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December 11, 2016

Luke 1:76-79, 2:14

Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman

Did you know that the word love shows up in the Bible almost 550 times? Jesus alone used it 55 times. And did you know that in Biblical Greek, there are three different words for love: Eros for romantic love, Philos for fraternal or brotherly love, and Agapao, which means to love in a social or moral sense.

It is this last form of love that is used most commonly in the New Testament. Jesus calls his followers to love others, not because they are “in love”, not because they are friends or comrades. We are to love one another because God first loved us.

Love – it sounds so nice, so warm and fuzzy, so easy, but love is not easy. The commitments of love we make to our partners, parents, siblings, children, or friends are not easy to keep. Relationships can try our patience sometimes. We can want to lash out or be angry. When we are slighted or hurt, it is tempting to want to hurt back.

Even when we have a relationship, when we care deeply about the other person, being loving is not always easy.

So what Jesus calls us to, loving the stranger, loving the passing acquaintance, loving our enemies, loving the person who lives halfway around the world, agapao, what Jesus calls us to is even harder.

For over two thousand years, Christians have struggled to live and act with agapao, loving-kindness, toward our neighbors. We are really good at charity, but agapao goes beyond charity. Agapao is radical love. Agapao is loving-kindness to all. Agapao is caring about someone simply because they are a human being and thus a child of God. Agapao is caring about God’s creation, plants and animals because they are God’s. Agapao is charity, taking care of people’s needs in this moment, and agapao is also justice, asking the hard questions about why people are in need and acting in a way that will change the situation that created the need.

In 18th century England, agapao was embodied by Thomas Coram. Thomas Coram was a sea captain who had spent much of his life and career at sea or in America. When he returned to England in 1720, he was deeply disturbed to see how the poorest of society were living and especially the children. There were poor houses to “care” for the poor, but as you can imagine, these were pretty dismal places and the infant mortality rate in the poor house was 95%.

Not all of the poor were worthy enough though to find a place in the poor house. Single mothers and their “foundling” children fell into this category of “unworthy” poor. Foundlings, illegitimate children, were considered the epitome of sin. Christians and society didn’t just overlook them; they looked down on them, absolutely shunned these children, for fear that other young women might be tempted into sin – the sin usually being that of being molested by their employer. And with no income, no home, no prospects, how were these young women to care for their children? Or care for themselves? Out of desperation, some of these mothers left their children in rubbish heaps; others on doorsteps, in hopes that some charitable soul would take the child in and keep them safe.

It was this England that Thomas Coram returned to after a life at sea and abroad, and his Christian soul cried out with agapao for these foundling children, for these precious, vulnerable children who society considered sinful, unworthy, unwanted.

Thomas Coram would spend the next 17 years campaigning and persuading anyone who would listen that something had to be done to care for these “very least of these”. Finally, in 1739, he was granted a royal charter to begin a new charity, and in 1742, the foundation stone for the new Foundling Hospital was laid.

By 21st century standards, the Foundling Hospital was not what agapao looks like. Where is the loving kindness or justice in separating infants from their mothers? It does not sound like the love Jesus calls us to, but consider the time and consider the blessing it must have been to a young single mother to have a place to bring her child. This was no rubbish heap or doorstop. This was a place where they were going to feed, clothe, and house her child and also educate them, all while keeping them warm and safe.

In a world that considered the foundling to be the very epitome of sin, the Foundling hospital was the epitome of Christian love.

They could not take all of the children; not all of the children survived to adulthood, but the Foundling Hospital was doing good, good ministry. They were reaching out with charity; they were speaking up for justice; they were forcing society to open their eyes to the foundling, instead of ignoring these children or labeling them a sin. Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital were living Christ’s call to agapao, but as is the case with most charities, they needed more money.

In 1750, the Foundling hospital got a new benefactor and a new source of income in George Frederic Handel. For many years, Handel had been a successful composer and conductor, but in recent years, he had fallen on hard times. His most recent work, which had debuted in Dublin to rave reviews, had been publicly denounced in London because critics did not think a playhouse and a group of players were the appropriate ministers of God to sing about the life of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. Despite having written this amazing work of music, Handel was at a low point in his life, career, and fortunes when he had the inspiration to suggest a benefit concert for the Foundling Hospital.

The concert was a total success, and it became a tradition that went on for twenty years, raising an incredible 7,000 pounds for the hospital. Handel, himself, attended or conducted every year until he died in 1759, and even then, Handel willed the hospital a full copy of Messiah’s score so that this work of music could continue to benefit the children. “The thousands of pounds that Handel’s performance of Messiah raised for charity led one biographer to note: “Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan…more than any other single musical production in this or any country.”

In 18th century England agapao was Thomas Coram working tirelessly for decades to provide a safe place for forgotten, scorned, and yet innocent children. In 18th century England, agapao was Handel dedicating what became his greatest work to the support of this ministry.

What does agapao in the 21st century look like? In this world where we remember that four years ago this week, twenty children and six teachers lost their lives to gun violence while they were just trying to learn to read and write; In this world, where a man was shot and killed because he got into a fight with another driver; In this world where 36 young people lost their lives because their landlord potentially prioritized money over safety; in this world where too many children still go to bed hungry at night and too many people are homeless…

In our world, what does agapao look like? What does radical love for all people, because they are people and God’s children, look like? What does charity and justice working together look like?

In our scripture passage this morning, we heard this prophecy:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

In these Advent days, we are waiting for the Messiah, waiting for the Christ child to come into our lives and bring peace, bring hope, bring joy, bring radical love, but this prophecy is not about Jesus. It is about his cousin, John the Baptist, a miracle child born to two parents in their old age, an ordinary man called by God to be a prophet.

In these Advent days, we are waiting for a savior. We are waiting for a prophet. We are waiting for someone, anyone to come prepare the way and guide our feet into the way of peace, and God is waiting for us.

God is waiting for us to realize that we are the ones being called. We are the ones being called to offer charity and stand up for justice. We are the ones being called to prepare the way of peace, to share with people that their sins are forgiven by the tender mercy of God. We are the ones being called to embody agapao, love.

The Messiah is coming to bring us God’s unconditional love. And God is calling each one of us to share that unconditional love with others – to offer charity, feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless; to work tirelessly for justice, making sure all people are treated fairly and God’s creation is protected; to guide all feet into the way of peace, that all people might live in safety, free from the threats of violence and hate.

Jesus is coming to bring love into our lives, love into our world. How will you share that love?