1 Corinthians 13: 4-8a, 13
2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends.
13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Matthew 22: 34-40
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
MESSAGE “Heart Language”
Mirabai Starr, in her translation of Teresa of Avila’s writing on The Interior Castle, describes the deep mystical experiences that Teresa had with Divine Presence. Teresa spent time in silence and was drawn deeply into God’s love and peace so that she could speak with language that still inspires us today. “Let nothing disturb you,” she wrote; “Let nothing upset you. Everything changes. God alone is unchanging. With patience all things are possible. Whoever has God lacks nothing. God alone is enough.”
So, Teresa had these wonderful moments experiencing the deep gifts of God’s presence and peace. But, as Mirabai Starr explains, Teresa was also an organizer and a religious reformer. She was a major force behind the founding of many convents in 16th century Spain and was the Mother Superior of her own community. And that sometimes was challenging and messy for Teresa. Because, as Mirabai Starr explains, no matter how much peace and quiet you experience in deep prayer, when you live in community, “stuff” happens! (My “censor committee” suggested I not use the word Mirabai used, but you get the point.)
Stuff happens! One of the things we learn on the spiritual journey is that God does not protect us from stuff happening, no matter how devout we are. But we also learn that although God doesn’t protect us from the messiness and pain that comes with life, God does somehow sustain us with a Loving Presence in everything that happens.
As we worship this morning, those who are members of this congregation are aware that we are experiencing the messiness that sometimes comes with being in community. Beyond COVID-19 things have unfolded that have disrupted our sense of unity. Stuff happens!
This congregation has been through stuff before. Some of you will recall what happened just over 20 years ago. It was a time of broken relationships. A time of distress and pain. A number of members left and I was told by some who stayed that we were so divided we’d never survive as a congregation. I must confess there were times I wasn’t so sure they weren’t right!
But this congregation came together. And even though we did not all agree, we listened to each other and we were fully aware that every member was valuable to our community life. Together we kept asking; What is God calling us to be and to do? And guess what? God’s Loving Presence sustained us. We came out of that time of crisis stronger than before. Even with fewer members, we made our tent bigger and more inclusive. It was a time of renewal and healing.
Stuff is at the center of our life together once again. So how will we respond this time? Will we despair and give up? Or will we as a community of faith acknowledge that every member is of value and invite God into this moment? If we do that, if we use this as an opportunity to listen, to value each other, if we open deeply to God’s loving desire for us, if we open our hearts to Divine wisdom, to Divine guidance and grace, I believe God will draw us into a new and different future; a future where we not only can deepen our relationship with the Divine and with one another but also strengthen our ministry in, with and for the world.
This can be a time of deep spiritual growth for us. I was scheduled to preach last Sunday. Obviously, this is not the sermon I had planned. But I still think the focus on this third Sunday in our Stewardship Campaign is appropriate, perhaps even more so. The over-all theme of the campaign is “Because we Give.” Because we give, so many ministries are possible in and through First United Methodist Church.
Today our focus is spiritual formation and on opportunities our congregation offers for spiritual growth; opportunities for opening ourselves to a deep relationship with the Loving Presence we call God. A deep listening to that Loving Presence informs everything else that we do; the way we welcome and include others in our community, the way we stand with those on the margins of life, our work for God’s love and justice in the larger community. And it will inform our next steps on our journey now toward healing and reconciliation. If we keep centered in God’s love in everything we do, our integrity as a faith community will hold firm.
So how do we keep centered in God’s love? When Jesus was asked about what was most important on the spiritual path, he began with this; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart….” That’s where it began for Jesus. Loving God with all your heart. That’s where it begins for us. Everything else on the spiritual journey, everything else we do as a faith community, flows out of loving God with all your heart. That comes first.
Loving God with all your heart. What does that mean? When I say to my wife, “Barb, I love you with all my heart,” it means I’m really serious about this. I’m not kidding around! I’m not just saying the words. It’s much deeper than that. It’s sincere. It comes with a desire for reciprocity, for intimacy, for at-one-ness with Barb. It’s not something I make happen. Yet my heart is open and receptive. Of course, I use words and actions to express my love. But loving Barb with all my heart is something deeper than words and actions can convey. It’s more than I can think or imagine. It is an experience too deep for words. It is a love that can only be spoken with heart language.
So, when Jesus speaks of loving God with all your heart, it is an invitation into a deep relationship with the Divine. It is an invitation to awaken to a Loving Presence that is already within us; an invitation to experience it. It has authenticity to it; sincerity and intimacy. It is personal. The language in this deep loving relationship is too deep for words. It is silent heart language.
Mystics in every tradition over the centuries have spoken of how important the practice of silence is in opening deeply to the reality we call God. The 16th century Christian mystic, John of the Cross said that God “speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must (God) be heard….” Thomas Keating, a very important mentors on my spiritual journey, paraphrased John of the Cross. “Silence is God’s first language and everything else is a poor translation.” The Vietnamese Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh said; “Silence becomes Noble when it is Inner Silence. The mind is calm and at ease…. “
In my spiritual journey, I’ve learned how important it is to take time for stillness and silence, away from the busyness of my life and even my thoughts. With the intention of opening to God, silence awakens my heart to the infinity of Divine Love; a Love that is my origin, a Love that sustains me in every moment, and a Love that is my destiny.
There are many spiritual practices that can assist us on the spiritual journey. My practice for over 30 years now is a practice that I have taught others; Centering Prayer; a daily practice of simply sitting in silence, letting my thoughts come and go with the intention to consent to the Ultimate Mystery, to the Source of all that is, to the Indwelling Presence of God’s Love.
My practice doesn’t need to be your practice. What’s important is that you find a practice that awakens you to God’s loving presence. Find your practice and practice it faithfully. Because in our very practice, we give expression to our deep and sincere intention to love God with all our heart.
This is a longer-than-life journey. And what happens over time is that it changes us.
And it will change our community of faith, as well. We will be drawn into a deeper love for one another like the love that Paul writes about in his letter to the Corinthians; a love that is patient and kind; a love that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. A love that does not insist on its own way. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It is a love that never ends. That’s what will sustain us and see us through this stuff that we are experiencing right now. And it will draw us into new possibilities for the future.
What Paul was teaching the church in Corinth about love was, of course, the same thing Jesus taught and modeled. When Jesus was asked about what was most important on the spiritual path, he didn’t stop with; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” And he didn’t stop with loving God “with all your soul, and mind.” Jesus added; AND “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Who is your neighbor? In your mind’s eye, imagine we are together in our sanctuary, as we one day will be once again. Imagine the person beside you, ahead of you, behind you. That’s where loving your neighbor begins. It begins with us, within our own community of faith.
Jesus invites us to love God with all our heart. But Jesus makes clear that the goal of the spiritual journey is to love as God loves. That is, to love ourselves just as we are, to love one another in this community of faith just as they are, and to love all others, not with sentimentality but with compassion, with mercy and justice. To love as God loves. That’s the whole purpose of this spiritual journey we are all on.
As we move into the next weeks and months, I invite you into deep prayer for our congregation and its future. I invite you into conversation with one another. And in the spirit of our Stewardship Campaign, I would remind you too that giving itself is a spiritual practice; a way of loving God and others. Whether we give a full tithe of 10% or more of our income or some other percentage, the practice of giving is a way of expressing our intention to respond to the generosity of God’s love for us. it is a way to make a difference. It is a part of loving God with all our heart; a part of loving as God loves.
Stuff happens. But it does not define us. What defines us is our intention to keep God at the center of our journey. I invite you to listen to the heart language of love and take new steps in loving as God loves.
May it be so!