READ: 1 John 4:7-21
This might sound silly to you…
…but you know me enough by to know I’m gonna tell you anyway…
But last week was one of the most trying weeks of my life.
It was my last week of classes at seminary,
in what was the most challenging semester in my life,
and heading into that week, I was already completely exhausted.
What do I mean by exhausted?
Physically, emotionally and mentally depleted.
I felt a bit like a zombie.
I was impatient and disengaged,
I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t eating well, and I was angry for having to go through all this.
Oh, I’d get words of encouragement from family and friends, but I thought the next time someone said to me “You’re almost done,” I was gonna lose my mind.
The words helped keep me in check, and the offers to help me were priceless…
…but on Wednesday afternoon, after finishing my seventh academic paper in two weeks, and having sat at my desk for what was probably the tenth day of 16 hours, broken up only by 4-hour drives to Washington and the four hours back,
I was depleted.
And so coming out of Walmart as I was rushing to pick up the boys at school Wednesday so I could get back to writing my paper, I spotted a school bus…
It was a converted school bus.
You know, like the Partridge Family bus, or maybe more like a Grateful Dead bus…
It was multi-colored, and atop it was an enormous canoe and some bikes and and backpacks and boxes all strapped onto a steel roof rack.
Opposite of the bus, near the Barnes and Noble bookstore parking lot, was a hippy-looking guy playing guitar with a small dog in tow.
There was no hat or open guitar case for tips.
He was just playing.
And as I exited the parking lot onto West College Avenue, there was another hippy-looking guy, standing in the median holding up a small sign.
There’s lots of traffic there, and I thought, “Oh, man, another panhandler looking for change…”
Then I read his sign.
It simply said “Smile.”
Then I looked at his face, and he gave me a great, big smile.
And I had to smile back.
That’s all he wanted.
To give and receive smiles.
In the midst of this tempest of anger and frustration and depletion and exacerbation…
…that simple act of love — that unexpected smile — changed everything.
I slowed down.
I thanked God.
I texted some friends, hoping they, too, would smile at my story.
I thought, “I wanna be more like that. What’s stopping me?”
And I went through the rest of the week carrying that smile with me.
But if it wasn’t for that moment, what would have happened?
I wonder about that.
Because that simple gesture got me through the next few papers.
It got me through the next few days of classes.
And got me an anecdote to this sermon…
It enabled me “to run with great perseverance the race that was set before me,” as the apostle Paul writes in his Hebrews epistle.
Love, the game-changer
Holding up a sign that says “Smile” on a busy street corner on a crumby Wednesday afternoon.
That’s Love. It is…
And Love changes everything.
Real love does that.
And so it’s by no coincidence that what we’re going to talk about today — love — comes from a letter by the apostle John —
the “one whom Jesus loved,” as he refers to himself in the Gospel bearing his name.
John’s message is that “God is Love.”
We hear that word “Love” twenty-two times in 14 verses.
We almost stumble over the word, it’s said so much.
But what is John getting at really?
Yes, we truly must love one another, we know that.
But John gives us a systematic look at love, and it goes like this:
* We must love each other;
* And the only reason we can love each other is because God loves us first.
* God, therefore, is love.
* If there was no God, there would be no love.
* So when we see love, we see God.
* When we experience love — giving or receiving love — we experience God.
* If we do not love, we can neither see nor experience God.
* If we cannot see or experience God, we are separated from God.
* God’s love for us is witnessed in God’s Son’s sacrifice for us.
* Since that already happened, the only way to see God’s love in our world today — right here among us — is through our sacrifice for one another.
* Sacrifice is love.
* When we give love, we have to give something of ourselves.
* We sacrifice something of ourselves: Our time, our gifts, our talents, our presence, our willingness to listen, and even holding up a silly sign on a street corner that says “Smile.”
* God stays with us and within us because we love.
* But when we don’t love, God does not stay with us.
* God can’t stay with us if we don’t love.
* Because God is perfect love.
* If we don’t give love, God can’t be known.
* Someday, we will have to answer to God for what we did and didn’t do in our lives. If that makes us scared, it’s because we are not acting in love.
* And if we are not acting in love, we are not acting in the image of God, in which we all were created.
* If we stop and think in this moment about where we are not loving, then we might be afraid.
* So we read in John: “This commandment we have from God: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.”
Wasn’t that fun?
The bottom line is this:
Divine love is both a model for how to love and a power that enables love.
Love offers us knowledge of God.
And it allows us to be God in the world.
Somewhere in the middle of that systematic theology, we talked a little about fear.
I said that “if we are not acting in love, we are not acting in the image of God, in which we all were created.”
And if we were to be judged right here today, right now, we might be afraid because we know we must answer the question:
“Why aren’t you showing love to one another right now?”
I want to break that down and keep it sort of real here.
Because on Wednesday afternoon, if Jesus was called me to explain at that moment why I was being so grouchy and, let’s face it, not loving toward my brothers and sisters, what would I say?
I picture myself standing there in front of Jesus looking down, hands in my pockets, and maybe kicking a pebble on the ground saying, “Gee, well, I had a bad week…”
And if we all had that same experience of explaining right at this very moment why we haven’t been acting in love as we were told to do, what would we say?
I mean, let’s not forget, none of us is perfect.
We have bad days or weeks…
We get in spats with each other,
We certainly don’t take care of one another in this world as we have been commanded to…
We treat people differently because of their appearances, beliefs or nationalities…
Yet Christ died for all of us just the same.
…Paid in advance for all of that bad that we did and all of that bad that we’re going to do…
But what if God is speaking to us right now?
What if God is asking us, “Where is it that you’re not loving your brother or your sister?” or
“Who is it that you’re not showing love toward?”
Maybe it’s even this:
“Who do you hate?”
“Which one or ones of my children do you hate?”
Is it a certain ethnic group?
Is it someone in your family?
Someone here in church?
What is the cause of your hate, your animosity or your concern?
Or is it maybe that you don’t show love to yourself or think maybe you can’t or don’t deserve it?
In any or all of these cases, we have taken God’s presence from the world.
Remember this: God made us, in the beginning, as good.
In fact, in Gen. 1.31, after God made all of creation, God sat back, looked at it, and said, “It’s VERY good.”
God even told us to take care to make sure that it all stays very good.
God never had any intention of having things go bad.
God is love. Love is only all good.
God made us in that good love.
That image of love.
The perfect image of God.
So listen: Anything that is bad was done only by humans.
We did this.
We put conditions on love and redefined it.
We put conditions on community and redefined it.
We put doctrine in the word Church and redefined its intent.
And we’ve looked at our brothers and sisters and we decided that they aren’t made in the image of God.
Or that the image of God in them is not as good as the image of God in us.
You see how crazy this all sounds?
Try telling this to God…
Yet this is what we’ve done. We did it.
And then we have the audacity to yell at God and say, “Why aren’t you fixing this?”
“Why have You allowed this to happen!”
This isn’t about why people get sick or die…
This isn’t a question of theodicy — where is God in these moments? —
This is a question of our relationships,
Of the way we treat one another,
the way we do or do not love one another.
John tells us flat-out:
God is where we act in Love.
God is where we act in Love.
God is not found when we don’t act in Love.
Smile, God loves you
Seems so easy, doesn’t it, my brothers and sisters?
I say it all the time:
If we want this world to change?
If we want to live into the kingdom of God that we have been promised and given here and now?
And if we want to truly be happy,
and maybe even smile…?
Then we have to act in love.
We have to take all those human-made conditions,
and throw them away.
The ones that tell us:
We have to be right all the time;
or We cannot swallow our pride;
or We know better about what we need and what the world needs than the One who created both us and it.
I want you to know something, all of you.
God is speaking to us.
God is working in this world.
God, the One who created us and this world to be good, has not stopped creating.
God has not stopped speaking.
God has not stopped loving.
*Because each and every time we we act in love,
God is working on something spectacular, as only God can.
*And each and every time we we act in love,
God is speaking into our hearts as only God can.
*And each and every time we we act in love,
God is creating more beauty and wonder and excitement and hope in this world.
Through our love, we’re not really expanding God’s kingdom;
the kingdom already has been given to us. .
When we act in love, we are expanding into the kingdom.
And we are bringing more and more and more of God’s children — our brothers and our sisters — into that great, big kingdom.
Love, Love, Love, Love.
It’s all right here for us now.
Does that make you smile?
Because God loves you.