I John 4:7-21
There it is, in the first letter of John, as plain as day, “God is Love”. There’s no surprise about it, you may have heard it hundreds, even thousands, of times.
“God is Love”. We can see God’s love in action all of the time, beautiful flowers emerging after a long winter, the songs of birds in the morning, beautiful rainbows, stunning sunsets, blossoms in the spring, leaves in the fall. And that’s just a part of it, because we also experience the love of God in the people around us. Marriages, friendships, families, even complete strangers can embody the love of God in every smile, handshake or hug. I’ve seen “God is love” happening when food is shared, when children are cared for, and when peace is proclaimed.
“God is Love”. We can’t package it or bottle it, we can’t buy it or sell it, we can’t quantify it, we can’t contain it, we can’t control it, we can’t restrict it, we can’t limit it, it just is, and the only question about God’s love is this: “How can we enjoy and share even more of it?”
“God is Love”. I think we take these words for granted. Yet it is an extremely radical idea, this idea that God is love. For there have been many times in the history of humankind that different phrases have been used to describe God. God is Anger. God is Fear. God is Hatred. God is War. God is Judgment. God is Revenge. God is Punishment. God is anything but Love. So let’s enjoy this simple phrase as a breath of fresh air in a very troubled world, breathe it in, breath in the spirit of it, breathe it out. “God is Love”.
“God is Love”. A long time ago, when I was just starting out in ministry, I was a student working at a Presbyterian Church on West 57th Street in Manhattan. That little church had lots of traffic in and out the door every day. I can sit in my office in Byron all day long and not have a single person wander into the church. But on West 57th Street people came through our door all day long, looking for money, looking for food, looking for jobs, looking for friendship, looking for love. The doors were open and people came in. We had about five twelve step groups use the church during the day and in the evenings. Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous among them. The AA meeting drew as many as fifty people or more. They said the Lord’s Prayer during their meeting, not softly; they shouted it out and stamped their feet, the old building shook, because those folks were looking for every edge they could find in their struggles against substance abuse and addiction, so even something as simple as the Lord’s Prayer made them feel strong.
“God is Love”. I think we were asking for all of that traffic to come into the church, because someone had put a big poster in one of the front windows with those exact words. “God is Love” spoke to the surrounding neighborhood. And people came in.
It created some problems for me, because people came in looking for things that I could not possibly give to them. Many times, I had to turn them down. The church didn’t have money to give out, and as a student I usually had just enough in my pocket to buy a return subway token. I remember one woman with a sad story, who when I said there was no money to give she pointed at the sign “God is Love” and said we were lying to the world. It’s not easy being a church where there is so much need, and we can’t even begin to keep up with it. “God is Love”, and I wish we had a lot more of God’s love to share.
“God is Love”. When I was seventeen years old and living in Maryland my youth group went into Baltimore one Saturday to visit a Presbyterian community center. I thought that the McKim Center gave out food and clothing, but I was mostly wrong. What the center did was stand up to blockbusting. Blockbusting. Have you ever heard of it? This was a strategy used by real estate interests to drive people into poverty. Driving people into poverty is what I call “organized poverty”. We usually think of poverty as something that results from disorganized people living disorganized lives. But in Baltimore it wasn’t due to disorganization; it was highly organized. This is how it worked: a rumor would be started in an all-white neighborhood that a black family was about to move in. Panic ensued as white families scrambled to move out. Real estate interests bought up the property for pennies on the dollar, and then turned the properties into rental housing for the poor. Blockbusting earned a lot of money. One house that used to have a monthly mortgage payment of $500 was divided into four apartments, each renting for $500. It was called blockbusting because they busted one block at a time with a fearful rumor. It was a strategy that used fear to make lots of money. Some people became very rich, white folks moved away, and black poverty became even more deeply entrenched.
Organized poverty is still alive and well. The neighborhoods I once served in Rochester were peppered with pay day loan services, check cashing, liquor and lottery sales, and rent-to-own stores, all designed to make poor people poorer, sicker and more desperate.
“God is Love”. I was thinking about organized poverty during the past week as I watched the news about Baltimore. I remembered how my path to Byron began in Baltimore one Saturday afternoon when I was seventeen and I first witnessed organized poverty. I felt a nudge to learn more, to get involved. I think God was trying to get my attention. It worked.
“God is love”. One commentary says that the First Letter of John is not so much a logical theological presentation as it is a beautiful painting, a wondrous poem, or a stirring song about love. So we read the letter as a meditation about the power and possibilities of love. It’s not a vending machine, insert fifty cents, get love. It’s an invitation to try something new. So many things don’t work: fear, racism, anger, hatred, greed. “Try something new”, John says. It’s not a naïve letter offering weak love in a world where hatred, and fear are stronger. No, “God is Love” according to John, is the basis for living, for sharing, for reaching out to others. “God is Love” is not just God reaching out to you, it’s God reaching out to the whole world through you.
“God is Love”. Before I could become an adoptive parent to my son Roberto I had to take a series of classes at the Department of Social Services in Rochester. One night they presented us with a series of tough cases involving children. What will you do if a challenging child like this comes into your home? Children born into poverty, children born into addiction, children born into prostitution, children born into lead poisoning, children born into homelessness? I remember one of the adoptive parents to be, when a particular girl was described with so many needs, what could he do to meet her needs? The man thought for a long moment about all of those needs, what a tough case this would be, and finally he answered, “She’s going to need a lot of love”.
“God is Love”. That’s what John is getting at in this reading. You and I are going to need a lot of love. The world needs a lot of love. And God is going to work through people like you and me to see that the world gets as much love is it needs.
“God is Love”. Amen.