Saturday, February 19, 2011

All You Need is Love: a Sermon for Epiphany 7, Year A

As I read through the lessons for today, and especially the Old Testament and the Gospel lessons, I found myself thinking of a song.  That will not surprise most of you.  I found myself focusing on what it means to love your neighbor, and thinking of a song.  But, it wasn’t enough to think of the song.  I had to place the song in context.

Now, you know the song.  It was “All You Need Is Love,” by the Beatles.  We all know it:

All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.

But, I didn’t just think of the song.  I thought of it in a specific context: specifically, I thought of it in the movie, “Yellow Submarine.”  If you haven’t seen it, “Yellow Submarine” might have been something of a soundtrack in search of a plot, but it was in its day quite a production.  It was animated; and if it didn’t have the modern effects of 3D, it had the bright, exaggerated images of Peter Max.  It was psychodelica in all its glory. 

You can find it on YouTube, by the way.  It’s broken up into seventeen parts, but it’s all there.  Still, there was nothing like going to see it in a theater, up there on the big screen.  Those colors and images could be just overwhelming!  It was especially great at a midnight show.  You sat there in the theater, with your date beside you; and almost as much fun as the movie itself were all the folks sitting in the front three rows in – let’s say in an altered state.  They sat there, their heads thrown back and their eyes wide open, saying, “OH, GOD! OH, WOW! OH, GOD!”

I suppose we might not all remember that.  Some would be too young, of course; and a few might be too old.  And then there are those who don’t’ remember because they were sitting down there in the first three rows….

If you don’t know the movie, the story is that Pepperland, a paradise under the sea, is attacked by the Blue Meanies, with their fierce armies, their Apple Bonkers, their Snapping Turks, and especially their fiercest weapon, the terrible Flying Glove.  Only Fred escapes, and makes his way to London where he finds the Beatles – who look astonishingly like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!  Fred enlists them to go back with him, and together they are able to free Pepperland and drive out the Blue Meanies.

That’s where the song comes in.  When the terrible Flying Glove attacks them, they sing, “All You Need is Love.”  And as they sing, the words take form.  They take on shape and substance; and it is the words. “All you need is love,” that defeat the Flying Glove and put the Meanies to flight.

And that’s what came to me as I reflected on the lessons.  The words took on shape and substance, and love overcame evil.

That’s just like the lessons today.  Think about the lesson from Leviticus.  It begins with God’s blanket proclamation, “You shall be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy.”  But, then, listen to what holiness looks like: you don’t harvest your field fencerow to fencerow.  You don’t gather up every grape that falls to the ground.  Instead, you leave it for the poor and the stranger. Holiness is about caring for others, even if it’s messy and inefficient, even if it costs you something.

You don’t steal, you don’t lie, you don’t make victims of the innocent.  You aren’t unfair, you don’t slander, and you don’t take revenge. You love your neighbor as yourself, even when – especially when - you have an advantage.  That’s what it means to be holy: love takes shape and form until what you do for another looks like what you would do for yourself.

That’s what Jesus was referring back to – but it sounds like things had deteriorated over time.  “You have heard,” he said, “an eye for and eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  That is, you make the punishment fit the crime: you don’t overlook it, but neither do you overreact.  But Jesus says that isn’t enough.  And he doesn’t focus on what it means when you do the punishing, but when you’re the one getting punished.  “Don’t resist the evil one,” he said,  “Turn the other cheek.  And, find ways to give more than is demanded.  So, if you get sued for your coat, give it up - and not just your coat, but your tunic.  And if you’re forced into labor, do twice as much as required.  Find ways to give, even when it’s not deserved, even when it’s not fair.”

“And about that old attitude – ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ – I’m telling you to love your enemy.  After all, God makes the sun shine and the rain fall so that crops grow– and he does it whether the owner is just or unjust, righteous or unrighteous. Anyone can love a person who loves him back, or welcome a person who’ll welcome in return.  You’re called to do more. You’re called to a love that can take some pain. You’ve got to give your love shape and substance, because that’s what it means to be perfect as the Lord your God is perfect.”

That’s what it was, you know, that brought to mind that scene from “Yellow Submarine.”  As I said, again and again the words, “All you need is love,” took form and substance, and defeated the Flying Glove.  But, they didn’t do it by breaking the Glove, or attacking it, or driving it off. Instead, the words were broken by the Glove, and yet they kept forming.  They were smashed again and again, and yet they kept coming.  The words didn’t resist, but simply faced the attack until the Glove was overwhelmed, not by force, but in the rubble of its own making.

We’re called to do more.  We’re called to a love that serves others, even when it’s messy and inefficient and costly.  We’re called to a love that will bear pain, and seek to give even in the face of injustice.  We’re called to love our neighbor, and not just the neighbor who will love us back.  We’re called to love our neighbor – even to suffer for our neighbor – just as we might love, and suffer for, ourselves.

Now, this is a hard teaching, and it raises an important question.  Is Jesus asking us here to be so self-sacrificing as to be destructive to another or to ourselves?  After all, life isn’t simple, and sometimes what seems kind at first can have harmful consequences.  No matter how much the addict might plead, it isn’t really a kindness to provide the drug. We know as parents that, no matter how the child cries, what the child wants isn’t necessarily what the child needs.

Nor do I think Jesus is calling for us to be self-destructive.  None of Jesus’ examples, nor those from Leviticus, were life threatening, or even all that unusual. Even the forced labor was permitted under Roman law. On the other hand, I think we need to think about this with real humility.  After all, he also said there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another – and then proceeded to do so for us.

But, perhaps those questions are distractions. If we aren’t called to be self-destructive, neither does that let us off the hook.  We are called to love neighbor as self, and not just the neighbor who loves us but the neighbor who hates us. We are called to love in ways that are messy, that cost us, that can cause us pain.  We are called to be holy as God is holy, to be perfect as God is perfect.  And if our love has shape and form and substance, love will truly be all we need.

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