The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Happy Mother’s Day! Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there, and to all of you who’ve been a loving, motherly figure in someone else’s life. This is a day when we give thanks to those in our lives who have loved us from the beginning, who have given us a place to call home, who have believed in us, even when we couldn’t believe in ourselves. How appropriate it is then on this Mother’s Day, that our lesson should be all about love. Now last week, Dana preached to us from John’s first epistle, and the truth that God is love. Dana said, “God’s chosen self-definition is love…And divine love is utterly gratuitous, extravagant. It is pure. An offering that expects nothing in return, which means it is spontaneous and unmotivated. And there is nothing we can do to earn it or be withheld from it. It just is.”
This week, our reading comes from John’s gospel and Jesus’ command that we love one another as he loves us. It has been said that love is the central theme of most of St. John’s writings, whether his epistle or in his gospel. And certainly, it was the central theme of John’s life. Exiled for many years on the island of Patmos, John was revered and adored. It is said that even as a very old man, when he was carried from church to church and could barely speak, he would say to everyone who would listen, “Children, love one another. If only this is done, it is enough.” These last two weeks, we’ve had two lessons from John. Two lessons that build on one another. Because whether we are mothers or fathers or grandparents or grandfathers or grandmothers, siblings or friends, if God is love then to love God, we must obey the commandment to love one another.
Our lesson for today takes place right before Jesus is arrested and taken away to be crucified. Speaking to his disciples on the eve of his betrayal, Jesus is making it clear what it has all been about. He is summing up his life and his ministry, his purpose and by extension, the lives and the ministries and the purpose of his disciples. It hasn’t been about political change. It hasn’t been about social revolution. It hasn’t been about moral purity. It hasn’t been about the acquisition of power. It has all been about love. Jesus, love of God. His love of his friends. His love of those who are hurting, struggling, sick, lonely, fearful. Jesus wants his disciples to know that it was and is all about love. And if his friends want to follow him, then they need to love God, love one another, and love everyone God places in front of them. This is not love as emotion. It isn’t the command to feel a certain way. It is love as action, as concern, as care for each relationship, and the well being of each person. It is a concern for the other person that runs so deep we may even choose to give our lives for the sake of another. And while real love has serious implications for political change, for social justice, and for our moral behavior, it’s the love that’s primary. When we love as Jesus loved, almost everything else follows.
I remember when we were living in Savannah, Georgia and I was the rector of my very first parish, that I got a call one day from a man in need. It was a Saturday and I was at home, taking a rest, when the phone rang. This man had gotten my home number from the emergency line at the church. He said he was with his family and that he had several small children, that they were on their way to Florida, and that their car had broken down. He said he needed $200 to fix it and asked if I would come out and help them. Now it was Saturday. I didn’t know these people from Adam. And the directions they gave me meant that I had to drive about 30 miles to meet them on some exit off the highway. I figured this was a scam of some sort, and I was frustrated that people would take advantage of me this way. Nevertheless, I got together the cash, and I got in my car, and I drove the 30 miles to the lonely exit. I found the couple standing by a public phonebooth, back in the day when there were public phonebooths. There was no broken-down car in sight, no kids that I could see. As I pulled over, the man came up to my window and I handed him the money. He thanked me profusely and the two of them quickly walked away. That was it. That was the whole experience. Were they telling the truth about their situation and their need? Maybe, maybe not. I’ll never know. But on the way home, all 30 miles of that trip back to Savannah, I was kicking myself for being naïve, for not asking more questions, for probably wasting my time and my money and my gas. When I got home, I told Melissa my story and shared my frustrations, both with myself and with them. I’ll never forget Melissa listening quite patiently, and then she paused for a second, and she looked me in the eye, and she said, “What do you want? What do you want me to say? You’re a Christian, aren’t you? You’re commanded to love others and that’s what you did. That’s enough. That’s all that matters.”
As I heard a preacher once say, “To say that the answer to the world’s problems is for people to love each other more is both right and banal at the same time. It sounds wonderful and grand. Who would argue with the contention? But when you sit eyeball to eyeball with another person, especially one who is cantankerous, obnoxious, difficult, unlovely, and seemingly unlovable, it is anything but an easy task.” Too often it seems to me we limit love to the theoretical or the emotional. To love as Jesus loved, means for us to think in certain ways or to feel certain things about the people with whom we come into contact. But the truth is, there is nothing theoretical about real love and it has nothing to do with the kind feelings we may or may not have for others.
One of the busts, one of the carvings in the Human Rights Porch here at the Cathedral, is of Óscar Romero who was the archbishop of San Salvador. Romero was a deeply faithful man, who was assassinated in 1980 because of his efforts to put love into action. During his ministry, Romero came to see that love had to be more than the church’s efforts to save souls. Real love had to include caring for the day to day realities of the people placed in his care. And as a person of power and influence, that meant that he had to speak out against government corruption, and government violence, and government repression that was destroying the lives of so many people in San Salvador. As a result, Romero was repeatedly warned to stick with the gospel and to stay away from politics. But what the archbishop knew was that he could not obey the demands of the gospel, the command to love others as Jesus loved us without speaking out, without acting on behalf of those who were being oppressed and abused and killed. Loving was much more than simply trying to help someone get into heaven, it was helping someone in the here and now. Ultimately, this kind of love in action cost him his life.
We have a new bust, a new carving now in the Human Rights Porch, one that was just finished. It’s a bust of Elie Wiesel. The Holocaust survivor, the author, the human rights advocate, and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Wiesel once wrote, “The opposite love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Friends, real love takes courage. It means getting involved, getting our hands dirty. Stepping out and speaking up for what is true and right and godly. But truth is, I think, in each of our lives, we are either moving towards love or we are moving towards fear. Fear makes us pull back, pull in, hunker down, protect ourselves first and foremost. Fear makes us indifferent to the lives of others. Whereas love pushes us forward, pushes us outward, away from ourselves, away from our self-focused concerns. Love prods us to give, to risk, to take a stand, to reach out a hand, to care for our neighbors.
In closing, remember what Jesus tells us today. He says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last.” If you consider yourself a Christian, then you have been chosen. You have been chosen to carry on the work that Jesus gave us to do. As Alice Walker once wrote, “Our last five minutes on earth are running out. We can spend those minutes in meanness, exclusivity, and self-righteous disparagement of those who are different from us, or we can spend them consciously embracing every glowing soul who wanders within our reach – those who, without our caring, would find the vibrant, exhilarating path of life just another sad and forsaken road.” It’s up to us, my friends. So, wherever you are, in whatever way you can, reach out, speak out, act out in love. Amen.