Nine times. Jesus uses the word love nine times in this morning’s Gospel lesson. Nine times is a lot of times. If I were a biblical numerology guy, I’d tell you that nine is three times three, and three is a symbol of completeness, but I’m not a biblical numerology guy, so I won’t tell you that. What is clear is that love is important to Jesus. It is so important that, in his final hours with his disciples on the night before he died, Jesus spent most of his time reminding them that love was the most important thing. After he had washed their feet, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, that they love one another. After he shared with them the promise of the Holy Spirit as their advocate and guide, Jesus told his disciples that love would be hallmark of their faithfulness. In this morning’s lesson, we hear Jesus yet again reminding his disciples to abide in his love while also commanding them to love one another as he has loved them.
Love is so important to Jesus that he raises the stakes as high as possible when he tells them that the greatest illustration of love is laying down one’s life for one’s friends. This is, of course, foreshadowing what would happen the next day, as Jesus would hang from a cross and die as the fullest expression of God’s love for all of humanity, but it doesn’t seem as though Jesus means to suggest that only he would be able to offer that kind of love. It seems like Jesus thinks that any disciple should, and perhaps could, one day be called upon to lay down their lives for their friends. As such, what constitutes laying down one’s life and who or what we might consider friends seem to be questions worth considering.
One of the gifts of the past fifteen months is how it has opened our eyes to what it means to lay down our lives for our friends and neighbors in a less than literal sense. As American Christians, it is extremely unlikely that we will be called upon to lay down our lives as martyrs for the Gospel, and since none of us knows how we would respond in a situation where the decision to sacrifice our life for someone else became necessary, I find great solace in the realization that maybe the call here isn’t just to a literal laying down of my life, but to a figurative one as well. Over the last 15 months, we’ve been asked to lay down parts of our life in the name of public health and the greater good. Some sacrifices have been difficult: not seeing family members, not attending in-person worship, and working and schooling from home were all significant parts of our lives that we had to give up in order to keep others safe. Other sacrifices were merely to lay down some of the conveniences of modern life: stop dining out, wear a mask, and keep your distance; but even these were a means by which we could live into Jesus’ invitation to self-sacrificial love. For all of its inconveniences, COVID-19 has been an opportunity to lay down parts of our lives out of love for our friends and neighbors.
When a young lawyer asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. For that young lawyer, and really, just about everyone who would have been within earshot of Jesus, that story would have been scandalous. Neighbor might mean the people in your sphere of influence. It might even mean the people in your neighborhood, so long as they were considered faithful and clean. At the extreme outside, loving your neighbor might mean everyone you encounter in the marketplace, but the idea that the commandment to love your neighbor might include a Samaritan, or that a Samaritan would love more fully than a priest or a Levite was beyond the pale. Yet, Jesus stretched the boundaries of what it means to love your neighbor to include even your enemies and those who would do you harm.
As I prayed about what it means to lay down our lives for our friends, I found myself wondering just how far that commandment might stretch. Friend seems like much more exclusive term than neighbor. I can more easily define who is in and who is out when it comes to my friend group. So, I might lay down my life for y’all, but probably not for someone in Des Moines, Iowa who I’ve never met before. Then, as I continued to pray and study for this sermon, I ran across a story that pushed the boundaries on who or what we should consider friends. It is the story of Homero Gómez González. A man none of you have probably even heard of before, but who was, in some small way, a friend to all of us here at Christ Church. Mr. González was born into a family of loggers in El Rosario, a small, unincorporated area in the mountains of central Mexico. He joined the family business and was a skeptic of growing efforts to limit deforestation in Mexico, fearful that it would lead to the end of the industry his family had known for generations. As he grew older, he studied Agricultural Engineering at a state-run agricultural university. There, he began to understand the negative effects that rampant deforestation was having on the climate, on people and plants, and especially on the hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies who call the mountains of central Mexico home every winter. Eventually, González dedicated his life to environmental and anti-logging activism. He became the mayor of El Rosario and worked to outlaw logging in the region. Later, he was named manager and spokesperson for the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Preserve, one of several preserves that make up the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where 70% of the world’s monarch butterflies, including those that pass through our weigh station, spend their winters.
Gómez González worked tirelessly to change the culture in his area of Mexico, and, as you might guess, he faced all kinds of push back. In December 2019, he told the Washington Post, “it’s been a fight to maintain [the preserve], and it hasn’t been easy.” A month later, on January 13, 2020, González disappeared. Two weeks later, he was found murdered in a well near the preserve. No one has been charged with his death, but his family and friends continue to fear that it was related to his efforts to end the lucrative logging industry in El Rosario. It can be said, I believe, that Homero Gómez González laid down his life, both metaphorically before his death, and literally in it, for his friends, the monarch butterfly. As a monarch butterfly weigh station, Christ Church should count Mr. González as a friend, and give thanks for the loved that he shared.
As we slowly emerge from our pandemic cocoons (I couldn’t help myself), new forms of self-sacrificial love will be called for. As Mother Becca is quick to remind me, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed us all. How will these changes continue to impact the ways in which we are called to love our friends, neighbors, siblings in Christ, and even our enemies and the wider world in 2021 and beyond? Jesus used the word love nine times in our Gospel lesson today. Eight of those times, he used it as a verb, and once, he promised that self-sacrificial love isn’t just the key to joy, but it unlocks fullness of joy. In the days, weeks, and months to come, my hope is that we will each find ways to live out the commandment to love that Jesus offers us this morning, laying down pieces of ourselves for our friends and neighbors. May God give us the strength to love – friends, enemies, and strangers – as Christ commands so that we might come to experience the fullest form of joy. Amen.