Love Made Real

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, February 18, 2018.

The other night at Small Group Ministry, we were reflecting on love, and I wasn’t thinking about the verse we just sang, but I said that, for me, disappointment is tied up with love. 

Just as long as my heart beats, I must answer, “Yes,” to love;
disappointment pierced me through, still I kept on loving you.
If they ask what I did best, tell them I said, “Yes,” to love.

If we love people, we are going to be disappointed sometimes. And we are going to be disappoint those who love us. It’s relatively easy to tell someone you love them, to send a text or post it on Facebook or even mail a card. What counts is how you act. Sometimes people can be abusive and say, “But I love you!” But that’s not love. And sometimes people offer acts of love that we miss, because we don’t see them for what they are. 

A few weeks ago I got a call from a women I knew years ago; our children were in Sunday School together. She’d moved away, and we’d lost touch, and she was calling because her father had died and they needed a minister to lead the service. When I met with her and her mom, they told me that early on in their marriage, he gave his wife a seatbelt. He installed it in their car, and made her use it. This was way back before hardly anyone even knew what seatbelts were, and no one had them in cars! But from his time serving in the Navy in World War II, he knew that pilots survived crashes because they were belted in. It just made sense to put them in cars too. 

This man put sunscreen on his kids before anyone was concerned about skin cancer, and he learned about and encouraged them to eat healthy food. At the service, I said to the family, “Do you see that these were some of the ways that he showed you he loved you?”

This is what I want us to reflect on today. Tangible acts of love; the things we do, and that others do, the proof of our love. As a preacher I believe that words matter; but I also know that talk is cheap. What matters is showing up; the poet says “what anyone will remember is that we came” (Julia Kasdorf). Words are important, but what you do counts way more than what you say. 

And sometimes we don’t even appreciate these acts of love! I know a woman who used to get annoyed that, when she’d get in her husband’s car, he would say, “Buckle your seatbelt.” She didn’t like him telling her what to do! But one day, she says, she realized, “This is a way he tells me he loves me.” It may have still annoyed her, but she saw that he did this out of love.

It was only when he grew up that the poet Robert Hayden came to appreciate his father. And he gave us this poem:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 
When the rooms were warm, he’d call, 
and slowly I would rise and dress, 
fearing the chronic angers of that house, 

Speaking indifferently to him, 
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well. 
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

My own father was not the dad I longed for. He didn’t know how to show up for us in the ways we would have liked. But I try to remember and be grateful that he didn’t burden me, the way his own father had pressured him to follow in his footsteps. I hope I told him that, but I’m not sure I ever did. What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Are there ways that people love you, that are invisible to you most of the time? Would it be useful to spend some time reflecting on this? Looking for those acts of love that can be hidden and disguised and easy to miss. 

And maybe these are the best kind. The acts of devotion that we perform without any expectation of thanks or praise, the things we do because we want to, or because we can, or because we know it’s needed. Trudy Blyth comes here on Thursday and folds the order of service and inserts the bulletin sheet into it, and then she cleans out the refrigerator in the kitchen! Maggie Reeve made soup for Vespers on Wednesday, and left the rest of it for us to enjoy at lunch on Thursday. Roy Wright came by twice on Thursday, trying to track down a water leak here. Shauna Marion and Chip Curdo and one of our teenagers all help Frank Gauvin with the dishes on Sunday. I could go on.

We are here, Mother Terasa said, not to do great things, but to do small things with great love. We are here to make love real. I believe that small things done with great love are sacraments, outward and visible signs of the Love that is in us and around us. I believe it’s helpful to see these acts as sacraments, as holy, to treat them with the reverence they deserve.

Right now our young people and their leaders are downstairs, making sandwiches that will be given to clients of the Drop-in Center tomorrow. They are cutting the bread and the meat, spreading the mustard and mayo, putting these sandwiches in plastic bags, and then into brown paper bags that the littlest ones have decorated with words and pictures. 

Writing about making sandwiches for his daughters while confined to his wheelchair, Andre Debus says, “I focus on this: The sandwiches are sacraments. Not the miracle of transubstantiation, but certainly parallel with it, moving in the same direction. If I could give my children my body to eat, again and again without losing it, my body like the loaves and fishes going endlessly into mouths and stomachs, I would do it. And each motion is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, of knives, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread, this trimming of liverwurst, or ham. All sacraments… I drive on the highway, to the girls’ town, to their school, and this is not simply a transition; it is my love moving by car from a place where my girls are not to a place where they are; even if I do not feel or acknowledge it, this is a sacrament. If I remember it, then I feel it too. Feeling it does not always mean that I am a happy man driving in traffic; it simply means that I know what I am doing in the presence of God.”

We’re now in the season of Lent. These forty days to practice opening our hearts, these forty days to get ready for Easter. May I suggest that you could use this time to seek ways to make love real. To open your heart to see the hidden ways people are trying to love you; and to be open to the ways you might share the love you have to give. There are so many ways you could do this. It could be writing letters to implore our leaders to do something about gun violence. It could be accompanying an undocumented immigrant to their ICE hearing. It could be making food, or sharing your art, or giving someone time and attention.

I commuted to Boston for divinity school, and spent a lot of time on the road. One day my friend Curtis, the monk, said, “You could stay some nights in our monastery guest house, and save yourself some driving.” So I started spending one night a week there. I’d walk over to the monastery after class, usually in time for chapel and supper. After eating in silence with the monks and other guests, I’d study in my little room until compline, the last service of the day. I’d often stop by the guesthouse kitchen and grab a cup of tea and a couple of cookies to help my studying. But one day, the cookie jar was empty! “What’s up with that?,” I wondered. And then I realized, “Oh, it’s Lent. No cookies during Lent.”

I can be too earnest and serious sometimes. I imagine some of you may find my Christianity a bit much sometimes. If so, I just want to lift up the fact that, on this first Sunday in Lent, we are having Pie Sunday! Just sayin’! 

I’m not doing this to be intentional sacrilegious; I just don’t think religious restrictions about food need to be taken that seriously. Isn’t it better to take up a practice for Lent rather than forgo a few cookies? And for me, pie is like a sacrament. It’s a symbol of love and care in a beautiful and very tasty package! 

Not long ago, I asked a couple of our bakers here about this; I asked, what does pie mean to you? Abbe Wertz said that making pie is something that brings her family together across the generations. For her, Abbe says, making pie is all about love. Taffy Jervey said, “My mother is with me when I make pie.” She said, “It lasts forever, this connection.”

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign, a physical and tangible symbol that you can touch and taste and see; and this touching and tasting reminds you that life is holy and good. Who among us doesn’t need that reminder? So in these ways, whether you are making sandwiches for your children or for people in need, or baking pies or washing dishes, or lighting candles for schoolchildren who have been killed, will you remember that you are love made real in the world, and that what you do with love is a sacrament? That you are doing this in the presence of the Holy, and it is good. It is a blessing.