Laying Down One’s Life…in Maryland

It was not hard to decide on a central theme for this sermon today. The theme would almost certainly have to be “love.” By my count the word love appears 14 times in our Lessons from Scripture this morning (17 times if you count the Collect, or prayer, for today!). But it’s not just any old kind of love being described. I did a little word study and discovered that in each of those 14 instances the Greek word which we translate as Love is the word Agape.

 You have probably heard that the Greeks had at least three ways to describe love – Eros is used when referring to romantic or sexual love. Philia is used when referring to friendship or sisterly/brotherly love. But when Agape is used it is describing the kind of love God has for us. The essence of Agape love is self-sacrifice. Agape is love which is of God and from God; the God whose very nature is love.

 The simplest, and perhaps clearest, definition of God comes from the author of our Epistle today, but in another part of his First Letter. In chapter 4, verse 8,St. John says simply “God is love.” And, once again, the Greek word he wrote, and which we translate into English as love, is Agape. What John is saying there is that God does not merely love; God is love itself. Everything God does flows from love.

 But it’s not a sappy, sentimental kind of love like we often hear portrayed. God loves because it is God’s very nature and the expression of God’s being. God loves the unlovable and the unlovely – us! – not because we deserve to be loved but because it is God’s very nature to do so.

Our Lessons today are very clear about how this works. In the Gospel Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:9)

 The love that flows from God’s very nature was experienced by Jesus. He loved his disciples with that kind of unselfish love. And he encourages them to abide in that love; to remain in that love. More than that, he tells them “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” So they are not only to love Jesus, they are to love one another. And how are they to love? With the same kind of self-sacrificing love that Jesus had for them. “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus said, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

 On Thursday May 3, a priest and a staff person at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church inEllicott City,Maryland, were doing what they did nearly every day. They were involved in feeding the homeless poor from their church’s food pantry. Apparently they had to tell a 56 year old man named Douglas Jones that he would have to limit his visits to the food pantry because he had been there so often and they had to make sure they had enough to feed others as well.

 The man became belligerent when told that. He produced a handgun, shot and killed the parish administrator, Brenda Brewington, pivoted and fired at the priest, Mary-Marguerite Kohn (who later died of her injuries in the local hospital), and finally turned the gun on himself in the woods nearby. The parish, the Diocese of Maryland, and indeed all of us in The Episcopal Church who heard about this over the internet, on Facebook, and in the news, were simply stunned by it.

All of us who have been engaged over the years, in ministry to the least and the lost, the poor and the mentally unstable, know – in our heart of hearts – that this kind of thing can happen at any moment. And yet, still the shock is there.

Last Sunday, Fr. Kirk Kubicek preached these words from St. Peter’s pulpit to a grieving congregation: “Brenda and Mary-Marguerite were doing the Lord’s work. They were serving the Lord directly. ‘When I was hungry, you fed me.’ Like every day of the week, Brenda was leading a profoundly hungry person to the Food Pantry. In a matter of just a few moments it was all over. We will never understand it. We will never understand it no matter how many reports come out of the Howard County Police Department, who have served us all faithfully and well, we will never understand it.”

 “But we do understand this. We come from love, we return to love, and love is all around us. Brenda and Mary-Marguerite have returned home. They have returned to the heart of Love, the eternal center of God’s very Being. Their time with us magnified the sense of God’s love being all around us every moment we spent in their presence…and now they have returned home to the heart of God’s love…..”

 “…We come from love, we return to love, and love is all around us. If we want to know what ‘love all around’ looks like,” said Fr. Kubicek, “just look around. As I look back over the events of the past few days, I see a people who came together Thursday and Friday nights to affirm our faith in the Risen Christ.”

 “I see a diocese that stops its business and takes the time to pray and reflect on our mutual trauma and loss. I see an avalanche of messages from all around the world offering prayers and support on our St. Peter’s Facebook page. I see a community of people called St. Peter’s who know what it means to surround one another with love.  And I still see two women who were and continue to be exemplars to us of what it means to abide with Christ…”  

 Actually, I learned on Friday that the Diocese of Maryland has offered forgiveness and even to conduct a funeral service for Douglas Jones believing that this homeless man, was, in some ways, as much a victim as anyone else. Bishop Sutton cited the example of that wonderful Amish community inPennsylvaniawho, a few years ago, forgave the man who fatally shot five school girls in 2006.

 No dear friends, the Agape love which you and I – as Christians – are called to share is not some sappy, sentimental kind of love we so often hear portrayed. The essence of Agape love is self-sacrifice. The kind of love we see – most clearly – on the Cross. But which we also, so often, see in some followers of the Crucified One.  Hear again some words from this morning’s Gospel. Familiar words. But this time, try to hear them as the friends and fellow parishioners at St. Peter’s Church will hear them this morning. Hear them through the experience of Brenda…and Mary Marguerite:

 Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for ones’ friends…”












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