May 27, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 4 Trinity & Memorial Day Weekend // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “This Life, Revealed”: I John 1:1-4; I John 4:9-17
If we’re at all familiar with the words of this little letter, the First Letter of John, it’s most likely from a wedding homily. We heard it last weekend in Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon to Prince Harry and Megan Markle in the chapel at Windsor Castle. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God, and those who love are born of God and know God…. God is love.” God is… God is love. (Pause)
Now, we say that a lot around here, in this faith community. In this church, to say “God is love” feels kinda like saying “water is wet.” But as I was sitting with this letter this past week, I wondered: Suppose we did not have this letter from John, suppose we had never heard the story about Jesus that the Gospel writer shared, if we didn’t have this portrait, this narrative, these lenses through which to see God… How else might we define God? How else would we finish that sentence: God is… [This is the audience participation moment.]
My guess is it might depend a lot on our experience, where we were born, how we first encountered love, whether care was dependable or not, whether the world seemed to be good.
Because there are a lot of other ways to complete that sentence, “God is…”
God is… power.
God is… control.
God is… judgement.
God is… unknowable.
God is… a convenient excuse for colonial imperialism.
God is… in absentia, at least if you were a Jew inside one of the concentration camps during the second world war.
God is… cruel, perhaps, if you’re one of the children born to a mother in Ireland in the early 20th Century and taken to a home because your mother happened to be unmarried… or one of the children at the Carlisle Indian school in the 1800s.
My guess is that our early experiences of the world and relationships in them shape a lot of how we might finish that sentence, “God is…” The story teller knows this. “No one has ever seen God,” the John storyteller says. But left to our own devices, we humans will fill in the blank. One of my earliest religious teachers liked to say, “God created humankind in God’s image; Human beings returned the favor.” Or, as Anne Lamott likes to say, “I can safely say I’ve made God in my own image when God ends up hating all the same people I do.” God is… (Pause)
By the time this letter writer begins his sermon here, things have gotten pretty rough for those who follow Jesus. In particular, there seems to have been a big split in the community among Jesus’ followers. Though this is a general letter, not to a specific community, we can tell the first century Christians to whom it is written were in conflict “about the boundaries of their community, about theology, about false teaching.” (So glad we got past all of that.) But the writers write, “What we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears…” this is what is most important for us to tell to you. These three little letters come from the same voice that we heard during Lent, the same school perhaps, the same students of the Gospel writer we call John. They share a common vocabulary, common themes: light, love, this new commandment, abundant life, seeing signs. This letter, in particular, reminds us that after Jesus has risen, appeared, and gone again, his followers and students keep sharing what they’ve seen and what they’ve heard. It’s been awhile. It’s been decades. A whole temple destroyed and siblings – spiritual and literal – run out of town. There’ve been killings, persecutions. Plenty of time to start doubting. Plenty of time to feel the distrust begin to creep in: God is… violence? God is… good for nothing but pain? God is… AWOL? In the face of that creeping doubt, the letter writer repeats: “We proclaim what we have seen… what our hands have handled… about the word of life.” “We are writing these things so that your joy – and our joy – may be complete. God is love. And as God is, so are we in this world.” (Pause) God is…
I enjoy conversations with people who may or may not buy into this whole business of Christianity. I especially enjoy when people are really honest about what they don’t believe about God. Especially when people tell me they don’t believe in God, I sometimes ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in. Nine times out of ten, by the end of the description, I can say, “I don’t believe in that God either.” We’re really good at filling in the blanks as humans. And two of the signs that we are working with an illusion about God and not that holy, divine presence, Henri Nouwen writes, two of the signs are sentimentality and violence. When either of those are around, Nouwen writes, you can tell we’re working with an illusion and not God. That illusion is rooted in our human habit of denying our inevitable death, that we’re limited, that we have an expiration date. In denial of that, we often create or try to secure our survival by any means necessary. We fashion a god who will serve those ends. The God behind these illusions is cruel, unforgiving, absent, easily manipulated, always seems to be on the team of those in power, or conversely, irrelevant. Henri Nouwen writes that the third movement of the spiritual life is a movement from the illusion of God to true prayer. It’s not easy to get there. We could use help. Nouwen’s prescription is three-fold: It’s sitting with sacred scripture, these letters that keep telling us God is love; It’s quiet time to listen, to stop talking; and it’s a spiritual guide who can help us on the way, sometimes another person or companion on the journey, but other times what we need is faith community, a tradition, a branch in Jesus’ family tree. (They’ve all got strengths, Nouwen says, just pick one.) We need support to help us move from illusion to prayer, to that place of abiding in love, so that love fills us, becomes incarnate in us. “As God is,” the letter writes, “so are we in this world.” (Pause)
That’s what the preacher in this little letter is trying to do: help the people remember and reorient, and release their illusions of God. This same voice will be needed later, when things get so much worse. When Rome’s cruelty drives the poet John into exile on Patmos, and the Holy Spirit gives Poet-John a vision that we know of as the book of Revelation. It’s also known as the Apocalypse or the “Revealing.” (It is every bit as exciting as the Hunger Games, and we’ll get to explore it in worship later this summer.) The voice behind the Gospel, these letters, and that vision of John is trying to share what they have seen and heard so that we can make our way through the sentimentality and violence that litter our path toward a true relationship, a true abiding, a true indwelling of Love in us. Love, that we call God. Because God lives in us, we embody God’s love for the world. “That doesn’t make us gods, but we are God’s. God’s love is incarnate in us.”
There is a lot of sentimentality and violence littering our paths this week. There are a lot of illusions about God. We gather in this place so that we can hear what one another has heard and see what one another has seen. We share those parts of eternal life that we’ve handled. We come into this place to allow Spirit to move us from illusion to prayer and let that Love indwell us, so it can go out in the world. Thanks be to God.
“We cannot change the world by a new plan, project or idea,” Nouwen writes. “We cannot even change other people by our convictions, stories, advice and proposals, but we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, to lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and to listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center.”
 Judith Jones.
 Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, p. 76.