On Love “the Most Powerful and Most Powerless”
May 9, 2021
Sixth Sunday of Eastertide
Leviticus 19: 17-18
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall not reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
John 15: 9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Today’s sermon is titled On Love “the Most Powerful and Most Powerless.” Today is the sixth Sunday of Eastertide; we are two weeks out from Pentecost. We have been following a trail of some of the most significant scriptures in the collection of Biblical literature, scriptures that reveal the substance of Jesus’s message and why that message has endured for thousands of years thus far. It is a message that is used as a force of goodness and justice and mercy and it is still gravely misused, in my opinion, to disguise some of the most harmful tendencies within humankind. It occurs to me that this is nothing new, Friends. It occurs to me that in Jesus’s lifetime he, too, was railing against the religious elite for not doing more to address the needs of the people, for not doing more to ease their burdens, for not turning their attention away from their own comfort and advancement and accumulation and serve the people who were working so hard to just survive. So Jesus looks to the Hebrew scriptures to find the one command that will provide the clearest, most direct message to both the powerful and the powerless, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
I’d like to tell you a story now. It’s not a story about love; it’s a story about the things that compete with love. I’d like for you to imagine me at age 24, dressed in leather work boots, heavy denim pants with leather gloves in my back pockets, wool shirt with sleeves rolled up, sitting on a round of firewood and sharpening the teeth on the blade of my very own chainsaw. I was in my personal glory, a model of self-sufficiency and confidence. It used to take me forever to cut firewood by hand but with that fine machine I could lay in a store of firewood in a fraction of the time. I offered to cut firewood for other people that lived on the commune with me, too. For a while, most days I was either scouting for firewood, cutting it, splitting it or delivering it. I was loving it; loving it a little too much.
My landpartners began to be annoyed by the noise. At a Council meeting, a complaint was made about me cutting an old tree that someone missed. I got the message. I was overdoing it, carried away by having such a powerful tool, carried away by the feeling of self-importance, carried away by assuming I was helping others to fill their woodsheds when, in reality, I was not tuned in to other needs like the need for quiet and the need for some standing dead trees to provide a healthy forest.
It is quite easy for me to get carried away in my desire to help and to serve. I can get so carried away in my righteous indignation about the state of the world that I can easily slip into blame, blaming the corporations, blaming the uber-wealthy, blaming the other political party, blaming a family member or someone I barely even know. I am prone to this; I suspect we all are.
This is why Jesus’s message is so revolutionary, then and now. “Love one another as I have loved you.” We find these words in the Gospel of John. This Gospel was written a few decades after the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It was written during a time of intense persecution of anyone who dared to deny the divinity of the Roman emperor, anyone who refused to swear allegiance to what historians call the “Imperial Cult.” Anyone who claimed to be a follower of Jesus, any member of the movement known as “The Way” was suspect. They dare not yet call themselves Christians; to have done so would have been an automatic death sentence. This gives new meaning to the line we find in our reading today where Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” At the time this Gospel was written, every follower in The Way knew the dangers of denying the divinity of the Roman Emperor; it was indeed a matter of life and death.
Those early Christians found other, more discreet, more powerful ways to undermine the misplaced loyalty to the Roman emperor. How did they do it? They built strong communities, communities that could wrestle with the difficult questions without demonizing and ostercising one another. They learned about a different kind of love, one described as follows by Frederich Buechner: “When Jesus tells us to love one another, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means just leaving them alone.” This echoes the First Testament scripture from Leviticus we read this morning: “…you shall not reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
We can get so caught up in working for what we think is right and just and true that we run the risk of shutting out those who may have differing opinions. We, like those Hebrew people so long ago… we, too, are living in a time of deep division, or so it seems. I, for one, am quick to point a finger at who and what is to blame for all the injustice I see in the world. I am prone to withhold any feelings of compassion and goodwill for the individuals and institutions and traditions that perpetuate the inequity in our culture. I even have at my disposal these radical teachings from Jesus about caring for one another to back me up in my sense of personal self-righteousness. It reminds me of how powerful I felt holding that chainsaw, outfitted with my leather boots and work gloves and safety glasses…ready to help, ready to serve, ready to get something done.
Jesus would say to me, slow down. Ask yourself if you are doing this for the right reasons. Ask yourself if you are doing this in the right way and at the right time. Are you really serving others or are you serving yourself? Are you really wanting to serve or are you distracting yourself from the inner work that needs to take place? (Ouch!)
Let me make sure to clarify something here: we are called as Christians to stand up and to speak out for what our scriptures say is right and just and true, but we must be careful not demonize the others who disagree. Fidelity to our good cause can eclipse our responsibility to one another if we are not careful.
There is a great deal of this blaming and demonizing going on in our culture and it is creeping its way into local politics and, I fear, into our personal relationships, too. Friends, perhaps our greatest work at this time in history is to run countercultural to these trends, much like the followers of Jesus so long ago. How do we do this? We build up a diverse community. We take a stand for what we know to be right and true and just but we do not stand with our arms folded and our hands hidden; we stand and we extend our hand in Christian Friendship. We ask questions instead of making assumptions. We look for the humanity in the other, we look for their sadness, their fear, their trauma in an effort to understand why they think and feel the way they do. We speak our truth calmly and confidently and then listen without trying to change their position. In our best moments, perhaps we can even identify something we appreciate about them and let them know.
This is perhaps the most difficult work we are called to take on. We are not alone. We have one another and we have the example of Jesus, the Christ, who faced opposition at every turn. He did not turn away and he did not condone, either. He took a stand and then he extended his hand to welcome one and all.
There is one last thing I wish to say about love. I have often preached that love is the most powerful force, more powerful than fear and more powerful, even, than death. Today I offer you an even deeper perspective that comes, again, from Frederich Buechner, “Of all powers, love is the most powerful and the most powerless. It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold that is the human heart. It is the most powerless because it can do nothing except by consent.”
Love is the most powerless because it can not do anything unless there is consent. What a staggering statement and a beautiful reminder that it is not enough to work for what is equitable and just, we must work in a way that invites, a way that seeks to empathize and understand one another. Love can only be effective when it is allowed a space to thrive. May we make space for love in all our relationships, especially in those most troubled and fraught by dissenting opinions.
In closing, I am aware that this is the season when our town and the towns around us are holding their Town Meetings. We are not only aiming to effectively govern ourselves but we are also trying to make some sense of national politics that seem to grow more bizarre each and every day. What a perfect time this is to practice in our minds how we react to the strong opinions of others. How can we react in a way that helps us to stand for what we know is right while also extending our hand, and a little of our hearts, to the one on the other side of the issue? Can we build a community that is strong enough to hold our differences? Can we build a nation that is strong enough to hold our differences? I pray, with God’s help and guidance, we can and we will. So be it. Amen.
Holy One, I thank you this morning for this practice of prayer. Just how it works, we may never know, but we are grateful to be participants in something deeper, something wider, something far beyond who we are. We extend our prayers over all the world this morning and we call on the highest, purest form of mother love to aid us in the healing of our Selves, the healing of our relationships, and the healing of our planetary home. Give us the courage to pray about anything, about everything. If ever we are at a loss for words, turn our minds to this prayer that Jesus gave us…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these final words:
For the many ways women share their love, their concern, their wisdom and their time, may they receive abundant strength and clarity from the very heart of God and may the most tender aspects of mothering be an expression of love that each and every one of us, both men and women, can embody, with the grace of God. Amen.