Gifts of Love, Unopened and Opened

Sermon: Gifts of Love, Unopened and Opened

Texts: Psalm 136; 1 John 4:7-21

Date: November 11, 2018

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

 

There are so many gifts
Still unopened from your birthday,
There are so many hand-crafted presents
That have been sent to you by God.

The Beloved does not mind repeating,
“Everything I have is also yours.”

Please forgive Hafiz and the Friend
If we break into a sweet laughter
When your heart complains of being thirsty
When ages ago
Every cell in your soul
Capsized forever
Into this infinite golden sea.

Indeed,
A lover’s pain is like holding one’s breath
Too long
In the middle of a vital performance,

In the middle of one of Creation’s favorite
Songs.

Indeed, a lover’s pain is this sleeping,
This sleeping,
When God just rolled over and gave you
Such a big good-morning kiss!

There are so many gifts, my dear,
Still unopened from your birthday.

O, there are so many hand-crafted presents
That have been sent to your life
From God.[1]

          Unopened gifts.  I remember an unopened gift a few Christmases ago.  My imperfect recollection is that we had a mountain of presents as usual under the Christmas tree.   It’s always a flurry of opening even though we try to take turns and pay attention to all the gifts.  I opened a box from my sister Jill that said it was a puzzle in the printing on the glossy cardboard.  I was very tired as I always am on Christmas morning, and I think I looked at the box and thought, “Oh, that’s nice, I guess.”  Set it aside.  Later I was talking to Jill on the phone, and she seemed remarkably interested in my response to her gift.  I’m on the phone thinking, “Uh, what did she give me again?” and sort of vaguely thanked her.  Later on I went to search out the box and actually opened it.  It was not a puzzle inside but a beautiful counted cross-stitch piece of art that she had clearly spent many, many, many hours creating.  Well, as they say, was my face red!  I called her back and could hardly find the words to thank her for such a beautiful gift of love while shedding tears of embarrassment and gratitude. 

          Perhaps the Sufi poet Hafiz is onto something when he speaks of God as the Beloved who sends so many hand-crafted gifts into our lives that remain unopened or unnoticed or unappreciated. The Psalm we read mentions the sun, moon and stars, and the provision of food for all flesh, among other things as gifts of a good God.  The psalmist urges the people to give thanks, which is one way of “opening” these great cosmic gifts. It’s not that God is fishing for compliments for these gifts, any more than I think my sister was fishing for praise; it’s just that when love has been poured out the lover wishes to know if it landed anywhere so the gift is complete.  Were we awake enough to notice a gift, to receive it?

          Poet David Whyte has some thoughtful words about gratitude: “Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and around us…Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing.  Even if that something is temporarily pain or despair, we inhabit a living world, with real faces, real voices, laughter, the color blue, the green of the fields, the freshness of a cold wind, or the tawny hue of a winter landscape…Being unappreciative may mean we are simply not paying attention.”[2] 

          One of the key reasons we do this exceedingly odd thing called “worship” is that we’re getting together to wake up and pay attention.  This season of Thanksgiving is always sweet as we rouse ourselves to notice and give thanks for the gifts of the good earth. We take time to appreciate the gift of faith-based community, pledging ourselves to its continuance in our stewardship.  Practicing gratitude and generosity is a way we have of paying attention to the God who is love, who shares gifts of love with us continually, who (Hafiz says) does not mind repeating and repeating and repeating, “Everything I have is also yours.”

          Surely the Birth Day gift that remains unopened so often that must grieve God more than all the rest is the gift of love itself.  Love is God’s gift; more than that, our Scriptures testify that love is the essence of God’s being, God’s character.  I chose Psalm 136 for today because of its refrain: “For God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  That phrase–that idea–pops up in multiple places in the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s steadfast love endures forever. What an astounding promise! God’s steadfast love cannot be worn out or used up; it can’t be shattered or erased.  It won’t peter out or die of old age or give up in frustration.   

          I have a scholarly book that is a study of love in the Bible.  It has a whole chapter on the Hebrew word hesedh, which is the word behind the psalmist’s phrase “steadfast love.”  This is one of the most important words for love in the Old Testament, a term that is extraordinarily difficult to translate into English.  It’s love plus loyalty, love plus devotion, love plus fidelity.  The word occurs 245 times in the OT.  Translators, finding no simple English equivalent, translate it in a variety of ways: Unfailing love, strong love, faithful love, constant love, great love, wonderful love, mercy.  “Lovingkindness” might be the closest single word in English that comes close.  The thing to keep in mind about this divine love is that love, kindness and loyalty are all the mix, and it is based in a relationship.   Hesedh is something that human beings can exhibit, but the Hebrew Scriptures make it clear that it doesn’t come as naturally to us as it does to God.  “In [humanity] it is the ideal; in God it is the actual.”[3] This is one of the most distinctive concepts of Old Testament.  It reveals God’s steady and extraordinary persistence in loving God’s people despite their waywardness.  This is the love that will not let us go, a love with which we are loved eternally. 

          There’s no question that the roots of the faith we share are sunk deep into this theology of steadfast love as the character of God.  It shows up again in the Christian scriptures as we heard in the reading from 1 John: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  “This means more than that God is loving; it means that love is of the essence of God’s being…God loves because it is God’s nature to love, because it is God’s nature to give [godself] unceasingly in love.”[4]  Theologian Emil Brunner found a parable of the character of God in the element radium.  He noted that it is possible to point out all sorts of things about radium: its physical and chemical properties, the compounds it forms, its molecular structure.  But if one omits to say that radium is constantly radiating away, one has omitted its truly distinctive characteristic.  And if one speaks about God, stressing God’s holiness, God’s greatness, God’s goodness but omitting the fact that God is constantly giving godself in love, radiating love, one has omitted the thing that really matters.[5]

          We can believe it or not, we can take it or leave it.  It’s a gift we can open or leave on the shelf.  Love is powerful but it is not overpowering; it persuades rather than pummels.  It persists but doesn’t insist. 

          Suppose we want to open the gift of God’s love, that beautiful Birth Day gift.  But we’re not sure how to go about awakening to it, experiencing it.  We might meditate on it, pray for an experience of divine love, take ourselves out in the beauty of creation to search out the divine artist.  But the surest way to experience divine love is to share it, to share the love that we believe emanates from the Most High with other human beings.  You can be either on the appreciative receiving end, or on the active giving end; either way you will likely find that being immersed in love is being immersed in the Holy, just as 1 John promises–those who abide in love abide in God, for God is love. 

          We don’t have to be a bit fussy over the person with whom to share love.  Theologian Soren Kierkegaard warns against being too “fastidious” about those we choose to love.[6] You can be fastidious about choosing only the choicest food or artwork, but you can’t be fastidious about choosing people to love.  Just love the people right in front of you, he says.  Don’t search around for loveable people to love; just love the ones you see, love them just as you see them.  You can’t really love the God you can’t see unless you practice loving the brother and sister you can see. 

          Khizr Khan tells a lovely story about experiencing an act of love from a woman who saw him.  Khan is originally from Pakistan and emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1970’s.  You might recognize his name as the man who was insulted by then-candidate Donald J. Trump, leading to an appearance at the Democratic convention in which he offered his dog-eared copy of the Constitution to Trump.  His book An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice is very inspiring.  Khizr moved to Houston ahead of his family, getting a job and an apartment there.  He was so glad to welcome his wife and two boys there after he had been living there alone for a number of months.  He picked them up and drove them home.  They had just gotten all the luggage in when there was a knock on the door.  When Khizr opened it, there was an older white woman standing there, smelling of cigarette smoke.  She was holding two brown paper bags. 

          In his words: “Hello,’ I said, as much a question as a greeting. I recognized her as the woman who lived a few doors down with her husband.  We’d never spoken, but I’d seen her outside smoking. ‘Hi, I’m Paulette,’ she said.  ‘I hope I’m not disturbing you, but I saw you with these two little boys and thought you might need some things.  So I brought them.’ She offered the bags.

          “I was briefly speechless.  Everyone I’d met in Houston had been friendly enough, but this was a deeply touching act of generosity and concern. I took the bags from her. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘This is very kind of you.’

          “Well, I thought they might be hungry,’ she said.  ‘Let me know if I can do anything else.’  ‘Yes, yes, I will.  And thank you.’  I closed the door and set the bags on the kitchen table.  Paulette had brought milk and bread, butter and jam, a package of cookies, nothing extravagant…In the grand scheme of things, Paulette’s was a small gesture.  Perhaps other Americans would have found it to be completely normal, a neighbor greeting new arrivals.  But it had an enormous impact on Ghazala [Khizr’s wife] and me…” Khizr goes on to talk about his expectation that in Pakistan, a person moving down the block would have been merely eyed with curiosity from a distance.  “Yet in my family’s first moments in America—literally their first moments—a virtual stranger had been concerned enough about their well-being to bring sustenance.  Paulette didn’t see a foreign woman in funny clothes, or a cocoa-skinned man infiltrating her neighborhood with his immigrant family.  She saw two little boys and their mother, exhausted from a long flight and perhaps in need of some basic comforts she could provide.”[7]

          We don’t get to hear Paulette’s side of this experience.  We don’t know what motivated her act of love and hospitality.  I would not be at all surprised to learn that she is rooted in a religious tradition, perhaps the same one in which we are rooted.  I bet she went home on wings, lifted, joyful, immersed in love just having taken two bags of ordinary groceries to ordinary people she could see right in front of her. 

One of the things I value in Khizr Khan’s story as he tells it in his memoir is that he points to various people on his journey to become an American citizen who were kind and generous to him.  Their being open to him as a stranger opened him and his family up, encouraging his own generosity, kindness and courage.  When Paulette (among others) performed a loving act she opened up the gift of neighborliness for both of them. 

          We could think of the folks we encounter broadly as gifts.  Now, we know some of the people we meet are wounded and may even be dangerous, and we do need to be wise about boundaries. Sometimes a person that looks like a gift ends up being a pipe bomb; just ask the kids who have been sexually abused by religious leaders. However, it seems to me that truly hazardous people are in the minority.  We may have been taught to always be suspicious, and suspicion of people who look different from us is subtly woven into our culture, haunting our subconscious minds.  What if we tapped our faith to help us see folks not as potential hazards or potential enemies but as gifts that may open us to even more love than we have yet experienced?  If we choose to face unknown people with love rather than suspicion, we may be opening a great many gifts from God that would otherwise remain unopened in our lives. 

          When I see and hear stories of suspicion and hatred aimed at refugees and immigrants just for being (often brown-skinned) people on the move, I feel sorrowful.  While we need legal processes in place in our immigration system, to reject immigrants out of hand as a nation that is largely founded on immigration is just sad and tremendously hypocritical.  Why not view immigrants and refugees coming our way as gifts, potential neighbors?  I saw a Facebook meme recently that said something along the lines of “Anyone who will walk thousands of miles with little food and water carrying a toddler, in order to protect their children from violence in their home country, is welcome to live next door to me.”  Imagine the courage and grit it takes to make a risky journey like the one known as the current “caravan.”  I know it’s all very complicated, how to welcome the stranger as a nation; but as Christians we can stake out some territory in our own hearts and souls to see these travelling children of God as beloved by God, and potential gifts to our rich and diverse society. 

          Revisiting Hafiz’s poem, listen again to this stanza:

Please forgive Hafiz and the Friend
If we break into a sweet laughter
When your heart complains of being thirsty
When ages ago
Every cell in your soul
Capsized forever
Into this infinite golden sea.

I hear in that imagery of being capsized forever into an infinite golden sea a promise that we may abide in God’s love any moment we choose to plunge into an act of love.  The soul knows love, but may be forgetful. The soul may have failed to recall that it doesn’t need to thirst after a Divine Love that surrounds us like an infinite sea; all the soul needs is to awaken to the fluid, everlasting gift of love and open the gift by loving the human beings before our very eyes.      

          I want to turn to words of another mystic, St. Francis; these verses are in Love Poems From God, verses selected and translated by Daniel Ladinsky.  This page is titled “A Wedding Gift.”

“I hear you singing, my Lord, inviting me to your throne.

We are coming dear, for all the toil you have

Blessed us with

Is a preparation to know and hold the

Sacred.

I hear you singing, my soul, but how can it be that

God’s voice has now become

My own?

‘That is just a wedding gift for our

Divine Union,’

My Beloved

Said.[8]



[1] Hafiz The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master Translations by Daniel Ladinsky New York: Penguin Compass, 1999, p. 67-68

[2] Whyte, David Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 2014, p. 89-91

[3] Morris, Leon Testaments of Love: A Study of Love in the Bible Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981, p. 81

[4] Ibid. p. 136

[5] Ibid. p. 143-44

[6] Kierkegaard, Soren Works of Love (originally published 1847)

[7] Kahn, Khizr An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice New York: Random House, 2017, p. 130-31

[8] St. Francis “A Wedding Gift” Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West Daniel Ladinsky, translator and editor New York: Penguin Compass, 2002, p. 44

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