A parishioner who was normally angry and had little good to say about the sermons or any body, for that matter, is said to have approached her rector after church one Sunday. "Thank you for preaching a sermon that focused on the history of the church," she said. The rector, unused to praise from this particular person smiled. The parishioner continued, "I really don’t think I could stand another sermon about love."
The current issue of The Atlantic, on-line, has an article about what is called the Grant Study; a study that has been going on for 72 years, looking at a group Harvard men and following them through those years to analyze what makes for a happy life. The current head researcher for the study concludes “that positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.
To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” [The researcher] said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, the researcher interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “…, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” the researcher said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”
It must be very hard to be a Christian, if you have an issue with the "love thing." I would think that today would have been a good Sunday to stay at home if that’s a problem for you. Just as the doctor had a hard time accepting his farewell gift, we can find that farewell gifts are not always easy to get. And after a death accepting gifts can be even more difficult. Aunt Claire left us her Toby Jugs and she knew how much we dislike knick knacks. Our Uncle John left us his Harley to the dismay of his son and to our chagrin.
Soon we will celebrate the Feast of the Ascension. The time when Jesus was no longer a visible, physical presence among his disciples. So Jesus left us gifts. Gifts we tend to take for granted.
The first gift is that of baptism. It’s not a personal gift; it’s a gift that puts us into a community. A gift that puts us into God's adopted family.
Another gift Jesus gave us is the Eucharist. Like Baptism, it’s neither personal nor complicated. We eat bread and drink wine in a community meal where we share as one body in the one bread.
And then there’s the gift of Scripture. God speaks to us as the community of faith through the words of the writers and as a community we apply the words of scripture to our time and place.
Jesus gave us the Church, the community of all the faithful, dead, living, and to come. He didn't give us a building where you go to get something. The Church is "the blessed company of all faithful people." The Church is community. The Church is the people living in this time and place who are the descendents of that early band of men and women who followed Jesus. That community we now call the Church is best known among us, as The Church of the Good Shepherd. Maybe even we know a little about it as The Diocese of Maine, or as The Episcopal Church in the United States, or even as part of the Anglican Communion.
All of these gifts we probably acknowledge and accept, but like the doctor who couldn’t accept the love of his patients, the gift of God’s love is so often rejected.
Love is the greatest gift Jesus gave us.. He gave us this gift and he gave us a new commandment that we should love one another. Without love, none of the other gifts is of any use. Love makes our churches welcoming places for all people. Love makes our lives fulfilling. Love makes our crazy world bearable. Love is the basis of happiness. Not a sentimental or “warm fuzzy feelings” kind of love, but the kind of love that lays down its life for a friend.
Jesus called his disciples friends and that’s what we are, friends of Jesus. When we reach out to others, particularly when it is inconvenient, or we’d rather not, or it costs us something in time or energy or money, we are acting as friends of Jesus. And when we risk loving and receiving love back, we are repaid by the peace and joy of being his friend.
It is this shared, giving, dying and rising love, which creates and sustains this community of Jesus’ friends we call the Church. It is this shared giving, dying and rising love that creates and sustains us, friends made in the God’s image, so that the world may see through “the knowledge and love of God in Christ Jesus,” our friend.
Addendum: When I gave the sermon, I realized that I had forgotten to mention the gift of the Holy Spirit. Since we used Eucharistic Prayer D, it became even clearer to me that forgetting to mention that gift was a major loss in the sermon. Oh well.