Love Letters from God

I’ve never had a 5-year old boy in my life before. So I have been taken by surprise at the way that a 5-year old boy can love. My son Holden loves like no one I’ve ever met before. He throws his entire being into his love, sometimes literally launching his entire body and soul at his beloved. Sometimes it’s one of his sisters, sometimes his dad. Pretty often, it’s me. And his love becomes all-encompassing. He loves all of me, and he loves everything I touch. He decides which car door to get out of based on his love – he always wants to crawl to the front seat and get out of my car door, “because I love you, Mommy!” He decides where to sit at dinner, what movies to watch, sometimes even what glass to drink out of, based on where I’m sitting, what I want to watch, and what kind of glass I have. This is love like I’ve never seen it, without boundaries, pouring out of every pore of his body, and infecting every part of me and my life. His days are bounded by this love, so that the first thing he does every morning is to climb into my bed for a snuggle, sometimes for an hour, sometimes only for a moment before he rushes off to start his day, but every morning begins with that little check-in, that moment of grounding the day in love. And each night before bed, the last thing he does is to give me a hug and a kiss, and sometimes to insist that I come back again and again, or that I hug him by falling across the bed so that he can feel the full weight of my own love, grounding him and giving him the strength to fall asleep knowing that he is safe and loved.

Mother’s Day seems like a good day to start the sermon with a love story like that. But it’s not just the calendar that leads me in this direction today. The readings that are set for this day are a love story of their own. They are God’s love story, God’s love letter to us. Our readings today, and actually for much of this season, are taken from the writings of the community of John. This Gospel and these letters were written for a community that was striving to become a beloved community, that is, a community based in the love of Christ. The word love in its various forms appears as often in these books of the Bible as it does in all the rest of the New Testament combined. These writings are love stories. They are the stories of what the love of God has done for us, and what it is doing in us, and what it might do through us. They are love stories, and if we doubt it, then we have only to listen through the ears of a 1st century Jew. The language that Jesus uses on the night of his arrest, the same images that we heard last week, are the images of the vineyard – I am the vine, you are the branches; abide in me; you will bear fruit. These images are familiar to us from the words and parables of Jesus. We are probably not as familiar with the Old Testament verses that Jesus is invoking with these images. But the people of Israel, the Palestinian Jews of the 1st century, they would have known these Hebrew stories, the words of the prophets, the Song of Solomon, the psalms, and they would have known that when people start talking about vines and vineyards, they are talking love language. This is the image that appears over and over again when God is renewing God’s promises to Israel, renewing God’s vows – in Hosea: “Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit; They shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine.” In Zechariah: “there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit.” In Isaiah: “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved has a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” The Song of Solomon: “My vineyard, my very own, is for myself.” Vineyard language is love language in the Scriptures.

So God is sending you a love letter. God is writing you a love song. The problem that we run into here is that our language for love is so limited. Our vision of love is so limited. When we think of love, we either get sentimental, or we get vulgar. We talk of romantic love, and we talk of maternal and paternal love, and we talk about brotherly love, and we sometimes try to twist Greek words like agape and philos into something that will approximate what we mean when we talk about God’s love, but in the end, all of our words and images and metaphors fall short. Because God’s love is not human love, it is something beyond all of the kinds of love that we understand, or try to understand. Because God’s love, like God’s word, does something; it has power. God’s Word has power, right. You know that, because when God said, “Let there be light,” what happened? There was light, right? And when God’s Word made flesh said, “Lazarus, come out!” what happened? The dead man came out of the tomb. So God’s Word makes things happen. And when God’s Word becomes flesh, when God moves into the neighborhood, the whole world gets turned upside down. God’s love is the same way. God’s love has power – the power to move us to new life, to new understanding, to new ways of seeing and being.

Maybe this is why Jesus says that we need to receive the kingdom of God like a little child. Because that’s not usually how we receive God’s love, is it? We don’t usually receive God’s love like a 5-year old boy, in love with the whole world and everything in it, and especially in love with his mommy, so that even using the same door as she does gives him satisfaction and joy. No, I think the way we usually receive God’s love is more like a surly teenager. Thankfully, I do not yet have direct experience with parenting a teenager, but I have experience with being one, and a good and proper surly, resentful, sulky teenager at that. A teenager’s love is dramatically different from a 5-year old’s. It’s far more wary, far more inward, and somehow far more needy. I remember as a teenager shying away from hugs, sneering at compliments, saying “ppsht” to “I love you”s from my parents, and yet, inside, craving that love and attention, longing for the affirmation and grounding that it gave me. And when things got bad, when I was at my lowest, when nothing else came through, it was back to that love that I would turn. Isn’t that how we tend to deal with God? When God says, “I love you,” our response tends to be, “uh-huh. and what is it you want from me?” Don’t we tend to respond to God’s love letters, to God’s love story, with wariness, with fear, with doubt, “sure you do, but if you really knew me…” And yet, when things get bad, when we are in crisis, when we are up against it, we turn to God with our prayers and supplications, our pleas for help.

I think we really are like teenagers when it comes to God’s love. Not just in how we respond, but in how we view it. Remember being a teenager? Or having a teenager in the house? Remember how, for teenagers, everything is scary? You feel like you are always on show, everyone is looking at you and judging you, and your main objective is to be inconspicuous. You are wary of what will be demanded of you, and most of all perhaps, fearful that you will not be able to do it right. That is, I think, the main motivating factor for many of us, starting in our early teens and going on through our lives. Fear – what if I can’t do it right? So when God says, “I love you!” Our response tends to be wary, “what do you mean? what do you want from me?” Because we’ve heard these passages before, and we’ve been told that we need to obey God and follow God’s commandments, and it sounds like a lot of work that I am not equipped to do. So rather than throwing myself into my love of God like a 5-year old, I stand at the edge, like a teenager, wary and uncertain and fearful, lest I love God wrong, and embarrass myself and God in the process.

It’s the same old problem. We are so certain that God’s love is bound by our response, that we are afraid to respond. We are so certain that what we do for God will determine what God does for us, that we are frozen by our fear, lest we do the wrong thing. When we hear these readings today, all about God’s love, over and over again, God’s love, the only words we actually hear are “keep my commandments.” The only words we hear, in the midst of this love song, in the midst of this gospel story, are the words that sound like law. And we think, if I don’t do this, if I don’t love God right, then all the rest of this won’t apply. But what we forget is the truth that God has known all along, since God first created the world and humans and named it all as “good, very good.” What we forget is that if we could do these things on our own, if we could do  the commandments, if we could obey perfectly, if we could love God right, then we wouldn’t need a Savior.

Because God’s love song, God’s love story, is not a story about what we have to do to earn God’s love. It is not a story about what boundaries God places on God’s love. It is not a story about some sort of ladder that we have to climb to get closer to God, who waits for us up in the heavens. God’s love song, God’s love story, is about how God came down into the vineyard, how God became one of us, so that God could walk among us and know us and show us the fullness of love. God’s love song is the story of how God’s love goes beyond boundaries – not just that it breaks boundaries, or tears boundaries down, or ignores boundaries. It’s that God’s love, like God’s Word, has to power to do, the power to change things, even to change our perceptions of ourselves. Because God’s Word, God’s love, goes beyond sentiment, beyond romance, beyond all of the baggage we bring, and right up onto the cross – it is the love that would lay down its life for the sake of the beloved. For the sake of you.

And because of this love, not because of anything that you have said or done, or anything that you have failed to say or do, not because of any ladder or commandment or obedience, but purely and solely for the sake of God’s love, for the sake of Christ who laid down his life for your sake, you are made free, you are made whole, you are bound, not by any of your own works, good or bad, but by Christ. You are bound by Christ, and by Christ’s love, and by nothing else in all the world. The letter of John tells us that it is God’s love that enables us to keep the commandments, God’s love that conquers the world and gives us faith, God’s love that binds us together and breaks even the boundaries of our own fear so that we can respond, not like a surly teenager, sheltered and shy, but like a 5-year old, boldly and with every ounce of our being, shouting out our love at the top of our lungs; starting each morning and ending each evening grounding ourselves in the love of our beloved; throwing ourselves headlong into the joy of simply loving, because we have been so so so loved.

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