Anthems of Love
A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2023: Mother's Day
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: John 14:15-21
“If ye love me, keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may ‘bide with you for ever: e’en the spir’t of truth.” If you have ever sung in a choir at an Episcopal church, you have likely sung these words from our gospel today set to music by Thomas Tallis, the English musician and composer of the 16th century. His music has, in a sense, defined this text for me. In my mind, I cannot hear the words of Jesus in this passage from John without also hearing the music of Tallis. Such is the power of music.
Has that happened to you? Is there some song, some piece of music, that holds a special place in your heart, that is attached to a specific memory, a specific person? When you hear it, you are transported to a different place, a different time, to that person yet again? Couples often have songs–some piece of music that reminds them of their beloved, of their courtship, of those first feelings of love. Or perhaps some hymn sung at a funeral that brings tears, but also gratitude for that person you love but see no longer. “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” reminds Molly of her grandparents because it was sung at her granddaddy’s funeral. For Molly, the Rose E’er Blooming is not only the Christ child foretold by Isaiah, but it also speaks of Carl and Estelle Edwards, her memories of being at their home when she was a young child, their love and devotion to her.
Such is the power of music. Memory rides on melody, piercing the protective shells we construct around our hearts, breaking into our souls, recalling sorrow and joy, erasing the divide between heaven and earth, between the past and the present. That’s why music is indispensable to faith. Music is something we have in worship because it has a special ability to open our souls to the currents of God’s grace. Our music on earth mystically joins the music in heaven, and it bridges the divide between here and there, between now and eternity, between us and God. More on this in a moment.
Today’s gospel comes to us from the Last Supper in John. Jesus is giving his disciples his parting instructions before his death. They don’t understand what is about to happen, but Jesus is preparing them for it. Over and over at the Last Supper, he tells us to love–love him, love God, love one another, love those who hate you. He says that the world will know we are his disciples if we love one another. Jesus’s teaching, like the very being of God, is love.
But we are sentimental creatures, and we over-sentimentalize love. We see love as a warm, fuzzy feeling we get. Jesus instructions today correct that. Love is shown in our actions–in how we live and the decisions we make.
Jesus says we love him by keeping his commandments. We love Christ by serving one another and those around us. We love Christ by forgiving as he forgives us, by turning the other cheek. We love Christ when we are merciful, pure in heart, meek, peacemakers, poor in spirit. We love Christ when we suffer for his sake. We love Christ when we refuse to bicker and be angry with our brothers and sisters; when we refuse to see other people as objects to be used and exploited; when we do unto others as we would have them do to us; when we refuse to judge from a bloated sense of self-righteousness. We love Christ when we care for the needy and the stranger, for the widow and the orphan; when we give and give and give again of ourselves because that’s what Christ did for us. We love Christ when we speak up for those who are abused and neglected, forgotten and rejected. We love Christ when we spend time in open and honest prayer, allowing the Spirit to shape us and mold us and smooth out those places where pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth seek to devour our souls. We love Christ when we allow him to abide within us and help us grow fruit of faith, hope, and love. We love Christ by seeking to live like him.
To put it another way, our faith must be shown in our lives; it must penetrate our souls; it must bear fruit of virtue and good works in the world; or it is nothing. Our faith must lead to real love–love of God and love of neighbor–that is seen in how we live our lives, or it is nothing. If our faith is only a matter of what we keep in our heads, only a matter of memorized statements, only a matter of intellectual assent, it is nothing. At its deepest level, faith must be a matter of the heart. Faith must be a matter of relationship–of our getting caught up into God–of harmonizing our fractured lives with the perfect Divine life of God. Our lives of faith must be like music: Our lives must be a window into who God is. Our lives of faith, lived out in real love, bridge heaven and earth, now and eternity, the world and God.
Now, back to music. In the same way that a song on the radio might be forever entwined with the story of you and your beloved; in the same way that “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” is forever associated with Molly’s grandparents; the words of Jesus today and the music of Thomas Tallis are, for me, forever coupled. Such is the power of music. And such is the power of our lives of faith if we seek to follow Jesus in the real and radical and transforming love he calls us to today. Like that music, our lives can become anthems–windows into the heart of God, expressions of what God is like, melodies of how much God loves us. And maybe, someone, somewhere, will someday say, I cannot think of Jesus without thinking of you, because somehow you have shown me what following Jesus looks like, at the level of the heart and soul. I cannot think of the love of Jesus without thinking of you, because you have loved me, and you have taught me what love really looks like. I cannot think of who Jesus is without thinking of you, for your life has been so harmonized with the life of heaven that I have been pulled in, compelled to join in the music myself.
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