’ll hear First Corinthians 13. Now, it is true beautiful chapter can stand apart as an ancient ode to love. But when we sequester these verses to the marital service alone, we miss how Paul uses them in the greater context of his letter. We miss how love is the corrective for the issues facing the church in Corinth. We miss what love is for. So let’s put these famous words back in context, and with a little help from Harry Potter, we’ll remember a thing or two about love.
First, I’m glad we get to read these words outside the wedding. Of course, with the snow last week, not many of us got to hear Paul’s words leading up to this chapter. So here’s a quick recap: the Corinthians are having a problem welcoming all people into their community. Apparently they have been sorting people out into greater and lesser classes depending on their material wealth, social circumstance, and (this is the one that gets Paul really worked up) their spiritual giftedness. “We need all types of people and all sorts of gifts to make the Body of Christ function,” he argues. “We are all part of the one Body and don’t you ever dare say someone else doesn’t belong because that person doesn’t share your particular set of gifts or your elevated social status.”
Paul punctuates his point by asking a series of rhetorical questions at the end of Chapter 12. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.”
And next we have the verse that links the two chapters beautifully, which the framers of our reading schedule left out. “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” The still more excellent way is the way of love. Love is the antidote for the Corinthian disease, the symptoms of which include “welcoming only those who are like me” and “judging others solely by how they might be of use.” The first symptom limits our welcome to the least diverse group possible and siloes us off from any point of view that might expand our own. The second symptom discounts the value of persons who contribute to the community in ways that are not readily apparent. As the medicine for this Corinthian disease, Paul prescribes love.
But Paul isn’t sure the Corinthians have any idea what love is, so he instructs them. The still more excellent way begins with a recognition that love is the motivator of all God’s gifts. If I have all the spiritual gifts listed in the surrounding chapters – speaking in tongues, prophesying, understanding mysteries, possessing mountain-moving faith – but do not act in love, then it’s all worthless. Without love, I do everything for myself alone. I seek pleasure at the expense of others. I self-aggrandize. Eventually, I die deserted and embittered. But with love motivating action, our gifts do not enrich ourselves alone. With love, our gifts enrich everyone we encounter. Love is the powerful weaving force that stitches our actions into the tapestry of God’s story. Acting without love, we unravel the tapestry; we pull ourselves out until our individual threads are just wafting in the wind. A single piece of thread doesn’t tell a story until it’s woven together with other threads. The desire to be woven together is better known as love.
With this desire expressed, Paul moves on to what love does. Our translation messes this up. It should not read, “Love is patient; love is kind.” The original language involves much more action: “Love shows patience; love shows kindness.” The old song goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they will know we are Christians by our love.” But how will this nameless “they” know our love? There is only one way, and it springs from the only piece of advice an aspiring writer ever really needs: Three little words: “Show, don’t tell.”
If we have to tell people, “No, seriously, we are a loving community,” you can bet dollars to donuts that we aren’t. But if love is the desire to woven together, then we show love when we start weaving: you learn someone’s name and remember it. You ask, “Want to have coffee on Tuesday?” You look past the red doors of this place and notice the threads of God’s movement running in all directions, towards all people. And you begin to realize that this church is not bounded by these walls and doors; this church is unbounded because the Body of Christ goes forth from this place to show love in every place. You bear witness to the love of Jesus in your homes, in your businesses, the ball field, the gym, the grocery store, the street corner, the Internet. (Especially the Internet! Please show the love of Jesus online. The digital world is in dire need of the healing power of love. Just look at YouTube comment sections.)
I know it may sound tired or quaint to be preaching about love. Indeed, when Albus Dumbledore tells Harry Potter that Harry’s greatest gift is love, Harry just rolls his eyes. He would much rather be gifted with more talent or better intellect or greater weapons to contend with the dark wizard Voldemort. But no. In the end, Harry is stripped of all the trappings of talent and privilege and pride. He has only the love for and of his friends and family – both living and dead – to give him the courage to face his foe. To die. And then to live. (Sounds like another story I’ve heard somewhere.)
For Harry (and for Jesus) love is the true motivator. Not pride or glory. Not fame or fortune. Love: the desire to be woven together. For an orphan like Harry, this desire first manifests in finding a loving home with the Weasleys. And it last appears when he sacrifices himself to save everyone he loves. To quote Jesus, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus and Harry and, say, the heroic soldier who dives on a grenade literally laid down their lives. Perhaps we might be called to this someday, but it will only happen once. In the meantime, we can show great love by laying down our threads on the loom of God’s tapestry, side by side with each other and everyone else whom God loves.
The still more excellent way is the way of love, this weaving power that heals and reconciles creation. True love will never be tired. True love will never be quaint. True love will never end. Because God’s tapestry has no borders, only edges for more thread to be woven in.
Art: Screenshot from the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2), when Harry meets Dumbledore at Kings Cross Station after being killed by Voldemort.
Sermon for Sunday, January 10, 2016 || Epiphany 1C || Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Whenever I read this beautiful verse of Scripture, my lungs expand with more air than normal. I take a deep, cleansing breath, and I remember the truth of these words, and I lament how easy it is to forget them.
“You are my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God’s truth embedded in this verse expands out from Jesus and touches each precious life. Jesus did not hoard God’s love and pleasure; no, he gave himself freely so that we might share God’s love and pleasure.
“You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Can you feel power and the promise in these words? Drink them in now. Close your eyes and whisper them to yourselves. Feel the weight of their truth. Feel the freedom they bring. You are my child. I love you. You are my joy, my delight. In all my acts of creating, over billions of years, across countless galaxies, I had never created you until now, and I am well pleased.
As you let these words sink in, I guarantee you will start to feel a conflict forming inside yourself. The conflict pits God’s dazzling truth against our natural wariness to believe anything that seems to have no strings attached, that seems too good to be true. Our suspicion arms itself with several arguments, so let’s take them in turn.
The first argument coming to the plate is swinging the bat of literalism: “God was talking to Jesus. Of course, God would say all that about the person who is literally God’s own Son. Let’s not get delusions of grandeur now. We’re taking too great a leap to include ourselves in the conversation.”
Well, we are taking a great leap: a leap of faith. We have faith that Paul’s words written to the church in Rome are true: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17). We are children of God. Thus, God’s words, spoken from heaven as the dove descends, are for us, too.
“But wait,” says our suspicion, which now comes to bat with a little more nuance: “Maybe the first bit is for everyone because you are God’s children, but the second half has got to be for Jesus alone. Of course God would be well pleased in him. He’s Jesus. Look at everything he did!”
Well, that is true. And if this beautiful verse were spoken at the end of the Gospel rather than at the beginning, I might be swayed by that argument. But within Luke’s narrative, Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. He hasn’t said anything yet. He has completed no healings, spoken no parables, gathered no disciples, performed no miracles. All he has done is take a swim with his cousin John in the River Jordan. Therefore, God’s love and pleasure are not predicated on what Jesus does, but on who he is. And he is God’s child, just like us.
But now the heavy hitters are coming to the plate, the guys who swing for the fences. “What’s so beautiful about these words about being God’s children? Your own parents never lived up to your expectations. What makes you think God will?”
Yes, this is the sticking point. How could we believe God’s promise of love and pleasure when promises around us are routinely broken? (And not usually with malicious intent, but because things just fall apart sometimes.) There’s a whole other sermon waiting right here, so I’ll try not to get too diverted. Basically, one of the biggest challenges in our life of faith is resisting the urge to remake God in our own image. We are made in the image and likeness of God, not the other way around. The moment we start comparing God to our own parents or our own meager ability to be parents, we are no longer talking about God. God is the One who keeps promises, who tells the truth, whose steadfast love lasts forever. If our natural urge to compare God to ourselves or our parents ever waters down these fundamental stanchions of God’s own self, then we are no longer contemplated God for who God truly is.
The trouble is, it’s really hard to contemplate perfection using our own imperfect hardware. But the closer we get to believing that God really is who God claims to be, then the beauty of God’s words to Jesus at the River Jordan gain even more dazzling vibrancy. “You are my child, the Beloved; in you I am well pleased.”
But now the cleanup hitter comes up to bat, and our suspicion hits the ball right into our guts: “What have you ever done to deserve such love?”
You might think we covered this one when I mentioned that fact that Jesus’ ministry hadn’t even started yet. But no, our pernicious feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness will not let us off the hook that easily. Perhaps you lived in fear of your parents finding out you made a “C” on your report card. Perhaps you grew up with an alcoholic father and everything had to be just so, or else. Perhaps you have convinced yourself that you’d be more popular or more successful if you just had…something…more.
Whatever the case, it’s all a lie, a smokescreen. We have never, ever done anything to deserve such love. And we never will. The love of God is a pure gift. No strings attached. It’s too be good to be true, and yet it is true.
And so the conflict rages within us, our natural wariness pitted against God’s dazzling truth. Our arguments scream and howl and stamp and claw, but God only whispers again and again the same words, because the truth needs no bluster. Close your eyes again and listen for God whispering these words in the depths of your being. You are my child. I love you. You are my joy, my delight. In all my acts of creating, over billions of years, across countless galaxies, I had never created you until now, and I am well pleased.
Now open your eyes again and look around. God speaks this same truth not just to you alone, not just to us sitting here this morning, not just to people who look like us or think like us or believe like us, not just to people in the same type of family unit or the same income bracket. Everyone you meet and everyone you avoid meeting has this same truth stitched on their hearts. Treat them as beloved children of God, with no arguments or reservations. Treat all people as beloved children of God, and we will change the world.
Sermon for Sunday, May 31, 2015 || Trinity Sunday B
Have you ever looked closely at the round window high up the wall in the back of the church? Go ahead – turn around and give it a good look. I love this window. I love the vibrant colors. I love that when the sun is shining through it, an afterimage gets imprinted on my eyes, so I see it when I close them. If you’ve never given the window much thought, I don’t blame you. The words on it are in Latin, after all. But let’s keep looking. The window presents a diagram of the Holy Trinity. “Deus” – God – is encircled in the center. Three smaller circles float around it: Patri, Filius, Spiritus Sancti – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of the smaller circles is connected to the others with the words “non est” (is not), and each smaller circle is connected to the large central one with the word “est” (is). The diagram is telling us that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each other but they are all One God. How does this work? Wisely, the window doesn’t tell us. The window just illustrates the reality, a theological blueprint in stained glass.
Likewise, I’m going to take my cue from the window and stay silent on the “How does this work?” question. Too many sermons over the years have tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity by talking about apples or flames. What those sermons didn’t understand is that you can’t explain a mystery without destroying the very quality that makes it mysterious. When Sherlock Holmes figures out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub over discovering the body, the mystery is solved. No more mystery. This Whodunnit? type mystery is the kind we’re used to: Gibbs and the NCIS team solve their mysteries within the length of the 45-minute episode. The light-hearted mystery novels my mother loves to read always wrap up the intrigue by the end of the story.
But here’s the difference between these small, ordinary mysteries we watch or read and the great mystery of the Holy Trinity. The small mysteries have answers to them, like the poisonous snake. But the mystery of the Holy Trinity is the answer – the fundamental answer that rests at the very core of existence. Here’s what I mean.
Before creation came into being, there was God. There was only God. Then God spoke, “Let there be light,” and creation erupted in a rush of dust and energy and far flung fire. And suddenly, there was something known as “not God.” Suddenly, there was an “other” for God to love. And yet, we believe that God’s essence is love, which means that God must have loved before there was a creation to love. Confusing, right? It is confusing until we realize there’s only one possible answer for whom God loved before there was anything else. God loved God. This may sound narcissistic or vain, but it’s not. Narcissism and vanity are distortions of love, but God’s love is perfect and unsullied. God loves God with such perfection that there is still only One God, even though a loving relationship exists.
That’s the keyword: relationship. To try to come close to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we employ relational words: Father and Son, Parent and Child. We speak of the Holy Spirit as being the love that flows between them. This perfect relationship existed before creation, and thus serves as God’s blueprint for creation. Have you ever noticed that if you drill right down to the core of any subject whatsoever, you end up at relationship? At the most fundamental level, life, the universe, and everything are based on the relationships between things. Elemental particles vibrate next to other elemental particles, weaving the fabric of creation. Atoms repel and attract each other. Ecosystems thrive as complex series of relationships. Celestial bodies dance the precarious waltz of gravitational balance. Not to mention, the most important things in the lives of us humans on this fragile earth is our relationships with one another.
All of this grows from that blueprint God used from God’s own self – the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. In the act of creating something that was not God, God knew creation wouldn’t be perfect. And yet, God made it anyway. The reason the Holy Trinity remains a mystery is that our relationships – indeed, all relationships in creation – are not perfect, and thus we cannot fathom perfection.
But while we aren’t perfect, the idea of perfection lingers within us, an echo of our Creator’s own perfect love. We feel this echo as a longing for connection, for relationship with God and with each other. God loves us perfectly, even though we have the capacity to return a mere sliver of that love. But that sliver is more than enough to activate our ability to engage in loving relationships here and now. When we nurture such loving relationships in our lives, we come as close as our imperfection allows to the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity.
Indeed, the Holy Trinity transcends our imperfection, draws us in, and strengthens our earthly relationships. The echo of God’s perfect love grows louder, more insistent, as we give ourselves over to be born again from above, to be remade closer to the blueprint than we were before. The blueprint calls for less domination and more mutuality, less prejudice and more generosity, less pride and more humility. The blueprint calls for less defending and more welcoming, less grasping and more embracing, less tearing down and more lifting up. And above all, the blueprint calls for love to spill forth in the forms of justice-seeking, mercy-granting, grace-sharing, hope-planting, and joy-singing.
And so you go home and do the dishes even though it was your brother’s turn. Or you tell your wife “thank you” for her poise in the middle of chaos and for putting up with you all these years. Or you introduce yourself to that bedraggled person you always seem to run into on your morning jog and ask if he needs assistance. Or you look those who are oppressed in the eye and say, “I’m sorry for not showing up sooner,” and then turn to stand with them.
Each of these is an expression of the blueprint of the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. And each of these will be done imperfectly. And yet, the mystery of the Holy Trinity rests at the core of all existence, of all we do and all we are. And so our imperfection is even now being redeemed by the perfect love of God, which somehow manages to fit all of itself into our mere slivers of love.
If in your life, the Holy Trinity has seemed no more than an abstraction, as clear as the Latin writing on the window back there, then I invite you to take a step back and look again. Reassign every single urge you have ever had to seek justice, to grant mercy, to share grace, to plant hope, to sing joy, and to love. Reassign all of them to the perfect love of the Trinity flowing, however imperfectly, through you. Notice now the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit catching you up in the ever-spinning dance of perfect love, and be thankful.
* The diagram of the Holy Trinity is the window on the back wall of St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT.
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.”
Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015 || John 13:1-17, 31b-35
“Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Thus begins the second half of the Gospel according to John. We’ve walked with Jesus for three years since he called his first disciples, since he miraculously turned water into wine, since he drove the businesspeople out of the temple. We’ve overheard his conversations with the Pharisee Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well. We’ve seen him heal a man suffering from paralysis and a man born blind. We’ve eaten the bread broken to feed 5,000 people. We’ve listened to Jesus call himself all sorts of names: the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd. Recently, in an act that probably sealed his fate with his enemies, he raised his friend Lazarus from the dead.
That’s what happens in the first half of the Gospel. In the second half, we sit down with Jesus at dinner as he washes his disciples feet and talks with them late into the night. We follow him as he is arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified. And with Mary Magdalene and Thomas and the rest of the disciples, we see him risen again.
In between the two halves of the Gospel according to John, we have these two verses serving as a hinge. “Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
He loved them to the end. This is one of my favorite verses in the Gospel because it is deliciously ambiguous. The ambiguity raises this question: What end does he love us to? The obvious answer is his own death: the end about to be narrated, the end that happens at Golgotha. But this “end” is an unsatisfactory choice because we who live on the other side of Easter know that the cross was emphatically not the end.
So what other “end” is there? There’s our own, individual ends. Surely, he loves us to that point. But this too is an unsatisfactory answer, because our own earthly deaths are not the end either. They are a gateway to the larger and fuller life of consummation in God. The most famous hymn ever written reminds us there’s no end to that life, ever. “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.”
Then there’s the end of the planet we live on. That will happen at some point, whether we humans cause it or the star we call the sun loses its light. But even then, we believe the words St. Paul shares with the church in Rome: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor 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.” That’s pretty definitive, if you ask me.
Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. I honestly can’t think of an “end” final enough for the love of Jesus Christ to move from the present tense to the past tense. That’s what this week we begin tonight is about. Each day there is another end. Jesus is arrested and everyone flees. That sounds like an end. Jesus is convicted to die. Another ending. Jesus dies on the cross. The story is over. The stone rolls shut on the tomb. The End.
And yet none of these is the end. There is no end where the love of Christ is concerned. The love of Christ is bigger than the end. In the first half of the Gospel, this love heals the broken and raises the dead. This love opens the minds and hearts of those who hear Jesus speak. This love perseveres through the invective of his enemies. And now this love brings him to his knees with a basin and towel to serve his friends. This love expands out from Jesus as he gives his followers a new commandment: to love each other as he loves them. As he loves you. Me. Us.
In another letter, Paul speaks about love. And among those well-trod words, three of them ring out: “Love never ends.” So whether you are at the end of life or simply at the end of your rope, know this. Jesus loves you to the end. And because there is no final end, no end of ends, we can in all faith shorten that sentence to this: Jesus loves you. Always has. Always will. Because there is no end to his love.
Art: Detail from Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples by Tintoretto (late Ren.)
Sermon for Sunday, March 15, 2015 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21
We Christians often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. There are generally two major categories that this mistake falls under. First, the limits of our language make describing God in any accurate way impossible. No word or combination of words that has ever been invented can do justice to the sublime combination of power, grace, and harmony that is our God. Whenever we say something true about God, we always have to add, “Yes, and…,” lest we think we summed up God’s character with what we said.
Second, we tend to remake God in our own image and likeness instead of the other way around. It’s true that the Genesis creation story says God created humankind in God’s image and likeness, but turning the mirror the other way around doesn’t work. God is not an old white-haired man floating on a cloud in the sky, despite Michaelangelo’s depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God is not like our own fathers or mothers, no matter how good and loving they were…or weren’t. Whatever good qualities we see in those we associate with holy living, those qualities are but a pale shadow to their perfected forms in God’s nature.
So because of the limits of our language and our self-centered inclination to see a drab facsimile of God when we look in the mirror, we Christians often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. And nowhere is this mistake made more often than when folks interpret the most famous verse in the Bible. I read it just a few minutes ago. Do you remember what it is? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Growing up in the Deep South, I saw the citation for this verse all over the place. “John 3:16” was emblazoned on bumper stickers, T-shirts, billboards, and signs at football games. Always without the actual words of the verse, the citation alone was something of a brand or logo for certain expressions of Christianity around which I grew up. Throughout the years, many well-meaning friends asked me if I were saved and when I had asked Jesus to become my personal savior. At the time, I got quite irked whenever anyone asked me this because it made me feel like my Episcopal expression of Christianity was worth less than theirs. But looking back from a vantage point of 15 to 20 years in the future, I bless their efforts – they were concerned enough, after all, about the state of my soul to invite me to meet Jesus in the same way they had been taught to meet him.
One night at the Fifth Quarter, which was held at Valley View Baptist Church after high school football games as an alternative activity to the hedonism that resulted when the Patriots of Hillcrest High School won, the church’s youth minister invited all the attendees to sit down. He then talked to us about Jesus, quoting from several verses of John 3, including the famous 16th verse, and in the end, prompted each of us to pray, and to ask Jesus to enter our hearts. So I did. I asked Jesus to be my personal savior. I now had a satisfactory answer for those acquaintances seeking to save my soul.
But while it was satisfactory for them, it wasn’t satisfactory for me. It felt too small, somehow. It felt like I had asked Jesus to be mine, sort of like a divine version of a valet on Downton Abbey. My personal savior. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this ritual formulation of asking Jesus to enter my heart was one way to discover he had been in my heart all the time and was in fact the one prompting me to ask in the first place. Thus, he wasn’t my personal savior. He wasn’t mine at all. I was his. The gift was that he wanted me to be his.
But to understand this gift God has given us, I had to thinker bigger than my own personal salvation. I had to read John 3:16 with a greater scope. But it wasn’t until my first semester Greek class in seminary that I had the tools to do so. (We haven’t had an ancient Greek lesson in a long time. I’m so excited!) The key to the verse is in the first couple of words: “For God so loved the world…” When we read those words in English, it sounds like God loves this planet we find ourselves on, this “fragile earth, our island home,” as Eucharist Prayer C says. Sure this love encompasses more than just me and my personal salvation, but we’re still not thinking big enough.
The Greek word that’s translated in this verse as “world” is kosmos. Do you know what English word we get from this? Yes. “Cosmos.” Not just this rock 92 million miles from the sun, but the whole universe! Space, the final frontier! All that God has created or will ever create is wrapped up in this word, kosmos. The Gospel of John thinks big; that’s why it has the temerity to start, “In the beginning…” and continue with the founding of Creation.
To even begin to understand the depths or heights of God’s love, we first must understand what God loves. It’s everything that has ever existed or will ever exist. It’s every atom in every cell in every organ in every being on every planet in every solar system in every galaxy in this universe that is still rapidly expanding, for all time past, present, and future. Nothing at all would exist if the love of God were not animating existence.
For God’s love of the kosmos, God gave the supreme gift – God’s own self in the form of God’s own Son. Thus, the gift God gave included an experience of the perfect relationship, which we name the Trinity: the Parent, the Child, and the Love between them. By giving Creation this experience of perfect relationship, God repaired the broken relationship between God and Creation. This is the epic story being told in those first few words of John 3:16.
The second half the verse and the verses that come after invite our response. Will we walk in the light of this great love or in the darkness, where we can hide in self-imposed exile? Will we choose to do all that we do “in God?” Will we choose to acknowledge that we belong to Christ, that we wish to shine in the light of the perfect relationship of the Trinity? I pray the answer to each of these questions, for each of us, will, with God’s help, always be “Yes.”
I began this sermon saying that we often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. Even though I’ve tried to use as expansive language as I could since then, these words still fall pitifully short of their target. But the good news is this: no matter how small we make God, no matter how much we reduce God to our level, God is always and forever seeking to expand us, to excavate more space within us for God to fill. The kosmos exists because the love of God animates its existence. That existence includes you and me, who are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, the love of God causes us to exist. And the gift of God – God’s only Son – causes us to love.
Sermon for Sunday, October 26, 2014 || Proper 25A || Matthew 22:34-46
English is a strange language. We have thousands upon thousands of words – more than most languages – and more get added every year. And still there are plenty of instances in the English language where we employ the same word to speak about multiple concepts. I can’t bear to be in the same room as him. The apple trees are about to bear fruit. Yikes, there’s a bear in our campsite! Now bear with me. This idiosyncrasy of English often leads to confusion, especially among non-native speakers. What’s worse is that it can also lead to a concept being watered down, diluted when the various understandings of the word start to merge.
Such is the case with the English word “love.” We use the word “love” in so many contexts and in so many ways that we hardly know what the word means anymore. When I say, “I love you,” to my wife, I mean something wildly different than when I say, “I love that movie!” And yet, I use the same verb in both sentences.
So when Jesus answers the lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment, we find ourselves in a bind. Jesus chooses two commandments and both begin with the imperative to “love.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. How we go about living into these commandments has everything to do with what we think “love” means.
But before we go there, I find myself needing to scratch my Greek itch, as it has been months since I talked about Greek words in a sermon. So, if you’ll indulge me for a minute. While the English language has thousands upon thousands more words in it than ancient Greek, the Greeks of the first century had at least four different words that we translate as “love.” First, there’s eros, which is the love of attraction and desire. We get the word “erotic” from it. Then there’s philia, which is the love expressed in comradeship. A city in Pennsylvania bears this word in its name: Philadelphia. Then there’s sturgia, which is the love of a homeland as expressed in patriotism. And finally there’s agape, which is the love we’ll spend the rest of this sermon defining. This last word for “love” is the one Jesus uses in his answer to the lawyer’s question. And this last word for “love” inspires our fulfillment of Jesus’ two great commandments: Love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.
Because of the diluted nature of the word “love” in English, we might find it difficult to obey Jesus’ command to love. We might protest: “I can’t decide whom I love and whom I don’t. How can I help feeling the way I do?” The first problem we run into, then, is defining love primarily as an emotion. We get into trouble when we think of “loving” as a more intense version of “liking.” We all fall victim to this line of thought sooner or later, usually for the first time in high school. “Well, I like her but I don’t love her.” Or perhaps, “I like this top but I love those shoes.” When we mistake “love” for “liking a lot” we remove nearly all of the weight of the word, as Jesus uses it. Indeed, the Gospel according to John tells us that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. If God only “liked the world a whole lot,” I don’t know where we’d be.
When we move past this high school version of love, we find the deeper territory that our last word for love – agape – exists in. Far from being a simple emotion, love opens the door to the whole universe of emotion. Because God loves each of us, we each have the ability to love in turn. Shutting the door to love means shutting the door to the entire emotional realm and replacing it with indifference and isolation. But God does not desire this for us. God desires us to open the door, the same door God opened when God sent the only begotten Son to this sin-soaked world.
When we love, we invest ourselves. We become vulnerable. We may be hurt. Or we may be filled with joy. The ability to love is the ability to look past yourself, to see the heart of God burning in the chest of another, reflecting the burning in your own heart. And to have that burning move you to trust, to connect, to sacrifice. This burning may or may not kindle affection within you – that is, the emotion of “liking a lot” – but you will be “loving” just the same.
So the love that Jesus commands us to show for God and neighbor begins, not with the emotion of “liking,” but with a posture of openness, selflessness, and vulnerability. This is a scary way to live because it means living without a mask and without the protective armor we so often don unconsciously. This unconscious armor implores us to keep our heads down, to disengage, to do everything we can not to be spotted.
Going back to examples from school, how many of us had the opportunity to help a kid who was being bullied, but chose not to; chose instead to hover in the back of the pack, not laughing and jeering like the others, but not standing with the victim either. This bully-victim model stretches from school into all facets of life where there are power differentials. If we take seriously Jesus’ command to love, we will always choose to stand with the victim, to risk being tarred and feathered, to risk coming to the cross.
Yes, the kind of love Jesus commands us to live out is the very love that brought him to Golgotha. He could have sunk under the waves of uncertainty in the garden. He could have shrunk back into obscurity after causing a stir in Jerusalem. He could have slunk home, only to have his followers drift off in search of new messiahs. But love would not let him take that path. Out of love, he chose the path of selflessness and sacrifice. On the cross, naked, with his arms spread wide, the openness and vulnerability of love was exposed. But only with his arms spread wide could he reach out and touch everyone with his loving embrace.
The last word for love – agape – is not an emotion. This love is a state of being. This love is the word we use for the voluntary conviction that propels us to step outside of our selfish selves and to discover the riches of building up one another, of finding mutuality, of respecting difference, of speaking out against intolerance and hate, of standing with the victim until enough of us do to remove the label of victim forever.
This is the kind of love Jesus commands us to live. This is the kind of love Jesus died to express. And this is the kind of love that rose with him from the dead. You see, the love that Jesus commands us to live does not turn us into victims, although that’s what we’ve learned from years of wearing our unconscious protective armor. Rather, the love Jesus commands us to live moves us with him through death to resurrection. As we walk this road, Jesus strengthens us to live like he died: shed of our protective armor, with arms spread wide, ready to embrace the victims of this sin-soaked world and walk hand in hand toward the coming kingdom of God.