A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
It’s here: the last weekend of summer. And with it our town with start to slow down; the pace of life will relax into its shoulder season serenity. Yet, even though I look forward to the return of such a refreshing small-town rhythm, I always end up missing one of my favorite aspects of the summer months… wedding season. I love the schmaltzy feelings. I love the exchange of vows. I love the gathering of family and friends. Y’all, I just love, love!
Yet this year, although each of the three weddings I officiated, have been special and sacred beyond measure. They also have not been what any of the couples imagined—receptions were postponed, ceremonies were paired down, and just a few family members were present.
Even so, all three couples—Matt & Jill, Nikki & Mike, and Len & Mila,—choose to move forward with their commitment to each another. They vowed before God and those gathered, to love one another. For me these three couples were a testament to the power of love yo overcome any obstacle. Even though they were in the middle of a global pandemic, well by golly they were gonna get hitched anyway.
Their love was the kind of love St. Paul wrote of in perhaps the most iconic of wedding Scripture selections. You probably have heard the words of 1 Corinthians 13 before: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way.” But instead love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
As the marriage vows attest, love is not some schmaltzy, pie in the sky, walk in the clouds, kind of feeling. But instead real love, authentic love, Christian love is living and active. Christian love exudes patience and kindness. It does not insist on its own way, but instead it is humble beyond measure.
The word Paul uses for love in this passage, is the same word Paul uses in today’s reading from Romans, that of agape. And in ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, Paul had many more choices for the word love, than we do today. Let’s be real, I love ice cream, I love Frozen II, and I love my God my neighbor do not have the same connotation. But anyway, in ancient Greek there were a number of choices for our singular word, “love.” Paul could have chosen eros, for romantic love; or storge, for parental, familial love; or philia, for brotherly, sisterly, friendly kind of love. Yet Paul bypassed all of these other options and instead chose agape: unconditional love.
Christian love is unconditional love. It is the kind of love God has for us: a love that goes above and beyond our human self-centeredness, and selfishness, and ethnocentrism, and instead reflects grace and abundance into our lives and the lives of others. And that my friends, this agape love, it is the kind of love we too are called to act with in this world today. We as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are called to unconditionally love our neighbor as ourselves.
But let’s be real here, to unconditionally love our neighbor, again that’s a tall order. Especially this day and age when the world fells so unloving; when businesses are struggling; when family members are arguing; when friends are attacking one another on social media; and when fear is the driving force of our culture’s decision-making. Yet in the midst of such a struggle, does not our world need God’s unconditional love that much more?
Now more than ever, we have got to love our neighbor. This is our most important identity as Christians: to be people who love. Because as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaches: “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” And Christ’s kind of love, this agape, unconditional kind of love is an extraordinary kind of love; is a revolutionary kind of love; is a radical kind of love.
For when Jesus tells us to “love our neighbor” throughout the Gospels, and Paul reaffirms it in his own letters, they do not mean just the neighbor who lives down the block, or attends St. Patrick’s Church, or lives in Incline Village, King’s Beach, or Truckee. They do not mean to love just the neighbor who looks like you, or thinks like you, or talks like you. No, over and over God pushes the boundaries, asks us to constantly reconsider (as Jesus did in the parable of the Good Samaritan): “Who is our neighbor?”
Our God is asking us to love all of our neighbors—unconditionally: our local neighbors and our tourist neighbors, our Latino neighbors and our black neighbors, our indigenous neighbors and our immigrant neighbors; our citizen neighbors and our undocumented neighbors. God is asking us to love our republican neighbor and our democrat neighbor, our libertarian neighbor and our socialist neighbor. God is asking us to love our Jewish neighbor and our Muslim neighbor, our Buddhist neighbor and our atheist neighbor. I think we get the picture… God is asking us to love our neighbor. Full stop.
But y’all, as I said earlier, it is a tall order for any human being to love her neighbor. I of all people get fed up with the bickering and the drama and the division. I cringe and cry at the belittling of our fellow human beings on Facebook feeds, and media sources, and even out of the mouths of many who hold power and authority.
So what do we do, when we feel such frustration at society’s current situation? Well as Christians the answer is clear, we still without a shadow of a doubt, must love our neighbor. Now we’ve just outlined who is our neighbor: every child of God on this beautiful planet. But what does this agape, this unconditional love actually entail? How do we move from a schmaltzy love to an active, abundant, liberating kind of love?
I want to go back to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, that iconic wedding reading. Love is patient. Love is kind. And love is humble. Love is taking a step back from our own place of power and opening up space for another human being to fill. Love is practicing vulnerability over fear. Love is choosing to deescalate from being on the edge of anger, being the asserter, being the driving, domineering force in any conflict with a fellow human being (no matter how escalated the other individual might be). Love is choosing to be a disciple. You might remember from a sermon earlier this summer that disciple means “learner.” So love is making the conscious choice to be curious, yo ask ourselves, “What can I learn from this encounter? What truth does this person need to speak into my society? Where has this person experienced pain that perhaps I can help to heal?”
A Christian practicing love of neighbor, creates sacred space for holy listening. For in that space in between, that is where the Spirit dwells; that is where patient, kind, and humble, agape love resides.
Love is all of these things, but love is also difficult to practice. It will take time to develop the skills, time to grow in patience and kindness. It will take a daily, lifelong commitment as disciples of Christ, but the work must begin now. We can encourage ourselves along the journey, by gathering together in Christian community. For wherever two or three are gathered, there God dwells. For we do not do this work of the kingdom alone.
We must commit to love in our own church congregation, the beloved community of St. Patrick’s. As in Matthew 18, we create space to brings grievances to one another, yo share with one another, to listen to each other, to be transformed by the needs of the other, and to repent and reconcile with our sibling in Christ. Y’all, we are going to disagree at times. We are going to bump up against one another’s rough edges. Yet we must vow to begin today, for the world is so in desperate need of God’s agape love.
We must vow to love one another. We must listen to love one another. We must vote to love one another. We must put ourselves aside and create sacred space for another child of God to fill, in order to love one another.
This is the time. This is the moment. This is our calling and only choice in the matter. So let us love our neighbor. Let us love one another.