Sunday, April 28, 2013

Love and Dignity

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C/ April 28, 2013

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Amen.

I have a cousin who is a Southern Baptist. We don’t have much in common politically, but we do share a love of C. S. Lewis, and I respect his deep involvement with disaster relief efforts. We both do the work we do from the heart. We both feel called by God to live a life of faith. Recently my cousin posted on Facebook this quote from a Baptist pastor and author named David Platt: “Faith is the anti-work. It’s the realization that there is nothing YOU can do but trust in what has been done for you in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.”

When I read this quote, all the things I don’t understand about my cousin seemed to become less important. Faith is the anti-work. All we can do is trust. Yes. We have faith in common, my cousin and I. It works to overcome the barriers that stand between us. Faith gives me hope.

Christians hope together as well. Some say the Christian hope is that we will go to heaven when we die, while others hope for “thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.” There’s nothing wrong with believing both things at the same time. Either way, “the home of God is among mortals.” This is our common hope.
One morning when I was about twelve years old, I woke from the most amazing dream of my life. Inspired by C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, I dreamed I had died, along with my entire family, and that I found myself in a beautiful, sunny land with green, rolling hills. All my friends were there, and new friends as well. My brother and some other boys were playing together, had a disagreement, and got into a fight. But they found that their blows did nothing to harm each other, so they shrugged and stopped fighting. The great lion Aslan was there, too: he divided us into groups and had us sit down on the grass to eat together. We reached into our pockets and drew out as much food as we wanted. There were games and fun, and there were deep, important conversations. Above all, there was a growing realization that this was forever: that we would never have to be parted or miss anybody ever again, and that death was only a memory.

This dream felt like a promise, and it has sustained me ever since. I think this passage from the Revelation to John is intended to be a promise as well. In John’s vision, the very cosmos is changed: not only is there no need of a temple, but there is not even need of the moon or sun, for light pervades everything. The sea, for the Hebrews a longtime symbol of primordial chaos, has been done away with. There is no more war or fighting, for the very leaves of the trees are able to heal broken nations. The tree of life, which God prevented Adam and Eve from touching when he banished them from the garden, is now available to everyone. A river waters everything all around; perhaps it flows with the waters of baptism. In this place, we are all marked and sealed on our foreheads as God’s own forever. This unifying promise is the Christian hope.

St. Paul wrote that “faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” Love really unifies us. This is the “new command” Jesus gives us, that we “love one another.” It may seem hypocritical to suggest that love is a special mark of Christians. After all, you don’t have to be a Christian to love, and we can see Christians failing to love everywhere we look. How can love be that by which everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples?

I believe that Christianity stands at a crossroads today. As individuals and as Christian communities, we need to decide just how seriously to take Jesus’ command. It’s not easy. Love comes with a cost. It will cause us to reevaluate our priorities. It will draw us into scary places, places where might be wrong, where we are unable to control the outcome of events. But having faith in Jesus means trusting that love, in the end, works—for even if it costs us our very lives, it cannot cost us our dignity as children of God. So how do we begin to love one another?

In our baptismal covenant, we promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.” This promise has always pulled strongly on me. I believe it is a very good starting place for the Christian who wants to learn to love more deeply.

So in what actions do we show that we respect the dignity of others? A few practices come to mind, and they begin very simply. First, get to know people’s names and stories. In my time in the Dominican Republic in January, I was invited to help serve food to hungry people in the courtyard of the Episcopal cathedral. I watched closely for signs that dignity was being respected. While there was some room for improvement, I noticed immediately that the people to be fed were called by name. A logical next step for the organizers would be to learn the people’s stories: where they have come from, where they hope soon to be, what they most desire, and what they most fear. To do so with a needy population introduces a higher risk, but it is the only possible way to move from merely meeting people’s daily needs to promoting transformation in their lives.

Another helpful practice is to allow oneself to be wrong. Recently I heard a story about a woman who, while working in a library, was confronted by an angry customer who couldn’t find the topic “Psychology.” She complained, “What kind of library is this? I can’t find Psychology anywhere in the ‘S’ section of the card catalogue!” The library employee patiently suggested, “Oh, let’s try the alternate spelling of Psychology, under ‘P.’” The problem was solved, and the customer’s dignity was respected.

In my life as a parent, I am constantly presented with the choice of whether to build my daughter up or break her down. When my patience runs thin and my anxiety runs high, I fear that I respect her dignity less often than I should. When she is unreasonable, she can box herself into a corner and refuse to see any solution to whatever problem she may face. But when I can find within myself the capacity to suggest a graceful solution to a problem that seems to her intractable, I have respected her dignity. Creativity and improvisation are key elements in respecting human dignity.

Likewise, to respect dignity as often as possible, one must not lose the forest for the trees. Once I was working with a teenage boy who was writing an article for a church newsletter. His atrocious grammar showed me he had never paid attention in English class. But he cared what he was writing about, and I missed that passion completely. I spent so much effort trying to get him to rewrite his article that he gave up and stormed out in a huff. We were never able to build a rapport again after that. I had failed to respect his dignity.

Finally, to respect dignity means to treat the other as an equal, no matter what society may dictate. My 13-year-old goddaughter Kaia spends much of her time training and showing dogs. Last week she told me sagely, “You have to treat them like equals. If you yell at them, they’ll only be afraid of you. If you plead with them, they’ll say, ‘I don’t have to do this.’” I replied, “I think that’s very wise, and I wonder how you might apply it to relationships with people.” She said, “Well, that’s much harder.” Yet this is exactly what Jesus did: everyone he encountered, from the rich and powerful to children and outcasts, received his respect. Peter respected the dignity of the Gentiles to whose home he was called when he followed the Holy Spirit’s direction not to make a distinction between himself and them.

To take the time to get to know people, to be willing to be wrong, to find creative solutions, to “keep the main thing the main thing,” and to insist on an equal relationship—in all of these practices, we respect people’s dignity. Examples abound. I might find myself offended by something a friend has said in public. But I will delay an appropriate confrontation until my friend and I are alone. Perhaps I find myself overly eager to hear my wife’s deepest feelings about a job interview, but I will wait until she is ready to share. In some cases, I might even give up something very precious to me—my pride, my reputation, perhaps even money—so that another person will not lose face. Only through respecting dignity can we rise to the type of love Jesus asks of us. Only through respecting dignity can we aspire to the paradox of giving ourselves away completely without losing ourselves at all. This is what Jesus accomplished on the cross, and it is the heart of Christian love.

The main intentions of all these actions are twofold: to build up the other’s self-worth, and to sublimate our urge to control. But these practices can also deepen our relationship with God. We cannot promote others’ self-worth for long without finding that we also love ourselves more, and in this, we are loving God’s creation from more than one angle. We cannot let go of control too many times before we realize that it is not usually fatal to do so, and this deepens our trust in God. We begin to trust that simply by our practice of respecting dignity, love will result. By respecting each other’s dignity, we can achieve true unity—not uniformity, but unity. Jesus unites us around the common purpose of love, and in so doing, he reveals God’s Kingdom already breaking into this fallen world.

We have been given a promise of eternal life, and we have also been promised that loving one another is the way to fit ourselves for such a life. May the Holy Spirit continue to guide us in our efforts to respect the dignity of every human being, that with faith and hope, we may love one another as Jesus has loved us. Amen.

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