the debt and duty of Love

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based principally on Romans 13.8-14 and secondarily on Matthew 18.15-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017

Owe no one anything, except to love one another…put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

LOVE

According to the Apostle Paul, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus were…are about self-sacrificial, unconditional love. By “love”, it is alway important to remind ourselves, we are not talking about our affections or our emotions, which, at best, are ephemeral, but rather active benevolence that seeks not only to do no harm, but also to do good for others. And Jesus demonstrated his love for us in dying on a cross for the sake of our everlasting redemption. And we, being redeemed, are called to embrace, to embody this same love.

But let’s be honest. There’s a mighty difference, distance between this declaration of the Christian ethic – owe no one anything except love – and our doing it. For we, in this life in this world, have manifold obligations. In a word, we owe lots of things. To our chiefest relationships, we owe our fidelity. To America, our loyalty. To the letter and spirit of the law, our conformity. To our word as our bond, our reliability. To our creditors, money. And, yes, to others and to ourselves, we owe our integrity.

Yet Paul, though exceedingly aware of the ultra-hierarchical-and-patriarchal first century Roman culture where all owed honor to the emperor, debtors owed service to their benefactors, wives and children, submission to their husbands and fathers, and slaves, their lives to their masters, does not say, “In addition to your attention to these obligations, love one another.” No! Owe no one anything except love.

And we Christians in whatever era are called to take this seriously. Though impractical, as it always is, in a world of unavoidable, indispensable obligations set on the real-life terra firma of our relationships, roles and responsibilities, it is not impossible. For if it is, then Christianity is a story to be told and not a life to be lived. Yet I don’t believe that Jesus lived and died and was raised from the dead simply to tell a tale that might be considered in some circles “fake news.”

And to take this seriously, I believe, is to believe that the debt and duty of love are supreme, superseding all else. In everything, we are to love. With everyone, we are to love. We are to see in every face of everyone – whatever their age, color or culture, race or religion, status or stations of life, philosophies or theologies, perspectives or prejudices, and whether they sin not or sin against us[1] – those whom God created, those for whom Jesus died, and those whom the Holy Spirit sends our way to love.

And neither Paul nor Jesus tell us how, in the daily, concrete circumstances of our lives, we are to embrace, embody unconditional love in our thinking and feeling, intending and acting, and “binding and loosing”,[2] which is another way to describe establishing and maintaining our personal, relational boundaries. That’s for each of us to discern and decide. Nevertheless (and, with judicious restraint, rarely do I employ what I consider to be the sacred trinity of heavily morally weighted and freighted words, however as we are talking about the Christian ethic, I will), we must, ought, should discern and decide how to do love, indeed, how to be love.

Why?

Foremost because scripture tells us that love is God,[3] love is the gospel of Jesus,[4] love is the principal fruit of the Holy Spirit.[5] God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, thus, we are all about love! And, in existential terms, because we live in a polarized America. The conflagrations of culture and race that raged through the founding of our nation, through the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras, through the Civil Rights Era, I had hoped and prayed, if not wholly resolved, had abated. Yet now we see the public and palpable, alway divisive and destructive resurgence of cultural and racial hatred. As there is no other time than the present of now, now is the time to owe no one anything except love.

 

Footnotes:

[1] A reference to Matthew 18.15-20, the day’s appointed gospel passage.

[2] Another reference to Matthew 18.15-20.

[3] Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4.8, my emphasis).

[4] Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you (John 15.12, my emphasis).

[5] The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23a, my emphasis).

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Dear Sarah

Sarah Cobb is one of the brightest, most earnest, impassioned, and forthright people I, for the past nearly 20 years, have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend. Sarah is Jewish. She is more than a friend and Jewish or a friend who is Jewish. Sarah, from time to time, serves as…is my external righteous conscience, especially about Christianity’s attitude toward Judaism; in my view, at times, in some lands, and in some sectors of Christendom, rising to the heights or, more accurately, sinking to the depths of antipathy and, historically, largely, I think, characterized by the lethargy of indifference (save, of course, among those Christian evangelists who discern that their primary vocation is to convert all Jews to Christianity).

Over the past few days, Sarah’s various reflections on the so-called “Unite the Right” rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, have centered on her searing observation that a particularly putrid element of the platform of white supremacy is blatantly anti-Semitic (who, watching and listening to the news accounts, could have missed the out-in-the-open bearing of the swastika-festooned Nazi flag and the ferociously, transparently intentioned chant of the neo-Nazi demonstrators: “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”?) and her eloquent remonstrations about Christians who, at best, have been slow and, at most, have been silent in their, our, my repudiations of the virulent and vile hatred that is anti-Semitism.

Dear Sarah,

I thank you, once again, for reminding me, summoning me to this aspect of my sacred duty as a Christian, as a follower of the Jesus of unconditional love and justice, to denounce any and all anti-Semitic prejudicial hatred and hostility against my Jewish sisters and brothers and in any and all of its forms, cultural and economic, racial and religious.

As one who wills to do, to be unconditional love and justice, yes, I pray that those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs repent and renounce them. Yet, whether they do or do not, I will not be silent or slow to speak again in opposition to anti-Semitism.

One final word, Sarah, for now…

I do not excuse, but rather explain my silence or slowness to speak. What happened in Charlottesville terrified me. And, in my fear, I, as an African American, perhaps barely consciously, narrowed my vision, focused my passion primarily, solely on the issue, the reality of white-over-black supremacy. Anxiety, I feel, always stirs the fires of individual (and often selfish) self-interest. Hence, I thank you again, Sarah, for you, in your reminder, your summons to me, illumine and compel me to see anew something I already know. Enlightened, indeed, truest human self-interest embraces the sanctity and the safety of all people.

With deepest love and highest respect,

Paul

in terror’s wake, a recommitment to love

Yesterday, suicide bombers attacked the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. The death toll stands near 50; the injured, near 250.

In response to this latest act of terrorism, I…

with tearful gaze, sat in front of the television screen, surfing with swiftly wearied fingers among the news stations, watching, listening to the reports, the numbers of the dead and injured increasing by the moment…

with mind benumbed, tried to imagine the dread of those present during those frantic moments of the assault; pressing myself, as one who believes he dwells in union with all peoples of the earth, to identify with my sisters and brothers, unknown and unnamed, in harm’s way, and, in this, having to confess my self-absorbed guilt for daily dwelling in relative security…

with aching heart, sorrowing, though sensing, fearing the self-pitying impotence of my prayers for the peace of the dead, for the care and comfort of the wounded, for the courage of first responders, for the discerning diligence of law enforcement officials in their investigations, and for the solace and strength for the families and friends of the dead and injured and for all of us who long to luxuriate in the liberty, however illusory, of the peaceful pursuit of our lives.

Laura Guyer is a dear friend. By vocation, she is an international organizational development consultant. It’s what she does and she’s good, no, great at it. Yet this hardly embraces and ne’er can embody who she is. Laura is a citizen of the world; one who seeks and finds common peace with all peoples in a way wholly genuine and gracious. The breadth of her brilliance and depth of her compassion are nonpareil.

Today, on her Facebook page, Laura posted (and I asked and received her permission to share):

I have been in and out of the Istanbul Airport more times than I can count. It could have been me. And, in a way, it was. I am bone weary of sending thoughts, prayers, condolences, tears and heartbreak to brothers and sisters around the world who have been slaughtered by irrational hatred and imperial politics. Enough. Enough. Instead, I am choosing to send love and the tiniest sliver of hope that, in the midst of this god awful drought of human kindness and compassion, we can regain our sense of humanity and learn to love again. To love us all. Irrespective of nationality. Sexual orientation. Political affiliation. And even blatant idiocy. Because that’s pretty much all that we have left to hang hope on. Peace.

As Laura cannot say or write anything that does not swab my moist eyes so to see with renewed clear resolution, stir my benumbed mind with active thought, and salve my aching heart, I wrote in response:

Amen, Laura, amen. I oft – as I trust others do – ask: What can I do in my tiny corner of the world and tinier daily space in which I live and move and have my being to affect for good anything in the face of and response to cruel, indiscriminately death-dealing acts? I have come to believe that my answer rests in the wording of my question. I am called and I MUST (though usually I refrain from employing so heavily morally-freighted a word as “must”, “should”, or “ought”) practice with a moment by moment conscious attention unconditional love; that kindly benevolence that wills and works to do good for all irrespective of whatever the heaven or hell divides us. Doing this does not make me better than or superior to anyone else. What is does do is hold me fast to my commitment as a child of the earth joined in relationship with all – even those who might kill me – until I come to my inexorable end in death, however it manifests itself. Love you, Laura

God or god? (part 2 of 2)

David Hume, 18th century Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, staring unblinkingly into the face of evil, speculated about the nature of God (in my view, rearticulating the psalmist’s ardent plea: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”): “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence evil?”[1]

American poet and writer Archibald MacLeish breathed new life into this ancient and abiding protest, placing this tart riposte on the lips of a character in one of his plays, a modernist retelling of the Bible’s story of Job: “If God is God He is not good. If God is good He is not God.”[2]

I treasure these words of zealous uncertainty about the existence of God, and, if not that, then the benevolence of God. As a lifelong inveterate inquirer with a deep-seated streak of iconoclasm, I have faith in (I hasten to write, not disbelief or mistrust, but rather) doubt. Doubt is a companion of my faith, allowing, encouraging me to question and question again the validity of the truths of God I hold dear. And nothing, absolutely nothing stirs my impassioned, angst-ridden wonderment more or at all than evidences of incarnate evil; gazing steadily, like Hume, in the contorted face of which I join the sorrowing song of the psalmist: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?[3]

In this, I am comforted by the psalmist’s rediscovery of faith; in the shadows of the ills of evil, sounding, singing a righteous “Nevertheless!”:

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you, our ancestors trusted.

They trusted and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved.

In you they trusted and were not put to shame.[4]

For me and my faith, God’s deliverance is not, cannot be found in freedom from want and need, suffering and sorrow, no matter how earnestly, sometimes desperately we yearn for it; at least not in this life in this world where mortality is an ineluctable reality. Rather I see God’s salvation whenever I, in the words of the hymn, “survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.”[5] For me and my faith, Jesus’ crucifixion and death is both God’s response to my and the psalmist’s cry – “I am with you always and, in life and in death, in all ways” – and God’s rejoinder to evil – “You can kill me, but you cannot defeat me, for nothing can conquer unconditional love.”

Deo gratias.

 

Footnotes:

[1] From Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) by David Hume (1711-1776)

[2] The character Nickles in J.B.: A Play in Verse (1959) by Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

[3] Psalm 22.1a

[4] Psalm 22.3-5

[5] Words (1707) by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

January 23, 2016

 

178

January 23rd

a splendid day for 2 joyous words:

Happy Birthday!

in celebration of my sugar dumpling’s

50-something

anniversary

of life in this world!

 

Sugar dumpling?

I’ve never called her that!

No, never anything

like that!

 

“Honey”, “Hon”, “Baby”, “Babe”, yes,

even, in highest admiration, “The Best!”

 

Sometimes, too, in a play on “Mack”,

her maiden name,

I’ll call her “McGillicuddy” or “PMack”,

but it all means the same…

 

All are terms of endearment sincerest

expressing to the dearest,

Pontheolla in a contemplative moment, Maui at sunset, 8-24-11

smartest and wisest, keenest and kindest,

risk-taking steeliest and strongest,  304

853   spriteliest and funniest,  319

loving-est and patient-est,

woman

and person

I know!

 

Happy Birthday, Pontheolla!

 

All my love,

me