Monday, May 18, 2009

Being Loved First

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 6th Sunday of Easter: John 15:9-17

You did not choose me, but I chose you.

I think these words are something like the lynchpin of the spiritual life. To believe that we are each one of us chosen, accepted, by God is at the very heart of our faith. Yet the whole of our life’s spiritual work is to strive to be in that place and to act out of it.

They are really astounding words that Jesus speaks to us today.

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

What does it mean to be God’s friend? Dare we believe that God wants to be our friend? Dare we believe that God loves us so much that he actually likes us? Dare we believe that God chooses us as we are?

The work of our spiritual life is to be able to say “yes” to these questions and to live our lives as if this were the greatest truth about us: that we are God’s friends, God’s beloved. This is our true identity.

But this is not very easy. If this is the work of our spiritual life, it is hard work. Most of us fail constantly to live into this identity, to claim this truth of our existence: I am chosen by God; I am God’s beloved.

“Who am I?” is one of the great questions of our life. All through our lives we try to answer that question, consciously or unconsciously.

We have some typical ways we answer that question. Probably the most typical is to say that “I am what I do.” This may involve our work life, our role in our family, our volunteering or any of the choices we make in what we do from day to day. There is something real about this, because there is—or ought to be—real dignity in the work we do.

The problem is that there are always ups and downs. When I am doing good things and can see at least little successes in what I do, it is easy to feel good about myself. But I fall short sometimes, even fail, and then my self-esteem takes a hit, I can even fall into despair about myself because my “doing” doesn’t seem to be very productive.

Another way we can answer the question of our identity is to say that “I am what others think about me.” And of course what others think about me is very powerful. It is easy to feel very good about myself when others are saying nice things about me. But when they don’t it is just as easy to feel terrible. When something negative gets said it can be devastating and, again, our self-esteem can take a big hit.

Another popular way of answering the question of “Who am I?” is to say that “I am what I have.” All advertising has as its goal to make me believe that owning the thing being advertised will make me a better person, a happier person. We get suckered into this almost every day.

The problem is that possessions hardly ever meet our expectations and they themselves are fleeting. They require enormous amounts of energy just to hold on to and we have a tendency to need more and more in order to be satisfied.

All these ways of answering the fundamental question of our identity work well when they work, but they do not work all the time. And sometimes when they do not work the consequences to our sense of self can be devastating. The ups and downs can be exhausting and disillusioning. The end result is that our self-esteem is nearly constantly under attack.

It ends up that most of our life our energy is just trying to keep our head above water, surviving. This is far short of what Jesus promises, that we should share in his joy and that joy should be complete. Life cannot give us that complete joy, no matter how hard we try.

What was Jesus’ joy? It was, I believe, that he knew who he was, in the deepest part of himself. And he knew this deepest part of himself was not who the world said he was.

Jesus was faced with the same temptations as we are in trying to determine the true source of our identity. Think of his temptations in the desert. The devil asked him to show what he could do, “Turn these stones into bread.” Then, “Jump from the Temple and let the angels catch you. People will speak well of you then.” And then, “Let me give you all the possessions of the world. You will be powerful beyond your dreams.”

But Jesus said, “All this is a lie.” This is not who I am. I am not what I do. I am not how people speak of me. I am not what I own or what power I have over others.

I have already been told who I am. The Spirit came down on me and said, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

And he didn’t need anything more. He was able to live his life and live through his death with those words being enough. You are my beloved.

We, my friends, have the same opportunity to live in the same way. Because what is said of Jesus is also said of us. It is the language of our baptism.

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.

You are God’s beloved daughter; you are God’s beloved son. That is the truth about you, the truth that can never change.

You did not choose me, but I chose you.

The one who chooses us before we have chosen him is the voice of what 20th century spiritual guide Henri Nouwen calls the voice of our “first love.”

Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And I have loved you first. And Nouwen writes

And the great struggle is to claim that first love. You were loved before your father and your mother and your brother and your sister and your teachers loved you….The people who love us don’t always love us well….The people who care for us also wound us. And you might know from your experience that the people who are closest to you, like your father, mother, children, brother, teachers, churches, are also the ones who might hurt you most. And how to live that? How to live the naked truth that in this world love and wounds are never separated? We can only live it when we always reclaim that first love.

Therefore we can forgive those who love us poorly, and we can recognize in the love we do receive a hint or glimpse of the first love as real. Could you hold on to that? Every time that you have a temptation to become bitter or jealous, to lash out, to feel rejected, can you go back and say, “No, I am the beloved daughter of God”? And even though I am rejected, that rejection should become for me a way to reclaim the truth. It should be like a pruning that helps me to claim more fully and deeply the truth of my belovedness. And if I can hold on to that and live in the world, then I can be free to love other people without expecting them to give me all that my heart desires.

Because God has created you and me with a heart that only God’s love can satisfy. And every other love will be partial, will be real, but limited, will be painful. And if we are willing to let the pain prune us, to give us a deeper sense of our belovedness, then we can be as free as Jesus and walk on this world and proclaim God’s love first, wherever we go.

[1] Henri Nouwen, “Being the Beloved,” in Henri Nouwen: Writings Selected with an Introduction by Robert A Jonas (Orbis, 1998), pp. 27-28. This entire sermon is based upon this sermon of Nouwen’s preached in 1992 on Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power.

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