As many of you know, one of my favorite ways of attempting to name the DIVINE comes from the fourth century Bishop Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s trinitarian formulations describes the DIVINE Creator as the LOVER, Christ as the BELOVED, and the Holy Spirit as the LOVE that binds them together. LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Herself! Remember that Spirit is feminine in both Hebrew and Latin. LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Herself!
Now the trouble with words is that words let us down. Words are after all simply symbols pointing beyond themselves to something other than the words. Words are a way to make meaning and to share whatever meaning we make with one another. The trouble with words is that words tend to let us down when it comes to making meaning of our experiences of the DIVINE MYSTERY. Words simply aren’t capable of giving us more than a glimpse of the DIVINE MYSTERY that is the LOVE that we call GOD.
So, even though I’m particularly fond of Augustine’s attempt to describe the DIVINE MYSTERY as LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Herself, I realize that even this lovely, pardon the pun, even this lovely gathering of words gives us but a glimpse of the LOVE that we call GOD. Part of the problem is the word “love”. In these parts and in these times the word “love” has become rather wish-washy. I am a child of the 60’s when the word “love” appeared all over the place in stylized letters, with flowers; often daisies, incorporated into the O. “PEACE, LOVE, and Rock ‘n roll,” “Looking for love and feeling groovy…”
In the decades since the sixties the flower-children have all grown up and the groovy part has faded. But from our comfortable positions of North American, upper-middle class privilege, we have a tendency to over-sentimentalize the world “love”. That’s why I had Pat read, Dr. King’s warnings about the kind of love that is sentimental and anemic. Anemic love is endemic these days. Anemic love is rampant in our culture, our politics, and sadly in our churches. LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Herself is certainly NOT anemic love. The kind of love that Jesus taught in his sermon on the mount in the gospel according to Matthew, or in the sermon on the plain in today’s gospel from the anonymous-gospel-story teller that we call Luke. Anemic love is simply not up to the task of empowering us to love our enemies. Anemic lovers aren’t capable of doing good to those who hate them, or blessing those who curse them, or praying for those who mistreat them. That kind of love, the kind of love that Jesus is talking about, the kind of love that Jesus taught with his very life and death, that kind of love is anything but anemic. That kind of love is powerful. In the words of Dr. King:
“Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Dr. King had that kind of love. I was just eleven years old, when Dr. King’s power was cut down. I can still vividly remember the stunned emotions that poured out from the adults in my life when news of Dr. King’s assassination came over the radio. Dr. King was a hero of mine. I’d followed his quest for freedom and justice for his people and cheered him on from the safety of my living room. To this day, I’m convinced that it was Dr. King’s embodiment of the teachings of Jesus that inspired the curiosity in me that led me to first seek out my mother’s bible so that I could read for myself what it was that this Jesus actually taught. I never went to church as a kid. Most of what I knew about Jesus, I picked up by osmosis. Dr. King’s speeches mesmerized me. But I was just a kid and it would take me decades to begin to grasp the magnitude of Dr. King’s non-violent resistance. Eventually, I would learn that Dr. King was mentored in non-violent resistance by the Reverend Doctor Howard Thurman, who intern was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s non-violent resistance overthrew what was at the time one the most powerful empire on the planet. Howard Thurman had traveled to India as early as 1935 where he met Gandhi whose commitment to ahimsa, the Hindu principle of refusing to do harm to any creatures, sent Thurman back to the gospels to discover anew Jesus’ commitment to non-violence. In 1949, Dr. Thurman wrote a little book that Dr. King carried with him throughout his struggles for civil rights. Thurman’s little book entitled, “Jesus and the Disinherited” revolutionized the civil rights movement. In his book, Thurman reminds us that Jesus was a Jewish man and as a Jew he was a member of an oppressed race. Jesus was also poor. Jesus was a member of a race that was oppressed by the power of an Empire that had been established through violence, an Empire that maintained its power through violence and injustice perpetuated upon the poor oppressed. Thurman insisted that as a poor and oppressed man, Jesus new what it meant to suffer at the hands of the powerful. Jesus’ concern for justice was born out of his love for his sisters and brothers who like him were poor and oppressed. Jesus had absolutely no interest in being worshipped or believed in. Jesus wanted to be believed and followed. Jesus could preach good news to the poor because he was one of them. Jesus understood what it meant to preach release from captivity because Jesus and his people were captives. Jesus taught a radical form of non-violent resistance. Jesus’ commitment to non-violent resistant lead him to Jerusalem where he would confront the powers of empire. Jesus’ teachings continue to resonate with the poor and the oppressed where-ever people suffer from the abuses of empire; be they political, military, or commercial empires.
Dr. King insisted that “one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love…”
The kind of love that is embodied by people like Jesus, Gandhi, Thurman, King, Dorothy Day, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams in Northern Ireland, Malala Yousafzai of Afghanistan, I could go on and on, listing the names of people who embodied the kind of LOVE that empowers justice. Jesus embodied LOVE not because he wanted to be worshipped or believed in. Jesus embodied LOVE so that he could proclaim good news to the poor, liberation to captives, and usher in peace through justice.
Now you and I we may not be called to put ourselves on the line in the same ways that non-violent resisters are called to do. But we are called to embody something other than anemic love. In the words of Dr. King, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
You and I, we are called to respond to Jesus teaching, as difficult as that teaching may be we are called to: “Love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who, curse us, pray for those who mistreat us, turn the other cheek, give away the shirts off our backs, give to all who beg, do to others what you would have them do to you.” This is the kind of love that LOVE that Jesus embodied and taught. This is not anemic love. This is a powerful LOVE that empowers, that liberates, that radically addresses injustice and oppression.
Sadly, our culture and indeed all too often our churches suffer from anemic love, the kind of love that works like a pacifier that comforts oppressors and maintains the injustices that undergird the status quo. In turn, many us in our daily lives, suffer from the effects of anemic love, which leaves us powerless and unable to respond to Jesus’ call to LOVE our neighbours, let alone our enemies. Jesus’ teachings are not easy to follow, and so while we are fully prepared to applaud Jesus’ teachings and perhaps even worship Jesus, we are not prepared to follow Jesus.
In 1958, at the age of just 29, Dr. Martin Luther King was already a prominent leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He travelled to Harlem to promote the sales of his book, “Stride Toward Freedom.” At that book signing, a woman stepped forward and stabbed Dr. King. Later while recovering in hospital the doctors explained that Dr. King’s injuries could have very easily killed him. When King’s pastor Dr. Howard Thurman arrived to visit him, he asked him a question that was no doubt already on King’s mind, “Where do you go from here?” After verbalizing this question, Dr. Thurman gave King his best pastoral advice. Thurman himself was a mystic. A mystic is someone who prioritizes direct experiences with the DIVINE over everything else. A mystic deliberately seeks out experiences of the DIVINE. Thurman sought the DIVINE in nature. Opening himself to the wonders of all that the DIVINE MYSTERY expresses in the beauty of trees and rivers.
To Dr. King, Thurman explained, “You have started a movement that has taken on a life of its own. Take some time off. Spend some time in silence and solitude. And begin to listen to what is going to be your role in this movement.”
Dr. King took his pastor’s advice and stepped back from the Civil Rights Movement for a period of months. During this time, Dr. King lived with the question, “Where do I go from here?” In as much silence and solitude as he could muster Dr. King tended to his own spiritual need to experience the DIVINE MYSTERY that he called God. Dr. King’s spiritual quest took him all the way to India; a trip Dr. King described as a pilgrimage. During that trip Dr. King experienced a conversion of sorts. Following consultations with Gandhi’s close companions, Dr. King moved from seeing non-violent resistance as a tactic to achieve his goals, to a place where Dr. King began to see non-violent resistance as a life-style. Dr. King returned to the Civil Rights Movement with a deeper sense of who and what he was, empowered by a powerful LOVE.
Dr. King knew the risks involved with this kind of LOVE. Gandhi had been assassinated as a direct result of employing such LOVE. Ahimsa, a life committed to the refusal to cause harm to another creature. This powerful LOVE changed and continues to change the world.
Dr. King’s ability to return to the source of this LOVE, empowered changes so radical as to be the stuff dreams are made of. This is a powerful empowering kind of LOVE that can change the world.
The source of this LOVE is there and available to us, if we but open ourselves to this LOVE. Like those who have gone before us, we too need to ask ourselves, “Where do I go from here?” We need to spend time in silence and solitude, listening for an answer to this question. Remembering always that: LOVE is not about worshipping Jesus. LOVE is about following Jesus.
All the way to the cross if necessary. Sadly, there are more than enough crosses upon which the poor and oppressed continue to be crucified to choose from.
So, listen to the power of LOVE to learn the answer to the question: “Where do I go from here? Then, pick a cross, any cross and be the LOVE necessary to empower resurrection. For in following Jesus it is clear that not even death can conquer the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being. Embody the ONE who is our, LOVER, BELOVED and LOVE HERSELF!
Thank you! I think I struggle with determining the difference between surrendering power and acting out of love – what do I need to let go of in Christian forgiveness and what do I need to hold onto to stand up for myself and others? This sermon has given me something to meditate upon.
King, Thurman and Ghandi and The Call (to each of us) to live a life of non-violence is so poignantly brought to us as Good News by Pastor Dawn’s preachment of Love reminding us we are God’s Beloved and created to be Love in the world today.
Pastor Jon Fogleman