Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2006, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas atGrace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
1 John 4:7-21
Psalm 33:1-8, 18-22
Free to Give
Let your loving kindness, O Lord, be upon us,
as we have put our trust in you.
The last part of May is for many of us a season of transition, a time for weddings and graduations. It’s also a season of transition here at Grace Church as we begin looking ahead to the new fiscal year that begins on July 1. By now most of you have received the eloquent letter that Doug Adler and Jane Buckloh, co-chairs of the Stewardship Commission, sent out to our parish households, so it probably won’t surprise you to discover that today’s sermon is about stewardship. I’ve heard my fair share of stewardship sermons over the years, but this is the first time that I’ve actually had to preach one myself, and let me tell you, I arrive at the pulpit this morning with a lot more empathy for the good folks at NPR and even for the poor street performer who must climb up on a chair in front of the crowds and hold out his empty hat.
My sermon’s point is simple and I might as well get it over with and say it straight: I invite you to make a pledge this year – a generous pledge – to Grace Church, a pledge of your time and energy, a pledge of your money and your prayers. In saying this, I stand before you as a beggar. I can’t force you to do anything. I have no power to wield. I have no threats to thunder down on your heads and no guilt to lay on thick. All I have is a willingness to stand here and invite your continued participation and support. I must say, it is a rather vulnerable place to stand.
And maybe that is just as it should be. The beloved community that Jesus had in mind was not animated by guilt or force or fear. As we heard in the reading from the First Letter of John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” [1 John 4:18]. What inspires and sustains Christian communities is love, and love can’t be commanded any more than I can command you to give from your heart.
Ah, you may say, but what about all the biblical language around “commandment”? Today’s Gospel reading uses the word five times. “This is my commandment,” Jesus says to his disciples, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” [John 15:12, 14, 17].
But can love really be “commanded”? What did Jesus mean? You know as well as I do that loving feelings can’t be forced, and in any case there is something in our spirit, something in our blood, that resists being told what to do, even if it’s good for us, even if we know it’s the right thing to do.
A story comes to mind that I heard years ago. A friend of my husband was driving somewhere with his young daughter, and the girl was sitting in the front seat beside her father. I don’t know what they were talking about or what was going on between them, but for some reason lost to memory the little girl took it into her head not only to unbuckle her seatbelt but actually to stand up in the passenger seat.
“Sit down!” her father said, with some alarm.
The girl refused.
“I’m telling you — sit down!” he cried.
Again the girl ignored him.
“I mean it,” said the father, now quite upset. “Sit down right now.”
The little girl glared at him, slid back down into her seat and buckled her seat belt. They drove on for some moments in what I imagine was a rather electric silence, and then the girl turned to her father and announced, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I am standing up on the inside.”
No, we don’t like commandments, even if they are issued for our own good. So if we imagine God as an authoritarian, power-hungry boss “out there” whose business is to order us around and tell us what to do, at the word “command” we are likely to rebel or at least to dig in our heels. And if we do carry out what we think we’re supposed to do, we may do it with a kind of grim and sullen compliance, while a spirit of resentment secretly lurks in our hearts – sitting down on the outside but standing up on the inside.
I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he commanded his disciples to love. The God that Jesus loved was not some power-hungry magnate “out there” but a Presence that Jesus discovered in his own depths and whom Jesus adored in all things and beyond all things. I take Jesus’ “commandment” that we abide in his love and that we love one another as a revelation of the deep structure of the universe. As creatures made in the image of God, we come from love, and at our death we return to love. During the short span of our lifetime, it is when we are abiding and acting in love that we are most true to who we really are. I wonder if the commandment to love doesn’t actually express the deepest desire of our heart.
Still, it takes a lifetime – at least – to learn to love well, and it’s easy to get it wrong. On bad days, we do things that are not a bit loving and we refrain from doing the things that are. On really bad days, we don’t even care. No wonder we need to keep returning to prayer, returning to worship and to Christian community, so that we can make ourselves available again to God’s chastening or consoling word, and can continue to grow into who we really are. When we do at last come home to ourselves, when we re-connect with the God who lives in our depths and in our midst, we discover again the sheer joy of saying the loving word that touches another person’s heart. We know again the pleasure of giving ourselves in love to the people around us. We feel again the happiness that comes when we find ways to love other people wisely and well.
So what does this have to do with stewardship? Making a pledge to share our time and talent and money with this community is a way of giving thanks for the love of God. It’s a way to praise the God who loved us first. “In this is love,” writes John in his First Letter, “not that we loved God but that [God] loved us and sent [God’s] Son We love because [God] first loved us” [I John 4:10a, 19]. The initiative in love always belongs to God. God doesn’t love us because we are smart or talented or virtuous – or even because we’re generous. OK – truth in advertising: God won’t love you any more or any less depending on the size of your pledge. God doesn’t love us because we’ve earned or deserve that love. God doesn’t love us only after we’ve cleaned up our act or sorted out our priorities or generally gotten a handle on our lives. God loves us without a why.
I think we know what that’s like. Just think of someone you love – maybe a child or grandchild, or your partner, or your dearest friend. Why do you love that person? You might say you love him or her because of this quality or that, or because of something you’ve gone through together, or for any other number of reasons. But when it comes right down to it, when we love another person, there finally is no “why” – we love the person just because we do. It’s as simple as that. We love them because we love them.
That’s something like God’s unmotivated, unconditioned, and sometimes totally unreasonable love for you and for me. The more we can accept that love, the more deeply we can take it in – the more we will want to share it and to spread it around. As Doug and Jane put it in their letter, when we give of ourselves to God through the Grace Church community it is because we want to “[complete] the circle of love.”
So why do I pledge? I don’t pledge because I have to – no one has to. Divine love is free.
I pledge because I want to tell God, “Thank you for your love,” and to love what God loves. I want to complete the circle.
I pledge because I want to take care of what I love. I want this building to be full of candlelight and soaring music and I want the lights to turn on and the staff to get paid.
I pledge because I want to support this little fellowship of people that is trying to make God visible to the world.
I pledge because I love the God who comes to us in the healing and transforming power of word and sacrament. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come to the end of a Sunday service and felt myself almost bursting with joy because of the privilege of worshiping God and of sharing in this with you.
I pledge because I want to renew and to deepen my own conversion.
I pledge because of the power of Christ’s promise “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” [John 16:11]. Forget about “giving ’til it hurts.” I want to give until I feel the joy that comes from stepping beyond the worried bounds of my own small self.
Roman Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen put it so well when he wrote, “Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life. . . A happy life,” he goes on to say, “is a life for others.” (1)
In the end, what we do with our pledges has everything to do with our willingness to respond with love to God’s love. What we do with our pledges has everything to do with our willingness to trust that in God’s eyes, every act of kindness counts. I will quote Henri again one last time. He writes, “How different would our life be were we truly able to trust that it multiplied in being given away! How different would our life be if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace will multiply and multiply as long as there are people to receive it. . . and that – even then – there will be leftovers!. . . You and I would dance for joy were we to know truly that we . . . are chosen, blessed, and broken to become the bread that will multiply itself in the giving.” (2)
No, I can’t command you to pledge. That would be absurd. But I can invite you to consider what God is leading you to do. And I can pray that when the Spirit comes among us at Pentecost, together we will lay our gifts at the altar with joyful and grateful hearts.
(1) Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1992, pp. 106, 109.
(2) Ibid, pp. 123, 124.