Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 17, 2020
Along with the two-legged creatures that live in our house, we have a couple of four-legged creatures. Lady and Murphy, the strangest pair of dogs you’ll ever meet. Lady came straight from the Waco pound. We got her at a discounted rate, a discounted rate from the pound mind you, because she had been returned twice. And then Murphy came from one of Maggie’s co-workers. He used to live on a farm outside of Waco where his best friend was a donkey. But Murphy had a terrible habit of breaking into the chicken coop and helping himself to a drumstick or two. So the country dog came to live with us in the city.
Now, I’m a bit of a cynic. I’m not sure these two mutts will ever learn how to sit, stay, and not loose their minds when the doorbell rings. But Maggie, she’s an optimist. She knows the secret to getting Lady and Murphy to do what she says – food. Kibble, bacon strips, carrots. When she tells them to sit – they sit. When she tells them to stay – they stay. But what’s more, is that they follow her everywhere. They love her. This very instant Lady and Murphy are probably climbing all over Maggie in the other room in the house because they love her. And because they love her, they listen to what she says.
Now, humans are not dogs. Obviously. And yet, Jesus says, “if you love me you will keep my commandments.” Love comes first. Obedience comes second. Or as William Temple said, devotion is primary; obedience is secondary. (“So devotion is prior to obedience itself.” – Readings in St. John’s Gospel, 238).
This is the particular way that we Episcopalians look at ethics and the Christian moral life. We do not first construct a code of conduct for you to live by and then tell you to follow it. We have no great rulebook that describes rewards and punishments for doing what we say. No, as Episcopalians, we put our devotion first; our prayers, our worship, our fellowship, are all primary. Because God’s love for us in Christ Jesus comes before everything. It’s from love, and love only, that we come up with our commandments. They all flow downhill from love. Yes, we do what Jesus commands, but not because we have to, not because we’re told to, but because God first loved us. And our love, love for God and love for neighbor, is an inspired response to the love God has for us.
Look – if I got up every Sunday morning and just told you about all the rules that you need to follow in order to be a Christian – that would be awful. Not to mention boring. Following a set of rules never set any one’s heart on fire. Following a set of rules never changed the world for the gospel. Think of some of the great heroes of our Episcopal Church – we don’t remember them because they followed the rules. We remember them because they loved God and loved their neighbor. When Absalom Jones was told he had to move to the balcony of his Methodist Church because he was black, he walked out, became an Episcopalian, and was ordained as the first African-American priest in our church. He didn’t do so because he was following the rules, in fact, he was breaking the rules. He did so because he loved the Lord God and his neighbors. Constance and her companions were nuns in the Episcopal Church who died while caring for the sick and dead in Memphis, Tennessee during a yellow fever epidemic. They died for the sake of love. Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer and Supreme Court Justice, an Episcopalian who served as Senior Warden of his church, God bless him, argued that separate but equal was wrong. The rules were unjust, but love of God and love of neighbor is always just. Love is primary; obedience is secondary.
And speaking of commandments, that’s precisely what Jesus commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second commandment is this: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Book of Common Prayer, Penitential Order Rite II, 351, quoting Matthew 12:29-31).
Which brings us to our current situation. Remember when all this first started in March? We all talked about how we’re in this together. Yeah, it’s going to be hard, but together we can beat this thing. And “maybe, maybe,” we thought, “this will change us. We’ll come out of this stronger, together, united.” There was “disaster kum-bay-yah.” But now as the weeks have turned into months, we’re back to all our old, predictable, differences. And I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the bickering, I’m tired of conspiracy, I’m tired of finger-pointing and endless blaming. I’m tired of how cheaply we treat human life.
I come before you today then, not to tell you to follow this rule or that. I do not wish to speak to you about any number of political or public health lightning rods. I do not speak to you as one who is mindlessly obedient to whatever notions you have of right and wrong. I do not come with a stick to chide, or a bacon strip to reward. I bet you’re tired of being treated like a dog, I bet you’re tired of the dog whistles, because I know I am.
I come before you today with one simple exhortation. Love. Love God, love your neighbor – not because I told you to, not because it’s the church-y thing to say; love, because God has first loved you through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And do not ask yourself if this rule or that commandment or that policy or that guideline suits your own personal inclinations. Do not haggle, do not fall into those old, predictable distinctions. The pagans already do a great job of that – we can be better. As the saints who have gone before us were better and made the world better, because of love.
My friends, hear again those ancient words that our Lord Jesus Christ saith: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Book of Common Prayer, 324).