The Debt to Love One Another

May 28, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Philippians 1:3-11; John 15:9-13


This sermon, The Debt to Love One Another, will be in part, a work session, and you’ll need a pen or pencil.

It was a spring morning in 1866, just after the Civil War that had devastated the South. A group of Southerners did something quite extraordinary. They marched down the streets of what was left of their town to a cemetery. There they decorated the graves of the soldiers; ALL the soldiers; Union as well as Confederate.

The mothers and daughters and widows had buried their dead. Now they attempted to bury their hatred. The time for healing had come. It was the first Memorial Day.

Have you ever wondered why Memorial Day is celebrated in May? Its date doesn’t recall any historic battle or the start of some war, or the signing of an armistice. Why, then, May? For a very practical reason; because it is a time when flowers bloom; flowers with which to decorate graves.

Memorial Day has been an evolving holiday. It was originally called Decoration Day; a day when the cemeteries were filled with people kneeling to plant flowers or place a garland or unfurl a flag or to say a prayer for those who died fighting in the civil war. It eventually extended to honor all Americans who died while in military service. And then again, it grew into a day when all loved ones who had passed were remembered.  Cleaning up grave sites and putting in fresh plantings before Memorial Day became common practice, as was visiting cemeteries on the holiday itself. For many now the significance of Memorial Day is simply that it is the start of the summer season and the Memorial part has disappeared.  And yet it’s good to remember. WE NEED TO REMEMBER THE DEBT WE OWE TO OTHERS. So I suggest that we can expand the circle of remembrance even more.

You and I are not who we are, nor do we have what we have today by our own efforts alone. One of the great myths of our time is that of the self-made man or woman. We owe an enormous debt to others from the moment we come into this world. There were people who directly gave much of themselves to meet our physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Throughout our lives individuals gave of their time, encouraged, taught us, provided opportunities, shared their resources. Then there were the myriad of invisible people who grew and raised our food, packaged it, transported it, sold it, and prepared it. There were those who built our schools, maintained our roads, wrote our text books, and worked on our town’s infrastructure so that we had clean water, electricity and heat.  There were those who developed the medicines that we needed when we got sick, who taught in the medical and nursing schools, who cleaned the hospitals, who inspected the restaurants, and the civil servants who kept us safe. Then there were the artists, musicians, and poets who enriched our lives with beauty. The list is unending.   So it’s only right and just to take a moment from time to time and let ourselves feel the debt of gratitude we owe to the many known and unknown contributors to our blessed life.

Let’s start with right now recalling those very special people we know or have known in our lives; those who have made a significant contribution to us. Maybe they have passed.  Perhaps they are very much alive. Your insert this week is a worksheet of remembrance. Please take it out and fill it in.

Who are the people who are most responsible for the quality of your life right now? Who were those who opened doors, provided opportunities, supported and encouraged you in your younger adult life? Who were the significant mothering and fathering figures, the teachers and mentors for you growing up?

We have so many people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. How do we show our gratitude?  It’s been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  I’d suggest that imitation is the best way to show gratitude. In Romans 13:8 we read, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.” And in today’s gospel we heard, “This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.” I’ve shared with you before how throughout my life there has always been at least one person in it who made me feel valued; special. And as a result, one way that I’m called to love others is to help others recognize their specialness.  Regardless of my role; parent, friend, counselor, ethicist, minister – my primary mission is to help others appreciate their inestimable value.  For you maybe someone was particularly patient, or forgiving, or generous.  I invite you now to return to your list and write down as specifically as you can the qualities these special individuals in your life displayed in fostering your life. (We will use these sheets in a remembrance ritual at the end of our service.)

Paying it forward in the same way that we are being loved now and in the specific ways that we were loved at various times in our lives is an excellent way to honor our loved ones.  By imitating them, specifically in the way that they showed their love for us, they continue to live on in a very distinctive way.

This year Memorial Day Falls right between Ascension and Pentecost and so it seems like an apt time to consider the meaning of the resurrection of the person and how one stays in continuous communion with someone that doesn’t have physical embodiment anymore.

Cynthia Bourgeault tells us  that it wasn’t till  about the third century that the Church decided that the resurrection meant the resurrection of the body, that the fully enfleshed Jesus got up out of the grave and walked about. She points out that the earlier Church hedged its bets on that point, but what they absolutely believed in was the resurrection of the person. From the start the first Christians were convinced that the Jesus that they’d given up for dead was alive, vital, present, and intimately with them.  So, she states, “What resurrection means for me is that a person who has achieved a full individuality through conscious work in this life, with grace and with a need to do so, is still present to this life. They don’t disappear, they don’t dematerialize, they don’t go away . . . There is a vibrant reality of life that continues.” Truly realized personhood undermines death, physical dissolution and decay.

And scripture teaches us that personhood is realized through loving. As we love in the same way that we were loved by precious individuals in our lives, they live on.

This past winter I visited my former mistress of novices, Laurette.  She was a saving grace for me. Through her affirming love for me she was instrumental in healing much of my significant brokenness.  When I visited her in a dementia unit, I showed her pictures of my ordination and told her what I was doing now. She was thrilled.  I assured her that any people that I helped, whether it was when I was a counselor or an ethicist, or a parent – that she was part of those successes. She will always live on in me and in those whom I impact and in those who they in turn influence for good, and on and on.

As you look at the list of standout people in your lives, it may be evident that imitating the strong love that they showed requires developing a non-protective attitude. It seems that if we live genuinely in this life, we can’t escape sometimes having our hearts broken. And if we protect our hearts, we don’t live genuinely; we can’t live fully. What the resurrection shows us; Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of the persons who continue to live in and through us, is that love and true personhood are greater than death. They show us that it’s OK to live at the depth of vulnerability and passion and authenticity and sincerity, even if it means that we will have our hearts broken from time to time, because that isn’t the end of the story.

The reading from Philippians that Joe read this morning began, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” The people who loved us and helped form us live on.  Let us honor the debt that we owe them by living fully and loving as they have shown us how. May our love abound more and more! Amen! Alleluia!