Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Trail of Life


A Trail of Life
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 20, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
1 Kings 17: 7-16
Matthew 14:13-21



Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives    
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.
Amen.

So we’ve been working at defining love for the last few weeks. And as we go in our defining we do not want to conf ne love too much, because there is great danger in limiting infinite things, and love is an infinite thing, mostly because it is connected to experience, and experience is something that is occurring ever in the eternal present. . . in other words we are constantly experiencing things, and across this world, and across all of time, people have been experiencing love in immeasurable, unfathomable ways. And so we can get at the definition of love only through narrative and poetry, because they both take into account this intangible notion of experience, but it is also important to make the distinction that everything is not love, infinity does not assure saturation, and we must realize that as well, love can and must be defined, so that we can grow closer to knowing it, especially since Christ himself states that the greatest commandment is wrapped up in doing this very thing, to simply love God and love our neighbor. So after setting those paramenters about love and its definition, we set out to work, and pushed our boundaries a little bit by taking the notion that God is Love, and applying it, looking at the actions of God in the Bible, and raising them up, and thereby challenging ourselves, and understandings of love, greatly, but raising up the actions of God in the Bible and calling them love. It pushed us, greatly. . . but now having done that, these last few weeks of this sermon series, beginning last week and ending I think next week, we are being more specific, trying to bring those boundaries back, again not to confine, but to give us an up close and tangible idea of what love is, and how we might go about doing it. Last week we talked about the idea that Love is saying, “I will not walk away” which is a mirror of God’s steadfastness. God does not walk away, he is always there with powerful and meaningful presence in and through the lives of the Biblical Characters, no matter what they do, and we testify to the same about God in our own lives today, that no matter what God will not walk away. . . God is steadfast.

Today I want to bring to light another facet of Love, and that is that it leaves a trail of life behind it. It is abounding and overflowing with life. Now to help me bring out this idea, I’m going to seek to show another idea about love that is greatly connected, and that is that it never runs out. . . let’s look at the Old and New Testament Lessons for today, for they are both stories revealing this amazing quality that love and its power has. . . the very miracle of radical fullness.

The first is from the Old Testament, the story of Elijah and the widow, and the ever filling jars. . .



 But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.



Now before I go on to the New Testament lesson, I want to expound on this one. There is a novel that I read this past spring that takes this story and expands it, taking what is only a paragraph or two from the Bible and imagining it in its fullness. It is called The Fifth Mountain, and it was a short and easy read, and a good read. It really did bring to life this story, bringing to life the political realities that Elijah was dealing with, the idea that this woman, this widow and her son were not living alone but in city, in a community, and that the idea of sheltering a Prophet of Yahweh, was not only bad from an economic (hey we don’t have any bread to spare aspect) but that also a political, in other words, not only would they starve, but they’d be outcast, shunned, or perhaps much worse. And then what else would happen during this time. Elijah is running away from Jezebel, but even Elijah’s own faith is tested, he has yet to fully come into his own as a prophet, he has yet to work his amazing act with all the priests of Baal, and he has yet to hear God’s still small voice. . . but this act of faith on his part, and her part bears the fruit of real sacrifice, because it bears out life really out over the edge, but what the writer, Paulo Coehlo, who is more famous for writing the book The Alchemist, what he does is show how those jars not emptying is truly connected to their faith and humanity, their love, growing for each other built on this shared act of faith out over the edge. Impressive stuff, Fifth Mountain, great book. I’m sure it is in a box at this point, but when I get to it I fully recommend it and can lend it, or maybe share it in a book circle at some point.

But now let’s turn our attention to another, jar never emptying story, that being the feeding of the multitudes from Matthew’s gospel, this is Matthew 14: 13-21, I’m sure at least slightly more well known than old Elijah’s:

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.



Now both of these stories share in common something that is truly miraculous, for in both what is expected fails to occur. When you go out with only five loaves of bread and two fish, you cannot expect to feed five thousand people, and when a widow only has a little bit of oil and a little bit of meal, and they are about ready to eat their last meal before starving to death. And that is what the text says. There are not many details in the story as it comes to us from 1 Kings, but that one does, it clearly says, out of the mouth of the woman that they have got it into their minds that this will be their last bite, that their food is completely gone, and not just that this will leave them out of food temporarily, no this is their last bite of food, and their last prospects of having any food, this is it, she says, I was saving it for my son and me, so that we can eat it and then die. Now that is poverty, and that is starvation, and that is supposed to be all she wrote, that is supposed to be the end, but yet she shares, and the food abounds, and it lasts everyday until Elijah is finally ready to move on. Amazing, it shouldn’t be like that. The disciples said, Jesus it’s getting late, and there are all these people here, they are going to want to be fed, and we ain’t got it, just a two fish and a few loaves of bread, but somehow, just like with Elijah, it all worked, when the need was there, what was provided abounded. . . and the Israelites shared common stories in their time in the desert, what with Manna falling from heaven, and the water coming out of the rock. It shouldn’t be like that but it is. . . Now you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with love, and I thought you were talking about leaving a trail of life behind you, or some such thing, what does this have to do with love?

Have you ever noticed, or again we’ll focus on experience, have you ever experienced a time when you were seemingly loving, and your energy to do so didn’t give out, what you had to give was absolutely necessary for what it was that you needed to do? Have you ever noticed that feeling in yourself? Have you ever noticed it in someone else? Have you noticed it differently in your life when loving was a part of the recipe. . . and by love, let’s use for sake of this week, one of those words connected with the great commandment, we talked about it the other week, the Hebrew word Meod, which is translated often as might, love the lord your God with all your might. And remember that this word means to the end of your energy, like you’ve crossed the desert, and had no understanding of why your feet kept moving, but they did. . . that is meod, giving of your complete self, how come is it then that when you truly love with meod, you never run out. . . by definition you are giving to your very last breath, your very last bit of energy, your very last, but that last never actually comes?  

It’s a paradox . . . and that is the title of the poem that I put in the bulletin as this morning’s meditation. . . The Paradox. . .


The city standing on the hill is not
The goal. The people there do shine without,
Not for themselves the center of the plot;
For those who see, instead, it's all about.
The city shines its light unto the world;
The light itself the beacon that it gives,
That light grows dim when inward focus furled,
For love, outpouring stokes the strength, it lives!
But love we give is not love that is lost;
It grows, the more it leaves the one whose love
Is given freely, d'spite reward or cost,
Though always seen by unseen eyes above,
So shine your light, and shine it not for you,
And they'll be filled with light, but you will, too.



Now as the writer of this poem I am in the unique position to tell you a little bit about it. First off it is a sonnet, and the sonnet is a tight structure. There is set meter and a rhyme schemed, but also there is a structure to the idea. Normally in a Shakesperean Sonnet like this, there are three major parts. The first part is made up by the first two stanzas, in this case the first 8 lines, and they are supposed to develop an idea. Let’s look at the idea that is being developed. . . biblical imagery, city on a hill, and its job to shine light, not for itself but outward. So this light is not for themselves, but sent outward. . . and it speaks initially of the paradox, without explaining it, it says that light shines out, but if it were to shine in for the people inside the city the light would dim. . . interesting to think about. . . I remember being in high school and learning the difference between external and internal family economy. . . for instance if I was doing chores around our house for money that was coming from our family. . . but if I were to go out and cut the neighbor’s grass or get a job at the mall that would be money coming in. . . and of course money coming it is better than money going out, because it adds to the coffers, but in this case it is reversed, the light grows in strength only when shining outward. . . hmmm. Now in a Shakesperean sonnet comes the fancy Italian word, Volta, which just means changing point. At this point the question being asked, or in this case the irony being raised, gets explained, and in this case it connects it to love, that love is not lessened when it is given, but rather grows and grows, and that being the case with love given in connection with meod, it would also give back at that same heightened level. Again I ask have you ever found this to be the case? In yourself? In others?

Another story, and another poem. . . keeps coming back to narrative and poetry doesn’t it, you see there is a method to this madness. . . in my former church there was a woman, and I noticed that she was “Bleeding love on three sides.” When we are born we gain the first aspect of our identity, we become daughter or son. . . our identity is connected in that way to another. Then if we get married we gain a second, we become husband or wife. . . and then if we are lucky enough to follow this proscribed order, we have kids and gain a third, we become mother or father, there are three sides then to identity, and she had the three, she was daughter, husband, and mother. . . and she was in a situation where her mother was 99 years old and battling the rapid decline of her body, she needed constant care. . . it would turn out that the end was near, but at this point it hadn’t come yet. Also her husband who had some chronic health problems anyway, had also fallen, slipped on the ice and broke his foot and ankle, needing constant care, and her son had just been diagnosed with the rapid onset of cancer, needing constant care. . . now that is what I mean by bleeding love on all sides, not just three sides, but all sides. . . yet as weary as she was, her energy never waivered, she was strong, she was a rock, she loved them each and even had love outpouring beyond those three sides to the people of her church whom she truly loved as well. I was so moved I wrote this for her:


Have you ever been bleeding love on all sides,
Pouring out your heart in three directions at once,
Where all that makes you, you, needs all of you,      
Completely, wholly, and there is no end in sight,
Where the immediacy of now is real, encompassing
Every corner of your body, flowing through every 
Vein and leaking out, your fluid force of life, given,
Offered, none held back or hoarded, overflowing,
Breaking down walls and barriers, at once forever?
You should feel empty, but if you have, you get it:
There is nothing that could fill you so much. Perhaps,
This is living in the house of the Lord, a house 
Where walls have long since come down, invisible,
But real, an embrace, where all that flowed out
Returns, as if it never left. There is no way to know
Such things: they must be experienced, felt, believed.
My prayer is not to deliver you from such things,
But to send you into their glorious center, so you
Can come to love like that and become fully human,
For this alone is the grace-filled image of God. 

At the end of the poem I state, again maybe paradoxically that I would not want to deliver someone from such things, though there is great pain, though there is great effort, though suffering is at a premium, a high, those are the times when we look back on them that we feel the most alive. . . I remember funerals where there was such life present. . . actually I don’t remember any funerals connected to church, where I have been apart of them where there wasn’t extreme life present, an energy, an unmistakeable power just emanating from the people present, in the outpouring of help, but also in the outpouring of just being there, just realizing that there isn’t an escape hatch, but reality must absolutely be endured, and it is and it does, and love and life, inseparable as they are absolutely abound.

I once had a friend ask me what I thought the meaning of life was. He said, “Pete, I’m fifty years old and I’ve done a lot, I’ve got a good job, I’m making a difference here, I’m happy at home, great wife, love the kid, and I’m here teaching these kids, but I don’t know what life is all about.” I said, yes you do, he was like what do you mean? I see it, you couldn’t exude the energy and passion that just comes out of you unless you had some clue, What in the world are you talking about. . . I said life isn’t about any unifying secret that all people have to live to. He said wait a minute preacher man isn’t the meaning of life connected to church and religion? I said yes and know. . . he said what do you mean? Well in church we talk about love right, loving God and Loving Neighbor. . . he said yeah, but what is love? He said, hell I don’t know, being nice to people. . . come on you can do better than that. . . I said its about giving of yourself completely. . . knowing yourself, your talents, your environment, your experiences, how they have shaped you, and giving that, just that to the world. . . he said, ok yeah, but that is what I mean I’m 50 years old, relatively happy and living a balanced life, but I don’t know what it is for me. . . I said, have you ever had a moment where you were doing something, and connected to it with such passion and energy, giving your all, but in the middle you realized that the energy put in and the energy taken out were at a balance, and it felt like you could do it forever. He said, yeah. . . I said, of course, no kidding I’ve seen you. He said, what do you mean you’ve seen. I said it is unmistakable when someone is like that because the life that it spreads around them is infectious it just spreads, it leaves a trail. . .

The girls play this game on our phones or our ipads, its called slither.io or something like that, but basically it works like this you are a snake, and all the other people who are playing the game at the same time are also snakes, and you have to move around, now as you eat these little dots you get to be bigger, now you at some point realize that the little dots are coming from the tail end of all the snakes and you have to eat more dots than you give up, and if you run into another snake you die. . . and your body turns into a feast of these little dots, and if you eat them you grow really big really fast. . . the other thing you can do is speed up your snake, but if you do that the rate that you snake is shrinking is larger, and you lose control. . . so you have a bunch of snakes trying to kill each other and then live off of the death of each other because if you can kill a bigger snake you can get bigger and take their life force. It’s a great game, and it reflects in many ways the way of the world, and if we were only looking at the way the world works and operates it would be really easy to think that this is all the world is, a bunch of conflict, everyone taking from everyone else, running the race and trying to go fast, but going fast and running out of energy and control. . . knocking others down so you can take their place and gain from their fall. . . we talk in church often about being in the world but not of it, this is what we mean when we say that, because Love works the opposite. . . the faster you go, the more energy you have, the more energy you give, the more energy you have, and then there is that one similarity, others do benefit from the trail you leave behind but it doesn’t make you smaller it makes you bigger, and when you finally do give it all, others do benefit, but Jesus shows us that even this is not the end, doesn’t he. . . and that is where we will end next week with our series on Love Defined, but not Confined, the notion that Love is sacrifice. . . . until then. . . what kind of vapor trail are you leaving behind you? Amen. . .


Sunday, August 13, 2017

I Won't Walk Away


I Won’t Walk Away
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 13, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Jonah 2: 2-9


Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.

Amen.



As we continue this series about Love, defining it without confining, we will start with this week and next week getting into more of the specifics about love. In the first sermon in this we looked at how love is one of those infinite words that is hard to define. It is hard to put into words what exactly it is and be specific about it because when you do so you tend to leave much of it out, but that the way to break through those limitations is with poetry and with narrative, for they each bring to bear experience, which is constantly occurring, new and distinctive in and to each one of us. So last week, we looked both, taking the metaphor about God is love, and hashing it out against one of the Biblical poems about God, Psalm 136, recalling the chorus about the “steadfast love of the Lord” Ci Laolam CHosdi. . . and then we looked at the sweeping Biblical narrative of God’s actions, relating them, each of God’s actions to what then must be aspects of love. If the purpose of the last two sermons was to push outwards, expanding the definition of love, it was, but at some point you must begin to reign it in, because despite the fact that Love is infinite, i.e. without ends, it does not mean that love is everything. If Love was truly everything then it would really exist, no we can discern that which is and that which isn’t love, and so since we have pushed the limits outward, now I want to begin to talk about aspects of exactly what love is, not that it is only this, but that is really this. I want to introduce this idea by looking at the Old Testament Lesson first. This is the famous prayer of Jonah from the belly of the great fish. Jonah 2: 2-9.





 I called to the Lord out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
how[
a] shall I look again
    upon your holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
    O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”





Now I use this story and episode and prayer to bring out one of the great aspects of love, and that is its steadfastness. We paid homage to it last week with our reading of Psalm 136, the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. . . What God is saying, what God is doing, What God is showing through His actions is in fact, I will not walk away. I will be with you. I will be faithful to you. I will be your God. And he shows this again and again. Once Adam and Eve falter, God shows up, asking “Where are you” though Cain has murdered, he is marked, though Jacob is a swindler, though Abraham makes mistakes, though the Israelites, having just been freed, mutter and ask to be put back in their chains. Though during the time of Judges, the people forget and turn away from God again and again. Though Saul, then David, then Solomon all sin in the eyes Of the Lord he is still faithful and steadfast, remembering the covenant that he made, even in the face of the Exile and the destruction of the temple, as the Prophet Ezekiel teaches, and as we looked at in Bible Study on Monday, God is still in charge, still ruling, still upholding his covenant, he has not gone anywhere, and he says that “they will know that my name is the Lord.” God is still present, no matter what may befall, because love is unconditional, steadfast, and therefore, will not walk away.

And this continues to be the case in the New Testament as well, look at the last words of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew, this being the lesson for this morning, Matthew 28: 16-20, some call it the great commissioning because it gives the disciples their job to do, but it does one thing more.



16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”



I am with you always to the end of the age. I am with you, I will be with you, I will not walk away. And it isn’t a conditional statement, it is not I will be with you if, you are faithful, you are true, you go to church, you lead sinless lives, you follow my commandments, sure he has commissioned them, they, we are to make disciples of all nations and Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the next statement is predicated not with a so, or a therefore, but with a “remember” don’t forget I am, definitely, assuredly, bet your life of it, I am with you to the end of the age, always. . . the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. God is with us, we may run like Jonah, we may turn away, we may cheat, be unfaithful, forget, but it changes nothing about God, God always shows up, and is always with us. His presence is sure, steady, unwavering and true, and therefore one of the necessary aspects of love is this steadfastness, this notion that says, come what may I will be here. And we know this. . . two reasons we know it. One is that we see here God doing it, and the other is that it truly is one of the great human needs in the world. We have the need to have other human beings say to us, I will not walk away, why? Why is that? . . .

Now for the answer I want to have a little bit of fun this morning and change it up. I want to show how this aspect of love isn’t something that the church has a monopoly on, but something that every human being understands and knows, and I’m going to show it through some songs, showing how the idea that love means, not walking away, and being steadfast is something that human beings know very well at their very core, even if they for some reason of history do not connect it to God. . . we affirm and we do connect it to God, and the way God made us, so why do we have the need to have other human being say to us, I will not walk away. . . .

Why? why? Tell them that its human nature.
Why? why? Does he do me that way? (If they say);
Why? why? Tell them that its human nature.
Why? why? Does he do me that way?



You see, its there, right, human nature, the way God made us is why we need love, and why we can seek for our greatest needs and wants to get a further understanding of what love is. We know deep down there is something in us that is empty without someone else, and that being abandoned is one of our greatest fears.

Don Williams puts it this way



G) ‘Till the rivers (C) all run (G) dry,

‘Till the sun falls (C) from the (G) sky,

‘Till life on (C) earth is (G) through,

I’ll be (D) needing (G) you,



Paul Simon tried to write the opposite, but we know that it is folly just when we hear it. . . he writes



I Am A Rock, I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries!





No that song is about the folly of a human being thinking that he can live on his own, that he can some how shield up and protect himself from love.

[Verse 1]



Please,  lock  me  away  and  don’t  allow  the  day.

Here,  inside  where  I  hide  with  my  loneliness.

I  don’t  care  what  they  say,  I  won’t  stay 

in  a  world  without  love.



This writer, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, of All you need is love fame, knows that living in a world without love just doesn’t work for human beings, we aren’t made that way



So what remains is the question of love, the statement of love that works both ways. The question of Love, as I put in the bulletin as the meditation for today is quite simple, as captured by my favorite songwriter, Townes Van Zandt

If I needed you, would you come to me?
Would you come to me and ease my pain?
If you needed me, I would come to you
I'd swim the seas for to ease your pain



And swimming the seas to ease pain, must not only work when everything is sunshine and lollipops but also through the hard times. . . the rain. . .

On a perfect day, I know that I can count on you

But when that’s not possible, tell me can you weather a storm

 ‘Cause I need somebody, who will stand by me

Through the good times and bad times, who will always

Always, be right there

Sunny days, everybody loves them,

Tell me baby can you stand the rain,

Storms will come, this we know for sure

Tell me baby can you stand the rain?



So love may be intimidating to us, it may be something that is great with meaning, a word that we dare not uses to often for the very reason that it means not walking away through the hard times, maybe even forever. Robert Earl Keen puts it this way

Love's a word I never throw around
So when I say I'll love you til' the end
I'm talkin about until the day they lay me in the ground
Love's a word I never throw around
 
 
I actually said it to my wife in this way. . . from Frank Sinatra
 

Today I may not have a thing at all, 

Except for just a dream or two;

But I've got lots of plans for tomorrow,

And all my tomorrows belong to you.



I’m going to finish now with two songs, two songs that I think really capture this aspect of love the best. One is from the secular world and rings of it, and the other from the gospel world. Let me start with the secular one first. Listen to this, this is from a song by Jewel called “I Won’t Walk Away” aptly titled for today don’t you think. . .

Wrong or right be mine tonight

Harsh world be damned, we’ll make a stand

Love can bind, but mine is blind

Other’s stray, but I won’t walk away.



That is it, other’s stray but I won’t walk away, If you needed me I would come to you, I would swim the seas for to ease your pain. I can stand the rain, come what may, I will not walk away. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone say this to you? Have you ever dared say it, and mean it, while saying it to someone else. . . . such is the stuff of the love of God, as is shown in this gospel classic.

Once I stood in the night
With my head bowed low
In the darkness as black as could be
And my heart felt alone and I cried
Oh Lord, don't hide your face from me

Like a king I may live in a palace so tall
With great riches to call my own
But I don't know a thing
In this whole wide world
That's worse than being alone

Hold my hand all the way
Every hour, every day
Come here to the great unknown

Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone

Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone


Sunday, August 6, 2017

God Is Love


God Is Love

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

August 6, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Psalm 136

1 John 4: 16-21




Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.

Amen.



16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.



Last week we began this series on defining the idea of love, we wanted to get at the heart of exactly love is, in its totality, in its completeness, for Christ himself calls Loving God and Loving our Neighbor to be the greatest of all commandments, and here John in his letter affirms unwaveringly that we are to love, abide in love, love God and must also love our brothers and sisters also, so it is imperative for us to know what love is, but I also had said that one of the real dangers of defining something like love, something that truly is infinite is that when you do so you can also confine it, you put it in a box, making it easy to handle, easy to hold, easy to accomplish, but easy then also to wield like a weapon, easy to limit, and easy to miss. There is the danger that you could think that loving in one limited way would be somehow enough. Like the liar that John refers to who says he loves God, but despises his brothers and sisters. There is also the danger that you could think that your broken and limited view of love be all there is, and when that limited definition leaves you hurting and wanting, you have nothing else, nothing more to pull you through. There is the danger that you could mistake someone’s loving towards you as something else. Have you ever been there before, and feeling those feelings of loss, hurt, betrayal, abandonment, from loved ones? Perhaps. Have you ever done something for someone from your perspective out of Love, but had the other person not understand, or did not take it the right way, or thought of your love, not of love, but took it as hate?  Have you ever felt either of those ways towards God. . . feeling betrayed, hurt, abandoned, in your darkest moment, by God? Have you ever asked the question, how could a loving God allow this to happen? How could a loving God allow that to happen? Could love include such things? Our New Testament Lesson goes very far in answering that question unwaveringly in the affirmative.  Saying that God is Love, that God has perfected love, that God abides in love, and that we know God does love us, and believe God does love us through His love, and we love, because God first loved us. These words ring out in the affirmative that God, who we believe to be all powerful, is Love, but then there is suffering in the world. Can such things be? Can such things be love? Does your definition of Love include such things? Some people have said that yes the God of the New Testament is a loving God, but the God of the Old Testament is vengeful, smiting, and unbending, but aren’t both God? Could both characterizations of God be defined as Love? Is that possible? Or are we missing something? Maybe we don’t know what love is after all. . . maybe we need to push out our boundaries a little bit, that our definitions of Love are too confining for the Infinite God we serve.

Last week I took the very long road to say that there are two ways that we can define an infinite idea without confining it. One is through poetry and metaphor, for they each leave the interpretation open to the experience of the reader. The other is through narrative because narrative deals with experience. So if we were going to look at our God/Love metaphor, that God Is Love, we would need to look at all of the experiences of God, the poets who have written, and the narratives that describe God and his actions. It is a great thing we can look at God to find out about Love, and perhaps we can experience Love and find out about God. This morning we can start with the poetry because it is actually a poem about God’s actions, and saying how they fit God’s love, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s from the Old Testament. You see the same loving God is actually there, too.

Let’s take a look at Psalm 136. It has a repeated refrain, “his steadfast love endures forever” at least that is what I have in my NRSV, but the pew Bibles are NIV, and the NIV has “his love endures forever.” The King James, our oldest English version has “his mercy endureth forever,” and I read another translation that said, “his covenant agreement endures forever.” There are many. . . so today I want us to leave behind the middle man, and speak a little Hebrew. It is actually easier for us because in Hebrew it is only three words. And the first one is easy, it is just Ki. . . got it? And Ki just means “for.”  The second one is a little more tricky because it has kind of a guttural sound, it is La’olam, and this means “enduring”. And the third starts with a grinding ch sound, Chasdoh, is the one for steadfast love, which comes from the root, chesed, which is the closest word to our Love, maybe or the Greek Agape, but it is about God’s love for us, which of course is connected to his keeping faith in his Covenants, something that he always does, and something we often fail at. So I’m going to read the English first line and we will say together each time, Ki La’olam Chasdoh. . .



O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the God of gods,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

who alone does great wonders,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
who by understanding made the heavens,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
who spread out the earth on the waters,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
who made the great lights,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
the moon and stars to rule over the night,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

10 who struck Egypt through their firstborn,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
11 and brought Israel out from among them,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
13 who divided the Red Sea in two,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
14 and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
15 but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea,[b]
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
16 who led his people through the wilderness,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
17 who struck down great kings,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
18 and killed famous kings,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
20 and Og, king of Bashan,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
21 and gave their land as a heritage,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
22 a heritage to his servant Israel,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.

23 It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
24 and rescued us from our foes,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
25 who gives food to all flesh,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.

26 O give thanks to the God of heaven,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.





You see that is the great thing about that Psalm it repeats it. It tells the entire story about the covenant relationship between Israel and their God, and each step of the way they chant as if to remember, as if to drill it into their minds that their God is Love, and that each thing that he does is a part of that love, from Creation to the parting of the Red Sea, to the providing of food, the giving of land, and the getting rid of their enemies. . . all seen by them as Love and a part of God’s steadfast love, Hessed, for them, but aren’t there more things that God does in the Bible, isn’t there more to the character of God than just these things, can’t we delve deeper and get more, breaking through any confines that may arrive, although we are getting a picture of love from this, creating a place and home, providing food and nourishment, protecting from those who may mean harm, setting free from bondage. . . that is a pretty good list, at least to start with,  because at this point it is confined to a certain perspective. . . what about love for say the famous kings, for King Shihon of the Amorites and King Og of the Bashon. Does love include preference? Choosing? One over the other? Could such things be?

Let’s look further. . . we remember that God creates the world in 7 days, that he places a firmament, that he holds back the waters, that he creates space, and that he fills that space. . . and that finally he creates human beings, in his image. . . perhaps we can create our own refrain, steal it from Tina Turner, What’s love got to do with that? Remember. . . God is Love. . . what about rest, on the seventh day God rests. . . is rest a part of love? Then God places a tree in the midst of the garden, forbids it to be eaten, but leaves us free to do so? What’s love got to do with that? God is Love. . . God shows up, in the cool of the day, calls out, where are you? Even though he must know already? Does God punish. . . or are these merely the consequences of the action? (That is Day 1 or 2 of my Sunday School class starting on September 10th so we’ll skip answering that question for now). . . God chooses and prefers Abel’s offering to Cain’s. . . What’s love got to do with that? Remember God is Love? But when Cain kills Abel, God sends him out, but leaves a mark on him, a protective mark, that he not be touched. . . interesting. . . then you have Noah, a flood to destroy the world, except for 1 righteous man and his family and all the animals 2 by 2 except for those silly unicorns that missed the boat, God Is Love. .  . a rainbow, a promise, the first covenant, never shall I again. . . is this the beginning of “Ki La’olam Chasdoh” or is it merely another aspect of God is Love, that has never not been. . .  because then Abram is called. . . promised to. . . then made to wander, to wait, to question, to act in faith, and during that time the great cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, love again? We affirm again, yes God Is Love! Abraham take your son, Isaac up the mountain, father, says Isaac, where is the lamb. . . love. . . he does show up though, right at the moment of truth, Abraham, Abraham, put down the knife. . . no not your son. . .

What about Jacob, the trickster, cheats his brother out of his inheritance, flees, but is chosen still by God, and God wrestles with Jacob, renames him, and again, is it like Cain, leaves a mark on him, gives him 12 sons, but they fight amongst themselves, jealousies reign, they sell their brother Joseph, but God cares for Joseph, provides for Joseph, protects Joseph, uses Joseph to save many from famine, including the brothers who had sold him. . . . but then allows the Egyptians to forget, and then to enslave, for years and years of bondage, but then when Pharaoh decrees that babies should be slaughtered, he saves one in a basket. . . the same Hebrew word for the basket is Ark from that old story of Noah. . . one slow of speech, he uses to set the captives free, and promises to lead them to a land flowing with Milk and honey. . . . Think about God with Gideon, Deborah, Ruth, Samson, Samuel. . . think of Samuel’s mother Hanna, and her prayer, God give me a son, and God does. . . think of David, with Goliath, with Saul, with Jonathan, what about with Bathsheba. . . what characterizes God through all of these stories, again all of it is Love, must be. What about the prophets, what about Daniel, what about Elijah, that God not being in the hurricane, the earthquake, but instead the still small voice. . . the oil jars that are always full. . . what about with Jonah, the patience, but also the forgiveness toward Nineveh. You could spend a lifetime studying all of the aspects of God and of Love in the Old Testament, but how often do we seek to limit God to suit our tastes, and to limit Love then to what is easy sweet and appealing, the Valentine’s Day love. . . but we can see that it is much more difficult than that. . . Love has many more rough edges than that. Jacob wrestles with God, and doesn’t let go. . . is that what we need to do to understand the depths and mysteries of what love can be, because I didn’t even mention Job yet, or the Assyrians, or the Babylonians, or the exile, Esther and Haman, hmm love. What about the Persians, Isaiah calls Cyrus the anointed of God, could it be love to use a foreign ruler to restore and reestablish the Jewish state, even if it is merely a colony within the larger Persian empire? Then you have the Greeks, and then finally the Romans. . .

At which time the ultimate definition of Love comes. Christ, God come to live with us, not born in a palace but a manger, allowing himself to be baptized by John, heads out in the desert to fast and resist temptation. . . the temptation of control and escape. . . he withstands. . . his steadfast love endures remember. . . eats with outcasts, feeds the multitude, heals the sick, raises the dead to life. . . and takes over the empire, sets up a benevolent dictatorship where everyone’s needs are administered to, and all are taken care of forever more. . . wait, what? Isn’t that what the world says the definition of love would be? A central authority making sure that everything is fair and equal and no one ever needs, or has their feelings hurt? Isn’t that love? Perhaps not, though because that isn’t at all what Jesus does. No he goes to a cross. That can’t be right, I thought the New Testament was the progressive loving testament. . . how could it be that with all of the power in the world, all the power to do some good, Jesus doesn’t do it. That instead he goes to a cross, to die, and to be trapped inside of a tomb?

NO there is something more to this love stuff. . . there are a few common threads that we see in the story, and they find their culmination in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. WE see the act of creation. . . creating a world, creating beings to be in that world, establishing ways that lead to the flourishing of life, but also leaving people free to make those choices. . . even to their own destruction. . . but then repeating the process again and again, with special promises, planting seeds, seeds that find themselves cultivated through actions done freely, always freely, in faith. . . these seeds create lands flowing with milk and honey, blessings, and abundant life. . . then there are other times when the captives need to be set free again. . . covenants of righteousness are forgotten and broken not by God but by us, and people end up in chains. . . God sets those captives free. . . but the new covenant according to Jeremiah the prophet will be written onto our hearts, and so God comes himself to be the seed planted, to leave his mark on us, to set the captives free, to become the sacrifice, and to show for ever that the true and full definition of love, though it may be difficult because it always includes a cross, is stronger than any limitation we could ever put on it, even death itself.

Can you imagine how much faith must be a part of love for love to include such freedom? I’m not talking about the faith that we have in God, but the faith that God must have in us. He must know something that we do not, to have such faith in us, that we could ever learn to love like that, to love He does, he must have much faith in us to believe that we could begin to have enough faith in Him, and to have faith enough in our neighbors to love him and them in the way that God loves us, faith enough to feed and heal and provide and sacrifice ourselves, all in order to set them free. . . not to shape them to our will or enslave them and control them, but to set them free. Love is heavy. . . for God is Love. Amen.