Love’s Enclosure: A Sermon

This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 6th, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Romans 13:8-14.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” Paul urges today in his letter to the Romans, and it sounds so simple doesn’t it? How liberating, how wonderful, that the only thing we have to worry about in this life is loving each other. No long lists of rules and regulations for us, thank you very much—just love, for all of the people, all of the time. 

But experience teaches us that choosing love is often far from easy or straightforward, and we might at times wish there WAS a clearly outlined set of rules and instructions from God about how to do this thing called life. For all its truth and wisdom, though, Scripture is less of a how-to manual and more of an illustration—a vivid image of love’s redemptive entanglement with frailty.

And so, we must stand alongside one another, scrutinzing the image, discerning, together, often messily, what love mandates, here and now, and somehow reproduce it in our own lives.

At times, especially in this hard, angry, suspicious age in which we find ourselves, it can feel nearly impossible to love everyone and everything we encounter. When faced with the brokenness and the meanness of the world, we are tempted to retreat, to run away in horror and frustration. In such moments the idea that we must always be governed by love, in all times and places, can feel like a cruel joke. For it is a certainty that no matter how kind we are, no matter how gracious, not everyone will love us back.

And yet, that is indeed what is depicted, time and again, in Scripture. We are told that love is the through-line of every commandment Moses grapsed on stormy Mt. Sinai. We are told that choosing to love, despite all evidence to the contrary, builds the type of life that bears the imprint of eternity. “Love,” Paul says, “is the fulfilling of the Law.” In other words, Love is the fulfilling of God’s plan for creation.

You already know the stakes of this if you have ever cared for someone deeply—a partner, a parent, a child, a friend. Love’s requirements, when taken seriously, are all-encompassing. It demands everything we have to give. Love, as a rule of life, encloses us. It limits the scope of our freedom to some degree, as we commit to the care and nurture of this person, this place, this time. Sure, we could choose to run away, but love keeps us grounded, and in doing so, it helps us become what God intended.

I think our society needs a reminder of this, especially now, when it seems as though the pursuit of the common good has gone out of fashion. Without the grounding of a generous love, we risk becoming lost in the maze of our own private desires and impulses, wandering, like prodigal sons and daughters, into the “quarreling and jealousy” Paul warns us against, believing ourselves liberated, but in truth, enslaved by our own selfishness.

That is not how God designed the world to work. So we must constantly return to that image we have been given—the image of Love—and let our hearts be mended by it.

Speaking of images, the one included in your service bulletin (or viewable here) is one panel of the famous Unicorn tapestries, which can be found at The Cloisters museum in Manhattan.

These particular tapestries date from the late middle ages/early Renaissance, sometime around 1500, and they are massive, covering the walls of the large room in which they reside. They are also something of a mystery—nobody knows exactly who made them or where they came from, and art historians have spent a lot of time speculating as to what they mean. 

In various scenes, as you move around the gallery, the unicorn is discovered in a forest, then hunted, then killed, and then brought back to a castle by a large crowd of lords and ladies. Then, finally, quite strangely, there is the image that you see before you: the unicorn alive again, resting peacefully in a fenced enclosure, as the ripe fruits of a pomegranate tree drip their blood-red nectar onto its white coat.

We do know that the unicorn loomed large in the imagination of medieval European culture; it was a remnant of the writings of antiquity, a pagan symbol that combined equal measures of ferocity and gentleness, and as such became associated with the figure of Christ. The original King James Bible even translated the Hebrew word for wild oxen, re’em, as unicorn.

But what intrigues me most for our purposes today is the fence that surrounds the unicorn in this tapestry. Notice how low it is, how easy it would be for the creature to jump over it and escape. It begs the question, why does the unicorn stay there, when it could so easily leave? Why does it have such a tranquil expression, after having been hunted and confined within this absurdly small space? 

Imagining the Unicorn as an image of Jesus, the Scottish clergyman Harry Galbraith Miller, in a meditation he wrote many years ago on this very same tapestry, gives this answer:

“we come to sense that [the unicorn] is only held there because that is what it itself wishes. It is its own love that holds it, and in all its beauty, restrained power quivering in every limb, it rests there captive. The captive of love…love draws it in self-sacrificing gentleness.”

The captive of love—yes, this is indeed our Lord and our God. And as followers of Jesus, we, too, are invited to be love’s captives. We, too, are asked to lay down amid the fruits of this bloodstained paradise, and to let the bonds of charity hold us fast to this heartbroken earth, even when we would rather run away.

The majesty of the unicorn here is that it chooses to remain within our grasp, we who can grasp so little. It chooses to stay so that we might gaze upon it and be changed by it, we who did nothing to deserve its startling beauty, who will never fully comprehend it.

The unicorn, as the image of God, invites us into love’s enclosure, invites us to lay down our swords, invites to live for something other than ourselves.

For you and I, right now, that might mean wearing a mask to protect our neighbors. It might advocating for justice and reconciliation. It might mean offering forgiveness to one who has wronged us, or making amends if we have wronged someone else.

Every time we do these things, every time we accept the responsibilities of love, we are, as Paul says, putting on the armor of light—the dazzling garment of the gentle warrior, a figure not unlike the unicorn itself, proud and strong and free, yet choosing to stay, choosing to fight for love, despite the odds.

We might not always get it right. We will probably make plenty of mistakes. But how good it is try. How good it is to lay down within this enclosure, where the fruits of the Spirit drip nectar onto our skin, where the Law of Love grows up around us like wildflowers.

That is where we are meant to be. That is who we are meant to be.