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The power of love

May 26, 2012

A sermon delivered Oct. 23, 2011, at First Presbyterian Church of Denton, Texas

First reading: Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18

Second reading: Matthew 22: 34-40

      The late Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, but he was best known as the host of the long-running PBS children’s show “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” You remember him, don’t you — the sweater, the kind smile, the gentle voice? Perhaps some of you grew up watching it and recall fondly how, at the beginning of each show, Mr. Rogers would arrive singing “Won’t you be my neighbor?,” change into that famous zippered cardigan sweater and a pair of comfortable sneakers.

      Mr. Rogers seemed so kind, so unpretentious that he was sometimes the subject of parody. Imitation, they say, is the highest form of flattery. A particularly entertaining portrayal was a regular skit on the old Saturday Night Live with Eddie Murphy welcoming guests to “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” where, shall we say, the accommodations were not so nice nor the residents so kind.

      Fred Rogers spent a lifetime in children’s education, pursuing an idea that television could be used to accomplish great and wonderful ends. He said, “I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.”  

      The culmination of his career came in 1997 when he received a lifetime achievement award at the Daytime Emmys. His acceptance of the honor was a moment in history many will never forget, when glitz and glamor came face to face with something much more awesome. It was captured this way in an article by Tom Junod in Esquire magazine:

      “Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award — and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence.”  And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, “I’ll watch the time.” There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked. And so they did. One second, two seconds, seven seconds — and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier. And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly “May God be with you,” to all his vanquished children.”

        Such is the power of love, gentle and inviting, and suddenly overwhelming, a force of God that breaks down barriers, softens defenses. Love is the very presence of the divine, all the more overpowering when it suddenly surprises us and wins us over, and for at least a brief stretch of time, we know in our innermost being that love is truly eternal.

       As we heard this morning in the reading from Leviticus, loving God and loving neighbor were not new commandments that Jesus came up with when he was put on the spot one day. They are at the heart of Judaism. Loving one another sums up the ethics of the Torah, covering all the various ethical duties not specifically mentioned.  But what Jesus did was relate the two commandments to in a way that we often miss today in our reading of the biblical translations.

      The Greek word that is often translated ‘like’ — as in the ‘second commandment is like it’ — means equal in rank.  So, Jesus is not saying that love your neighbor is the second greatest commandment, which is how we tend to hear this passage. He is actually saying that “this second commandment is on the same level as the first — which I have already said is the greatest.”  So these two commandments are the co-greatest, if you will.

        Loving God and loving neighbor belong together. In fact, one cannot thrive apart from the other. Living them out is to unleash the Spirit of God in our world and come closer to the Kingdom of God, the Peaceable Reign that Jesus envisioned on earth as well as in heaven. How do these two commandments work together? Many hundreds of years ago, a Christian thinker named Evagrius Pontus came to the understanding that love of neighbor is love of God because it is love of the image of God. This, my friends, is a 4th century idea rooted in the biblical witness that has joyful promise for those of us living amidst the many divisions in the 21st Century United States. 

       Each of us bear the image of God, not just those of us who are gathered in this sanctuary this morning, but those who are out on the golf course or holding a cardboard sign at an Occupy Wall Street gathering, for we are all, Genesis 1:27 tells us, created in the divine image. One scholar has written that the image of God is not like an image permanently stamped on a coin, but rather more like an image reflected in a mirror.

     A Syrian Christian monk named John of Damascus painted an intriguing picture of the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit dancing together, as if in a ballet. God lives in loving community, and so humans created in the image of God are meant to live in loving community with one another. Humanity was placed in a garden, where God was present, walking in the cool of the day, the evening breeze. Celtic Christians believed that creation was translucent – the glory of God shone through it, and monasteries first planted gardens in an attempt to recapture something of the Garden of Eden. The garden or vineyard is a place where we come in contact with the divine and become co-workers with God and our neighbors.   

     Those with whom we come in contact, whether or not they share our beliefs or traditions, are also made in God’s image and no less beneficiaries of the love of the triune God. Our trust in Jesus Christ – perfect example of the image of God — therefore affords no position of spiritual privilege to lord over others, but instead allows us to recognize that God’s compassion, justice and promises are for everyone. Some people call this Good News.        

       Amidst cultural and religious disagreements, there is the promise of harmony when one acknowledges the image of God present in an opponent. When we say words of peace to our neighbor, when we serve our neighbor, we are serving and loving God. While working together in blessed community, the peace and love of God in Christ is released into our personal lives, families and communities. In this way, God has chosen us as partners to work together for reconciliation with the divine and with our brothers and sisters: the Kingdom of God, a realm where love and respect and mutuality reside.

        This last week has been a difficult one for me. The road to ordained ministry contains many blessings, but like any journey, it contains obstacles, disappointments and setbacks. For five weeks my wife and I have waited to hear from a church where we had flown out and interviewed. We fell in love with it. We really thought this was the one. We were certain that it was. But we learned this week that I am not called to be pastor of that church. So much of life involves dealing with feelings of loss that come in so many different forms. Perhaps some of you have suffered the loss of job or a relationship, or a promise that seemed so certain, yet went unfulfilled. Perhaps you have found it difficult to move ahead to what God has in store for your life because a loss was so crushing.  

        The other day I was in my front yard, my mind returning to the loss I experienced, and what might have been, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that my wife’s flower garden remained full of life, even with the advent of these recent cooler temperatures. I walked over and looked at it, realizing that I had not even known how the rains and moderate weather had brought out so many different colors, the handiwork of the Creator.  I don’t know the names of flowers very well, but they were tall and short, red, blue and green. The colors were so brilliant. And then I remembered, years ago, hauling in the rocks and placing, them, at my wife’s direction, around the perimeter to form the garden. I recalled buying the bench that is still there, how heavy it was, and placing it in the middle of the garden and painting it. Then she repainted with what she thought was a better color. We labored together, and God was present, making it beautiful, renewing it to surprising splendor, again and again.      

Kerry’s flowers

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