Monday, April 26, 2010

Easter 4C. 25 April 2010.

I recently had an experience of trying to pray, and not being able to. I wonder if you have ever encountered this phenomenon.

Some years ago, when I still lived with my parents, one of my good friends, whom I had not seen for awhile showed up at our house. I was reading a book. I did not overhear who was at the door, and my friend walked into the living room with a big grin and just stood there smiling at me. I was so amazed that I could not speak. In fact, I couldn't even move. We were both absolutely frozen for what seemed like an eternity and finally my parents came in the room and started talking and slowly I was able to put words together. But at first, the words just couldn't come up.

Now, this is nothing to brag about. I don't like being literally speechless. And there is a difference between being shocked by a long lost friend and not feeling able to pray, but the feeling is so odd because on one hand there is no communication at all, and on the other hand there are so many things to be expressed that it's as if every thought bottlenecks and can't get out.

But this feeling of being silenced was more like the feeling of the lights going down and the curtain coming up, but then nothing happening. And I stayed with that feeling, because I've learned that if you want to be a devout Christian, sometimes you have to be willing to go to places you don't understand.

The Gospel lesson today is about Jesus being confronted by some of the people in the temple. John just says "Jews," but that's not all that helpful. Everyone was Jewish. We are to understand that "the Jews" in this context would be devout people in authority, probably Pharisees and scribes. And they ask Jesus, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."

If you read their question in the Greek, it can have two meanings. "How long will you keep us in suspense" can mean how long will you not tell us, but it can also mean, "how long will you annoy us?" That second interpretation is more appealing to me. John seems to like these sorts of confrontations. "How long will you annoy us, Jesus? How long will you toy with us?"

And Jesus responds, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me." He's not being as direct with them as they would like, but we know that he is saying, "Yes, I am he." The problem rests with their expectations. Jesus goes on to say, "You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me."

Now, it would be easy for us to sort of shake our heads at the people Jesus is speaking to. We are accustomed to Jesus' self-understanding—so much so that we don't really even bat an eye when he makes that transition from Messiah language to shepherd language. But for people looking for a Messiah this is a fairly dramatic transition.

The expectation of "Messiah" was this charismatic political leader who would re-establish the throne of David. He would kick out the Roman occupation by some kind of revolt, and usher in a triumphant theocracy for Israel. Asking Jesus if he is the Messiah is not like asking if he's running for president. It's more like asking if he's going to be… well… It's kind of hard to describe it. A kind of terrorist, but a benevolent one. I'm not sure I can even wrap my own mind around it, because the expectations of the Messiah were so broad in spectrum, both politically and religiously. No one could live up to the messianic expectations of everyone.

But what is fascinating is how Jesus tries to navigate between their expectations and his own self-understanding. He is saying to them, indirectly, Yes, I am the Messiah, but your expectations are at the same time too high and too low. Your expectations are too high, because you are expecting some flashy politician. At the same time, they're too low, because God is not interested in temporary worldly politics, he's interested in the cosmic spiritual politics of all people being cared for. And he signals that change beautifully by changing the language to that of sheep and shepherd.

Again, you and I might not even notice it, but the question is "messiah?" and Jesus responds, "shepherd." It's beautiful, because it's so earthy.

Now, the logic of Jesus' words can come across a little poorly. You do not understand because you are not my sheep. It comes across as circular logic. But Jesus is not freezing them out. He is saying, You don't understand because you don't really want to understand.

You have to actually follow me to realize I'm the shepherd. You can't know for sure until you commit. And that is where the rubber really meets the road. It is one thing to study the New Testament, or to worship Jesus. But it is quite another thing to follow him.

Sometimes following can seem so easy. I am sure you have known times in your life when it seemed as if everything was going better than you could have ever planned it. Life spread itself out in "broad, sunlit uplands." Most of the time we just kind of muddle through, but occasionally … There have been times when I truly felt as if I was being led by Christ, like a sheep following a shepherd. Of course, there have been many more times when I have listened for the shepherd's voice and heard nothing.

Devout people care about that silence. Earnestly devout people have a very strong desire to please God. They like to live with a modest but constant habit of prayer. So when it gets quiet, or when it feels hard to pray, there is pain in that silence—and a desire to know if they have done anything to cause it. The silence can produce anxiety.

You know, anxiety is negative faith. If you type the word "faith" into the calculator and hit the "negative" button, it will compute as anxiety. Anxiety is aggressive pessimism. If this happens and that happens, then where will we be? And if you're not good at making up your own fantasies about what might go wrong, you can just flip on the news and they'll do it for you!

Anxiety is seductive because it can seem like we're getting control. If we can imagine what might come down the pike, and map out what our likely reactions will be, then we'll be ahead of the game. Sometimes that can work.

About a year or so ago, I was invited to go to Shenandoah Memorial Hospital for a seminar for local clergy on disaster preparedness. The letter came in the mail and they promised to give me lunch, so that sealed the deal!

I sat with the other clergy of Woodstock and Shenandoah County and drank coffee and was given papers and listened to briefings about what ifs. And after being meticulously led though the flow charts, and chain of command, and what the protocols would be, the man—I don't remember his name, he was from Winchester—he said, "But you know, even though we've got all this written down, no one looks at this book in an actual crisis. We just do the best we can." So, in other words, they have plenty of faith in their ability to manage a situation as it unfolds, but the anxiety of the wait has to make some flow charts!

People like to worry. There is something about it. Even though it can cripple our relationships, our churches, and even our very selves. Sometimes faithful people, will nurse their anxiety about God, rather than trust God with those feelings, and be honest and say, "God, I'm worried about this. I trust you, but I worry. I'm trying to hear from you. I really am." I think God appreciates those prayers. They are honest prayers. And I have heard tell that God likes honesty.

St. John of the Cross spoke of the "dark night of the soul"—a period of time in every devout Christian's life, when God can seem entirely absent. It becomes impossible to hear from God. These are times when it seems as if we have been pushed out of the garden of Eden. We wander in barren lands.

W. H. Auden wrote a poem that has been set to music, and you will find it in our Hymnal. If you would like to see it, look at Hymn 463, or 464.

"He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety: you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy."

I believe Auden is saying is that the Land of Unlikeness, the Kingdom of Anxiety, the World of the Flesh…this is where we live. Auden says, Seek Christ in this crazy world. Accept that there are going to be ups and downs and all arounds, but that God is still present with us in the anxiousness.

There is so much in our world that is restless and fleshly and unlike what we would prefer, but as people of God, our task has always been to follow the one who is Way, Truth, and Life.

I cannot give you an easy recipe for hearing the voice of the shepherd. I wish I could. I, too, am often unable to hear. And I, too, am struck dumb sometimes in this Land of Unlikeness.

What I offer is what the Church has offered for all these many centuries—a simple invitation to trust him. Love him. Seek him. Follow him. Listen for his voice, be patient. And at your commitment to "faith anyway," which Auden refers to as a marriage (Beautiful!), all these occasions of anxiety will dance for joy, because faith will cast out fear.

"My sheep hear my voice," says Jesus, "I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand."

-o0o-

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Folk all long to go on pilgrimage


Robert Burns wrote a poem that occasionally comes to my mind. 

 

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,

My heart's in the Highlands a-chasing the deer

Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;

My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

 

            I think of this poem around this time of the year, because even though my heart is really always in the Shenandoah Valley, Springtime—especially Eastertide—is a time when the heart can become a bit prodigal. 

 

            Lovers of poetry may recall the Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: 

 

When fair April with his showers sweet,
Has pierced the drought of March to the root's feet
And bathed each vein in liquid of such power,
Its strength creates the newly springing flower;…

 

Then nature stirs them up to such a pitch
That folk all long to go on pilgrimage…

And wandering travelers tread new shores, strange strands,
Seek out far shrines, renowned in many lands,
And specially from every shire's end
Of England to Canterbury they wend
The holy blessed martyr there to seek,
Who has brought health to them when they were sick.

 

 

            Chaucer writes that when the showers of March bring life to the earth, nature stirs faithful souls to go on pilgrimage.  They "seek out far shrines" and especially in England, to Canterbury the go.  They travel to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was martyred in the cathedral.  Many pilgrims claim to have been healed of diseases after visiting the Shrine of Thomas Becket, long since destroyed during the reign of King Henry VIII.

 

            Canterbury Cathedral, in 1170 when Becket was Archbishop, was of the Church of Rome, but it has been, since the English Reformation, the mother church of the Anglican Communion—of which we are a part.

 

            The Prologue of the Canterbury Tales is a personal story for me, because it was during the Great Fifty Days of Easter in 2000 that I returned to Canterbury as a pilgrim.  I had visited before in 1994, but it was after my first year in seminary that I returned as a guest of one of the residentiary canons (priest in residence) there.  It was a lovely week—filled with history and spirituality.  At some point, during Eastertide, each year since, my heart has gone to Canterbury.  So with apologies to Burns, "My heart's in Canterbury, my heart is not here."

 

            Of course, my heart is here, too, but you know what I mean.  I am sure that there are places that you have visited that you occasionally desire to return to.  Part of those sentiments is nostalgia for a time in our lives that has moved on.  "Back then…" we say wistfully.  Our eyes gaze into the distance, looking at everything and seeing nothing.  "Back then things were different…"

 

            So many memories.  We open our mouths to describe then and there, but the listener could never see it as we remember it.  Nostalgia is tied to people—smiles, personalities, expressions.  We can thumb through those mental snapshots in our heads, wishing we could somehow let others see what we saw.  All the negative aspects fade away.  We forget that we had yet to meet so-and-so.  We forget our anxieties about what life would look like next.

 

            How good it would be to return to those days, knowing how some of it turned out.  Perhaps we would have said different things, or been more generous with the faults of the people who were there. 

 

            But let's not be too critical of the past.  Every age has its own ignorance.  We will never arrive at some magical age when we have all the wisdom.  Every day is another opportunity, not to correct the past, but to show that we've learned from it.  The past cannot be corrected, really.  The past can only be redeemed by the actions of the present and future.

 

            Is your "heart in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer"?  …chasing down the ghosts of the past?  Do you take a nap in the afternoon and just as you wake up, feel the arms of your mother or father around you?  You reach out to respond to their caress, and their arms slip away. 

 

            Does your heart makes a pilgrimage to those holy places where the martyrs of your life have given healing—not Thomas Becket, but the teacher, the doctor, the boy who sat beside you in fourth grade.  If you're a man, the first girl who really smiled at you.  You could go to the place; you know the way.  The people who were there are not there anymore, and the times have changed.  The whole world is different.  But you are different, too. 

 

            Don't be too critical of these little pilgrimages.  Something about the return of Spring makes us long to see holy places and people.  And by now, I'm sure you've figured out that those holy places and people are always available to you.  They are right between your ears.  You can visit them anytime you want.  How those blessed memories become redeemed in the present and future…well…that's when the Holy Spirit gets involved.  And perhaps that is why this mystical season of Easter ends with the celebration of Pentecost.

 

            But please, make these pilgrimages in your heart.  Even painful memories can offer beautiful gifts; they can approach us like holy martyrs, risen from the grave, showing us their wounds, and saying, "Fear not.  Christ is risen.  Fear not."   


Monday, April 19, 2010

Easter 3C. 18 April 2010.

 

          Some weeks ago I was listening to public radio while driving to Harrisonburg.  The program was Fresh Air with Terri Gross, and she was interviewing a woman named Judith Shulevitz who has written a book called The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.  In the interview, Shulevitz talks about the history of the sabbath, and how it has come to be observed among modern day, non-farming Jewish people. 

 

          There are a lot of rules about the sabbath, many of them concern specifics about refraining from manual labor.  But as she spoke of them, Shulevitz said that most of the rules come down to a single precept.  She said that sabbath is the time during the week when we are meant to stop trying to control our world.  Sabbath is when we are meant simply to exist in the world as part of the created universe.

 

          Have you ever thought of that?  Christians are also meant to observe sabbath time, but in our culture we often write off sabbath as going to church.  If you were to poll the Christian world about what the commandment, "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy" means, most people would say, "That means you go to church."  But there is this broader meaning to it that I think we might benefit from.

 

         

          A day we stop trying to control… A day when the only expectation of us is that we exist.  And behind that of course is a belief that comes from our Jewish heritage, that we are intrisically valuable.  That God has created us, and that we are human beings, not human doings. 

 

          Of course, we have become human doings.  That is a major part of our culture, and a major source of satisfaction and happiness for many many Americans.  I derive great satisfaction from doing things, and I'm sure you do, too.  It can sound very pious that we would be able to sit at home and pray all morning, but that would drive many of us crazy. 

 

          What was most intriguing for me in listening to Shulevitz—and again, bear in mind, she has written a book on the sabbath.  She goes to her synagogue each week; she studies the Torah in her community.  What intrigued me is that she doesn't believe in God.  She freely admits to this.  And she freely admits that she doesn't pray. 

 

          For her, the Torah is interesting—the history, the spirituality, the meaning that can come from engaging the text.  The sabbath is time for that, and it's time for rest, being with family, observing the customs of her people, but all of that is more or less a wellness program for her.  And of course, she realizes that that places her somewhat outside the tradition—but her husband feels the same way, and it's okay for them. 

 

 

 

          I was fascinated by this.  Maybe at first I was a little critical of it, but that soon gave way to mere fascination—that she is willing to embrace virtually every custom, go to synagogue, join in the service, join in the study—but not really believe in God.

 

          Today we read the last chapter of John's gospel.  It is an odd chapter.  Some scholars have suggested that it was added by an unknown author after John had finished writing.  But the chapter contains one of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.  We meet Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John, and two other disciples who are not named.  They are all gathered together by the Sea of Galilee, and Peter says, "I am going fishing."  He might have said, "I am tired, I don't know what to make of the last couple days…I'm going back to what I know."

 

          The other disciples say, "We will go with you."  So they go out in the boats and fish during the night, but they don't catch anything.  Sound familiar?  Now, you might be tempted to think that this is the same story from Luke 5 that we read during Epiphany, but this is different.  Well, it's the same, but different.

 

          In this story, just like the other one, they fish all night, Jesus tells them to cast their nets again, and they pull in a huge load of fish.  Like the other story, the sign of abundance is a sign of God's presence and favor.  And like the other story, Peter realizes that he is in the presence of God—the risen Jesus.  And Peter dives into the water to meet Jesus at the shore.  This part is diiferent from the story in Luke 5.

 

          On the shore Jesus has made breakfast for the disciples, and they eat together.  Sound familiar?  The fish are new, but the bread is not.  Jesus does not take the bread and give thanks and break it, but we get the picture.  This is a time of fellowship and a time of rest.  One might go so far as to say that Jesus is calling them to sabbath time.  Time to rest, and simply be together as part of the created world.

 

          It is an interesting turn of events, really.  Peter and the disciples begin at rest.  They rush to fill the silence with work, but the work they go back to is a fruitless toil.  No fish.  At the sound of Jesus call, they catch all the fish they would have ever caught during the night.  But just as the risen Christ satisfies them with their work, he brings them to a time of sabbath rest. 

 

          "Come and have breakfast."  Come sit down and eat and drink and rest, and just…be.  It is enough to just be. 

 

          But there is an awkwardness to this scene, too.  Maybe the charcoal fire reminds us a little bit of the charcoal fire in the courtyard where Peter stood warming himself when Jesus had been arrested.  You remember that, right?  Peter warms himself at a charcoal fire and a servant girl asks him, "You also were one of this man's disciples, were you not?"  And Peter denies it.   Peter denies Jesus three times before the end of the day, before the cock crows.

 

          Now, again, we are in the presence of the charcoal fire with Peter, and Jesus asks him, "Simon, do you love me?"  And he responds, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you."  And Jesus says, "Feed my lambs."

 

          Again, a second time, Jesus asks him, "Simon, do you love me?"  Peter replies, "Yes, Lord; you know I love you."  And again… "Tend my sheep." 

 

          A third time Jesus asks…  Will there be a cock crowing after this one?  "Simon, do you love me?"  And, of course, Peter is hurt.  He has answered this question twice before.  Must this happen three times to redeem his three denials?  Perhaps it does.  He responds, "Lord, you know everything.  You know I love you."  And Jesus responded, "Feed my sheep" 

 

          The disciples are unsure how the resurrection will move them forward, until Jesus calls them back to rest.  And then, through this interaction with Peter he teaches us what sabbath time produces. 

 

          You get out from the busy, busy, busy…have some down time.  And while you're all stretched out on a beach chair under the sun… 

 

          Jesus says, "Nice day." 

          "Yep, nice day.  Couldn't ask for better weather."

          "Well, it's good to be with you."

          "It's good to be with you, too."

          "Well, if you like this.  I mean…that is, uhm…do you love me?"

          "Well, sure, Lord."

 

 

 

          "Well, will you then please feed my sheep?  You know, Peter, I understand wanting to go back to fishing.  I really do.  And you're a young man.  You can go do whatever you want.  But one day, Peter ….well, I don't want you to look back on the last few years with me and think, "I should have done what he told me to do."  I don't want you to have any regrets about how you spent your life.  If you love me, Peter, go do what I taught you.  Get some rest…yes, have some sabbath time.  I always enjoyed the Mount of Olives for that.  But then, just like I did, get back to the sheep.  When you're young you can do it.  When you're older, it gets tricky.  And if you're not careful, all these years can slip past you, and you won't have fed my sheep." 

 

          "My sheep are hungry, Peter.  My sheep need to be fed, and loved and cared for.  The rest of your life stretches before you.  If you love me, you'll will do what I have asked.  You will feed my sheep."  (Pause.)

 

          Easter can be a tricky season.  Once you get past the first couple Sundays, the Alleluias don't sound quite so new anymore.   The lillies begin to wilt.  The candy gets a little stale.  And perhaps we want to go back to just taking care of ourselves. 

 

          Scholars have suggested that this story—chapter 21—is a clumsy ending to John's Gospel, and maybe it is—but it seems to me to address this fundamental question of what we are meant to do after the Resurrection.  –after the glow goes away and the grass needs to be cut, and life goes on…

 

          The story seems to say: Draw aside a moment.  Take some sabbath time, if you need to.  After the joy fades, there is this restful moment with Christ, who feeds us, and who reminds us that there are other hungry sheep.  It would be easy to waste our time doing whatever we pleased.  But you and I have seen the risen Lord, and if we love him, we cannot waste our time on ourselves anymore.  The sheep are too hungry.

 

          That's what I think was really missing from the interview with Judith Shulevitz.  For her, sabbath is about personal wellness, and it ends there.  But there is a deeper purpose to sabbath beyond personal needs.  Those deeper purposes express the holy depths of God's desire for his people.  Sabbath time lifts our hands from our attempts to control, for the purpose of redirecting our energies toward God's desire for a well-fed and well-cared-for flock.  This is not just for one or two healthy sheep, but for the whole flock.

 

          Through the preaching and ministry of Peter and the other Apostles, this faith has been passed down, hand by hand, baptism by baptism, and now, the Holy Spirit rests on you and me.  The call comes again, the boat is full of fish, the water is wine. 

 

          "Do you love me?" asks the Risen Christ.  "Yes, Lord," we respond, "you know we do."  "Well, then," he says, "Enjoy the break.  Eat some bread and fish, but then, get after it.  There are others who need to be fed."

 

          -o0o-

Monday, April 12, 2010

Easter 2C. 11 April 2010.

         

          This morning I have to ask for your mercy and grace.  The reason is that the Gospel lesson is always the story of doubting Thomas, and for some reason I have a mental block about preaching on that story.  I could preach on the other texts, but instead, I want to offer a sermon from one of the Sundays we were snowed out.[1]   It is a sermon I prepared on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, the famous lesson from St. Paul about love.  If you would like to see it in print, you will find it in your pew bibles on page 934.  So this, then, is our lesson for today.         

"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. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."

 

 

 

          There is is probably no lesson from St. Paul more familiar or famous than this one.  You could probably even recite it from memory from the King James:  "If I speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am nothing."  "Love is patient, love is kind, it does not boast."   "Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things…"

 

          And of course the reason this is read at weddings is because of that word: "love."  I wonder what St. Paul would have to say about us reading this text at weddings.  Knowing Paul, he would probably be fine with it.  He would be happy for the new husband and wife.  I can see him at the reception shaking hands and eating cake and being fine; but, when asked, I think Paul might say, "Well…I didn't really write this to be read at weddings."

 

          You see Paul was writing to the Church at Corinth.  Now, I've talked about that Church before.  Corinth is located about fifty miles from Athens.  It's a Greek city and there were many religions around them at the time. 

 

          When we read from the letters of Paul to the Corinthians, we are reading about a group of people who need all the help they can get.  Paul had to write to them no less than three times.  What we read from today—what we call First Corinthians—is actually the second letter to the Corinthians.  The first letter has been lost.  They had a lot of problems in Corinth.  Paul actually had to tell them to stop going to bed with each other. 

 

          There was the Port of Lachaeon on the Gulf of Corinth to the north, the Port of Cenchreae on the Saronic Gulf to the south.  Corinth is located on an isthmus in between, and they had people in the city who were there one night, and gone the next.  Every kind of product—food, spices, everything—flowed in and out of the city all the time.

 

          And let's remember that they're Greek.  They are not Jews who became Christians and therefore understand Jesus as a fulfillment of their prophecy.  Their religious heritage was the Greek culture where there were many gods.

 

          So in a very real sense, Paul is trying to inculcate—can I use that word?  I suppose that's a little much.  He's trying to cast a Christian moral vision.  This is how Christians behave.

 

          They're brand new Christians.  And from the letters we understand that he's trying to bring them together and push them forward—like a shepherd!  In the chapter before, which we read from these last two Sundays, he talks about "varieties of gifts but the same [Holy] Spirit which enlivens them all."  He's trying to get them to understand that their diversity is not a symptom of a problem, but a strength they have yet to exercise.

 

          And then he rounds out that discussion with the section we read from today.  You think "wedding," but Paul was thinking, "this is about how to keep people with different gifts together in the same church without fighting."  So he writes… And I hope you will let me paraphrase a little bit here.

 

          "If I have the gift of public speaking so that I can explain the things of God and what makes people tick.  Let's say I can stand up in front of a group and give a good sermon…but if I don't have love in my heart towards those people…  Then I might as well be background music in the doctor's office.  Or, let's say I have the ability to predict what will happen if this changes or that changes, or I can understand things that many people have difficulty understanding…  Or if I had faith like some people wish they had…  But if I don't have love for the people around me—love for the people who don't understand, or don't have the same faith, or foresight.  Well, if I can't love them, then it doesn't matter.

 

          Let's say I give everything.  Let's say I sell all my things and give the money to the church to feed the poor, or if…here, let's say someone showed up at church with a gun and said, "I'm going to kill one of you or all of you."  And I raised my hand and offered my life for my church.  But if I did that without love in my heart for the people I was about to save…it would mean nothing."

 

          Now that's the part of the lesson that is meant to get our attention.  You notice how Paul turns up the heat throughout that discourse?  "Let's say I can preach, let's say I can understand, let's say I can give everything, let's say I can be a martyr—put my life on the line."  And each time he knocks it down, "I gain nothing."  "It would mean nothing."  Without love, so what?

 

          But that only raises the issue higher—what is love, really? 

 

          So Paul describes it.  He's trying to create an ethos here…he's trying to cast a vision for how we think of the word "love."  He uses the Greek word agape which is a different word from the word used to describe the love between, say, a married couple, which is eros.  Or between friends, which is philoo.  Agape is a bigger kind of love.  And Paul describes it:

 

          "Love is patient.  Love is kind.  It's not envious.  It doesn't brag.  Someone with agape isn't someone who talks about how good he is at something.  He's not rude.  He doesn't insist on his own way, or become irritable or resentful."

 

          "If you have love, you don't take pleasure in other's mistakes, or think that sinful behavior is something you can indulge in without consequences.  If you have love, you endure things, you have hope."

 

          "Love doesn't fail, and it doesn't end.  All these gifts of the Spirit, the teaching, the ability to communicate to others who have different languages, the great theological understanding…all of these things will come to an end.  But love won't.  Agape will keep going.

 

          "When I was a child, I thought like a child.  It was all about what I wanted: a new toy, another snack.  "When do I get to go to the park again?"  I was selfish.  That's what it is to be a child…selfish.  "Gimme that!  No, you don't get to play with that, that's mine."

 

 

          "But when I became an adult I stopped being so selfish.  I learned to share.  I started to love others.  And I put away the childish behavior.  Even now, I realize that what I know, I don't really fully know.  I have seen enough of life to know that there is more in heaven and on earth than is dreamt of in my philosophy.  But when the last things come, I will know and I will be fully known." 

 

          "And when I am fully known, I won't be known for being a great public speaker, or a great intellect or an incredible cook.  I will be known by how much I was able to give and receive love."

 

          "So…I suppose you could say, " says Paul, "only three things really endure.  Faith in God, Hope in the future, and Love…for God, for my fellow men and women, for all that has been entrusted to me…  And the greatest of these three things that will endure, is love, because love goes on for ever."  (Pause.)

 

          In a nutshell, that is the vision of the Kingdom of God.  It is Paul's vision, yes, of course.  But it was exemplified by Christ, and taught bit by bit by bit by God throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture.  It is a blueprint for living. 

 

          I remember, some years ago, reading about a woman who started everyday by reading this lesson.  She said she considered it to be like a shower for the soul.  It reminded her that whatever she was about to do that day—it needed to be done in the context of the love that comes from God and returns to God—agape.

 

          But I think the true genius of this lesson is that it brings us back—again and again—to the meaning of love and to the primacy of love.  We are human beings—created and loved by God—and yet always searching for love and acceptance.

 

          The deepest wounds within us come from moments of not having been loved when we needed it.  They are not so complicated.  They happen all the time, but when we are adults they are much less obvious.

 

          I was in Wal-Mart recently and there was a man there with his son.  The man was looking at something and the boy was looking at something else nearby, and because the boy was occupied, and because the man just wanted a closer look at something around the corner, he moved—just slightly—out of his son's field of vision.  In less than three seconds, the boy's panicky voice cried out, "Daddy, daddy?"  And this was followed by a burst of tears. 

 

          The man rushed over to his son and picked him up.  All the parents around him knew exactly what had happened—there were understanding looks on all our faces.  Something in my mind flashed back to the same thing happening to me when I was the boy's age.  I'm sure you all know what I'm talking about.

 

          The man picked up his son and walked around telling him, "I would never leave you.  I love you; I would never leave you." 

 

 

          That is the kind of love that we're talking about.  The love of God, who says, "I love you; I will never leave you."  This is the love that we have received from God in Christ and are meant to give to others—love that does not go away, that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  That love never ends.

 

-o0o-

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842


[1] Originally written to be Epiphany 4C.  31 January 2010. but was snowed out.