We’ve put together a Sermon Reflection Guide to help you dig deeper into Bishop Mariann’s message. Use it on your own or in a small group.
Let love be genuine. . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In the name of God, our Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’d like to begin with a question:
When and how did you first learn that love is more than a feeling?
The word itself holds layers of meaning. We use the word love to describe our preferences for ice cream or music; our feelings we have for those closest to us, ranging from grandparents to lovers; our actions, and the impact of our actions on others.
A hard way to learn that love is more than a feeling is when someone who professes to love you treats you in ways that are not loving. It happens to all of us at some point, because those who love us are not perfect, nor are we perfect in our love for them. In most loving relationships, the gap between our words and deeds is the terrain for growth in love. It’s where we strengthen love’s muscles of forgiveness, acceptance, and our desire to be better people than we sometimes are. Learning to love well is a lifelong process of trial and error and trial again. We also learn that what doesn’t feel like love at first might be the most loving thing we can do for another. Think of a parent saying no to a toddler who wants to play with fire.
Sometimes, however, those who say that they love us seem to have no appreciation for, or concern about, the disconnect between their feelings of love and what we receive from them. It’s as if their love is an internal experience for them alone that doesn’t need to translate into loving words or deeds. I had that experience as a child, and I carry with me a memory of the day, somewhere around the age of 12, when I said to myself, “That is not love. If I ever have a kid, I’m never going to do that.”
I also remember what it felt like years later to recognize that people have different capacities for love; that some aren’t very good at it and aren’t interested in getting better. That helped me to forgive and seek the best possible relationship with people in my life who aren’t particularly good at love, while at the same time, wanting to be someone who acts in ways that others experience as loving. I often fail in love, as those close to me will tell you. But I’m willing to learn and to grow.
Let me now say what some of you may already be thinking, given what’s happening now in our country. There is a parallel between our definitions of love and of racism. As with love, most of us who have white skin begin with an understanding of racism that’s rooted in our feelings. We don’t like being told we’re racist, because we don’t harbor racist feelings, at least none that we’re conscious of or want to admit. We certainly would never say or do the things that blatant racists do, those who unapologetically believe that white people are superior to people whose skin is black or brown. If your definition of racism remains on the level of feelings, okay, but as with love, your impact for good will be limited.
There are other definitions of racism that have to do not only with how we feel, and how we treat an individual person of a different race, but also how willing we are to accept and complacently benefit from a society organized in such ways that people of color suffer more on every scale of well-being. We want to say that all lives matter, because they do. But as a country, we don’t act as if black and brown lives matter as much as white lives. We don’t. The disparities are everywhere–in health care, education, housing, policing, and in our churches. As Ibram X. Kendi writes, “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. . . The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.” As with love, what matters is less how we feel inside and what we actually commit our lives to changing in a racist society.
Circling back now to how we grow in love: one way that we grow is when we realize that we’re willing to act in ways that others experience as loving even when it costs us, when, as Jesus said, we have to make sacrifices and take on suffering. That’s when it dawns on us that sacrificial love is a choice. How we feel in a given moment is irrelevant.
The truth is, no loving relationship can survive if we aren’t willing to make sacrifices, to persist in love, persevere in choosing to love, even when loving feelings are absent. Fortunately, feelings of love wax and wane, and then return in a deeper way. Our capacity to love deepens and grows, so that we have more love to offer, which is something we’ll miss if we walk away too soon. I don’t mean to imply that we never walk away–sometimes our capacity to love isn’t large enough to hold what love requires or out of self-love we end an unloving relationship. But those are tragedies of a different order.
In these days of transition from summer to fall, I’ve been taking stock of my life over the last six months. It’s a humbling exercise at any time, but especially as so much has changed, so much has been lost; when we’ve all had to adapt to new realities and face hard truths. And because there are people who look to me for guidance and hope, I’ve been asking myself what they have learned from my example. What am I teaching, through how I live my life, about what it looks like to love in challenging times?
Suffice it to say that there’s been plenty to grieve and confess, and much for which to give thanks. Some things I’m proud of; others I’m not. Widening the lens to consider all that’s happening in our country, it’s clear that everything depends now upon our capacity to love, to choose love. There’s a lot at stake whenever we refuse to love, or cannot love when love is needed because we’ve never practiced those muscles.
As I turn my gaze toward the future, I find myself called back to the core practices and postures of a Jesus-focused life. It’s not that I wasn’t praying in the last six months–in some ways I’ve never prayed harder in my life. But the rhythms of my life and the practices that sustain me suffered in all the upheaval. Perhaps that’s been true for you. It’s understandable, and perhaps it was necessary. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a reset and rededication.
In the Episcopal Church, our presiding bishop Michael Curry has called us all to practices that help us strengthen our love muscles, to receive Jesus’ love for us and then to live in such a way that others experience His love through us. Those practices are called, appropriately, the Way of Love. There is nothing new or earth-shattering about them. They simply express the kind of intentionality necessary for growth. For in love, as in any other realm in life, we don’t drift toward our highest aspirations according to how we feel on a given day. There is sacrifice involved, discipline and practice.
The harsh truth is that if we don’t grow in our capacity to love, we become part of the problems we see all around us, and not the solution. The good news is that with effort, we can grow.
Let love be genuine, St. Paul writes as the opening line for one of the most compelling descriptions of what love in action looks like. If you have a Bible, you might look up the passage in Romans, Chapter 12, write it down for yourself and post it in a place where you can see it every day. It wasn’t Paul’s first attempt to describe such love. He wrote a similar passage in the letter we know as First Corinthians, one that no doubt you have heard many times at weddings:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. . . Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
(I Corinthians 13:1-8)
The passage from Romans is similar yet strikes different themes:
Let love be genuine.
Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with mutual affection;
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
These are compelling words to live by for anyone, for the call to love in action is universal. But for those of us who claim to be Christians, they aren’t optional. They are our mandate. The one commandment Jesus left for all of his followers is that we love one another as He loves us. That’s the only one, but it takes a lifetime of practice to live. No one drifts into this kind of love–we have to want it, and work for it, be willing to fail at it and try again.
So here is my invitation and my challenge to you as the season turns from summer to fall: Take stock. As they say in 12-step spirituality, make a moral inventory of your capacity to love right now.
- Where are you loving well? Be sure to celebrate that.
- Where have you fallen short?
- How do those whom you profess to love experience your love? Do you know?
- And how far does your circle of love extend?
After taking stock, ask yourself this:
How might I grow in my capacity to receive love and offer love?
If you’re a Christian, you might want to add Jesus into your question:
How might I increase my awareness of Jesus in my life and be a channel of his love for others in deeper ways?
If you’re inclined to accept this invitation, one more thing: Best not do this alone. It’s not that you can’t, but it’s harder. We all benefit from being part of a community in which to practice love. If in COVID time you’ve fallen away from your community of faith, why not recommit to it now or find another that helps you grow? In that community, dare to go deep with someone, or a group of someones, in spiritual practice.
A word to the church leaders, particularly in the Diocese of Washington: our most important work isn’t getting back into our buildings, as great as that will be. It is, rather, creating as many opportunities as we can for our people to grow in love.
In closing, let me ask again with one notch greater specificity:
What one step might you take this day, this week, this fall to grow in love?
For your sake and that of everyone around you, I urge you to take that step. Take it so that you may know more of God’s love for you. Take it so that others may know that love through it. Take it so that together we might help overcome the evil of this world with the goodness that flows from love.