Bill Countryman Los Angeles Clergy Conference Sermon May 10, 2017 Readings: Genesis 12:1-4; Ps. 42; Matthew 5:43-48 The scripture readings we've just heard underline how difficult it can be to accept God's call to love: love God and love all our fellow human beings, even our enemies. I don't think I need to do any exegesis. If anything, they're too clear. What I want to say instead, is that this is, after all the basic problem, the basic challenge, and the basic wonder and splendor of all Christian faith and life. To my mind, no one has ever put a finger on it more precisely than a certain predecessor of ours, a seventeenth-century priest with a gift for poetry named George Herbert. And I want to share with you a couple of his poems this morning and say a few words about them. The first is "The Call," which shows up in our hymnal set to a beautiful tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Hymn 487): Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life: Such a Way, as gives us breath: Such a Truth, as ends all strife: Such a Life, as killeth death. We recognize Herbert's starting point—Jesus' words in the Gospel of John: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." Herbert is inviting Jesus in, and also meditating on what these three terms mean in his life. Perhaps we think of "the Way" as a narrow path of duty and struggle. He seems to think of it as a broad open way where we find space to breathe. Truth in our world has become a bone of contention; he imagines it as a moment of discovery so profound as to leave no room, no desire for strife. And the Life he envisages is not just the physical one we carry inside us, vulnerable to sickness, accident, and death, but a creative power that will ultimately destroy death itself and all its works. The audacity required to invite such powers into your life! But that's what Jesus asks us to do. Herbert continues with another triad of invitations, ones we can easily connect with this Eucharist we are about to receive: Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength: Such a Light, as shows a feast: Such a Feast, as mends in length: Such a Strength, as makes his guest. Here comes a light that will illuminate the whole heart and mind—and reveal what? Not our failures, our sins, our unworthiness, but a banquet laid out for us. And unlike our daily meals, it's a banquet that never grows stale, never leaves us sated, weary, longing for a nap. To the contrary, it "mends in length"; it gets better the longer we sit together. It is the true Christian feast of love. And then, that strange line: Such a strength as makes his guest. What can he mean by that? What could ever make us strong enough to sit at the heavenly banquet, in this life and the life of the age to come? The answer, I think, comes clearer in another of Herbert's best-loved poems, also about a banquet (Love-III). It begins, "Love bade me welcome." And then the trouble starts. The thing that hinders us from Love's banquet is our own reluctance to be loved, humbly and simply. We would be happy to be admired for our goodness, our perfection, our moral worth. But simply to be loved because it is Love itself who has made us and seeks us out? Really, it's too much for us: Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin. But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, If I lack’d anything. A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here: Love said, You shall be he. I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I? Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame Go where it doth deserve. And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve. A clever ruse that one! It sounds so humble, so virtuous, so deserving almost, when it is really just a last-ditch effort to escape being loved. And the Love that has given us life and breath, and trust and hope, and the gift to be loved and to love, will not grant us this exemption: You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat. Sooner or later, we must all consent to be loved. And by God's grace this is also how we learn to love God and our sisters and brothers, our neighbors, even—however long it takes—our enemies. For how can we hate all these others whom God loves just as God loves us? And George Herbert summed it all up—the perfect triumph of love—in the final verse of "The Call": Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart: Such a Joy, as none can move: Such a Love, as none can part: Such a Heart, as joys in love. Even so. Come, Lord Jesus!