03 December 2008

The Three Corners of Love - Sermon

Proper 30 A - The Three Corners of Love

Matthew 22: 34-46

St. Luke’s Church, Burlington

25 October 2008

By Stuart Pike

I know a woman who left her home and went to the other end of the world to live among and work for the very poorest of the poor in the Barrios of Montevideo in Uruguay in South America. That’s where I met her. Her name was Elspeth. There were many of us there who wondered why Elspeth came to Uruguay.

The first term of my final year of Seminary I spent doing a field placement in Uruguay. We left in mid-August and returned home just before Christmas. They were formative months for me. The people that I met there, the way that people were together gave me examples of how communities might live in faithfulness to Jesus' way.

Not that it was all perfect. I have seen in every cross-cultural experience I've had, that the opportunities for misunderstanding and the strife which goes along with that seem to be limitless. People in missionary situations have such high expectations and lofty goals, that sometimes their experienced reality disappoints. But, as the Beatles' song goes, people are people wherever you go.

Some of the first people that I met were attached to the Anglican Cathedral in Montevideo. Most of the people working in the missions were British ex-pats. A new experiment which Bishop Bill Godfrey started was to take an old store room in the basement of the Cathedral and to transform it into a soup kitchen or "comedor" as they say in Spanish.

The bishop's son, Matthew, helped to make the kitchen counter-top and to whitewash the walls. An old propane oven and stove was donated, along with a refrigerator. The word about the Comedor de San Lorenzo got out and soon there were from ten to thirty street people who were coming every day to be fed an evening meal.

What a mix of people came. Most were men whose ragged clothes and even their skin were blackened by their lives on the street. But there were sometimes women and occasionally some kids.

Most of them didn't have the fine manners which I was used to among dinner companions. They had bits missing: teeth, fingers, an eye or an earlobe. Most of them smelled. Some of them had psychological problems. Some of them drank away what little money they could scrape together. Yet, we gathered together around a rough wooden table with old mismatched chairs and had a meal together which I and other volunteers managed to cook. We became a family of sorts. We got to know many of their ways and manners. It didn't matter who came to the door - all were invited in to eat. This was a place of welcome.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked by a Pharisee, trying to test him, which commandment in the law is the greatest. Jesus answers with the summary of the law which is repeated at every Book of Common Prayer Eucharist service and is included in the service of Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Alternative Services. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Man, that sounds impossible doesn't it? I mean, there are so many people who aren't in my comfortable little group. How am I to love them? There are people who just aren't even likeable. How am I to love them?

I am reminded of Elspeth. What an incredible complainer she was. She was ever so much an Eyore. She seemed to have an ever-present storm cloud which followed her around. One of her main problems was that she really didn't like people in general. People would see her coming and would steel themselves for the waves of pessimism and misery which would soon wash over them.

Elspeth didn't like people and that made her for the most part unlikeable herself. Some of us responded to her by turning our bows into the wind and being resolutely cheery. Perhaps we could force a ray of sunshine into her miasma of apathy. Why on earth did Elspeth volunteer to be a missionary, I would sometimes ask myself.

But many of us started to notice an incredible thing about Elspeth: she was really good at helping people. Complaining all the way, she would find people places to live. She found new sources of free or cheap food. She would deliver supplies to an ever-increasing number of families who needed help just to make ends meet. She organized other volunteers to help with her tasks. I wondered if people gave her free food and provided lower-cost shelter just to get rid of her and her complaints. Here comes Elspeth: quick, give her that case of melons over there and send her on her way.

Elspeth helped me to see that Jesus summary of the law was not that we need to like our neighbour as ourselves, but to love them. And love doesn’t mean trying to conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings about other people, but it is, rather about making choices and behaving in loving ways. It is about doing things for our neighbour which are loving. Elspeth, even though she didn't like too many people, certainly loved them by giving her time and her energy and using her own unique ability to help them.

It was G.K. Chesterton who said, "Love means loving the unlovable——or it is no virtue at all."

Of course, the greatest of the commandments, as Jesus summarizes them really speaks about three loves, and not just two. Firstly, we are to love God with everything we are. Secondly, we are to love our neighbour. And how are we to love them? - Yes, the third love - “as we love ourselves.” Loving ourselves is an essential part of loving God and loving our neighbour. Sometimes, I think that the most unloving people are often those who really don’t love themselves very much.

And perhaps, this is why Elspeth, left her home in England. You see, I think she really didn’t like herself very much - at least at the beginning. But after making such a difference to those poor people in Uruguay - after loving them, I think she really started to see that she was so loved by God and she started to love herself too.

As a community let us consider: what are the limits of our love? For Jesus said: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Amen.

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