It’s been said on good authority, by multiple authorities, that a preacher really only has three or four or maybe five sermons that they ever preach. Every sermon, even if it is one of hundreds or thousands given in a lifetime, is just some version, a different take, on one of those basic, stock sermons. I hate to give away some of the tricks of the trade, but from my experience, that’s probably about right. It may even be right to say that there is just one sermon, that comes in unlimited varieties. Hopefully there is variety. There are these basic themes that keep getting repeated and revisited, looked at from every angle, told through different stories, spun with different metaphor, ordered with different points, that really all come back to several, or just one point.
So if you think you’ve heard this one before, you’re right. You have. Many times. You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it, and it is our lot in life, if we stick around the church, to hear it all the rest of our days. And even after that it will be echoed over us, to those gathered around us, when we are put to rest.
So you know what’s coming. Hopefully you always will. It’s no surprise.
The whole thing is summed up nicely in the words of 1 John 4:7,8, sort of a Cliff notes version of one of these sermons that keeps getting preached. So here it is: “Dear ones, 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.” That’s it. There you have it.
Another trick of the trade in giving sermons is that you rarely give your main point up front. You try and introduce something and work up to a point and bring people along with you in finding that point themselves. It’s a great strategy, but, unfortunately, it has already been shot. The point is already out there, in full, glorious, display. It was shining brightly when we ended the day yesterday, and it was patiently waiting for us when we woke up this morning. It has pre-empted, pre-ceded anything that has happened here and anything that will happen tomorrow. It is not it that needs to be introduced to us, but us that need to be introduced to it, reminded again and again, having our eyes opened again to this truth. “God is love.” “Let us love one another.”
That we keep showing up for life, or for worship, or for whatever it is we show up for, would seem to indicate that we anticipate being further introduced to this reality. We may not know what is the aim of our desire, but we know that we do desire, we desire to know more intimately, to live more fully, to feel more deeply. Where do these desires come from? To what are they ultimately directed? The mystics and spiritual masters and scriptures would have us believe that they come from and are directed to God. And what this looks like is us, loving one another.
Since the point has already been stated, it’s possible the rest of the sermon might not have a point, so we’ll go forward knowing that we’ve already been introduced to all we need to know, and now we just get to walk around it a few laps to better familiarize ourselves with what we’re looking at.
In my office/study there are a number of bookshelves. I try to keep them somewhat organized, with different shelves for different subjects. Ministry and pastoral care has its own area, theology has several shelves. Ethics and peacemaking are grouped together. Spirituality and prayer have their own sections. Behind my desk there are several shelves of Bible commentaries, starting with Genesis and running through Revelation. The least organized shelf is the one right behind my desk, right underneath the Bible commentaries. This is the one where I keep those books that I need to have readily accessible. The ones I am currently trying to work through or ones that I flip through often. Several books have permanent residence on that shelf and may never be given a rightful place of rest in their proper category. I grab them too often to want to get up every time and find them on shelves on the opposite wall. One of those is a book called Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and the West (Daniel Ladinsky, translator). This is a translation of poetry written by different spiritual masters, those for whom the love of God and the ability to put it into writing coincide in beautiful ways. It’s hard for me to get very far in pondering the love of God without considering some of their words, their love poems.
If everything we need to know has already been stated in 1 John 4:7-8, what else might John have to say? How about a statement of the obvious followed by a statement of the impossible? That’s 1 John 4:12. Here’s what it says: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”
Obvious: “No one has ever seen God.” Rabia, an Islamic holy woman from the 8th century would tend to agree: “Since no one really knows anything about God, those who think they do are just troublemakers.” (p. 27) Hafiz writing in Persia 600 years later, adds this: “Power is safest in a poet’s hands, thus for the artist God will pose.” (p. 162) No one has ever seen God, but for all of us who do not yet know we are artists, God is posing.
Impossible: “God’s love is perfected in us.” Perfect is not a word I would readily associate with love. Love is too messy, too unpredictable, too mired in details and failures in communication, too frail, to be anywhere near perfect. Meister Eckhart, Catholic monk and scholar wrote, “What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure? I think it is the hope of loving, of being loved. I heard a fable once about the sun going on a journey to find its source, and how the moon wept without her lover’s warm gaze. We weep when light does not reach our hearts. We wither like fields if someone close does not rain their kindness upon us.” (p. 109) But John must think he’s on to something with this “love being perfected in us” thing because he soon brings it back up. God’s love is perfected in us. Or, another way of saying it, God’s love is being made complete in us.
One thing that seems to be consistently present in the experience of love, and the words of those who try and write about it, is that love takes us beyond the incompleteness of ourselves. Or, better yet, it expands our selves and makes us more of a self. Including more within our self. Love inherently cracks through the hard shell that forms around us, such that it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between where we end and another begins. Love is being made complete in us.
It’s in John’s gospel that Jesus say, “I and the Father are one.” You can’t get much more of a statement of love than that. Jesus lived life such that the boundary between him and God, the place where he ended and God began, became common space, occupied by both. So when Jesus says “I” in John’s gospel – “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the vine,” “I am the bread of life,” “I am the way,” the I that is speaking is an I that includes union with God. It is not the I of the ego. It is the I of incarnation. The I of God becoming more of itself through those who embody this love. Genesis speaks of the marriage union in a similar way: “the two shall become one flesh.” Over the life of such a partnership, there is a spilling over of selfhood, a sharing of identity, in which the border between partners, becomes opened up. The more we take our partner into account in our decisions, the more we learn the art of compromise, the art of co-operation, the art of having all things in common – in our imperfect relationships, love is being perfected. Hafiz has his own twist on what love’s perfection might look like. He says, “God and I have become like two giant fat people living in a tiny boat. We keep bumping into each other and laughing.” P. 171.
Sandwiched between the obvious and the impossible – the practical. 1 John 4:12. “No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is made complete in us.”
God’s love in us looks like us loving one another. This is working itself out in practical, relational ways every day. John feels strongly about this and would like for us to get this straight. Vv. 20-21 “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Thomas Aquinas was a great theologian of the 13th century, influencing much of western thought. He wrote a massive systematic theology. It must not have been enough to say all he wanted to say. He also wrote poetry about the practical.
I said to God, “Let me love you.”
And God replied, “Which part?”
“All of you, all of you,” I said.
“Dear,” God spoke, “you are as a mouse wanting to impregnate a tiger who is not even in heat. It is a feat way beyond your courage and strength. You would run from me if I removed me mask.”
I said to God again, “Beloved I need to love you – every aspect, every pore.”
And this time God said, “There is a hideous blemish on my body, though it is such an infinitesimal part of my Being – could you kiss that if it were revealed?”
“I will try, Lord, I will try.”
And then God said, “That blemish is all the hatred and cruelty in this world.” (p. 136)
St. Teresa of Avila was in love with God, and she also wrote about this being very practical:
“God’s hands can shape through ours. And our sounds can somehow echo what God has never said,
For the Divine is really speechless, it is too in love to chat.
The Holy Wind ruffled our hair and caused a lot of commotion:
We think God made some rules
But how can that be true when our souls are really the governor of all.
God’s mind can shape through ours.
Our bodies – and the earth – are as clay. Is that not so, my dear.
I have a lovely habit: at night in my prayers I touch everyone I have seen that day.
I shape my heart like theirs and theirs like mine. (p.283)
Another trick of the trade for giving a sermon: how to end. This one I haven’t quite figured out yet. How do you end a sermon so as to not give the impression that it’s actually done? Try not to state something as if it’s the final word, but as if it’s suggestive of all of the other many words that could be said, that will be said, that will be heard as the Spirit continues to speak in each life.
Possibly review several key images, presenting them in the form of a benediction. May you know, dear beloved artists, that for you, God will pose. Go and see if you can be like a giant fat person in a tiny boat with God. Kiss cruelty and hatred as if it were a tiny blemish on God’s beautiful body.
Possibly restate your point, if you have a point, which in this case we do: “Brothers and sisters, let us love one another, for God is love.”
Or, possibly, when the time feels appropriate, simply back away from the pulpit, trusting that the Holy Spirit will take it from here.