World Communion Sunday
Underlying our theme for this year of “Building and Deepening Relationships” is the conviction that at the heart of what it means to be human is being in relationship with each other and with the One who seeks ever to be in relationship with us. By way of helping us more fully to understand the centrality of relationship to our lives of faith, Biblical scholar Marcus Borg suggests at the end of his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, that the word “relationship” might well be substituted for the word “commandment” in this morning’s Gospel reading. Thus, in response to what the legal experts hope will be a trick question for Jesus as to which is the greatest commandment, Jesus redefines their would-be legalistic entanglement in terms of God’s desire for us to be in loving relationship with God and each other. In effect, Jesus says to them and to us, that life is simply, and profoundly, all about love, for God, ourselves, and our neighbors. And he does so not by proclaiming anything distinctively new or uniquely “Christian,” but rather by drawing upon his Jewish heritage to remind his fellow Jews of their own admonitions about loving God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18).
How amazingly simple, and yet how profoundly challenging! For on the one hand, to love is the most natural thing in the world for us. As people created in the image of Love itself, deep within us is love yearning to be shared. Indeed, reminiscent of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s suggestion that the only way we truly know who we are is through our relationships with others, so the renowned preacher and social activist William Sloan Coffin adapted the French philosopher Descartes’ famous dictum “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), to proclaim “amo, ergo sum,” (I love, therefore I am). To be sure, we feel most alive when love’s passion flows most freely through our veins, and who does not love being in love?
Yet however much we may wish to be people who, in the words of Creation Spirituality theologian Matthew Fox, “fall in love everyday,” must we not admit that sometimes it just feels like there is no love in us? Maybe it’s someone who has hurt us deeply, maybe it’s someone who frightens us or with whom we seem to have nothing in common, or maybe it’s someone we just don’t want to be with, but whatever the case, can we not all think of people whom we simply do not love? And can we not justify our lack of love with all sorts of really good explanations?
It’s when we think of these people that the exhortation to love seems at least undesirable, if not even impossible. And thus, it’s when we think of such unlovables that we need to remember how Martin Luther King expressed his gratitude that we are not asked to “like” our enemies, but rather to love them. For as Biblical scholar Douglas Hare contends, “the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment….it is not warm feelings that [God asks of us] but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment,” the kind of steadfast love that is the nature of the God in whose image we have been created. We do not have to “like” each other, but we are nevertheless endlessly invited to love as God loves, through and beyond all our dislikes, hurt, and fear.
In other words, the love we’re talking about here is not so much about how we feel toward ourselves and each other, but rather about how we choose to be in relationship with God, ourselves, and all God’s people. Although the choice may not be easy for us, it is possible for us to choose to act in loving ways toward someone whom we really do not like. Indeed, in stark contrast to our temptation to maintain that surely God did not intend for us to love “those” people, Jesus consistently demonstrated throughout his life and ministry his conviction that God’s love transcends and transforms all humanly constructed barriers between us and them into divine bridges of communion with and for each other. Biblical scholar Stephen Patterson, in his book, God of Jesus, suggests that because the basic reality of God is love, “to love God is to love love itself, which is why Jesus embodied in his life the radical way of loving the unlovable….This is the reality that beckons us to live better than we live.” And if the bad news is that we don’t get to dismiss anyone as being somehow not lovable, the Good News is that precisely because love is the essence of who we are and is at the heart of what it means to be alive, when we choose to act in loving ways toward others, even if at first all we can do is pray for them, our hearts begin to soften and open toward them, which in turns allows them to do likewise. To be sure, this kind of “building and deepening relationships” with God, those whom we already love, and especially those whom we have yet to learn to love, is not without risk and challenge, but surely it is one manifestation of what we mean when we maintain that our shared ministry together is about “transforming lives as a compassionate community.”
This, then, is what the late Henri Nouwen referred to as the “mystery of ministry, that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.” What an awesome and awe-ful responsibility. Indeed, even asking us to love our neighbors as ourselves may be risky, for sometimes the lack of love we bear toward ourselves would be ill-shared with our neighbors, whether friend or foe. But herein lies one of the most compelling reasons for us to gather and commune as a community of faith. It’s all well and good to affirm that God loves us dearly, but sometimes it’s just hard to feel the love in the abstract. Can we not all relate at times to the story of the young child, who upon being told by her mom as her mom tucked her in, in response to the child’s fear of being left alone, that God would be with her, replied, “yes, but tonite I need a God with skin on.” Ah, don’t we all? And are we not, then, each other’s “God with skin on?” Yet how do we look upon and appear to each other when we have God’s skin of love most fully visible upon us?
One of the inspiring stories in Zig Ziglar’s book, See You at the Top, tells of an old man standing upon a Virginia riverbank many years ago, in need of a ride across the river. When a group of horse back riders approached, the old man let each of them pass, but looked the last one in the eye and asked, “Sir, would you give me a ride across the river?’ Without hesitation this last rider agreed to carry the old man across the river, but then inquired of him as to why he in particular had been asked for a ride, even though he had been with a group of other riders. To quote a popular song, the old man essentially replied that it was because “the look of love was in his eyes, a look mere words can’t describe.” “I looked into [the eyes of the others] and could see no love…but when I looked into your eyes, I saw compassion, love, and the willingness to help.” The story concludes by telling us that Thomas Jefferson thanked the old man for seeing him thusly, and then rode off to the White House. But of course the question which the story leaves with all of us as it reminds us that our eyes are the windows of our souls, is—had we been one of the riders, would the old man have asked us for a ride? Is there a look of love in our eyes for all to see, and if so, what makes it possible for such love to shine forth from within us?
Our faith assures us that God always looks with tender, steadfast love upon each and every one of us, and this morning’s Gospel reading reminds us that God’s dearest desire is for us to do likewise with God and all whom God loves. Sadly, there is so much that can get in the way of our ability either embrace God’s look of love upon ourselves, and/or to look with such love upon others. But a tragedy like the one our community has experienced recently tends to have the effect of opening anew a window into God’s heart through which we see again, or maybe even for the first time, ourselves and each other through the all-embracing eyes of God’s love. Thus, out of the depths of the heart-wrenching pain of losing someone we love can come the blessing of seeing each other anew as God’s dearly beloved ones. At least one of the reasons why we affirm Jesus as Emmanuel, God-With-Us, is because he embodied with his whole life the window into God’s heart of love, always inviting us to look through and with him at ourselves and each other with the eyes and heart of the One in whose love we live and move and have our being. Through encouraging us to love God and our neighbors near and far as ourselves, Jesus is essentially inviting us to be such windows for God and each other. Through the experience of wrenching loss, God’s window of love has been opened anew for us, and we have already begun to see miracles of healing, reconciliation, and transformation occur in the midst of previously broken and strained relationships.
But especially since experience teaches us how quickly this window begins to close yet again, now is the time for us to be as intentional as we can in keeping this window open and even expanding the vision which it makes possible for ourselves, our community, and beyond. God’s love, unconditional, extravagant, endless, and unlimited, for ourselves, no matter how unlovable we may feel, and for all God’s people, no matter how unlovable they may seem to us, is that which draws us ever and again into holy communion with God and each other. Therefore, as we prepare now to share on the World Communion Sunday once more in the Global Banquet of God’s boundless love, may we bring with us those parts of ourselves we find it hardest to affirm, as well as those others, whether well known to us, or more distantly conceived, as people who have hurt us, or of whom we are afraid, or who feel like enemies to us, or whom we just don’t like, for here at this table it is always time and it is never too late for deep wounds to be healed, bitter enmities to be overcome, and binding burdens to be released. Thus may God bless us anew with Love’s Communion, this day and even forever. Amen.