Sermon: Giving Our Hearts to God

26 October 2014 – Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: It’s been just over a year that I’ve been here at St Bede’s, which means you and I are still getting to know each other. And one thing you will learn about me is that I do some of my best theological reflection through popular music. There is a ton of spiritual and sometimes outright religious content in pop music, some of it theologically problematic, much of it solid and profound. Listening to the really good stuff is one way that I experience God; it’s close to being a spiritual practice for me. Among the music that is important to my faith life is Peter Himmelman’s 1994 album Skin. It deserves more recognition than it has; it’s not available on iTunes, and I had to buy it on CD again when the disc got scratched a few years ago. I first heard Peter Himmelman on the truly great alternative radio station that was on the air in Cleveland for three and a half halcyon years when I was in high school. He is the only rock musician I know of who is an observant Jew; he doesn’t play concerts on the Sabbath, even if the gig is the Tonight Show. So it’s not surprising that his music has a strong spiritual aspect. The album Skin is the story of a man called Ted. Ted starts out as a self-proclaimed “wealthy guy who just happens to be fantastically handsome.”[1] He’s a real jerk––entitled, rude, arrogant. While showing off in his German luxury car, Ted has an accident, dies, and is sent back to earth to try this whole living thing again. The album follows him through being born, growing up, falling in love, having existential worries, despairing over the state of the world, and ends with Ted back in his car. Driving by himself on a rainy night, he muses about what he’s learned on this second chance at life. And he says,

I have believed in money, but all I got was greed
I have believed in vengeance, but all I did was bleed
I have believed in fame, but fame turned its back on me
If I had only believed in love, I could have been set free.

The English word “believe” comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to care, desire, love.” Beginning in the sixteenth century, “believe” came to mean “to give intellectual assent to something,” but it originally was closer to “to hold dear, to give one’s heart to something.”[3] That’s the meaning in my mind when I listen to this Peter Himmelman song. Ted says that he has given his heart to money, to vengeance, to fame, and they got him nowhere. Money gave him only the clawing, insatiable desire for more and more, the fear that he would never have enough. Vengeance hurt him at least as much as it hurt the people he took revenge on, poisoning relationships and confirming his fear that no one cared about him. Fame promised him the world and then abandoned him, leaving him afraid that he didn’t matter. These three kept him a prisoner, trapped in a lonely, unfulfilling, empty life. If he had given his heart to love, he could have found the freedom from fear that he longed for.

Our faith tradition recognizes a close relationship between love and God. Jewish and Christian scriptures both describe God’s love for humankind and humans’ obligation to love God. Jesus quotes the Shema, the foundational declaration of Jewish faith, when he says that the command to love God is the greatest of all commandments, the one we are to use to interpret all other commandments. John the evangelist writes that human beings are able to love because God first loved us. John even makes an equation out of the two; he states that God is love (1 Jn 4:7-8). So what does it mean to love God, who is Love? What does it mean to give our hearts, our souls, our minds to God?

I wonder if John the evangelist has the right starting point. John says it all begins with God’s love for us. That love was born in creation, where God made us out of the dust of the earth so that we could be holy as God is holy. It flowered in God choosing a people as God’s own, then extending that choice to encompass all peoples, so that we are God’s people and God is our God. And that love reached its fullest expression in Jesus. God’s love for us is so great that God chose to share our life as human beings. God’s love drove Jesus to preach to everyone who would listen, eat with outcasts, heal the sick, confront demons, and challenge the powerful. He wouldn’t stop until they killed him––and then, even death could not keep him from us. God’s love for us transcends the boundary of death. It is unconditional. It cannot be lost. It never ends. It doesn’t depend on us being worthy, or on us behaving or thinking in a certain way. It cannot be earned, because it’s not possible to deserve love so deep, so broad, so high. God offers it because it is God’s nature to love.

And loving God is not safe. It will upend our lives, call us out of our comfort zones, and give us the strength and courage to love our neighbors and enemies. But love sets us free from fear, making it possible for us to let go of safety. When we think of people whose love for God changed their lives, we might first go to the greats, Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa. But God’s love changes ordinary people, too––people like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire who went to Alabama in 1965 to integrate churches and register black voters. He died when a white deputy fired a shotgun at an African-American teenager, and Daniels stepped in front of her, giving his life so that she might live. Love made him unafraid to die. But his death is not the only reason to remember him. Jon Daniels’s love for God moved him to love all God’s people, including the segregationists he was working to defeat. After he was tear-gassed, he wrote, “I saw that the men who came at me were themselves not free. Even though they were white and hateful and my enemy, they were human beings too. I began to discover a new freedom in the cross: freedom to love the enemy, and in that freedom, to will and to try to set him free.”[4] For Jon Daniels, loving God meant loving the people God loves, refusing to hate them, trying to bring them the freedom he had found.

God’s love for us and our love for God do bring us freedom. There’s a popular image of married love as a ball and chain, at least for men. And sometimes love might feel that way. But love can also be a trampoline. It holds us up, allows us to soar into the air, and catches us safely when we fall. We don’t have to fear anything when we are bouncing on that trampoline. That’s the freedom God’s love gives: the freedom to soar, knowing that we will always land safely when we come back to the ground.

God loves us so that we may love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. God’s love changes us so that we, too, may give our hearts to God who is Love and be set free.

[1] Peter Himmelman, “Prelude,” Skin (550 Music/Epic, 1994).
[2] Peter Himmelman, “Been Set Free,” Skin (550 Music/Epic, 1994).
[3] “Believe,” Online Etymology Dictionary, (accessed October 22, 2014); “Belief,” Online Etymology Dictionary, (accessed October 22, 2014).
[4] Jonathan Myrick Daniels, quoted in “Jonathan Daniels vs. Janani Luwum,” Lent Madness, (accessed October 23, 2014).

Proper 25A: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

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