GIVE YOURSELF AWAY
I really thought this sermon was going to be easy to write. It's time to talk about the fourth advent candle...the candle of love. Piece of cake, I thought...that's what all my sermons are about anyway. All I needed was a good Christmas spin on the topic, so I've been keeping my eyes and ears open. I found what I was looking for at the Peter Mayer concert last weekend.
I was just enjoying the music and not paying much attention to the words when I heard this line from the song "This Christmas." "Wrap yourself to give away" they sang. I listened more carefully to the song the next night and then checked out the words on the CD...there it was in the chorus also... "This Christmas give yourself." That's it! I thought. That's a perfect definition of love because that's exactly how God defined Himself.
The passage I just read from the first of John's letters is the root of at least half of my theology, and its centerpiece is the simple sentence, "God is love." If you want to know what love is and how love behaves, look at how God behaves, and the centerpiece of how God behaves is found in the first Scripture reading: And the angel said unto them, "Fear not. For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."
God's greatest act of love was to give Himself away...to leave the glories of heaven and the power to rule the universe to become a baby...completely dependent on others for everything, and born into a family of little means. By coming to earth in Jesus to live as one of us, God defined love. It is first giving yourself away. Jesus then went on to show us by his life and to teach us through his stories and parables more about what that meant...finally giving Himself away again...this time to the darkness of death on a cross. It all seemed really simple and, if you'll pardon the pun, I figured I had it all wrapped up. What is love? Give yourself away, all of you, no matter what the cost.
Then some little voice from the left field of my brain piped up and said, "You mean just like the suicide hijackers did on September 11?" Rats! It's really annoying when reality intrudes on a perfectly good sermon. "No...that's not the same," I said to the little voice. It can't be the same." But I knew I had to spend some time to figure out why.
The more I thought about it, the more complicated it got. September 11 presented problems, but so did a lot of other things. The rescue workers who gave their lives away to save just one more in the towers are heroes. They had courage and values that I wish were instilled in all people. But why didn't I feel that way when I heard a pastor in Georgia tell a victim of domestic violence that by staying in her marriage and sacrificing herself she might save her husband? Mother Teresa gave of herself every day, every hour of her life, and we call her a saint. There are others who give of themselves every day, every hour and who will not receive even the smallest gift from another. We call them neurotic. Suddenly I wasn't sure I wanted to talk about giving yourself away at all, much as I like the song.
Trouble is, it is the center of God's actions in history. In John 15:12-13 Jesus says to his disciples, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Just in case we hadn't noticed that God had been giving of himself from the time God breathed life into Adam until coming to earth in the person of Jesus, Jesus makes it very plain that this self-giving is how love is made manifest. To avoid it entirely is to miss the boat entirely.
So what do we do? If I am about to give of myself, how do I know that I'm being a hero and not an idiot? If I find myself in a religious group that is telling me to give up all that is precious to me...maybe even my own life...how can I be sure that is the voice of God and not the voice of evil? When I wrap myself up to give myself away, how do I know my gift is not laced with anthrax?
Unfortunately, I can't say I have all the answers. But I can tell you where I always look for guidance, and that is to the passage that forms the other half of my theology. It is a combination of two passages of Hebrew Scripture that Jesus quotes when someone asks him what the greatest commandment is. In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus answers, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
When I was younger I used to think that these things were a hierarchy. God was on top, everybody else came next, and I was at the bottom if there was anything left over. What I came to see was that this was not a hierarchy, but a trinity that balanced everything evenly. When love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self are all in balance, life goes well for me. When it gets skewed, so does my life.
I want to propose that when we think about giving of ourselves, we could do a lot worse than to use that formula to help keep us straight. Osama bin Laden has the formula skewed. He has the love of God piece. Hard as it is to swallow, he is acting out of devotion he feels to God. I also think he has no problem loving himself. What is missing in his case is the love of neighbor. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus follows the Great Commandment with the story of the Good Samaritan...showing that even the hated enemy should be cared for and not harmed. Suicide bombings don't love the neighbor and fail the test of the Great Commandment.
In my first church I discovered during a hospital visit that a young woman was being beaten regularly by her husband. I tried to encourage her to get herself and her child to a safe place, but she consistently took the blame for her beatings, saying she deserved them for having broken this or that rule of the house. I worked with her over a period of several weeks and the breakthrough finally came when I said to her "Look, you were made in the image of God. Do you think it is right for the image of God to be thrown on the floor and kicked in the head?" That week, she took her young son and left. She loved God greatly and she always acted with love toward her husband. In her case it was love of self that was out of balance.. When she found a way to see herself as worth something, she was able to have the courage to leave.
Well, then, what about the rescue workers? How can you love yourself and rush into a burning building to your possible death? Well, I realize this is putting thoughts into people's heads, but I seriously doubt that there were many police or firefighters at ground zero who gave their lives because they thought their lives were worthless. I don't think they ran in there thinking, "I'm really not of much value. I should be the one to die so that someone else who is really worth something can live." If someone did think that, I would not call it sacrifice. I would call it suicide.
Firefighters risk and sometimes lose their lives because their sense of self is so strong, even death cannot beat it. They have a healthy love of self...they don't seek death...but neither do they run from it when love of neighbor calls. I don't know that all of them had a professed love of God, but there are many places in Scripture, including the first John passage, that connect love of neighbor directly to love of God. "Even as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me," said Jesus. "Don't say you love God if you don't love your brother or sister," says John.
When you are about to give yourself away, ask yourself the threefold question: In doing this, am I showing a love of God and obedience to God's commands? Does this show real concern and love for others...not just one other...not just others I like...but for all others? Does this represent my truest and best self? Is this who God made me to be? Perhaps that won't prevent every mistake or tragedy. But I'm willing to bet that using the Great Commandment as a way to look at our actions will help a whole lot more than it will hurt.
Give yourself away. It's a lot more complicated than it sounds. And that is why Christmas is more complicated than a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. That is why on this night when we sing with the angels, we also take the broken body and shed blood of God into ourselves. You see at Christmas we begin where I began as I thought about this sermon. Love. Babies. Giving. Piece of cake. But as the story plays itself out, there are more somber chords that join in the simple melody. There are healings and miracles, but there are also accusations and threats, rigged trials and execution. My body given for you. My blood shed for you.
That's what love means...the baby, the cross, all of it. It's not easy to love as God loves...to give as God gives. But when we try--when love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self all come together, Easter comes, and everything we have given away comes back to us a hundred-fold. Wrap yourself to give away. God wrapped himself in swaddling clothes. Mother Teresa wrapped herself in the poor of Calcutta. Rescue workers at ground zero wrapped themselves in the sanctity of human life. And you?
©2001 Anne Robertson
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