Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach… every week.
And if you’ve never had to preach a sermon every week, then you might not know that preparing a sermon is a lot of work. You have to read the scripture, and think about it, and maybe do some research on it. You have to come up with stories and examples, which can mean more research. You have to figure out what jokes you’re going to tell and who you’re going to steal them from.
You have to check Facebook and Twitter, do a couple of crossword puzzles, see what’s new on Kickstarter, clean your house, plan dinners for the next couple of weeks. It’s work.
And, eventually, Saturday night rolls around and you’re left staring at a blank page.
Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach every week. And that meant that on Saturday night there was always at least one person posting on Facebook, “Does anyone have an idea about how to preach on, say, Luke 1:39-55?”
There is always the temptation to wait for inspiration to strike. Which is why, as some of you know, I write my sermons on Mondays. By the end of the day on Monday—by the time of an evening meeting or hanging out with friends—I try to have a sermon done, or a solid first draft, or a good start.
Because “inspiration is for amateurs,” said the painter Chuck Close, “the rest of us show up and get to work.”
A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptizer. And, in today’s reading, we hear that when Elizabeth was pregnant with John, her relative Mary came to visit. Mary is also pregnant, and John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit and proclaims Mary blessed.
And Mary responds with poem that has become famous. It has become a prayer and a song and something that people in churches around the world and across time recite:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
It’s a little bit of a love song to God. And today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for love.
We light this candle in recognition of the love that God has for this world. And God loves the world in this way: she sent her son into it to live fully and completely as one of us.
We light this candle in recognition of the love that we, like Mary, have for God; to remember that we come together to magnify the Lord who has looked on us with favor.
We light this candle in recognition of the love that we are called to have for each other and for all creation; even though we don’t always love as we should.
We light a candle for love.
And it is easy to think that this love is a feeling… that it’s like inspiration.
And, sometimes, it is. Some of us can remember back to our early days with our spouse or partner and how quickly that feeling of love came up. Some of us can remember back to our youth, and how love—or, at least ‘like like’—lurked around every corner.
And some of you can remember the first time you held your child in your arms, and the feelings of love that overwhelmed you. I imagine that Zechariah and Elizabeth felt that love when they first saw their son John. And I imagine that Joseph and Mary felt that love when they first saw their son Jesus.
Sometimes, love is a feeling. And it can be an overwhelming feeling. It can turn us into heroes and fools. We do amazing things—and, sometimes, incredibly stupid things—for love.
But love is more than a feeling. Love is an action.
Now, don’t get me wrong, how we feel matters… a little bit. We can love and do it badly. We can love and make mistakes.
But love is still an action. Love is lived out. Love is giving food to someone who is hungry and drink to someone who is thirsty and clothing to someone who is naked; it is welcoming the stranger and caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner. Love is patience and kindness and forbearance and belief and hope and endurance.
Love is action, whether we’re feeling it or not.
And the fact is that love can be hard. It can be hard to love our families and our friends. That’s true in the everydayness of the year. It’s especially true around the holidays.
Right now, we are surrounded by images and movies showing meticulously decorated houses and home-cooked gourmet meals that meet every expectation of diet and taste. We are busily picking out gifts that say, “I spent enough to show that I care, but not so much that you, the recipient, feel bad about what you’re about to give me.”
We measure ourselves against impossible standards of togetherness. And, sometimes, get a little resentful towards all those people who aren’t helping us meet the Hallmark ideal.
It can be hard to love our families and our friends. But it can be even harder to love all of those people who we don’t know; who we’ve never met; who we’ve only seen out of the corner of our eye, if at all.
We can see that in our rhetoric around things like poverty and immigration. A simple phrase like ‘undeserving poor’ or ‘illegal immigrant’ can show us how hard it can be to love our neighbors who are also strangers, whether they are walking into the Referral Center, or waiting in line at an immigration checkpoint in Tijuana, or sitting in a refugee camp in the Middle East.
It can be hard to love our families and our friends. It can be even harder to love all of those people who we don’t know. It can be almost impossible to love our enemies.
Love can be hard.
And when something is hard, it can be easy to set it aside. It can be easy to say, “I don’t have what it takes to love my family and friends right now. I don’t have what it takes to love those strangers right now. I don’t have what it takes to love my enemies right now.”
It can be easy to set the hard things aside and wait for inspiration to strike.
But inspiration is for amateurs. Professionals show up and get to work. And we are Christians. And, as Christians, we are called to be professionals at love. We are called to show up and get to work.
And that’s why it is so important that love isn’t just a feeling. That’s why it’s so important that love is action, whether we’re feeling it or not.
Because, even if we’re not feeling it… we can do it.
When that painter, Chuck Close, said that inspiration is for amateurs, what he meant was this. Sometimes, when you are painting—or playing an instrument or writing a sermon—you don’t have anything.
And so you take a color and you paint a line. Or you play a few notes. Or you write, “Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach… every week.”
And then you paint another line and another and another. Or you play another note or a phrase or a snippet of melody. Or you write a few more words, and then a sentence, and then a paragraph.
And, gradually, something comes out of the work. And, gradually, you start to feel the thing coming out of the work.
Being inspired just means getting filled with the spirit. And by doing the work, we make room for the spirit to get in the mix. And, before too long, we are inspired to do the thing we were already doing.
If you want to love… go out and love. If you want to be filled with the spirit of love… go out and love.
Love can be hard. We do not love as we should. I am not always good at love.
So I light a candle.
I light a candle as a reminder that I don’t have to feel love to give love.
I light a candle as a reminder that the work of loving is what makes room for the spirit of love.
I light a candle as a little light in the darkness that I can follow in love. A little light in the darkness that tells me that I can love my way into… well, that I can love my way into greater love.
I light a candle to say, let my soul magnify the Lord, let my spirit rejoice, and let God, in her mercy, make me an instrument of her love.
I light a candle… for love.