Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah! Psalm 150
On our mission trip in Honduras the week before last, I experienced what I will call a small, but significant, epiphany. One afternoon, after putting the finishing touches on the interior and exterior of a small urban church we painted, in 100-degree heat, my team prepared to venture up into the mountains for a feast. There, at a small mission church, we would worship with the villagers, and treat them to a picnic and pass out gifts bags we had thoughtfully prepared.
These villagers were the poorest of the poor. We were told that they considered peanut butter a great luxury, so we made 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and brought along 150 bags of chips, 150 gift bags, and several watermelons for dessert.
There was great excitement as we approached the village of Chasnigua–among us St. James-ers, and among those who saw us coming and gave chase. Our driver slowed when we passed the one-room schoolhouse, where class was still in session. The children came to the window, waving and cheering; as we continued on our way, the teacher dismissed her students to ensure they wouldn’t miss our visit. They exploded from the schoolhouse and gave chase, running behind our caravan until it reached the church. Even then, we could see that some of the children wore shoes, but that many did not and we were grateful that in addition to the food, we’d brought three dozen pairs of plastic flip-flops in children’s sizes.
The heart of Chasnigua is its cinderblock Episcopal Church, which is slightly larger than our own chapel. Padre Pena, the priest, rang the bell, as a town crier would, and people began gathering in the church and, when space ran out, around it curious about what these gringos were doing in their part of the world.
Padre Pena eventually told the overflow crowd who we were, and that we had come to offer a feast of food and gifts in the name of Jesus Christ. After a short homily on two of the Ten Commandments, Padre Pena, with his deacon Jaime playing guitar, led us in a rousing rendition of the hymn Jesús está aquí or Jesus is here.
Soon enough in this little cement room packed with young mothers and their babies, ancient matriarchs without teeth and young men with machetes notched in their belts for their work in the sugar cane fields, my own friends from St. James s and more children than you could begin to count soon enough, we were up on our feet, clapping and singing, all of us aglow with this glimpse of happiness we were being given. I looked around the church and I thought to myself, Jesus really is here! Here in this cinderblock box whose bright gold paint job reminds me of a tacky Mexican restaurant! He is here at this altar, strewn with plastic flowers and a strand of Christmas lights! He is here!” I felt it right here.
2000 years after Jesus told his disciples, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another as I have loved you,” he showed up in Chasnigua to say hello. When he did, I realized for the first time what Jesus really meant when he said later in John s Gospel: As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one” (17:21-22).
Look at us today, worshiping the Lord, all 750 of us, in this magnificently marbled, million-dollar sacred space, praising God with our hearts and voices and Jesus is here, too! Just as he was in Honduras. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah! From Chasnigua, Honduras to Richmond, Virginia: Jesús está aquí and we are one.
We Christians, and especially the missionaries among us, are called to love one another and the world as God loves each of us and the world: joyfully, celebrating its beauty, its majesty, its curious details, its flashes of divine glory and bitterly grieving its wounds, its horror, its tragedy, its crucifixions. If you have ever traveled to a third-world country you see its wounds exposed. Poverty is, in many senses, a state of exposure; it demands to be seen; in its midst, one looks because it would be indecent not to look, because God wants us never to forget what is being done to the least of our brothers and sisters.
The love that Jesus speaks of and the love that the writer of the First Letter of John refers to is the kind of love that will heal the wounds that plague all of us. Not romantic love. Not the kind of love that can be confined to a greeting card. Jesus means agape, the unmotivated, unconditional love we receive from God. God loves us simply…because.
In the midst of this service and its joyous musical tribute, I just want to remind you that this is the kind of love that should define the church and its members. We are called to function as a family in which every member is accepted as an equal, no matter their social, cultural or moral background.
If any of you has ever traveled with a mission team, you know that the experience is quite different from hand-picking friends to vacation with at the beach. A mission team is a microcosm of the church not unlike the choir, or the altar guild, or the church staff. Think of it even a microcosm of family: You cannot pick your family; you can only hope that, after years of therapy, you can make some sense of it. Am I right? Well, same with a mission team, no matter which church it’s from.
Another thing. Anyone who’s ever done mission work will tell you that it is much easier to love the people of Honduras, or the people of Alaska, or the people of West Africa, or even the people who come to our front door here on Franklin Street looking for help with their gas and water bills, than it is to love the strangers here in our midst. It is easier to give and expect nothing in return when we don’t have any individual, personal hang-ups with the people we are giving to. When people are removed from us by a literal, geographic distance when we behold them at the other end of the telescope it is a whole lot easier to see them as Jesus, because we don’t get to know them well enough to experience their faults, their personality tics. (Sadly, but realistically, it is almost impossible–just to use a “hypothetical” example–to see your spouse as Jesus, or say an in-law as Jesus.) For missionaries and outreach workers, the mystery of the poor is this: They are Jesus, and what we do for them we do for Him.
So let us not stop–ever!–seeking the face of Jesus in the faces of our fellow parishioners, the way we seek Him in the faces of those we care for in faraway countries. Because I tell you, when you spend eight intense days in 100-degree heat with members from your own church community, the actual giving of love and receiving of love gets a bit more…interesting. Do I dare even say& testy? You have time to get to know them for better and for worse. And believe you me when I say they get to know their clergy intimately too–there is no hiding our warts, either. It is like a marriage; one learns to love despite conflict and failure and disappointments. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, love is not true if we profess we love God and the poor, but do not love our own brothers and sisters–and I will add, at home.
In the end, each missionary comes to the realization that one’s sense of worth comes not from pride but from thankfulness; from loving and serving rather than being loved and served. What happened on our trip was that each team member had their own epiphany: that God loves them, God loves me, God loves you, and his love gives us all worth and dignity.
These epiphanies of ours–they were a taste. A taste of the way Jesus himself loves us, and wants us to love one another. It is a love that carries no conditions. A love that exists in spite of, rather than because of. A love that liberates because it is not blind; it sees the failures, the warts, the shortcomings–and does not turn its gaze. A love that frees the one who is loved to be the person God created him or her to be.
If you learn anything from this sermon this morning please know this: Love is not one thing among many that God does. God is love. Everything God does is loving. It is love–nothing more, nothing less–that keeps faith and hope from becoming sweet and empty words. We love because God first loved us. We have the capacity to love in the same way we have the capacity to breathe. One God, one body, one church, one love.