Choosing Unconditional Love
Based on Genesis 45:1-15, 1Corinthians 15:42-52, Luke 6:27-38, Psalm 37
Chuck DeGroat, pastor, counselor, and professor of pastoral care at Western Seminary in his book entitled, “Toughest People to Love”, shares the following story from early on in his training as a counselor; “…I had hit a rut in my pastoral life, fatigued by the complicated people I was trying to help. Most disheartening to me was the narcissistic executive who would ‘power up’ in our pastoral counseling sessions, firing accusations at his wife like a lawyer nailing a case, and even intimidating me whenever he saw a chink in my pastoral armor. ‘Chuck, you’re young,’ he once said with a condescending smile. ‘You’ve only been married a short time. You probably don’t understand what it’s like to endure a woman’s crazy mood swings.’ He was a master intimidator, and I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. Part of me just wanted out….”
Have you ever felt this way when dealing with the “complicated people” in your life? I know that I have. We all know people who are adept at pushing our buttons and dancing on our last nerves – often these are people who are closest to us. How have you dealt with those people and the ‘complicated’ relationships they bring? Have you leaned into the relationship trying to find understanding and common ground or have you backed away and erected strong boundaries in order to protect yourself? One thing is for certain…it is really difficult to follow the unconditionally loving teachings of Jesus with those people who seem to delight in making us feel uncomfortable with their bullying, belittling or abusive behaviors.
Our scripture readings today offer us some challenging teachings. Embodying these teachings will require us to change the way we see and interact with the world and with other humans. These teachings will require nothing less than a transformation in and through us. Whether we find ourselves confronted with the opportunity to offer unconditional love like Joseph, to understand the transformative power of the resurrection on our lives, or to hear once again the call to choose to love unconditionally those who treat us poorly…it is clear that living life as usual will not suffice. Before we go farther, let us go to God now in prayer and thanksgiving that God shows us how to love unconditionally…
The Apostle Paul is finishing his teachings about the resurrection of Jesus and what that means for our faith as Christians. The words that are a part of our funeral liturgy spring off the page this week, “…Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed,…For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that has been written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’…” The promise of God’s unconditional love through the resurrection of the Christ is the transformation from a physical body into one of eternal spirit.
Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, has become second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. In our reading today, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. Instead of punishing them for their sins, Joseph is moved to compassion and forgiveness through divine insight. Joseph sees the hand of God in all that has happened to him over his life. Joseph says to his brothers, “…do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt….” Joseph chooses unconditional love for his family to preserve them in a time of famine. Joseph can do this because he sees the hand of God in all that has happened to him, and he blesses those who cursed him out of the great blessings of God in his life.
Jesus puts before us today some really challenging teachings about how to live in the world. Jesus calls us to unconditional love towards those who hate us, abuse us, curse us, strike us, steal from us, beg from us – telling us to “do to others as you would have them do to you….” Jesus goes on to clarify this teaching stating that it is not enough to choose to unconditionally love and care for those who love us – that is neither courageous nor challenging. Choosing unconditional love means to not judge or condemn others; to forgive and to give abundantly – for when we engage in abundant giving we will receive, “…a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back….”
It is time to return to return to the story from Chuck DeGroat and his interaction with a ‘complicated person’. He continues, “…In a meeting with fellow counseling interns, I told my sad tale, looking both for sympathy and for a way out of this pastoral-care mess. And then my friend said something life-changing – something so truthful and profound that I felt as if she’d broken into the darkness of my cave of perception. ‘You know, he has a story too.’ My first thought was, Umm, what about me? I’m the victim here. How about some pity for the poor therapist of this jerk? But I swallowed those immediate feelings and asked what she meant. ‘He has a story,’ she said. ‘Aren’t you just a bit curious about it?’
With one question, she rehumanized the man. Compassion welled up in my soul as I began to wonder about his life’s story. Had he been bullied at some point? Had he, perhaps, been a victim of abuse? And how powerless must he feel inside to so aggressively overpower the people he loved the most! Our default mode when we deal with difficult people is to demand repentance or to devise fix-it strategies or to offer insights to straighten people out. But working with people requires a special kind of vision. It requires us to see the bigger picture. Whether we’re working with one difficult individual or with an entire congregation or company, our challenge is to keep that larger perspective in mind….”
Choosing unconditional love confers on us a larger perspective. It is the call to lay aside our grievances to preserve the life of a relationship. Understand here that I am not advising staying in psychologically or physically abusive relationships – personal and mental health require that we sometimes get space in order to deal with broken people. Father Richard Rohr has observed that “pain untransformed will be transmitted”. What he means by this is that all of us carry some amount of unresolved pain from our childhoods or life events. If we do not acknowledge the pain of the trauma we have endured, then we will not be able to choose unconditional love for others.
Joseph and Jesus offer us a way to keep a larger perspective on people and our interactions with them. Afterall, we really don’t know the other person and all that has happened to them over their life. They may have grown up in a family system which was defined by addiction to drugs and/or alcohol, they may have felt unwanted, marginalized or abandoned, they may not have known loving, nurturing and secure relationships, they might have been abused or bullied, we just don’t know. We don’t know…because we aren’t interested enough in the healing of the other to ask the unconditionally loving question, “what happened to you?’. We don’t know, because if we do ask that question, we don’t lovingly offer the time and space for the other to answer. We don’t know, because we haven’t invested the time, energy, and love to allow the relationship to develop to the point where someone feels safe enough to tell us what happened to them.
Choosing unconditional love means that we will need to make ourselves vulnerable. That vulnerability can lead to others taking advantage of us. It can lead to us being hurt, both physically (strike the other cheek) and emotionally. Unconditionally loving can heal the woundedness of those with whom we interact. It can defuse explosive situations, offer new paths to solving complex problems, create space where deep connections and relationships can form…it can preserve life, as Joseph said to his brothers. God calls us to love one another deeply and unconditionally as we are loved by God. God calls us to our best selves so that we can model for others how all should be treated. God puts before us a clear choice…continue to interact in superficial, self-centered and exploitative ways or seek to love unconditionally and deeply and thus help God transform the world. Which will you choose? May God continue to be gracious unto you! Amen.