This sermon was preached by the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle on Ascension Day 2018 (May 10) at the Celebration of New Ministry for the Rev. John Newton at St. Michael’s, Austin, TX. Listen to it here.
The 1855, Leaves of Grass, is one of the most important collections of American poetry. In it Walt Whitman wrote these inaugural words: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men — go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families — re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”
John and St. Michaels, oh that you should become such a great poem.
God invites, has invited us since the time of Abram and Sarai, to abide in God’s love. Specifically, in John's Gospel chapter 15, Jesus invites those who wish to follow him to steer their natural affections, their gut reactions, beyond what seems reasonable, beyond reason itself, towards a life of higher practice.
Jesus's words to His disciples are: "God loves me, I love you. You love God… love neighbor… keep my commandant." So “we love the ones we are with”, sings Stephen Stills. We love our family. We love our children. We love our friends. We've got the commandment checked off. Easy. Done. Boom.
And why not? It is natural. I mean it actually turns out to be human nature. This is how humans work. Psychologist, researcher, and author, Brené Brown writes, "We have a irreducible need for love and belonging. We are,"she writes, "biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired. It is our makeup to love, to be loved, and to belong."
Moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, points out that our affections rule us, our reason merely guides us. Our affections are wired to be sensitive to those who will be good partners for collaboration and reciprocity. We look for those who will do good things for us and with us when we do good things for them. We are wired to be sensitive to those who will be a good team player - who will join in and work with us on our team, on our tribe. Who will be one like us.
And we reward these relationships naturally. We naturally build community. We surround ourselves with people, naturally. We work for and with them. In fact, we move into neighborhoods that are filled with people who are just like us. Loving God and neighbor is what we're wired to do. It is filial love, an affection – one to another. This makes us a strong tribe, a strong family, a strong church, a strong city, and a strong nation.
Our emotions take us here; and our reason, our minds, help us to defend such choices. So, we love the ones that we are with and in so doing can make a natural case for why.
The church has for a season been at work doing just this…what comes natural. To build a tribal faith, a strong faith, rooted in our reasonable defense of that which binds us. And,
the church has written systematic theologies, apologetics, and colonized a world based upon a mission to bring into the fold, those who are of different cultures, but who will become like us, think like us, believe like us. And, if they are willing to join our tribe they will belong like us.
But that is not the Gospel. That is not what the Gospel says. God in Christ Jesus invites and offers us, unfortunately, a much harder discipleship. A practice that is unnatural. One, that I promise is categorically uncomfortable and discomforting to the tribe. And it, in fact, causes us to pause and think a bit longer about our assumed reasonable first thoughts.
And, I would argue, without this expansion of thought on Jesus’ Gospel invitation, our very theology of mission, our missiology, is at its worst nothing more than a convoluted club-ish Christianity.
After all, Haidt points out, we are wired for belonging and connectivity, but there is a shadow side too. We are just as sensitive and disinclined as human beings to do good for those who cannot return the favor. We are wired to ostracize those who aren't on our team. In a flash of a second, we are told, genetically, biologically, by our gut, by our emotions, by our affections who to love and who to cast out.
We are bound yes, and we are blinded.
Jesus invites us to live beyond our natural affections, beyond our gut intuition, beyond affection, beyond the reasonable defense of our insular focus.
Jesus invites us to live a life of practice that is more than loving the one that we are with. He does this primarily by redefining the word "neighbor." Jesus redefines neighbor in the story of the Good Samaritan, and I would offer that he does so in his own life, and ministry.
He challenges the disciples to do the same… ultimately revealing his new definition of neighbor to the world through their mission.
In the Gospel, the Good Samaritan, the neighbor, is more than family, more than kin, more than tribe. Neighbor is more than the people of our small community or our church. Neighbor is more than those who think like us. Neighbor is more than those whose faith is the same as ours.
When Jesus is talking about the love we are bound by (God’s love), the commandment love, it is of a particular nature. It is more than a love that is given to those who can return love. It is not an exchange love or reciprocity kind of love. It is uncaused. There is no reason for it.
In other words, a person does not get it by somehow deserving it. This love that Jesus is talking about, sometimes called agape, is indifferent to merit. It is not earned. It flows beyond our tribal identities, our political, religious, and national identities.
It makes something new.
This love makes something new rather than being dependent upon relationship ties that presently exist or have possibility for mutual benefit. It makes new relationship ties between others by being freely given. It builds connections by grace. It creates, and forms, and molds new and different kind of communities.
This Gospel love is based upon God's love of creation and for all people. A love which is given on the cross, though we deserve it not. You cannot earn God's love. God freely saves sinners like you and me. We are the beneficiaries of such redemptive love. We experience a God who loves us, no matter the broken road that has gotten me, or you, or us thus far on the way. God's love for us is unearned, unmerited, and undeserved.
As John Calvin wrote, "The love of the Father towards the Son, and of the Son towards us, and us towards God and our neighbor are joined together with an inseparable knot.”
Love is the sinew, from the ancient word sin, the knot, the tree, the cross. We are intertwined as cordons and canes on a grape vine, as branches of a tree, as the arms of a cross. Jesus calls you and I to a higher love than what comes naturally. He is raising the bar beyond our creaturely way of doing things.
Jesus is inviting us to a higher commandment, a higher practice, a difficult rule of life outside our comfort zone. Jesus invites us, you and me, to rise above the natural limits, boundaries, we place on love and community and to love as God loves. Christ invites us beyond our definition of kin, of family, of neighbor, and tribe.
This is important because I want to make clear your relationship – John and St. Michaels – is not about your friendship or your filial love, the affection type love alone. Your love, the love that binds you together in this community, is more than what comes naturally, a liking, or reciprocal kind of love. It is not about agreement… or if you can become one family. These are all good things indeed. And, after having worked with John Newton over these many years, I do believe you shall have this affection for one another.
But this is not what binds you together as a church and makes you different from other communities and tribes. That which binds you is about loving beyond your natural inclinations to do so. Your missional success will hinge upon: loving as God loves. By abiding in this love, in this way, you will, as a community have some hope to love the other, to stand up with others in solidarity and reconciliation, to devote yourself to them, to have a patience and indulgence of others, to go freely with those who are not part of your tribe and those society looks not upon, to re-examine and question all you think you know about this strange Gospel of Jesus, to rise above petty arguments about God and injuries to your soul, and to bear the marks of the cross.
Only in understanding that you are called out beyond your return, to venture a life, to gamble and risk courageously a love that may not be repaid, will you become the mission vessel God intends the church to incarnate.
In this way your life together, in mission, in community,shall ring out like a poem God’s love.