Illusionist David Blaine rose to new heights in his impressive professional life last week. Strapped to 52 helium balloons, he ascended into the sky at the rate of about 500 feet per minute. He ultimately floated more than five miles above the surface of the earth. During this time he communicated with folks watching from below, sharing his awe for the amazing view with his 9-year old daughter, Dessa. He trained for the stunt for two years. He finally detached himself from the balloons and fell toward the Arizona desert before releasing his parachute. He landed upright and jubilant to have conquered yet another seemingly impossible feat. When reunited with his daughter, he hugged her and said, “I did this for you.”
I shook my head when I heard that because it would never cross my mind to show my love for my children in that way. Nor do I think my kids would appreciate me taking on such a daunting experiment for their sake! Of course, Blaine’s profession and very nature is to push his human limits. But I will settle for making a good dinner for my family so that we can sit together and get caught up on life!
By what manner of love are we to care for those around us?
For many parents the past six months have been disappointing. Their graduating seniors have not been able to march to the beat of “Pomp and Circumstance” with their classmates. Open Houses have been cancelled. The freshman dorm experience has been replaced with working on-line to complete the homework professors have assigned. Much anticipated wedding celebrations have been put on hold or greatly changed. First day of school outfits have been the same shorts and t-shirts they wore all summer with school supplies set out near their in-home study area. Parents have been broken-hearted that they couldn’t provide for their children the typical sorts of parties that celebrate their accomplishments. So what manner of love do we owe our children as parents when a pandemic sweeps in?
The Christian mystics say that God’s love has two feet: love of God and love of neighbor. There are so many rules we teach our children so that they will be happy, healthy, law-abiding citizens. But Paul’s writing reiterates the teaching of Jesus. If you love one another, every other law we’ve mandated will be observed. Human law must bow down to the demands of love, not the other way around. Laws become burdensome. One much-needed regulation multiplies into several others as interpretations of situations challenge the original intent. We witness how our laws are not evenly applied. Is it possible that we could ever subject our human laws to this holy standard of Godly love on earth? Or should we just give up on that now and settle for minimal harm in our own neighborhoods?
“A Most Beautiful Thing” is a documentary that is newly released on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. It tells the story of the first African-American high school crew team from the 1990’s. Many of the young men who got into the boat together came from rival gangs. But, once in their vessel, they strained to the same rhythm and competed for a shared prize. This program gave the young men hope for a different future than the past they had lived. Being on the water gave them a peace they didn’t know before. Several of them reunited and decided to race together again. Arshay Cooper, who continues to transform the lives of Chicago youth through a row team, suggested to his former teammates that they invite several Chicago Police officers to train with them. It was not a popular suggestion at first. But the friends agreed and the cops showed up for the training regimen. They climbed into the boat together to compete at the Chicago sprints rowing event as a public display of unity. When folks can gather safely again, they intend to have a cook-out together with their families.
What manner of love is asked of us as Christians in an increasingly secular world?
In writing to a diverse urban congregation in Rome, Paul impressed upon them the urgency of acting NOW: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep…” Do we awaken with a sense of urgency? We do when it comes to finding a vaccine that will effectively eradicate the COVID virus that has so disrupted our lives. But do we have a strong sense of mission about what we can do in the present moment even with restrictions that keep us separated? Paul challenges those early believers in Jesus to awaken from their sleep. It’s been nearly six months since we shut down our society to stay safe from an invisible enemy. Huddled in our homes with the news continually streaming, it was easy for us to step away from a sense of responsibility toward others and into a survival mode. As we say goodbye to the summer-that-wasn’t, we’re called to awaken from our Quarantine Slumber and look for new ways to serve as a congregation. After decades of living as the “Me Generation”, a deadly virus has reminded us that we don’t have the control we thought we did. Our values have been exposed as too often self-centered and destabilizing. “Just do it”, an advertising campaign that has made billions, falls flat as a motto when we must wear a mask simply to survive a grocery outing.
In this section of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he offers the good news that we have the real possibility of genuine transformation because of what God has done and is doing for us in Jesus Christ. Though our world seems to have spun out of control, Paul assures us that the very axis on which our lives turn has not changed. God was, is and will always be in control and Christ is particularly near in our time of need. So we reconvene in safe ways as a congregation to reassure our children that faith in Jesus is what will keeps us anchored. The need is greater than ever for our families to relinquish their plans into the loving care of their Creator. Rev. Barbara Lundblad offered these words in a sermon she preached in 2005: “Christianity is not a ‘spiritual’ religion, it is an incarnational religion. It believes that God has a body, that God takes up space, that God will not remain ethereal and vague, distant and detached. In his body, God takes up space, God becomes a fact, an undeniable fact that must be dealt with and encountered, must be either acknowledged and followed, or else ignored and denied.”
And so we acknowledge and follow. In our congregation we make plans to teach our children through zoom Sunday School classes. We registered them for the new year in our parking lot, offering ice cream bars for them and their families. We’ve started back in our sanctuary for worship where they will remain seated with their parents until it’s safe to meet in classrooms again. We affirm that God uses us, uses our bodies, to make an imprint for good in our panicked world.
Paul affirms that love does no harm to a neighbor. Those who read his words in this letter would have remembered Jesus’ teaching about who our neighbor is: the most despised member of another tribe or race, a rival gang, or someone with a different lifestyle. This is who we are to actively love and serve. With the fear and suspicion that dominate our culture we have replaced the Golden Rule with an unwritten plan to keep our distance from others. Don’t do anything to them and, maybe, they won’t do anything to me. Rather than stepping out in risky expressions of caring, we find ourselves safe—and alone. We have felt a profound loneliness in the past months and may have come to finally understand that we are meant to live in community. We need each other. My gifts are meant to be shared with you as I receive what you have to offer to me. Rather than insisting that our personal freedoms supersede those of others, we are learning that we must work together in order to triumph over the sin that divides us.
Paul spells out three pairs of immoral behavior: wild parties, promiscuous hook-ups and conflict within families and faith communities. He puts those on a par with each other. Quarreling and jealousy are as damaging as drinking our lives away, Paul would say. But he reminds us that love can accomplish in us what even the best laws cannot: a transformation of the heart. There is an urgency to use these isolating, fearful times to do some soulful introspection. Am I turning to God with my fears and questions, trusting that I can grow through this time, not merely survive? Am I inviting God to use me so that I can serve as the Body of Christ, leaving my footprints in places that point to His healing love? Or am I holed up and focused on insuring my own safety against an alien world?
Paul uses the imagery of night and day. The time of darkness is coming to a close and a new day is dawning. So put on clothing that will be appropriate for the demands of a new day. What might that look like? It might be rowing gear that puts you into a boat with teammates who look different from you. Yet you strain toward a prize you all can share. It might be teaching your students in zoom classrooms with the same passion you offered in a physical room. It could be putting on a firefighter or police uniform to provide rescue to those who could put your own well-being at risk. It could be wearing a cross necklace so that folks understand that it is your faith that supports you. I hope that for many of you it will be an outfit of love that will be shared with our own church children and youth so that another generation will be taught the manner of Christ-like love that will keep them upright in a continually changing world. So wake up! It’s a new day. The time is now. The call to faithful discipleship is urgent. You needn’t soar to great heights like David Blaine to be the hands and feet of Christ to a hurting world. The law is simple: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.