Sunday, May 6, 2018

6th Sunday of Easter

Readings for Today.

Listen to the Sermon.


Yesterday afternoon, I stood in this sanctuary and marveled at the grace and hospitality offered to a grieving family by this Emmanuel community.  We host many funerals and memorial services here. What made this one unique is that the man whose life we were celebrating probably never set foot in Emmanuel in his lifetime.  That we did not know him in life did not matter to the people who were here to read, to lead the prayers, prepare the altar, or host and clean up the reception afterward. This funeral was more than a community service - it was a true act of love.
 

It was charity, in the sense that CS Lewis explains the word in his book The Four Loves.  Charity, or agape, says Lewis, is our chief aim - the unconditional love of our Creator God given to us through his Son Jesus. [1]

In our cultural lexicon, charity is something you give or do for someone who has less than you do.  It’s a derogatory term. Distasteful, even arrogant when we take pride in having so much that we can give something we don’t want to someone who has less than we do.  It’s not something most people want to be on the receiving end of because it feels demeaning. Lewis says this kind of charity is self-serving and self-preserving because it does not risk itself.  If this is the only charity we ever practice, we will ultimately find our hearts hardened and ourselves alone.

The kind of love known as agape, or charity, is love that dares to be vulnerable, dares to extend itself toward another person so much that it risks pain.  On the receiving end, agape feels like compassion, empathy, courage and strength extended in those moments when we have none for ourselves.

Agape is the love upon which true hospitality is built.  As I thanked various people for being here for the family yesterday, to a person they said, “It’s what we do.  It’s why we’re here.” It was said with a knowing, an empathy born of our own losses and griefs, and with strength found in our own experiences of love and support found in this community.  

At our Day of Discovery last May, we named and claimed agape as one of our core values as a community.  We called it generosity, a sense of community, welcoming all people, and caring.  It is something we do intuitively, out of the fullness of our hearts. [2]

Agape is part of Emmanuel.  Yes, part of our community.  And, part of God dwelling with us.  Agape is the love of a God who comes to dwell with us.  It’s the love of a God who dares to risk coming to be with us.  And the love we show when we open our hearts in love and hospitality.

Love is a 4-letter word with many meanings.  We’ve been talking about charity or agape.  CS Lewis identifies three other types of love.  Affection, storge, is that humble and homey love for expected and familiar things.  Soft slippers, old clothes, old jokes. Storge, the affection we feel for people around us and everyday normal life, is the majority of the love we know.

Friendship, philia, is the most time-consuming, least celebrated, least necessary form of love, says Lewis.  In friendship, our lives and relationships are intertwined. We develop kinship over some shared experience or interest, and longing to continue that camaraderie creates and sustains friendship.  In philia, we find companions for our common journeys in life.

In romantic love, or eros, we intuitively place the interests and well-being of another person above our own self-interests.  We truly love our neighbor as ourselves. According to Lewis, eros gives us a foretaste of the transformative power of love to change our lives.  Our culture’s messages would have us believe that eros is the only kind of love that matters.  

Not so, says Jesus.  All kinds of love are important to our life in this world.  We need affection, friendship, romance, AND charity. The greatest of these is charity.  Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love...I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:9, 11).  The point of loving one another in agape is to come to the fullness of joy.

How do we know when we’ve come to the fullness of joy?  Speaking for myself, think that fullness of joy is an ever-moving target.  When we’ve come to a place where our hearts couldn’t be fuller, something inevitably happens to expand them even more.  Like welcoming a second child when you thought your heart couldn’t be more full of love than you have for the first.  Or feeling like you’ve discovered your vocation, only to be invited into exercising it in new and wonderful ways.

We cannot recognize the fullness of our joy without knowing times of grief and sorrow.  And sometimes, we only recognize the fullness of our joy in hindsight. In love, and I mean the fullness of the kinds of love relationships, we find courage to remain open to joy, open to God’s mercy and grace, open to giving and receiving love.  CS Lewis reminds us, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.” [3]

As Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples, leaves them with farewell promises, from one friend to many.  He offers words of reassurance and encouragement, remembrances and exhortation of a deep and forever relationship.  Agape, as the Father has loved him, so he has loved us - and shows us how to love one another with a love that almost guarantees to break our hearts.  It’s the same love we seek and find as we gather around God’s table, to eat of holy food and drink, while seeing Christ reflected in the faces across from us.  It’s the love that leads to opening our hearts to one another, to friend and stranger, with vulnerability and hospitality - and deep joy.

God of abiding love, you choose us as your servants and dare to call us friends: take our fragmented hearts, commanding them to love, making whole our joy, our life reborn in you; through Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for us. Amen. [4]

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[1] CS Lewis summaries informed by “Love, Love, Love, Love” by Zach Kincaid, on http://www.cslewis.com/love-love-love-love/, accessed 03 May 2018.
[2] See http://emmanuelmi.org/what-is-a-provocative-purpose-statement-anyway/ for more information about our congregational values.
[3] As quoted on http://www.cslewis.com/love-love-love-love/, accessed 03 May 2018.

[4] Shakespeare, Steven.  "Collect for Easter 5, Year B" in Prayers for an Inclusive Church (New York: Church Publishing, 2009), page 59.

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