Show Me Love: First Response

Show Me Love: First Response

About this sermon series

 I John 4:7-21

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.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.  God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.  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.  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.  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.  We love because he first loved us. 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.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

This week, we were cleaning up after the memorial service for Dianne Geiger. Bill, Dianne’s cousin, was sending people home with vases of flowers and filling zip locks with extra cookies. “I don’t need ‘em!” he laughed. Someone with a bit of mascara stain still under her eyes laughed and said, “Me neither but I’ll take ‘em anyway, for Dianne!” That cathartic laughter of grief is so good.

All of a sudden, we stopped what we were doing. One of the funeral attendees had fallen
in the parking lot and suddenly the conversation leapt to, Can I give you a hand? Let’s find you a chair. Here is some ice. I have bandages. Are you ok? Should we call an ambulance? Do you need a damp paper towel? About 10 people channeled every episode of ER we had ever seen and cleaned her up.

Eventually she was ok, rattled, going to get checked out, but ok. And when the energy
calmed down, a young man who was not part of the funeral crowd was still standing there. He’d helped her inside and waited all that time with us. Someone asked him, “Oh, you must be her son. So sorry about all this!” And he said, “No I’m a vendor wanting to talk about your plumbing and electrical needs. I was dropping off flyers and then I just rushed over to help.”

In the church office, where Nicole was already working on the bulletin for today with the
love-loaded letter from First John, this event seemed to us like a nod from God, a highlighter from God’s hand, saying: “Love should always be the first response.”

It is a very convicting idea: What if every time I spoke with my child, love was the first
response not worry or agendas? What if every time I sent an email or text, love was the first response not “here’s how I was actually right?” What if every time I felt the chill of loneliness, doubted my own belonging, or toppled over in my distracted search for peace and validation, all I could feel was God’s love rushing in and surrounding me? I would love to abide there.

That is the promise of today’s scripture, that we really can live like that, abide in love,
even when we are not in a state of emergency, relying on adrenaline to get us over our usual hang-ups. According to the most profound analysis of love in the New Testament, we are surrounded in all directions, at all times, by the love of God and that calls us to love one another.

The word for love that is used here is agape. It is used 29 times in this short text. Like
Eskimos have many words for snow, the Greeks had at least four words for love. Storge is the affection that bubbles up when we have something in common with people. Philia is sibling love, long-haul companionship love that we invest in and work on. Eros is romantic love, the hot spark of attraction that burns and focuses its light of attention on one particular other. And finally, agape. Agape is God’s love.

All the other forms of love are conditional. People change interests, fall out of touch, and
lose that loving feeling. But God’s love for us is unconditional. We can dole out our worst, even wound and kill that love like humanity did to Jesus, and still the love returns like Jesus did. We can sit here, chewing on our grievances, nauseated with guilt, fear pooling in our legs, all monkey-minded and annoyed, and agape love gets us a chair, tends our wounds even if we don’t notice it, dabs our forehead with a sacred identity even if we are too sore to feel it, agape surrounds us with community if our vision clears enough to see it. Agape love sees no distinction between friend and stranger, member or vendor, healthy and injured, even alive or dead.

But, as my aunt might say, “Well, that is all well and good.” It would be great if love
were always our first response, but there are three other first responders who often dominate:
They are fear, scarcity, and hatred.

Fear is the voice that barges in and says “I am at risk. I am not safe. My health, my
reputation, my family, my job, my identity, my time, my home might be harmed if I extend

Then scarcity is voice on the walkie-talkie with fear, saying, “There is not enough love to
go around. We are about to run out. Everything is at stake. It’s us or them. It’s now or never.
Don’t wait. Escalate.”

And then hatred is the fire itself, burning down beams of trust with yellow flames of self-
righteousness, leaping from the place it started to anything close by, and suddenly, nothing can stand, everything comes down, reaction after reaction. But the saddest part, eventually it’s our own house that’s going down. Fires, whether they are actual fires or the pan fire of animosity between us and someone else or the conflagrations we continue to watch in the news, do not know how to preserve what is valuable and what is not. Fires can’t do that. Likewise, hatred does not stay where it started – it spreads. And unless love is applied, it all comes down.

God’s love should be the first response, because here’s what it can do. Perfect love casts
out fear. Fear rushes in with its hair on fire. Fear thinks its spraying water when it is actually spraying jet fuel. Fear is our ancient lizard brain. And God’s love escorts it outside, while the grace of Christ gushes in and that the flames of destruction finally go out and the Spirit blows away the smoke so that vision is restored.

Ultimately, this letter from I John is about Christian maturity as much as it is about love.
A fearful, punishing person isn’t unloving. But the text says they live with an underdeveloped unperfected form of love. But with maturity, when fear and punishment have let us down enough, and their uptight colleagues, perfectionism and judgment have utterly exhausted us, and their attack dog, Revenge, has stunk up the house, finally, we call up Agape, and weep on her shoulder and something in us changes. We change.

This Christian maturity reminds me of Mamie Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till. She
was asked if she harbored bitterness toward the two white men who brutally murdered her son in 1955 or toward white people generally. This is what she said:

It certainly would be unnatural not to hate them, yet I’d have to say I’m unnatural… The
Lord gave me shield. I don’t know how to describe it myself… I do not wish them dead. I
did not wish them in jail. If I had to, I could take their four little children – they each had
two – and I could raise those children as if they were my own and I could have loved
them… I believe the Lord meant what he said and try to live according to the way I’ve
been taught.”

Reminds me of Bea Stephenson, whose funeral is here this week. Even with her slight
frame, she was a burly first responder for love. The first on the sign-up genius and the last to complain.

Reminds me of the seven employees of World Central Kitchen who were delivering food
to the hungry in Gaza and lost their lives in the process. World Central Kitchen has served more than 43 million hot meals in Gaza and Israel. Restauranteur Jose Andres is the founder. He said that in the worst conditions one can imagine – after bombs, earthquakes and gunfire – the best of humanity shows up, not once or twice, but always. He went on to say these seven aid workers were the best of humanity. This week, as part of a memorial service at the National Cathedral, the congregation sang Here I Am Lord, and it landed deeper than ever.

I, the Lord of wind and flame. I will tend the poor and lame
I will set a feast for them. My hand will save Finest bread I will provide ‘Til their hearts be satisfied
I will give my life to them Whom shall I send?

To abide in agape means something different than overcoming our special faults,
sending kinder emails, helping people who have collapsed, locally or globally, or believing that God’s love is a genuinely good thing. To abide in this love is to know deep in your gut that the first responder was never you to begin with. God first loved us. We sense that when a baby is born or when an azalea blooms or when in the darkest time of our lives, a greater hand pulls us through and pulls us together, often in spite of ourselves. That’s how the grace of Christ works. It is especially abundant at the edges, where hurting people are, where people need forgiveness, that’s where Jesus usually goes.

I’ll end with this. Before my grandmother’s funeral, I was at a loss. I didn’t know what
to say when we had lost one of our best. At one point, I went to her Bible to see if I could find some comfort there, and this piece of paper came fluttering out. It was a prayer by Thomas Merton. She’d written it in her beautiful cursive and I have prayed it hundreds of times since:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though

I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
And that is agape. Just in time.