January 12, 2020
Baptism of Christ
(Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17)
"Sometimes the dog is my favorite child -- not often, but sometimes she is."
So says Jill Smokler, a Chicago mother of three (not counting the dog), who admits she sometimes favors one child over another. Jill is at the forefront of a growing parenting trend: not being afraid to admit she sometimes has a favorite child.
For years, "I love you all equally" has been the instant response of parents, when asked by their children if one of them is the favorite. Now, some parents are daring to admit they were fibbing all along.
Partly responsible for this trend are psychologists like Ellen Weber Libby, author of The Favorite Child. Libby sees more problems arising out of parents covering up their favoritism, because they've been taught it's the right thing to do. "Favoritism doesn't have to be bad," she says. "It's what we do with it that makes it disastrous or productive."
Libby believes many parents have shifting inclinations toward favoring one child or another, over time. Being open about this isn't harmful, she teaches, because each child benefits from the extra affirmation at different times. In the end, everyone ends up with some positive memories.
Is this common sense -- or psychobabble?
Peter says, "God shows no partiality," and by that he means there's no favoritism, no preferential treatment. No one on this earth gets more love from God than any other person.
The Greek word translated "partiality" is uncommon. It renders a Hebrew idiom that literally means "God is not one who receives human faces." God doesn't just glance at our faces and make a snap judgment, as so many of us do with our neighbors. God doesn't stop with the externals. God looks deep within.
Think of the last time you were in a busy train or bus station, or at an airport. Remember the sea of faces surging toward you, displaying a variety of expressions, a range of emotions. Remember, also, the skin colors, the body types, the clothing, the hair styles, the tattoos.
The human mind is a remarkable calculating engine. It draws so many conclusions in the barest instant of time. It makes judgments we're scarcely aware of. Can you even recall a few of the judgments your mind made, based on those faces you observed there, in the station or airport? Did you not pigeonhole a good many of those faces, categorizing them as foreigner or native-born, rich or poor, lazy or hard-working, dangerous or benign?
If so, you did what Peter says God never does. You "received human faces." You made a multitude of judgments, based on very little information at all.
Something that's partial is fragmentary, a piece of the whole. Human love is partial in just that sense. So many mixed motives affect our love for other people. Self-interest creeps in, spoiling the selfless, altruistic love to which we aspire.
Let’s look at three examples.
Loving the lovable - Often, the only love we're able to manage is loving the lovable. That's a curious word, "lovable." Usually, when we say a person is lovable, we mean the person is attractive, pleasing, gifted in some way, so as to win the affection of others. By definition, a lovable person is not hard to love.
Does God call us only to love the lovable? Of course not! When Jesus says, "Love your neighbor as yourself," he doesn't add the codicil, "that is, if your neighbor happens to be lovable." What kind of love would that be? Pretty shallow! No, the sort of love Jesus is encouraging is not about being attracted to another, as a moth is drawn by a porch light. It is, rather, the sort of love that gets up and does what the other person needs, no matter how tough that may be.
Reciprocal love - Is all about gauging our love according to the possibility of receiving love in return. This is reciprocal love: "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."
Lots of human relationships are like that. It's a fine and helpful thing for two people to decide they're going to come together and meet each other's needs. Often we refer to this sort of love as a "partnership," highlighting the even exchange.
Yet, this, too, is only a partial love. What happens, for example, if one partner gets sick and is unable for a time to care for the partner's needs? Does the love-partnership fall apart at that point?
Some do. Plenty of couples have headed for separation or divorce out of a sense of unfairness, when one partner comes to believe the even exchange is no longer so even. The other partner is not holding up his or her end, is not doing enough. Any love that keeps score in such a way is only a partial love. It doesn't measure up to the ideal of selflessly caring for the other.
There are times and seasons, in some marriages, in some deep friendships, when one partner does end up carrying more of the weight of the relationship. That's not the way it's meant to be, of course, but sometimes it's just the way it is. The simple truth is that, if we're in a reciprocal relationship, there's always the temptation to engage in scorekeeping. But, Jesus teaches us that we should never keep score, no matter how unbalanced it mean be or seem.
Controlling love - We've all known people like that: a spouse or a parent or someone else. An element of control often makes its way into human relationships. In such relationships, love is offered for a time, free and clear, then abruptly snatched away. Afterwards, love is usually kept in storage, to be trundled out the next time the controlling lover has need of it.
Controlling love, too, falls short of the full measure of love, the biblical ideal. By and large, controlling love is not the sort of love we see God exercising in the Bible. You'd think it would be just that way, in the uneven power-relationship of an omnipotent God and a frail and flawed people. But it's not. The track of God's love for Israel -- several millennia long but still in effect -- has had some rocky interludes. Even on their epic journey through the wilderness, the people of Israel sometimes acted foolishly and disobediently. God had to dispatch the prophets, one by one, to call them back to faithfulness. Were God's love controlling them, that never would have happened. But God's love is never a controlling love. The Lord values human freedom, knowing full well there are going to be times -- lots of times, to be perfectly honest -- when we'll greedily snatch up that freedom, then go out and abuse it.
That's not how it is with God's love. The love God offers is utterly free -- in the sense that we are always free to accept or reject it. Yes, it's true that if we wander away from the fold, God will go after us, as a shepherd seeks the lost sheep. But God never prevents us from leaving. The gate to the sheepfold is always open.
So, if these are all partial forms of love, what does complete love look like?
Jesus gets at this when he teaches, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Can there be a more difficult teaching than that? Think of a terrorist event like the Boston Marathon Bombing. Remember the fear and anger that riveted the nation that day, and in the days of the manhunt that followed. Remember the wild speculation in the news media about who had committed this outrage, what links they might have had to terrorist organizations, and -- most troubling -- whether similar bombings might soon follow, in a coordinated assault on American democracy?
Then, a teenager was discovered cowering under the cover of a boat up on blocks in someone's driveway. He was wounded and bleeding. He was an American kid -- yes, foreign-born, but he did most of his growing-up here. He seemed so normal. His school friends had no idea. By all accounts, he had come under the spell of his charismatic, but deeply troubled, big brother.
There's little doubt he was guilty of a crime against humanity. The law offers little mercy to one such as he. Life in prison, with no parole, is the very best he can hope for.
Does Jesus really expect us to love him? Does Jesus really expect us to be anything other than partial in our loving?
I want to share something that happened to me this past week, though I will mention no names. I was chatting with a friend from a different country. We have chatted now for well over a year as they have “followed” me on a couple different social media outlets. This person suddenly was upset one day because they discovered that I had “liked” a post of someone whom they had strong negative thoughts about, most especially because they thought the post I had “liked” of this other person was wrong for me as a priest to like. They felt I was enabling the person and what they perceived as wrong or sinful.
Now, I calmly explained my view on this. First, they had no first-hand knowledge of the person and the post they were criticizing. This second person had also been a “follower” of me on a couple of social medias as well, but for a longer period than the first person. Thus, I knew of some background information about this second person that certainly had some bearing on the type of things this person might post. And I explain that to the first person. Additionally, I explained that, like Jesus, one must see the person and not just the sin. Regardless if the post was say a “NC-17” or not, (and, no it wasn’t X-rated), I still clicked “like” on the post as a show of support. In some instances, the more “likes” a person gets, helps with spreading their message, because some of these social media platforms will help spread their activity based on how many “likes” and “followers” they have. Word of mouth advertising, so to speak.
The were other comments made, but the point being that I explained that the radical love of Jesus excludes no one. Not the woman caught in adultery; not the women at the well; not the tax collector or the many others. Jesus sees past the sin and loves the person. We should also do the same. The problem with all the violence today is that we have too many like my first friend who finds anyone outside of their world view as being “other.” God is not partial of any of the nearly 7 billion inhabitants of the planet. We should learn to do the same.
Truth be told, we're all sinners, so he probably doesn't expect that much. Yet, he places the ideal of selfless love out there before us, all the same. He sets the bar high. This life of Christian discipleship is a matter of reaching onward and upward after his example, trying our best to live as he lives, to love as he loves.
One thing we can say about this divine adventure called love. When we're in relationship with Jesus, when we allow his love to flow into us, then flow outward again into our flawed and fragile human relationships, we become capable of a deeper and more faithful way of loving. In a very real sense, the love we extend to others, at our best, is not partial at all. It is the full and complete love of Christ, that comes to us as an unmerited gift and that overflows into the lives of our friends and family and neighbors -- and yes, sometimes even perfect strangers.
Let us pray.
Today, as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, we are reminded that through our own baptism we become children of God. We pray for the grace, wisdom and commitment to live the message of Christ and become living apostles, proclaiming his love and goodness through word and example. We pray to the Lord.
As we remember our baptism, may we be granted the time and energy, the foresight and the wisdom to review how we each live our life – with our family, our friends, our community, our work and most importantly, with our God. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for the baptized throughout the world who suffer persecution for their beliefs, that God’s power and love may sustain them. We pray to the Lord.
That we each will learn the radical love of Jesus and be more loving toward all we meet and encounter in our daily lives. We pray to the Lord.
For an end to hatred and violence: that a serious commitment to the work of peace and unity may pervade every corner of the world. We pray to the Lord.
That as we continue our building and repairs a benefactor or benefactors will be led to our humble parish as we look to obtain the funding needed to finish the rectory and necessary repairs. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list, that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Merciful Savior, like Peter, we desperately need a renewed understanding and experience of your love. Our heads know that you love impartially and unconditionally, and we are all too eager to receive that gift of love ourselves. Yet, we confess that we are stingy with your gracious gift when it comes to others, especially others who are unlike us. We want to place limits and boundaries around your love, to decide who is "in" and who is "out." We are afraid and appalled that we might be asked to love "them" in your name -- not from a distance but face-to-face, with hearts and lives fully engaged. We see the error of our ways, and we are sorry. But we also know we cannot change ourselves. Come, Holy Spirit, come, to cleanse and change us from the inside out. Help us to love without partiality and follow the example of the radical love of Jesus. We ask all these things through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA