A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary
Sermon: Choose Love

Choose Love

February 14, 2021

come-share-in-god's-joy

The poet and short story writer Raymond Carver, who struggled mightily over his lifetime with alcoholism and broken relationships, ultimately found joy in relationship with another poet, Tess Gallagher. Days after picking out rings for their wedding, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. In the face of this, he wrote my favorite poem, “Late Fragment.”

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved.
To feel myself beloved
On earth.

On September 11th, people on the top floors of the Twin Towers weren’t desperately making phone calls to just anyone… their messages weren’t about just anything. They were calling those they loved to express their love.

At the end of a person’s life what’s most important becomes, sometimes, achingly clear; as if the fragments in the kaleidoscope of life at last reveal the Divine Vision: love is all that ever really matters. When a person who is close to death recognizes this, it often becomes imperative to say how much he or she loves friends and family. Many of us had the privilege of hearing our beloved Jud Gale do just this – with us!

When people look back over their lives at the end, though they may revel in achievements and adventures, the stories that are most significant are those about the way someone close loved them or did not love them. In the face of broken relationships, a dying person often wants to make amends in order to die in peace. From the perspective of the end, it becomes clear that love is the purpose of life.

The great religious traditions of the world – Indigenous, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist all agree – love is the heart, the purpose of the spiritual life.

The Christian path, in specific, reveals Jesus as One who fully embodies love, teaching us how to love by his words and actions. When asked what the most important commandment is Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ At its best, our worship is an invitation to encounter the Source of Love, God, so that we can fulfill this commandment and be inspired and renewed to go into the world to share God’s love.

And yet…and yet…

Think back over the last week. Was there a moment (or two? or more?) when you felt upset, perhaps triggered? Or angry with someone else? How did you respond? Were you defensive? Perhaps, reactive? Or were you kind? Were you loving?

I confess there were moments last week when I was watching the impeachment trial that I felt outraged. I would not want you to hear the words coming out of my mouth. If someone with different views about the trial had been sitting with me, I’m sure they would have felt insulted and perhaps upset with me.

In today’s reading from the First Letter of John, the writer is addressing a Christian community in conflict. The community had split and John heard that some of these folks were behaving in unloving ways. He wanted to make it clear – the God we worship is love, therefore we are called to be loving. No matter how right we may think our views are, we are to be kind and respectful.

The challenge, of course, is how to be loving when we are in the throes of conflict. The test of a Christian community (or family or relationship) is how we behave when we are not in agreement. Do we maintain mutual respect? Do we try to understand one another? Do we strive to maintain the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace? Do we choose love?

As David just read, scripture makes it clear, “We love because God first loved us.” Although we may need Divine support to help us love those who upset us, the good news is that God’s love for us is not dependent upon our initiative or on our worthiness. It’s there from the beginning. God’s faithfulness to us never falters or fails. We don’t have to get it all together before God can love us. God already does!

Even when our disturbed feelings turn into unloving actions, God does not abandon us. On the contrary! As today’s scripture proclaims, “God loved us and sent his Son as a means of forgiveness for our sins.” And what is sin? Simply put – it is acting in unloving ways towards God, others, or even ourselves. No matter how we may have fallen short last week, last year, or at any point in our lives, God’s embrace is constant. God offers us the fullness of love right here and right now.

Open your hearts, open your hands. Breathe it in. God’s love never ends.

If anything, it is in that place of our greatest inner struggles that God shows eagerness to heal us. There is nothing we can’t bring to God. Nothing. Nothing we can do or say that will change God’s love for us. When we share with God our struggles to be loving, it’s as if God says to us in response, “Let me show you another way… Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or rude. Love does not insist on it’s own way.”

Judith Jones writes, “When we open ourselves to the warmth and light of God’s presence, we find that even our deepest, darkest secrets and the ugliest parts of ourselves are not beyond God’s reach. Nothing in us is so broken or so filthy that God is unwilling or unable to touch it. God embraces us as we are, loves us as we are, and works in us to make us clean and whole and new.”

Open your hearts, open your hands. Breathe it in. God’s love never ends.

In the face of conflict or challenge, God’s love is the ground for a new possibility.

Richard Rohr reminds us, “Love is who you are. When you don’t live according to love… you’re basically not real or true to yourself. When you love, you are acting according to your deepest being, your deepest truth. You are operating according to your dignity.”

When we are upset or in conflict with others, when our limbic brain is activated, it’s often as if we are in a state. Our sense of peace, compassion, and kindness often shuts down. We may no longer be able to listen well to what someone is trying to say to us. We can sink into our own dramas, our own stories about why we have been wronged… and sometimes these stories have little or nothing to do with what is actually happening in the present moment. But, we have been triggered just enough that our old, unhealed wounds take the lead. Our emotions can get the better of us; our spiritual nature recedes. We may respond not from our loving nature, but from our wounds. This is a dangerous inner state.

And it is at this critical moment when we are not our best selves, that we, as children of God, are called to remember the words we heard from scripture today: “since God loves us so much, we must have the same love for one another.” When we are upset, this is not an automatic response for most of us.

The good news is that there are many spiritual practices we can use to choose love, to shift from a reactive state to a loving one: We can pause, and prayerfully surrender to God our hurt, confused, or distressed feelings. We can breathe deeply, drawing our awareness into our hearts. We can ask God to help us remember to see the best in the other person. We can pray, meditate, or do any other spiritual practice that shifts us from an activated state to a peaceful one. No matter how upset we may be or even how poorly we may have initially responded to the conflict, God is waiting to help us remember our true nature and to grow in love.
Open your hearts, open your hands. Breathe it in. God’s love never ends.

Henri Nouwen writes, “Whenever we forgive instead of getting angry at one another, bless instead of cursing one another, tend one another’s wounds instead of rubbing salt into them, hearten instead of discouraging one another…thank instead of criticizing one another, praise instead of maligning one another… in short, whenever we opt for and not against one another, we make God’s unconditional love visible; we are diminishing violence and giving birth to a new community.”

In 2021, love can even help our nation to find a way to build bridges and bonds. Something so needed today. David Peterson astutely recognizes, “Love is God’s instrument for binding the world together…Some will try hate to unite people. Some will use fear. Both will work for a season or two. So will suffering and need. But love has enduring power. In contrast, sooner or later hate becomes self-destructive. And the causes of fear, suffering, and need eventually either resolve themselves or fragment into self-interest. But love never ends.”

On Wednesday, we will begin the season of Lent, a time set aside for us to grow in love through the spiritual practice of prayer, fasting, and service. Between today and the start of Lent you might consider: How are you called to grow in love of God? In love of others, earth or self? Do you have a relationship that needs healing? Perhaps the most important question is: How can you live as if love is what’s most important in your life?

Open your hearts, open your hands. Breathe it in. God’s love never ends. Amen.