Sunday, October 26, 2008

Showing Us How to Show Up

Sermon preached October 26, 2008
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, CA

Good morning.

It’s been a tough week for many of us. By now, most of you have heard the news that on Monday, Don McIntyre – a beloved and longtime member of our congregation – died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage.

This week I spent a bit of time with Carol and her children and in-laws; they’re doing okay – or at least as well as you might expect – and wanted me to thank you for the cards and flowers that have been pouring in.

This is a shocking one, because Don was so vigorous and healthy. Just last Sunday he was ushering here; I caught sight of him as I was crossing the street to preach at the Unitarian church and we waved hello. At the age of 74, it looked like he would keep on going forever.

Just a few weeks ago he and Carol stood here and talked about their love for this church. We never got to return the favor – to speak of our love for him.
Not that Don would have had much time for that anyway. He was a pretty straightforward guy, not very interested in big expressions of gratitude. But underneath his precise crew cut and piercing eyes he had a huge heart; in fact there were times, like when he asked to have his marriage vows renewed, when he was nothing but a big tub of feelings.

That being said, though, most of the time Don channeled his love into doing good things for people.

Don was all about doing good things for people.

A few years ago I got it into my head that I was going to build a big beautiful new workbench system in my garage. Most of it was simple carpentry – nothing I couldn’t handle – but the plan also involved installing a series of lights and outlets for my power tools. And knowing nothing about electricity I asked Don McIntyre if he might come over and show me how to wire it.

And Don said, “Sure, I’ll be there tomorrow.”

Now, I never asked him if he actually wanted to do this work – and there were moments during the next two afternoons – like when we finished the job and flipped on the switch and the lights refused to go on – when I thought I heard some quiet expressions of regret...

But this is the point – his interest in helping out was never about his feelings or desires. He would never have said, “Yes, I want to help you, because I like you.” That would have been so beside the point. Because for Don, that was not how love was measured. Real love is not measured in mere feelings. Real love is about showing up. It’s about helping out, even when – maybe even especially when – you don’t much feel like it. Real love is not measured in mere feelings.

This is the difference between boys and men, by the way. I’m not qualified to speak about the difference between girls and women – but I do know a little about boys and men. A boy – and of course there are lots of boys living into their 80s and beyond – will say “I love you” whenever he has a warm feeling. “Will you do the dishes?” “, but I love you.” “Will you help out with the shopping and the cooking and the cleaning?” “Well... I love you!” “Will you get off your butt and make yourself useful once in a while?” “I just love you so much.”

That’s not love. That’s delusion.

I’m not sure Don would have wanted me to turn him into a sermon illustration but, well, he picked a fine time to leave us (as the song goes). Because it just so happens that Don McIntyre’s life perfectly illustrates what Jesus is talking in our Gospel this morning. Because he’s talking about love.

In her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott talks about this Biblical concept of love and about how confusing it can be. She tells the story about being in church: “....Everything was sweet at church, the singing, the kindness, and then the pastor had to go and ruin it all by giving a sermon about loving our enemies.”

She goes on to describe, in exquisite and hilarious detail, her magnificent effort at loving our president. Now, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, whether your challenge is loving McCain or loving Obama, I think all of us can relate to this challenge of how we not only love our neighbor, but love our opponents. In this age of electioneering and sloganeering, as we are in the middle of this enormous culture war, as these politics of division rend our country and each side paints the other in the most hateful and unflattering of terms – how do we love one another?

You know, I sometimes think that, for all the talk that Christians talk about love, we are more confused about that word than just about any other.

Because the Biblical idea of love is not what we usually think of when we consider that word. In fact, I think it is fair to say that the Biblical concept of love may be one of the most misunderstood ideas in modern religion.

When we talk about love as modern western people, we tend to think of emotional states and in terms of longing and desire. In that respect love is often mixed up with what we want – what we desire, what we will have for ourselves. When I say, “I love ice cream” I’m talking about something I want for myself. I want to taste it; I want to feel it melting on my tongue. We can barely talk about love without putting ourselves in the middle of the equation.

But the Jewish concept of love – “Ahava,” which is the concept that Jesus understood – has nothing to do with your desire; it has nothing to do with your feelings; in fact it’s not about you.

When the Bible talks about love, with the exception of the Song of Solomon which is just a romantic love poem that someone snuck in there, it’s not talking about wistful staring at the moon or long walks on the beach. It simply talks about good deeds. It’s about showing up; it’s about doing what you promised to do. And that’s confusing to those of us who define love in terms of feelings.

In our gospel this morning Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment and he answers as any rabbi of his time would answer, which is to quote the great “Shema” of Deuteronomy 6:

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

This is the defining first principle of Judaism. They would be among the first words memorized by a young child. And the very next verse explains what to do about this love:

6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

This is how we make this love real – we recite this love; we teach our children about this love; we bind these words; we fix them; we write them on the doorposts. This is why Judaism is so devoted to its commandments. God has given us all these ways to act out our love; this is what it means to love – here, do this. Then do that. All of the kosher laws of Judaism, all of the commandments, are nothing but expressions of love. They are vehicles by which we make God’s love real.

This is what Jesus was trying to remind us.

We know instinctively that when Jesus said “love your neighbor” he was not saying “have nice warm feelings toward your neighbors.” Not that Jesus had a problem with feelings – Jesus was a sensitive guy – he had his warm and fuzzy side for sure. And make no mistake – feelings are important. A man who is out of touch with his feelings is dangerous to the world. But Jesus was grounded in a higher standard for love than mere feelings. He was grounded in a Biblical standard.

This is difficult for us to grasp, because in our Western culture we have become so awakened to our internal states that we end up deeply confused. We are so hyper-sensitive to our internal emotional states that we allow them to control us. In the 60’s, it was “If it feels good, do it.” Now, if it doesn’t feel good, we won’t do it. If I’m not comfortable with you, I’ll avoid you. If I don’t like you, I won’t help you.

It even drives our politics. If candidates don’t make us feel something that we want to feel, we won’t vote for him, regardless of what their policies will actually accomplish in the world. It’s gotten to the point that the political debates are almost entirely judged on how the candidates make us feel, how successful they are in manipulating our emotions, rather than whether or not their ideas will work in the real world. And that’s just crazy!

And so we are deeply confused. People honestly believe that religion is impossible because it expects them to believe, as Alan Jones says, “ten impossible things before they eat their breakfast in the morning.” But it’s not about what you think; it’s about what you do. And other people honestly believe that religion is impossible because it asks them to feel something – love – for God or for neighbor not to mention their enemies – that they are simply not feeling. But again, that’s not what the Bible is talking about. Our love is not measured by our feelings. Our love is measured by what we do.

Sure, we are saved by faith. Faith is a gift, the work of the Holy Spirit. But as James and Paul both point out, if our faith does not lead us into good works, it’s not faith. It’s delusion.

These are the principles that make the difference between a good person and a great person; and they make the difference between a good nation and a great nation. Voltaire is credited with saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That’s a Biblical idea: to defend your neighbor’s right to speak, not because you like what he has to say, not because you feel warm and fuzzy by what he says, but because it’s the right thing to do to allow him to speak.

When the news went out that Obama traveled to Hawaii to visit his grandmother, who is very ill and might not live much longer, a bunch of his supporters sent cards and flowers of support. That’s very nice. But when McCain supporters sent Obama a card – now that’s Biblical.

As John says in his second letter, “This is love, that we follow his commandments.” What are his commandments? It’s simple: just show up. Live for Christ – no longer for yourself. And if Jesus seems just too distant or vague, think of Don McIntyre, who showed up, and showed us how: Don’t let your feeling states control your life; live by your deeper values; respond to your higher calling; do the right thing.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

Who is Blessing Whom?

“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”

Today, we are blessing the animals – but the truth is, the animals do not need our blessing, do they? Are they not deeply blessed already? And do they not bless us every day?

Our religion is not like some religions, including other versions of Christianity, that say that the material world and all that is in it is fallen and corrupted. No – Anglicanism tends toward a “greener” theology, if you will – we tend to believe that all the world is, as Genesis says, “Good.” God created this world, with all its fishes of the sea and birds of the air and declared it to be good. Very good, in fact.

So we might bless our animals; but only in recognition of how our animals bless us.

Archbishop William Temple said, “Christianity is the most materialistic of all the great religions.” I think Judaism would argue, but the point is that the material world is not, for Anglicans, a place of darkness and evil but a place brimming over with the presence of God. And we have no better example of that than our pets, who every day show us what it means to be unselfconsciously alive in the Kingdom of God.

My Bernese Mountain Dog Penny is a great example of that for me. Every morning when she hears me coming down the stairs, no matter the hour, she gets up and greets me with tail wagging. And from that moment to the moment I climb the stairs at night to go to bed, she prefers to be by my side more than anything else.

If Penny had to choose between love and food, she would choose love. If we're gone too long from home, she simply won't eat.

And isn’t that true for most of us? When I visit shut-ins or folks in nursing homes, people who are very lonely, so often I find people who have simply lost their appetites. Without love, we lose our will even to eat.

Our pets show us what it’s like to live in unity with the Creation, and to live completely for love. They are examples to us of what life in full communion with God might be like: they do not carry the stain of original sin; they are not fallen; they have not disappointed God’s divine plan; which is why when we are with them we feel their blessing on us.

This quote has been attributed to several people in various iterations: “The more I know about people, the more I like dogs.” (Gloria Allred) But St. Francis would never have said that, would he? What’s amazing about St. Francis is that the more he knew about God, the more he loved people, and dogs, and birds, and cats and dogs.

This is perhaps the best testimony to his saintliness – not that he loved animals, but that he loved humans just as much.

St. Francis was in love with everything – all of creation; all of the animals; all of the humans – even the leper, whose face he kissed when he was still a rich young man. Even the Sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil, the proclaimed enemy of the civilized world, the Osama Bin Laden of his day. While the rest of the Christian world was launching its crusade against the Muslims, Francis walked across enemy lines, fully expecting to be martyred, in a bid to seek peace and understanding.

What prevents us from falling in love with everything, just like St. Francis? Why can’t we be more like him, arms outstretched, in communion with all of nature all of the time?

Well, if we were to ask St. Francis that question, we might not like what he says. Because the depth of St. Francis’ love is linked with his love of poverty. “Sister Poverty” he called her, whom he took as his wife. For Francis, as well as for Jesus, poverty was not something to be feared but rather to be welcomed.

Given the economy these days, we might find some comfort in this – to know that what we fear most might actually draw us toward a path to the deepest joy we will ever know.

But the economy is worrisome. I was in the store the other day looking for dog food and noticed that a can of Alpo has gone up to a dollar. ...And you know, that’s $7 in dog money...

But seriously, folks...

Maybe we are not all called to the same level of poverty that Jesus and St. Francis were called to. But we can take some comfort in knowing that poverty is not the worst thing that can happen to us – and in fact, according to our saints, might even be God’s way of getting our attention and leading us into our deepest joy.

And if we are not aspiring to absolute poverty, we can at least aspire to spiritual growth. I love that bumper sticker: “Lord, help me to become the person my dog thinks I am.”

After all: To err is human; to forgive, canine.

Somebody say... AMEN.