Sermon: “Because” (based on “God is Love,” from 1 John 4:2-21)

jamaican

I can’t remember if it was my sophomore or junior year in college, but at one point at the very beginning of December, I decided it was time to do some laundry.

Actually, if I’m honest, that time had come probably about two weeks before, because I was on my last of everything.

You know that point when you’re down to wearing knitted wool ski socks to the gym, and if that’s not bad enough, you look down and realize that one of the socks is argyle and the other one isn’t?

Well, that’s where I was.

So off I went to do my laundry—two E&R laundry bags and my father’s duffel bag from being in Vietnam, full of pretty much every stitch of clothing I possessed.

The laundry room was empty when I got there, so after getting things started, it didn’t take long before I got bored, and I wandered back to my room. And I must have fallen into something there because I remember that it wasn’t until several hours later that I returned to make a horrible discovery: every last article of clothing was gone.

Now, I had been gone long enough that for all I know, someone came in, put everything in the dryer, folded it all item by item, put it in a little basket, and then walked it out, load by load, into some sort of waiting panel truck and from there, into oblivion.

I never saw any of those clothes again.

Now, there are worse things. Christmas wasn’t long off. But it wasn’t Christmas yet…and so for three weeks, I became the great borrower of the Class of 1992.

It’s the only time in my life I’ve worn designer jeans. Which I am still not over.

But what was even stranger was wearing other people’s t-shirts.

T-shirts celebrating bands I wasn’t into, and concerts I had not been to. Eddie Money. The Fine Young Cannibals. Thomas Dolby’s “Flat Earth” tour, Radio City Music Hall, 1983.

There were others, bearing logos for teams I didn’t follow. And vacation spots I’d never visited…or even heard of.

What was “Bonaire?” I remember wondering.

People I’d never noticed before would pass me in the library and start nodding, like, “Yeah, man, allright…” and I’d look down and realize I was wearing a t-shirt that said something like “Jamaican Me Crazy.”

It was horrible and yet, also fascinating.

It was fascinating to see how our loves, our loyalties, our affiliations can define our public persona—and make us newly visible or invisible to the people around us.

It was amazing to see how the most slender connection could be something that gave someone the courage to reach out to a stranger. You know, “Go Cards!”

Those three weeks gave me a window into just how much we wish to be known, and how strange it is to be known inaccurately, even in the briefest and most superficial kind of interaction with someone you’re unlikely to see ever again.

Unsettling as it was, I was able to see just how much we seek to come together around the things we love.

II.

The First Letter of John is also trying to speak to that dream, although the letter is trying to take it much further.

Written to a community of Christians that seems as if it was starting to fray, the letter is trying to describe – to remind them – what it is to be brought together and sustained, not by superficial commonalities, but by love in its deepest form.

It says, famously, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (v. 7-8).

It’s meant to be reassuring, of course.

It’s saying that whichever way the winds of doctrine may blow, whatever tests people devise to say who’s in and who’s out, no matter how a community’s outward fortunes may appear, the thing to keep our eyes on is the depth and how loving we learn to become.

Because God is to be found not in the doctrine, or in the pedigree of the members, or the outward trappings of a community, but in its love and care.

That’s reassuring.

But it’s also a warning.

Because loving is something that many of us do so quite badly, and it’s only with God’s help that we can learn to do it better.

Maybe you’ve heard Samuel Johnson’s quip about second marriages, that they are the “triumph of hope over experience.”

It’s true. It’s also not just limited to marriages.

So much of our pain in this world comes from discovering we have loved the wrong things—that we’ve loved someone for all the wrong reasons….or loved ourselves in ways that did not end up serving us well.

Left to our own devices, it’s tempting to hear that God is love, and to conclude that if God is love, well, then love must be God. That all that matters is love…but love on our terms, and not on God’s terms.

And what John’s letter wants to do more than anything is to invite us into love on God’s terms.

As we’ve noted, Scripture says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.”

An alternative translation, the Moffatt translation, phrases it a bit more loosely, saying: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love belongs to God….”

And theologically, that’s very much the direction that John’s letter wants to point us in.

Because if love isn’t simply from God, or of God – if love actually still belongs to God – then it’s only ours to borrow.

If love belongs to God, then it’s something that God has chosen to lend us, a piece of the divine essence…and it’s something we need to take care of as we use it, because it isn’t ours to do with however we like.

It is precious.

If the First Letter of John is to be believed, then how we come together around the things we love isn’t just about our desire to be known—it’s about what happens when we try to bring something deeper, something truer, something more honest and beautiful into our attempts at connection.

“We love,” it says, “because he first loved us” (v. 19).

And to live in the way that this morning’s passage describes, is to live with that “because” very much on our hearts.

Because too many people “love” only as long as it feels nice.

Because too many people “love” simply in order to get their needs met.

Because too many people “love” out of a desire to control.

This morning’s Scripture would go so far as to say that, left to its own devices, human love is profoundly misshapen, like an old, bent nail.

Because we are called to love in a way that begins and ends in something bigger than just us, and bigger than right now.

Because we are called to see that love as ours only in trust.

Because really, love belongs to God.

So, however it is that we may dream of connection with others, our Scripture this morning is trying to take that dream much further, and to invite us into God’s dream—a dream that would connect us with all Creation.

III.

Jesus says: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. “

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

Today’s Scripture reminds us that as we learn his way of loving, we are transformed, and we learn what it is to branches that abide in the vine.

Apart from him, we can do nothing—nothing that is destined to endure. But with him, there is nothing we can’t do.

And knowing that is everything. Everything we could ever want and more.

Amen.

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