Sermon: What does love look like?


This sermon was given February 20, 2020 in the context of Prof. Donyelle McCray’s “Radical Lives of Proclamation” class at Yale Divinity School. Each week we studied and preached inspired by a 20th century “life of radical proclamation”. My week was on Archbishop Oscar Romero.


I’m going to begin by reading the collect used in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England in commemoration of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the martyrs of El Salvador. Let us pray.

Collect (for March 24):

Almighty God, who called your servant Óscar Romero to be a voice for the silenced poor, and to give his life as a seed of freedom and a sign of hope: Grant that, inspired by his sacrifice and the example of all the martyrs of El Salvador, we may without fear or favor witness to your Word who abides, your Word who is Life, Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be praise and glory now and for ever. Amen.

Text: 1 John 3:7-18 (MSG) This is what, at Berkeley Morning Prayer, we’ve been reading from the daily office lectionary this week, but right now I’m going to read out of a different translation than our normal NRSV. The cadences of that can become so familiar that we lose the power in these epistles. So let us allow an unfamiliar style to open our ears afresh to the words of scripture.

7-8 So, my dear children, don’t let anyone turn you from the truth. It’s the person who acts right who is right, just as we see it lived out in our righteous Messiah. Those who make a practice of sin are straight from the Devil, the pioneer in the practice of sin. The Son of God was revealed to abolish the Devil’s ways.

9-10 People conceived and brought into life by God don’t make a practice of sin. How could they? God’s seed is deep within them, making them who they are. It’s not in the nature of the God-begotten to practice and parade sin. Here’s how you tell the difference between God’s children and the Devil’s children: The one who won’t practice righteous ways isn’t from God, nor is the one who won’t love brother or sister.

11 For this is the original message we heard: We should love each other.

12-13 We must not be like Cain, who joined the Evil One and then killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because he was deep in the practice of evil, while the acts of his brother were righteous. So don’t be surprised, friends, when the world hates you. This has been going on a long time.

14-15 The way we know we’ve been transferred from death to life is that we love our siblings. Anyone who doesn’t love is as good as dead. Anyone who hates a sibling is a murderer, and you know very well that eternal life and murder don’t go together.

16-17 This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for each other, and not just take care of ourselves. If you see some sibling in need and have the means to do something about it but turn away and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.

18 My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God.

I have a confession. I know I have it so *easy*. I have food and shelter and a church and friends and even Netflix. But I’ve stopped reading the news. I can’t read stories about politics. I can’t look at pictures of the injustices happening at our border or by our police forces. I can’t listen to speeches by our president or watch reports of epidemics and climate disasters. I’ve stopped listening to podcasts I used to love. I keep looking away. I have stopped paying attention to the world, to the people God calls me to love. I care more about protecting my own life, my own comfort, than I do about bringing joy and love to others. I have not been a good sister to my fellow children of God. I have not loved them as a sibling should. I want to do right. But what does love look like?

Doesn’t it look like the life of Oscar Romero? The Salvadoran bishop who was dedicated to speaking out against the oppression of his people, and was silenced by assassination. In reading his life, I was more emotionally affected than I anticipated. I had read the story of his martyrdom before, but reading it this time, as *I* am preparing for leadership and ministry in the church….is this what loving the children of God looks like? Death? Martyrdom?

What *does* love look like? 1 John tells us that “to love one another” is the message God has been trying to tell us from the beginning. Those who are children of God should, and do, love one another. Those who do not love, they might as well be murderers. Because they are killing the full life of the kingdom of God. For 1 John, love and life and right are tied together, and hate and death and sin are tied together as their opposite. So to do right is to love, which brings life. To do wrong is to hate, which brings death. This is the sin of Cain. He literally killed his brother. The ultimate act of hate, of wrong. And when we hate, we might as well be murdering others too. We might as well be murdering ourselves. We might as well be dead. Without love, we don’t have actual life.

1 John even says that those who do not love, those who do evil, are not children of God. Because when you are a child of God it’s in your DNA to love. *That* is what it means to be a child of God: to be oriented at the molecular level towards love. To be a child of God is to have a deep natural inclination to love. We cannot make a practice, a habit of sin and hate because it goes against our nature. We practice love instead.

What does love look like, in practice? It does us little good if love can only be seen in our DNA with an electron microscope and not in the actions of our lives. John tells us that we know what love is because of what Jesus did: he sacrificed his life for us. Or, in the words of a more familiar translation: he laid down his life for us. To love is to sacrifice your life for love of others. To lay down your life in the service of love. The example and ideal of Christ, that is what love looks like.

Archbishop Romero literally laid down his life for his people. He was assassinated, was martyred, in the service of God. He sacrificed his life entirely. And, he didn’t just do that when he was killed. He sacrificed his life in service when he became a priest, a pastor, to the least of these. He could have sat comfortably in his bishop’s seat and rode the wave of the authoritarian government to worldly power. But he set aside that power, that life. Archbishop Romero laid down that life for a life of working towards the liberation of the oppressed. He sacrificed his life opposing violence, not just on the day he died, but every day that he spoke and listened and *worked* with the victims of violence. Oscar Romero shows us what love looks like: laying down your *entire* life, not just your death, for others.

What does love look like, for me? For us? Sure, it can look like martyrdom. That last sacrifice of life. But it also looks like the little, cumulative ways of laying down our lives every day in service to others, working for their liberation. 1 John says we ought to *live* sacrificially, not just die in sacrifice. For love is life, not death. In thinking about sacrificing our lives for others, we can get so caught up in the dying, that we forget that we have life as children of God. As 1 John says, we know we have been made alive because we love. Because our very beings have been transformed by God from death and hate to life and love.

What does love look like? It looks like life. It looks like following the example of Jesus in laying down our lives for others. It looks like living sacrificially for each other.

On June 19, 1977, Archbishop Romero preached on Luke 9:23: the verse that says that those who want to follow Jesus must give up everything, must deny even themselves. Archbishop Romero said in his homily “We must learn this invitation of Christ: those who wish to come after me must renounce themselves.” Let them renounce themselves, renounce their comforts, renounce their personal opinions, and follow only the mind of Christ, which can lead us to death, but will surely also lead us to resurrection.”

To renounce ourselves is to enter fully into the mind of Christ. To give ourselves up, to sacrifice ourselves, fully, to that natural inclination to love. This will mean giving up some material comforts, if we are to work towards the full freedom of all. We cannot continue in supporting oppression, even if implicitly, if we are following only the mind of Christ. If we have fully laid down our lives to God’s purpose of liberation and love. If we are truly children of God we will show that by loving each other, and that means living sacrificially.

Loving, living sacrificially, is not dying for others. Or not *only* that. Living sacrificially is laying down the things that make up our life: the resources, the time, the effort, in order that our entire lives are oriented towards the love of each other. This means not hoarding material means for ourselves, but using those means for the end of liberation. Do you have time to care for the sick? I do. But I don’t always care. Do you have time to visit those separated from community? I do. But I don’t always go. Do you have food to feed the hungry? I do. But I don’t always give. Do you have means to comfort those who mourn? I do. But I sometimes let my own comfort get in the way. Do you avoid helping because the wound is too big to be healed by the bandaid you can offer? I do. Do you look the other way when you see the pain of others? I do. Do you have means to protect those suffering from the injustices of this age? I *know* I do. And the fact that I’m not doing those things shows that I have not oriented my life entirely to love. I am not living fully as a child of God. I am convicted by 1 John’s question: “How does God’s love abide in one who has the world’s goods and sees a sibling in need and yet refuses to help?” Does love look like what we are doing?

I fully realize the irony and futility of speaking a sermon with mere words on how we need to practice love through *material* means. Especially as we are here in this chandelier-laden institution. “How *does* God’s love abide in one who has the world’s goods and sees a sibling in need and yet refuses to help?” It doesn’t. 1 John is totally right to call us out. Not that any of us necessarily have the means to redistribute this institution’s resources to those in need. But have we dedicated our own lives entirely to the cause of true liberation? Are we showing the world what love looks like?

And so. My words right now may be merely sounds, but that doesn’t have to be the end of it. I repeat 1 John’s exhortation at the end of the passage: “My dear children, let’s not just *talk* about love; let’s practice real love.” As children of God, we have the natural inclination to practice love and protect life. To deny that is to deny the life God has given us. We have the material means to liberate our siblings. We know what love looks like. Jesus was our example in the sacrifice of his death, and also in the dedication of his life to love. Love looks like a whole life, an entire life, every day and even unto death, lived for each other. Amen.

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