Sermon: “God is Love” (May 3, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God is Love” (1 John 4:8)
May 3, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today I am going to begin by juxtaposing two different movie scenes.

At the 2015 Oscars Patricia Arquette won Best Supporting Actress for her moving role in the coming of age film Boyhood. She plays Olivia Evans, the mother of Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane), the main character of the film. She has suffered through two rough marriages, the second to an abusive alcoholic, and yet through it all she has managed to raise Mason and his older sister Samantha, as well as complete her education and establish a career.

Near the end of the film she is sitting at a little table off the kitchen as Mason gathers the remnant of the things he is taking as he leaves home for college. Mason walks back down the hall and finds his mother holding her head in her hands, silently weeping…

“What?” he asks her. Nothing. “Mom, what is it?” Nothing! “Mom?” Olivia takes off her glasses and looks at her son: This is the worst day of my life. “What are you talking about?” Mason replies. Olivia says, I knew this day was coming. I just, I didn’t know you would be so happy to be leaving. Mason is puzzled, “It’s not that I’m that happy…what do you expect?”

Olivia begins shaking her head: You know what I’m realizing? My life is just gonna go, like that. This series of milestones…getting married, having kids, getting divorced, the time that we thought you were dyslexic, when I taught you how to ride a bike, getting divorced—again, getting my master’s degree, finally getting the job I wanted, sending Samantha off to college, sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my funeral! Just go…and leave my picture!

Mason tries to reassure her, “Aren’t you jumping ahead by like forty years or something?” Olivia holds her head and looks down at the table and responds, I just thought there would be more.

In the 1971 film version of the Broadway musical hit Fiddler on the Roof Tevye (played by Topol) and Golde (played by Norma Crane) are a Jewish couple navigating life during the tumultuous years of Revolutionary Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. They have been married for twenty-five years (an arranged marriage) and have five daughters—and yet Tevye still has a question for his wife:

“Do you love me?” Golde replies, Do I what? “Do you love me?” Do I love you? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town? You’re upset. You want out. Go inside. Go lie down. Maybe it’s indigestion.

“Golde, I’m asking you a question. Do you love me?” You’re a fool! “I know, but do you love me?” Do I love you? For twenty-five years, I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

Tevye replies: “The first time I met you was on our wedding day. I was scared.” Golde admits, I was shy. “I was nervous.” So was I. Tevye continues: “But my mother and my father said we’d learn to love each other, so, now I’m asking, Golde…Do you love me?” I’m your wife! “I know, but do you love me?”

Golde wonders aloud: Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. For twenty-five years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is? Tevye smiles and leans in, “Then you love me?” Golde admits, I suppose I do. Tevye nods, “And I suppose I love you, too.”

They conclude the song together, “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”

Both Olivia and Tevye are undergoing major changes in their lives. Olivia’s statement—“I just thought there would be more”—articulates a longing all of us have, and Tevye’s question to Golde —“Do you love me?”—well, who does not ask that question in the deepest places of their heart?

And just like Olivia and Tevye, you and I undergo major changes in our lives—it never stops. Think about your life for a moment. What changes have you experienced within the past year? Have you experienced changes in your relationships, your job, your political opinion, your health, your finances, your weight, your hair color, your plan for your life?

These changes can leave us bewildered, disoriented, stressed—wondering if there is more, or perhaps looking for yet another show to binge watch on Netflix. But the changes keep on coming—as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it, “The only thing that is constant is change.”

But there is also something else that is constant, as we see in today’s passage from the First Letter of John: “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” (1 John 4:7-8).

God is love. In our constantly changing lives, the love of God never changes.

Scripture assures us: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation of shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

In other words, if the love of God for you ever changed, it would not be love. William Shakespeare makes this exact point in Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus loved people. He accepted people who had never felt accepted—like Matthew the tax collector and the woman at the well, touched people no one else would dare touch—like lepers and demoniacs, and forgave people no one else wanted to forgive—like the woman caught in adultery.

Jesus told stories about the love of God, like the parable of the prodigal son, who had squandered his father’s wealth on every conceivable act of self-indulgence and excess, returned home broke, filthy, and desperate—only to be received by his father with hugs and kisses and total forgiveness and complete restoration with no explanations to give, no probationary requirements to meet, and to top it off, a party to end all parties. Jesus told stories about that kind of love.

In his book Souvenirs of Solitude Brennan Manning describes the immeasurability of the love of God in Jesus Christ this way:

“That’s the nature of God’s love for us—a love that is positively scandalous, a love that’s embarrassing. Why doesn’t this God of ours display some taste and discretion in dealing with us? Why doesn’t he show more restraint? To be perfectly blunt about it, couldn’t God arrange to have a little more dignity? …No, the love of our God isn’t dignified at all, and apparently that’s the way he expects our love to be” (33).

What if John had written something different? What if, instead of “God is love,” John had written, “God is anger” or “God is logic” or “God is fear” or something else? Why would John write, “God is love”? Why, as church tradition maintains, would John as a very old man, so feeble that he had to literally be carried into the churches he would visit, preach the exact same brief sermon each and every time—“Little children, love one another…little children, love one another”?

Perhaps it is because John was the only one of the twelve disciples who stood at the foot of the cross and witnessed firsthand the extant of the love of God in Jesus Christ—for immediately after writing “God is love,” John continues:

“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” (4:7-10).

How about you this morning? Maybe in the midst of the changes in your life you have thought that there would be more—or maybe the question in the deepest place in your heart is “Do you love me?” When it comes to God, there is more love for you then you could ever imagine, and the answer to your question, “Do you love me?” is a resounding “Yes.”

Before the thought or idea of God ever crossed your mind, you were loved with a love that is not marked by anger, by a love that some deem illogical, by a love that casts out all fear—by a love that atoned for all your sins, no exceptions, on the “ever-fixed mark” of the cross. God is love—that is high octane gospel.

God has always loved you with that kind of love—and still does.

One more illustration and I’ll close…in the 1980’s one of my favorite bands was The Call, and the bassist and lead singer was Michael Been, who had a powerful conversion to Christ. Before his sudden unexpected death a few years ago he summed up the gospel this way: “It’s all grace and mercy,” he said, “and if you look at it any other way, you’re doomed.” He is exactly right. The Call’s 1989 album Let the Day Begin concludes with a hauntingly beautiful song called “Uncovered,” a prayer to God, who is love. Michael Been sings:

You surround me, covered
You seduce my soul
All my fears uncovered as my life unfolds
In the warmth of your arms
You awake my senses
I was torn in doubt
Losing all defenses when you called me out
I return to the heart of a love eternal
Waiting there for me

And the same Love he found waiting there for him at his death waits for you.

So “why talk about love right now?” Because right now we need the gospel—and thankfully, the good news of the gospel is that God is love.

Amen.