The 20th century anglican priest and theologian Austin Farrer said that “religion is more like a response to a friend than it is like obedience to an expert.” My deepest experiences of God tell me that Farrer is right, but my deepest ingrained habit is to approach the wisdom of Christianity looking for expert answers, aiming for obedience. Isn’t it funny, in a way? Even when tradition bears witness to the love of God, and God as love, we can still come to the text with a pen and paper in hand, ready to take notes about what, perhaps, we should DO, how we should act, what kind of fruit the gardener might be expecting us to bear. It’s as if a long lost lover has invited you to come inside the house, and you head instead toward the road: What can I do for you, we say, since you say that you love me? What’s on the to-do list?
It’s odd, isn’t it, that we are capable of moving toward individual achievement and performance and response even when talking about LOVE as the principal truth of God?
God as groom. God as loving friend. God as loving mother. God as loving father. God as love, not holy expert of the world and how to live in it. God as love.
Our reading from 1 John and then the Gospel of John today center on this, the primacy of Love when it comes to God’s nature, God’s character. 1 John 4:16 says, in an alternate translation, “God is love, and those who live in God live in love, and love lives in them.” Abide is a beautiful word, but it has lost much currency, the pulsating punch that I think lies beneath this text: God is love. Those who live in God, live in love. And love LIVES in them!”
This may seem an obvious thing, a tired old truth that we can yawn over or politely nod about as we pass the tea and cookies. “Those who live in God live in love, mmm hmmm, yes.” Sounds nice. But I think one reason the scriptures harp on this point because it is actually not so obvious, and because we humans are constantly tempted to make something else the defining characteristic of God. We are again, this week, facing the latest example in a cycle of police violence and public outrage, this time in Baltimore. And much of what comes to the surface reveals the other human yearnings that we sometimes wish were at the heart of God: Power. Order. Beauty. Goodness. I do not imagine I am alone in sometimes crying out to God in lament and outrage, wishing that God exercise more power to make people good, or at least better.
In the wake of this latest cycle of police violence and outrage, this time in Baltimore, some of the most heart-rending images were not the most popular with the cable TV news outlets, who favored the images of a CVS set on fire. Perhaps the lovely, less visually arresting moments of reconciliation about us are harder to catch on camera; and maybe God prefers it that way. I felt God’s love for the people of Baltimore when I saw a set of different images: a black man in his thirties standing between police and protesters with his arms outstretched, crying, “Do not give them a reason!”; a teenage black man lamenting the death of Freddie Gray to a 50-something police officer, also black, and the police officer looking him straight in the eye, nodding, saying, “I agree with everything you’re saying;” a middle aged black woman in jeans and white gloves picking up trash by herself from the streets in the wake of the riots; whole teams of volunteers in sweat pants and black tee-shirts sweeping up broken glass; and more than 10,000 men and women peacefully protesting in Downtown Baltimore, a sea of faces, still and sadly hopeful. Can we see that these, too, are God’s children? That God loves the men and women born in West Baltimore as much as me and you? And that God’s love has been and is and will be with them, sweeping through this shaken city to comfort and encourage and sustain?
This week, President Obama asked a hard question to every American, not just those living in and around Baltimore: “What if we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids.” President Obama says “pay attention,” but in the church we are called to more. We might translate “pay attention” instead as love. What if we loved the kids in City Heights and Barrio Logan and Southeast San Diego, all less than five miles away, because we considered them our kids? If we felt they were our kids because we know, we feel, we have come to understand through prayer and through listening to their stories, that they are God’s kids? The world encourages us to affirm that “Black lives matter.” That is good, but for the people called by Jesus it is not enough: Black lives don’t just matter. Black lives are precious, precious in the sight of God.
What if we loved the black and brown children in the most under-resourced neighborhoods of our city as if they were our own children? If we considered them our kids, what would that mean for how we ordered our lives? Surely our job wouldn’t be to “save” them anymore than it is our job to save the children who sleep in our house each night, but rather to think of them and care for them and their schools day in and day out as a parent would. Like God does. What if we asked the elementary schools in Southeast San Diego how we could partner with them to create sacred choral music opportunities? What if our cathedral bustled all summer long with free music and christian spirituality camps? What if van loads of carpooling parishioners were leaving our parking lot each weeknight at 5 to head toward tutoring centers? These are just a few of my ideas, and I’m sure in this room there are ideas of ways to love that would be much better.
This is not a “should,” not one more thing to do to prove to God that we are worthy of love, or one more thing to do that we hope will earn us God’s love. The Christian life begins in love and is carried out in love. If we give up distance and disaffection for closeness and love, it is because we are drawing nearer to the source of our live, the source of our love. We are all branches on the same vine who draw life from the same source. To remove ourselves from the truth of this divinely entwined connection is not God’s hope for us.
Our culture tempts us to cultivate our lives as if we are orchids: be a beautiful individual, or maybe even a beautiful little family, glamorous and unique. And nothing against orchids, but there is something about them that whispers a warning: Don’t assume that exclusive means better; it might only mean lonelier.* We are called to the joy and love of the wild and rambling grape vine.
Who knows? Maybe that’s why we aren’t cramming into buses to spend time with folks in Southeast San Diego. Life on the vine is messy and confusing and complicated; we don’t trust the joy that will come with the complex tangle of life and love and unity in diversity — and yet, it is, still, nothing less than God’s glorious hope, dream, and desire for us. Not to save the world, but to grow evermore in love.
The Rev Laurel Mathewson
* I am indebted to Zadie Smith for talking about this so brilliantly and memorably in her 2014 commencement address to The New School:: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjdmo6EKn8I