May 12, 2019
1 John 4:7-11
Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.
Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other.
As soon as Judas left the room, Jesus said, “The time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory, and God will be glorified because of him. And since God receives glory because of the Son, he will give his own glory to the Son, and he will do so at once. Dear children, I will be with you only a little longer. And as I told the Jewish leaders, you will search for me, but you can’t come where I am going. So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
* * * * *
I learned a long time ago that I don’t have to treat every gift I receive as a treasure that needs to be kept forever, like a priceless piece of art, like a Monet. I can decide what to hold onto and what to let go of without it being a rejection of the person who gave me the gift. I can receive the love without holding on to the object.
But some gifts are absolute treasures. Like this one… you can see even from a distance that it’s a heart. What you can’t see is what’s written on it: “Love for ever. Love Luke. Thank you Mom.” I don’t know what brilliant teacher prompted him to make this masterpiece when he was little, but I still keep it on my dresser where I see it every day. He’s a grown man now – 6’ 3” – but I treasure it.
Love is a treasure, that’s for sure. Love is a treasure.
Which is why I was especially happy to hear something Trip shared last week about the Presbyterian students up at Denison. Apparently there was a special opportunity for some of the student organizations to dedicate a bench in someone’s honor. The Denison students decided to dedicate theirs to Fred Rogers – you know, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. They picked this quote they put on their bench:
“There’s no person in the whole world like you,
and I like you just the way you are.”
Isn’t that perfect? So much wisdom in their choice. So much wisdom.
That’s something every human being longs to hear, and not just when they’re little. We long to be noticed, to be seen. We long to be accepted, to be valued, to be treasured – it’s a deep, deep need we have, and it never goes away. Not really.
Which is why Jesus’ ministry was so powerful. He saw people for who they were, and loved them. It didn’t matter if they were “important” or “successful” or even “good”.
He reached out to the outcast, to the leper, to the untouchable. He loved the ones other people saw as unworthy, as dangerous, as too needy. He loved the slow of heart and the slow to ‘get it’ – which often included his own disciples.
Even to the bitter end, his message to his disciples was one of love. The night he was betrayed, he spoke of love. The night before his death, that was his message. He talked about his love for them, and the importance of their love for one another.
“My children,” he calls them. “My children….Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.”
That’s what the early church tried to hold onto, and to echo; to lift up and amplify. Like these words we heard from 1 John:
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us…And since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other.
At its best, that’s what church is for, isn’t it? It’s kind of a learning lab, a school for love, an apprenticeship. A place to practice. Not just when we’re kids, but as adults, too. Because learning how to love is our lifetime’s work. And it’s not something we can learn on our own.
The writer Anne Lamott has talked a lot about raising her son Sam in church – and now her grandson, too. The story of how she herself ended up in church is a tale to tell in itself – she was as broken as broken could be, and church was the last place she thought she would be. But it changed her life; she would say, saved her life. Which is why she wants it for them, too.
Years ago, when Sam was young, she said:
While I can feel Sam’s agonized resistance to attending church, I know there is nourishment for him there – there is real teaching – and a prime parental role is to insist that your kid gets real teaching. Showing up is the lesson. The singing is the lesson, and the power of community. I can’t get this to him in a nice package, like a toaster pastry or take-out. So … I make him come to church with me.[i]
This in spite of Sam hating going to church. Why, then, make him go? Lamott says:
We live in bewildering, drastic times …. [and] I want him to see people who loved me when I felt most unlovable, who have loved him since I first told them that I was pregnant. … And there are worse things for kids than to have to spend time with people who love God. Teenagers who do not go to church are adored by God, but they don’t get to meet some of the people who love God back. Learning to love back is the hardest part of being alive.[ii]
Learning to love back is the hardest part of being alive. Loving God, loving ourselves, loving each other.
It’s our life’s work.
It takes a lifetime of learning… again and again and again. There’s so much that can convince us it’s futile, it’s naïve, it’s too vulnerable. We get burned, we get hurt, we get cautious, we become self-protecting. It’s understandable, really. Love is a risky proposition. Just ask Jesus…
But if and when we close ourselves to love – give up on it - some essential part of us starts dying. We starting folding up into ourselves. Till we’re not really fully human any more.
But if we risk love… if we can show love… if we can trust love… the power is absolutely astonishing. To have another person feel accepted, valued, treasured – it’s incredible.
A few weeks ago, StoryCorps aired a conversation that illuminated the power of that kind of love. If you don’t know StoryCorps, I highly recommend it – it’s recordings of reflections between two people about some experience or moment or event in their lives, and these stories are archived for others to find and hear. NPR airs one every Friday morning, and I love to listen to them.
This one was between a woman named Ellen Hughes and a man named Keith Miller. Ellen has a thirty-three-year-old son named Walker who has autism. Keith is a Public Safety Sergeant who works in a hospital Emergency Room at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. They met because Walker was becoming agitated and violent and was struggling to communicate. Ellen knew from experience that he needed to get to a hospital.
They were scared to death going to the ER, because they had had bad experiences there before. Once, she says, “When he was a little boy, an officer got on his back while he was screaming. And he’s been handcuffed to gurneys in emergency rooms just for having a seizure and being big.”
By the time they get to the ER, he’s so agitated, Walker has bitten his mom. The whole thing is so traumatic.
I’m sitting there broken-hearted, scared out of my mind, bleeding…And Walker’s trying to run away. And I see, like, five guys on him and all I think is ‘this will not end well – they’re gonna kill him.’ But suddenly I hear this cute game.
It’s Keith Miller, playing a game with her son. Walker is trying to escape, and Keith is talking to him, making up a game, “Walker gets up! Walker sits down.” “Walker scoots back. Walker lies down!” And then “high fives all around.”
Ellen looks, and Walker is beaming. “And he’s high fiving every single officer.”
“And then,” Ellen remembers, “And then you started singing… and I thought I would lose it forever.”
Keith says, “I started singing Mr Rogers’ neighborhood.”
“You’re singing Mr. Rogers with these men,” Ellen remembers. “And he went from being terrified to feeling like he had cool friends, cool guys hanging out with him.”
“Yeah,” Keith says.
Yeah. I saw this man who was dealing with something he just did not understand…. And I saw the fear in your face. It touched me personally. My son is 14. He was 15 months when he was first diagnosed as being autistic. Being a father of a child who has autism, I don’t know what changes is gonna occur in him. And, as parents, we’re there to help them deal with their obstacles. And if we can’t do it by ourselves, there’s other people out there to help. And I want to be one of those other people.”
“Well,” Ellen says,
Well, nobody else does what you do. we looked at a very scary situation coming in there. And we turned into a party I think people wanted to join. I’ve been in a lot of ERs. And some people have been kinda nice. I never sat there and felt like this is one of the most important moments of my life.[iii]
There is a beautiful word from Africa called “Ubuntu.” It means something like interdependence. In African villages, when people would greet one another they wouldn’t say, ‘How are you?’ but ‘How are we?’[iv]
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it, there’s a core truth underneath that greeting. “You need other people in order to be human…. “You can’t flourish without other human beings.”[v]
You can live without deep relationships. People do it all the time. But you can’t flourish. We need love to thrive. Not just as recipients, but as participants. To be part of a ‘beloved community.’
Love is a choice. Putting on patience, kindness – that takes courage. Being compassionate, humble, open-hearted – that’s a risk. Nobody understood that better than Jesus. Nobody. And he invites us to choose that love, too.
“My children,” he calls them. “My children….Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.”
[i] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (NY: Riverhead, 2005), 196.
[iii] Keith Miller and Ellen Hughes, StoryCorps, aired April 12, 2019 on NPR. https://storycorps.org/stories/a-visit-to-the-er-takes-an-unexpected-turn/
[iv] Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy (NY: Avery, 2016), 141.
[v] Joy, 270.