15th Sunday After Pentecost
August 28, 2016
This is my first Sunday preaching after my trip to Norway. I want to begin today by talking about a “spiritual experience” I had there. you’re probably guessing that I’m going to talk about something like climbing a majestic mountain to a get a view over a beautiful valley… or something like that.
But I’m not. I’m going to talk about a fat brown slug crossing the road. Slugs are big snail-like creatures, without the shell… and they’re all over Norway. As I was walking, one day, from the town centrum to my in-laws’ house, I noticed a big brown slug attempting to cross the road. I stopped to ponder its critical life decision. It was about 1 foot from the left side of the road, headed straight across to the other side. Slugs move about as slowly as you can imagine anything moving. I would guess that it would take up to a half an hour for that slug to make it to the other side.
There’s no way that slug was going to survive that journey. There’s too much traffic on the road. It was an incredibly stupid decision, to set out across that road. I could clearly see that… but the slug couldn’t. It just didn’t have the perspective I did. It didn’t have the equipment to see what I saw, and understand what I understood. I was so affected by the sight of that brown slug on the pavement that I bent down and picked it up and put it back in the grass. Maybe it would just head right out on the road again, but I could give it another chance.
It made me think how people are like that too. We so often make choices and live our lives in ways that are so self-destructive and stupid… but we just don’t see it. We don’t have the perspective or equipment to see what our choices mean for us.
That’s the truth that lies behind today’s Gospel lesson. The natural human drive is to serve ourselves before anything else… to advance ourselves, using whatever means we can lay our hands on… to accumulate for ourselves whatever sources of wealth and power we can lay claim to.
That’s the problem that is addressed in today’s Gospel text… the human desire to lift ourselves above others. In our small-mindedness and short-sightedness, we think that this is good; but like the slug on the road, it is a path that leads to ruin.
Even though this is the way we naturally live, scripture tells us that it is no way to live. It inevitably results in misery and unhappiness for all. And so, God calls on us to learn a different way. That’s what today’s Gospel lesson is about.
Jesus’ commands in today’s Gospel lesson seem pretty straight forward; but they can easily be misunderstood by our selfish human nature. For example, we need to understand that Jesus’ command to not seek honor and privilege before others does not encourage us to false humility that says loudly, “I am nothing,” but still focuses all its attention on itself. That’s just another way of seeking honor and privilege… impressing others or God with our humility.
Also, his command to be kind and generous to those who cannot repay us must not then be followed by expectation that God or life in general then owes us a reward. That of course, is just another way of trying to keep score… and Jesus is rejecting that.
Jesus calls his followers to another way… a truly radical way… a way that doesn’t come naturally to us. But Jesus makes it clear that it is the only way for his followers to live.
Jesus call us to a way of living that has no interest in comparing ourselves to others or advancing ourselves past others; but is blind to all rank or position — of any kind — social or spiritual. Jesus calls us to a way of living that doesn’t give in order to gain, but gives simply because we desire to see people’s lives get better.
And there is one key gift of grace that makes this way of life possible for us… one gift that is the key to freedom from our destructive, selfish drives, and which the Christian must therefore seek as the greatest treasure in all creation.
The amazing Helen Keller wrote about how, early on in her awakening, she had a conversation with one of her dearest friends… an Episcopal bishop, named Phillip Brooks. She asked him one day why there were so many religions. He answered that there was only one true religion… the religion of love. To Helen Keller, this answer seemed so beautifully true, as it had been love that had completely changed her life from one of darkness, isolation and rejection to one of joy, friendship and adventure.
It is love that is the critical ingredient in answering Christ’s call in today’s Gospel lesson. It is love that extinguishes in us the drive to put ourselves before and above others, and allows us to take our seat at the lowest place — not because we want to impress others with our humility — but because it’s where we want to be, because the love of Christ that lives in us leads us there.
It is love that frees us from anxiously awaiting rewards for our giving. Love makes rewards or repayment irrelevant. We give because we love, pure and simple. One of the wonders of love is that it powers itself. It needs no external reward. If it does, it is not love.
That is how God loves us; and he calls on us to learn the same way.
The writer of Hebrews — today’s 2nd lesson — reminds us of the promise Jesus has given us: “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
Jesus has promised to be with us always… to live among us and in us… and that is what makes it possible for love to grow in us… in spite of our nature that is obsessed with serving self and gaining power and privilege.
Just as sure as it is God that has created us, it is Christ who brings to life in us the love that frees us from our sinful self and connects us to one another in new and wonderful ways.
True love, formed in our hearts by the Spirit of God is what frees us to become true and loving husbands and wives, parents, friends… citizens. It empowers us to love strangers, and even enemies.
But the growth of love in us is a strange and mysterious thing. It cannot be forced or compelled. Even the creator cannot force us to love… because then it would not be love.
Love cannot be motivated by fear of punishment. It cannot be powered by a desire to impress others, or to gain honor or righteousness for ourselves… for then it would not be love… just another expression of our natural desire to put ourselves before and above others.
That is why, in scripture, God’s relationship with his people is so filled with strife and pain. The one thing that fulfills all that God desires for his people, even he cannot simply impose on them. It must grow from within us, freely.
We all need God’s love in our lives. But how can that happen when it doesn’t come naturally to us? The answer to that — scripture teaches us — is that it is the work of God in us… but it is not easy… even for him. Lucky for us… another characteristic of love is that it never gives up.
To begin with, we must be touched by love. True love, born of God, cannot grow in us, until it has taken hold of us from the outside… knocked on the door of our hearts, so to speak. And at some point, we sense what is truly good for us… and let it in. That is the beginning.
Love grows then as it is nourished by people in our lives, and by the Word and Spirit of God.
Open and discerning eyes and minds then help us know true love from its imitations. Intense, romantic love, for example, is not true love… though it can grow into it over time. Needing someone is not love, though we sometimes think it is. Using, abusing, deceiving others is not love, though people sometimes try to convince us that it is.
Most of all, we must remember that true love that lives in us, is not our own. We do not possess it or control it. It is a gift and creation of God that goes against our nature and reaches out and binds us to others in powerful, life-giving ways. It brings about growth, it builds strength, it nurtures hope, it creates joy.
Love… like all the good gifts of God… grows in us hidden, over time, like yeast in bread, like grain in the soil. It may seem small or weak; but there is no power in all of heaven or earth that can prevail against it. It is the greatest treasure in all creation. It is the one thing that fulfills all that God desires for his people.
And so we pray, like Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, that Christ might dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love…. and that we might have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.