May 6, 2012 - The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Sharon L. Rodgers

The flowers on the altar last Sunday were in memory of my mother. Her birthday was April 27th. She died in January of 2009. Nowadays, a former student of mine and her husband and baby boy live next door to me in what I and my siblings still refer to as Mom’s house. While the much too blue exterior paint and the oh so special flowered wallpaper Mom had installed in the master bedroom are long gone, in ways far too numerous to mention, Mom is still very much with us. True, Mom doesn’t live in the house next door anymore, but she lives in us. 

In this morning’s Epistle, John reminds us that we abide in God, and God in us. As a retired chemistry teacher the analogy that immediately comes to mind when I picture at once being in God and God being in me is air, or more specifically, oxygen. We live our lives surrounded by oxygen. But it isn’t enough for us to be immersed in oxygen; to survive we need to breathe it in, we need that oxygen to be in us. Cut off for more than a very few minute from oxygen, we die. Breathe a gas like carbon monoxide that once absorbed prevents our blood from absorbing oxygen and again, even if re-exposed to oxygen, the result can be fatal. However, if placed in one of the hyperbaric oxygen tanks at Riverbend, individuals who might otherwise die of carbon monoxide poisoning can be saved because the high pressure oxygen forces its way into their blood streams and slowly but surely forces the potentially fatal carbon monoxide out. Individuals with wounds that stubbornly refuse to heal under ordinary circumstances, experience healing when exposed to this same high pressure oxygen. So not only does oxygen at ordinary pressure sustain us, but oxygen at high pressure can bring us back from the brink of death.

So what exactly are we symbolizing with oxygen, the gas necessary for life as we know it? What are we talking about when we speak of being in God and God in us? John tells us that God is love. So if my analogy is accurate, then just as we can’t survive without oxygen, we must conclude that we can’t survive without love. Most of us want to do more than simply survive, of course. We want to live! In other words, we count on the oxygen we breathe to give us the energy we need to run, to think, to create, to do all that we can possibly do. Just so, we count on the love that is God to empower us to be all that God intends us to be. 

Back in the fourth century St. Augustine, meditating on the same portion of first John that we heard this morning, was struck by the notion that if God is love, then the three fold pattern in any love relationship - the lover, the beloved, and the love that flows between them, can be used as an analogy for the Trinity. Just as each of those elements is equally necessary to a loving relationship, each person of the Trinity is necessary to the whole. In addition to this being a very beautiful way to understand our triune God, and the interrelationship of the persons of the Trinity, it is also a very helpful way to understand how we relate to God. It isn’t much of a stretch to picture God as the lover, and ourselves as the beloved children of God, connected by the love that flows between us. However, we must do more than simply picture this relationship to have it make a difference. 

John tells us that because love is from God, everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Anyone who doesn’t love, John continues, doesn’t know God, because God is Love. That phrase gets tossed around quite a bit - God is love. However those are three words that I do not take lightly, rather they are at the heart of my faith. God Is Love. God, the creator of all that is, is the force that we call love. I speak here of love as a force, not a feeling, because love is so much more than just a warm and fuzzy sensation. I believe love is the force that back before time, before there was light to see or sound to hear or anything to touch, called into being all that is. Love is the force that connects us to the people in church today, to family members in distant places, to those who have died but who still hold a very real place in our hearts. Love prompts us to act on behalf of not only those close to us, but people we may not know at all, but whom we know need our help. Love is the force that moves us to be the very best that we can be. 

At the same time, it is the rare person who wants to love without feeling loved in return. We were created by love after all, we are sustained by it, so we long for the love of other human beings. Then why is it that so much of Jesus‘ teaching, and the writings of his followers, focus on love and how we should do it? If we were created by love, are sustained by love, and want to be loved, then wouldn’t it all come naturally? Apparently not. 

The first challenge we face is that God loves everybody, even the people who irritate the socks off us. We therefore, are expected to be equally inclusive in our loving, which is to say that no matter how we may feel about them, we’re expected to live into our baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. That can be difficult. Sometimes we may need to do so from afar, if associating with particular individuals is potentially harmful to us. But even in the case of people like that, we can still pray for them, and remain open to the possibility that even the most difficult individuals can experience transformation. 

Indeed, rather than wasting time deciding who’s deserving of our love, we simply need to acknowledge that God calls all of us into a life of service to something greater than ourselves. We are called, as the Gospel suggests, to be the branches extending out from the vine who is Jesus, bearing the fruit that is God’s love to a starving world. This isn’t easy or painless, but it leads to a sense of joy that I don’t believe can be found any other way. As Leo Rostin stated in a graduation speech at my alma mater, the University of Rochester, in 1969, “the purpose of life isn’t to be happy. The purpose of life is to matter, to have it make some small difference that you’ve lived at all.” Or, to return to the language of today’s gospel, we are meant to bear fruit, knowing that “every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Clearly this business of loving is hard work, and a lifelong endeavor, but just as exercise strengthens our muscles, loving enriches our souls. 

But what about the close relationships of which we are a part, the relationships and people who first come to mind when we hear the word love? It turns out we need to be intentional about our loving in those situations too. Granted, couples newly in love who can hardly stand to be apart, parents holding their newborn child for the first time, anyone who has been separated from a loved one for an extended period who finally gets to hold that person close once again, all find it so easy to be the lover, moved almost to tears by how much they love their beloved. But what about the flip side? How do those parents who, if they’ve done their job properly, have raised children who grow not only up but apart, let their children go? By doing exactly that. I’ll never forget the moment in the kitchen in New York when I told my mother I was going to accept a teaching job in Oregon. “Well,” she replied, “I wish you were going back to Boston, but I want you to go where you can be happy.” And in that act of letting me go, she made certain that I would always come back, and I did. I went home to New York every Christmas for eighteen years, until Mom and all my siblings moved out here. Twelve years after she moved to Eugene, when the house next door to me became available, I tremulously asked Mom if she would consider moving yet again, in order to live next door to me. She responded enthusiastically that she would love to live next door to me, but she wouldn’t want to be a bother. She wasn’t. Clearly, when truly loving parents give their children to the world, as God gave Jesus to all of us, it doesn’t end the loving. It simply transforms it. 

There’s another aspect of all of this to consider as well. To be part of a loving relationship, one cannot be only the lover, one must simultaneously be the beloved. Some people seem to find that hard to do. It seems as though they imagine the lover to be the initiator and thereby in some way the one who’s in charge. To be the beloved they have to be able to receive, which leaves them feeling more vulnerable than they might like. But a loving relationship requires by its very nature that love flow both ways, even if at times one person seems to be doing more of the nurturing than the other. No vital relationship is stagnant after all. With the passage of time the beloved child becomes the loving parent who becomes the beloved parent whose children are more than ready to love and care for him or her as circumstances require as time goes by. 

The truly remarkable and very best thing about the love that flows between individuals is that it touches people outside the loving relationship itself. People who know what it is to be loved find it so much easier to just be friendly than those who operate in a cloud of suspicious mistrust everywhere they go. Children who know they are loved are comfortable inviting friends home from school, confident their friends will be received as warmly by their parents as they themselves are. Congregations that have established a culture of compassion help visitors feel as if they’ve come home, even if it really is to a place they’ve never been before. Newcomers to such a church can tell they’re in a place where they’re going to matter, where people take the time to connect with each other, to reach out to each other. They can tell they’re in a place where people are never too busy to be kind. Sadly that’s not nearly as common a phenomenon as we might hope in the fast-forward world in which we live today. 

We are members of a church family who come to St. Mary’s on a regular basis to worship a God who gave us his Son as an example to us of how to live. We are connected to that God by a bond of love so strong that nothing in this world can ever break it. We experience that love in our closest relationships, in the culture of compassion that we are responsible for creating within this church community, in the countless acts of kindness we experience throughout our lives, often when we least expect them, that leave us forever changed. Those are the ways we live in God. The effect of our living in God is that it nurtures the love that is God in us, which in turn empowers us to make real to the rest of the world our God who is the Lover, the Beloved, and Love itself. Amen.