Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sermon: The Power of Love

A sermon by Rev. Karen Siegfriedt of St. Jude the Apostle Episcopal Church, Cupertino, California, U.S.A., given October 26, 2008 (source link here).

Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like unto it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I met a priest who came from a large Italian family from back east. Each of his parents had eight siblings, all of whom were married. This meant that he had 32 aunts and uncles as well as 54 cousins. Each year on the first Sunday of December, this clan would meet at a restaurant where they would begin their reunion with a mass, followed by a catered dinner. It was a time of great joy and celebration. While many of his relatives were remarkable, there was one aunt and uncle who stood out for him. After many years of marriage, this particular couple acted like they were just coming back from their honeymoon: doting on each other & tenderly caring for one another.

This uncle had a very important business which he created and grew to success. His work gave great meaning to his life and he was very generous with his earnings. After many years of marriage, his wife became very sick. Instead of putting her in a nursing facility, her husband took her home to care for her. There he would bath her, feed her, and give her the emotional support that she needed. Why did he work so hard and care so much for his ailing wife? It was the power of love!

After awhile, his wife improved and he returned to work in the business which meant so much to him. But then his wife became ill once more. He made a decision to sell his business and to spend his primary time and energy taking care of her. Why would he sell his business rather than hire a home health aid? Why would he give up his meaningful career? It was the power of love!

One evening while upstairs in their bedroom, he heard a noise in the basement. He ran downstairs, opened the door, and immediately a ball of fire came out at him. The force of the fire threw him several feet, injuring his arm and leg. His hair and clothes were on fire but all he could think of was his wife lying upstairs in her bed. He quickly rolled himself over and patted himself down to put out the fire on his body. Then he struggled upstairs. Though he was a man of small stature and his wife had limited mobility, he carried her downstairs, safely to the outside. How could a man who was so injured carry another person down a flight of stairs, not even considering the danger to his own life? It was the power of love.

Once outside, he carried his wife over to his neighbor’s house to insure that she would be safe if the entire house were to blow up. But while carrying her up the porch stairs, he slipped on the steps and they both fell. The fire engines and the ambulance finally came. And as he was being put on a stretcher he insisted that the medics attend to his wife first and foremost. How could he possibly consider the other when he was in such pain himself? It was the power of love!

By the time he was evaluated at the hospital, he had little hope of survival. His lungs were seared and there were burns all over his body. They told him of his prognosis but he did not want to die. He was determined not to give up but rather to live in order to take care of his wife who needed him. How could he be so determined in that weakened state? It was the power of love.

The doctors decided to put him on a respirator and induce a coma for two months. It was “touch and go” every step of the way. But when the two months were over, he recovered his health and was reunited with his wife. It was the power of love that had sustained him and healed him.

God’s love is like that. Christ’s love is like that. It never ends. In fact the Christian path is all about love. And the good news is that when we are baptized into this power of love, we are given the grace to love God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourselves. And while this sacrament gives us the grace to love abundantly, it does require us to have an open heart. Are you committed to letting this power of love take over your life and the life of your child? What will it take for you to say yes? Let’s take a look at today’s readings to gain some insight on what it means to follow the great commandment to love.

The Book of Leviticus was given to Israel so that its people might live holy lives in fellowship with a holy God. The Jewish people were to be a blessing to other nations and were required to follow a way of life that would guarantee their well being. For modern-day readers, this book of Leviticus is very challenging because many of its laws were written in the context of a patriarchal society. Many folks begin reading the bible from the beginning with enthusiasm, but by the time they read the book of Leviticus (which is only the third book) they run out of steam. But what I find most helpful about the book of Leviticus, is that it speaks about the importance of both love for God and love of neighbor.

Christians seem to be split on which of these two is most important. Some Christians focus on faith and love of God to the exclusion of social justice and love of neighbor. Other Christians focus on ethics and justice but fail to grow in love of the Lord and in holiness. Both positions are deficient.

Our reading today begins with the command: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” [Lev. 19] When we say that God is holy, what does this reveal about the character of God? The scriptures tell us that God is compassionate, gracious, abounding in love and mercy. And on the justice side, God is also intolerant of evil, sin, and destruction and tries to purify creation. And because we are also called to be holy, we are called to purify ourselves and to develop the qualities of compassion and graciousness, abounding in love and mercy. To imitate God in these virtues is one of the ways we love God. To love God means to place God at the center our lives; the ultimate point of reference for human life. One of the ways we can learn how to move out of the center and allow God to take this rightful place is through prayer, worship, and praise. These will be some of the promises we will make today as we renew our own baptismal covenant.

But loving God is not enough. Loving our neighbor is inseparable from loving God. The 19th chapter* of Leviticus explores holiness in regard to how we are to treat our neighbor; specifically with regard for the poor and the rich, regard for the truth, regard for the employee and the helpless. It culminates with the injunction to love your neighbor as yourself. This injunction goes right to the core of the matter. It declares that the state of one’s heart toward one’s neighbor is the determining factor in being holy towards one’s neighbor as God is holy. No one is to hate one’s brother or sister. It would be better to openly rebuke another person rather that to brood or to build up resentment. Offering a rebuke when someone has done something wrong is done out of concern for the whole community.

In a modern interpretation of Leviticus, this love of neighbor is summed up in our baptismal promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. It includes “striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.”

I think people make the Christian religion far too difficult. It is simply a way of life. Love God and love your neighbor. Everything else is a commentary on this great commandment.

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