by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Let love be genuine; your love must be sincere; hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection, the affection of brothers and sisters; try to outdo one another in showing honor, respect.” — Romans 12: 9-10.
I need to confess I am about to offer two stories which are somewhat related about my late mother and I have drawn on them before. Some of you have heard them. Others have not.
Part one— as these things go, my mother died at a fairly young age— 58. That happened in November of 1983, just short of 34 years ago.
The specific fatal ailment was cancer of the bladder. Even back then only 10% of those who contracted cancer of the bladder died because of it.
And the doctors were confident they got it early, got it out and gave the family every assurance she would pull through. But 9 months after the cancer was first detected, diagnosed and operated on, she died.
10%— I sometimes say, she was simply in the wrong 10%. And you really do not understand what odds are until you realize no matter how favorable the odds might sound, you can still wind up on the wrong end of a 90/10 split.
When the cancer was first detected, I asked Mom if she was willing to pray with me privately. She was. And as we did so, as we prayed, I was overwhelmed with a sense that this was not going to end well.
I never told her about what I felt as we prayed. Perhaps I said nothing because sensing something on that kind of ethereal level has nothing to do with the cognitive, with logic. On the other hand, because I had an overwhelming understanding this was not going to end well, I was as prepared as I could have been for my mother to die at that young age. (Slight pause.)
Part two— a couple of weeks before she died, Mom and I prayed and had another long, private conversation. I think she was trying to wrap things up in a neat package, which would have been like her.
We talked about family. We talked about my Dad and how she had, in many ways, spent her adult life taking care of him.
And we talked about me. We talked about my brother. We talked about sister. In that part of the conversation my mother waxed philosophical about her children, whom she loved deeply.
I was her first child. My brother was her second child. He is 14 months younger than I. My sister was next, four years younger than I.
My Mom had interesting reflections about each of us. But one item stands out in my memory. She said I, the firstborn, was her experiment.
She said my brother, Jim, next in line, was her child. She said my sister, Rosemary, the last, was her play thing— her experiment, her child, her play thing— this from a woman essentially on her deathbed.
Now, you might criticize her characterizations, the psychological overtones, criticize a number of things about her analysis, criticize whatever you want. But I think there is something admirable in her ability to name and grapple with these attributes.
You see, what she did not say is something to the effect of “Jim was always my favorite child” or “Rosemary is smarter than you two boys put together.” Both then and now I took this assessment as loving and I took it as a reflection on her life and how she had coped more so than it being a description or a critique of her offspring and our individual characteristics, however flawed we were, are or might have been. She was reflecting in a succinct way the incredible complexity which makes up the workings of relationships deeply seeded in real love, genuine love, mature love. (Slight pause.)
We hear these words of Paul in Romans: “Let love be genuine; your love must be sincere; hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection, the affection of brothers and sisters; try to outdo one another in showing honor, respect.” (Slight pause.)
The words from the passage we read today come with a basic problem. We read them in English.
Because we read these words in English, the temptation to which we might succumb is to domesticate them. We might see them as an appeal to a vague, sentimentalized love.
And when I blame the English language here, the problem is we have but one word for love. Of course, in English the word love can mean everything from deep affection expressed in a physical way to the ability to love another person so much that a need never, ever manifests itself that would be expressed in some form of manipulation.
Indeed, Greek has a number of words which address love and its many aspects. However, to blame English for its shortcomings and to exonerate Greek for its flexibility and breadth without addressing the central issue presented by what we call love in its many forms is a mistake.
Why? No matter what aspect of love we address, the central issue being contemplated by Paul with the word love— love in its many iterations— is our emotional life and the connection— the connection— of our emotional life with God and to God and with and to the people of God.
I maintain if your emotional life is disconnected from God, an important aspect of your emotional life lies fallow. Further, emotional life is extraordinarily complex.
Hence, because love is at the core of our extraordinarily complex emotional life, the very first mistake we can make when it comes to love is to define it. You see, the purpose of definition is restriction in some form. With something as complex as love, restrictions simply do not work.
So, let’s forego a definition and ask what does genuine, sincere love feel like? Or, perhaps more to the point I think Paul constantly tries to make throughout the Epistles— how does the love of God in the community of God and the Dominion of God work? (Slight pause.)
There is a version of Christianity, familiar to many, especially Americans, in which Christians are taught it is their duty to accept whatever evil comes their way. But that interpretation lets the craftiness of Paul’s words slip by here.
Evil need not be passively accepted, but neither does it need it be avenged. It does need to be confronted and not just confronted but confronted in love. Let me see if I can unpack that some. (Slight pause.)
In the year 2000, while this church was in the Open and Affirming process, the Rev. Mr. Bill Johnson was here for a weekend of workshops. He was, at that time, on the staff of the church at the National Level and assisting churches who were exploring the ONA process. Bill is now retired but is still active.
He recently put this statement on Facebook. (Quote:) “Hate speech does emotional, psychological and spiritual violence to the object of the animus as well as to the haters, though they are loathe to admit it. Hate speech is a mechanism of terrorism— let me say that again: hate speech is a mechanism of terrorism— designed to promote or perpetrate physical violence against the other. Claims that hate speech is free speech are absurd. There is no right to ‘Free Speech’ that does violence.” (Slight pause.)
That, I think, brings me back to my mother. In saying her three children were her experiment, her child and her plaything, she was being nothing more than genuine and lovingly genuine at that.
But last, and I think this most important, she was saying that she tried to be responsible in how she lived her life and how she loved. She was expressing a mature love.
And, as I already indicated, I think this was, additionally, an effort on her part to tie things up, to help her understand her own life, her own journey and some of that had to do with us, her children. And I believe the sentiments she expressed were in fact about a very mature love, even a very sophisticated understanding of one’s own place in the community and in the Dominion of God.
So, for me the question becomes and perhaps the lesson to learn becomes how do we respond in love, with love, through love. And perhaps what is of most importance, the place to which these words point, concerns our response of our love for God and the fact that how we love needs to be accomplished in a way that can only be described as responsible— responsible love. That’s what I think my mother was addressing, even on her deathbed: the idea that genuine love, true love strives to be responsible.
You know, being genuine, true, is something you cannot bottle, replicate or limit by definition. You can only strive to live that love out and strive to live that love out fully. Further— and I can guarantee this— you and I— we— will fall short of perfection as we strive to love one another in a responsible way. But strive we must, as this is the call of God on our lives.
And perhaps all that is why I said the word ‘love’ is not definable. You see love is an action and an action cannot be captured, defined, frozen.
And the action we need to take is acting in love and with love. So, what love is really about, I think, is living our lives as we strive to be responsible to and for ourselves, responsible to and for those around us, the community, and responsible to and for the Dominion of God. But of course, we need to remember the Dominion God and the will of God constantly develops and changes in our time, our place, our life. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “ As you know usually say something at the end of the service. Bonus day, because you get tow things this morning. Bonus because I have two things to say. First, I came across this quote from the Catholic theologian Richard Rhor in my morning devotions and it seemed terribly pertinent and then I’ll say what I had prepared. (Quote:) “Our first forgiveness is not toward a particular sin or offense. Our first forgiveness, it seems to me, is toward reality itself: to forgive it for being so broken, a mixture of good and bad. First that paradox has to be overcome inside of us. Then, when we allow God to hold together the opposites within us, it becomes possible to do it over there, within us, in our neighbor and even our enemy.” And now what I prepared: “I have a feeling we live in an era when everyone wants what they want and, therefore, very few will work with others. It often seems to feel like there are no adults in the room, no one looking at the big picture. Everyone looks after only what their piece of the pie is about. The love about which Paul so often writes, the love God would have us practice, says everyone in the room needs to be an adult, everyone in the room needs to be looking at the big picture.”
BENEDICTION: Through God’s grace, by being attentive to God’s will, our deeds and our words will change our world for we will discover ways to proclaim release from the bondage or narrowness. Let us seek the God of Joy whose wisdom is our God. Let us go in peace to love and serve God. Amen.