You have all heard the saying, ‘be careful what you wish for’. It is a saying chalk full of wisdom for it alerts the aspirant what they are wishing for may well come true and that the outcome may be more than they anticipated. Well, in this past week I have been starkly reminded of this saying. Truly ever since I made the decision to become a priest, I have always wanted – indeed yearned would not be too strong a point on it – to preach on the Gospel reading for today. Just to say these words of Jesus, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” stirs my heart and soul. I have wanted to preach on this Gospel because for me it is the epicenter of our Christian faith and the talk that we are most certainly to walk. For approximately ten years I have imagined myself preaching on these words on a Sunday, and using a baseball metaphor, hitting this ball out of the playing field, over the fence and well into the parking lot. I imagined a virtual Billy Graham like scene where my rhetoric would be mighty and the reaction of the congregation would be almost revivalist. I imagined altar calls, even in an Anglican church. This is the Gospel passage that defines our faith and I imagined myself rising to that challenge in super preacher like fashion.
And then I sat in front of the computer this week and went blank. I don’t mean my computer screen, I mean I went blank; my mind was mystified, then vacuous then empty all together. It wasn’t writer’s block, I could put sentences together, but I had no idea what to say. This passage that I had so longed to preach upon was literally staring me in the face and was not going anywhere. ‘Why” I thought. The unconditional love of God and the certainty that we are to do our best to do the same for all others is one of my favorite subjects. It is the Christian mission statement writ large and here I was brows furrowed, face squeezed in confusion and feeling thoroughly flummoxed.
So I left it for a while and pondered upon it, prayed upon it. It was in this process that I imagined myself as one of Jesus’ disciples. I imagined myself being there and Jesus turns to me and says, “I have one more commandment for you”. Think of it, one more commandment. I thought for these disciples of Jesus, these devout Jews, the idea of one more commandment is a towering message; it is massive in its implication. The ten commandments of God delivered through Moses was the foundation of their faith – as it is of ours. I imagined Jesus turning to me and saying, “I have one more commandment for you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’. Somehow in that created vision I had, the meaning of what Jesus was saying became clearer for me, and the clarifying moment was when Jesus said, ‘just as I have loved you”.
This would be a commandment like no other. In this commandment God leads by example. Jesus showed us the way. Feed the hungry, give drink to those who thirst, heal the sick, welcome the outcasts, forgive those who wrong us, put away the sword, give hope where there is none and invite everyone, everyone to the table. A while ago Christopher and I went on a trip that included a short stay in Charleston, South Carolina. Right in the middle of the historic part of the city is a cobblestone road that leads right down to the harbour. This thoroughfare is called Slave Market Road. Ninety-five percent of all the African slaves who landed in America landed in Charleston and were directed up this road where they were graded and sold like livestock in the market. We went into the Slavery Museum there that educated the public about this horrific chapter in Colonial and American history. One of the exhibits was a recording of an African American who grew up in slavery and his story of what that was like. I remember thinking how incredible it was that someone who had grown up a slave lived long enough into the modern era that he could be electronically recorded. The end to the damnable institution of human slavery was not all that long ago.
But this is the larger picture. Yes, love did play a part in ending slavery as it will I believe eventually play a part in ending poverty and war, but these are the larger issues of social justice, of human equality of civil rights and freedoms. As fundamental and serious as these movements are, in my created vision when Jesus turned to me and said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”, I sensed he was talking about a different kind of love. This was to be a commandment like no other. When I listened to what he was saying my initial emotion surprised me; I was quite anxious. To tell the truth there was a degree of fear that swept over me when I listened to this. I was to love as Jesus loved me with out condition and to the core of my being, and this gave me trepidation. I honestly don’t know if I can love all people, without exception, in every situation so deeply. I would like to think so, but facing Jesus as I imagined in that moment, I was not so sure I could always equal the love he was talking about.
A number of years ago I was watching television and it was one week after the bombing of the Federal Murrah building in Oklahoma City. A young mother was being interviewed and she had lost both her children – two young boys – who had attended the daycare in the bottom of the building. At this point it was not known who was responsible and the interviewer asked her what I thought was a provocative question given the circumstances. He asked her if she could ever forgive those who did this to her. I will never forget her answer. She said without hesitation, “I am a Christian and I have to forgive them. I cannot do it right now, but I know that at some point I will forgive them and try to love them. I know if I don’t I will just have hate in me, and it is hate that caused this in the first place”.
I remember reading a while ago a teacher at a local Christian school was relieved of her duties because some parents caught wind that she was living in a lesbian relationship and their objection to this was the reason for her dismissal from her duties. For a number of reasons both personal and theological, few things anger me more than faith based bigotry and I found myself raging over the injustice of this action. I felt like writing a not so mildly invective letter to the editor. In this day and age, I thought, faith based institutions should not be allowed to discriminate. McDonald’s, The Hudson Bay Company, the Vancouver Symphony are by law not allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, so why should a religious school be allowed I fumed.
This past week was remarkable for me in many ways. In this past week as well, for reasons that I did not understand until I wrote this sermon, memories of my late mother were popping up all over the place. In conversations I had, in meeting people who knew her, running across something she gave me or coming across a picture of her. And then there was the letter. A letter my mother wrote, a letter all about love, a letter that none of my family had seen until this week suddenly came to light. It seemed as if there was a message there to be received. And then I put it all together. The block I had in writing on the Gospel passage I had always wanted to preach upon, the imagined conversation with Jesus and my fear of what He said in loving others as he had loved me, in the memory of that extraordinary mother in Oklahoma City, and in my anger at the parents and school officials who dismissed and humiliated their lesbian teacher and colleague; it became evident that the love Jesus was talking about was the kind of love that goes as deep as the love between a mother or a Father to their child. God, the Father and Mother of us all gave us a new commandment, a new commandment like no other, that we are to love each other like family.
What I realized is that my inability to tackle this passage as I had always envisioned, with a big performance and arms waving and revival like altar calls in response, was that my interpretation of this passage was superficial. I was thinking about love in a general sense, and Walt Disney like happy endings where we all just get along and by gosh and by golly move forward together. Jesus turned to me and said, ‘No, not that kind of love. The love of which I speak, the new commandment I give to you is the kind of love you and your mother shared with each other. It is the kind of love that runs deeper than any ocean and with it necessarily comes the interconnected realities of pain, disappointment, frustration and grief. But it is also the kind of love that eventually overcomes all these because it is unlimited and it never fails’.
Jesus turned to the people he loved and said you must do this, you must love one another as I have loved you and then people will know that you are my disciples. Today Jesus says the same to us so that people may know that we are Christians. An amusing email came my way this week. One of the quotes in it said, ‘Going to church no more makes you a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car.’ Being a Christian means taking and making a commitment. As Christians we are called to love one another one at a time, to love one another face to face and to love one another as we would our own family. It doesn’t mean that we won’t or can’t be angry with each other or that we won’t frustrate each other with our individual wills and ideas, but it does mean that whatever divides us must not and cannot have the final word.
What I realized this week was that this Gospel passage does not need a thundering preacher driving the message home with pomp, circumstance and pageantry. This passage is far too profound for that. This passage demands that one slave owner look one of his slaves in the eyes and for the love of God releases the shackles because he is his father. This passage demands that those who wrong us are our very own brothers and sisters and need our forgiveness and love. This passage demands that I sit down with those who would discriminate against me and others like me, and that I treat them with the respect and the warmth I would my own mother. This passage is the Christian mission statement writ large, and it holds before us as much of a challenge as it does the way to freedom, truth, peace and joy. Jesus gives us all a new commandment. Jesus tells us to leave the church this day and to go out into the world and change it with our love of all others. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney