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Love’s Practicality

A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 20 February 2022 [Epiphany 7]:

Genesis 45:3-11, 15; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50; Luke 6:27-38

“Love” is a big word. I can’t imagine anyone being neutral about it. It seems that “love” is either that main thing that we seek and desire; or love is that which causes us to recoil with pain and frustration. Of course, Jesus talks a great deal about “love”, as in the love of God. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has importantly and effectively made “love” the center piece of his ministry among us. “Valentine’s Day” (just passed) proposes the celebration of “love” and the ones we love – or desire. In all of this, including some of the church’s loose usage of the term, the reality is that we have turned “love” into a four-letter word, to the extent that we have turned “love” into a feeling, a commodity, a drug. And it is at this point that I can’t help but hear the raspy, plaintive voice of Tina Turner and her indictment of all this: “What’s love got to do with it, do with it?”

In the last two weeks, we have been engaged in Luke’s gospel rendition of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, except in Luke’s reporting Jesus has come down from the heights to give this “sermon” on level ground. So it is that in the Third Gospel, we have Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain”. In Luke’s storytelling, we have in rapid succession the accounts of Jesus’ birth; his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptizer; his testing in the wilderness; his tumultuous first sermon at his home synagogue; several run-ins with the snooping Pharisees; and finally his retreat into the Galilean hills for what surely was some centering prayer. It is when this prayer time was completed that Jesus calls his discipling team together and then comes down to the crowds to offer (through the “blessings” and “woes”) his understanding of what the consequences of the God-life are. Now in today’s gospel, the other half of Jesus’ “sermon” emerges with its message of what participating in the God-life entails.

You heard the gospel lesson. You heard what serves as the job description of a Christian person. Again with reference to our Presiding Bishop’s sense of belonging to the “Jesus Movement”, “[the God-life] is all about love”. And it’s as big a job as it is important. Listen to Jesus describe with different words “what love’s got to do with it”.

To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them…

[The Message. Luke 6:27-41]

There it is in the proverbial nutshell. What do you think about this? I mean, what do you really think about these words? Are they really words to live by? Are they teachings that you and I are willing to take seriously enough to put into play? So, I ask you again: “What’s love got to do with it – got to do with it?”

The answer most of us have reverberating in our hearts is that these teachings are hard because they so severely contradict the way the world operates, so much so that taking what Jesus says seriously can be dangerous, not just inconvenient.

I hear the indictment of this God-life orientation coming from my own soul: “This is not practical!” The truth is, what I am really saying is that I am not brave enough to take the risk of such a surrendering of my will to be that faithful. And from experience, I know that I am not alone in this. For instance, I remember being told what one father said to his son, who was a priest at the time. Upon hearing the recitation of the Beatitudes perhaps for the hundredth time in his life, at the proclamation of “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”, the old man was heard to growl: “Yeah, six feet of it!” He, too, is not alone in these sentiments.

So, what do we do? Do we relegate these fundamental words of Jesus as “church-talk”, going in one ear and out the other; or do they somehow stand as something that guides us in a beckoning way to be and do more than we are apt to be and do on our own?

Currently in my life and in this point of national and world history, like many of you, I feel a bit lost, unsteady. I am not sure about the future nor my place in it. I don’t know where I fit. It’s all so unnerving: The fact that nearly one million of us have died from the virus, that ten thousand of us die each week – mostly the unvaccinated; the fact that Eastern Europe unthinkably finds itself preparing for war; that our national life has become a political version of a television reality show; the fact that in this swirling context each of us still has to face the responsibilities and demands of paying our bills and finding a modicum of peace. In all of this, I was given a lifeline this past week. It was a piece of practical wisdom that reminded me of my life with God and with God’s people. Of all sources, the refocusing wisdom came from the insight of Meister Eckhart, the late 13th, early 14th century, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic. In describing the tumult of his times (which mirror our own), Eckhart offered this sage advice: “Take the next step”.

“The next step”: It is what I need to do in the face of such uncertainty both in its local and far away forms. Take the next step: It is the practical antidote to the paralyzing fear we so powerfully can taste. Take the next step: I believe this is all that Jesus lovingly asks us to do. Take the next step as we strive and struggle to follow him, our saving guide. Take the next step: It is something each of us can do because one step is often the difference between a direct hit and a near miss.

Take the next step: It is a step of faith into the life that is not under our control and regularly violates our instincts and habits. But, nonetheless, taking the next step is given as hope, as redemption, as new and lasting life. God’s life reminds us that fear and death are oh-so-real; but they are not the definers of life, God’s life, our life.

Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Take the next step; move in Jesus’ direction. Don’t dodge it. Don’t dismiss it because it is hard, inconvenient, or even terrifying. Take the next step. Let God use that step to help you and through you to help God’s world – one step at a time.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one who took the next step and did some significant walking thereafter. Here is a portion of what he knew about taking the next step in love, for love. King writes:

Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.

That’s what “love’s got to do with it…do with it”.

Lord, have mercy. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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