Dear Mothers and Fathers, Sisters and Brothers:
Gird yourselves for a sermon on the most explosive, the most passionate, the most controversial subject. It’s almost too hot to handle!
. The love of Jesus.
Many years ago, an anthropologist administered a perception test to the entering class of freshmen at a large university. He tested whether students could recognize a Jew by his or her appearance. The result was kind of funny. Forty percent of those perceived to be Jews were actually Italian and Roman Catholic—and vice versa. So the stereotypes were blown away.
Our question this morning is rather similar: Can you recognize a Christian when you see one? Oh, not by the nose or the skin—but by a Christian’s behavior.
Jesus wanted the world to recognize his followers. On his last night, he said: “People will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love, love, love! That’s what Jesus was all about. Loving each other. Loving the little children. Loving the sinners. Loving the strangers. Loving the enemies.
For a time, it seemed that was, indeed, the way to recognize the earlier followers of Jesus. Some Roman observers exclaimed: “See how those Christians love each other!” Subsequent generations of Christians seem to have been somewhat less recognizable by that trait.
Jesus-love is not just a good motive, or an idealistic principle, or one virtue among many virtues. It is love as the very law of life: life as created by a loving God.
What Jesus understood and commanded has been verified many times over in the testimony of all those confessions directly concerned with human welfare. All writings of the great social psychologist Erich Fromm testify that love is what gives life to life. In a medical journal, Ordway Tead has written: “More and more clearly every day out of biology, anthropology, social history, economic analysis, psychological insight, plain human decency, and common sense, the necessary mandate of human survival [is] that we…love our neighbor as we do ourselves.”
On September 1, 1939, the day World War II broke out in Europe, the poet W. H. Auden wrote:
“…the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone…
(But) no one exists alone’ (and)
We must love one another or die.”
Today, as you may have remembered, is Mother’s Day, or, in some churches, the Festival of the Christian home. This is an annual day to feature love as a foundation of parenthood and family life.
But how recognizable are we Christians in the institutions of society—like government and politics, the economy, the media or even the church? Is love our most distinguishing characteristic?
Love doesn’t seem to be the main feature of life these days within most of our denominations. The “culture wars” are not simply out there in society. Church people, including some groups claiming to monopolize the name “Christian,” are among the main warriors in the culture wars.
Issues of sex have become the bitterest, most divisive issues among Christians. And most of what the media report about our churches these days is studies about sex.
There is so much love-less hostility over human sexuality: whether the issue is the ordination of women, homosexuality, family planning or abortion. These topics tend to eclipse all other issues of human well-being. Groups with lots of money to spend, whether through the media or partisan political campaigns or so-called “think tanks,” are waging this particular culture war with a vengeance. But there is a very interesting money trail back to some special economic interest that would like us to forget about everything but sex or its often-deceitful euphemism, “family values.”
So, what should we call this preoccupation with sexual issues, at a time when in this land and in much of the world the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer? And the pressures to build more and more prisons; execute more and more prisoners; incarcerate more young prisoners in profiteering warehouses clear across the country, far away from their families and their responsible communities; and put young children on trial as adults, and then maybe execute them, too. Or this nation’s legal responsibilities to the United Nations and our shameful delinquencies there?
We need a name for this obsession—and these neglects. My suggestion—and you have my permission to giggle—is figleaf sexism: the preoccupation that covers over so many other concerns that Christian lovers should be concerned about. And that also covers over the special interests behind it.
How strange, and how sad, it is that human sexuality—God’s sacred arrangement for the fulfillment of love and perpetuation of life—should be so used and abused to promote hostility and injustice—and even violence.
If the life within our churches is so afflicted with figleaf sexism, it should not surprise us that the ecumenical movement, the quest for Christian unity among all our denominational tribes, is in deep trouble over the same obsessions.
Moreover, this is a time of re-tribalization in most of our denominations: the effort to reclaim what is most peculiar, and even most trivial, in a particular tradition—but especially in response to these conflicts cross all denominational lines. However, more and more church members—and would-be church members—in their hunger and thirst for spiritual nourishment and moral guidance, simply do not care about such denominational peculiarities.
The church and the world both need a powerful new sense of love in action. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. There will be a great Jubilee Assembly of the World Council in Zimbabwe next December—a particularly auspicious site because we Americans need a fresh consciousness of the troubles, but also the spiritual treasures, of Africa.
The global company of Christian lovers must also join this year in celebrating another golden anniversary: the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our Cathedral will share in that anniversary next fall in a series of events and exhibits—culminating next December in the dedication of a new statue of the woman, who, more than any other person, was responsible for that Declaration: Eleanor Roosevelt.
Nationwide, this anniversary will be celebrated throughout this year by many Christians and non-Christians working together to urge upon the U.S. Senate the long-overdue ratification of two vital instruments of human rights that claim special mention on Mother’s Day:
1. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child—ratified by 187 other governments. In fact, all except Somalia and the United States.
2. The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Over 150 other governments have ratified that—but not yet this government.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child reminds us that child abuse is not only personal. Child abuse is political. It is economic. It is cultural.
There is child abuse in our economic system when one-fourth of this nation’s children subsist in poverty.
There is child abuse in the gross materialism and “market fundamentalism” of our commercial culture. In their new book, The Ware against Parents, Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West have written: “At the heart of the matter is the fact that from a purely economic standpoint, raising a child has become the ultimate nonmarket activity, as various types of market logic have moved against mothers and fathers.” Motherhood and fatherhood, they say, are just not much valued these days in our society.
There is child abuse in the global economy, the inequities of which largely account for the 35,000 children who die every day from preventable malnutrition and disease.
And there is child abuse in our health-care system when millions of children lack access to health insurance and adequate primary care.
And there is child abuse in our urban schools when more than half of minority children fail to reach even “basic” achievement levels.
And there is child abuse in our entertainment media that wallow so relentlessly in violence and other gross behavior.
And the child abuse within our criminal justice system became more vivid for my wife and me just a few days ago in a case involving a teenaged boy in this community. This kid got mixed up in a neighborhood fight in which another teenager was shot to death by a third person. But the first boy, who knew nothing about the gun, has now been sentenced to 14-to-45 years, to be spent in an adult prison far from his family and far across the country.
So, you see, this Jesus-love is indeed a hot topic. But it is a hot topic that warms us up for action. Love is not love that does not lead to justice. And the many roads to action are quite clearly marked. In D.C., there’s FLOC (For Love of Children). But here and there are the Children’s Defense Fund, Bread for the World, Head Start, UNICEF, the United Nations Association, Save the Children.
Therefore, Mothers and Fathers, and Everybody Else:
Ours is a time when the sanctity and security of our homes and families depends more and more on what we do together in all those institutions outside our homes—for the love of Jesus, and all our children. Amen.