Monday, August 31, 2015

Love received is love to be shared. (Sermon for Sunday, 8/31/2015

Sermon notes for Proper 17B (8/31/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Love received is love to be shared.

Life is short and we have not too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind! (Ameil’s Journal, Henri-Frédéric Amiel).

These are powerful words by the 19th century Swiss moral philosopher, Henri-Frédéric Amiel, and carry as much Gospel truth as any words of scripture. They bear the very teaching of Jesus to “love one another” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the narrative of Genesis 12, God calls Abram to go from his own country, from his father’s house to a new land. God makes this promise to Abram,

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

“I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing.” How those two actions are bound together, woven almost as if one continuous act: the act of our being blessed and the act of our blessing others.

For most, being blessed and blessing is first experienced in the embrace shared by parent and child. I am filled with awe and wonder at the Facebook posts and pictures shared by Derek of himself, his wife, and his new baby. Can anything fill one’s hearts more earnestly? Little children are so intent with their expressions of physical affection and to be the recipient of such opens your heart. I was walking with Molly, my niece, at my daughter’s cross country meet this past Saturday. Molly suddenly reached up and touched my forehead. She might very well have been reaching up for a butterfly or some other thing that caught her fancy. I, however, choose to recognize her reaching up as an act of blessing. Molly was giving me a blessing! So I blessed her back and we went on our way.

Love received is love to be shared.

The first lesson for today, from the Song of Songs, is a compelling expression of giving and receiving love. Over the centuries, the Song of Songs has been assigned allegorical interpretation by both synagogue and church alike. Such religious allegory assumes the song refers to the love of the Lord for the people or of Christ for the Church, a view supported by the marriage themes in both Old and New Testament. While the allegorical interpretation has much to recommend it, at its heart the song refers to the love between humans. It is an ancient Jewish love poem with imagery as simple as the blush of first love, ignited by the holding of a lover’s hand for the first time. Listen to the excitement in this poet’s words at the approach of her beloved, “The voice of my beloved! Look: he comes, leaping…bounding…gazing…looking…"

And then, he calls out, "Arise my love…come away … the time of singing has come.”

Such an emotional response to love’s arrival is echoed in today’s Psalm, “My heart is stirring with a noble song” (Psalm 45:1). It is not just in Psalm 45, though, for the Psalms are filled with the language of the heart or the soul or the very being of the person responding to the Lord’s acts of blessing and love.

Love received is love to be shared.

The author of the epistle of James builds on the theme of reciprocated blessing and love. Over time our religious practices get complicated, just like our relationships. We can find ourselves more concerned with the performance of religious rituals and practices than with their underlying purpose. We find ourselves at a distance from the religious passion – the blessing and the love – that impelled our religious choice in the first place.

So James reminds us that we need to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers” (1:22). Moreover, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17). This is a gift that we are given, from above – the motivation and compulsion of the Spirit to join God in the act of self-giving love. Love should not be an accomplishment to be recorded or the chore of ministry. No, it should be the natural response of one beloved to another.

It is quite simple when the heart of the beloved is truly led by love. It isn’t until complications set in - complications are born of fear – that it I gets cumbersome and weary. And those.

In his first epistle, John writes, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (4:18) and “We love because he first loved us” (1:19).” The acts of love, blessing, and kindness, and so many other virtues become natural when we are in the right kind of relationship – one motivated by the shared is love of the other, recognizing that we have first been loved by God. So, when we replace trust with fear…when we replace models of separation with models of unity (as an aside, reflect here on our broader national issues of racism, immigration, equal pay for equal work, and income inequality)…when we replace seeing a stranger with seeing the image and likeness of God, then acts of love and blessing cease to become a chore and become an extension of the Spirit dwelling in us.

Love received is love to be shared.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Grushenka tells Alyosha the parable of the onion.
Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away. (Book VII, Chapter 3).
There is insight in this story that echoes the wisdom Jesus teaching in our gospel for today. Jesus has been accosted by the Pharisees, who for all their earnestness and concern for the purity code, have traversed far from what James would call religion that is “pure and undefiled before God.” The Pharisees became distracted. These too-well-practiced religious practitioners became so concerned with the purity code that they forgot the most important commandment. They cared deeply about their religion but forgot to care deeply about their neighbor.

What Jesus calls us to is simpler. Jesus calls us understand that what matters is from something inside, from our hearts, form the temple of our being, from that place where the Spirit dwells. It is that that will transform and quicken the heartbeat of our lives and the lives of those we encounter. Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “Love God and do as you please.” If we truly love of God and remain filled with God’s love then what pleases us will also undoubtedly please God. The Muslim mystic, Rumi, speaks similarly, “Look inside and find where a person loves from. That’s the reality.”

Love received is love to be shared.

"Life is short and we have not too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind!"

and May the Divine mystery who is beyond our ability to know but who made us, and who loves us, and travels with us, bless us and keep us. Amen.

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