Sermons That Work

If We Love One Another…, Easter 6 (B) – 2003

May 25, 2003

If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

To pluck their lives from death and to feed them in time of famine.

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.

Instead of going to church with his wife in the family car this particular Sunday, a parishioner chooses to walk the two miles instead. Although he claimed to need the exercise and wanted some time to think, there were other reasons at work here as well. The church he attends had been split down the middle on the issue of the war in Iraq, and so instead of a ride filled with argument and a parish meeting after church filled with dissension and loud talking, he had rather envisioned himself enjoying a spring walk — perhaps slipping into church a little late and exiting to return to his walk a little early. If his minister was going to talk about the war — well that would be OK, but he wanted to avoid the hand shaking and questions about reactions to the sermon at the door afterward. Quite simply, he thought of himself as a patriot, and was very confused by those around him who did not seem, according to his definition, to be very patriotic.

But from the beginning of his walk things didn’t work out at all as he had imagined. As he left the house, his wife had thrown one of her fancy psychology terms at him and had told him he was “in avoidance.” As he did every Sunday, he had read the readings beforehand, and with the first steps of his walk interpretations of the readings were already buzzing through his mind. The others in the congregation, he thought, will probably twist this to mean this and that to mean that. But he hated most of all the feeling that he was losing his grip on his beliefs about his country’s motives in the war — well, at least the administration’s motives. But, heck, he told himself, we do what they tell us, so it’s us, too, isn’t it. We are responsible, too. This Sunday’s sermon is all about love, and what we’ve done over there is about love too, isn’t it? And by that love God will live in us won’t he? He tried to convince himself, but he kept hearing those voices of the others, his wife included, and they were wearing him down.

Maybe it isn’t about love; maybe it isn’t about love at all. Maybe it’s what they say it’s about — about power — and money. And how will God live in us then? How will God bless America then?

As he walked on, the image of a stealth bomber blocking rays from the sun above entered his head. He tried to push the image out.

“Oh God you have prepared for those who love you such good things and surpass our understanding.” And we love God, by loving others. So if we are not loving others, he asked himself, then what?

The voices wouldn’t go away and the meanings of the readings, the meanings he first gave them earlier, were now vanishing with each step he took towards church.

And he couldn’t seem to get the word “Victor” out of his head. “President as Victor.” “America as Victor.” And he couldn’t get out of his head the sarcastic look of those he had seen saying it. Well after all, we are victorious, aren’t we, he asked himself? We succeeded in doing what we wanted to do, didn’t we?

To pluck their lives from death, and to feed them in times of famine.

Now there was a relevant line. Yes, that could work. He could use that bit from the Psalm if he chose to argue later. But they’d have an answer for that too. That bunch would have an argument for everything. They kept making their own narrative, twisting everything. Everyone in church knew who he or she were by now. They split up God — that’s what they did. They kept saying that the President’s God wasn’t their God, and pointed to all the clergy in the church who had found fault with what the President had done over there. They said that what was done wasn’t about love at all, and that no matter how much of a spin one put on it, how could it be argued that Love has anything to do with it? Our parishioner kept trying to come up with answers to all that as he walked.

There was a replica of the Twin Towers that the town had erected on the village green after 9/11. At their feet were photographs of people who had died in the tragedy. As our parishioner passed the replica on his walk, the photographs fluttered, now ghostlike, in the morning wind.

“Victor,” “Victor!” Why did that word so obsess him? He kept running it through his mind, over and over.

Just then a large military man with a crew cut walked across the military installation in front of him. The man had on a set of headphones, but they had now slipped down on his neck. In the morning mist they looked like knobs coming out of his neck. What was it that the military man reminded him of?

Yes that’s it — that’s what they looked like — the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein!

Suddenly a stream of associations poured through his mind. He was walking more quickly now and somehow the sight of the man and the exertion has set them all off. Frankenstein. And that’s the other “Victor” that was rattling in the bottom of his mind — Victor, Victor Frankenstein, the creator of the creature, of the monster.

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.

To top that, now, as he walked, there was another “Victor” from a poem he had once read that came quickly to his mind. “Victor” was a character in a poem by W.H. Auden, a madman. The poem had haunted him for years — until he was finally able to forget it. Now it was back. In the poem, Victor found out his wife was cheating on him, so he went out into Nature and asked what he should do about it, and a voice told him to kill her “I am Alpha and Omega, I shall come/ To judge the earth one day.” He pronounced judgment on her. “And the blood ran down the stairs and sang, “I’m the Resurrection and the Life.” Judgment justified murder. Victor saw himself in God’s place — a murderous God, and what is worse, Victor saw Jesus as the murderous God.

And why was this going through his head right now, he asked himself? (And the mist wasn’t burning off at all as he thought it would but was actually getting thicker.) In the mist, he began to imagine those ghosts coming out of the 9/11 monument, and merging with that Frankenstein character, as if somehow the Administration was giving signals, yes, voice lessons, to the ghosts so that they would speak to all Americans and argue for what seemed to be turning into unlimited war. Yes, that was it, that was the headset he’d seen on that man with the crew cut in the mist, he could have been one of the ghosts — Frankenstein-like ghosts of 9/11 — voices lessoned, programmed, signaled to say to the American people what this leader and Administration wanted them to say.

Oh where does this stuff come from, he asked himself, as the church came into view? It was all crazy; he was a patriot, he kept telling himself. Now he was starting to remind himself of that wacky mathematician in the movie, (who was it?) “The Beautiful Mind” character, who imagined all that stuff. Thank God, he had a hold on his imagination, he told himself, and he wasn’t going to go around telling people this stuff was real.

He walked up to the church and there was the cross with the purple material flowing on it looking strangely like a flag, and there was the cave of the Resurrection that the children had built and there — to his horror — standing in front of it, was the man with the crew cut and the knobs on the side of his neck — just as if he had stepped from the cave. He seemed to stare at him grimly before passing on, freezing our parishioner on the spot.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The words of W.B. Yeats from his poem “The Second Coming,” streamed through his head when another member of the congregation came up to him, suddenly bringing him to his senses with his greeting.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Oh no — nothing,” our parishioner answered. “I just decided to walk here to church this morning. I thought it might do me some good. You know, spring and all — open the mind a bit. I’ll tell you about it after church. No, in fact, I think I’m going to tell everyone about it.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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