Monday, 11 May 2009 17:02

May 10, 2009 Sermon

“Love With Abandon”
I John 4:7-21
A Sermon preached by
the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 10, 2009
University Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN

    I was visiting a member of the church recently and this person asked me if I thought the Devil existed.  That’s usually a really loaded question when asked like that.  I said I think that evil exists.   But I also said that the concept of a supremely evil being was a bit of simplistic stretch.  Not to be satisfied with pious talk, my companion said, “So, you think people who believe in the devil are simplistic?”  “No, that’s not what I said.  Wait, you’re putting words in to my mouth.”  We had a good laugh.  I clarified to say that I believe that people and even institutions can do evil things.  We can get caught up in forces beyond ourselves that we can’t control and get swept away doing all sorts of bad things to good people.  But it’s not the Devil that made us do it.  It’s sin.  It’s our own existence within the myriad evils that blind us or confuse us or mingle with our choices to create evil in the world.  Part of our task is to fight against this evil.  But here’s the key.  We confront evil the best with love.  For love is more powerful and it is the best definition of God there is.  Sometimes we preachers need parishioners to challenge us on our stuff if for no other reason than for us to be able to articulate it all a little bit better.
    If I had the insight at the time, I might have pressed a bit further on why the Devil made it into our conversation.  The Devil is a being to fear.  And if we’re not careful, we project that fear onto God.  If we don’t live right, say the right things, do the right things, then God will punish us for eternity.  Why does God look like the Devil sometimes?  I think fear-based theology, while popular is a dangerous thing.  It makes us do the right thing for the wrong reason.  It has no staying power because it’s roots are brittle and shallow. 
    Today’s scripture reading posits that fear and love are distinguished and can’t both be the core of our beliefs.  “Perfect love casts out fear” says the text.  Fear’s not a bad thing.  Fear is the parent of caution.  It both warns and protects us.  But if we make fear our foundation, then we will be a sorry lot.  It’s a negative motivation and it lacks inspiration.  It creates lots of headaches and causes us to do unhealthy things.  Even the fear of hell is not enough of a motivator.  Love is better and a surer and firmer foundation.  Theologian William Self says “we cannot scare people into tolerance, or terrify them into kindness.  The fruit of fear ends up being distrust, suspicion, and resentment” (Feasting on the Word: preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, John Knox Press, Year B Volume 2 page 467).   It gives us a joyless religion.
    Love is what it’s all about.  God is all about love and not fear.  Love is what God wants for the world.  Love is who God is.  Love is how God acts.  Love is the motivating factor and ought to be the basis for our existence and our interactions.  
    “Everyone who loves is born of God and loves God”, says the writer of the first letter of John.  Think about that, everyone who loves is born of God.  That makes sense. Our capacity to love is what distinguishes ourselves as uniquely made in the image of God.  But is it true that everyone who loves, loves God?  That God-term has baggage for people.  We have done so much boxing and packaging and framing of God that we have trouble defining a loving God.  In fact, we attribute to God tremendous evil in the form of war and persecution and prejudice and hubris.  For some folk it makes God and the devil a bit hard to distinguish.  So if we love, what do we love that is called God?  
    My friend and mentor George Williamson put it this way, “Love is the best thing in the world, the only thing everybody really wants most.  Truth is, most of the other things we try so hard for are compensations for not enough love.”
    Love is a fragile thing in our hands.  And when love breaks our hearts the “ground of being”—God tries to help us put it back together again.  That’s the particular madness of God becoming human in the person of Jesus.  Our broken world so full of heartbreak needs putting back together again.  So Jesus came, taught us how to live with one another.  He taught about the overarching love of God which had no room or time for prejudice or oppression or judgmentalism or war.  Jesus taught that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  It was no accident that the most unloved—the lepers, the outcasts, those misunderstood and abused would be the most loved and the most cared for by God.  If the world is so blinded by evil, then Jesus showed that if the world can’t love us then God surely can.
    This is the love force that is at the core of God.  And if we have an ounce of love-force in us, then we have a piece of God in our very bones.  This is a precious and powerful portion of our beings.  It needs and deserves and demands to be expressed.  Motivated by God’s unending and unconditional love for us, we ought to pull out all of the stops and love with abandon.
    For reasons of etiquette or social acceptance, we try to reign in our love-urges.  We try to restrict our love tendencies.  We don’t want to seem too forward or too gregarious.  But there’s something about that love impulse that demands to be set free.  It’s struggling just below the surface and sometimes it gurgles over and creates a flood of good things in its wake.  
    When we picked Faye Kommedahl to receive the Shalom Award, we were saying that we recognized the love-impulse pouring out of her.  We saw it in her activism, her devotion, her steadfastness, her ability to abandon pretense and pretext and try to spread the love of God around the Twin Cities.  Her willingness to work for the Women’s Press for free and create a fine publication that has stood the test of time is testament to the way she loves with abandon.  I would say that when someone loves like that, then they are tapped into their God-nature.  And that God-nature tells them that motivated by love, they need to help make the world more reflective of that love.  They do this by doing acts of justice, acts of mercy, acts of compassion.  They are all manifestations of the love of God.
    Faye follows in a great tradition of women who have loved the world so much that they have sought peace for the world.  Hear this proclamation of Mother’s Day.  You know that Julia Ward Howe penned these words in 1870 in response to the devastations of the Civil War.  She said that mothers knew the need to commit to an ethic of love and it needed to be something more than greeting card sentiment:

Arise then...women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts!

Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:

"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,

Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,

For caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn

All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country,

Will be too tender of those of another country

To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
    our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
    The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."

Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
    Nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
    at the summons of war,

Let women now leave all that may be left of home
    for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means

Whereby the great human family can live in peace...

Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
    but of God

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask

That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,

May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient

And the earliest period consistent with its objects,

To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,

The amicable settlement of international questions,

The great and general interests of peace.

My friends, in the Spirit of Julia Ward Howe, Faye Kommedahl and Jesus, Love with abandon.
    The love of God is best expressed not only in words of devotion to God, but in actions of how we address and care for     one another.  
    Today’s scripture tells us that love comes from God.  
    When we live lives defined by love, then we come to know God.
    Think about this.  When you love someone enough to try to make their world a bit better, then you are incarnating God.      Every time we love, we are tapping into our God-nature.  And a piece of us becomes Christ for the person who needs     it the most.
    “The commandment is this,” says I John 4:12, “Those who love God must love their brothers and their sisters also.”
    The challenge is for us to love all beyond our differences.  That means we need to love not only our friends and the poor and the outcast, but also Haliburton magnates, bankers, lawyers, preachers, talk show hosts, people from certain political parties, even those who drive us a bit batty.  But we don’t just love them because it’s the right thing to do.  The writer of I John says that if we love even them, then we will see God.  Verse 12 says that we cannot see God.  But we can see each other who are the images of God.  If we love one another then God abides in us and God’s love is perfected in us.
    We need not look to the sky to find God, but look as close as your sister or brother whom you love or seek to love.
    Of course, this entails dealing with the good sides and the not so good sides of each other.  We will love some and some we will not love, but it is the act of trying to prayerfully love one another in which we most surely know God.  
    “Beloved,” says the writer, “Let us love one another for God is love.”
    On this Mother’s Day, let us remember that love is the core of our being.
 As Ronald Cole-Turner said, “Love is not a concept, known abstractly.  Love is an action, lived concretely” (Feasting on the Word: preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, John Knox Press, Year B Volume 2 page 467).

So let us put off pretense and love with abandon.
    Let us abandon fear.
    Let us abandon judgmentalism.
Let us abandon prejudice.
But not only that:
Let us abandon self-doubt.
Let us abandon hopelessness.
Let us abandon despair.
Let us abandon loneliness.
    And let us embrace the love of God which we see the best when not when we receive love from someone else, but when we give it.  
Mothers give us life.  And whatever the circumstance there is a love for this little life and they lovingly give it to the world, trusting that God’s reflection might take root in each of us.
    In honor of our mothers and in honor of God, let us love with abandon.  May we bless each other and in so doing, lovingly bless God.  Making our corner of God’s world a bit brighter because of our courageous and contagious love.