Be present in my words, oh God, and in all our hearts. Amen.
Typically, preachers always look to the lessons for the week for their sermons. The Old Testament, New Testament, or most commonly, the Gospel. But each week, part of our Lectionary – the selected daily readings in the Episcopal Church – is also the Collect, or prayer, of the day. That is what caught my attention first this week. Now I know that the Collect in Morning Prayer comes later in the service, so I’m going to read it again for anyone who had just poured their first cup of coffee at 10:03 am: O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing:
Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I have never been an “I love you” person. Not because I don’t feel love for many people in my life, not because of some traumatic story of a “thank you” in response to my telling a partner I love them. For whatever reason, waspiness or my self-described emotionally-stunted mother, perhaps, my immediate family just didn’t use the phrase much when I was growing up. We no doubt did and do really love each other. But I remember a few years ago, as I was ending a phone call with my Dad, he said “I love you,” and, without a hesitation, I said “what’s wrong?”
Our secular culture tells us that love is the most important thing in the world. Hallmark cards, Valentine’s Day, Hollywood and the countless Romantic Comedies it produces (which – let me say – I do love), these things have exalted love as the most important and defining part of a person’s life. Specifically, these industries focus on romantic love. We don’t hear as much about philia – brotherly – love, or agape – love for community. Instead, it’s all about eros love, the Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant kind. The romantic love we hear about is transactional. Partner A meets Partner B, there is immediate attraction, they fall in love, have some setback (which is very rarely caused by anything serious or difficult), make up, and live happily ever after. They win at love. Others might lose – they don’t get the girl, they say “I love you” and don’t hear it back. This kind of love is a battlefield.
The reality is that love cannot be won or lost. It is its own end. The act of loving – the courage it takes, the work to sustain it, the constant sacrifices one makes to continue loving – that journey is the reward. That is the love that God shows us through sending his Son into the world to live among us and to die. That is sacrificial love! It is not transactional, but freely given. God and Jesus do not expect anything in return for the love they show us repeatedly through our very existence, or through the miracles Jesus performs. They do it out of the purest unconditional love.
As our Collect says, love is the greatest gift we receive; it gives and sustains life. It is not contingent on our action; no, the love God has for us is without strings. And love is not a just noun; it is not just a gift, but an action. We cannot love passively. Like God, we must choose to love – choose to look past the frustrations and irritations we may feel towards a person or people, and love them anyway. At our absolute best, we can still only aspire to this. The most supportive, most loving parents do not come close to the boundless love of God shown to us in our creation, preservation, and in the hope of the world to come. But thank God we have an example and can keep trying.
Today’s Gospel passage from Luke is a selection from Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain. We hear that we are to love our enemies, to bless and pray for those who curse and abuse us. Verse 31 offers us the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
We’ve all heard that phrase all our lives. It is admirable to try and live the Golden Rule. But it’s SO hard. The selfishness that is the core of transactional relationships leads to evil, and makes enemies. Think of all today’s political polarization that is turning our neighbors into our enemies, the arguments over facts, desiring closed borders and exclusive policies that target the innocent, believing that those with whom one disagrees are less valuable. How are we supposed to love our enemies when we are convinced they are flat-out wrong?
Maybe we have to think bigger. Yes, I want to love my enemies. I will strive for that, because that is the promise I made to God in baptism. I will strive to love my neighbors – all of them – as myself. But I want today’s readings to be a call not only to love my enemies (as well as the people it’s easy to love) but to see that love infuses our universe. Love is what makes life worth living, and it is all around us if we can just open our eyes to see it. The miracle of creation, a sunset, a perfectly crisp winter morning. The miracle of our own existence, that we were chosen to journey through life in this world. These are gifts from our Creator. This gift of love is, as we prayed, “the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead.” Love brings us to life. It enchants the world around us.
And looking at the world around us, it needs enchantment. It needs love. Seriously. We as a people, as a planet, as God’s creation, are divided, broken, and blind to the love that surrounds us. And if we, as Christians, aren’t able to see God amidst all this pain, how will others? This takes practice. It takes concerted effort to look at the world as a gift, full of wonder and magic, infused with love. Challenge yourself to see this when you wake up in the morning. Even before the coffee, and especially before you turn on the news, or before you look outside and see the beauty of the frost on your lawn. Wake up grateful that God loves you enough to have brought you here, to this moment of your life.
I want to close with a portion of the text of one of my favorite hymns. In our 1982 hymnal, this is number 657, “Love divine, all loves excelling.” Let these words be a prayer for us today:
Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heaven, to earth come down,
fix in us thy humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art.
Visit us with thy salvation;
enter every trembling heart.
Finish, then, thy new creation;
true and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love and praise.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog