Sermon: Contagious Love, Abundant Life, and Al Green

[Sermon preached on Sunday, May 7, 2017 (Easter IV) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]

Acts 2:42-47
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10
Psalm 23

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The other day as I was driving into the church down Lake of the Isles Parkway , I heard the voice of God.

Seriously.

It wasn’t an out-of-body experience or anything like that. It was just a warm day. The sun was out and the sky was clear. I was just driving along, minding my business, when all the sudden I heard the soulful voice of God coming through the audio system in my car singing:

Let’s, let’s stay together
Lovin’ you whether, whether
Times are good or bad, happy or sad

Okay, maybe God doesn’t sound like Al Green to you, but in that moment, for whatever reason that sounded like the heart of the Gospel to me – God inviting me to into a lifelong relationship of love that transcends whatever life happens to throw at me in the moment. What I appreciate about this excerpt from the soulful Gospel According to Al Green its bold realism – in this life there will be moments that are “good or bad, happy or sad,” and yet true love exists above and within those realities. Love is not negated by life; rather, love is most clearly reflected within it.

Our faith teaches us that love is not an abstract concept – some romantic sentimentality that exists only in movies – but a flesh and blood reality. “For God so loved the world…” that Love took on flesh and blood to live among us, to walk in our shoes, to visit our brokenness, to heal our cruelty and indifference with compassion and kindness, to deliver us from blindness by bringing us face-to-face with one another across the divide of animosity and estrangement. Love of about connection. Love is about contact. The love of God is best expressed and felt in blessed crush of community.

In our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, we see that caring and compassionate community is the direct result of the Pentecost event. Earlier in the second chapter, we hear about the Holy Spirit who “descended” upon those in the Upper Room with wind and fire. This miraculous sign of the breaking open of the Gospel of Jesus Christ brought a diverse group of people together into a new community centered in Christ’s love. You see, true love is an highly contagious airborne pathogen. One of the symptoms of being “caught up in the rapture” of God’s love is that we come into compassionate contact with other people. Much like Jesus giving his blessed mother and beloved disciple into one another’s care at the foot of the cross, the Holy Spirit calls us into mutually-compassionate spaces of deeply caring community. To be the Church is to be concerned about others, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalized among us, there is no way around that.

I will always remember a conversation that I had with my mentor and former rector-turned-bishop before going off to seminary where he looked at me and said that part of my lifelong journey with God would necessarily entail learning to let people love me. I will tell you this, being loved sounds easy, but it is a difficult act of humility and grace.

One of the reasons it is hard for me is because I am a both a fixer and someone who has given themselves into a self-sacrificing life of a caring professional. It is often incredibly difficult for those whose lives are centered around caring for others to receive love in return. It might be “more blessed to give than to receive,” but it is often harder to truly receive than it is to give.

Last week I had the honor of visiting with Father Karl Edwin Bell before he died. When I walked into his room, he grabbed my hand firmly and gave me a priceless gift – the gift of love and care. As he was laying in his bed in great weakness and pain, he, a man who had been a priest longer than I have been alive, said to me between incredibly labored breaths, “thank you for coming, I know that this is often harder for the priest than the person they are visiting.” Imagine that, in that moment, when I was incredibly nervous and anxious, Fr. Bell saw deeply into me and cared for me. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The man spent decades caring for other people, and he continued until the very end. Christian community is best expressed in how we care for one another.

Care is at the heart of Jesus’ image of the Good Shepherd. “The Good Shepherd” he says, “is the one who calls us into abundant life” and the work of the sheep is to listen for voices that call us to life and to resist those who call us to death.

Can I be honest?: there are a lot of voices out there lately. Some are loud. Some are boisterous. Some are appealing, others are repugnant. The noise comes from all over and it is hard to listen for anything life-giving when it appears to be nothing but endless, distracting, unsettling static.

I think that’s why the voice of Al Green sounded like the voice of God to me in that moment, because what I long to hear more clearly is a voice that invites me more deeply into the reality of love – love of self, love of neighbor, and love of God. Speaking to many of you, I think that sentiment it felt deeply by you as well. In the face of so many words of hatred, callousness, indifference, and division we need reminders of love and beauty.

The struggle is learning to distinguish voices of love from others. How do we do this? Here is a bit of wisdom I have discovered. Voices of true love invite us plumb the depths of our own hearts in order to invite us to become the best, most loving, most compassionate, most caring versions of ourselves. Voices of love do not confirm our biases, our stereotypes, our fears; rather, love call us to transcend them. They call us beyond ourselves, our desires, our wishes, and our needs to see deeply the needs of others – even those most different from us.

Let me give you an example. Laurence Freeman, a brother of the Order of Saint Benedict, tells the story of two monks who lived together without a quarrel. “One said to the other, ‘Let’s have a quarrel with each other, as other men do.’ The other answered, ‘I don’t know how a quarrel happens.’ The first said, ‘Look here, I put a brick between us, and I say, “That’s mine.” Then you say, “No, it’s mine.” That is how you begin a quarrel.’ So they put a brick between them and one of them said, ‘That’s mine.” The other said, ‘No, it’s mine.’ He answered, ‘Yes, it’s yours. Take it away.’ They were unable to argue with each other.”[1]

It strikes me that one of the things we seldom see Jesus doing is arguing. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of one example of him arguing with anyone. Sure, there were times in which Jesus had conversations with people. He responds. He engages. But he never argues, not that I am aware of. What he did was listen deeply, not just with his ears, but with his heart. When people would come to him with questions, often with less-than-pure motives, he would listen deeply to what they were asking and then respond in such a way that they were often left dumbfounded.

How might our world be different if we listened more deeply to one another, particularly those who have long been ignored or silenced? The deep change we seek in ourselves and our world can only be brought about by deep listening that supports deep relationships that make room for deep conversion.

We learn such gifts of hospitality and deep listening in what Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun, calls the “sanctifying tedium and blessed boredom and glorious agitation”[2] of community. She goes on to say, “if you want to be holy, stay where you are in the human community and learn from it. Learn patience. Learn wisdom. Learn unselfishness. Learn love.”[3]

It might be that God calls us into Christian community, not because we are so good or perfect, but precisely the opposite, because we are so bad at this thing called love that we have to enroll in a crash course in it on a regular basis, to relearn what love looks and sounds like. It might be that we aren’t saved out of the world, but that we are saved in community. To remember how to care for our neighbor and how to allow ourselves to be cared for. To remind ourselves to listen more than we speak. Think of Church like a continuing education course in love.

And with that, to remember that no matter how many times we fall down, a mess up, and wound one another, and deprive ourselves, no matter how many times we attempt and fail the final exam, the grace of God is sufficient to cover our weaknesses, that, in the words of that great sharer of the Gospel, God promises to be with us “whether times are good or bad, happy or sad” and with that we might learn to be more gracious towards one another.

The Good Shepherd calls us to life. It’s a choice we must make over and over again, each and every day, with each and every encounter with someone else.

Thanks be to God.

Alleluia. Amen.


[1] Laurence Freemen, in Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another, by Rowan Williams, 130-131.

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, 27.

[3] Ibid., 28.

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