Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
October 25, 2019 Worship Sermon - "Love Supreme"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Krister Stendhal was one of the preeminent Lutheran theologians of the last century. I once had the privilege of hearing him speak to a group of pastors. He suggested that preachers should only preach about the love of God if it is mentioned in the scriptures they are preaching from. He advised this because he observed that preachers often preach about love to the exclusion of other important concepts like justice and liberation. He also understood that the concept of love can become meaningless if it is overused. If I just stand up here Sunday after Sunday and say, “God loves you,” eventually, you’re going to say, “Yeah, well telling me something else that is new because I’ve heard that before and my life is still really stressed out.”
Well, following Krister Stendhal’s advice, I can preach on love today, because it is mentioned numerous times in our readings. But actually, even if it were not mentioned in our readings, I think now is definitely the time to preach on love. Now, in the year 2020, in the midst of a pandemic and an economic downturn and a climate crisis that have filled many with fear, it seems appropriate to meditate on love. In the midst of a reckoning around racial injustice that has torn open old wounds, in the midst of political polarization that has made enemies of friends and family… now is definitely the time for us to contemplate love, because it seems like the world is desperately in need of it.
Some of you were participating in coffee hour last week when John Moore described an experience he had in Pittsburgh the week before. You may know that John and Nancy spend most Sunday afternoons on the corner of Lansdowne and Baltimore Avenues holding up signs that say, “Black Lives Matter.” Two weeks ago, John was in Pittsburgh visiting his daughter. It was Sunday afternoon; he had his Black Lives Matter sign in the trunk of his car; so he decided to continue his custom. He found a corner in Pittsburgh where he stood holding up his Black Lives Matter sign. As it happens, there had been a gathering of white nationalists in that same neighborhood the week before. John got a variety of responses from the people who saw him standing on the corner, some positive and some not so positive. One of the people who lived in a neighboring building, threw open his window and shouted at John, “Get the blankety-blank out of here. We don’t want you here.” To which John responded, “Why? I’m filled nothing but love for you.” Hearing this, the neighbor replied, “I’m filled with nothing but hate.”
I don’t know if this man really understood what he was saying. Whether he did or didn’t, his words are tragic, and they seem like an honest admission of something that many people in our society are feeling right now. We’re filled with nothing but hate. What a tragic set of circumstances for any society.
So, with the words of Leviticus and Jesus still ringing in our ears - “love your neighbor as yourself” - we recognize that we have our work cut out for us. If we take seriously what the Bible says about love, we should expect that this is going to be a hard and challenging road. It’s easy to love people who love us back. It’s not so easy to love in the face of hate.
Martin Luther King articulated the ethic of love better than just about anyone else in the last hundred years. He pointed out that the Greek language in which the Bible was written has three words for love: eros, philios, and agape. Eros describes the romantic feelings of two people who are in love with each other. Philios describes the love between two friends. Both eros and philios depend to a certain degree on the person we love loving us back. If I love a friend, but my friend doesn’t love me, that’s not much of a friendship. The same can be said for romantic love. But the kind of love Jesus is talking about when he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is agape. King defined agape as redemptive goodwill for all human beings… redemptive goodwill for all human beings. Agape is overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God operating in human hearts.
Because agape love is not dependent on whether a person loves us back, to love with agape love is a tremendous act of freedom. Martin Luther King said, agape love can look into the face of its most violent opponent and say, “Do to us what you will, and we will still love you… throw us in jail and we will still love you… send your hooded perpetrators and violence into our communities and we will still love you… we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering… And one day we will win freedom, not only for ourselves but for you,” because a person who is filled with hate is a prisoner of hell. A person who is filled with hate needs liberation.
Agape helps us to see how the hater is a victim of his circumstances: his school may have taught him to hate, his family may have taught him to hate, his church may have taught him to hate… his newsfeed on Facebook may have taught him to hate… the talk radio or the cable news blaring at him for hours on end may have taught him to hate. Whatever may have imprisoned him in hate, he needs to be rescued and redeemed.
If agape love is redemptive goodwill for all people, the world needs some of that agape love right now. Fortunately, the supply of agape love is unlimited. We human beings may need to do a better job of passing agape around, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Agape is the love of God that called the universe into existence. Agape is the love of God revealed by Jesus on the cross as he spoke words of forgiveness to the ones who crucified him. Agape is the love of God that swept through the church on Pentecost and led the Spirit-filled people to share their resources so that no one would be in need. Agape is the love of God that continues to reverberate through Upper Darby today. Agape enables Muslims and Hindus and Christians and Sikhs to live together as neighbors. Agape makes neighbors of people whose skin is every beautiful shade of brown. Agape gives people who speak different languages the persistence to understand each other so that together we can build the beloved community.
The agape that God has for you is never-ending. It was there at your beginning and it will be with you forever. Receive it, celebrate it, and pass it along to a neighbor in need.