The Divine Imperative to Love

Sermon for Sunday, February 19th, 2017 ||  The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A || Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119: 33 -40; 1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Last week the apostle Paul described the church in Corinth as  mere infants in Christ—spiritual infants too immature to handle the kind of deep wisdom he metaphorically referred to as “solid food.” Paul couldn’t speak to these baby Christians as spiritual people, he said, because they were still “people of the flesh”—meaning people defined more by their lives in the world than by their lives in Christ.

“I fed you with milk, not solid food,” Paul said, “for you were not ready for solid food…Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the [world].”

These must have been hard words for those early Jesus followers to swallow. They are challenging words for us even two thousand years later as we, too, struggle to walk the walk and to integrate our spiritual lives with our secular lives as spiritually mature Christians.

But ready or not, the readings on the lectionary menu this week make for a feast of decidedly solid food. No baby’s milk here. This is very rich, very heavy, spiritual food indeed. And while we may have heard the imperative to love our neighbor as ourselves so often that it sounds like pious pablum, if we are attentive to this morning’s readings—if we really listen to these words—there’s no escaping the realization that from our opening Collect of the Day through both the Old and New Testament readings, we are being spoon-fed one highly seasoned serving after another of God’s uncompromising command that above all else we be people of love.

Without love, our opening prayer tells us, we are accounted as dead in God’s eyes. We’re forbidden to hate, we hear in from Leviticus, or to take vengeance, or even to bear a grudge. We’re required to respond with love and only love, our Gospel reading says, even when others hurt us, take advantage of us, or force their will on us. Turn the other cheek, Jesus says. Go the extra mile. Give them the shirt off your back. Because even the lowliest of the low can love those who are lovable. That’s easy. But ours is a higher calling: We are to love even the unlovable. We are to love the righteous and the unrighteous.

Now I know it is tempting to be dismissive of this divine imperative to love—tempting to soften its blow by judging it a lofty, but let’s face it, unrealistic ideal. After all, are we really supposed to love the friend who betrays us, the spouse who abandons us, or the boss who fires us? Are we really expected to love the tyrants, the terrorists,  the torturers, and the trolls, really?

But the hard truth of this morning’s scripture is that yes, yes we are. It’s totally outrageous. It’s scandalous. And God knows it’s offensive. But yes, we are called as Christians to love even the most unlovable of God’s creatures.

This doesn’t mean we’re called to be doormats, or to stay in abusive relationships. It doesn’t mean we’re suppose to allow those who do evil to continue their hateful behavior without suffering the social, political, or legal consequences of their actions.

But Jesus is unequivocal when he says that we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This isn’t idle chatter. This isn’t a pious platitude. This is a Divine Dictum that we must take seriously. Not because harboring hatred is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. And not because love is the only force powerful enough to heal a hate-infected world—which of course it is. But we must take seriously the command to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us for one very compelling, very convicting reason: Because Jesus tells us to.

The question then, is “How?” How do we find room in our hearts for love, when our hearts are angry or aching or bitter or broken or frightened or fearful? “To be unloving is to be out of touch with God,” wrote mystic Evelyn Underhill. “Love is what you were made for, and love is who you are,” writes Franciscan priest Richard Rohr.

“Love is what you were made for, and love is who you are.” Think about that for a minute and let it sink in. Love is who you are. Love is your essential nature, your core, your authentic self. We were created by Love, with Love, for Love. Hundreds if not thousands of wise men and women throughout the ages have said as much in as many different ways. Love is who you are.

There is a wonderful, albeit apocryphal, story  about Michelangelo’s “David.” The story goes that when Pope Julius II saw this magnificent marble masterpiece for the first time, in utter amazement he asked Michelangelo how he had created a work of such exquisite beauty. To which Michelangelo is said to have replied, “I started with a big ugly rock and simply chipped away everything that wasn’t David.”

You see, the exquisite beauty of David was there all along, waiting to be revealed. So it is with the exquisite Love that is the center of who we are. All of the hurt and anger and fear and brokenness are just waiting to be chipped away at and healed. And that, my friends, is what the spiritual journey is all about: Allowing God’s love to chip away everything that isn’t love. That’s what transforms us from spiritual infants to spiritually mature Christians.

Remember back in the gospel reading, where Jesus told us to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”? What the Greek word used there really means is to be whole, to be complete, to be mature. Jesus isn’t telling us to be flawless, he’s imploring us to grow up—to become spiritually mature—so we can live into the fullness of who God created us to be and who we really are. And who we really are is Love.

This is precisely why spiritual formation, psychotherapy, and disciplines like prayer and meditation are so critically important to those of us who call ourselves Jesus followers. Life, whether we acknowledge it or not, is a spiritual journey. God means for life to chip away at the big ugly rocks we mistake for ourselves. God means for life to smooth out our hard edges and polish our rough surfaces and reveal the exquisitely beautiful and loving creatures that each of us is…our authentic selves…the selves we really are.

The spiritual journey we call life is going to keep chipping away at our big ugly rocks whether we cooperate or not. But our readings today would have us cooperate. Our readings today would have us go to any lengths necessary to facilitate this deeply healing process of transformation– from spiritual infants to spiritually mature Christians. Our readings today would have us commit to practicing disciplines like prayer and meditation because they invite God to chip away everything in us that isn’t love. Because love is who we are; love is what we were created to do; and love is what this beautiful world of ours so desperately needs.

It has been an amazing privilege for me to be a part of your spiritual journeys these past nine years. And now, as you continue on your journeys, may God bless each of you with an ever-deepening appreciation for the precious and beloved creatures that you truly are. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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