Year C, Easter 6
May 26, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Let your ways be known upon earth * your saving health among all nations.”
So this is part 2 of 2 of a sermon on love. If you missed last week (we missed you), what we talked about was love; that love is the fundamental, foundational relationship in the universe; that it feels fantastic to love and to be loved; that in the end all we need (and all we have) is love… yay love! And then we pondered and lamented the sad fact that it is very, very hard to do, to love everyone as Jesus, as God loves us. It can be hard for us to love even those dearest to us at times, let alone the casual acquaintance, let alone the stranger, the antagonist, the enemy. It is hard to love most people some of the time and some people most of the time. Love is hard.
One note, someone questioned whether I conflated likeand love in last week’s sermon. I was not explicit in that distinction and I can see how that could have come across. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is helpful here. In one version of his well-known sermon “The Strength the Love” he preached that “likeis a sentimental something, an affectionate something.” “Love,” on the other hand, “is greater than like. It is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men (sic), so that you love everybody because God loves them.” We love them becauseGod loves them. That is important, we’ll come back to that.
When we love someone, their needs become as, if not more important than our own. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” right? “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” Big love. Divine Love, Agape love. That’s the kind of love I’m talking about, and there is nothing sentimental or affectionate in there.
To like a human being, with the all faults and foibles we each carry hopelessly enmeshed with our joyous and delightful bits, we have to be able to overlook some things. A bad habit, a character flaw, an annoying trait… we must (and thankfully most of us can) overlook them, account for them somehow. We’d have barely any friends if we couldn’t overlook certain things. To love someone, though, it is different. We can’t overlook, we can’t compartmentalize or try to forget the hard or disagreeable parts, or the hard or disagreeable things they have done to you. No, that is impossible, because to actually love someone we need to love all of them, not the redacted version that gets through your my preferences filter. To love someone, we must love all of them, and to love all of them, here’s the punch line of this sermon, we must be able to forgive them. Forgive them. Of??? Everything. All of it. That is a big difference. That is a divine difference. That is the key to the kingdom, the key to loving itself: Forgiveness.
It is still Easter. (Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!) This is the season of resurrection, of accounting for the power of Christ’s atoning act on the cross, the outpouring of love that changed the world. I leaned heavily on Bishop N.T. Wright this Lent, and especially for my sermons at Easter Vigil and Easter morning. In The Day the Revolution Began, a book I highly recommend, Wright posits that the vocation of humanity is to bear God’s image in the world, to shine God’s light, do God’s work here and now and to reflect that glory back to the creator. To worship is a human need, and we need a lot of help worshiping the right thing – God – because our primary sin always and everywhere is idolatry. Idolatry is giving power over to things that we should not give power to – power itself, wealth, sex, accomplishment, despair (the list is long) – idolatry is giving power, giving your power over to things other than God. God wanted to reconcile with us, so Jesus became incarnate of the Blessed Virgin and dwelt amongst us. And He saved us in his being, in his teaching and healing and leading, and in His Passion and Death and glorious Resurrection. The action of Jesus on the Cross was a decisive, world-altering outpouring of love. How did it work? How did it change everything? By what means is this accomplished in the world? Forgiveness.
I was kind of disappointed when I got to Wright’s conclusion of his book (forgiveness). I wanted something exotic, something novel, something challenging, but not onerous. And what does the good bishop give us? Forgiveness. Plain old forgiveness. Really? It is like the doctor who says the best way to improve your health is quit drinking, lose 20 – 30 pounds, and get more exercise. I know that, I want a pill! I’m looking for a work around, an easy (or easier) solution.
I treasure my righteous resentments. So many of us define ourselves by those who have hurt us, locate our identify in our continued feelings about that injury, that evildoer. (It can seem so much easier to keep animosity alive than to actually take responsibility for our own wellness). Forgiveness… urggh. All you need is love, but to love as God loves, we need to forgive as God forgives – that is the ministry of the Cross. To love as God loves we need to participate in the miistry of the Cross. That is so hard. But, it is a concrete path to love. Because like us, once we are forgiven, we become loveable. (Can you imagine how adorable we become when we are actually repentant, actually change the direction of our lives? True repentance is swoon-worthy in human relations)!
Wright writes “Jesus’ followers are to go out into the world equipped with the power of his own Spirit to announce that a new reality has come to birth, that its name is ‘forgiveness,’ and that it is to be had by turning away from idolatry (‘repentance’).” He tells of a completely new way of being human, “…a way that starts with forgiveness (God’s forgiveness of those who turn from their now defeated idols) and continues with forgiveness (the forgiveness offered by Jesus’ followers in his name and by His Spirit to all who have wronged them).” Forgiving people, being forgiven, reconciliation, restoration of right relationship… this is the “chain-breaking, idol-smashing, sin-abandoning power called forgiveness, called utter gracious love, called Jesus.” That is some decisive language.
When we turn our attention back to God from the idolatry we all suffer from, when we see not around or over the human qualities of our fellows, but through them, with them, seeing their full humanity, the full divine blessing that is on each and every head, forgiving them… then we can love them.
Looking beyond the patriarchal issues of the metaphor God the Father and God the Son, it speaks accurately to the quality of the love, the quality of the mode of forgiveness that leads to love. The love of a spouse or friend… in those relationships the unforgiveable can happen, and sadly it does, quite frequently. Trespass beyond reconciliation. But with children… maybe I haven’t been a parent long enough; maybe our children have yet to reach an age where relationships can be fatally compromised, but from where I am now, with young children, I can’t imagine anything they could do that would be unforgiveable, like relationship ending unforgiveable. I know them. I see their faults, clearly, (they are mostly a hybrid of Windy and my own faults, Lord have mercy upon us, we’re in trouble if our parent’s experience of our teenage years are any indicator). And that love is indelible because I am able to see them for who they are, and forgive them every fault for I know intrinsically that my being is all wrapped up in their being.
The thing is, all of our beings are just as wrapped up in each other’s as that, as a parent and child. The distance between them and me, between you and me, me and someone living on our back porch, you and a someone living in a slum in Lagos, or a boarding school in Switzerland, or an army barracks in Tehran, in Jesus terms, is non-existent. We are one. We must love one another as though this were true. We must love one another as Jesus loves us.
Remember what Dr. King said, that we love them because God loves them? Jesus came to forgive all of our sins, so we must forgive them as God forgives them. That’s the Way. I might not have the inclination to love some people. Someone who has been wronged might have very good reasons for not loving someone, look at Jesus. Look at any number of the martyrs of the church over the millennia, how many countless billions who have suffered at the hand or under the boot of others. It is a superhuman feat to love some people. And that’s the point. It is a superhuman feat, and in God with Christ in the Holy Spirit, we can be that, do that, love as God loves, superhumanly, because when God loves that way, when God loves us that way, loves everyone that way, (even them) we can cling to God’s coattails, loving with God, loving on God’s behalf. (Which can be much, much easier than loving on our own behalf). God is with you, God’s loving presence is something you can lean on. Use that presence if you need help forgiving someone.
The most important part of the priestly vocation is trying to love everyone like Jesus does. It is the hardest, most humbling, most challenging and most important and rewarding and necessary aspect of my ministry. And it being part of the role, part of the vocation, I am supported in that pursuit, and thanks be to God, I have found great power in the love of Christ flowing through me. (I don’t have any special access as a priest, it is just that my job is to be attentive to that in every dealing I have, and I am given license to do so – putting people before things might not work if you are an investment banker). One place that manifests concretely is out on the street. Interacting with some of our more complicated neighbors, people often gape and can’t understand how I can relate to very, very difficult folks out there. How I can be so patient and so forgiving, loving even. That is so not me, not me alone, that is the love of God flowing through me that gives me patience. (It is not always daisies and puppies on the inside, – though it is often a Hail Mary – but outside I usually seem present). I am sure that the experiences of Windy, and Nick and Mark, Ed, Jack, Carol, Christine and Skip, all the folks here doing the work out there… it is love and we can’t love, we can’t forgive trespasses against us and God and nature alone. If you enter each interaction remembering that God loves that person, that each and every one of us, no exceptions ever, is a child of God, it makes it much easier to remember to try to forgive that person of whatever it is they are doing. To see the brokenness, the heartbreak, trauma that lead to that very moment and the terrible thing they are doing or have done. To see their whole vulnerable and sinful humanity, to see them as God sees them, a Child of God, which then makes it possible to actually love that person. And then miracles can happen (or at least disasters happen less often, and when disasters do happen they don’t matter as much). Forgiveness.
If you can forgive someone, you can love someone. If you can’t forgive someone, you can’t love them, not the way we are supposed to love them, not the way Jesus loves us.
I wish I had an easier prescription for loving as Jesus loves. Letting go of anger, owning our own injuries, accepting that things happened that can’t unhappen, and letting that go… this is not some moralistic therapeutic deism, this is not about self-actualizing or being our best selves: this is the very work of God before us, the fulfillment of a commandment given to us from Jesus. He didn’t promise us a rose garden, did He? Well actually He did, but it is a steep path and a narrow gate and a road shamefully less traveled to get there. Go with God. AMEN