Click here to view the full sermon video, titled "Love God"
There was a montage of cable news coverage not long ago that pieced together all the story introductions meant to entice viewers to keep watching. What they all had in common was how they attempted to leverage viewership using outrage. “This story will make you livid,” explains the host. “We’ve got a story that will make your blood boil,” says another. “This is going to enrage you,” says a third. And on and on it goes. Is it any wonder that we’ve got an anger problem in our country and in our communities? A Pew research project found that people in opposing political parties increasingly identify those of the other party as close-minded, dishonest, immoral, and unintelligent. Another poll found that 80% of Americans had few to no friends from across the political and ideological divide from one another. Not long ago there was a story revealing that the algorithms used by companies like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter were designed to steer people toward videos, posts, and tweets that might make them angry. Why would anyone want to do that? Well, because the longer a person stays engaged on those platforms, the more money they make. It turns out that one of the reasons why we hold such a low, and quite frankly angry, opinion of those who don’t think, vote, or value the things we value is because it is very profitable to the assorted media companies that feed us our steady diet of outrage. In one of the old Star Wars movies, the sage Jedi Master Yoda observes that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to much suffering. Alternately, in an early letter to the church, we are instructed that perfect love casts out all fear. The antidote to our addiction to the anger and outrage that plays upon our fears, it turns out, is love. That is what we are going to be exploring over the next several Sundays of Lent as we make our way toward the ultimate expression of love in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and the powerful demonstration of just what perfect love is capable of. If Lent is a season of penitence, a season of coming clean in order to get our bearings and make the necessary course correction, then there can be no better form of repentance than turning from the fear and anger that grip us and our neighbors and turning toward love; retraining our hearts to love in the ways that we’re called to love as people of faith, journeying with Jesus to Jerusalem and the crucible of fear and anger that await him there.
This week I was reminded of a different kind of montage from the parade of cable news talking heads peddling our anger fix. This one was a medley, really, from the 2001 film Moulin Rouge. The young would-be Bohemian writer Christian (of course) is attempting to woo the star of the Moulin Rouge, the courtesan, Sateen. He begins to speak of love and she informs him that she doesn’t believe in love. He then goes on to cycle through the titles of any number of love songs, “But love is a many splendored thing, love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love.” It’s hard to reconcile this kind of talk about love, the squishy hearts and flowers kind that dominates holidays like Valentine’s Day, with the first of the two great commandments that Jesus talks about; a commandment that comes from the shema of Jewish tradition. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The kind of love that gets bandied around in most pop songs feels, as Scott Black Johnston puts it in his book Elusive Grace that we’re studying and using as our guide for this project of retraining our hearts, that kind of love is, “a far too fluffy and unreliable an emotion to lay at the feet of the Almighty.” The kind of love the shema and Jesus are talking about- a love that encompasses not just our heart, soul and mind but ALL of our heart, soul and mind- is something that we’re called to do with every fiber of our being. But as Johnston rightly asks, how can a person love God in that way? What does that even mean?
Johnston suggests the answer to that question starts with eliminating some of the obstacles we run into when we think about, or try loving God. The first is fairly predictable, what I call the old man in the sky obstacle. It’s best demonstrated, I think, by the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying. The so-called lie that Gervais’ character invents is a man in the sky who controls everything. “Does he control natural disasters,” asks the crowd gathered around. “Yeah.” “Did he cause my mom to get cancer?” Again the answer comes, “yeah.” “Did he cause that tree to fall on my car last week,” asks someone else. “Did he kill my dad with that heart attack?” Yes, and yeah. Finally, the crowd get angry. “I say forget that man who lives in the sky! That guy’s evil.” It’s just a movie, but it sounds like a lot of conversations you hear about God sometimes. Particularly when bad things happen. Unfortunately, we give plenty of oxygen to claims and descriptions of this man in the sky who sounds, at best, like a jerk and at worst downright evil. Sending hurricanes to punish everyone for women wearing pants, or some other such nonsense. So the first obstacle to overcome when it comes to loving God is not letting other people tell us who God is, but getting to know, and know about God for ourselves. But that isn’t easy.
That’s because we have this habit of not giving God a second thought when things are going okay; when we’ve got our health, and a job, friends and family, some measure of security in our lives. Basically, we treat our relationship with God as something on an as-needed basis. When we need some assurance in the wake of a terror attack, or a disaster, or a worldwide pandemic, faith becomes our fire extinguisher, or life preserver. We want a God who will go around cleaning up after us like a cosmic claim adjuster, fixing all our messes, large and small. Certainly, that is part of God’s job description as our refuge, our salvation, our present help in times of trouble. But if you’ve ever had a friendship with someone who only reached out when they were in some kind of crisis mode, you know that’s not the basis for the healthiest of relationships with anyone. While God is indeed the mender of hearts that are broken and bruised, as Johnston puts it, “God wants more than the damaged parts of our hearts.” There needs to be some reciprocity in any healthy relationship, which means focusing on something more that what God can do for us.
That gets tricky in a world where it can be difficult to give our attention to anything. There are the minor distractions and diversions, and then there are the things that belong to that category we call sin. We get distracted by greed, or pride, or lust, to name a few. These are the things that steal our attention from God by causing us to focus on what we think we don’t have enough of, or our need to feel important, or a yearning to satisfy some primal desire. Loving God may simply be about paying attention. What if we considered that what it means to pray is as much about paying attention to God’s presence with us as it is about us asking God for things? Johnson shares the Mary Oliver poem “Praying.”
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
Into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
The doorway Oliver names, the doorway into thanks and silence is also the doorway into love, as we pay attention without needing or requiring God to fix anything, or be what we think God should be. In the stillness of paying attention to this one who is the Holy Other, we begin to fall in love.
Psalm 42 is not a some happy clappy praise song. It speaks of both our deep yearning for God- a yearning that suggests love, or at least a desire to love God. But it isn’t as simple as waving one’s hands in the air. There are tears and absence, and a memory of a time when loving God was easier because life was easier. But in the roar of a great waterfall, in the crashing of waves against a rocky shore, the longing to know and love God is met by a wall of sound that cancels out all the other noise and distractions that keep us from attending to the deep longing of our hearts. The depth of God’s love calls out to the depth of our desire to love God and we are met by the wonder and mystery that holds us even as we hold onto and love it.