The Extraordinary Love of God
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 29, 2013
Luke 6:31-36 (2nd Sunday of Luke)
Again we are reminded that God is merciful and compassionate and that we are to follow his example, but this is more than mere imitation. The imitation of God is one thing, but we are called to do more than that; we are called to become divine, not just to be merciful, but to become Mercy. The transformation of the human person is an ontological transformation. If we are to obey the commandments, which over and over again we are told we must do, that is, to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, then there must be in us no mental or physical hindrance to loving our neighbors as ourselves. That means we must change on the deepest levels and this change can happen even (if you believe some of the newest scientific research) on the level of our genes!
Neuroscience has shown how spiritual practice can literally effect positive change on the levels of the tiniest cells and neurons in the brain. New neural pathways are opened through the practice of meditation and prayer that alter the brain in amazing ways. St. Paul’s admonition to think only on beautiful things intuits what modern science has discovered. It is healthy to dwell on good things and unhealthy to dwell on ugly things. Fear produces fear. Anger produces anger. Prejudice produces more prejudice. Violence begets violence. War produces more war. Who doesn’t know this at least in theory?
As a man thinks in his heart, so he is, we read in Deuteronomy. When we feed on negativity and fear what happens? We become negative and fearful. Our little old amygdala (that part of the brain that warns us when we are in danger) gets irritated and we find ourselves in "fight or flight" mode. The problem is that in many of us the amygdala is irritated even when there is no threat. Do you remember what Mark Twain said, "I am an old man who has known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened." Fear comes at us most often when there is nothing to fear and particularly from the future. We fear what may happen. We create our own fear! I suspect it may be that we are so used to having an irritated amygdala, that we keep creating fear to keep it that way! Peace would seem so strange after years of panic. But Christ came to bring us peace. How do we calm the amygdala? One of the most effective ways is spiritual practice - prayer and meditation are best.
And remember when Jesus speaks about neighbors his definition is so much more expansive than ours. Not just family and friends. He means everyone, every person, even our enemies. One of the Desert Fathers said that the only true test of love is whether or not we love our enemies. Our Gospel reading puts it plainly.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? In other words, so what? Who cares? Most of us do pretty well with that anyway. But what about those people we do not like?
You have heard me say it before, but it bears repeating. You only love God as much as you love the person you hate the most. Why? Because that person is Christ. Every person is Christ. Not only might we be entertaining angels unaware when we greet strangers (as the writer of Hebrews suggests) we are always entertaining Christ and to be aware of that is to be Enlightened. That is exactly why at this parish everyone is welcome. Everyone is embraced. There are no litmus tests or entrance exams.
Put this way, with all the commandments rolled into one, or maybe two, about loving God and one another, then the whole of the spiritual life boils down to learning to love well. Rumi says something interesting about this when he writes,
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
Why do we not need to seek for love? Because love is who we truly are. Here is Thomas Merton on the subject: "To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name."
Instead of seeking for love, we simply need to recognize our true identity and set it free from all the hindrances to expressing love that we have allowed to grow in us, to tear down all the walls we have erected within that keep us doing anything but loving everyone, all the time no matter what the circumstance, no matter who they are or what they do. Those walls are in our brains. We cannot tear down physical walls until we tear down our mental walls. If spirituality is anything, it is about deconstructing our mental fortresses. For Christians there is no justification for hatred in any form whatsoever, nor can there ever be.
In my time at the prison I have seen over and over again that the simplest expression of compassion brings the greatest possible results. As I tell everyone who joins us there, we are not there to teach, to convert, to argue, or convince. Our only job is to love and when we do that it changes hearts, both of the men we meet and our own.
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Here is one more from Thomas Merton.
"Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy."
"Be merciful even as your Father is merciful," Jesus says, "and your reward will be great," for then it is mercy you will receive.