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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Who is on the Side of the Road?

Written for Saint Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 8th Sunday after Pentecost + July 10, 2016

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37 (Focus: Luke 10:25-37)


This week the parable of the Good Samaritan is too real. This week there are too many people bleeding on the side of the road, and there are too many people passing by.

“Here we are. Again.” That’s how Bishop Elizabeth Eaton began a video she released this week.“Here we are. Again. Just days apart, two African-American men were shot by police.”

Just hours after the ELCA released that video on Thursday night, news of even more violence flooded our phones, TVs, and radios: in Dallas five police officers were killed and seven wounded, two civilians were injured, and their attacker is dead.

My Facebook newsfeed has been full of reactions. Reactions of friends who are black and tired of feeling hopeless and unsafe and unheard. Reactions of friends who are white and wondering what they can do. Reactions of friends who know and love police officers and are worried for their safety.

Worst of all: these words are too familiar. They echo words from reactions to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 and the violent aftermath. They echo reactions from the killing of Emmett Till in 1955. They echo reactions to lynchings throughout our nation’s history.

Bishop Eaton’s message continued: “This is an all-too-frequent occurrence in our country, and I think it’s because we can’t see. We can’t see each other as fully children of God, and we tend to look at each other through the lens of suspicion and fear: communities of color wondering what an encounter with the police will bring; police and others in law enforcement automatically suspicious, it seems, of communities of color. We can’t see. And we need — we need to open our eyes.”

So maybe it’s a God-wink (as Pastor Metee would say) or a God-smack (as Marge Fottrell would say) that today’s gospel reading is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Most of the time when we hear this parable, we immediately think of acts of charity: bringing cans of soup and jars of peanut butter to a food pantry or stopping to help a stranger in need; we might think of organizations that have been named for this parable, like Samaritan’s Purse or the Good Samaritan Orphanage. And, yes, this parable does encourage us to charity and mercy. But I think its main point is to make us open our eyes and see each other differently. To see the people on the side of the road differently, for sure, but also to see ourselves differently.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a particular question. A lawyer had approached him and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” — but that’s not the question that prompted the story. At that point Jesus basically responded: “You’re an educated man. What’s written in the Bible about this?” Sure enough, the man quotes Deuteronomy 6.5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” and then Leviticus 19.18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, “Right answer! Good job.”

But the lawyer wasn’t satisfied yet. The Gospel says that, “wanting to justify himself,” he asked Jesus a follow-up question: “And who is my neighbor?” Who exactly am I obligated by God to love as myself?

Loving someone as we love ourselves is hard. It’s hard even with the people we really do love of our own accord, like our spouse or our children. And it can be even harder to love someone as we love ourselves when we have no love-feelings or family duty to them: strangers at the grocery store, or somebody who works in the same building but never really interacts with us. And then there’s the question of people we really actively dislike: people who mess up our plans, or who oppose us in debate…or war. There are people from other cultures and religions, people who are so different from us that we can hardly think of them as “us.” Surely the word “neighbor” implies more of a connection than all that. Surely there is a smaller circle of people God asks us to love as we love ourselves.

So the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” — “a polite way of asking ‘Who’s not my neighbor?'”[1]— and Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan.

But notice that at the end of the story Jesus didn’t ask, “Now do you see just who is your neighbor?” Even though that was the question the lawyer had asked, Jesus asked a different question to get to the moral of his story: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

It almost reads like Jesus ignored the man’s question. Couldn’t he have said something clear, like, “Everyone is your neighbor, you schmuck,” instead of telling this story and asking a backwards question?

But if Jesus had done that, the lawyer may have walked away unchanged. The lawyer asked his question from one perspective, but Jesus didn’t answer from that perspective. Jesus’s question made the lawyer see himself and the world differently.

The lawyer asked a question that sounded like he was trying to better understand God’s commands, but he was still just thinking of himself and what was good for him. He was still seeing the people around him as an extension of himself. Who is my neighbor? Who am I required to love? Who can I get away with not caring about? Who’s in my circle, and who is out? That’s not love. That’s still just self-preservation.

Jesus’s story and question made this man see things differently. The obligation was not other people’s to fall into the circle of “neighbor” or to be lovable. The obligation was the lawyer’s: you be the neighbor. You go into the world and show mercy. This is not about defining them; it’s about defining you. If you are walking in God’s way, you will be the neighbor, you will be merciful. You will see all people through eyes of mercy.

In the aftermath of politically divisive tragedies like this week’s — the murder of African-American men, the murder of police officers, violence done to innocent bystanders — we too often fall back into the lawyer’s original way of seeing the world: self-preservation mode. We hole up. We refuse to consider different opinions or to give credibility to experiences different than our own. We want to keep the pain and the danger as far away from ourselves as possible, and so we ask, “But who is my neighbor?” and try to delineate who it is, exactly, that we are obligated to love as we love ourselves: whose point of view we are obligated to understand, whom we are obligated to show mercy. Surely not everyone.

And then we deny our own fundamental belief that all lives matter when we refuse to try and understand the cry “black lives matter,” to understand that that cry comes from the side of the road and out of the experience of watching so many people pass by while suffering goes on and on and on. If the phrase “Black lives matter” bothers you, try hearing it as a question, a plea from the side of the road: don’t black lives matter, too?

Maybe all that rhetoric makes better sense on a local, personal level. The Franklin homepage published a story this week about a local African-American attorney. After this week’s tragedies, he posted on his Facebook page: “We can figure out how to act later, but I just wanted to know – do y’all care? Do you know that I identify with these men, and do you see that?”

As Christians, we are called to see. To hear the cries from the side of the road. To be the neighbor, to show mercy — generously. Abundantly. We are called to change perspectives: to leave behind the perspective of the Levite and the priest who pass by — their perspective of self-preservation that asks, “If I stop to help, what will happen to me?” and to take on the perspective of the Good Samaritan — the perspective of mercy that asks, “If I don’t stop to help, what will happen to him?” [2]

In the political sphere and in the media, people may argue: Who is right? Who is wrong? Who deserved what? Who is justified?

But for Christians, the question ought to be much simpler than that: Who is on the side of the road? How can we help? How can we show mercy?

Embed from Getty Images

Notes:

[1]  Amy-Jill Levine, “Go and Do Likewise,” America, September 29, 2014. Online: http://americamagazine.org/issue/go-and-do-likewise

[2] The questions of the Levite/Priest and the Samaritan are taken from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered April 3, 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, TN. Full text of speech available at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm [Quoted in Levine, “Go and Do Likewise.”]