Sermon for 21st Sunday after Pentecost - Oct 29 2017

Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
October 29, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Deut. 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

In Matthew, we find one of my favorite quotes from all the New Testament: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  I quote it a lot, as you surely know!

Here we run into it in its original setting – following on a long “discussion” with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and temple authorities.  Does the lawyer ask his question – what is the greatest commandment? – with genuine curiosity, seeking understanding, or with distrust and a desire to entrap Jesus, as so many of the questions they have asked him up till now?  If it is the former, there is trust between them, even if fleeting; and if it is the latter, once again, Jesus up-ends the questions and catches the questioner instead.

But for our purposes, I would prefer to take the question at face value, and the answer as well.  For the answer he gives is harder than it sounds, deeper than it appears, and much more unsettling than we may realize.

Because we don’t really know what Jesus means by the verb “love.”  The first place to look is in the Greek source. 

Jesus says, … “ephē autō Agapēseis kurion ton Theon sou…” 

In Greek, there are several words that mean love.

PhD physical therapist Narelle Story, who keeps a blog called “Eros to Agape,” writes that Eros is bodily love, best expressed in the deep physical attraction between those who have bonded together.  It can include but is more than sex; it tends to be idealist; it is love of the body.  Phileo is love of the soul – and is found in most forms of friendship and in families.  Phileo is aimed at those of similar tastes and beliefs.  Storge is community love, or love for things; and this is a form of love that may pull one away from a “higher” path.  Storge is not one of the words for love that we will find in the Bible, but we will find both eros and phileo there. 

Then there is agape. 

Story describes it as

… more of a parental, mature, sacrificial kind of love. The Thayer Lexicon describes agape beautifully when it says “to take pleasure in the thing, prize it above all other things, be unwilling to abandon it or do without it.” In a way it is as idealistic as Eros, in that it is a crazy love that will not let go. Agape loves, usually at cost to the bearer. Agape puts the beloved first and sacrifices pride, self interest and possessions for the sake of that beloved. This is the love that God has for us which inspired him to sacrifice His son and for His son to obey and sacrifice himself. It is the kind of love we are commanded to have for one another. It is a love of supreme greatness.[1]

Daniel Sweet notes that Agape is not a feeling; it is action.[2]  Agape is the love with which God loves, the love that died on the cross, only to rise again more loving than ever.  And agape is the love that Jesus tells our lawyer friend is what we owe to God and to our neighbor and to ourselves.

It is not simple and it is not easy, to love God in this way.

The 16th Century Spanish Mystic known as St. John of the Cross wrote that “Love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved.”

John had a hard life.  His wealthy father married for love, and his family disowned him for it.  Raised in poverty, John worked in a hospital for the dying and insane. It was a terrible place, filled with despair and pain and death.  He was often hungry and found his only comfort in his faith.  When he came of age, he joined a Carmelite order, but he felt that the order was too focused on ease and wealth, so he ran away.  The monks captured him, and locked him up in a tiny cell below ground, with a very high window that let in little light.  Again, his only recourse and resource was his faith.  Eventually he was able to unscrew the fastenings on the door that locked him into darkness and made his escape to a nearby convent carrying only his writings and notes, which he read to the nuns who took him in. Despite all the hardships of his life, he was known for his compassion toward others – the harshness of his world he knew contrasted with the graciousness of God that he experienced in that darkness, and it was the graciousness that drew him deeper and deeper.[3]

Yes, he could say that true love was detachment – because he had to detach himself from all human ties in order to survive; and yes, he could say that true love suffers for the sake of the beloved, because he refused all the blandishments that his home monastery placed before him, which he concluded actually drew them away from God.  They were cruel and greedy, which God never is.

Over the centuries, mystics have sought to understand the love of God.  Julian of Norwich prayed three things – that she might know the sufferings of Christ as those who knew him and waited beneath the cross, that she might be so ill as to die, for she desired nothing in the world, and third, “I conceived a mighty desire to receive three wounds in my life: that is to say, the wound of very contrition, the wound of kind compassion, and the wound of steadfast longing toward God.”

She had fallen into such a terrible illness that everyone, herself included, thought she was on the point of death when, she wrote later:

“I saw . . . as it were in the time of His Passion . . . And in the same Shewing suddenly the Trinity filled my heart with utmost joy”

“IN this [moment] suddenly I saw the red blood trickle down from under the Garland hot and freshly and right plenteously, as it were in the time of His Passion when the Garland of thorns was pressed on His blessed head who was both God and Man, the same that suffered thus for me. I conceived truly and mightily that it was Himself shewed it me, without any mean.

And in the same Shewing suddenly the Trinity fulfilled my heart most of joy. And so I understood it shall be in heaven without end to all that shall come there. For the Trinity is God: God is the Trinity; the Trinity is our Maker and Keeper, the Trinity is our everlasting love and everlasting joy and bliss, by our Lord Jesus Christ. And this was shewed in the First [Shewing] and in all: for where Jesus appeareth, the blessed Trinity is understood, as to my sight. 

This is the love of God, the love to which Jesus calls us – and it is something that we cannot fully understand, and if any desire you or I may have to love God as God loves us has now faded away in dismay because of its cost, it should come as no surprise. 

I’ll grant you that mystics difficult to understand; and only on exceedingly rare occasions have I ever even thought about what it would be like to be one.  Surely it would involve severe hardship – being locked away, or working in horrific working conditions, or lying at death’s door, or many other kinds of suffering.

The simple truth is, that I don’t do “suffering” well.  I get snappish and cranky and impatient.  But it’s also true that on those occasions when there really is nothing at all I can do to change a situation for the better, there is a part of me that says, maybe instead of fussing about what you can’t fix, you could turn to God and be kind to those around you? 

Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk, wrote a book called The Practice of the Presence of God. His suffering consisted of laboring in the monastery kitchen.  If I remember correctly, this was not the job to which he aspired.  But he still managed to give his heart to God; and in his writings advised his readers to remember that God is always present.  They did not have to do great deeds or suffer great distress; all they had to do was to think on God and seek God’s presence wherever they were.

“He said the most important part lay in renouncing, once and for all, whatever does not lead to God. This would allow us to become involved in a continuous conversation with [God] in a simple and unhindered manner…”[4] 

He also said, “I have given up all but my intercessory prayers to focus my attention on remaining in His holy presence. I keep my attention on God in a simple, loving way. This is my soul's secret experience of the actual, unceasing presence of God. It gives me such contentment and joy, that I sometimes feel compelled to do rather childish things to control it.”

It may seem hard to love God in this way, detached from other desires, detached from self-regard, and willing to experience whatever suffering comes our way, if only it might be a path to a deeper relationship with God, but it is not unheard of.

The real question is – do we want to do what Jesus advised?  Is our love for God enough to love God more?

If you’re feeling … maybe not … (and if you are, you are not alone!), then perhaps you can understand why Jesus’ questioners were so threatened by what he said.  They had other desires.  They thought that loving God was simple – you followed the rules and you performed the rituals, and God rewarded you with success and long life in this life.  But Jesus – to follow in his footsteps is difficult; it could mean losing the things and people you love, it could mean losing the respect of others and authority over them; it could mean death and ruin.  Who could want to love God that much, to risk so much?

Could we? 

 

 

[1]  Narelle Storey.  https://fromerostoagape.wordpress.com/2012/08/09/eros-romantic-love-and-agape-unconditional-love/. Published 08/09/2012.  Accessed 10/29/2017.

[2]  Daniel Sweet.  http://gods-word-first.org/fruitofspirit/biblelove-agape-phileo-eros-storge.html. Accessed 10/29/2017

[3] https://www.ccel.org/ccel/john_cross.

[4] http://www.jknirp.com/brev.htm. Accessed 10/29/2017.

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