(this is revised from a sermon I preached in 2011 on Romans 8:26-39; I recently reread, and thought it might be helpful to someone today)
It’s such an elusive question: what is love? Hollywood gets it wrong more often than not; poets tend to get it right. The rest of us muddle through, experiencing those shining moments when we know we are in the midst of love, only for that moment to end and leave us wanting more.
I am drawn to what Jean Vanier said about love. “To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude, ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.”
Love is revealing to another his beauty, her value. Love as revelation from one to another, revelation that opens up vistas rather than shading them over.
So what happens if we make that our working definition of love and stick it onto Paul’s gorgeous words from Romans 8? It might mean that nothing can impede God in Christ from revealing to all of us our beauty and value.
But it doesn’t feel that way most of the time, does it? It feels as though the world is telling us, over and over and over again, that the creation is ugly, that people are ugly, that there is no value or meaning in anything other than acquisition and might and trendiness. The powers, as Paul calls them, strip away all sense of holy beauty and value. The powers tempt us every day, and we don’t have to look far to see them.
The powers tell us that we are conquerors, and we believe them. We have conquered discomfort, and if we don’t feel well we pop a pill, if we’re hot we turn on the air conditioning, if we’re in a hurry we buy a Big Mac at the drive through and eat in the car. And so we wonder why there is addiction, and a hole in the ozone, and obesity and litter and pollution.
The powers tell us we are conquerors. We have conquered weakness. If the enemy strikes, build a bigger weapon and strike back harder. If you don’t have enough room, take someone else’s space, their land, their country. If the battle isn’t going your way, use civilians as decoys, shields, and hostages. And still we are aghast about war, horrified by violence, and despair over endless cycles of retaliation.
The powers tell us we are conquerors. We have conquered the personal demons of loneliness. There’s a great commercial running on TV right now for Toyota, in which an adult child talks about her parents’ boring life while she has 763 friends on Facebook; meanwhile her parents are out in their Forerunner joining a big group of friends for a bonfire and cookout. The internet provides community for some, but not physical presence. And still we shake our heads as we gaze at the dining room table, covered with mail and books instead of placemats and silverware and meals shared by friends.
The powers are those forces that tell us we can rely on ourselves and don’t need anyone else, that we don’t have to wait to get what we want, and that we can use whatever force necessary to make our individual lives better. The powers are so seductive and offer us lives exactly as we want them.
And then I am reminded of something Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his journal. “You shall have joy, or you shall have power, said God. You shall not have both.” I wonder if Emerson had been reading Paul the day he wrote that. You shall have joy or you shall have power. Presented on paper, the choice seems easy. Or does it?
How do we choose – how do we make any of those crucial life decisions? What do we do when we come to one of those big crossroads, and we have to choose between power and joy? Are we ready, prepared, to make that decision? Or do we find ourselves flailing?
It may depend on whether or not one has a sense of what is at the center of life. What is at the center of your life, in the middle of your heart of hearts? What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? What enables you to risk ridicule or ostracism, to stand up for something you believe in? What encourages you to put one foot forward when you are dog-tired and weary beyond all reckoning and utterly drained? What is at the center of your very soul?
It’s clear what was at the center of Paul’s soul: the love of God in Christ Jesus. Paul wrote a lot, and he wrote a lot of things that I disagree with or struggle with, but I have to give him this: he knew God’s love. He knew that God loved him, that God saw the beauty and value in him that had nothing to do with credentials or success. He knew that God trusted him. And so when he was stoned by enemies in one town, or shipwrecked, or thrown into jail, he knew he had the love of God deep in his heart. I imagine that as he went to his death, he knew that love of God.
How many of us can say the same thing for ourselves? How certain are you, on any given day, of God’s unconditional love for you? How certain am I, on any given day, that God sees my beauty and value? Most of us have that sense – until we start listening to the powers, to the culture, to the media, to those voices that tell us other things. But the truth is that we are all in the same boat, this boat that sometimes sails smoothly with deep confidence in love, and sometimes is tossed about by doubt and temptation.
I love the way poet Gwendolyn Brooks describes this in her poem “Infirm”.
Everybody here is infirm.
Oh. Mend me. Mend me. Lord.
say to them
say to them
say to them, Lord:
look! I am beautiful, beautiful with
my wing that is wounded
my eye that is bonded
or my ear not funded
or my walk all a-wobble.
I’m enough to be beautiful.
How was it possible, almost two thousand years ago, for Paul to write words that have such resonance today? We feebly struggle, and the Spirit shares our sighs and enables us to form those struggles into prayer. We hope that God is working in the good and the bad, in the beautiful and ugly, making all those things work together for some holy purpose. We pin our hope on God, who knows what sacrificial love is. We see our hope in Jesus Christ, who strides through all our hardship and danger and threat, through all those things to you and to me.
The world would have us be conquerors, but Paul tells us we are more than conquerors. We are more than conquerors. We are more than consumers. We are more than victors. We are more than victims. We are more than taxpayers. We are more than young, old, saggy, taut, smart, thick, Republican, Democrat, straight, queer, right, wrong, strong, weak. We are more than all those things. We are more than conquerors, because we are the Beloved.
We are the Beloved, and as Paul tells us, there is not one thing in the whole of creation that can change that. A child might ask a parent “will you ever stop loving me” and the parent says, no. So we might ask God “will you ever stop loving us?” And the resounding answer: No. Will you ever find us ugly? No. Will you ever find us worthless? No.
Paul tells us that God’s love is at the center, at the center of creation, at the center of the universe, at the center of each day we live our lives. God’s love is at the center. Every day God reveals our beauty and worth to us, and that impacts how we live with each other.
Every congregation has God’s love at its center. Some churches act like they don’t know that, or like they’ve forgotten it, but still, God’s love is the center, the anchor, the cornerstone of every congregation. So if we still use Jean Vanier’s words about love, we could say that at the center of every congregation is the revelation of the beauty and value of the people within and beyond the walls.
It’s easy to reveal beauty and value of another when we are all in one accord. It get tricky when we disagree, and when we disagree for noble reasons, and when we disagree with passion. I say this not because this is a congregation in terrible conflict; it is not. But we do face some interesting, God-given challenges, and how we work together and face those challenges is crucial.
In our decisions, will we choose power or joy? How will we hold in tension our very human disagreements and this divine call to love, to reveal beauty and value to and with each other?
The guy who rolls his eyes every time we sing your favorite hymn? He is beautiful.
The visitors who dare to sit in your pew? They are beautiful.
The woman whose car bumper sticker express everything you don’t believe in? She is beautiful.
Those kids who squirm and crawl under the pews and wave to their parents during the moments with children? They are beautiful.
The dear friend whose aging has taken a toll on mind and body and spirit? He is beautiful.
The acquaintance whose off-hand remark struck you at your very core? She is beautiful.
They are all enough to be beautiful.
You are beautiful too.
You are priceless.
You are more than conquerors.
You are the beloved. Thanks be to God.