Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sermon for April 27: Vicious Circles and Gracious Circles

Easter 6, Acts 7:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

What does it mean to love God? We know what love is, and we can tell the difference between the different kinds of love, like loving fried potatoes, or loving your mother, or loving your neighbor. We love best what’s close to us. How do we love a God so far away? How do we love a God who is so unknown? The saints and mystics call God the great unknown, the glorious mystery.

How do you love a mystery? If someone asked you directly if you love God, you might hesitate before you say you do. You might not have the same degree of confidence as saying that you love fried potatoes, or your spouse. You might say you want to love God, but you’re not sure you’re good at it.

How much is loving God like loving my father? Can I project the love of the unknown from what I do know? Can I project the love of God from loving my mother? Can I project the love of Jesus from how I loved my kindergarten teacher?

We know that projection is part of every love we have. To love someone, you connect to some extent with something of yourself in that someone. Or something of your mother, or father, more or less, or positive or negative; you project some part of that prior love onto this new love.

This is how we learn to love. Your first love is the love of your mother, and then your father and your siblings, and then you develop your loves by projecting some of each onto the next. But your projections can be hurtful and inappropriate if you can’t get beyond them to love a new person in herself, as she defines herself in her own right. There can be narcissism in love when we project too much of ourselves and our needs onto the persons we are trying to love in their own right.

To the Apostle Paul, the Areopagus represented this kind of projection. All the gods and goddesses were human projections. "What is god like?" Like my mother, like a human father, like the ideal warrior, like myself if I were strong and smart and beautiful.

That kind of god is one that I could know and understand, that kind of goddess I could love and serve. The commandments which that god asks of me are the commandments I would make if I were a god.

St. Paul does not preach at them with condemnation. That would be like condemnation of young people who grope their way through bad romances as a result of having grown up in bad family relationships. They are caught in vicious circles. They’re looking for love in all the wrong places, but they’re right to look for love.

Condemnation doesn’t help them if the right way is unknown to them. And you can’t tell them or explain it unless you model what they do not know. You have to a model of a different kind of love, a way of loving as yet unknown to them, of which they might even be afraid.

You offer them a love that is a gift, a gift from the outside, a gift that can’t be canceled by their inability to receive it rightly; it keeps on loving until they can receive this kind of love, and let it carry them and teach them, and having received it they can begin to practice it.

This is what we call the healing of relationships, it is a very important aspect of the power of resurrection already active in the world. It is one practical application of the forgiveness of sins, and to receive it is an aspect of repentance, to repent is to acknowledge that you need this giving love you don’t deserve and cannot earn and cannot cancel.

St. Paul offers them a gracious invitation: "Let me tell you of a god you did not know and could not know, because this God is not a product of our projections." This God is self-defining. You couldn’t come up with this God if you wanted to, not even the greatest philosopher among you. From your projections you only recognize you need this unknown God, from your projections you know there’s something more which you can’t produce, a solution you can’t deduce. The only way to know this God by accepting and learning what this God tells you about God’s self. And to learn this God, the littlest child may be your greatest philosopher.

How do you learn love? I mean at the very beginning? You learn it by receiving it, as a baby, and your mother holds you in her arms, and she loves you. Your love is first a passive love, her love is the active love. When you hold on to her, it’s because she’s holding you first. She’s the center of your universe.

Month by month, your love for your mother develops from passivity to more and more activity. You watch her, you try to copy her, you read yourself within her eyes, you learn to see yourself as she sees you, and you find out who you are. It’s the opposite of projection. She defines herself, and her self-definition is the key to your own self-definition. You become what she expects of you.

As you start to gaze around the room, and learn the look of things, you keep looking back at her. As you start to crawl around the house, you keep coming back to where she is so that you can find yourself. That’s how it is with you and God. That’s how you come to know God, that’s how you come to love God, and how to know yourself. As loving your mother makes you into a human being, so loving Jesus makes you able to keep his commandments.

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments." That’s a circular statement. The loving of Jesus is the keeping of his commandments, and the keeping of his commandments is loving him. It’s both a challenge and a comfort. It is circular, but it’s not a vicious circle.

You know what vicious circles are. Insomnia causes depression which causes insomnia. Fear causes ignorance which causes fear. Racism causes fear which causes racism. Vicious circles are hard to stop because if you fix just one side of the cycle, the other side will bring it back again.

You need a gracious circle going right next to the vicious one, moving faster and more powerful, touching and clutching it at every point, with friction and purchase, to retard it and reverse it, to convert it. That’s the power of the resurrection. That’s the function of Jesus’ commandments in our lives, the curving motions of a gracious circle.

I meet many people who say that God is the same as the spiritual energy of the universe. They tell me that they don’t think of God as personal or volitional. Maybe they are turned off by all the projections of a personal God that they have seen in human history, especially church history. So they want to keep God unknown.

When we say that our mission is to be a community of Jesus, we mean that our mission is to share the truth which the world cannot know or see on its own, from its projections of what God is like, or how to know God, or what God’s commandments probably must be. We bear witness to a gracious opposite. Not only that, our mission is to model it. We want to be known for that.

We want this congregation to be a gracious circle. We want to practice the commandments of Jesus on each other. We want to practice the love of Jesus on each other. We want this circle to grow and expand beyond the boundaries of our congregation, and touch and convert the vicious circles in which so many folks are caught.

We want to be a model. We want to give good evidence that there is a living God at work in us, nursing us and washing us and teaching us how to speak, a God who tells us who we are, a God who desires to be known and loved, and shown it so in Jesus Christ.

"Help us, O God, to know your love and to give in to it, to respond to it, to accept it and to model it, so that people might see in us that your truest name is Love."

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

1 comment:

getreconnected said...

I'm being drawn to those visions of the church that center on a reengagement with the biblical narrative in such a way that the church is liberated from enough of its enculturation to be the people of God. Your sermons are examples of that reengagement. They hit the nail on the head. Great preaching, Dan!