Love: A Real Possibility for Our Lives
August 12, 2018
Text: Ephesians 5:1
Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Good morning church, I’m excited to be with you all today. I just re-read this verse from Ephesians because my hope today is that this verse will be like a wet-willy. For those of you who didn’t have siblings, a wet-willy is when you surprise someone next to you by licking your finger and putting your finger in their ear. If you have not had the fun experience of being given a wet-willy, allow me to say that it is very strange. My sisters would be able to confirm this for you!
Like a wet-willy, I hope that this verse from Ephesians sticks with you a little bit:
Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and live a life of love…
What a simple command! May the simplicity of this Gospel command disarm you and lead you today toward freedom, laughter, and courage. Amen.
The last twelve months of my life, I have been reflecting a lot about the faith tradition of my childhood; it is a journey that feels important to me because it has been asking two things of me:
to give thanks for the gifts of the Lutheran tradition, and
to let go of the theologies that have encouraged me to see the world and myself through a harsh and severe lens
I grew up in a fairly conservative Lutheran household. My earnest and devout and loving family saw life through the lens of Lutheran theology and the Reformation. My childhood, in rural Illinois, was a wonderful and confusing mixed bag of soccer, basketball, soccer, cross country, soccer, the World Cup, Michael Jordan, and more soccer AND…people who loved me…AND a theology that was often rigid and narrow and not wide enough for the world I was coming to know.
Growing up, we would always begin church with the spoken words of the call-and-response time of confession. Here are the words I spoke every Sunday for twenty years:
“O almighty God, I a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You…to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”
For twenty years, every Sunday, I said those words. I claimed this identity of “poor, miserable sinner.” First and foremost, a poor, miserable sinner. For whatever reason, my tradition could not keep it at sinner. We had to add poor and miserable…or refer to ourselves as “by nature sinful and unclean.” And as you heard, we were worthy each week of “temporal and eternal punishment.”
I can recall some pastors articulating this in other ways, telling the congregants from the pulpit that there was nothing good in us, nothing good in our souls. The overarching message was always this: you cannot help but sin….all the good you want to do will be tainted by your sin. In the end, there is nothing good about you and you cannot do good, and no matter what, you are bound to mess it up. It is God who is good, not you.(Deep breath)
Understandably, I arrived to L’Arche and 8th Day four years ago as a young man who was very hard on himself.
A few months into my time here, I remember vividly one night in which I was at Meridian Park after a hard day at L’Arche. (For those of you unfamiliar to L’Arche, we are a community of people with and without disabilities who share our lives together. It is a rich place with lots of life, lots of noises, and lots of laughter; it can also be a place with a lot of emotion and pain that rises to the surface). In a good way, the intimacy of L’Arche was and has always been hard for me. And so on this night, I was in the park feeling down on myself for worrying about what other people were thinking about me, for not saying or doing the right thing, for not being brave enough in a particular moment. Crisely was listening to me attentively as I worked out what I was feeling, and it took me a long time to put words to the fact that I was feeling shame. Eventually, in the silence, Crisely spoke two simple words that made no sense to me.
She said, “Alfonso, you’re good.”
I had never heard those words before, and I wasn’t sure what to do with them.
Fast forward four years. Thanks to many of you, Crisely and I were able to do an incredible trip and travel to different countries for four months visiting family and communities that were important to us. One place that we went to was Taize, a Christian community in France. There, we spent a week sleeping in different dormitories in the company of over 2,000 Portuguese high-schoolers. (A quick word of advice: If you ever find yourself planning a honeymoon or a trip with a partner, sleep with your spouse and not in separate dormitories with Portuguese teenagers.) Also, if you are ever visiting this ecumenical monastery in the middle of nowhere in France, do not expect your stay to include much French cuisine. You get one piece of bread, two small pieces of chocolate, and a small packet of butter for breakfast every morning….and, no, you cannot have an extra piece of bread…and, yes, you have to walk an extra half-mile down the road in the sleet to buy coffee. Needless to say, we were already struggling in more ways than one when we decided to take up the brothers on their offer to spend the last half of the week in a silent-retreat space apart from the Portuguese masses.
During this silent retreat, I read a book about the founder of the community and some of his core ideas. One sentence, in particular, jumped off the page at me:
“For Taize [and I will add for L’Arche], the question of human sin does not stand at the center but rather witnessing to the human predisposition to do good.” I’m going to reread this sentence because this idea has totally reoriented my life.
For Taize, the question of human sin does not stand at the center but rather witnessing to the human predisposition to do good.
Is this not true, brothers and sisters? In Genesis, God creates us and deems us very good. In Ephesians, Paul says, be imitators of God. Live a life of love…
Notice that Paul does not say, “You are a poor miserable sinner. You have no chance of success.” Paul says, you are the body of Christ. Paul says, you are hands and feet. Paul says, you are important to the mission, and as dearly loved children, do it! Live a life of love.
I love a 76-year-old man named Sonny. Most of you know Sonny; he is a big black man with a big laugh and big blessings for the people he loves. He is a L’Arche core member who has been a friend and a housemate who has shared the last four years of life with me. Sonny and I have traversed a lot of life together. For example, Sonny and I have seen dozens of doctors together, been to at least five or six different emergency rooms. We went to France together for a week…to church in Suitland, MD together…to Popeye’s, to IHOP, to Carolina Kitchen -- to every car show available and to every Washington sporting event that you can think of. Despite differences in race and age and disposition and denomination, we have come to a place of deep love for one another.
And it has been a pleasure. Sometime last year, I realized this and began thinking about it as such. It is a pleasure to love this man. It is a pleasure to be his friend. One poignant moment in our friendship was following one of the hardest times I can ever recall in L’Arche. As our home was helping Sonny, Mo and Andrew move into an accessible apartment last March, we began to lose a lot of assistants due to the load of being present to one another and also the process of moving homes. One assistant, Michael—who was beloved especially to Andrew—stepped away from L’Arche two months before our move. We couldn’t find anyone to replace him. Then, Jameia, who is still a steady assistant for Euclid House, had to take six weeks off for an illness. Another assistant fainted one morning a week before our move. She got a concussion, and came back slowly after our move as a half-time assistant. And to top it off, our community leader was due to be give birth a week after our move to this new apartment.
Quite suddenly, within a matter of weeks, we lost more than half of our assistant team and the leader of our community. In the midst of this, Andrew’s room had bed bugs, and Sonny was incredibly anxious due to all the changes, most especially a new home and a new wheelchair that was always on his mind. I would wake up early some mornings and come into the living room to find Sonny sitting in his wheelchair, fixated on the new equipment that kept entering into his life.
For those of us who we were left, we spent the next many months with only one day away each week. And our days together were very long; in truth, everyone was holding too much and our home was trudging and slogging our way through every day.
One night, two weeks after our move, I had ended a normal day—about twelve hours of time in Sonny, Mo and Andrew’s new apartment space. I was excited the whole day about attending a prayer service that evening at a retreat space called Dayspring. I didn’t have to invite Sonny to come with me, but I knew he would really appreciate a chance to get out of the apartment, away from his wheelchair, and away from a home in flux, and he gladly accepted.
We drove the hour to Dayspring quite joyfully. We sang with gusto to music, and Sonny told me stories about a rodeo that he went to years ago with his friend Bob. After a long period of struggle, it was a unique moment of contentment. I wrote this in my journal the next day, on April 14 of 2017:
Richard Rohr talks about deep time -- and contemplation, as the way to enter that deep time…when time seems to stand still. I felt like I had this in me yesterday. The weather and sunset were gorgeous. Sonny had laughed freely for the first time in days. While we were in the car, I thought, “I’m happy to be here as friends.” Later today during therapy, I was able to voice that I love Sonny to my counselor. I don’t know why, but that felt so significant to say those words. I’m incredibly thankful to God to be Sonny’s friend.
Looking back from this moment, I see in myself a growth beyond what I could have imagined. I had made a journey from miserable sinner to grateful friend. I had been graced with a happiness that stemmed from a revelation that I could love…as one caught up in a relationship of love.
8th Day, you’ve been a big part of this journey for me. Thank you, each of you, for drawing me into this rich communal life.
When I step into Euclid House, when I step into this room on Sunday at 10 in the morning, I encounter not a community turned in on itself, not a community heaping shame upon itself… but rather, I encounter communities that have the audacity to say, Yes, we can live a life of love. No, we don’t have a secret formula. No, it’s not easy… but, with joy, we will be dogged, we will close the distance between ourselves and the pain of the world.
Like Tom Brown, our friend who died this past week, we will give ourselves completely to the work of hope and to the work of love, because God is asking this of us… and we are capable of it.