May We Love As You Love – Perfection In Love
Beloved God, I pray that you would inspire these words and make them into a word from you. Where these are only mine and go astray, I pray that no harm would be done. Amen.
It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent. Today we lit the candle for Advent Love. What do we need to do to prepare our hearts for the Christ-child when it comes to love? Does watching lots of lovey-dovey Hallmark movies help?
Or buying Christmas presents for each and every family member? How about if we drive ourselves to distraction creating the “perfect” Christmas experience with all the right decorations, feasts, and precisely wrapped presents? Well…..?
In the Methodist Church’s tradition, we have historical questions that all of us who seek ordination need to publicly answer. There are three about love:
Are you going on to perfection?
Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
Are you earnestly striving after it?
I remember, in my early introduction to methodism, being confused by this focus on perfection. Weren't we told by Jesus that no one is even good except God (Mark 10:18)? But then again, Jesus, in Matthew 5:48, tells us to: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." I remember my confusion well. How are we possibly supposed to keep from making mistakes? No one is perfect, far from it! I had grown up in a post-calvinist tradition that still had roots in the theology of the complete depravity of humankind.
And then one day, I think it may have been in my Methodist theology class, I realized that "going on to perfection" doesn't mean that we don't make mistakes, it means we are learning to love perfectly as God loves us. It means that when we make mistakes we apologize, seek forgiveness, and try to make up for our errors. It means that we learn to allow God to love others through us even, and especially, when we are having a hard time being in the same room, or - let's be honest - on the same planet, as the other person.
So when we step forward for ordination, our bishop asks if we are submitting our hearts, preparing our hearts for this perfecting experience. Am I going on to perfection? I sure hope so! Do I expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Yes. God has been working hard on my heart. Am I earnestly striving after it? Yes, I am. But I will tell you, this learning to love as God loves thing is tough work.
You know, there are some people who are super easy to love. Babies, for instance. Kind people. Funny people. Generous people. Over time I’ve even learned that I can love lots of people. But then God introduces me to someone who is not so easy to love, someone who challenges me, hurts me, scares me, or just aggravates me and gets under my skin. Have I reached perfection yet? Not even close! But God’s not done working on me either. Thank goodness.
Over 2000 years ago, God came down to experience a human life and to teach us how to love. This profound singularity in human and divine history happened far from the power centers of the world. It wasn’t a big splashy display of love. There wasn’t a flash mob or a parade. No one published anything about his birth in the local who’s who or displayed cherubic pictures over social media. Indeed, besides a handful of local shepherds and a few astrologers from the east, no one besides the family noticed it at all, according to the birth narratives. Love came down quietly, inconspicuously, and anonymously. God’s first experience of human love was intensely personal and private. Flesh to flesh, cheek to cheek, huddled together for warmth and survival, God incarnate and the God-bearer would begin to fall in love with one another just as mothers and newborns do every day - something both mundane and miraculous. I wonder what the God of the universe learned about human love from those first few moments, days, and weeks of human life in the tiny child of Bethlehem.
Sanctification is the fancy term Methodists use to talk about the grace of God that transforms our hearts. I’m certain that my sanctification process began well before this, but it really got underway when I became a mom. My joke, that is also completely true, is that I prayed for patience and God gave me children. My heart has been transformed in the crucible of motherhood. There is something about living with little vulnerable people who you desperately love and who desperately need you to care for them while you are desperate for the occasional break that really breaks your heart wide open and allows God to make some necessary changes - if you will allow God to do so. Living in community is hard work and family life is the most basic unit of community.
In the same way, living in community, like a church congregation, is also a sanctifying process. If you stay in it long enough, you will both love one another more while at the same time discover that your siblings of faith are entirely aggravating, at least from time to time. (When Jesus compares us to sheep it isn’t because sheep are sweet, cuddly, and cute - it is because sheep are stinky, obnoxious, cantankerous, headstrong creatures who would be completely lost without a shepherd.) In the same way that a prayerful motherhood has incrementally changed my heart, so has living in community and being a pastor. Anytime I think that I’m starting to get the hang of this loving like God thing, I’m thrown another curveball by some random human in community with me and I need to take stock of my heart yet again. I confess that it might be easier, at least in the short run, to pray and care less, allowing myself to sink into the mire of anger, resentment, or apathy. But that is not the life I’ve chosen. I’ve chosen the life of a disciple of Jesus and, although the sanctification process is a daily soul work out, the long-term benefits are too many to count! Besides, I’ve stumbled into the dark mire often enough to know that I don’t want to live there and it is worth the work to stay out of it.
Love, as any young mother knows, is a whole lot of work. It is a collection of little, unnoticed or barely noticed, mundane actions that accumulate over time and blossom eventually into something bigger. It is both the rocking and cuddling of the colicky infant as well as the moments that you put the child down and leave the room, counting to ten until your personal fight or flight relaxes. That’s true for our love of neighbor, too.
You can bet that there are times in my ministry when I have had to internally count to ten and breathe calmly in order to be the most loving person I can be in fraught situations. And sometimes I fail, both with my kids and with community members. That’s when apologies are necessary. A humbling process, this sanctification.
As we prepare our hearts for the Christ-child, let’s remember that we are committing ourselves to a way of life that is full of love and opportunities for transformation. We will be called to love people we never considered before, we will be changed, we will be perfected. And as that young mother began to learn over 2000 years ago, the simplest, most pure acts of love are hardly noticed. God‘s love broke into our world as quietly as a mother’s kiss on the cheek of her sleeping baby. Amen.