The Urgent Demands of Love
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, October 25, 2020, “Fearless Generosity: For Such A Time As This” series.
Text: Matthew 22:34-46
“Enough of this tip-toeing around the fire.” This word I received in prayer a couple of months back has been a struggle to understand. What is the fire? And why am I tip-toeing around it? Upon reflection, I’m pretty sure these words are Christ calling me out for my reluctance to step more fully into the fire of God’s all-consuming love that asks me to trust God more and stop wasting energy on pointless striving. After 50 years of living and trying so hard to love God and neighbor, it’s a bit of a drag to get tagged by Spirit as a tip-toer. But there it is. Love demands much and always more of us. Not more production or perfection, but more of our true, honest, vulnerable selves, more of our willingness to surrender to God’s passionate and tender love for us. God seeks to draw us into the divine fire, not for our own sakes alone—though certainly that’s part of it—but because as we live more fully in the love of God we live more intentionally and generously with and for others.
Some words of G.K. Chesterton come to mind as I name this—“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.”
There may be those who would push back on this statement. After all, the heart of Christianity is love. How is that so hard? Just love.
Right… OK… Just love… Easy…Because love is always straightforward, the loving thing to do is always clear. Because loving ourselves in a healthy way comes so naturally we shouldn’t have any problem loving our neighbors that way… And our love never gets tangled up with old baggage or confused with illusions... And of course loving God in the moment of tragedy or abandonment is a breeze… and the whole loving our enemies thing? a snap.
A moment’s reflection reminds us that love is many things—power, passion, energy, the very source of life and meaning—it may even be simple! But easy it is not. The love we’re about in the context of our faith is not found in empty words or good intentions or paper hearts. Our aim is the kind of love embodied, enacted, lived by Jesus, it is an all-in kind of love: heart, soul, mind, and strength.
But so often in church circles love gets watered down into such thin soup that the hungry remain hungry. I keep going back to some lines from Austin Channing Brown’s memoir I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness in which she names the ways that love as it is practiced in Christian circles is so often “inconsequential.” Particularly speaking of her experience as a Black woman in a culture that assumes “white is right,” Brown names how easy it is to make love dissolve “into a demand for grace, for niceness, for endless patience—to keep everyone feeling comfortable while hearts are being changed. In this way, so-called love dodges any responsibility for action and waits for the great catalytic moment that finally spurs accountability.” She writes, “I am not interested in love that is aloof. In a love that refuses hard work, instead demanding a bite-size education that doesn’t transform anything. In a love that qualifies the statement ‘Black lives matter,’ because it is unconvinced this is true. I am not interested in a love that refuses to see systems and structures of injustice, preferring to ask itself only about personal intentions. This aloof kind of love is useless to me.”
If our understanding of love is mostly about “keeping a peace” that has nothing to do with justice, or a love driven by nostalgia or tribal, national, or bloodline loyalties…or if our understanding is that love gets parceled out in little bits or is so careful that it makes no impact or gives up when things get difficult we’re missing the mark.
In the greatest commandment God doesn’t say love me when you feel like it. God doesn’t say, love me with your mind alone, thinking Goddish thoughts and debating the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. God doesn’t say only love me with your praisy warm feelings surrounded by nothing and no one that challenges you to stretch yourself. The commandment isn’t to love God by checking boxes and doing tasks that satisfy our own sense of accomplishment and self-righteousness—the call is to love with soul, with our deepest wholeness and essence and humanity, that which connects with every other soul…that which connects us to our neighbor.
And we’re not called to love only the neighbors with whom we share common history, language, or culture. The commandment doesn’t say love your neighbor when it’s convenient or when there is no risk involved to you or when it doesn’t ask anything of you. The love at the heart of our faith, the love that God IS and Jesus embodied, is a love that gives and gives, that risks and becomes as vulnerable as we are—that pursues us (sometimes quietly and other times, less so) until we fall into that divine, all-embracing, all-consuming love and so finally yearn and then learn to not be so self-centered and afraid.
The love we’re called to is consequential, it’s a love that changes the world because it counters the thin, quid pro quo, transactional ways of love so prevalent all around us. Jesus’ love was not aloof. It was incarnate, passionate, sacrificial, generous, intimate, patient, and gracious. Jesus’ love crossed boundaries and tore down walls—really tore them down, didn’t just rebrand or post a sign—as he created a new kind of human community where persons are invited to let their humanity touch others’ humanity. Jesus shows us the all-in love God lavishes upon us and beckons us to enter ever more fully into that divine fire and into the life and community that emerges.
Beloved, as Foundry we’re just trying to learn how to love God and love each other like that.
Right now, we are experiencing social, economic, cultural, political, environmental, spiritual, and relational upheaval the likes of which haven’t been seen in ages—and certainly not in our time. In this time of volatility and possibility, Foundry is being driven by the urgent demands of love. We will not withdraw from the difficult conversations and decisions around racial equity or back down from our commitment to building a fully inclusive church and society that honors the gifts of all including LGBTQ siblings. We continue to serve struggling neighbors in our community in both direct ways and through mission partnerships to provide IDs, food, safety, and shelter. We are going deeper in Bible study, not skimming the surface. We are building larger networks of relationship, not retreating into isolation and closed groups. We are reaching out to connect with our folx who struggle to connect in this current digital environment. We are using any and all resources available to proclaim a Gospel vision of hope and liberating love in ways that reach our local community and stretch into the far corners of the world through technology. We may take it for granted, but the truth is that there are so many people who do not know that “Beloved” is their true, family name! So many don’t know that their lives are precious and powerful and meaningful and cherished. So many are lost in lies, bound by perversions of what it means to love, swallowed up in a culture that tells them they are nothing unless they have money or a gun or a fancy title or car or home, are unlovable unless they fit into the so-called “norms” of society.
My dearest hope and vison is that, together, we might create community that is always becoming more like the truly human community Jesus would be proud of, a community where tenderness and beauty are cultivated, a community where we are willing to be honest about our lives, our struggles, our hopes, our ideas, our feelings—where we receive one another as people, not roles or job titles or those who are supposed to have it all together, but where we practice being human with other humans, all on a journey and trying to find our way and always seeking how we can love our neighbors in consequential ways. In this crucible moment, we have an opportunity to let go of things that get in the way such a vision and to take up new things that will feed it.
And there is no map for this moment. There is little precedent and a lot of uncertainty.
All this may seem ridiculously overwhelming. We’re already exhausted at every level. I feel that. And when I was feeling it most deeply, the word came, “No more tip-toeing around the fire…”
And in our collective weariness and anxiety, a word has come with extraordinary clarity: “Foundry, you are called for such a time as this.” No more tip-toeing around the fire… Love demands much and always more of us. Because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, it is through the redemptive power of love that “we will be able to make of this old world a new world.” By God’s amazing grace and perfect love, may we be set on fire with the kind of love that makes things truly new.
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Love demands that even when things are most difficult, we keep trying, that we do what we can and give what we can. On this consecration Sunday, I am inspired by the commitment and generosity of so many. And I know that the ONLY way we will meet our goal and continue to meet the urgent demands of love is if every person and household gives with fearless generosity. This is not a time to think that someone else is going to make it happen. I always want you to know that I do not ask you to do anything that I am not willing to do. I give more than 10% of my take home pay to Foundry with my goal being to get to 10% of my gross salary. This is a core spiritual discipline for me and is a way I make my love consequential. The late pastor and prophet, William Sloane Coffin once said, “What we need to realize is that to love effectively we must act collectively.” We love most effectively when we share the work.
Over these last weeks you’ve been invited to Fearless Generosity, estimating your regular giving to Foundry in 2021 for such a time as this. Those gifts are vital for Foundry’s continuing ability to show up and provide a faithful, loving, and justice-seeking witness in the world. 2020 has brought challenges beyond our wildest dreams as the pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism have broken not just human bodies but the body politic. Illness and injustice continue to take a devastating toll. Through it all, Foundry continues as an anchor, a lifeline, and a beacon in the storm. We have provided concrete support for vulnerable neighbors in DC and seamlessly pivoted our worship, music, discipleship, family, and care ministries to online experiences. Foundry’s impact has not lessened but grown in these months of quarantine. Our witness in the wake of the murder of George Floyd touched hearts and minds not only of our immediate neighbors, but people of faith and conscience across the country.
By estimating your giving, you give us the tools we need to budget faithfully for the work that lays ahead. We want to say thank you to those of you who’ve already made your estimates.
I want to share with you now a graphic that shows where we are as of right now: We’ve received a total of $23,384,838,338.21. If you’ve not yet had a chance to make an estimate, there’s still time! Please remember that even if you are set up for a recurring gift, we still need you to submit an estimate for 2021 in order for your generosity to be added to our number. Every single gift is so important.
As you receive the gifts of Foundry’s virtual choir and see images of the way your gifts have been and are at work in our community, I invite your prayerful discernment about what you will contribute to help Foundry meet our goal for such a time as this. And then please visit our website and submit your estimate of giving there or you can use the link we’re going to drop into the comments section now.
To love effectively, we act collectively. Let’s do it.