August 21, 2016—The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
One of the greatest novels in Western literature is The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It explores the question of how to love thy neighbor when that neighbor is the one conspiring against you. In it, the most inspiring character is the wise old Russian orthodox monk, Fr. Zosima. He at one point counsels the brothers who are struggling with anger and with the challenge of loving unlovable people. How do you handle people who are cruel and mendacious and always scheming to get an edge on you? Fr. Zosima in his passionate eloquence put it like this: “Brother’s,” he said, “have no fear of men’s sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants: love everything. If you love everything you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love… At some thoughts one stands perplexed, especially at the sight of men’s sin, and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that once and for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things. There is nothing else like it.”
Without naming him specifically, the old monk applied the lesson of Jesus Christ to the lives of those who came to him for advice. Jesus lived by humble love and look what he accomplished. He made no scientific discovery. He led no great army into battle. He did not write a book or make a fortune. He lived at home with his mother until he was thirty and then died three years later. Nevertheless, he soon became and remains today the most admired man in the history of humankind. How did he go from the obscurity of Galilee to universal acclamation? He accomplished this seemingly impossible feat by exercising, as no other man ever has, the power of humble love.
A good sermon makes one point clearly. The point of this sermon is it to urge us all, myself included, to heed the wisdom of Fr. Zosima: when difficult people are getting you down and defeat you and you feel an urge to fight them for control, use humble love and you will subdue them. This is the example of Jesus who by the power of his love overcame even death and the grave. It’s the only thing that really works. As Fr. Zosima said, “There is nothing else like it." Let me tell you a story from my brief life that may illuminate the point.
One day when I was a student attending classes at the Harvard Divinity School, eons ago, I was walking on the sidewalk of a busy street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was late in the afternoon and the sidewalks were jam-packed with pedestrians rushing, pushing, butting elbows—each one intensely pre-occupied with so many things important only to himself or herself. You know how people are. We walk in a hurry thinking about where we have been and about what we will encounter when we get to where we’re going. We get so caught up inside our own minds that we fail to see where we are. I was one of those people that day, just one more pedestrian in a rushing river of pedestrians, absorbed in myself and paying little attention to the others around me. I was, like the anonymous crowd I was in, just one more soul on a sidewalk so anxious to get to my next appointment that I had no cognizance of the world around me; until I had to stop to cross the street. It was then, when I was forced by a red light to pause and observe my surroundings, that I saw something, something that shook me out my somnambulism and so caught my attention that to this day I have not forgotten it. I noticed on the sidewalk directly across the street from me an injured bird. She lay helpless on the curb with a broken wing unable to fly. She was suffering. As I pondered her fate, I saw something also of equal significance: no one was paying attention to her. Everyone walked right by her. No one seemed to care. How did this happen? And how long had this poor bird been in this wretched condition? Hours, maybe, who knows? But in the short time I observed her, dozens of people just passed her by, giving her no thought, whatsoever. It was though she didn’t exist and was of no importance to anyone. And indeed, what are we talking about? We are only talking about a little sparrow, after all. It’s not a person. Thousands of inconsequential birds die every day. We don’t cry over them. We don’t even see them. They come. They go. And their being makes no appreciable difference. And yet, in this moment, on that sidewalk, I felt so sorry for that wounded bird. But the feelings of compassion that arose in my heart for this bird left me feeling disgusted with myself and with the selfishness of the human race whose cardinal sin is that we care for nothing and no one so much as ourselves. It wasn’t that those passing by the bird and doing nothing who disgusted me. It was the confession of my soul that I could not escape. It was the bald and naked truth that I was not about to do anything for that bird either. What could I have done? Could I have picked it up and carried it to class with me? “I ‘m running late,” I thought, “It’s not up to me. It’s not my problem.” This is how I thought to rationalize my indifference. Here before me was a suffering creature, a being in need of help. Who was I to ignore that creature’s fate? Did not Our Lord say that he cares for every sparrow that falls? Is there not a command implicit in that declaration to care; about the plants, the insects, the animals, about everyone and everything? In that moment I saw how deeply everything matters to God and how little it all means to us who live upon the earth and depend upon God but take it all for granted. I suddenly felt revulsion at the manifest selfishness of everyone on that sidewalk, horrified by a world that doesn’t care and doesn’t listen to our Lord who cares for his whole creation. I was about to cry or scream, I don’t remember which, when suddenly a man with a beard wearing what looked like a black cassock, came along, as if out of nowhere, spied the bird, and in one smooth motion paused before the bird, bent over her to examine her and then lifted her gently. Cradling the wounded creature in his hands, holding her close to his heart as a mother does her child, he carried her away to safety.
That incident struck me as being a kind of living parable. How much suffering there is in this world and how callous most of us are to most of it most of the time? Maybe we have to be or we would lose our minds. But to paraphrase Jesus loosely, what does it benefit a man to keep his sanity if he should lose his soul in the process? God has given us life for one purpose, so that we might show him how much we care for those who suffer wrong, who are broken by the wheel of life and injured, wounded and left for dead by the side of a road. Life is a test and those who pass with the highest grade are those who open their hearts the widest, those, like that stranger on the sidewalk who cared even for a fallen bird as he would have his own son. His humble love put the rest of us on that street to shame.
For several Sundays, we have preached on the theme of love; on how we may fulfill the great commandment of Christ to “Love the lord your God with all your heart and love thy neighbor as thyself.” Why preach on love for so many Sundays? Love seems like such a simple common thing. You’d think that we could say a few words about love in one sermon and exhaust the subject quickly. Love sounds easy to do and we are all familiar with it, but as we know from life experience, love is not easy. It requires a lot of self-control and determination, patience and goodness, humility and generosity, empathy and a deep reserve of kindness to love. Saint Paul said that love never ends. Love affairs end and friendships end, but love itself never ends. Our need for love never ends, and even if everyone on the planet quit loving each other and succumbed to hate, love would continue because love originates not in our souls but in God’s sacred and eternal heart. There is no end to God’s love for us. God is love. God is the source of love. The love we share with each other, we first receive from him. Therefore, the closer we are to God and the more open our heart is to His Spirit, the more love we have to share. If the world is like a desert in need of water, God the Holy Spirit is a fountain of living water, of pure life-giving love, in the midst of that desert, a fountain that never dries up and that is available to anyone who wants to drink of it. God wants nothing so much from each of us as that we drink from the fountain of his love, be filled with his Holy Spirit and that we love one another, as he loves us. This is the essence of the teaching of Jesus a message that is proclaimed on every page of the New Testament.
And nowhere is that message more beautifully stated than in the first letter of John 4.7-21. If someone asked you “What is the message of Jesus?” You could look here to find it. I urge you to read this chapter of the Bible over and over again until it sinks into your soul. And the essence of it is in verse 10-11: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Don’t get hung up on the word “expiation.” It’s a word used by theologians to explain the redemptive power of Christ’s death on the cross. It means that his death was a sacrifice offered to God that put away the guilt of our sins. I’m not going to explain today how Christ accomplished that act of expiation or how such a thing could be. I’m only today calling our attention to what motivated God to do this for us. And that can be said in one word: love. As Jesus put it: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16).
When you look at a crucifix what do you see? Some see nothing but a man dying on a tree. But when we look at a crucifix through the lens of faith, we see The Son of God, offering himself to the Father, and we see in his outstretched arms God welcoming a world of sinners into his kingdom. The world looks at the crucified Jesus and sees just one more death. But as Christians look at him and see God’s sacred heart revealed, his love for us is exposed.
And so we are drawn to him who loves us so much that he was willing to die for us. “No greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus said. He said that in reference to himself on the night before his arrest and trial and execution. He knew what was about to happen to him, but he did not run away from it or try to escape. He went to his death willingly because it was only by dying for us that we would ever know how much He loves us.
Don’t take God’s love for granted. Don’t think you’re so special that you deserve salvation. As sinners, we deserve nothing from God but rejection. And yet God has not rejected us. Like that wounded bird on the sidewalk, God has come to us in his Son, redeemed us and made us his own. And there is only one thing that God asks from us in return: that we do the same for others. Seek out the most difficult people in your life and make them your own. Do not reject them but forgive them, pity them and win their hearts by giving them a full measure of the very thing their heart is so obviously lacking: compassion, understanding and care.
Don’t let the world conquer you. To the extent that you are indifferent to the fate of suffering humanity, to the extent that you no longer care about anyone but yourself, you have been conquered. You can conquer the world and Jesus has shown us how to do this. His way is counterintuitive but it’s the only way that succeeds. “Take up your cross and follow me.” he said. What is that but a call to follow him in the way of humble love? If you want to be a Christian in more than a nominal sense, if you want to be faithful to your baptismal vows and filled by the Holy Spirit, then determine once and for all to become a person of perfect love. He who proclaimed that the meek will inherit the earth and who went to his death like a lamb that before its shearers is mute, practiced what he preached. Follow him and walk the way of humble love and as Fr. Zosima said, by it you will subdue the world.