Our relationships with God have seasons. Sometimes we feel more like we love God, and sometimes we feel less that way, but God in love always loves us, and faithfully helps us grow in love for God and our neighbors.
Sermon Manuscript: (Audio recording and manuscript may differ in places)
Looking at the lectionary at the Tuesday Morning Bible Study, I thought, “Well, I could preach on any of these other texts, but this is the thing Jesus himself said was most important, so I should probably do that.”
When I started working on this sermon, there were all different kinds of ways it could go. I had grandiose ideas about the big questions about this passage, like “what exactly is love,” and “Who is my neighbor,” and the odd impossibility of how we can be commanded to love someone…
Martin Luther King Jr. said the law can’t make my neighbor love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that’s pretty important.
But I went for a walk and started to scrape away all the debate about whether it’s loving to tell someone they’re going to hell for doing something you found a Bible verse against, and the story of the Amish man who, when asked if he was a Christian, replied “Ask my neighbor…”
It was less and less a question of how you define love – the Bible uses the word in much the same way we do, and searching the Bible to find maybe other less-familiar or less-traditional words for love, feels like searching for loopholes – it was less and less a question of how love should be defined, as that simple, burning question:
“Do you love God?”
I kept trying to cover it up with other angles, other ideas – how can you love God whom you have not seen if you do not love your neighbor whom you have seen? Maybe we can talk about loving your neighbor.
But my brain just kept getting redirected back, not to the question of “What does it mean to love God,” which I would dearly love to preach on, which would probably make a lot of people happy because then we could all say “I see why you think what you’re doing is loving that other person or loving God, but it’s really, really not because look, the person you say you love doesn’t feel loved”…
My therapist said I was good at intellectualizing emotions…
but I kept being brought back to the question of “Do you love God?”
And of course there are the people who think there is a very particular way to love God, holidays you have to keep because God wants you to, music you have to play in worship because God prefers it over other music (they’ve consulted with God or scripture and gotten back a definitive answer about syncopation being a tool from Satan) – set all that aside.
Do you love God?
In our prayer of confession this morning, one I often borrow from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, we all admitted together that we haven’t.
Y’all can’t report me to Presbytery for that, now. Y’all said the same thing I did. We’re all in this together.
We admitted that we haven’t loved God with our whole hearts or our neighbors as ourselves. We asked forgiveness for that.
Some of us have been riding with God so long that if someone bothered to ask us if we love God, we just kind of auto-reply “Yes, I do;” others have a closeness that they could say, “…Yeah, I really do.” We’re jealous of you.
And some of us have been riding with God so long that if someone asked us if we love God… we have to think about it for a minute. Because sometimes that’s how it is when you’re in a relationship with someone.
God may be good all the time, but it sure doesn’t feel like it sometimes.
Sometimes we don’t love God,
This isn’t a “sometimes we say we love God but we do things that disprove that.” No. Sometimes our actions might make the case that we do love God but we don’t feel that way.
I think, and the point of this sermon isn’t to give you five easy steps to loving God all the time again. If there were only five, and I knew what they were, I would be there myself.
Sometimes we feel like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof when he goes out one night and prays the frustrated prayer, “Dear God. Did you have to send me news like that today of all days? I know, I know. We are the chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
We grow in our relationship with God, and our relationship changes from, if it had ever been something almost romantic-feeling, if you’ve ever identified with one of those “Jesus is my boyfriend” style songs, it evolves more into an old married couple – not the #RelationshipGoals kind, but the kind who tolerates each other because they can’t imagine a life that’s any different, and they don’t want to.
The old married couple that fights and sometimes doesn’t get along, and you see them and you wonder, “Why are those two still together?” – and they tolerate each other because they can’t imagine a life that’s different… and they don’t want to. You know, when it’s just me and God my prayers often include a lot of words that might get Presbytery involved if I said them from the pulpit.
The Horse and His Boy – the boy and the girl fight all the time and C.S. Lewis says “they married each other so they could keep doing it more conveniently.”
Sometimes our relationship with God might feel more like Tevye’s relationship with his wife Golde.
After twenty-five years together, in my favorite song from the movie of the play, and the only oneI still remember, Tevye asks, “Do you love me?” and Golde replies “Do I what?”
“Do you love me?”
She tells him there must be something wrong with him.
And he sings (it’s a musical) about how their parents arranged their marriage and promised that, in time, they would learn to love each other, and he asks again, “Do you love me?”
She avoids the question, listing off a litany of things she’s done – cooking, laundry, cleaning, giving birth to his children, and he asks again and she protests that she’s his wife, and she wonders at his audacity to ask if she loves him. He keeps asking, and she finally says they’ve been together 25 years and describes their lives together and says “If that’s not love, what is?”
“Then you love me!” he says, quite pleased.
She says, “I suppose I do.”
And he replies, “And I suppose I love you too.”
And they sit together, both wearing tired smiles, and sing, “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so… after twenty-five years… It’s nice to know.”
Our relationships with God goes through seasons. Sometimes we feel ecstatic with love for God, and sometimes we feel distrustful and angry and we feel like God has betrayed us, and sometimes it feels like we just can’t go on and the only thing keeping us going is our faith.
Honestly, I get a little worried when somebody tells me they love God, full stop, and never have any questions, all their questions are answered and they are head over heels for God – I just think, Wow, dark night of the soul may be coming up for you…
But really, that question of “Do you love me?” coming from God, the question Jesus asks Peter… I could be tempted to go, “I’m LITERALLY a pastor!” “But do you love me?”
And I can lay out all the stories – I’ve told you some of them, but I’ve been through enough to break some people’s faith, and people have asked me how I can still be a Christian after the trauma and the abuse and harm and after ALL of it, and to be really honest… I don’t know. I just… am. I don’t know where else to go, and I don’t want to go anywhere else.
If you have a magical, always-joyful relationship with God where if someone asks you if you love God, you can look back on your prayer time this morning and feel all kinds of warm fuzzies, I used to too and I’m a little envious, to be honest, and don’t let this sermon make you feel inferior. Not that you would, but if you’re tempted… don’t.
But if you’ve got scars on your heart and you know deep down that God loves you but sometimes you still don’t trust that… That’s okay too.
Whenever I hear people ask about spiritual maturity, a lot of times I’ve thought to myself, “Well, that’s not me…” I found an old journal entry about that, and I think maybe it was from a note I called “Maybe it’s love after all”, a note I wrote that grew into this sermon, about how maybe my relationship with God, maybe me still being here after everything, means I really do love God after all.
“I think somehow I thought being a pastor would mean I would be okay, be healed, be fine, be calm, be cool (as in chill), but I’ve still got a lot of my triggers and I’ve still got a lot of trauma and my theology is disjointed and, like Jacob after he wrestled with the angel, I’m still limping after all these years.”
And I don’t know. I’ve always thought spiritual maturity was about always loving God all the time and having all these spiritual disciplines and not having ADHD about it, and… Maybe it isn’t.
Maybe it’s about sticking it out after everything.
Now, I do feel closer to God sometimes when I think about the amazing gifts I’ve been given – when I drive home in my car, to our house, and see my wonderful wife and two beautiful children, when I look back on my story and see God’s tender care over my life… when I think about those blessings, I can give myself some warm fuzzies…
But – and I hope it doesn’t feel like I’ve just been rambling; I’ve been trying to share my heart with you about this – but there’s a quote from Frederick Beuchner that I found a while ago that’s given me a lot of hope in that direction, and it’s from his book A Room Called Remember, which I’ve never read, and I wanted to share it with you this morning.
THE FINAL SECRET, I think, is this: that the words “You shall love the Lord your God” become in the end less a command than a promise. And the promise is that, yes, on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love him at last as from the first he has loved us—loved us even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, because he has been in the wilderness with us. He has been in the wilderness for us. He has been acquainted with our grief. And, loving him, we will come at last to love each other too so that, in the end, the name taped on every door will be the name of the one we love.
THE FINAL SECRET, I think, is this:
that the words
“You shall love the Lord your God”
in the end
less a command
than a promise.
God, teach our hearts to love you, and to love our neighbors, we pray in Jesus name, Amen.