When the COVID pandemic reached the Washington, D.C. area in March 2020, forcing our congregations to cease in-person worship, I immediately sent an email to two adults in my parish who were planning to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. The postponement was particularly difficult since we did not know when we would be able to resume baptisms.
Later that spring, after an adult formation class where we discussed the ancient baptismal preparation process – the catechumenate – one of the two adults in the parish who was awaiting baptism contacted me to ask if it would be possible for her to complete a catechumenal process. The idea of creating a catechumenate at St. Andrew’s had been a dream of mine for quite some time, and after a time of intense planning and preparation, the resulting product was a ten-month catechumenal process that would begin in the fall, with two-hour monthly meetings and supplemental readings. In addition, we also decided to utilize all of the accompanying catechumenal liturgical rites contained in the Book of Occasional Services.
The process was an overwhelming success, and it will be offered each fall, with the intention that lay catechists and sponsors will assume full leadership next year. This fall’s group includes someone who found St. Andrew’s through our livestreamed Sunday services and discovered the catechumenate through our website. The presence of a catechumenate in our parish, along with the celebration of the associated liturgical rites, has created a renewed appreciation for the importance of baptism and prompted the parish to change the position of our baptismal font, taking it off casters and permanently affixing it to a limestone base in the narthex of the church, immediately inside the front doors. The baptismal font stands as a physical reminder of God’s boundless grace and our commitment to follow Christ.
The Rev. Timothy Johnson, rector, St. Andrew’s, College Park
One of the scribes came near and heard the Sadducees disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
The title of this sermon is “If It’s Not About Love, It’s Not About God,” something I’ve heard our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry say many times.
I’d like to begin by telling you a bit about my journey of faith.
I had a disjointed spiritual upbringing due to circumstances in my family, and for many years, when I lived with my father and stepmother, we didn’t attend church or have any explicit spiritual grounding at home. But I had friends at school who were Christian, and when I was in 9th grade, one of my friends invited me to join her family for Easter Sunday services. It was a Baptist Church, with an altar call, and when the minister asked anyone who wanted to invite Jesus into their heart and accept him as their Savior to come forward, I found myself walking to the front and allowing this kind man to pray for me, that I would be saved.
I don’t remember feeling all that much different afterwards, but I knew something had happened. My friend and her family were overjoyed that I had accepted Jesus and was now among the saved, and I was happy to be among people who seemed to care about me. Thus began my conscious life of faith.
I didn’t join my friend’s Baptist church, but I stayed within the world of what we might call biblical fundamentalism through my junior year in high school. I eventually joined a church and even lived with the minister’s family for a time when my own family collapsed. By and large, my experiences with the church and the minister’s family were positive. They were kind, generous, and sincere in their faith. I loved to sing, and I was part of a touring choir that traveled from Colorado to Mexico, singing in churches about the love of Jesus.
But there were several things that troubled and confused me that I didn’t know how to talk about with anyone from my church.
First, although I was now among the saved, I didn’t feel the way others described what being saved was like for them. I struggled with all manner of fear and doubt. And I saw that others in the church did, too, but nobody talked about it. What’s more, living with the minister and his family, I saw all their foibles and sins up close, but nobody talked about that either. All the church focused on, it seemed, was ensuring that other people could be saved like us.
That was the other thing that troubled me–this notion that the human race was divided among the saved and the unsaved, and we just happened to be on the narrow path to heaven. I was surprised to learn that even other Christians were not on the saved path. When the time came for me to leave Colorado and return to live with my mother in New Jersey, the minister of my church warned me not to join my mother’s Episcopal Church for fear that I would “backslide into sin.”
I simply couldn’t believe that anyone who wasn’t on our narrow path of faith was condemned by God forever. Out of love and respect for the people who were so good to me, I kept quiet. But when I returned to my mother and began attending church with her, the Episocpal priest there helped me integrate my nascent spiritual experiences with an understanding of God broad and generous enough to encompass all that was swirling around in my head. He said to me something I’ve never forgotten: “Mariann, if you wouldn’t condemn another human being because of what they did or didn’t believe; rest assured that God wouldn’t either.” Which was his way of saying, “If it’s not about love; it’s not about God.”
Seven years after I started attending my mother’s church, I entered seminary to become an Episcopal priest and here I am, now a bishop. Through it all, I have held that unwavering view that if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God. It was for love that Jesus came to us. When he told the story of the Prodigal Son and his forgiving father, he was talking about us in relationship to God. When he said there once was a woman who lost a precious coin and spent all night looking for what she had lost, and when she found it called in all her neighbors to celebrate, he was talking about how much God loves us. When he asked God to forgive even those who had sentenced him to death, he knew that God had already forgiven them, because God is love.
Jesus came into the world to put human flesh on this wondrous love of God, and to save people like us from ourselves and all the ways we get caught up in anxiety, judgement, greed, anger, despair. He came to show us what it looks like to walk in love, to live in love, and to experience in ourselves the kind of transformation that only love can bring about. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
There are two main ideas that I want to leave you with today, the first having to do with how we read and understand the Bible. For as you know, the Bible is a collection of all kinds of ancient documents that tell the stories of the Jewish people as they came to experience what they called the One Holy and True God. Then, for Christians, our texts tell the stories of Jesus as they were eventually written down, and include documents from some of the earliest Christian communities, made up of both Jews and those the Jews referred to as Gentiles–that is, everyone who wasn’t Jewish.
In both Jewish and Christian texts, there are certain stories and teachings about God that have what biblical scholars call “hermeneutic priority.” That is to say, they come so close to expressing our clearest–though imperfect–understanding of what God is like that they take priority over texts that are in contradiction to them.
For example, there are many passages in the ancient Jewish texts that describe elaborate rituals of animal sacrifice that were deemed necessary in the ancient world, in order for human beings to make restitution for things they had done wrong in the sight of God. But there are other passages that describe God and what God wants from us in completely different ways. If you were in church last Sunday, you heard Father Tim reflect on precisely such a passage from the prophet Micah:
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
That is the text with priority for us. What God wants from us and for us is a relationship–to walk with us. And God wants us to love as God loves: with kindness and justice toward all humankind, for we are equally beloved by God.
The encounter Jesus had with those in religious authority that we just heard and is another example of a text with priority for us. The authorities don’t know what to make of Jesus–he seems so disciplined and yet so free when he speaks of God. So they repeatedly ask him questions to test him. Today’s text tells of someone who asked him of all the commandments given the Torah (the Scriptures of the Jewish people) which was the greatest–which, in other words, had priority. Jesus answered quoting from both the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus: The Lord our God is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all other laws and teachings of the prophets.
If it’s not about love; it’s not about God. Which doesn’t mean that we throw out all the biblical texts that seem to contradict these teachings with priority; only that we know their priority and learn other lessons from them, mostly how our forebears struggled to know and love God, and their neighbors as themselves. Remembering their struggles allows us to have a bit of self compassion when we flounder ourselves.
The other main idea I want to leave you with is that Jesus came, and is in relationship with us now as the Risen Christ, so that we might know ourselves to be loved by God and to grow in our capacity to love others.
Love, as Jesus lives it and as the Scriptural passages with hermeneutic priority describe, is a high bar, and we fail to reach it most of the time. As the Apostle Paul famously wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: love is patient and kind. It is not envious or arrogant or boastful or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It does not rejoice in the wrong, but rejoices in the right. It bears all things, endures all things, hopes all things. Love never ends. (I Corinthians 13:1-13)
God wants us to love like that. And most of the time we fail.
For the last several weeks, Tim has been exploring with you questions at the heart of what we call the baptismal covenant, which describe the path of what it means to walk in the ways of Jesus. One way to approach these questions, as we’ll be asked to do a bit later in this service, is as commitments we make. Yes, I will do these things, with God’s help. The “with God’s help” clause is an acknowledgment that we cannot do things on our own.
But let me suggest another way to understand the questions. They also describe some of the ways God comes to us and helps us grow in faith and love.
For example, the first question is Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers? On one level, this expresses our commitment to show up in Christian community. But it’s also one of the ways (one of the catalysts, to quote another pastor) that God uses to help us grow in faith and love. When we’re here, or together in our homes or other places, God is also here–drawing us in through the words, through the sacraments, helping us to know ourselves as loved and practicing loving others.
The next question is: Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Again, this sounds like something we need to do whenever we fail to love or do what’s right, and it is. But it’s also one of the ways God helps us grow in faith and love. I don’t know about you, but when I have done something I regret and experience God’s forgiveness, or the forgiveness of others, my heart grows in response, my capacity to love and forgive others grows through God’s forgiving me.
Thus we can hear each of the foundational promises as something we strive for, yes, but also as ways that God uses to draw us closer, and helps us, by grace, to grow in faith and love. Tim talked last week about the last question in the baptismal covenant, and how hard it is to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being, and it is. We regularly fail miserably at this. But whenever we step into the gap between what is needed in our world and what we are capable of offering, God also shows up in the gap with us, often empowering us to accomplish more than we ever do on our own. That’s a growth experience like no other. Moreover, when we engage the suffering of the world and allow our hearts to break, we give more of our hearts to God to work through, as we, like Jesus, take in the pain of others as our own. We can’t help but grow in love as a response.
I leave you then with this invitation. In the coming week–between now and next Sunday–when you rise each morning, after you simply acknowledge in whatever ways you do that another day has begun, that you’re still here and been given the gift of life, simply ask for one thing: Help me, Lord, today, to grow in love. Or, you might, as I have done for the last week or so, be more specific and ask God to help you love someone that you are struggling to love. Then, as the day goes on, pay attention to what happens inside you. After the week has gone, ask yourself, what, if anything, you noticed. What, if anything, changed inside you?
This isn’t a self-improvement project; this is opening ourselves to the workings of grace. That grace is here for you, and for me, to receive and then to share. We’re meant to get better at love, yes with practice, but mostly through the experience of being loved ourselves to such a degree that we can’t help but share that love with others.
If it’s not about love; it’s not about God. With God, it’s all about love.