Reading is one of my favorite hobbies, and as a result of my obsession with reading, we get a number of magazines delivered to our house. There is, however, one magazine to which we subscribe which I am ashamed to confess that I sometimes pick up and read. It isn’t a high-falutin magazine, or anything risqué, but it is, horror of horrors, a gossip rag, Us Weekly. When I do occasionally read Us Weekly, I find it to be inevitably a depressing experience. I’m not overly depressed by the third-grade prose, or the fourth-grade gossip, although those are depressing enough in and of themselves. No, what bothers me is that we live in a culture in which such a magazine could flourish. I’m sure that Us Weekly has a far greater circulation than The New Yorker or The Economist, which means just one simple thing: more people spend their time discovering who is wearing what brand name, or have a romance with whom, or starring in a hot new television show, then they do worrying about the environment, or the economic crisis, or the problems of homelessness, or the possibility of a pandemic. And I occasionally am one of them.
Us Weekly is symbolic somehow for me of everything that I find strange and wrong about our culture and world today: the obsession with stars, the focus on money and appearances, the decline of civility, the slide into ignorance, and a certain unique fascination and excitement over the inevitable failure of whomever is the flavor of the week. It is boring, predictable fluff, designed to sell advertising and with the effect of dulling the senses and the mind.
Behind that entire diatribe which I just made you listen to is fear. I may take it out on Us Weekly, but really I am I am afraid of a culture that lives in the kind of banal malaise that ours seems to. My fear has a new quality to it now, as I come to terms with being a parent. I am afraid to raise my daughter Esme in such a culture, and afraid that she will inherit (or worse) feel comfortable with the vast problems facing our culture and the world. Wendell Berry, the farmer-philosopher has a phrase about children being “hostages given to the future,” and I fear the future to which I will eventually give my daughter. I am, in short, full of fear. Gut wrenching, “wake up in a cold sweat,” dry-mouthed fear.
Which is made worse by the fact that I can never hear the Epistle from this morning without a slight twinge of guilt. How can one not feel guilty hearing: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” I apparently have not yet reached perfection in love, as is clearly demonstrated by my palpable fear, instead of that perfected divine love that should be in me.
My first inclination is almost to laugh at the message from the Epistle. Surely that message sounded as hollow and foolish to those early Christians, as it can to us at first blush today. They were living in an unfriendly Empire beginning to show the first signs of decay. Their society was no less characterized by the pabulum of social spectacle and violence than ours is. They had, I would imagine, a very similar set of fears about the future, about the decline of culture, and for their children. Surely they were as fearful as I am.
But I don’t think the writer of the Epistle that has been read in our midst this morning is making us feel guilty for not having perfect love. I think instead the writer is making a vast and mystical statement about fear and love, and I think that, rather than laughing at that statement, as is my first inclination, there is great wisdom to be gained from listening to what the writer is saying.
Hidden in the passage from 1st John this morning is an absolute gem of an idea: that we do not need to fear, indeed that fear is a complete waste of time and energy, because we are rooted and centered in the love which God Incarnate has for us. Fear is a reflection of my (dare I say “our”) inability to believe and to trust that God loves us, that God is working to bring us out of a corrupt and foolish culture into that heavenly city which we long for.
I’d like to mix metaphors, if I may, between the Gospel and the Epistle. Perhaps it will help you to think about this perfect love. Think of the metaphor of the vine and branches that Jesus uses in the Gospel this morning. The vine feeds the branches, provides nourishment and support, so that the branches can bloom and bring forth fruit. The vine and the branches are intimately connected and linked by the same physiology. The xylem and phloem (if I remember my high-school biology correctly), the veins of the vine and the branches carry the same nutrients and water back and forth between the vine and the branches.
Think of that perfect love that the Epistle writer is referring to, as the sap that flows between the vine and the branches. Jesus is the vine on which we sit and live, and what flows from the vine to the branches and back is love. God’s love flows in our veins, and we love because God loves us first, and cares for us.
The message of the Epistle this morning, the hope that is being shown to us is that all we do is rooted in God Incarnate, and flows up from God into us. We don’t need to flog ourselves into better or more perfect love. The love is God’s, the expression is God’s. God’s love flows in us as our lifeblood, whether we are aware of it or not, and that same love is evident in how we care for those around us, in the fruit that we bear.
It is hard, especially when one is a dull, thick-witted branch like myself to be aware of that divine love flowing in my veins. It is too natural, too normal, too much a part of my life and being. But I can see the fruit beginning to bud and flower. I can see the places where that perfect love is driving out the fear within me.
Which is very good news indeed. I don’t need to somehow find it in myself to squelch my fears about my daughter and modern society. I don’t need to force myself into loving any of the people who grace the pages of Us Weekly. What I need to do is let my brain catch up with that wonderful mystery that already is: God loves them and me, God loves Octo Mom and Lindsey Lohan, and even a foolish, slightly crazy curate at a church in Philadelphia. God loves the hungry and the poor, the rich and the socialites, and that divine love is flowing in and through us, driving out our fears and exploding out into fruit-laden branches.
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia
10 May 2009