1 John 4: 7-21 – Lent 1, 2016
Centering down: This is the first Sunday of Lent, the weeks preceding Holy Week and Easter. It’s our Christian Ramadan, our “spiritual boot camp” time, a season of fasting and spiritual practice. What we have for you this year is a recommendation for weekly spiritual practices based on our mission statement: We journey, and in love, beauty and music, justice and community, we find God. This is “love week.” It just happens also to be Valentine’s Day – and boy does THAT complicate things!
Let us pray:
God, love is our ground and our highest calling – the most natural thing in the world and the hardest thing we will ever do. As we reflect on love here this morning, may the word we hear be not so much mine, as Yours. We ask in the name of Jesus, our leader and example in love. AMEN.
So… “love week.”
And I must say, from the news I’ve been reading recently, our province is not feeling much love lately. From Quebec mayors saying “no pipelines in OUR back yards” to our “best buds” in BC whipping us in their throne speech… Even here in Alberta with each other I’m not feeling much love. I’ve actually STOPPED reading the editorials in the Calgary Herald. You’d think that the Socialist Menace had taken over, with the intent of destroying Alberta’s economy as quickly as possible. I don’t mind criticism, but what I read simply has no substance – it’s more like name-calling. I didn’t think that the purpose of press and opposition was to undermine trust in the government. I thought the purpose of the press and opposition was to make the government better.
Have we forgotten how to love each other? Or do we think that politics is exempt, somehow, that love of neighbor doesn’t apply in the political world?
And it’s Valentine’s Day, too, an appropriate beginning for “love week.”
Valentine’s Day, a holiday like many others that is both anticipated and dreaded. There’s a great article on love and Valentine’s Day in this week’s Swerve magazine. Here’s an excerpt:
“For believers, romantic love is similar to religious faith: tenaciously sought, celebrated as the ultimate goal in life, often touted as the only key to a meaningful existence. The dream of romance carries a more universal power than any particular religious dogma. God is love, the preachers say. But in the secular world, Love is a god and as many lovers find out the hard way, not necessarily the benevolent sort… As long as you remain among the chosen it’s all blessings and bliss and victory. But that fickle deity will turn on you and when it does, say hello to locusts, boils, and frog rain.”
I worry about sexuality and sexual relationship these days. The newspapers are full once again of Gian Gomeshi and that sordid trial, about violent sex and people who say they’ve been assaulted, and then write love letters to the one who assaulted them. Abusive relationships are a tangled and painful web, and it’s not just Gian Gomeshi – abuse is all over the place and maybe even in every relationship, inasmuch as we function out of our fear and hurt and anger rather than out of our best humanity.
In the Observer I see pictures of protests against the sex ed program in Ontario. A child of six, holding a sign complaining about the loss of her innocence – though I can’t for the life of me see how putting a six-year-old in front of the media preserves her innocence. If only the choice was between the public schools educating our kids about sex, or parents doing the job. But more and more, sex education comes from the mass media, and especially from pornography, one of our fastest-growing industries.
I was watching a TED talk by Philip Zimbardo on “the demise of guys” this past week. He was talking about the how guys’ performance at school, and particularly in intimate relationships, is dropping. He attributes this malaise at least in part to gaming and pornography. At what age have most boys started to watch pornography? 9? 10? I don’t know the age, but I do know that it is dropping, year by year. According to Zimbardo the average boy watches 50 porn clips a week. I don’t know where the data comes from, or if it’s reliable. It is believable. But he points out that addiction to pornography and internet is not like drug addiction. Drug addictions make you want more of the same. Porn addictions, and arousal addictions in general, make you want different, variety, novelty. You can see how that would work havoc with a boy’s ability to negotiate a long-term, intimate, loving relationship with a single (real, live) individual.
We are, potentially, seeing a new generation growing up whose sexuality has been shaped by the pornography industry, and who are therefore confused about the core essential things that are missing in porn: respect and intimacy. Sex, they’ve got. But love – that’s more of a mystery.
Are we forgetting how to love each other? Did we ever really know?
When the early church wanted to talk about love, they essentially had to redefine and invent a new word. They took a word that wasn’t used very often and made it the centrepiece of their theology. The word is “agape,” a word that became associated with a love that is unconditional, a love that seeks the best interest of another, without the need for that love to be returned. I guess we still need that redefinition, we still need that challenge to the confusions and abuses of our day, we still need that injection of health. Here at Knox, as we journey through life, we find God in love.
The first words of our passage today are “Beloved, let us love…” There are two parts of Christian love that must never be separated. One is indicative, one imperative.
The indicative part is something we try to emphasize in every worship service – God loves us. We are, along with the world and every person in it, God’s beloved. We don’t have to earn it, we can’t do something that will cause God to NOT love us. God’s love is without condition or end, and does not depend on our response. God proved this love in Jesus, who loved us all the way to giving his life for us, even though it was effectively our own human sin that killed him. If we ever really get this, we lose our fear of punishment, we lose our need to somehow “measure up.” It’s freeing, it’s comforting, it’s really, really good news.
At our best moments, God loves us, and cheers us on.
At our worst and most sinful, God loves us, and is prepared to forgive, lift us up, help us begin again.
At our most broken, God loves us, and is there to heal us. When the walls are closing in, when we lose our job, when we fail, God loves us and is with us as guide and strength. In life, in death, and in life beyond death, God loves us, God is with us, we are not alone.
In the baptism of Jesus story, God says to him, “you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” I’ve had spiritual directors who encouraged me to hear those words addressed to me. I have no problem with the first phrase – you are my beloved. It’s the second one that gives me the trouble – I can’t really imagine God being pleased with me. But that, actually, is your exercise, your practice for this week.
Grab a timer, set the time for 10 minutes, and hear those words from God to you, 10 minutes a day: “you are my beloved son/daughter: with you I am well pleased.” Mull over the possibility that God not only loves you, but that God also likes you. That God is glad you are who you are. That you being you is a good thing.
Beloved, let us love one another.
That’s the imperative part. It’s not a condition of God’s love, but it is the completion of God’s love, when we in turn allow God to love through us, when we love one another. When we seek each other’s best interest, without condition and without requiring that love to be returned. You and I, and all of us collectively, are called to learn to love well. We are called to bring a responsible, healthy love of neighbor to the political realm. We are called to bring a responsible, healthy love to the economic world, and the world of work. We are called to bring a healthy love to sexual relationships, into our families, and we are called to bring healthy love of neighbor to community life. And most amazing of all, we are called to complete God’s love. In our loving one another, God’s love is embodied, made real, perfected, completed. Wow.
What a wonderful story you heard this morning from Arlene, Marlene, and Shawn. I’m sure they cleaned it up a bit. I think they’ve shaded over the anguish, and heartbreak, and conflict that is part of any family relationship. They haven’t really told us of the courage that love requires, of the fear that they had to conquer along the way. But just look at them and you know that they have learned, and lived, and found their way through to a love that is healthy and mature and really beautiful.
That is what we are about. That is the prize on which we must keep our eyes. It’s not about correct theology, or proper behavior in church. It’s not about moral purity, or being “good enough.” It’s not about budgets and programs. These are the essentials: to accept and live into the good news that we are, all of us, beloved. And to learn to love one another in every aspect of life. We don’t have to protect the sanctity of this space, or worry about the success of the institutional church, or the morality of our neighbours. If we know ourselves beloved, and if we learn to love with depth and health, if the people who chance to walk into this space feel even a whiff of that love, then all those other things will take care of themselves, in a way that we can scarcely imagine.