In the name of the God who creates us, the Christ who ties us together, and the Spirit who is the bond. Amen.
By this point in my ministry, I’ve been a priest a little over nine years. I began preaching about 13 years ago. And one of the great joys of starting to get this bit of experience under my belt, is that now, when I encounter a text for preaching, it’s almost never the first time I’ve been called on to preach about it. Through quirks of the calendar, there are still some odd days that don’t appear in our 3-year cycle very often, so it’s not like “I’ve seen it all”, but more and more, I’m finding that I’ve seen it before.
Sometimes that can be a challenge – how does one find something new to say about what can sometimes feel like “the same old thing”. But sometimes, through whatever inspiration strikes – be it the Holy Spirit, or perseverance, or experience, or some blend of that and whatever else – sometimes, the “same old thing” takes on a new life.
If you’ve had very much experience in church at all, you’re likely to have heard the leading words of this morning’s Gospel lesson at some point or another: “Love your enemies”. It’s one of those defining notions of what it means to be a Christian. Our Presiding Bishop talks about it as “The Way of Love”. The recognition that the main message of Jesus, and as such, of the Christian movement, is about love. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies. Like the old song says, “Looking for love in all the wrong places” – that’s what we, as Christians, are called to do. Not just to look for love where it comes easy, or where we expect to find it, but in all those “wrong places”. In the unexpected places. In the unlikely places. Because that’s where God’s love is – in all the unlikely places. Everywhere we expect, but also everywhere else.
Truth be told, it’s an easy sermon to preach, even if it is, sometimes, a little predictable.
But this week, though I’ve encountered these words who knows how many times throughout my preaching life – let alone the rest of my life – this week, these familiar words took me somewhere else.
My mind went back to Africa. My first time ever to travel abroad was a trip to Ghana, in West Africa. It was during seminary, when I took a course studying the origins of African American spirituality as related to their roots in indigenous religious practices in Africa. Like a lot of people from European-descended cultures, one of my first epiphanies from that experience was around the African approach to community. I now realize that it’s sort of cliché for a white guy to talk about learning about community from African or Native American cultures, but symbols communicating the importance of interconnectedness are practically everywhere you turn there. One of my favorites is a woodcarving that Michael and I have displayed in our home. It’s the image of three individuals, leaning back in a circle and looking in at one another. It moves – it can be stored in a more compact form, or rest in its open form. But the amazing thing about it is, though it represents three individuals and they can each move independently, they’re also inseparable, because they’re carved from a single piece of wood. In addition to being a beautiful piece of folk art, it’s also a profound representation of the interconnectedness we all share. For an American who has been steeped in the culture of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, and individuality, and uniqueness, this carving represented a radical social statement. A radical social outlook.
But the thing is, I was also raised in the church. I grew up hearing “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” I grew up hearing “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”
These all represent a radical social outlook, just as surprising as that which I saw represented in the woodcarving.
The thing is, love can’t be done alone. I mean, you can love yourself. You should love yourself. But most love takes other people. It takes something or someone outside of ourselves to give and to receive. If the message of Jesus really is the message of love, as we all so easily say, then maybe the message of Jesus is really the message of community and interconnectedness. Maybe the message of Jesus is really closer to that African woodcarving than it is to the dominant American ideal of self-reliance.
As much as our culture pressures us to find self-reliance, none of us really have. We need others in very real and physical ways. We don’t exist on our own and we didn’t get to where we are on our own. We learn from others. We are nurtured and nourished by others. Our spirits are fed when we teach, and nurture, and nourish others.
One of the gifts we have in the church is that this is one of the increasingly few places in our world where true community can remain an ideal. You may not be encouraged to look for the greater good in business, or in school, or even in many of the ways we entertain ourselves when we’re not working. But in the church, at least for a little while each week, we get to spend some time not just on our own, but in striving for community. And we can stretch our minds and our hearts to try to redefine community in bigger and better ways, to reach farther toward the ideal of God. To pull ourselves into something beyond ourselves.
It may be the “same old thing”, but we need it anew each day. May God grant us the vision to see ourselves as more than just ourselves; and may God grant us the courage to give ourselves over. Amen.