November 5, 2000
I've learned something about being a minister. When you have a sermon percolating through your mind all week long it's difficult to compartmentalize it away from the rest of your life. In essence you get to practice what you preach even before you preach it. Sometimes that's a challenge.
This week a saying by Barbara Brown Taylor captured my imagination. It's listed at the top of your bulletin in the "Thought for Meditation." She says, "What makes a saint? Extravagance. Excessive love, flagrant mercy, radical affection, exorbitant charity, immoderate faith, intemperate hope, inordinate love."
These past days I have been pondering our scripture readings about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. I've been wondering about what living a life of extravagant love might be like.
Last night I was planning to work on my sermon. Due to a variety of factors this week my sermon writing had been delayed till Saturday. My younger son was at a friend's house for an overnight birthday party; my teenage son was going to watch the Sonics (and clean up his room). I envisioned a quiet night of focusing on my sermon. First I made a phone call to a church member whose husband was sick and was shocked to learn he had died earlier in the day. After I hung up the phone, I sat there for some time reflecting on our conversation. Then, I decided I needed to fix a quick and simple dinner and get on with my sermon. I assumed my son would take a plate downstairs to his room. He came up as I was starting to cook and it only took a minute to realize that this was one of those all-to-rare times when he felt like opening up and talking about important things with his mom.
A part of me experienced a bit of panic; time was going by and I still had plenty of work to do. Then into my mind danced the phrase "extravagant loving" and I looked at my son and any and all concerns I had about the sermon writing melted swiftly away. There was something about that phrase "extravagant loving" that allowed me to accept for myself that gift of time with my son and that encouraged me to give that gift to him as well. It was the impetus of such an abundant word as extravagant that changed my response from being one guided by a sense of responsibility, guilt or frustration to one that had authentic love at its center.
"There is no other commandment greater than these," said Jesus: Love your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
This is not a partial invitation; love God most of the time, love some of your neighbors, be loving towards yourself once in a while. This invitation calls for the whole of who we are to be focused on loving God and for that love to be expressed in our relationships with others. Living this in our daily lives is challenging work but fully engaged loving creates surprising moments of transformation. Listen to this story:
Barbara and her husband Ron have been married for 25 years, if you don't count the time when they separated for a year and considered divorce. The youngest of their three children is now a junior in high school; the nest is nearly empty and old problems have erupted again in angry words, disillusionment and deep pain. Barbara and Ron are again seeing a marriage counselor. These last several months have been very difficult. One week they sat together with the counselor and Barbara noted how Ron's birthday was coming up and she didn't feel like doing anything to celebrate it. She painfully recalled how Ron had basically ignored three of her recently past birthdays. "This year I'm not going to plan anything for him," she said angrily. "How do you feel about that?" the counselor asked of Ron. He shrugged and said it wasn't really a big deal to him; birthdays were her thing.
Ron's birthday week arrived and Barbara surprised herself by suddenly deciding to plan something after all. She reasoned that it would be good for her son at home and a daughter in town to see her and Ron trying to be caring towards one another. She planned a favorite dinner, made a special card and got a present. The children were there to join in the celebration. "I was amazed at how I didn't feel resentful as I worked on bringing this altogether," she said. "Once I started I found myself experiencing a genuine sense of caring for Ron." Ron was very surprised and visibly moved at the celebration in his honor. The following week their relationship was in a different place; something had changed with Barbara's gesture; a gesture she called a radical departure from her earlier feelings. Barbara had discarded her initial and understandable response and extravagantly gave of herself in a gesture of good will; an offering freely given unencumbered by expectations of what she would receive back.
Here is another story:
A weary mother picked up her 8-year-old son after school. It had been a long day, one full of conflicts at the office and burdened by a painful conversation the woman had had with her banker. "I know my mortgage check will overdraw my account by a bit," she had said, "but I get paid at the end of this week and then it will be covered." She hated these kinds of conversations that seemed ever more frequent lately. As a single mom there were days where she just didn't know how she was going to make it; days where dark clouds blanketed her with discouragement.
The good news was she had a full tank of gas and food for the rest of the week and there still were two dollar bills and some change left in her wallet. "Please, please Mom, can we stop at Dick's for an ice cream cone?" her son asked on the way home. She so often had to say no to him that she decided this day she would say yes. As she parked her car in the drive-in's lot she noticed how gorgeous the sun was on the autumn trees ablaze with color. Somehow that noticing revived in her a sense of hope. She looked up at the menu; a chocolate ice cream cone sounded so good to her in that moment, but that would mean both dollars would get used up; that felt irresponsible. But, then, something in the warmth of that afternoon sun and the beauty of the trees propelled her toward an extravagant gesture for herself. "Go ahead and get me one too, honey," she said. She reminded him that they only had two dollars and so he needed to get the 95-cent cones. Soon he came back with a chocolate cone and a bag of French fries; he had decided to get fries for himself instead of a cone. Then he handed a dollar to his Mom. As he did he said, "Wait a minute, Mom; this must not be right; he gave one of my dollars back."
The Mom was tempted to just accept the returned dollar as an unexpected and welcomed gift but she knew how it important it was to use this teaching moment for her son. "He must have made a mistake; take the dollar back to him and tell him what we ordered," she said. She watched her son talk to the man behind the counter. A minute later he came back with the dollar AND a couple of containers of tartar sauce. "He told me it was okay; we didn't need to pay for the ice cream cone," said her son. "So then," he went on, "I figured I could use the money to get some tartar sauce for my French fries so I ordered two. When I gave the dollar to him to pay for them he smiled at me and said just to keep the money, so here you go, Mom!"
The mother sat there in the car for a moment; somewhat stunned by what had just occurred. This person they had never met had shown kindness in an unexpected way at an especially helpful time. "Thank you, person and thank you, God" said the mother. She drove away with a heart that had considerably lightened.
Jesus's reminder to his listeners to "love your neighbor" was not about sentimental affection but had its roots in the Greek agape; to show active good will. This loving of neighbor was to be extended to those with whom we may have no special liking, no special relationships. He invites us to step beyond the existing walls and borders we put up among each other to do some concrete and often costly act of love.
Remember the woman with the alabaster jar who anointed Jesus with the precious oil. How outraged were those who saw her act as unjustifiable and extravagant. But, Jesus understood the outpouring of love for him that had no limits. This was no contained and reserved expression but love of such strength that it sought expression no matter what the cost.
How easy it is to contain our love; to hold back on its expression because of fear about how it will be received, if it will be received and how it might change who we know ourselves to be.
There is a part of our passage from Mark this morning that sometimes receives little notice; that part about loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Interestingly enough, two major biblical commentaries I consulted about this passage did not even acknowledge the "as you love yourself" part of this commandment.
How stingy our world has often been in refusing to acknowledge that loving ourselves is a good thing, indeed a necessary thing. Too many see loving oneself as self-centered and narcissistic. But, if we are to take these words of Jesus seriously we cannot continue to support behavior in ourselves or in others that diminishes who we authentically are; behavior that suggests we are not worthy of love ourselves. We cannot support lives and relationships that restrict ourselves from being the fullest expression of our loving God.
When we can generously love ourselves and shower ourselves with extravagant good will then we have a fuller experience of God's love for us. Out of that love given and sustained by God, we become more able to genuinely share that agape with others. We cease to fear how it will be received; we no longer have any expectations about its return. We trust in its power to transform. We refuse to participate in actions that demean others; we speak out against injustice that tears away at the fabric of human respect and dignity; we open our eyes to see with greater clarity the ways to participate in the healing of our world .
We become extravagant with our good will; showering it towards others at every opportunity. We recognize there is opportunity in every single moment, in every single encounter for an experience of God through an experience with another.
It may be a smile to a stranger as you let them in a lane of traffic; it may be a nightly prayer vigil you keep for the Israelis and Palestinians. It may be listening with love to cranky Aunt Julie or visiting inmates at the prison. It may be supporting a living wage for migrant farm workers or giving an elderly person a ride to church.
The thing about this kind of radical love for God, for oneself and for others is that it has limitless possibilities for expression. Mother Teresa once said it's not what you do, it's how much love you put in to what you are doing that matters.
I invite you all this morning to be wildly extravagant. I encourage you to engage in a no-holds-barred, full-out, abundant adventure with love and good will. I invite you to dare to cross limits, move through barriers and discard small narrow confines that keep you from excessive loving.
This is risky; this is bold. Loving our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength is a daring commitment. Loving ourselves as much as God loves us flies in the face of hundreds of messages we've been given that tell us otherwise. Loving all our neighbors is a challenging and risky venture that many will encourage us to avoid, minimize or even reject.
But, miracles occur when extravagant love, immoderate faith and intemperate hope overflow in our lives and touch all those whom we meet. And these days are days in which miracles are sorely needed. Let us strive to be miracle workers; everyday saints lavishing God's love on all people. Amen.
How They Do Live On - Frederick Buechner
How they do live on, those giants of our childhood, and how well they manage to take even death in their stride because although death can put an end to them right enough, it can never put an end to our relationship with them. Wherever or however else they may have come to life since, it is beyond a doubt that they live still in us. Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still. The people we loved. The people who loved us. The people who, for good or ill, taught us things. Dead and gone though they may be, as we come to understand them in new ways, it is as though they come to understand us - and through them we come to understand ourselves - in new ways too.
Who knows what "the communion of saints" means, but surely it means more than just that we are all of us haunted by ghosts because they are not ghosts, these people we once knew, not just echoes of voices that have years since ceased to speak, but saints in the sense that through them something of the power and richness of life itself not only touched us once long ago, but continues to touch us. They have their own business to get on with no, I assume - "increasing in knowledge and love of Thee," says the Book of Common Prayer, and moving "from strength to strength," which sounds like business enough for anybody - and one imagines all of us on this shore fading for them as they journey ahead toward whatever new shore may await them; but it is as if they carry something of us on their way as we assuredly carry something of them on ours. That is perhaps why to think of them is a matter not only of remembering them as they used to be but of seeing the hearing them as in some sense they are now. If they had things to say to us then, they have things to say to us now too, nor are they be any means always things we expect or the same things.