Living in a Different Light
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, June 11, 2023
Gospel: Matthew 10:32-33; 37-38; 19:27-30
I want to begin with a different quote from Mt. 12:46-50 because scripture is a seamless robe as my Systematic teacher once told us. One verse will shed light on the meaning of another. To understand the parts is to understand the whole.
"While he was speaking to the crowds, look: his mother and brothers stood outside seeking to speak to him. And someone said to him, 'Look: Your mother and brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to you.' But in reply he said to the one speaking to him, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And stretching out a hand toward his disciples he said, 'Look: my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in the heavens, that one is my brother and sister and mother."
This, I believe, sheds light on today's Gospel reading. Since both readings come from Matthew, the apostle must have found it to be an important theme. To love God above all puts every other relationship in order. To love God above all just makes sense because all life comes from and is sustained by him. His energies flow through all things. All good gifts come from him. When we love the Source, then we will also come to love all that comes from the Source.
Let's look at what the scriptures say about the issue of favoritism. I am reminded of the teaching of St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans (2: 11) "for with God there is no favoritism." And of St. James in his universal letter, "If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing a sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors." (James 2:8-9) God shows no favoritism, nor should we.
We love at best imperfectly because we perceive the world mostly through the cloudy lens of our egos. We prefer those who have something to offer us, who can give back, who we have judged worthy of our attention, to whom we are attracted, to whom we are related. Partiality renders all relationships transactional. "I'll scratch your back, if you scratch mine." Quid pro quo. God's Love is never quid pro quo, never transactional.
As Thomas Merton wrote. "It is not our job to judge who is or isn't worthy of our love."
The Lord wants us to grow out of our selfishness and separateness to nurture our unity with him, others and ourselves. It is not about our likes and dislikes, agreements or disagreements, blood relations or anything else, for pure love seeks nothing but to love regardless of what comes of it. In love the "I" must disappear, the self must be denied, the Cross must be taken up and carried to the end, "for it is in dying that we are raised to eternal life." (St. Francis)
We must admit our obsessive attachment to self-will. Looking deeply into our primary relationships we discover just how infected they are by egoism. Without the guidance of the Holy Spirit we will never see it. When we do see it, by grace, only by grace, it becomes a cleansing fire.
..."even in the most endearing of human relationships there is a tendency to impose our self-will unwittingly and unconsciously..." (Eknath Eswaran)
Today the Lord calls us to reexamine our lives. He does it by calling into question our primary relationships. The ones we take for granted, our family and friends. This leads us to ask other questions.
Who or what is our ultimate frame of reference? What is our central defining core? What or who is the object of our primary affection? What moves, motivates, and inspires us? To whom or what do we turn for help in times of need? Who or what do worship?
Today's Gospel reading must be interpreted in the light of these questions if it is to rise above a literal, soul-shattering misinterpretation. I am thinking of Luke's recounting of this same teaching where he puts the word "hate" in the Lord's mouth. Does he mean we must hate father, mother, sister, and brother and, finally ourselves? Of course not. What we must do instead is come to recognize that even our attachments to loved ones can become an idol. It is idolatry we must come to hate.
The paradoxical truth, is that the greater our love for God, the greater our love for all he has made. Our often self-serving affection for family and friends needs to be examined in the light of God's pure, unconditional love. We may well need to repent of false love. I often tell young people who come to talk about their romantic relationships that I learned something long ago that I think is right. How to tell a false love from a healthy one. Two things characterize an unhealthy relationship: the desire to control and the fear of loss. Where those are present a relationship is bound sooner or later to suffer, perhaps to fail. We must learn how to love and it is the unconditional love of God alone, which is unbound by expectations, that can teach us what real love is. Without the Love of God we would never know.
The hope is that we will grow beyond the prison of ourselves and expand in Christ to embrace all that is without fear, or judgment, or hatred, loving with the pure love that comes only from God. This is one of the fruits of salvation, perhaps the most succulent and beautiful. What greater compliment can be given than to hear the words when we stand before Our Lord, "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have loved well?"
There is something more important than all our attachments to this world. To be utterly true, undeniably authentic, fully human and holy the Lord must become for us the centerpiece of our lives. Family, friends, accomplishments, awards have a way of becoming the building blocks of our egoic prison, the earthbound, fragile image we construct hoping it will protect us and secure us a lasting, unshakeable, secure and immortal identity, but never does. Because it never can! Attachment to anything in this world is a dead-end since nothing lasts for long or forever. To live peacefully is to escape the cyclical trap of grasping and resisting, pleasure and pain, desire and hate, thus to enter into the Divine Life of the Most Holy Trinity that liberates and fulfills all things.
The life of Christ, the Cross, the Grave, the Resurrection demonstrates and secures for us the freedom from death that motivates all selfish desires. The narrow gate of gratitude and thanksgiving is the way to live all of life eucharistically.
Nothing ever stays the same. Everything is temporal. Everything has its season. We will have to let go of everything when death comes. This is what makes it so frightening. People often tell me that it is not the act of dying that frightens them, but it is actually the fear of letting go.
Nothing but God alone can surpass the beauty of the image in which we were made.
The discovery of our authentic humanness allows all other loves and attachments to take their rightful place in our lives no longer as chains, but as ornaments. Letting go never diminishes us. "When did you ever become less by dying?" the poet asked. What we set free from our grasp is not lost, it is transformed. Everything in us that dies rises again to eternal life.
Thanks be to God, to his Son and to the Holy Spirit for all things.