I’ve never done this before, but for today’s sermon, I wrote a fairy tale about the great commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Here it is.
Once upon a time there was a young prince who had everything he could possibly desire and never spared a thought for anyone but himself. As his father, the king, lay dying, the young prince sat by his bedside so he would know the moment that he (the prince) would become king. The dying king was a just and loving sovereign, and he lamented that his indulgence had led his son down the lonely path of selfishness. So the king called upon her grace, the archbishop, who had the honor of crowning the new monarch upon the king’s death.
The king said to her, “Take my crown and remove the three jewels that adorn it. Only when my son shall fill those three settings with ornaments of his own shall you crown him king.”
Last post, I began with an illustration from The Princess Bride, and it seems once you get me going, I have trouble stopping. Here’s another one. At the beginning of the film, 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.” In time, Buttercup realizes that “As you wish” is Westley’s way of saying “I love you.” 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.
“As you wish,” says Westley before doing Buttercup’s bidding. Too remove any mystery from where this post is going, let me put it bluntly: his actions display his love. He serves Buttercup, and the love that prompts this service stirs in her, as well, though the words “I love you” are never uttered.
You see, saying “I love you” is all too easy – just three little monosyllables. Subject, verb, object. Meaning it is the hard part. I could say, “I’m going to eat eighty-seven hotdogs in twenty minutes,” but (unless I conveniently morph into a hundred pound Japanese man) there’s no way I mean it. But you could drive one of those Wide-Load trailers with half a mobile home on it through the gap between what we say and what we mean.
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 manipulative scumbag weaponize the phrase, with no thought to its destructive consequences and their own dormant culpability.
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, there would still be myriad jousting tournaments throughout Christendom.*) Rather, active service is a spontaneous symptom of love, and one that often removes the necessity of speaking the words aloud.
Loving and serving – we really mustn’t separate the two. Love expresses itself not in poetic protestations, but 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.**
The Baptismal Covenant is the Episcopal playbook for turning love into action. 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? I will, with God’s help. How will you serve?
Will you love? I will, with God’s help. What will your love impel you to do?
God has given gifts to each of us so that we might enrich the lives of those around us. The ability to love is one such gift. The desire to serve is another. Paired with these gifts are those sets of talents unique to each one of us. When we combine our unique giftedness into that sacred body of which Christ is the head, there are no limits to what we can accomplish.
On Sunday morning, God nourishes us when we share the body and blood of Christ. Then God orients us toward the door at the back of the church and the world waiting beyond. We pray, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” God sends us out to love and to serve. I pray that we can, with God’s help, respond, “As you wish.”
* I’m sure we could come up with some modern analogs. However, I beg you to concede the point.
** Have you ever noticed that there are certain baseball players who, no matter what, end the game with grass and dirt stains all over their uniforms?