A message given Sunday, May 13, 2007
by Rev. Scott Summerville
In each of us there is a hunger for a certain kind of love.
In each of us there is a craving for unconditional human love.
The love we experience most of the time has all kinds of strings attached:
I will love you, if you do what I want you to do.
I will love you, if you take care of me.
I will love you, if you will agree with me.
I will love you, if you do not challenge me to change or to grow.
The love we have for ourselves has even more strings attached:
I will love myself when everyone else loves me.
I will love myself when I have solved all my problems.
I will love myself when I have achieved my goals.
I will love myself when I am a better person.
I will love myself when I finally overcome my addiction.
I will love myself when I improve my appearance.
I will love myself when I lose thirty pounds.
I will love myself when I reduce my energy consumption and start recycling.
I will love myself… someday… someday….
In each of us there is a hunger for a love that does not have strings attached.
One of the reasons that human beings bond so profoundly with their pets is that in the interaction with these furry creatures people experience an unconditional affection which they may be starved for in their human interactions.
If you want love – pure, blind, exuberant love – get yourself a dog. You could get a cat, but if your cat is like many cats, you could end up begging the cat to love you.“Kitty, kitty – you do love me, don’t you? If I give you another treat will you love me?” Without diminishing in any way the blessings our pets bestow upon us, I say again that we each have a primal need — a primal craving — for unconditional love from other people.
Earlier this year on a Sunday morning a baptism took place. The words were the same words we always use for baptism of an infant. One aspect of the baptism that was a bit out of the ordinary was that the child was not a child of this congregation. The family of the baptized child was a family that Reverend Andie Raynor had ministered to in her work for the Jansen hospice.
The mother of the mother, the grandmother of the baby, had died as a patient with the hospice program. Later the young woman came to Andie when she was getting married and asked Andie to perform her wedding ceremony, which Andie did. Later, when this when this woman had a baby, she came to Andie again and asked whether she might perform the baptism, which she agreed to do, and that is how this infant came to be baptized at Asbury church two months ago. Those were very special circumstances, but there was something else that was unusual about that ceremony.
Rev. Raynor performed the baptism. My wife, the Reverend Mary Ellen Summerville, assisted. As the baby was being passed around and baptized and presented to the congregation, Rev. Raynor kissed the baby a few times. This apparently triggered some primal instinct on the part of the Reverend Mary Ellen Summerville, who also kissed the baby. I don’t know the total count, precisely how many times this infant was kissed as he was being passed around, but I can tell you exactly how many times in baptizing infants over the past thirty years that I have kissed the child: zero.
I have never kissed an infant as part of the baptismal ceremony; in fact I make it a practice never to kiss other peoples babies. To to me this baptism was quite unusual, but I suspect that to the two female clergy involved, to the parents, to the congregation, and to the baby, it may have seemed so natural that no one even noticed.
The child will have no conscious memory of any of this, but perhaps in some unconscious way, deep in his soul there will be some remembrance that he was baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and with the embrace and kisses of three women. The spoken language of the ritual was patriarchal, but the body language was motherly embrace.
We tend to think of a mother’s love as the most unconditional love there is. For each of us individually that may or may not have been our experience. Because of the biological, hormonal, emotional bond between a mother and the child, the mother child relationship has the greatest potential for unconditional love.
The theory is that mother’s love is unconditional; if that is our actual experience, then we carry through life great blessing, a powerful emotional and spiritual support.
Then there is God —
the love of God.
The theory is that the love of God is unconditional.
The Scriptures say God is love.
The Scriptures say: “While we were yet sinners God showed God’s love for us
in that Christ died for us.”
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches a kind of love modeled upon the nature of God:
a love that returns good for evil,
a love that returns justice for injustice,
a love that is so unconditional that it loves the enemy
as well as the friend.
This is a radical love.
The sign of this love is the cross.
If we are loved unconditionally, we are free. Paul says: nothing in life or death can ever separate us from the love of God; not persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword – nothing can separate us from such a love.
That is the theory.
That is the Christian theory.
In actual practice often Christians are just as neurotic, just as guilt ridden, just as tangled in the strings of conditional love as anybody else.
We know the theory; we’ve heard the message; we are children of God whose mercy is from everlasting to everlasting and whose name is love. But we are still tied up in the strings of conditional love, delivering to ourselves a daily litany of conditions which must be met, before we can allow ourselves to be loved.
I will love myself as soon as….
God would love me, if I could just ….
Mother’s Day – this is a good day to look at the quality of love in our lives. In virtually every family, even families that are deeply damaged and hurting, there is unconditional love. We may not even be able to see that it is there. We may have so much mess to work through to get back to it, but it is there. It may be hidden in the tangle of strings that we have wound around each other.
Getting untangled is hard work – it takes, honesty, telling the truth, accountability for our mistakes, and forgiveness. This is the way that leads to the untangling of the mess and the rediscovery of the unconditional love lying beneath the surface of our families.
I say this knowing that some families do not have the willingness to speak the truth, or to confront the past, or to seek healing. Sometimes we need to step back and even step away from our families, so that we may find health and unconditional love and freedom in a new place.
Sometimes we need to step back from tangled relationships, restore our own health, and pray that we can re-engage sometime in the future.
And what about our relationship with God?
I am back to thinking about the infant at that baptism being passed around the baptismal font, being welcomed into the body of Christ, receiving the waters of baptism, held in the strong loving arms of women, who embellished the ritual with their kisses.
We say to the infant, “Welcome; God loves you – the gentle touch, the water, the kisses – all of this is God’s sign upon you, God’s blessing upon you, God’s embrace, God’s kiss.” What if the infant could grasp and hold that the message for a lifetime?
I was once the guardian for a man who lived to be 98 years old. The last ten years of his life were years of increasing dementia. There was a time when he was more than ninety years old, when he appeared to have lost his reason entirely. I was in his apartment one afternoon. It required two people to move him, so at times there were two aides in the room. I was facing him as he sat in his favorite chair. When he needed to go to bed, the aides approached him from either side, strongly, gently cradling his body, their hands and arms and breasts pressed against him. He looked up at me with a twinkle in his eye, and he said, “This is the life.”
He had been quite a successful man in his day, by worldly standards. He was able to make the transition back to childhood; he soaked in the sweetness of being passed around again, cradled in the arms of strong gentle women.
Many of us relate to God the way we relate to a boss we are trying to please.
Our relationship with God – our experience of the love of God – has so many strings attached to it.
We live in a culture of stress, achievement, and overwork.
We live to please – all the time – to please somebody.
In this moment, on this Mother’s Day, we give thanks for the strong gentle voices, the strong gentle hands, the strong gentle souls who have held us in our lifetimes. And we hear this reminder:
God is love,
and you are already loved,
and your failures cannot separate you from God’s love,
and your accomplishments will not earn you any greater love.
This love is a gift, and that is all.
Grace and peace.