Sermon, 5/15/22: For the love of God, just do it!

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5 Easter

Psalm 148; Acts 11:1 – 18; Revelation 21:1 – 6; John 13:31 – 35

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. John 13.34 Chances are, no matter where in these United States you were born, or grew up, or worked, chances are you have heard, perhaps yourself even used the phrase: “For heaven’s sake!” The language censors might offer this phrase as an alternative to an equally expressive, but perhaps to the ears of some a more colorful expression. No matter the phrase chosen, the one who voiced it, was probably attempting to make clear his/her feelings of exasperation, or anger that something has not gone as planned or desired.

Growing up, as I did, in our nation’s heartland, namely in the Gateway City of St. Louis, I heard just as frequently another phrase; “For the love of God, just do it! Would you?” Not even presuming that the speaker, the person whose frustration had gotten the better of him/her, was a believer in God, or for that matter that the recipient of that phrase was a god-fearing individual, when nothing else succeeded, an appeal to a higher power would be made. That appeal could and would be made because the assumption in these United States is that even non-believers have heard of “The Ten Commandments,” and everyone (especially god-fearing Midwesterners) knows that God is the final arbiter, and one should not take the name of God in vain. But is that a fair assumption to make for those who have come as immigrants, bringing a different language and a different culture?

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, here in St. Francis Hall, our parish sponsored on Monday evenings, the outreach program, ESL, English as a Second Language. It is my hope and prayer, that with further reduction of Covid-19 cases in our city, we may again be able to offer that much needed ministry. Two things excite me about that possibility: First, just a 10-, 15-minute walk from our doorstep is Tufts University, a nationally ranked university for its undergraduate college and for graduate studies in international affairs in its Fletcher School.

Second, the City of Somerville has always been an entry point for myriad immigrants to our shores, and here in Teele Square, we are ideally located to offer this service to the community. It would not be too farfetched, in addition to seeing the colors of Ukraine’s flag waving from standards of homes and stores, but that refugees from that war-torn country might soon find their way to our communities. When I look at this situation, I envisage the possibility of real ministry. But I recall another observation made by Jesus to his followers: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Matt. 9:37)

As we prepare for new arrivals, think of a dilemma which stands before us. Far too often we native speakers of American, which has its own place in the larger world-wide English-speaking family, forget just how difficult it can be for individuals who are moving into a new culture with its unique communication system. Especially is that so when the individual is an adult and has facility already in another language.

Think about it. When you, as native speakers, hear the word “plant,” your brain begins to process the word. A question mark may go off in your minds, at least temporarily: Is this thing which the word “plant” is calling into our discussion, a noun, such as a tree or flower, and, if so, what kind, what color, winter or spring? Or is it a building, where people work, and, if so, what kind of plant—for assembling airplanes, or automobiles, or kitchen appliances, or food processing? Is it a person, someone used by law enforcement agencies to gather information secretly about a group of people? It is a verb which would indicate that seeds of agriculture or human ideas are being sown? So, you see, this one five letter word carries a huge burden. Learning and using a language is not as simple as one would think. Context and nuance are determining factors.

“Plant” is a five-letter word. A word with fewer alphabets may be more helpful, that is, until one chooses the four-letter word, LOVE. That word has caused difficulties throughout centuries and in many cultures. Peter, the ever-impetuous Peter, was confused, when he heard the word LOVE. Although that should have been rather unlikely, as Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic have different words for the type of love in question. And Peter’s confusion was compounded further, when he learned that to love Jesus was to feed Jesus’ sheep. Peter knew after all that Jesus did not have any sheep.

Like Peter, so have I also problems with that word. To my rescue comes the Jewish-German theologian-philosopher, Martin Buber. It has been now decades since I was in theological school and first read his work, “I and Thou.” (1923) Among his many works, this one, “I and Thou,” made clear to me what is being asked by Jesus of Peter and the other disciples, and of us today, who would lay claim to the name of Jesus. What is it that serves as the foundation for true and fulfilling relationships that can only bring us closer to each other and to the Divine?

In an essay about Martin Buber by Adam Kirsch which I chanced upon in a back issue of The New Yorker, Kirsch writes “at the heart of Buber’s theology was his theory of dialogue—the idea that what matters is not understanding God in abstract, intellectual terms but, rather, entering into a relationship with him. Such a relationship…is possible only when we establish genuine relationships with one another.” (Adam Kirsch: “Divine Guidance.” The New Yorker, 6 May 2019, p.60)

Kirsch quotes Buber: “We tend to treat the people and the world around us as things to be used for our benefit….But the more we engage in such thinking, the farther we drift from ‘I-Thou.’…Only when we say ‘You’ to the world, do we perceive its miraculous strangeness and, at the same time, its potential for intimacy.” (p. 62) And this, according to Buber, is to encounter God, to come into oneness with The Holy. The world is holy, according to Buber, because that is where we can encounter God. This is the lesson taught in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Rules are in place for the ordering of our daily lives, and without them we would live in chaos. However, we should continuously ask ourselves, what is the foundation of those rules, those commandments.

Pre-Covid-19, I had the privilege to attend a diocesan function where the speaker was our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael Curry. To him the following question was posed: How do we, an institutional body, buffeted on all side by the secular world, make the message of Christ relevant? Bishop Curry’s response was the same which Buber had offered. We must distinguish between religion—a body of beliefs and rituals—and religiosity, a longing to be at one with God, out of which religion arises.

It was as if, our Presiding Bishop had memorized Buber, because Buber had written, “Once religious rites and dogmas have become so rigid that religiosity cannot move them or no longer wants to comply with them, religion becomes uncreative and therefore untrue.” (p. 62)

And this brings our thoughts to the gospel read today. As we in the structured, institutional church must move beyond the strictures of ritual and the law for their sake, to the Thou, we are confronted with Jesus’ commandment of love, made simple. And that simplicity is captured in a word with more than four letters. That word is reciprocity. How easy it is, to follow in Peter’s footsteps, namely to feed the sheep, even as we often resist that assignment, as did Peter. You and I have been so trained from childhood that it is better to give than to receive—words which St. Paul attributes to Jesus, but nowhere recorded in the gospels—that we overlook what Jesus actually did say. Jesus’ new commandment “to love one another as I have loved you,” is to see yourself in The Other. And The Other is a live human being, deserving of care, concern, and empathy. That is reciprocity and it is in that reciprocity we find the Holy; we find the Thou.

“For the love of God, do it” removes us from our own claim of ownership over the act of loving others, and the recipient of that love is released from the feeling of obligation to repay. One must be able receive love, as well as give love.

I would be bold on this Fifth Sunday in Easter: It is my firm belief, when I observe our Jewish sisters and brothers, anchored in their belief in the oneness of God, that it is not the age of our liturgical expressions, as we so often hear “stuck back in the Middle Ages.” Rather, we have ignored Martin Buber’s call to return to an “I –Thou” relationship with our fellow beings. It would be that oneness that the world longs to see in our Christian fellowship, and it would be that oneness that would be a continuing witness to the greater power of God’s love. It will be that oneness that makes people take notice of us in the right way, and that shall send us in love to them.

And so it is that we come each week to this holy place, in order to receive reinforcement in our efforts to love. We meet around a table, exemplified by the beautifully adorned altar before you and behind me, to share what has been shared with us: LOVE. The music icons of the 1960’s and ‘70’s were absolutely right: All we need is love. Like the writer of Psalm 148, “Let us praise the Name of the Lord, for his Name only is exalted, his splendor is over earth and heaven.” We praise the God who has given and continues to give us exactly that, a love and a peace that the world cannot give, signaled to us in the resurrection of God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ our Lord.