Sunday, May 13, 2012

Love Is Possible

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
May 13, 2012

Year B: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
(Acts 10:44-48)
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Love Is Possible

I don’t know about you, but as a “religious professional” I take an interest in church signs.

There are lots and lots of churches down in Florida, and most of them had some kind of sign that tried to get the church’s message across to motorists as they sped by.

Some of the messages on these signs were basic: service times, phone number, the minister’s name, those sorts of things.

Others tried to use clever or corny messages. I’m sure you’ve seen these. One I remember read, “God answers knee mail.”

Others would actually have the title of the upcoming sermon. It always impressed and shamed me, a little, that these preachers knew the title of their sermon a week in advance. I admit that sometimes seeing those signs reminded me that I needed to get cracking on my sermon!

Around here for the most part church signs aren’t so interesting – like ours, they mostly just display the basic facts.

But one I like is the Presbyterian church in Florham Park, on Ridgedale Avenue. I pass it at least twice just about every day and often they have a special message on their sign.

One I like is blue with a picture of a dove accompanying the words, “Peace is Possible.” Have you seen it?

Good message, but of course, like with everything we say, tone is important.

Even in the face of our violent and broken world, we Christians can say with confidence: “Peace is possible!”

On the other hand, in the face of our violent and broken world, we can say, “Peace is possible…” implying that, let’s be real, real peace is not very likely.

The theme of today’s lessons from the First Letter of John and the Gospel of John is not peace, but the only force in the universe capable of bringing true peace: love.

In the gospel lesson we pick up right where we left off last week.

You may remember last week in the Gospel of John we heard Jesus use two more of his “I am” statements. Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” And then a little later Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

In her sermon last week, Lauren reflected on our interconnectedness as the Body of Christ in the world, as branches of the vine that is Christ.

Well, today we pick up with Jesus describing what that interconnectedness should look like.

God the Father loves the Son and the Son loves us so we should love one another.

As Lauren mentioned last week, this is not a sentimental, lovey-dovey kind of love but a fierce, sacrificial, self-giving love.

It’s the love that is a gift from God – it’s the love that is God.

It’s the kind of love that’s modeled perfectly by Jesus himself who, in the powerful words of one of our collects, stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

That’s the self-giving, self-sacrificing kind of love showed to us by Jesus. And that’s the kind of love that Jesus commands us to share with one another.

Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus shows us that, with God, this self-giving, sacrificial kind of love is possible.

Love is possible.

But, what kind of tone do we use when we think about the possibility of loving one another this way? In our hyper-competitive, materialistic and often violent world, do we really believe that this kind of love is possible? Do we think, well, that kind of love may be possible for Jesus but not really for me or other people?

Do we say, “Love is possible, but…”?

Well, Christian history is filled with people who took Jesus at his word and tried their best to love one another as Jesus has loved us.

Some of them are famous, like Francis of Assisi. He lived in the late 12th and early 13th Century, a time when the leaders of the Church had seriously lost their way, more concerned with worldly power than imitating the sacrificial, self-giving love of Jesus.

Along comes Francis who through the example of his life reminds the Church that we are called to simplicity, to overflowing generosity, and most of all to love for one another and for all of creation. Along comes Francis, so bursting with sacrificial love that he had to be ordered by his Franciscan superior to stop giving away his clothes every time he encountered someone dressed more shabbily than he was.

Love is possible.

But, let’s be real. That’s St. Francis. How many of us could really love like St. Francis?

Here’s another example from Christian history, from the more recent past.

For a while now I’ve been interested in the life and work of Dorothy Day. She was born in 1897, baptized in the Episcopal Church and grew up in a religiously indifferent family. Yet, she always felt the pull of God. After the birth of her only child, she had a powerful conversion experience, which ultimately led her to co-found the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, during the worst of the Great Depression.

Day and her fellow Catholic Workers took Jesus at his word and tried their best to love one another as Jesus has loved us.

The Catholic Worker is probably best known for its newspaper that’s still published, and still costs only a penny, and for the houses of hospitality that were founded in New York and across the country.

Day and her fellow Catholic Workers tried to treat every person who came through their doors – the poor, the smelly, the alcoholic, the drug addicted, the demented and even the violent, as if he or she were Christ himself.

Day lost a lot of friends when during World War II she insisted on maintaining her absolute pacifism. She made the lonely argument that if Christians are really serious about loving our neighbors as Jesus has loved us then there can be no justification for killing under any circumstances.

Despite – or maybe because of – her radical love, when she died in 1980 she was widely revered as a modern saint. Although she had misgivings about it whenever the topic came up, there is a strong movement underway in the Catholic Church to formally canonize her as a saint.

Love is possible.

But, let’s be real. That’s Dorothy Day. How many of us could really love like Dorothy Day?

Here’s another example from just the other day in a place not so far and not so different from here.

On Thursday, May 3, an apparently deranged homeless man walked into St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in affluent Ellicott City, Maryland, and shot the parish administrator and the co-rector. He then apparently crossed the parking lot and shot and killed himself.

The administrator was already dead when this was discovered and the priest died two days later.

It was a horrific and sad story and throughout the Episcopal Church there were prayers and concern for all those involved. But, unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot of shock about this incident. Let’s face it, we’ve all heard stories like this before.

But, here’s what is surprising about this story. Echoing the dramatic forgiveness offered by the Amish community after the well-publicized school shooting in 2006, several nearby Episcopal churches have taken Jesus at his word, offering to host the funeral of the shooter, expressing forgiveness to him and love to his family.

Love is possible.

Finally, we know that the self-giving, sacrificial, love of Jesus is possible because we experience it all around us.

Today especially I’m reminded of the sacrificial love of my own mother. Here at Grace over and over I see the self-giving love that mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers give to their children and grandchildren.

As priests, we have the privilege of often being with people during many big moments of their lives, and most especially as their lives draw to a close. Over and over I’ve had the experience of being with spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends who manage to transform sterile hospital rooms into places of love, who manage to turn days of decline and death into times of love.

Love – the fierce, sacrificial, self-giving love of Jesus – is possible.

Our challenge is to obey Jesus’ commandment to love one another – to love not just the people we like, the people who like us, the people who are like us, the people related to us, and the people who agree with us but to love those who drive us crazy, those who repulse us, and those who have wronged us or others.

Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. We bear fruit when we follow Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us.

This is not a sentimental, lovey-dovey kind of love but a fierce, sacrificial, self-giving love.

It’s the love that is a gift from God – it’s the love that is God.

It’s the love that we see shared throughout Christian history. And it’s the love that we see – that we experience – shared among us.

Love is possible.