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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common?

Subtitle: a Monday rant

Sub-subtitle: an admission of a personal pet peeve

confess - regret

I don’t know (or if I once did, I don’t recall) who was the first person (even the second, thus close enough to claim being the first) to make that insightful observation of human behavior, saying, in so many words, “As far as I can tell common sense is far from common.”

By common sense, I’m not referring to that Aristotelean category concerning that inherent animal and über-useful capacity to employ varied senses to perceive collectively (or commonly) the nature of the surrounding environment, say, the proximity and speed of approach of a potential predator. Nor am I thinking of that native human (given our desire and need to be in relationship) sensory awareness of others.

Rather, by common sense, I mean that garden-variety-everyday-we-know-it-when-we-see-it-even-if-we-can’t-explain how-or-why shared human rational ability to perceive and understand situations and circumstances and to respond reasonably.

Closely associated with common sense, I think, is common courtesy; that human trait of civility in relations with others, expressive of one’s respect for others’ (and one’s own) individual dignity.

My pet peeve?

(I digress. I understand the peeve-part, from “peevish”; connoting a behavior, habit, or trait that provokes my ill-temper. But why is my peeve my “pet”, which I generally associate with something favorable or valuable? Thus I think my peeve is the pet behavior, habit, or trait of another that riles my viscera. Oh well, back to my point…)

I hate it (and I don’t use the word carelessly, but rather candidly descriptively) when folk don’t respond to my communications.[1] For, when this happens, I usually feel the hurt of disregard.

And when it happens and happens and happens, I also usually think afresh that common sense and courtesy ain’t that common.

However, I also usually recognize that my pejorative judgment of the other person is precisely that, a pejorative judgment of the other person; and, doubtless, with no information from the other person, inherently unfair to the other person.

So, also usually, I don’t spend too much time (some time, yes, but, again, not too much) pondering, wondering why the other person didn’t respond. For truth to tell, as I’m the only one I know thinking and feeling what I’m thinking and feeling, the issue is with me.

And also usually where I end up is recognizing again one of my soul-deep needs for acknowledgement of my person. The roots of this need trace back to my formative years and what I’ve discerned was a lack in my adolescent individual psychosocial development. And, as I believe that the one person I cannot escape is me, this, my need and deficiency is something I’ve been working on for years and, I trust, will continue to work on until I die.

I still hate, well, don’t like it when folk don’t respond. But I also know it’s not really about them. It’s about me.

 

Footnote:

[1] In a faintly related way, this, for me, is in the same group or class of (or perhaps classless) behaviors as one’s not replying to an RSVP, but then showing up. But, in such an instance, at least the person does appear; her/his arrival and presence being, however late and unexpected, a demonstrable response.

signs of ambiguity

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Isaiah 7.10-16 and Matthew 1.18-25, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016

King Ahaz of Judah is in trouble.[1] In the late 8th century BCE, Syria and Israel formed a coalition against Assyria, inviting Judah to join them. Ahaz, having no quarrel with Assyria and not wanting to start one, refused. Syria and Israel declared war on Judah, seeking to replace Ahaz with a cooperative royal ally.

Ahaz, as king, is the symbol of national confidence that God will defend the divinely established throne. Nevertheless, he is terrified: “The heart of Ahaz and his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

the-prophet-isaiah-1896-1902-james-tissot-1836-1902-the-jewish-museum-nyc

Enter the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming, “Fear not,” for Syria’s and Israel’s plans will not prosper. Then, addressing Ahaz’s need for assurance, Isaiah encouraged the king, “Ask God for a sign.” Amazingly, Ahaz, with the pretense of pious humility, declined the divine offer. Nevertheless, a sign was given. A young woman would bear a son named Immanuel, meaning “God is with us.”

What did this sign, this birth of Immanuel mean? “God is with us” was no promise that king and nation would be sheltered from harm. Indeed, before the child reached the age of reason, knowing “how to refuse evil and choose good”, Syria, Israel and Judah would be defeated. The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, as a first fruit of a new generation, a newborn child, though unable to lead an army in a season of war, signaled new possibilities.

the-angel-appears-to-joseph-c-1645-rembrandt-harmenszoon-van-rijn-1606-1669-gemaldegalerie-der-staatlichen-museen-berlin

Joseph was in trouble.[2] Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant and doubtless adulterous. Observing the law, Joseph could have accused Mary, subjecting her to a trial.[3] “Being a righteous man,” Joseph, “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” But “just when he resolved to do this” enter an angel, proclaiming, “Fear not.” Mary’s child, whose origins are heavenly, shall be named Jesus, meaning “God saves.”

What did this sign, this birth of Jesus mean? “God saves” was no promise that the people would be spared from harm. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, King Herod’s fear and fury at hearing the news of one born “king of the Jews” led to the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem.[4]

massacre-of-the-innocents-le-massacre-des-innocents-1824-leon-cogniet-1794-1880-musee-des-beaux-arts-rennes

And today, the children of Aleppo, the latest in history’s egregiously long list of innocents, suffer at the dignity-defying, death-dealing hands of warring, malevolent rulers and powers!

The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, as a first fruit of a new generation, a newborn child, though unable to answer difficult questions of moral choice, signaled new possibilities.

At times, we look for signs. Times of uncertainty. Times of anxiety…

Perhaps involving our relationships when things aren’t well. Give me a sign that my spouse, partner, or significant other, parent or child, relative or friend sees the light of what I’ve been saying for years or that I may see more clearly my part, my role in those places where we are “stuck”…

Or involving our financial well-being when we’ve lost a job or when resources for the care of aged loved ones run low, run out or when our movement toward the fulfillment of long established, long invested plans for the future decelerates to the largo tempo of a vacillating economy. Give me a sign of a new way or to clarify my choices or to signal a turnaround is near…

Or involving health, ours and those we love; living through the daily chances and changes of aging and illness or surgery and recovery and adjusting to our body’s new normal…

Or involving national security, whether our sense of peace with a new administration or in relation to America’s role in all the raging wars of this world. Give us a sign that sharpens the line between justice and vengeance, between increased safety and the loss of personal liberty, between self-defense and self-destruction that we will not plant the seeds of radicalized retaliation for generations to come.

At times, we look for signs, which, however, alway are inherently ambiguous; capable of being read, re-read, misread, or unread.

Looking again at the scripture, the sign of the birth of a child is the striking similitude of the prophetic pronouncement to Ahaz and the angelic announcement to Joseph. Either is ambiguous. Neither satisfied the immediate need. Nevertheless, the image of a child, whose is-ness, beingness is now, but whose fullness of being is yet to be alway points to tomorrow.

A fair, faithful interpretation of a sign, paradoxically, clearly rests in our ability and willingness to hold in tension our living in this moment as wisely as we can and our keeping watch on the horizon for what will come…to see this moment as the is-ness of now and to recognize that all that is now is not, cannot be what will be…to give birth today in this moment to an idea, a dream, a vision and to nurture it for a larger life tomorrow.

Seeing what is and envisioning also what might be is an act of hope. And hope is what a sign, however ambiguous, means.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustrations:

The Prophet Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The angel appears to Joseph (c. 1645), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

Massacre of the Innocents (Le Massacre des Innocents) (1824), Léon Cogniet (1794-1880), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes. Note: I favor this image of this horrific biblical story, for, in its artistic restraint absent in many renderings (e.g., Marcantonio Raimondi, c. 1510, Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1580, Peter Paul Rubens, 1611, Gustave Doré, 1865), it suggests rather than depicts the massacre. The image of the mother is poignant and powerful. Her bare head and feet are signs of vulnerability and though she protects her infant with her body, as they remain cornered, their doom is sure.

Footnotes:

[1] In addition to Isaiah 7.10-16, all references to the Ahaz story are found in Isaiah 7.

[2] In addition to Matthew 1.18-25, all references to the Mary-Joseph story are found in Matthew 1.

[3] See Numbers 5.11-29

[4] Matthew 2.13-18

“what’s love got to do with it?” everything! – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 8 (saving the best and surely not the least for last!)

In the realm of human relationships, of all the healthy, helpful characteristics and qualities, attitudes and actions, verily, as I mentioned before, powers, as in abilities or capacities to do something, even more, proficiencies to do something well, love is supreme.

In the English language there is one word for love – love – which is used in numerous ways, meaning myriad things: emotional affection, erotic or sexual attraction, social or familial attachment, and personal investment, and in each form, pertaining to individual, mutual, and communal expressions.[1]

The Greek language has four words, storgé, philia, eros, and agape.[2]

I focus on agape love, unconditional benevolence, often defined as characteristic of God’s being and doing and upon which the Apostle Paul based his great paean in praise of God, 1 Corinthians 13. For, I believe, it is agape love – in its power of selfless, active kindness unlimited by degrees of partiality, unrestrained by the boundaries of personal opinion, even the barriers of prejudice, and unrestricted by any personal notions of merit or deserving – that is the Spirit-breathing, meaning-giving foundation for all other loves. It is agape love – in its proficiency, that is, well-doing of patience, kindness, rejoicing in truth, and bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring all things and its not-well-doing of envy, arrogance, rudeness, irritability, resentment, and relishing in wrong[3] – that covers the sin[4] of our human (thus, always inherently preference-and-prejudice-driven) giving-and-withholding, taking-and-refusing of our personal affections and attractions, attachments and investments.

Now, God knows, I know that I am human, therefore flawed. My ability to act in agape love is boundless, for it is God’s continuous gift bestowed by God’s Spirit. However, my willingness to act in agape love is subject to and limited by the highs and lows of my emotional disposition, the light and shadow of my attitudinal outlook, my physical condition of rest or fatigue, health or illness, my preferential likes and dislikes of time and place, situation and person.

Nevertheless, what I know about agape love, again, is that it is a power and a proficiency to act. And as is true of any power, its use involves choice, my choice, irrespective of my emotional, attitudinal, and physical state, to be patient and kind, to rejoice in truth, to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things and not to be envious, arrogant, rude, irritable, resentful, and to relish wrong.

Do I always choose, against my human, lesser self, to act in agape love? No. Even so, I never can say it is because I can’t. For my faith in God Spirit’s tells me I always have the power. And my hope in God trusts that God’s love will cover my multitude of sins!

 

Footnotes:

[1] Regarding “love” (or, frankly, for any other word), I long have advocated that folks, when seeking to communicate and to avoid misunderstanding, define their terms. For I have come to believe that we dare not assume any two people, no matter how similar in environment and worldview, do or can mean precisely the same thing when employing the same words.

[2] English novelist and poet, academic and theologian, C. S. (Clive Staples) Lewis (1898-1963), in his book, The Four Loves (1958), explored the nature of these loves from a Christian and philosophical perspective.

[3] Here I review the Apostle Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13.4-7 descriptions of what agape love always does and never does.

[4] Here, I think of 1 Peter 4.8, “Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” and Proverbs 10.12, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” I do not mean to suggest that love overlooks or disregards the limitations, the sins of our preferences and prejudices toward others. Rather agape love calls, indeed, empowers us to acknowledge our preferences and prejudices, and then to cover them, shielding, protecting others and ourselves from the negativity of our biases.

“and…from selfishness to selflessness” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 4

Like most behavioral traits, indeed, states of being, I became selfish over time. (By “selfish”, I mean a self-centeredness that rises above or, better, more accurately said, falls below that common human element of enlightened self-interest that manifests itself, for example, in taking flight in the face of danger, adopting a healthy lifestyle, or planning prudently for the future.)

Now, being selfish wasn’t my nature, for I don’t believe I was born that way. It was more a product of my nurture; though not necessarily by intent, nevertheless what I learned along the way.

My God-believing-and-fearing father and mother sought to instill in me the Christian value of self-sacrificial care for others. However, my parents, born in 1911 and 1915, respectively, came to maturity during the Great Depression and the specter of unmet want and need, I believe, continually clouded their vision. Despite the Christian gospel’s bright and daily call and challenge of the liberty of life abundant, my folks practiced a theology of scarcity. There never was enough. Money. Time. Ability. Opportunity. Anything. And whatever one possessed needed to be held, clutched lest it get (or be taken) away. As an outward manifestation of this worldview, my parents were hoarders or, using the more polite term, collectors. My father died in 1996. In 2010, I moved my mother into a care facility. Clearing and closing the home they had shared since 1952 was an arduous, weeks’ long exercise in trash disposal. And though rejecting their penchant for collecting everything, tending toward simplicity and neatness, I developed a strong me-first sensibility and a hyper-sensitivity to my wants and needs.

I now behold within my soul the long flowering and continual ripening of the healthy seeds of compassion and care, verily, love in kindly affection and altruistic action for others. This, the counterbalance to what I call my Pablo-centricism, also took time to develop. Principally through the grace and mercy of God and through the competence and benevolence of therapists, pastoral counselors, and spiritual guides and through my vocation (sometimes I muse that God called me to be a priest so to assure that I would be compelled to recognize and respond to the needs of others!) and through many, many charitable souls who, akin to God, in the words of the song, “looked beyond my fault and saw my need”,[1] loving me to death and to new life.

More to come…

 

Footnote:

[1] He Looked Beyond My Fault and Saw My Need, Dottie Rambo (c. 1970)

“and…or…” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 3

Continuing to contemplate healthy and helpful behavior in the sphere of human relationships, other characteristics or qualities come to mind. Verily, I think of the word “power” and in much the same way the Apostle Paul speaks of the spiritual gift of love;[1] that is, an ability or a capacity to do something and, even more, a proficiency to do something well and most of the time.

I say “most of the time,” for I do not believe there are or can be any absolutes in human behavior, save perhaps for our idealized visions of how we should act. For none of us, whatever the standard, is faultless in her/his conduct. None of us is perfect, that is, complete in her/his being and becoming. None of us, again by whatever criterion, is completely good or bad. None is us is immune to the effect of that immutable aspect of human living: inconsistency. None of us, in the Apostle Paul’s language, “understands all mysteries and all knowledge”,[2] save perhaps for our acute awareness that among life’s variables of circumstance, chance, and choice, we, at best, most of the time have governance only over the third.[3]

Now, in the light (or under the shadow) of ungovernable circumstance and chance, a healthy, helpful power, I believe, and always only speaking for myself, is my ability to respond to life’s twists and turns, ups and downs with wisdom so to act wisely. By “wisdom”, I mean more than my knowledge or my intellectual grasp of an idea, but rather also my understanding, that is, my capacity to put into practice what it is I (think I) know.

In this, wisdom is multidimensional. It is grounded in experience and experience is the fruit of history, both my own and my observations of and conclusions drawn from that of others and, in regard to the latter, requiring my humility to be open and willing to learn from others.

Looking at my life, honesty compels my confession that my unhealthiest and most unhelpful behaviors have a common character of impetuousity. When I make a decision before I discern what’s real and true about the circumstance and chance confronting me or when I forsake reason and act largely on my feelings or when I ignore history’s lessons from others and trust only in my experience or when I repeat errors of my past and, thus, reaffirm the counsel of that proverbial saying from the annals of 12-step programs that the greatest form of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.

More to come…

 

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; regarding what love does (and doesn’t do) see especially verses 4-7.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.2

[3] However, even our command of/over our choices is partial, given that our discernments about what’s real and true and our decisions/actions based on those determinations always are in response to those always wholly uncontrollable determinants of circumstance and chance.

“and…most of the time!” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 2

For years, I’ve said of myself, approaching self-parody, “I suffer from HMHD, ‘high maintenance, high drama’!” Truth be told, those around me, especially those who are nearest and dearest, oft suffer more than I from the excesses (is there any other mark or measure, quantity or intensity?) of my long-experienced, self-diagnosed condition of needy passion (or is it passionate neediness?). In a word, I know how “to act out” or “to go over the top” with my thoughts and feelings, my wants and needs in unhealthy and unhelpful ways that benefit and bless no one – not others, not myself.

Now, I would guess that most of the people I know would not suspect this about me. For I know, as my grandmother frequently directed, demanded, how “to present well”, how to appear, indeed, to be civil and convivial. Still, this part of me that flies in the face of expressing myself in ways that strengthen and sustain my healthy and helpful relationships with others (and with myself!) exists.

Knowing this, I’ve learned to be alert, particularly when my greatest needs (i.e., acknowledgment and acceptance) are not met, to the powerful passions of hurt and anger, resentment and bitterness and, in that awareness, to contain and control them (most of the time!) so to wait for a reasonable moment (most of the time!) and a responsible means (most of the time!) to express them, so not to harm others and myself (most of the time!).

More to come…