University Congregational Church
Feb. 12, 2017
Making Space – Progressive Christian Convictions: Loving Like God
Deut. 6:4-9; Matt. 22:36-38
In the early 3rd century CE, the emperor Claudias made a law that prohibited the marriage of young people. This was based on his hypothesis that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers because married soldiers might be afraid of what might happen to them or their wives or families if they died.
On Tuesday, we celebrate Valentine’s Day. It is a holiday named after a priest who lived at the time of Claudias, before Christianity was legal. Valentine encouraged couples to be secretly married in the church even though it was against the law.
Valentine was eventually caught, imprisoned and tortured for performing marriage ceremonies. We don’t have much reliable information about Valentine, but there are legends surrounding his actions while in prison. One of the men who was to judge him in line with the Roman law at the time was a man called Asterius, whose daughter was blind. Valentine is credited with praying with and healing the young girl with such astonishing effect that Asterius himself became Christian as a result.
We do know that in the year 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a three part execution of a beating, stoning, and beheading all because of his stand for Christian marriage.
Love: it’s the most important thing in the world. All that matters. Everything comes down to it. Some days it seems like we need it more than ever – especially the love of God – the love that created and sustains the world, and redeems it from all its brokenness. That is the air we breathe and the water we swim in.
We also need the love between us, love that is nurtured and grown within and between us. We need to see the love of God in each other. And even (as frivolous as it can seem sometimes) romantic love: full-on crushes and being smitten and holding hands and singing songs and dancing with abandon.
As my friend, Fr. Cathie wrote, “We can debate whether or not it is ‘real’, whether or not it lasts, whether or not it is worth it, but being in love is the essence of understanding the beauty of God’s creation and the power of goodness and rightness and truth. It can happen to anyone, and everyone deserves it. I have heard it said that when you are in love with someone, you see them almost as clearly as God sees each of us every day – perfect exactly as they are. This cannot be a bad thing.”
Loving God is the heart of both Christianity and Judaism. Our two traditional passages today are indicative of this primary and foundational truth:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deut. 6:4-9
These words from Deuteronomy are known as the Shema and they are the center of Jewish morning and evening prayer. When we were in Israel, we noticed that there was a small metal or ceramic capsule on every doorway, even on every hotel room door. Inside this ornamental capsule is this prayer – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”. While we were there, I purchased several and have one on my own front door. Christians would do well to remind ourselves frequently of this admonition.
In fact, when Jesus was asked, he replied similarly: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” Matt. 22:36-38
What does it mean to love God? Often, we talk about God’s love for us. That is appropriate and important. I don’t hear us as often talk about our love for God. I often hear comments about our belief in God or our fear/ awe for God. But what about our love for God? Does love describe what you feel about God? How do we love the God who is everywhere and yet more than everywhere?
Again, I am not speaking of the image of a God sitting on a throne high in some heaven light years away. I am speaking of a God who is within and without – a God who is present with us on the journey of life – a God we know in relationship with ourselves and others.
The only way to describe love for God is by drawing upon human experience. We know what it is to love another person – it means
• cherishing and taking pleasure in that person
• commitment and loyalty
• attention and presence
• yearning and longing
• patience and forgiveness
• intimacy and sharing
• delighting in and anticipating time together
Addressing God as “you”, Augustine (354-430 CE) wrote:
“How late I come to love you, O Beauty so ancient and so fresh, how late I came to love you. You were within me, yet I had gone outside to seek you. Unlovely myself, I rushed toward all those lovely things you had made. And always you were with me, I was not with you. All these beauties kept me far from you – although they would not have existed at all unless they had their being in you. You called, you cried, you shattered my deafness. You sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness. You shed your fragrance, and I drew in my breath and I pant for you, I tasted and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and now I burn with longing.”
Many mystical writers and contemporary writers have given thought to relating to God as a lover. In fact, if you haven’t read the Song of Songs in the Bible, I would encourage you to do so. This isn’t one of those things that will help you sleep – these words rival the most passionate movie you’ve seen. This is a horizontal relationship with God rather than the vertical one we are exposed to in many churches.
Being in love with God means loving what God loves. It is participating in God’s passion for a different kind of world and becoming passionate about God’s dream for a world of equity and peace.
Anyone who knows my husband, Eric, knows that there are two things at the center of his heart (besides me) – Cher and airplanes. These are things I don’t particularly have any interest in. But when we were dating, date nights often included going to the Kansas City airport and eating in a bar watching the planes come and go. Our photo albums over the years have hundreds of pictures of airplanes we have seen at airshows, airports, and even airplane graveyards. Yes, airplane graveyards are a vacation destination for my husband!
I will never love airplanes like Eric does, but because I love him, I have learned about loving airplanes. I tag along to museums and airports and find pleasure in watching his excitement when he sees a rare plane.
Eric’s other love is Cher. Specifically the song, “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. When he was a boy, he recorded on cassette back-to-back “I Got You Babe” renditions at the end of every Sonny and Cher variety show. That’s right. Dozens of cassette tapes with dozens of recordings of the same song. Over and over. We still have them if you are interested in a fun evening. Because Eric loves “I Got You Babe”, it has become part of our family culture and part of my life. We have a video recording of our two oldest children singing it as a duet at a friend’s wedding. I danced to this song during the mother-son dance in front of God and everyone at Ian’s wedding. When it comes onto the oldies station in the car, life comes to a halt and we sing and sway “I Got You Babe”.
This is what happens when you love someone. You adopt the things that one loves as your own. When we love God, we are transformed. We become passionate about things that are not popular. We see the world in a new light. Reflect with me for a moment on some of the best known Christian martyrs of the 20th century.
• Dietrich Bonheoffer, who, living within the 3rd Reich, became part of a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.
• Martin Luther King Jr., who, despite many death threats, continued to confront American racism.
• Oscar Romero, a Roman Catholic archbishop in El Salvador, who became the voice of the oppressed peasant class against a powerful and violent domination system.
Each of these men loved God and because of that love for God, became passionately involved in matters of justice for the oppressed.
Imagine that Christianity is about loving God. Imagine it is not about the self and its concerns, about ‘what’s in it for me’. Imagine that being a Christian isn’t about getting into heaven. Imagine that being a Christian isn’t about prosperity in this life. Imagine that it is about loving God and loving what God loves. Imagine that your love for God makes you so passionate that you work for a different kind of world, here and now.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Borg, Marcus J. Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most. HarperOne 2014.