Yesterday I officiated at an inurnment at Campo Santo. Seven brothers and sisters joined together to bury their mother. I invited the family to offer any testimonials they might want. One of the brothers stood up – the youngest. Very somberly, he looked up and began, “I was Mom’s favorite.”
It called to mind a few years back when Rosanne Barr debuted on her new sitcom. She was type cast. She played a blunt-speaking, wife and mother of a contemporary family. There’s one scene where she’s tucking in one of her kids. And with a mother’s warm smile, she tells the child, “You know you’re my favorite.” And then gives her a wink.
Well, of course this arouses a little angst among us viewers until we see her go to the next child to tuck him in. She looks at him with that same warm maternal glow and says, “You know you’re my favorite.”
Ask any parent of multiple children, “Do you have a favorite child?” The instant response is going to be “I love them all equally.” But most of the parents have been fibbing. And now some of them are daring to admit it. They do have favorites.
This new candor among parents might be attributed to psychologists like Ellen Weber Libby. She’s written a book called, Favorite Child and suggests that there are more problems that come from parents who cover up their favoritism. She says that it’s not favoritism that is bad, but what we do with that favoritism.
You see, it’s quite natural for parents to have shifting affections toward one child or another. Being open is not harmful because each child will benefit from extra attention at different times. In the end, it all balances out. What do you think?
In this morning’s reading from Acts, Peter says that God shows no partiality. And by that he means that God shows no favoritism. He gives no preferential treatment. God’s not favoring anyone with more of his love than anyone else. Thats right, you and Mother Theresa get the same of God’s love!
The word “partiality” is a Greek word. It translates a Semitic idiom that literally means: God is not one who receives human faces.
In other words, God doesn’t glance at our faces and make snap judgments. God is not concerned with our externals, he looks within. And we like that about God, don’t we?
But are we the same way? Do we “receive human faces”? Do we make snap judgments about the people we meet? I do. Would you go to a dentist who had tattoos all over his face?
Awhile back, I was in Fresno trying to find the Superior Court where our trial was being held. Everyone was getting back from lunch which meant there was long line of people waiting to go through the security clearance. I took my place at the end of the line and began my survey of those in front and those who were scrambling for a place behind me.
They all looked the same. Young people in their 20’s/30’s. The guys had on loose-fitting jeans hanging down low and a variety of dark colored T-shirts. The gals were in tight fitting jeans and a variety of tops that all looked like they came from the salvation army store. Tatoos and piercings abounded among the men and women.
Looking at this group, I knew two things: First, I was in line with all the criminals lining up for their day in court. And, second, there was no doubt that they were all guilty of whatever crime they were charged with. Yeah, I could tell just by looking at them.
We make judgments about people we encounter everyday – instantly.
The human mind is a remarkable, calculating machine. In an instant of time, it can makes assessments and judgments about things that we are barely aware of.
Just think about the last time you walked down a busy sidewalk in a big city. Did you pigeon-hole the people you saw? Did you categorize them as rich or poor? Lazy or hardworking? Dangerous or benign?
If you did, you did what Peter says God never does. You “received human faces.” You showed partiality.
Now think about that word, “partiality.” Something that is partial is fragmentary.
Human love can be fragmentary.
While we would hope to love fully and selflessly, let’s face it: A lot of mixed motives complicate our love for others. Self- interest creeps in. There are a lot of examples of partial love – let me offer you three of the more common ones.
Loving only the lovable is partial love. It’s easy to love the lovable. And you know what I mean by “lovable.” It’s the attractive person. It’s the person that is pleasing. That person for some reason wins our affection.
Remember the movie E.T.? It’s the movie about the Extra Terrestrial alien who finds himself stranded on earth and rescued by a young boy. Spielberg wanted to create a space alien that would be lovable to the audience. And one trick he used was to make ET’s head disproportionately large to his body size.
Why? Because a baby’s head size is disproportionately large to his body size. It’s a characteristic of a baby that makes the child loveable to us. And it worked! I cried when ET was dying ………….and I wasn’t alone.
You see, it’s all about appearance. By definition, a lovable person is not hard to love. Yet God does not call us to just love the lovable. He doesn’t say, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and then adds: “that is, if your neighbor happens to be lovable.”
The kind of love that Jesus commands is not about being attracted to another. It’s just the opposite. It’s the kind of love that gets up and does what the other person needs, no matter how tough that may be. Loving only the lovable is loving partially.
A second kind of partial love is the love that considers what you might get in return. Let’s call it reciprocal love: “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Romantic love fits in this category, doesn’t it? Young lovers come together, not for what they can give, but for what they can get from the other.
It’s like the young lady who was giving directions to her new boyfriend to get to her apartment.
She says: You come to the front door of the apartment complex where I live and look for apartment 14A, and with your elbow push button 14A. Come inside and you’ll find the elevator on the right. With your elbow hit 14. When you get out of the elevator you’ll find my apartment on the left. With your elbow, hit my doorbell and I’ll open the door for you.”
The boyfriend says: Dear, that sounds very easy to find, but why am I hitting all these buttons with my elbow? Oh my God!! You’re not coming empty-handed, are you?
Lots of human relationships are like that. Two people fall in love and come together. They vow to be there for each other, to meet each other’s needs. But this is only a partial love.
What happens if one partner gets sick and can’t take care for the other partner’s needs? Does the love-partnership fall apart at that point? Some do.
Plenty of couples have headed for divorce when one partner believes the other partner is not holding up his or her end, not meeting their needs. There are times in some marriages and in some deep friendships when one partner ends up carrying more of the weight of the relationship.
In a reciprocal relationship, there’s always the temptation to keep score.
Any love that keeps score is only a partial love.
So partial love can be lovable love or reciprocal love. It also can be controlling love.
I think we’ve all known people like that. There’s that element of control that makes its way into human relationships. Love is offered for a time, free and clear, then abruptly snatched away. It’s trotted out again when the controlling person has need of it.
Controlling love falls short of the full measure of love. It’s not the sort of love we see God exercising in the Bible. And when you think about it, that odd. You’d think it would be just other way around for an all powerful God and a flawed humanity. But it’s not.
Look at God’s track record with Israel. There had been some rocky interludes right from their days in the desert. But God kept wooing Israel back. He kept dispatching the prophets to call them back to faithfulness.
The Lord values human freedom. He knows full well that there will be times when we will abuse that freedom just as Israel did. The love God offers is utterly free — in the sense that we are always free to accept or reject it. Oh, God will go after us if we wander away like a shepherd going after a lost sheep. But God never stops us from leaving. The gate to the sheepfold is always open.
Humans typically love with partial love. It’s not that there’s anything terrible about partial love. There are certainly benefits or we would not do it.
A love that loves only the lovable can be shallow, but, as far as it goes, it’s still love. A love that demands to be paid back can still bring much joy, as long as both partners deliver.
Even a controlling love can contribute to the loved one’s sense of worth. But if these are all partial forms of love, what does complete love look like?
I think that “loving completely” can be summed up in what Jesus taught when he told his disciples: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Can there be a more difficult teaching than that?
Kim Jong-un is the supreme leader of North Korea. His regime operates an extensive network of prisons and labor camps that hold people for political crimes. He uses collective punishment whereby members of a family get punished for the crimes of one person.
According to the United Nations, North Koreans live under “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” where the regime “seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within. While his people starve, Kim is said to have 17 luxury palaces around North Korea, a fleet of 100, luxury cars, a private jet and a 100 foot long yacht. He owns a private island which has been compared to Hawaii, but he’s the only one that live there.
And Jesus tells us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Even Kim-Jong-un? Perhaps it might be possible to theoretically love this dictator from a safe, comfortable distance. But what about those close by?
I remember sitting in a Fresno courtroom a few years back during our litigation defending against the Episcopal Church. I was on the witness stand and seated before me at the opposing counsel table were five attorneys. Behind them were some Episcopal bishops seated in the front row.
Now I figure out how much money the Episcopal Church was shelling out for all those attorneys to throw us out of our building, And then seeing the Episcopal bishops sitting right there in the front row – I gotta’ tell you that I was feeling a little righteous indignation and anger toward all of them. It was then that the Holy Spirit whispered: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.”
Does Jesus really expect us to love even the ones who hurt us close to home? Truth be told, we’re sinners, so he probably doesn’t expect that much. But that’s what he commands. He places that ideal of selfless love out there before us. He sets the bar high.
When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, the Father called down from heaven: This is my Son, the one whom I love.
Now every parent here knows the quality of love that a father would have for his son. There is no sacrifice too big for parents to make for their children. And that’s human love. That’s love that is exercised by a sinner. Now just imagine the quality of love that God the Father has for his son – his ONLY son.
Here’s the good news. God’s not like us. He doesn’t love with a partial love. When he loves, he loves completely, He loves unreservedly, He loves infinitely.
That means the boundless love that he has for his only son, is same love he has for you and me. Paul speaks of that kind of love in the famous chapter in Corinthians. He says: For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When you first fell in love, it was easy to love everyone, wasn’t it? There’s something about your first love that is both exhilarating and empowering. It makes you feel invincible. It’s Leonardo Di Caprio standing on the bow of the Titanic yelling; “I’m king of the world!” And that was because you had won the love of . . . well, another sinner.
In those times when you find it might be difficult to love, When you’re tempted to offer partial love, Consider how much you are loved right now. Loved as you are – and not by another sinner – but by God himself. God loves us with the same love that he holds for his beloved Son – his only son.
And when you’re having trouble loving someone who is not lovable, or someone who may have not reciprocated the love you showed to them, or someone who is controlling with their love, At those times, take some inspiration from C.S. Lewis. He once wrote:
There is someone I love, even though I don’t approve of what he does.
There is someone I accept, though some of his thoughts and actions revolt me.
There is someone I forgive, though he hurts the people I love the most.
That person is me.