Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Walk in Love" -- Easter 7C

Preached by the Rev. David Fly at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, May 16, 2010

“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.”

You might recognize that line because it’s often used as an offertory sentence at the Eucharist. It’s from Ephesians, but could just as well be a summary of John’s retelling of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper with his disciples. Today’s gospel is the final prayer of Jesus with his friends before he goes to the Garden of Gethsemane. His final words before they go out are a prayer to the Father:

“Father, the glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. . . I made your name known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

As Archbishop Tutu has said, “It all comes down to this: that at the center of the universe there is a heart that beats with love and it is that love that empowers us to love one another because God first loved us and gave himself for us.”

So, this morning I want to spend a little time talking about what it means to walk in love. When I first moved to St. Louis in 1981, my fourth daughter Jessie was only a year old. By my second year at Grace Church, Jessie had just begun to walk. Thursday nights were very special for us because it was my night to be alone with my daughter while her mom went off to choir practice. Usually we had time for me to give her a long bath, to tell her a story or read her a book, and to have some quiet time with her before I put her to bed. On one particular Thursday night about this time of the year, it was evident that Jessie didn’t want to play inside – it was too pretty outside and she was just discovering that wonderful thing called walking. So, off we went on a long walk around the block. Because I had been so busy, I hadn’t taken the time to really focus on how much she had developed her newly acquired skill. Carrying a little purse on her arm, she toddled down the sidewalk, eyes wide open, taking in all the sights and reaching for my hand only when she came to a major obstacle, like an uneven crack in the sidewalk. It was one of those lovely moments that many of us have had with children. I was enchanted as I watched her toddle along. I was filled with admiration and, I must admit, I was feeling a good deal of pride at her accomplishment. As I saw the smiles of the passing motorists watching this father/daughter scene, I could feel my chest puff out just a bit.

It was when we approached the halfway point in our little journey that I saw another father/daughter scene that had a profound effect on me. Across the street and half a block away, another father was walking with his daughter. The difference was that he was older than me and his daughter looked to be in her early 20s.

The man walked slowly, his daughter carefully holding his arm. In her other hand was a cane which she used to steady herself. Each step looked difficult and, from time to time, she looked to her father for reassurance and he would smile and gently urge her forward. I don’t’ know the history that lay behind what I saw, but it was clear that some awful event had occurred that had produced the brokenness that was now seeking to be healed. I imagined that this man had once walked with his daughter as I was now walking with mine, delighting in her innocence, proud of her display of new-found skills and, probably like me, aware of the passing motorists that smiled as they drove by.

And here he was years later called to make sacrifices that he could not have foreseen: called to walk with his daughter in a new way – to walk with her that she might learn to walk again. That moment affected me in a profound way because it pointed to an unknown future – a future that might well call upon me to walk with my daughter when things were not so easy, to walk with my daughter when the going got tough, to be with her in love even when it cost me a great deal more than a pleasant Thursday evening stroll. As the father of five daughters, I have learned the truth of that lesson taught to me on a spring evening in 1982. Those times have come, those tough times when the going wasn’t easy, but a father’s love was very much needed.

Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. Love is not primarily a function of the emotions – love is an act of the will which necessarily involves commitment, involvement and sacrifice on the part of the lover. It means sticking with another in the bad times not just the good, weeping with another and not just sharing laughter. It means accepting the brokenness of another and not demanding perfection as the cost of love. Those who walked with our Lord – those who sat around the table with him in the Upper Room – came to know this kind of love because he lived it daily – he embodied the love of God, the God who has been loving his people since the beginning of time.

Earlier, during that same meal, Jesus says, “As the father had loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love . . . this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for ones friends.” Just think of the context of these words and the final prayer we heard earlier. This is the table talk at the Last Supper! In a matter of hours he is betrayed and denied and his friends run away leaving him alone on a cross. And yet, though he senses their lack of understanding and their inability to be faithful, Jesus loves them to the end.

Bishop John Coburn, former Bishop of Massachusetts in his book The Hope of Glory tells the following story about Arthur Lichtenberger who was the Bishop of Missouri during the 1950s and a former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. During the last three years of his life, Bishop Lichtenberger was a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School where Coburn served as chaplain. Bishop Lichtenberger suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Coburn writes:

“During the last three years, he became increasingly disabled, shuffled rather than walked, mumbled rather than talked, pointed rather than wrote. One winter morning as I sat alone in my study, I was going through one of those moods that we all go through, just feeling sorry for myself. I happened to look out the window, and there up on the road, shuffling along those icy paths, came Bishop and Mrs. Lichtenberger arm in arm. Just as I looked at them there came a surge of strength as if I were experiencing a rebirth. All I could do was to rejoice in them.”

Bishop Lichtenberger, in spite of all the adversity he suffered, was a tower of strength to many. But as I considered the story of Bishop Coburn and the question of what it means to walk in love, I focused on Mrs. Lichtenberger who walked arm in arm with her husband. Surely they had walked together many times and the going was easy – as easy as dancing. But now she was called to give herself in a way she could never have anticipated. But she was there with him, just as that father I had seen walking with his daughter. Those two images form for me a powerful picture of the kind of love Jesus prayed for us on the night before he was betrayed.

It is only after the resurrection that the disciples are led to understand the gift they’ve been given and are empowered to walk with the world in love as Christ walked with them. And because they were faithful to their calling, they have enabled us to walk with one another. It won’t always be easy and it may not always feel good and people may not meet up to our expectations and we may find ourselves called to walk with those who need to learn to walk again. And we will only be able to walk in that kind of love as we come to know the Lord who walks with us and reassures us that we can lean on him for support and he will go as slowly as we need. Amen.

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