Old Bill

Matt: 22:34-46
Pent. 25

I have been pondering all week the passage, “you shall love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The more I thought about the passage, the more I thought about Bill. When I mentioned this to my wife she told me not to talk about Bill because not everybody loves dogs and has my anthropomorphic view of animals. Against her sage advice, here goes.

I grew up in a modest house in the Midwest during the Depression and WWII. My parents were white-collar, lower-middle class, college educated and financially pressed. In many ways they were like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in the movie “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.” They were kind, well intentioned and reserved. There was a lot of tension in our household for the first forty years. I never completely understood “why”; it was just there. I know that my parents loved me, because they told me so. But when there is tension or discord in a household, you just don’t feel the love. They were giving and generous and sacrificed a great deal for my welfare. Even so, the tension was high. When I was a little boy, I would become very sad and sometimes upset. So I would go outside and Bill would come across the street and sit with me. Bill was russet colored, had soft fur and silky ears. He was a hound, a curbstone setter, probably half white lab and half rottwieller. Bill was the gentlest, most patient, long-suffering and loyal companion one could want. I would cry and Bill would just come over sit and wait and stay with me. After a while I would feel better, wipe my eyes on his ears and we would go for a walk. Bill taught me that there is in the world, in nature “tooth and claw,” an element of natural affirmation, acceptance and companionship/devotion. Because of Bill I was able to accept the affirmation and love of others. I was able to see the world as being positive, affirming and meaningful. Old Bill probably didn’t know this. He probably just wanted a good scratch.

Later, when I was in college, I had a friend who was an agnostic/atheist. He struggled with issues of faith and reason. Like Bill, I just tagged along and let him stew. Eventually he announced that he could not live with out being loved. He had to believe that he was affirmed in life by something other than himself, by the source of life. He converted and became a Roman Catholic priest. As I did as a child, my college friend suffered from intense loneliness — that feeling that nobody cares and nobody is there, that you live in a void where you don’t count and you don’t matter. You are just here. You do your animal things. You get small pleasures, but it really much matter as long as you get out without too much pain. I have always thought that loneliness is epidemic in this country.

So if we are to talk about love, then we have to talk about love over against the human condition of loneliness and the desire for (and fight for) affirmation. We all know that there is eros love. That is primarily sexual desire and featured in the tabloids at the checkout counter in the supermarket. There is philos love. That is probably found in sports teams, or among firemen or other essential fraternal groups. There is maternal and paternal love. Finally there is agape love. Agape is the word that Jesus uses when talking about love of God and love of neighbor. Agape love is total affirmation, devotion, outgoing care for and commitment to another. It is self-sacrificing love — the total giving of oneself.

So where does one turn if we are to talk about love? There are movies and novels and poems, songs and biographies and histories. The answer, of course, is right before us. Among other things, the Bible is the great narrative, or document about love. The Old Testament is the story of a creator — redeemer God who creates man in His image, gives Adam a helpmeet and allows Adam and Eve the freedom to choose and to make mistakes. Like a parent God admonishes them, but He does not kill them. He hovers over them and tries to guide them as they make their way through the jungle of life from Eden into the historical world. God constantly watches over and guides history, shaping a people and repeatedly calling them to Himself. His love for his people takes them through the times of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rabekah, Jacob and Rachel, Ruth and Boaz, David and Bathsheeba and others. The prophet Hosea uses the metaphor of marriage to compare the relationship of Israel to God as to that of a husband and an unfaithful wife. Over and over the husband goes after the wife and brings her back, seeking to heal and restore her. His compassion is palpable and strikes a chord among those of us who have had to deal with wayward children or spouses. What God wants more than anything is for His children to behave, to obey His commandments and to have the same devotion and love for Him that He has for them. As any parent knows love for him involves love for one’s brothers and sisters. How many parents have grieved over the contentiousness between siblings, where there is jealousy and envy and deceit? So throughout the Old Testament God implores the Jews to practice righteousness, justice and compassion towards one another. Indeed, in today’s reading from Exodus the Jews are reminded that they share a common heritage of suffering and out of honor for that should not abuse one another, take interest in loans, nor let one another go without adequate clothing. The Jew is to practice compassion, for “I (God) am compassionate.”

The New Testament tells us that like the landowner who sent his son to deal with the wicked tenants, so God has sent His Son to restore the proper relationship between God and man. As an ultimate act of love, God comes to us incarnate in human form, walking the same paths that we walk, living the same mortal life that we live, and showing the Father’s love for us.

Or as the Book of Common Prayer phrases it, “In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.” (BCP p. 362) In Jesus Christ there is prophecy, preaching, healing and forgiveness. Through Jesus’ allowing Himself to be rejected, judged, abused and crucified, God allows His incarnate Self to become the metaphorical and literal Paschal Lamb that is sacrificed for the sins of the whole world. As we noted last week, in Christ there is the divine paradox. In today’s lesson we see Christ as the divine paradox of perfect love both of God and of neighbor.

As members of the body of Christ, you and I are encouraged to accept the love of God as shown in creation and in Jesus Christ and to return that love to God and to our neighbor. God knows that is not an easy thing. But St. Paul catches the essence of a life of love when he writes the following: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand full, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” I. Cor. 13:1-13.

Paul speaks of the love we have in Jesus Christ, that you and I are to emulate, that we will know fully in heaven and at the end of time, and that is at the core of creation and our existence. It is the love which is at the core of God, Himself, and is manifested both in his acts of creation, re-creation and redemption. That love speaks to our souls. It speaks to our sense of loneliness and isolation, our sense of confusion and helplessness. That is the love that affirms our existence, that gives us comfort and hope, and that walks with us as we continue our pilgrimages of faith.

As a child I had a hint of that love of God and God’s love for me as manifested in creation through Bill. Partially it enabled me to see the love of others and to come to know the love of God in Jesus Christ. Bill walked with me so that I could walk with others in love, striving to do God’s will and to show forth the Gospel message of creative and redeeming love to my neighbors. May you find in your daily lives the love of God manifested in creation and in others and perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ. Come. Let us always share it together, even as we share the body and blood of the Paschal Lamb today in our Eucharistic meal. Amen. - Fr. Gage