Imagining a World Where Love is the Way (a sermon on Bishop Curry’s royal wedding sermon)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Trinity Sunday + May 27, 2018

Reading: John 3:1-17


So today is Holy Trinity Sunday. But I have a lot of things to say in this sermon, and while those things do relate to the Trinity, it would be complicated to keep explaining throughout the sermon how all these things I feel called to say today are also connected to this idea of God being One-in-Three and Three-in-One, even though they really do have a lot to do with that. So I’m just going to do it all here at the beginning.

First — why read John 3 on Trinity Sunday? Well, I figure it’s because it mentions all three Persons of the Trinity: the Creator, the Son, and the Spirit, and it gives us a glimpse of how all Three Persons are doing the work of one God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ — and in us, as we are reborn of “water and Spirit” to see God’s Kingdom more clearly.

But here’s the main point about the Trinity that I want you to take home: the Trinity teaches us about love. This whole Three Persons being One thing — three different Persons who only exist in their relationship together — three Persons whose different identities are not plowed over by their perfect unity with one another — that is, well, complicated and mysterious and hard to wrap our heads around — but it is also an ideal image of love, of relationship, of family, of community. (For more on this, see my last sermon.) So rather than trying to wrap your head around how exactly this Trinity thing works, remember this: the Trinity teaches us about love. Say it with me: the Trinity teaches us about love.

OK, good, you’ve got your take-home knowledge of the Trinity. I’ve done my job for the liturgical calendar. Because what I really want to talk about is the royal wedding. Did you see that dress?

Just kidding. There are enough of you out there who know I have zero knowledge of the wedding, because those of you who have tried to talk about the wedding with me in the last week or so probably experienced something like this:

“Pastor, did you watch any of the royal wedding?”

“Um. Did…that…happen?”

And then — in case any of you want to know what goes inside your pastor’s head — I would internally prepare myself to make small talk about fancy dresses or celebrities or decorations.

But you know what? That never happened. Instead every person I talked to went right into telling me all about the sermon. The first time it happened, I thought, “Oh, that’s just Meredith. Of course Meredith would be excited about the sermon.” But then another person mentioned it, and another, and another. And so I thought, OK, maybe it’s because I’m a pastor and I’m talking to church people, and church people tend to appreciate good sermons — or at least feel like they should comment on churchy stuff to their pastor (who clearly doesn’t bother to keep up with pop culture anyway).

But when I finally went online to watch this famous sermon, I found out it wasn’t just “church people” talking about it. The sermon, apparently, was the most-tweeted-about moment of the ceremony. There were articles about just the sermon in The Atlantic and Time and Brides.com. It got its own moment on Saturday Night Live. People hardly ever remember wedding sermons, but somehow Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church here in the U.S., preached a sermon that stood out even in a royal wedding.

Maybe it’s because he preached a message that people were longing to hear: a vision of a world where love is the way of things. Not fear, not pride, not greed, not apathy — but love.

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“Love and Faithfulness Meet,” St. Michael’s Church, Golden Grove, Wales. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

He began by quoting another sermon, one by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “We need to discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”[1] And Bishop Curry went on talking about the power of love — and not just the love between two people, but God’s love, the love shown to us in Jesus Christ, the kind of love the Holy Trinity teaches us about. Unselfish love. Sacrificial love. Redemptive love. The kind of love that can change lives; the kind of love that can change the world.

“Imagine,” Bishop Curry invited us, “imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where love is the way. Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way — unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.”[2]

At first glance, that message can come off as kind of fluffy and romantic. “At this fairy tale wedding, imagine a whole world where love is the way. Sigh.”

But if we are actually willing to do the work of really imagining what our homes, our businesses, our society would be like if love was the way; what it would be like if sacrificial, redemptive love was the standard at the center of our personal decisions and our public policies — and if we then held up that vision as the model for our actual behavior, our actual everyday conversations, our actual consideration of other people’s opinions and experiences, our actual voting record and civic engagement…that wouldn’t be fluffy at all. It would be complicated and demanding and even, yes, sacrificial — but also, as Bishop Curry said, it would be redemptive and life-changing and world-changing.

If love were the way, the way of our lives, the way of business, the way of politics, it would save people. It would literally save people, spiritually and physically save people. It would save people from loneliness and guilt and neglect; it would save people from racism and sexism and all kinds of prejudice; it would save people from poverty and hunger and lack of health care. Maybe it would even save people from violence. In short — it would save people in the ways that Jesus saved people.

But imagining that world where love is the way, making redemptive, sacrificial love the standard — it can seem like an impossible feat. The world just doesn’t work that way.

Jesus said to one of the religious leaders of his day: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” — or, as you’ve maybe heard it translated, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Jesus never said, The Kingdom of God is coming, and it’s perfectly reasonable, and it comes with a gradual, step-by-step five-year plan for implementing God’s will into the current model.

Nope. Jesus said, You can’t even see what the Kingdom of God is about without being totally transformed, recreated, reborn into God’s way of seeing and doing things. You gotta leave the ways of the world behind.

In his royal wedding sermon Bishop Curry tried to help us to get into the spirit of the wedding — and of his preaching on the power of love — by asking us: “…think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved.”

Well, I want you to think about the last time you were mad at someone you loved. I mean really mad. Can’t-see-things-straight, want-to-say-things-you’ll-regret mad. What did you do? Maybe you did say those regrettable things, and then you had to figure out how to make up for it. But maybe you did one of those things wise people are always trying to teach us to do when our emotional temperature skyrockets: Take deep breaths. Count to ten. Take a walk. Journal, call a friend, or just lose yourself in a hobby for a while.

The point of all those things is get yourself back into a different way of being, a less-angry way of being. When we’re that mad, we don’t see things right or fairly or reasonably. We need to get out of the mad moment and re-learn how to be calmer, less defensive, more generous, more loving. We need to be able to see things differently.

Jesus said we need to be re-born from above, re-born of water and the Spirit, so that we can see things differently. So that we can see beyond the normal ways of the world and see God’s Kingdom, God’s way of doing things, God’s more generous, more loving way of doing things. We need to learn to step outside of the way the world works — outside of business-as-usual — and be re-created in God’s image, into God’s way of being and doing things.

There are lots of ways that we can try to take time away from the world’s way of doing things. Going to church should be a time outside of the world’s way; so should studying God’s Word and prayer and summer camp…and imagining a world where love is the way. Imagining homes and neighborhoods and businesses and politics where God’s redemptive love is the standard of doing things — that kind of imagining is an exercise in being reborn of water and the Spirit. And putting God’s love into practice — that is the work of being a follower of Jesus.

This past Thursday Pastor Lippard was in Washington, D.C., and he got to hear Bishop Curry preach in-person. (Well, almost: that church was packed, so he was in the church next door, watching on a screen.) Again Curry preached about the power of love, and of what it looks like when we really put God’s love into action. He said: “Love your neighbor. Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino neighbor and your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor! That’s why we’re here!” And then the whole crowd — Pastor Lippard included — marched silently with candles to the White House to pray and to imagine a world where God’s love is the way of things. In an interview before the march Bishop Curry said: “Our hope and dream is that articulating the vision of a country where we love our neighbor as ourselves will be an appeal to the better angels of our nature.”[3]

We need — we always, constantly need — to take a step back from the way things are going, and give God room to re-create us, so that we can see God’s kingdom, God’s way of redemptive, sacrificial love — in all the parts of our lives. “We need to discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”

Friends in Christ, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). Amen and amen.


[1] Curry quoted from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” delivered 16 November 1957 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL. The full text of the sermon is available online.

[2] Michael Curry, “The Power of Love,” sermon for the wedding of Prince Henry , Duke of Sussex, and Meghan Markle, St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, 19 May 2018. Full text available online.

[3] “Bishop Curry takes his message to the White House,” The Washington Post, 25 May 2018. Online.

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To See the Kingdom of God

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Second Sunday in Lent + March 12, 2017

Scripture Reading: John 3:1-17


It was nighttime in ancient Jerusalem, in the days before streetlights or lit-up signs. Nicodemus the Pharisee made his way through the dark streets to find Jesus. This teacher from Galilee had been in the capital city for only a few days, but already he had caused enough trouble to make a bad name for himself: he had stormed the Holy Temple itself with a whip, driving out the animals being sold, grabbing sacks of coins from the moneylenders and pouring them out on the floor, flipping over tables while yelling things about “his father’s house.” Many of the people, many of the other Pharisees, and many of the powerful leaders in the Temple called Jesus dangerous, a troublemaker, a rioter. But Nicodemus couldn’t stop thinking about the signs and miracles this Jesus was doing; he had to speak with him. Still, with Jesus’s reputation, better to do it under the cover of night.

Jesus immediately turned their conversation to the kingdom of God: how to see it, how to be a part of it. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” he said to Nicodemus. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

Those two statements bring up a lot of questions. Nicodemus focused on the physical questions: How can an adult be born again? That doesn’t make any biological sense. But for me the big questions are: What is the kingdom of God? Why is it so hard for us to see and to be a part of? What keeps us from seeing it and joining in? If we can understand the answers to those questions, maybe we can get a better idea of what Jesus means when he says we need to be reborn in a new way.

I had those questions in my head while I was watching one of my favorite science-fiction shows this week. The episode followed a soldier named Stripe on his first real mission. His team’s main job is to find and kill what they call “roaches,” and we hear about these creatures little by little. They steal food from towns; they commit other crimes; they spread disease; they carry mental and physical problems that are bad for the gene pool; they are the enemy. After all that build-up, we finally we see these roaches: Stripe is searching a suspicious house and pulls back a hanging sheet to discover a group of humanoid creatures with weird, pale skin, sharp teeth, discolored eyes. They shriek in alien sounds and leap out at him, and one of them keeps pointing something that looks like a high-tech pen (or maybe a sonic screwdriver or one of those Men-in-Black memory-wiping-sticks) in Stripe’s face. When he’s taken them all out, Stripe picks up the pen-thing, pushes a button, and an intense green light flashes. He blinks, drops it to the ground, and returns to his troop.

When Stripe goes out on his second mission a few days later, he experiences everything differently. And I mean everything. The colors of nature are brighter: the green of the trees, the blue of the sky. He picks up handfuls of grass and holds it up to his nose, breathing in deeply as he realizes he hasn’t smelled something like that in a long time. The other soldiers wonder if he’s going crazy.

Suddenly his team is under attack. Stripe and one other solider, Raiman, are the only ones left standing. They run for cover, then they head into a farmhouse to find their attackers — and Stripe is shocked when Raiman starts taking out bystanding civilians. Stripe knocks out Raiman and escapes with a woman and her child. When they reach a safe place, the woman, with a mix of fear and hope, asks Stripe, “You can see me as I really am? You don’t see a roach?”[1]

Slowly Stripe discovers that he and the other soldiers have all been implanted with devices that change the way they perceive the world. These devices are supposed to lessen the the trauma of combat: they can’t smell the awful smells of war; they literally see and hear enemies as monsters. The flash of green light from the pen had broken Stripe’s device, changing the way he perceived everything and everyone, turning upside-down the way he understood himself and his job and his world. To use the metaphors of today’s gospel reading, Stripe had been reborn.

 

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By Greyson Orlando, via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus said that we need to be “born from above” or (in other translations) “born again” or “born anew” in order to even be able to perceive the kingdom of God. The gospels talk about the kingdom of God in a few different ways: in some ways, it is already around us; but it is also still coming, getting closer, growing; and one day it will arrive in fullness. But, Jesus said in today’s reading, we can’t just naturally see that. We can’t see the kingdom as it already is around or as its time of fullness is drawing near without being born anew. Maybe that’s because we can’t automatically see the world as it really is, as God sees it. Like the device implanted in Stripe’s brain, there is something in us and around us that keeps us from seeing as God sees.

The writings in the Bible offer us some ideas about how God sees the world and about what God’s kingdom looks like and will look like. Over and over in the prophets, in the great Old Testament stories, in the song of Mary, and the words of Jesus, we hear that God cares for everyone, desires everyone to have enough, to thrive, to experience the blessings and love of God and others. That means that God and God’s messengers often speak up on behalf of those suffering or being oppressed, the overlooked and the avoided and the misunderstood.

The Bible also tells of a kingdom of God which will be made up of all nations. Rob Bell elaborates: “That’s everybody. That’s all those different skin colors, languages, dialects, and accents; all those kinds of food and music; all those customs, habits, patterns, clothing, traditions, and ways of celebrating — multiethnic, multisensory, multieverything.”[3] All those things we see as foreign and maybe uncomfortable…all of it looks familiar to the God who created all people and dwells with all people.

And then, trying to get an idea about the kingdom of God, we might think not only of the way God sees the world but also the way God works in the world. As Christians we believe that God works with a justice that understands all sides, a justice rooted in love and concern for all people. We believe in a God who chooses to be merciful without end, a God of radical grace. We believe in a God who forgives things we could never forgive and loves people even in the midst of their sin. We believe in a God who is bringing both justice and grace to fruition all around us.

And all of that sounds wonderful when we’re hearing it from our pews on Sunday morning. But when God’s kingdom takes to the streets, it can be hard for us to handle, hard for us to see as something coming from God. That’s why Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night: because so many people — especially the people with power or good social standing — couldn’t see the kingdom of God in what Jesus was doing. Wreaking havoc in the Holy Temple? Spending time with prostitutes, with scammers, with obvious sinners? Hanging around lepers and other sick people? Speaking publicly against the ways the government and the religious institution mistreated those in need? Sometimes the kingdom of God comes off as offensive.

So what prevents us humans from seeing the kingdom of God when it’s happening around us? Why do we sometimes just not notice it; why are we — like some of the Pharisees of Jesus times — offended instead of joyful? What keeps us from seeing the world as God sees it?

The Bible talks about sin, about having hard hearts. I think part of it is just that we humans are limited beings. The way we see and understand the world is bound by so many factors, some of them outside of our control; the time and place and culture where we grow up and where we live our lives (think of how often we say, “Of course that person thought that way; they were just a product of their times!”). Our perception is affected by the things other people have taught us, through word and example. Our perception is affected by what we have opportunity to learn and experience. Our perception is affected by our own needs and desires: whether they are for basic things like safety and security or our more selfish wants. So how could we possibly see like the God who is beyond all of our situations and knowledge and limitations?

And yet Jesus says we can, if we are born again, born anew, born from above. If we are born of water and the Spirit.

It was that “being born of water and the Spirit” that Martin Luther relied on so heavily in problems like this. He was the king of saying, “We can’t do anything good on our own” — maybe even to a sort of unhealthy extent. But I can imagine Luther reading this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus and saying, “Well, of course I can’t see or enter the kingdom of God on my own!” But Luther believed that the Holy Spirit works within us to transform us into saints who can see and participate in the kingdom of God. Our rebirth — our baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit — works in us daily to remove the things within us that keep us from God and the kingdom, and our rebirth works in us daily to grow our faith, our understanding, our goodness.

The Holy Spirit works in us as we read Scripture, helping us to see the world more like God sees it. The Holy Spirit works in us as we realize God’s love for us, and we share that love with other people. The Holy Spirit works in us as we meet others and try to see the image of God in them. The Holy Spirit moves us to grow in our own understanding, mercy, and love. I see all of these things in this congregation every day, and it helps me believe the Holy Spirit truly is working in us all, helping us to see God’s kingdom more clearly, helping us to enter that kingdom and be part of its work in our world.


[1] Charlie Brooker, “Men Against Fire,” Black Mirror, season 3, episode 5, directed by Jakob Verbruggen, (Netflix: October 21, 2016). Note: This show contains “adult situations,” and some episodes contain more potentially offensive content than others. Use discretion if you decide to check it out…and maybe skip season 1, episode 1.

[3] Rob Bell, Love Wins, (New York: HarperOne, 2011), p. 34.