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Love Divine - Epiphany 6

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

Epiphany 6: Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8;

1 Cor. 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

February 12, 2023

Weston Morris

Love divine, all loves excelling,

joy of heav’n, to earth come down,

fix in us thy humble dwelling,

all thy faithful mercies crown.

Jesus, thou art all compassion,

pure, unbounded love thou art.

Visit us with thy salvation;

enter ev'ry trembling heart.

Charles Wesley wrote a prayer in these words in 1747, and between now and then, they have been set to many different tunes, appearing in nearly 2000 different hymnals from various protestant denominations, including our own Episcopal Church. Over time, Christians have wrestled with the theology of this poem, and many hymnals left out the hymn completely for this reason, but the Episcopal Church was not one of them. “Love Divine” appears in Episcopal hymnals as early as the 1840s. While our tradition has, for the most part, opted to remain faithful to the hymn by including it in every major hymnal since it was first published, the Episcopal Church has also made editorial decisions about the hymn, decisions which impact how we understand our individual responsibility to act in Love Divine. The 1982 hymnal, through which this hymn comes to us, includes three verses rather than Wesley’s original four. The verse that is excluded is the second. Our version of Love Divine moves directly from “Enter every trembling heart” to “Come, almighty, to deliver.”

The Gospel reading from today has long left me with a trembling heart, and I suspect I am not alone in that. It would be simple and lovely and clean if we could move directly from our trembling to God’s deliverance, but we can’t.

We are 2000 years removed from Jesus, the original speaker of these words: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Jesus’ teachings on anger, divorce, and adultery alone are enough for our modern liberal, rational sensibilities to shut down, to write off the gospel completely. Perhaps, for Matthew, the purpose of these words was to do for the original audience exactly what they have done for us: cause our hearts to tremble and inspire us to turn toward God. These words are a small portion of a much larger section in Matthew's gospel where Jesus begins with the Beatitudes and preaches to the crowds on many topics. Many of these teachings, if not most of them, feel hopeless. A few weeks ago, Elaina preached about how difficult these instructions seemed to the young people of today. As we age, they seem harder and harder still, especially regarding the teachings on intimate relationships like divorce, adultery, anger, etc. In isolation, it seems easier to ignore them altogether. But we are not grappling with them in isolation. We have the wisdom of this community and the wisdom of the countless Christian communities who came before us. Through our collective wisdom, we must consider this gospel from a wiser, more holistic perspective.

Over the last 2000 years, Christians have grown to understand a three-dimensional unified God. Ancient wisdom teaches us the truth of God as creator, parent of the universe, “maker of the earth and heavens, keeper of the sky and sea,” who chooses, out of Love Divine, to create life out of nothingness. Out of Love Divine, this God chose the ancient Israelites to be God’s people. Then, God chose Jesus, born a descendant of God’s chosen people, to become human and illuminate God’s Love Divine for humankind. Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection (especially Jesus’ life) clarify for humanity our relational purpose within God’s creation: to share the Love Divine with each other. Finally, through the Holy Spirit, we feel God’s Love Divine in our own lives and through the lives of others. In God’s perfect world, we accept this love, and through a relationship with the triune God, humanity is capable of changing the world, capable of manifesting heaven on earth. Through Love Divine, God’s dream is realized. Put this way, it seems so simple… But we all know that life is never so simple.

How many heartbeats does it take to bring the world's brokenness to your attention? The excruciating pain of knowing that mass death and ongoing suffering plague our siblings in Turkey and Syria without an inkling of how to meaningfully help. The horror of another news headline of a Black man brutally murdered at the hands of those who are trusted to keep us safe and well. The anxiety of seeing that yet another state has passed legislation keeping transgender children from accessing life-saving healthcare. Within one or two heartbeats, the brokenness becomes overwhelming, and hope is consumed. And suddenly, the simplicity of Love Divine is not simple at all.

All of those things, especially the murder of Black men at the hands of police and the powerful legislating against non-conforming bodies, these headlines are larger symptoms of grievous communal sin. Yet, individually, we all know ourselves to be prone to swearing falsely and faltering, falling short of God’s hope for us. This falling short, these words, instincts, and actions of our individual lives, these are things that impede us from knowing God better. This blockage from Love Divine, that which impedes us from relationship is sin. Arguably, the hardest task we face as individuals is to acknowledge where our actions keep us from Love Divine and, rather than stubbornly continuing down that self-righteous path, to choose to turn towards relationship instead.

What power is it that impedes us from bravely turning toward Love Divine? We know that our action, or lack thereof, breaks relationships, so what is it that blocks us from embracing accountability, acknowledging our sin, and taking responsibility for our choices? The greatest enemy I have encountered, the one that must be fought again and again and again, is fear. Fear is powerful, and thanks to our primitive lizard brains, fear stops us in our tracks. Even when we know exactly what we want to do, exactly what we need to do, fear blocks us. We want to tell a lover that we love them, but we fear they will not reciprocate. We know it is right to say we are sorry, but we are afraid of acknowledging that we caused our beloved pain. We know we need help, but we cannot ask for it for fear of seeming weak.

We are afraid to act because action makes us vulnerable; if we act, something will happen, something out of our control. Vulnerability leaves us open to pain, to loss, and to rejection. Our society does not reward vulnerability, but punishes us for it. So rather than risking the loss of limb, hand, eye, or heart, we keep still, and stay the course, waiting for someone more strong, smart, or brave to take charge. But what if, instead of turning toward fear and surrendering to it, we instead remembered that Jesus calls us to a Love Divine. In the end, our trembling hearts desire to be free. To free our hearts, we must be brave; we must be honest; we must be vulnerable; because if we don’t then fear will continue to halt us in our path toward Love Divine. We will always falter, but our work is to combat the fear of faltering. We will fail, but we must turn, time and time again, to combat our fear of failing.

Today we pray that God help our hearts to turn away from the fear of vulnerability and instead rest in the promise of community as exemplified by Jesus, God’s beloved Son. Let us, with God’s help, choose to act, embracing fully the pain of change, the vulnerability of action, the grief of imperfection. We pray that as we journey closer and closer to your light, that we may cease to falter and, through faith in God’ hope to come, turn our hearts toward Love Divine, even as they tremble.

The second verse of Wesley’s prayer dropped out of the Episcopal Church’s consciousness sometime between 1845 and 1869, in a time when acceptance of individual and communal sin was lacking. The second verse calls us to integrity, accountability, and repentance and inspires us to turn toward God instead:

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit

into ev’ry troubled breast.

Let us all in thee inherit,

let us find the promised rest.

Take away the love of sinning;

Alpha and Omega be.

End of faith, as its beginning,

set our hearts at liberty.

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