God’s Love Is Not Really Like You Think It Is
Margery Kempe, the great medieval English mystic, experienced God saying to her: “More pleasing to me than all your prayers, works, and penances is that you would believe I love you.”
That is what our scriptures are about today, exemplified first in our text from Song of Solomon, which is most frequently used at weddings.
This is only time in the entire 3-year cycle of the lectionary that we read the Song of Solomon in worship, the book of the Bible that’s basically an ode to erotic love.
It’s a text about raw passion for the Beloved, and it may seem somewhat distant from how we experience God.
But nothing could be farther from the truth.
The dual forces of Western puritanism and modern scientific cold skepticism have driven out much of the spectrum of love in our relationship with God.
We are only allowed to glimpse a formal, distant, dignified love for standing up in church, and maybe a little hint of the love of a parent for a child.
It turns out there’s a lot more to it than that.
Perhaps you’ve always wondered but been afraid to reach out for the crazy breadth and width and depth of God’s love.
Every way that love can be expressed, God is in that love and loves us in that way.
God loves us as best friends love each other, with trust and affection.
God loves us as pilgrims love saints and relics, with awe and faith.
God loves us as a child loves a parent, with innocence and dependence.
God loves us as an artist loves inspiration, with wonder and hunger.
And God loves us as a lover loves the beloved, with passion and obsession.
It’s that last love that we Western Christians, children of a patriarchal system, are so ill at ease with and afraid of.
We know it is there but are afraid to embrace it.
But that’s what this text is about, opening us up to the wide varieties of love we can experience with God.
What about loving God as a sibling? Where everything is funny and stupid and with whom you share the very best jokes.
Who you can’t fool for one minute and has known you your entire life and gone through every stage of life just before and just after you, just with you.
Who would defend you to anybody and for whom you would stare down anyone, for whom and from whom there is a condition-of-reality loyalty and commitment to protect, always, from anything.
What about loving God as a grandparent or a grandchild?
Grandparent love is about spoiling and cherishing and reveling in a precious time that is the more dear for being fragile and short.
Grandchild love is about wanting to be spoiled and making small gifts that never turn out exactly right and going on adventures that your parents would never allow.
The goal of the religious life is about learning to love God and be loved by God in every possible way that humans understand love.
And then watching that be blown out of the water by how much more amazing is Divine love.
It’s beautiful, but it’s sad to remember how far from that glorious and overwhelming sense of love most of us live our days.
Many of us spend so much time feeling ashamed, weighed down by sins that cripple our conscience or the simple accumulation of days when we let too many chances to do good pass by.
James has a unique way of describing these feelings we have in his epistle today.
He says we “are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
Our mirror, according to James, is “the perfect law, the law of liberty.”
If we look into not a law of condemnation, not a law of punishment, but a law of liberty, we see the truth that God’s greatest desire for us is that we would take advantage of our freedom in Jesus Christ to live as those who are liberated by love.
Maybe we have had moments of feeling that God really does love us and it inspires us to go and love others.
But then we turn away from that clear mirror of love and are once again viewing the world through a fog of fear.
When we are in this state of judging ourselves and others, using the lessons of Jesus as weapons to hurt ourselves and others, we are what James calls “hearers and not doers of the word.”
He says we deceive our hearts and our religion is useless.
What then can we do to escape this crippling cycle of judging and condemning, hating ourselves for hating others, hating others for hating us?
James tells us that action out of our true nature is the answer.
James calls us to be doers and not hearers of the word.
Think of the saints you know who were doers of the word.
I think of people like my grandmother.
She lived in the poorest area of Atlanta, called Cabbagetown, and each day she would leave before 5 a.m. to walk over a mile to catch a streetcar downtown, then transfer to another streetcar to arrive at the Bell Bomber plant where she helped build B-2 bombers during World War II.
After a ten-hour shift she would make the long journey home again, alone through the dark Atlanta streets, but her work wasn’t over. When she got home she had all the work of caring for my father and his brother and two cousins, not only the traditional woman’s work of cooking and cleaning and laundering, but also doing all the household jobs that her absent husband could not do.
Somehow in the midst of all this she found time to team up with her sister-in-law to help care for other needy families in this neighborhood still decimated by the Depression.
We see the image of Rosie the Riveter saying, “We Can Do It,” and she’s so cute with her little headscarf and bright red lipstick.
Marylou Rice was a real Rosie the Riveter whose war effort lasted long after 1945.
A factory worker all her life, she fought the never-ending battle against poverty and never gave up, even the year that the only Christmas present she could give her boys was one pair of pants each.
She was a lifelong Southern Baptist, and the strict teachings of her religion were part of the backbone of steel that enabled her to live a life of service.
Her devotion to her children was so fierce that she once physically fought off a burglar trying to break into their home and beat him up so badly that he ran away in fear.
Grandma Marylou was a woman who knew who she was to the core of her being. She was a servant of the Lord.
And she spent her days as a doer of the word, acting out the commandment to love God and love her neighbor with singleminded determination.
She looked into the mirror of the law and was unafraid to see her value as a servant of the Lord.
What do you see when you look in that mirror?
Can you see yourself as the firstfruits of creation as James tells us?
Or does your fear and shame distort your image and bind you into selfishness and apathy?
The liberation that we seek is not only from sin, but from being merely hearers of the word and not doers.
I recently heard a radio preacher describing the love of Jesus for each one of us in a way I’d never heard before. He said, “Jesus would have died for you if you were the only person on the planet.”
Think about that for a moment.
You are so precious to Jesus that he would die for you even if there was no one else needing to be saved.
James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Religion is not about how beautiful our music and liturgy are.
It is about the concrete actions of love that our liturgy and music can inspire us to do.
Religion is not going to a specific building once a week or dressing up in robes.
Religion is about giving to the United Thank Offering. Religion is about volunteering at the Interchurch Food Pantry or the Salvation Army.
Religion is about reconciling with an estranged family member, extending forgiveness even when we’re in the right, sticking with each other through grief and tragedy.
When I think of someone with true religion, someone who is a doer and not a hearer of the word, I see a woman walking alone through the late night streets of Atlanta, her back unbent, her duty unquestioned, her love made of action and not just words.
James says that “those who persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”
James says that every act of giving is beloved by God, no matter how mixed-up or faltering.
There is a new chance for us every day to live a life of faithful service. In each humble task we face in our own little corner of the kingdom, there is beauty and joy to be found in being doers of the word.
Liberated by the law of love, our lives quietly fill with holy grace.
This text from James is so useful for teaching us about our duty, but the reason we’re eager to do our duty is because of the love God has for us, and that is why we have the text from Song of Solomon, to teach us about that love.
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away,” God says, calling at the window and the gate like a lovesick teenager.
Let yourself feel that love from God, that love that is obsessive and irrational and consuming.
It is a fire.
It is a wastefully extravagant God who just does not care about anything but the object of love, and that is us.
We are God’s obsession, and God burns with reckless passion for us, a dangerous and untamable love, and that knocks me over and brings me to breathless tears.
We are everything to God, and God would do anything for us.
We have always wanted that kind of love.
How did we not know that it was right in front of us, surrounding us, chasing after us, wanting us so badly?
We have always wanted to be the most important person to someone, someone’s number one, someone’s first thought in the morning and last thought at night, and to think that I am that person to the Living God blows my mind and my heart wide open.
So often I have reached out, throwing the words “I love you, God,” into the void, wondering if they’re heard.
I’m only now coming to realize, I’m not the one starting the conversation.
God has been saying “I love you,” to us with every sunrise, with every drop of rain, with every turning leaf, with every smile on a loved one’s face our entire lives.
We’re answering back when we speak to God.
I love you too, God.
Let me remember to say that every day, in words and actions.
God, I love you too.
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