Oct. 25, 2020
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
So, today we have the greatest and next greatest commandments in all of scripture according to Jesus. I’m guessing you are familiar with the passage, so rather than elaborate I’ll jump right into the commentary. This is from Lutheran minister, Clayton Schmidt:
“To love God with all our heart, mind, and soul seems nearly impossible when we think of love as an emotion. How does one conjure up feelings for something as remote, mysterious, and disembodied as the concept of God? We cannot look into God’s eyes, wrap our arms around the Spirit, or even see the face of Jesus.
“Likewise,” he continues, “loving our neighbor is difficult. If love is merely our passive response to the person next to us, we are likely to be more often repulsed than moved to love. How can one legitimately look into the face of an enemy and feel unqualified love? It is nearly impossible.
“But biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical love is something we do.”
And, I’ll add to that, Biblical love therefore is something we choose. My answer to Rev. Schmidt’s first question, the one about loving a mysterious God, has (to some degree) to do with the choices we make in defining or characterizing the God we are supposed to love. To love God, we must choose a lovable God. It sounds kind of obvious and simple, but I would argue that in practice it’s not. And, there are so many instances of an unlovable God expressed in the justifications of “religious” behavior that I’ll let you come up with examples of your own, as long as we also all agree to consider that we’re not without the need for correction on this issue ourselves. By that I mean, we all impose limits to grace and conditions that God likely ignores.
Whenever I need reminding of God’s heart and a little help in remembering just how lovable God is, I turn to my little collection of Hafiz reflections called, “I Heard God Laughing.” There are so many good ones to choose from, but this one stood out for today. It is called, “I Am So Glad.” (I should mention, Hafiz uses many names for God, including his own name at times.)
Start seeing everything as God,
But keep it a secret.
Become like a man who is Awestruck
Listening to a Golden Nightingale
Sing in a beautiful foreign language
While God invisibly nests
Upon its tongue.
Who can you tell in this world
That when a dog runs up to you
Wagging its ecstatic tail,
You lean down and whisper in its ear,
I am so glad You are happy to see me.
I am so glad,
So very glad You have come.”
I believe we can love God and even feel love for God by choosing this kind of God: by choosing a God whose joyful love is in and for the wagging of a dog’s tail, a God who rests upon the tongue of a signing bird, a God who calls you beloved – the same name given to God’s Son – no matter where you’ve come from, whatever state of imperfection you find yourself in, and says, “I am so glad, So very glad You have come.”
We can love God by choosing to hear these words from God, by dwelling with them and imagining the God who says them. It’s like the prayer exercise we did a few weeks ago: breathe in the words of God, “Name, I love you.” And, breathe out your own words back, “God, I love you.” We’re given this choice, but even more, I would say we’re given this invitation.
Think about it: the God of all time and space, the God of all creation, the author of this beautiful day gives God’s very self to us! God doesn’t simply lend an ear or offer a favor in our time of need. Instead, God tears open the heavens and is born in human flesh to be with us, and even more to be one of us. God has made a choice; a choice to be “for us all” as the one who loves so that we may know the goodness of being beloved. This is the lovable God we are given.
And, being given this God, we are also given love’s example to follow.
That’s what love is. It is choosing to be incarnate. Choosing to be interested. Choosing to be invested. It is stopping and caring. It is choosing to try to see people the way God sees them. It is choosing to be present to God – the lover of our souls – and to one another, physically and emotionally. That’s why Jesus says the first commandment is like the second. Grace strikes us when we discover the lovability of God and it inspires participation in that love through imitation, which then fuels our sense of the lovability of God.
I told some of you last week that I’ve been reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” real slowly. I’m kind of afraid to get to the end because I so love and admire the character of Atticus Finch and I don’t want anything bad to happen to him. Among the things I appreciate about him is his readiness to see with empathy even his “enemies,” to see from within their own weaknesses and fears and thereby even to in some cases admire them for the strength and courage it must take for them to be themselves. And that, I think, is a biblical kind of love. There’s a generosity in it that goes above and beyond; it’s given by choice and not because he’d be to blame for withholding it. It’s why he’s identified by another character in the book as one of the few actual Christians in that whole Christian town.
Paul’s words to the Thessalonians here seem important to me. He says to the people of that church, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves…” It’s kind of like how the task of a sermon is to speak the truth in love. Truth without love isn’t enough. The sermon needs both if it is really to be God’s “Good News.” When love is really love it is self-giving; it is incarnate; it is invested and relational. I’m reminded of Bob Sussman upon receiving Nourish Bridgeport’s Certificate of Appreciation on Wednesday night. He started with Nourish Bridgeport 10 years ago because his daughter was working on her Batmitsva and needed to fulfill a certain number of volunteer hours. He talked about the joy of meeting so many great people: staff, volunteers, guests, – people of so many types, and colors, and creeds, and religions, and orientations – and how that has enriched his life. But then he said about Nourish Bridgeport, “We have a heart for the people we serve. We don’t just serve them; we have a love for them and we genuinely care.” He moved me with those words because I’ve known them to be true. It’s not just service or doing the right thing; it’s love and it is different.
It’s like when that little boy jumped off the stage into Pastor Sara’s arms, and though she was busy and running around as usual, she paused to look him in the eyes and say, “You know, you’re my buddy?” He said he knew and he climbed down and ran off. We were at an ESL class for immigrant families, but it was much more than that because there was love.
Here’s my last story. A friend had been doing that breathe-in, “I love you,” breathe-out, “I love you” prayer when it occurred to him that he couldn’t remember ever telling anyone he loved them. Certainly, he had love in his life, but his family wasn’t affectionate that way growing up; he never married; and he never had children. He loved people, but he had never said it. That discovery led to a new mission in these mature years of his life – the powerful and sacred mission of saying those words to those on his list. As he said them to me his eyes welled up a bit and for me I’ll tell you, God couldn’t have been more present.
Love during an election season, and especially this election season, is not an easy thing to do. Love isn’t easy when times are stressful and concerns are mounting. But, though it is difficult, I do believe it is what we most need. It may be the greatest and most difficult commandment to fulfill. But, it gives life just as it calls us to give ourselves, and it grows, and it shapes us even as we practice it. So, my suggestion is that like me friend we make it our mission. Let’s start simple, start where we are, be really intentional about it and we’ll see where it takes us.