First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
December 23, 2018
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Luke 1:46b-55
Sermon: “Mr. Rogers’ Christmas: The Gifts of the Season – Love”
We have journeyed through Advent this year through the lens of the wisdom of Mr. Rogers addressing the traditional themes of the season; Hope, Peace, Joy, and today…Love. Love. I confess sometimes I struggle a bit with the word itself. It seems to me in our culture and society, even in the church, there are times if not most of the time we have watered it down, relegated it to a gentle, non-threatening, innocuous, rose-colored glasses kind of sentiment. We use it in so many ways it can feel like it has lost its edge, like a once interesting, unique, rock in the rough after being polished smooth in a rock polishing machine. We love so many things now… I love coconut cream pie, I love my shoes, I love that haircut, to an entire car ad campaign, “Love, it’s what makes a Subaru.” Every time I see that ad, I want to say… “Really?” We have spread the use of the word love so thin it has lost its meaning.
To some degree, I think we can be in danger of doing the same thing with the whole of the traditional themes of Advent and Christmas. We have domesticated the season into a manageable and tame mawkish time of gentleness and warm fuzzies. We have turned hope from a driving force to a pie in the sky attitude. We have turned peace from an active way of life into individualistic isolation, we have turned joy from a frame of mind contagious to those around us to something that denies the struggles of life, and we have turned love from a foundation through which to change the world to a feeling that only feeds to ego.
Too many in the church, in society and culture, dismiss love as some kind of mushy, dreamy, emotion without force or cause. I have heard colleagues say to me, “All you liberals ever preach about is love, love, love.” To which I reply, “Well, yeah, what else is there?” But too many have lost its edginess. Granted, it is still there if one looks for it… but we have done it to ourselves in a culture and society, in a church who refuses to do the difficult work of looking for the depths of the meaning in the simple nature of what love is supposed to be and look like.
Too many in the community of faith, this time of year, look at Mary’s song we read this morning and only hear her simple words of gratitude and the praising of God…
With all my heart I glorify God! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. The Divine has looked with favor on the low status of this servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is God’s name. God shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors God.
We celebrate the young woman who is pregnant with the child of God and sing songs and feel hope, peace, joy, and love in our hearts. And we leave our churches feeling warm and fuzzy and for too many of those who have worshipped on Sunday morning this time of year that is as far as it goes until the next week. Mary, meek and mild, humble, submissive, and obedient to the end, and this is where too many in our communities of faith end the reading.
As I pondered this simplistic notion of love and the season of Advent over the last couple of weeks, words of Mr. Rogers came to mind from the book of his sayings…
Love is like infinity: You can’t have more or less infinity, and you can’t compare two things to see if they’re ‘equally infinite.’ Infinity just is, and that’s the way I think love is, too. 1
Perhaps you can hear him saying that in your mind like I can, the simple, inviting, gentle way he spoke and welcomed us into his home. I remembered an episode of Mr. Rogers that they spoke of in the documentary about his life. It was an episode in which he spoke of the many different ways we show or tell others we love them. The episode began simplistically and uneventful. Mr. Rogers arrives at home as he does every time, singing his song, putting on his sweater, and taking off his shoes. But this time he does something very different, he has a pair of “slippers” he calls them, I would have referred to them as flip flops but I suppose for a national television show, slippers sounded more appropriate. Anyway, in this episode he takes off his socks too, he points out that it is different, that he has never done that before. He puts on the slippers and goes outside to soak his tired feet in a plastic wading pool. He says he has been thinking about the many ways we show or tell someone we love them. The camera shifts from Mr. Rogers sitting on a chair soaking his feet to images of children and adults being present to one another in wide variety of ways. This goes on for several minutes. One, like myself, might be carried off into their imagination of ways I have been told or shown I am loved or ways I have told or shown others I love them. It is a hopeful, peaceful, joyful, gentle journey through the memories in my mind, certainly sentimental.
Love in our faith tradition has been, or at least should be, the foundation of who we are. However, I recognize with the 40-some thousand expressions of Christianity in our world to ask each one of them to explain or define what love means, one may receive numerous definitions and explanations that may be similar or not and certainly not agree . We are in the midst of that right now in our own Global UMC, we are in the midst of that right now in our own country here in the U.S.A. What does love look like? What is it supposed to be? What is it supposed to do? Makes me think of the Tina Turner song… “What’s love got to do with it?”
In his book, God Believes in Love, Bishop Gene Robinson writes of the love of God… [The Divine] is all about love. Whatever is at the center of the universe, whatever gives meaning to creaturely existence, whatever we mean by “God,” it is all about love. There is no more fundamental belief among people of faith. Many adjectives are used in the holy texts of major religions to describe God – what God is like, as experienced by human beings, what God is apt to favor, what God abhors. In Christianity, God is defined quite simply in the [Second] Testament’s First Letter of John: “Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
No religion can claim to know all there is to know about God. Each religion, and each practitioner of religion, can only claim to know a part of God. But this is a startling claim that the First Letter of John makes, that to love is to know God. I take this to mean that there is something about loving another that participates in the reality that is God. For those who desire to know the nature of God, indeed to “know” God, this is very significant because it plots a pathway to the Divine Mystery. It beckons to those who want to experience the divine: If you want to know God, you will find God in the loving of another. 2
According to Robinson, according to the Sufi Poet Rumi, according to our faith tradition, Love is all there is! And it is not some sentimental, rose colored glasses, emotion that is only about feeling good about ourselves and the world. Love is a world changing force for the common good of all. Love is edgy, love is challenge, love is prophetic, love changes us and the world from the inside out.
Too many in the church stop reading or stop listening after the first part of Mary’s song when she is praising God and giving gratitude to the power of God. They do not hear, or refuse to hear, the deeply political and prophetic words in her song. This is not a simplistic song just about humility and being favored, this is a song about the Kindom of God… the coming Way that will be. This is a song about Love… the love of God, the love of the world and the Love to which we are called to participate…
The Spirit has shown strength with its arm. God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. The Divine has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. The Spirit has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.
Scattered the arrogant and the proud… pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly… filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty handed.
THIS is the Love of God. THIS is Love come down at Christmas. THIS is the coming one for which Mary sings.
Love is Resistance! Just Ask Mary….
As I continued to watch the episode of Mr. Rogers the images of those sharing loved ended and the scene cuts back to Mr. Rogers sitting and soaking his feet. About that time, Officer Francois Clemmons comes strolling into Mr. Rogers yard. Mr. Rogers invites him to join in soaking his feet in the pool with him, retrieves a chair, and they both sit and visit about the day and about love. Francois sings a song about the many different ways of loving. Finally, he must leave, Mr. Rogers helps him dry his feet and away he goes. It is a statement about love. It is a statement about race relations as Francois is African American. Mr. Rogers is showing us love is not just some sentimental emotion… love is about taking a stand against those things that diminish and belittle love.
That being said, it is important to note that while Mr. Rogers was willing to take on racism at the time he was unwilling to address full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. Francois was gay, as a result the show would require him to stop going to a gay bar at which he had been seen and he would never be allowed to stay with the show as an out gay man. It would not be until years later Mr. Rogers would come around and be fully accepting and embrace Francois as he was.
It is an important lesson for us all, it is an important lesson for the church and in particular the United Methodist Church. It is a testament to the love that transformed Mr. Rogers’ heart to finally embrace Francois. It gives me hope for our denomination.
Mr. Rogers, in our context today… is taking a knee in solidarity with the those who are oppressed and discriminated against. And Mr. Rogers is a testament to the transformative power of love.
Love transforms us from the inside out and… Love is resistance! Just Ask Mr. Rogers!
I look at our current state of church, not only the UMC but church in general and the exclusion and hate that is done in the name of love and I wonder where is the voice of Mary… where is the voice of Mr. Rogers? Where is the voice of the church who knows what love ought to be about? I look at the state of our nation and our administration and I wonder where the voice of the church is.
When children are ripped from their families filled with uncertainty and fear. When a 7-year-old Guatemalan Child turns ill and dies while in the custody of our government. When the government shuts down denying payroll to those who count on those wages and vouchers to pay their bills. When spending an estimated between 12 and 21 billion dollars [with a B] on a border wall… and we are told health care for all is too expensive, clean water can’t be cleaned up, sustainable energy is too costly, adequate housing can’t be provided… where is the resistance of the people of Mary, this prophet, this voice of one crying out to portend the Way things ought to be in the Kindom of God? This wall, this government shut-down, this treatment of immigrants and refugees, these are not just political issues. These are moral issues. These are theological issues. These are children of God… each and every one of them. And the Love of Mary, the Love of God calls us into the fray this Christmas Season… to be a voice, to be active in the Way of Love.
Love is Resistance. It is So. It. Is. So. Amen.
1 Rogers, Fred, (2003) The World According to Mr. Rogers, Important Things to Remember, Family Communications, New York, New York
2 Robinson, Eugene, (2013). God Believes in Love, First Vintage Books, Random House, New York, New York.