Jesus’ words today from John’s gospel have been beckoning me all week. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete…You are my friends…You did not choose me but I chose you.” These are words that our weary souls need to hear. We long for the wide, open embrace of God, the unconditional acceptance, the assurance that everything will be okay. Jesus’ words today are a warm blanket we crawl into and wrap around ourselves, draping over our feelings of sadness, loneliness, doubt, insecurity, and uncertainty. Jesus’ invitation to abide in his love is the fulfillment of every longing, aching need in our lives, and today Jesus offers that love freely, abundantly, joyfully, completely.
For some of here today, that is your sermon: Jesus loves you, chooses you, befriends you, and completes your joy. The humbling, overwhelming love of God invites you into that warm blanket, and you do not need to speak – just accept the gift and abide with God this week.[i]
For others of us, we may be a little too hardened to fully receive the invitation to abide in God’s love. I used to serve with a priest whose main sermon, no matter what the text, was God loves us. She said those words so often I remember I would sometimes stop listening. My cynical self would start the diatribe, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. God is love.” The problem for many of us is love has failed us. We have been in love, been loved by family or friends, or even have felt God’s love. But we have also been hurt, rejected, or felt abandoned by all those parties. And if we feel the failure of love too often, “Abide in my love,” sounds too shallow to have meaning, too romantic to last, too wonderful to be sustained.
For those of us who might roll our eyes at the saccharine nature of love we have experienced in the world, we may need a different sermon today. Part of our challenge is we have defined love in such a way that we will be disappointed every time. We watch movies, read books, even gaze at couples in those first dreamy weeks of new love, and think we know what love is. Love becomes two people who agree all the time, who are always able to look lovingly at another never noticing imperfections, who never experience conflict, and who are always happy. And if that is our expectation of love, we will always be disappointed. For those of us in this camp, our sermon today is to redefine love.
A few years ago, Paul and Lucy were such a couple. They had a romantic beginning – meeting in medical school, Paul was funny, smart, and playful. As they built a life together, they began to dream and to plan. When Paul finished his 90-hour workweek rotations, and life got back to normal, they would try to have a baby. Everything was perfect – at least everything was perfect if you did not look too closely. And then Paul got the diagnosis – a cancer that would give him two more years of life. And suddenly everything changed. Lucy’s life began to become about taking care of Paul, walking him through treatments, holding him in pain. And Paul’s life became about making sure Lucy could enjoy life beyond him. At one point, Paul assured Lucy he wanted her to remarry after he died. The two even agreed to have that baby they had been planning. Lucy worried having a child would make dying worse for Paul. “Don’t you think that saying goodbye to a child would make your death more painful?” she asked Paul. He replied, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”[ii]
What Paul and Lucy show us is love is not some sappy, sentimentalized emotion best captured by a romantic comedy with a great soundtrack. Love is beautiful not because love is perfect, pretty, polished. Love is beautiful because love is “all in,” ready for the ugliness of life, willing to take on pain and suffering and see that pain as a blessing. Of course, Jesus describes love in the same way in today’s gospel lesson if we are paying attention. We find ourselves so tarrying in the comforting love language and we sometimes miss the other love language in the text. “Keep my commandments…love one another as I have loved you…lay down one’s life for one’s friends…go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” Jesus shows us what love looks like throughout his life. He kneels down and tenderly washes the dirty, worn feet of his companions. He accepts and welcomes adulterers, oppressors, and outcasts of every kind. He loves and forgives, even when betrayed by his closest friends. He gives up his life in the most gruesome, humiliating way. Jesus’ love is not pretty or polished. But Jesus’ love is profound.
That kind of love is the kind of love that drove most of us to Hickory Neck. Maybe we came thinking we wanted a perfect, polished, pretty loving community that would make us feel loved too. And many times, Hickory Neck is just that. But other times we find a different kind of love at Hickory Neck – a love that stands by us when spouses die, when marriages fail, and when children stumble into dark places; a love that stands by us when diagnoses come, when tragedy strikes, and when sinfulness overcomes us; a love that stands by us when we disagree, when we hurt one another, and when we fail to meet each other’s expectations. That kind of love sits next to us when we cry, even when no words are exchanged; that kind of love receives awful news and is able to simply say, “this is awful,”; that kind of love prays for us even when we do not realize we are receiving or need prayer. The love we often find at Hickory Neck may seem to others to be messy, imperfect, and even difficult. But the love we find at Hickory Neck is much more akin to the kind of love that mimics God’s love for us, that lays down our lives for one another.
The challenge for us today is in four tiny words from Jesus, “Go and bear fruit.” Both the unconditional blanket of Christ’s love and the messy, ugly, beautiful love of Christ are for us today. But that gift of love becomes fullest when shared. We practice that sharing of love every week here at Hickory Neck – with the people we like, and even the people we may not like as much. But our practicing is preparation for sharing that love beyond these walls – with the family member who drives us crazy, with the neighbor whose annoying habits reveal a lack of love, with the stranger who makes us uncomfortable. Now, you may go home today and start thinking to yourself, or your friend might say to you, or even Satan himself may start asking you, “Yeah, but won’t that kind of love hurt? Won’t you be risking pain and hurt by giving that kind of love?” Today, Jesus invites you to say, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “Abide in my Love,” April 29, 2018, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5142 on May 2, 2018.
[ii] David Greene, “Inside A Doctor’s Mind At The End Of His Life,” February 12, 2016, as found at https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=466189316 on May 3, 2018.