Sunday, March 4, 2012

Learning To Love Differently

Lovely Book...Country Bunny & the Golden Shoes
Her pink sweatshirt said love in bold pink letters covered in tiny rhinestones.  It seems so undemanding.  Four letters, one syllable, two phonemes.  L – O – V – E. We throw the word around as if it were easy. Maybe you remember the Valentine exchange at school. Everyone exchanging cards and candy hearts emblazoned with sentiments charming, sappy and bold.  I love your pants.  You’re cool.  Be mine.  Yet, at a tender age we begin to understand that love can take all that you have and then ask for more.  Love can propel you up the highest mountain, and it can send you tumbling down. It tugs at your ankles and leads you to do outrageous, miraculous and ill-advised things.  ‘Jesus loves me, yes I know,’ ‘I am his beloved and he is mine.’  What does that really mean?  Does it mean that you send him a valentine?  Friend him on Facebook?  Can you explain your life without him? Do you love him more than your cousin, but less than Darcy loves Elizabeth, or Romeo loves Juliet? 

Passion, challenge, comfort, fear, tenderness, attachment, these are all very different things, yet they are all synonyms for love.  These days some folks might use an emoticon instead of writing the word love: I heart New York, I heart Wookies.  Love is the root of all comedy, all tragedy and all drama.  Love drives the Psalms, keeps Job on his path. Love compels woebegone weaklings to step out on his word, to leave our nets and follow him. We are lovesick fools.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. How about you?

The gospel of Mark is not a gospel of pink rhinestone or candy heart love.  Some folks think of it as the CliffNotes gospel. For generations, Mark was considered to be a rough outline of Matthew and Luke.  However, contemporary scholars generally agree that it is the oldest of the Gospels and a carefully constructed one as well.  There is no shiny happy Jesus, no darling birth narrative and, in its oldest known version, no glowing resurrection encounters. Jesus is baptized. He journeys through Palestine teaching and healing.  He does such astonishing things and says such lovely things that people follow him. He is condemned by the authorities, dies on the cross and the Temple curtain rips in two. Done. From beginning to end, the gospel of Mark is a tightly-woven and, sometimes, harsh narrative of how God acts to break down the barriers that we have installed between heaven and earth.  The Gospel of Mark is without a doubt focused on two things: Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah; and the challenging reality of Christian discipleship.   

Today’s lesson is just past the summit, the still-beating heart and continental divide of the narrative. From this point forward in Mark, the sacrifice of loving God’s kingdom becomes unmistakable. Jesus shows us again and again that we who claim him as Lord should not be able to define our lives without his life, which is both sacrifice and delight. From this midpoint onward, we will encounter fewer acts of power and more about the cross and its demands.  

When I am in charge of the universe I will decree that no lectionary lesson can begin with the word ‘then’— at least not without a ‘previously on.’ Even if you were here last week you still might not know what happened right before today’s ‘then.’   So…previously on the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and the disciples and possibly a crowd are on the road again. Jesus asked the disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ ‘John the Baptist said one, and others say Elijah; or one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Jesus follows this pop quiz with the reward that he must suffer, die and rise again. Jesus defines Messiah for them in words they can barely comprehend. 

We love you.  We love God. We love you so much that we have given up everything to follow you. We follow you because we believe that you are the answer to our prayers; that you will deliver us from our oppressors, that you will usher in a new era of holy peace in Palestine.  What do you mean that you will suffer, die and, goodness gracious, rise again? And what do you mean that to be your disciple is to embrace the same pain and trial? Jesus is the Christ, Christ which is Greek for Messiah.  Being Jesus the Christ is being a servant leader who becomes the holy sacrifice.  He has the victory not through violent power but through loving humility. It is this definition of discipleship, and therefore Christ’s Lordship, that Peter cannot bear to hear. Think of him as saying with immense love, "Lord, don't even go there."  

Jesus defines his messiah-ness by how much he loves us, and how far he is willing to go so that we feel it.  Furthermore, he defines our union with him by how much his life defines our life.  Lose your life to save it, save your life by leaving earthly concerns behind. If that brings you up short, then you are right there with Peter, trying to push earthly ways onto heavenly ways instead of the other way around.  CS Lewis offers us this reiteration.

Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day
and the death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of  your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours.  Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else is thrown in.

All our activities proclaim certain ideas about what matters.  Every human life is a defining act about what is worthy of love and sacrifice. The challenge to lose your life is to let go of all the ways and means that clutter your heart and leave no room for Christ. It is to learn that our loving of life as we know it may be the closed heart from which we need to be healed. In the stories following the passion predictions in Mark 9 and 10, we see that the disciples, like us are unable to let go of their preconceptions of power and leadership.  They have opened up enough to name Jesus correctly, but they haven’t quite grasped his truth, that he comes to serve and share rather than dominate.

The very next occasion in Mark is the transfiguration.  The disciples get so excited that they say, ‘Hey, let’s build tents, carnival booths, display cases. Then we can all stay right here and be awesome and safe and no one ever has to get hurt.’ It is what we do with the things we love.  We try to make them stand still, remain as we think they should be. The disciples cannot leave behind their own understanding of what is worthy of our love, and what God wants us do with what we love. We are trapped in the cages of our own making, an invisible prison of loving the wrong things for the wrong reasons.  Our love for now gets in the way of being loved forever.  The original disciples want their love for God and their hope for a brave new world to lead to safer, predictable, and more comfortable answers.  Maybe you do, too.  Theologian Stanley Hauwerwas has this response to our love of a candy-coated faith:

You cannot know who Jesus is after the resurrection unless you have learned to follow Jesus during his life.   His life and crucifixion are necessary to purge us of false notions about what kind of kingdom Jesus brings.  In the same way his disciples and adversaries also had to be purged.  Only by learning to follow him to Jerusalem, where he becomes subject to the powers of this world, do we learn what the kingdom entails, as well as what kind of messiah this Jesus is. 

We begin each and every Lent with the reminder that our entire lives belong to God.  All this stuff, all these bodies, all of it belongs to God.  My question is: do you know what God wants you to do with God’s stuff? And are you willing to do it? God created the world and shouted, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you!’  He created us in a world of abundance, and there is more than enough food, water and shelter to go around.

What does God want us to do with our lives and our life together? And are we doing it?  Lose your life to save it.  It isn’t your life, anyway.  From Rite One, we are reminded that we present ourselves, our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice.  Everything that we are… this is our offering to God.  Through this we become Eucharistic people who break open our lives as he broke open his.

I want to share with you a segment of a poem by Marge Piercy called ‘to have without holding.’

Learning to love differently is hard, love with the hands wide open, love with the doors banging on their hinges, the cupboard unlocked, the wind roaring and whimpering in the rooms rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds that thwack like rubber bands in an open palm.

It hurts to love wide open, stretching the muscles that feel as if they are made of wet plaster, then of blunt knives, then of sharp knives.

It hurts to thwart the reflexes of grab, of clutch;
to love and let go again and again.
           It pesters to love consciously,             conscientiously, concretely, constructively.

Christianity can only be practiced in a community of imperfect people of imperfect loving. We are all learning to love differently, to love wide open.  It stretches our muscles; it hurts to stifle the instincts of grab and clutch.  Christian faithfulness is all about love, both when it floats like a butterfly and, more critically, when it is stings like a bee. Our desire for God and our promise to love others in Christ’s name should shape a community defined by bearing God’s self-giving love. Love gives the Christian church its cruciform shape and meaning.  

The early Church didn’t thrive because its music was pretty and its cookies were sweet. The early Church thrived because of how they loved. They stepped out into the night with food for the hungry and care for the infirm when everyone else left the sick alone to die. They stepped into the everyday realities of fear, hate and decay with arms wide open. The early church took on the burdens of the world in his name, they took up whatever cross they were given and asked for more. They loved contrary to every self-centered cultural norm of their age. They learned to love differently. An embodied love so deep and broad, that friend and foe knew exactly what they were up to.

The early church loved so loud that it was a secret that could not be kept quiet. They followed Jesus’ life and teachings so concretely, so constructively that the Empire that crucified our Lord could not stand in the face of his proclamation.  No rhinestones or clever marketing schemes, just living as he lived and loving who he loved. So…how about us?  If we were in their shoes—and we are—would we thrive? Let us uncross our arms and unclench our fists. Let us step out of our norms, utter fools rich with love for God and his creation. Love the boy with the pierced tongue and the girl with the colorful spiked hair. Celebrate the squirmy children and crabby seniors. Let us leave behind all the notions that keep us feeling safe, comfortable and caged. Do you want to keep this church you love? Do you want to offer it to generations undreamed of? Then we had better love larger and louder than this blessed organ, and serve more sacrificially than anything the Duke City has ever seen.  Decide to let go of the things that you think will save you, because nothing but true love of God’s beloved ever will. Have the courage to share this church which you love with your life. Let’s learn to love this time and place and neighborhood differently, passionately, loudly.  Dare to love the world as much as Christ loves us. Let us stretch our weakest muscles and walk with Christ so that all may rest in peace.

We said we would follow him as Lord and savior.  And he is watching. We said that we would seek human dignity in every dark corner of this broken world. And he is waiting. Let’s take on the muck of the human race and, together, you and me and whole darn mess will be transformed by his love. Present yourselves, your souls, hearts, minds and bodies. Present your whole lives as a holy living sacrifice.  Give back to God what is his anyway.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Learning to love differently is hard. He will take all that we have and ask for more. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent 2 B BCP              Cathedral of St. John, Albuquerque                     March 4, 2012