Greetings and welcome to Corona Sabbath. This is one of the ways the church is endeavoring to offer spiritual support during these challenging days of COVID-19. We appreciate your feedback and suggestions.
This post focuses on the Christian call to love self and neighbor.
I want to share with you a scene from Toni Morrison’s incomparable novel, Beloved. If you haven’t read it, download it or order a copy as soon as you finish this post. If you have read it, consider reading it or listening to it again. The story takes place in the United States when there was legalized slavery:
“When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman, and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing–a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of the path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees.
“After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, ‘Let the children come!’ and they ran from the trees toward her.
“Let your mothers hear you laugh,’ she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.
“Then ‘Let the grown men come,’ she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.
“Let your wives and your children see you dance,’ she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.
“Finally she called the women to her. ‘Cry,’ she told them. ‘For the living and the dead. Just cry.’ And without covering their eyes the women let loose.
“It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.
“She did not tell them to clean up their lives or go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.
“She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
“‘Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard…’” [From Beloved by Toni Morrison]
To me this scene expresses the essence of Christianity and of Jesus. Love. Loving our full humanity. Our flesh. Our blood. Our being. Right here. Right now. We see this kind of love demonstrated over and over again in the life of Jesus. Jesus loves everyone. Those who are distasteful. Those who are considered disreputable. Those who are cheats and scoundrels. Those who are manipulative and violent. Those who are abused and abusers. Those who are lost and forgotten. Those who are puffed up with privilege. Those who are debased and devalued. Those who are afraid and ashamed. Those who crave power. Those who are confused. Those found by trouble. It doesn’t matter. Jesus sees everyone as a child of God, created in the Divine image. Holy. Sacred. Beloved.
In the gospel story when Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, we are told that he replies, “‘You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all you mind.’ That is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’” [Matthew 22:37-38]. So Jesus tells us, love your neighbor as yourself. As yourself. He calls us to love ourselves. We hear that echoed by Baby Suggs. Love yourself. You. A beautiful, unique, enfleshed holy sacred being. Called to life.
In these Covid days, when we cannot meet together safely for worship, when we cannot dance and laugh, and sing, and cry together, we can think about loving ourselves. Embracing our humanity in all of its richness. And how we can love our neighbors near and far as ourselves.
When we take a look at the world around us, at the news, and the rancor of the political campaigns this election season, and the divisions over the response to the pandemic, and the racism endorsed and incited from the highest office in the land, it is clear that we are not doing a very good job of loving our neighbors or ourselves.
Well, I’m a pastor, so one of my responses is, ‘If only more people would go to church. . .’ Because the church is intended to be a community in which we experience the love of Jesus and learn how to live in that love and live from that love. Love for ourselves and for every single precious child of God. Church is the school where we are taught to love ourselves and our neighbors. As we are. Beloved. Holy. All recipients of Divine grace. Committed to the common good.
Sadly, sometimes the church is known more for judgment, punishment, and exclusion than for all embracing love, acceptance and mercy. Well, it’s easier to control people through intimidation and fear. It’s easier to maintain power through dependency. All of the judging makes people afraid, insecure, hostile, and greedy.
And this punishing, judging distortion of Christianity encourages dishonesty. It encourages half truths and lies. It obstructs us from loving fully and freely, as we are. Accepting who we are. Engaging with others in sincerity and empathy. Jesus loves us as we are. He accepts us with our strengths, short-comings, achievements, mistakes, character flaws, personality traits, proclivities, patterns, biases, talents, tastes, weaknesses, beauty, imperfections – all of it. He loves us because we are who we are as we are. Jesus teaches us to love with a healthy sense of honesty. Not a facade of goodness or perfection or false righteousness. And he teaches us to love ourselves and others with that same honesty and authenticity.
Each individual precious; no two alike. We’re not like mass produced products from a factory assembly line subject to quality control that are all supposed to come out exactly the same and meet a specified criteria. The way of Jesus teaches us to love and respect ourselves and others just as we are. And through that love and acceptance, we find ourselves drawn toward who we might be, our more loving selves. We learn to treat ourselves and others as sacred, holy, amazing, unique, invaluable, beloved.
In recent weeks, I had minor surgery for bone spurs on my heel. Then an infection developed at the incision site and this has turned into a much more extensive ordeal complete with IV antibiotics for two hours twice a day for two weeks. Understandably, I find myself thinking about how my body developed a staff infection from my own skin. The threat posed by that infection. And the drug, dripping in the IV that is killing the infection. Driving out the danger.
I’m thinking about the church like the IV. Infusing us with love, self love, love for others, love for the world, love for God, driving out the infection of judgmentalism, hatred, insecurity, fear, deception, distraction, and numbness. The church bringing us to the health of our full humanity as beings created to love. I think of the church driving out what kills us, what diminishes our lives, what takes us down, and filling us with the power of love, acceptance, empathy, honesty, and community.
This World Communion Sunday, as we seek to be in communion with ourselves, our communities, the human community, and the community of nature, we are invited to cultivate the capacity to love, including loving ourselves, with the unconditional love of Jesus. And accepting others with that same kind of love.
I remember years ago, a colleague, the pastor of an African American church here in St. Petersburg, who, whenever there was some kind a gathering, had us do what he said they did at his church every Sunday morning: Turn and greet one another saying, “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Well, we’re not having church so we can’t turn to each other and use that greeting. But today I encourage you to look in a mirror and say, “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I invite you to look at an enemy, even an image of an enemy, and you may even find yourself looking in the mirror again, and say, “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Take a look out of the window or step outside and say to our dear Mother Earth, “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Isn’t that Jesus’ message in the giving of his life for the good of others? Isn’t that what we celebrate with bread and cup? A God of love “and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Amen.
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