Awe & Love

A sermon based on 1 John 4:7-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 29, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The lesson that we just heard Sandy read has served a very personal role in my life. It allowed me to discover God IS love. It has heavily influenced my theology for almost half a century. The truth in the lesson, and my experiences of that truth, called me to the ministry. And it may even be responsible for my continuing to exist beyond my early teens. Maybe the most surprising things about the lesson, though, are that it led me to be an agnostic for twenty years and to be a life long atheist to the god many religious leaders claim exists . . . and well, it also led me back to church and to baptism as a Christian. And so I have come to believe that understanding the central point of our text– that “God is love” – can help anyone not believing in God to rename and reclaim and understand God in a new way.

Without meaning disrespect to how others may decide to name or imagine God differently, THE “God is love” theology allows adherents to also understand that those who disbelieve or believe in a different theology are good and full of God when they act with love. The existence of correct belief does not alter God or God’s presence in creation or in any form of love.

Well, that’s quite a mouthful to begin with . . . and an awful lot for a short set of Bible verses to own up to. I raise it all up at once because this text raises it all up for me . . . and frankly as I sat down to write this sermon it all just sort of came out my finger tips as I typed the opening sentences for this sermon. So I am trying to follow their lead in laying out the rest of what I hope to preach on this morning.

Like most Americans I grew up thinking of God as a separate from creation (super natural) being who could grant requests, but also very harshly judged and punished people. That image makes it particularly difficult for someone abused to gravitate toward God. When I went to church as a teen I heard about the harsh god. But I also heard that God is love, and THAT made all the difference for me and for my life. I instantly loved that God of love who was the opposite of abuse and harsh judgement and punishment.

THAT image of God drew me to church as a teen, it took me out of a very dark and sometimes life-ending-thinking place. It wrapped me in the embrace of love, a love that I came to understand I live and move and have my being in. But it also caused me to leave Christianity for two decades when I could not find a church that was not harshly judging and claiming a hell and damnation god. Try as hard as I might, I could not find the God who is love in the numerous faith communities that I visited, so I did not go back until I found such a church many years later.

Before I wandered into that progressive UCC church in Oregon it would have surprised me that progressive churches provide a lot of Agnostic and Atheists encounters for progressive pastors. I was such a person on the West Coast, but even in the Bible belt that swoops in both Florida and Ohio small towns, I have often encountered in both places people having trouble believing in God. Some express it gently as doubts about God’s existence, some just state they do not believe in God, and still others just flat out declare that God does not exist. I am not offended by any of these assertions.

And I have to tell you that I’d much rather discuss God’s existence and non-existence with Agnostics and Atheists than Christians who insist we have to believe in the image of an abusive “hell and damnation” god. Not only because I have disbeliefs and doubts (like Agnostics and Atheists), but because such questioning is a healthy sign of critical thinking about God and about the misguided efforts by many to make their god one who must judge and condemn others. (And it is always others) I not only get the doubts and the denials about that god, but I adamantly deny that angry unloving god exists. And I truthfully do not get beliefs by Literalists who despite today’s crystal clear lesson that God is love, and it and Jesus’ numerous lessons that we are to love, still think God and Jesus and Jesus Way legitimately have anything to do with judging and damning others to hell.

I also cannot fathom the idea that God is a separate being from creation. Love in my experience is not a separate being in the sky. Love is a perpetual desire and drive for well being of creation, including not just us and but everyone. Love is infused in creation. Love is imbedded in our DNA. Love soaks the air like the womb-like-warmth of a summer Ohio morning.

Speaking of Ohio summers, my first summer in Mount Vernon I decided to have an hour after worship on Sundays where any and all questions about God, and Jesus and church and religion could be discussed respectfully. We’ve held it every summer since and will hold it again starting in June. We call the class Talking About God (T.A.G. for short). And for basically three months every year dynamic discussions ensue. We’ve yet to run out of things to talk about, because, well, God is an interesting, mysterious, awesome and rather all encompassing topic. It’s a wonderful class.

On a rather regular basis in “Talking About God” the notion of doubt and non-belief comes up. And we do not treat it as heresy, we treat it as a fair inquiry. The text today is invariably lifted up for one point or another in most discussions, if not by another class member, then by me. See, no matter where our Talking About God class goes it is infused with the fact that God is love; Jesus commanded us to love; and that nothing can be more important than love. It’s not that the class does not go all over the theological map, it’s that as Christians Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. Jesus’ Way was, and is, infused with love.

And Jesus I must point out, as the Gospel of John tells us, is the Word of God. Jesus the person is not the Bible. He in fact supercedes anything in the Bible or religion that is not loving. He and his commandments to love are The Word of God. To borrow from the UCC motto Love is God still “speaking.” To put it succinctly, if it is not love it is not God . . . It. Is. Not. The. Word. Of. God.

On the Christian calendar we are still in Eastertide. Easter at its core is an affirmation that God’s Love revealed in Jesus was vindicated and validated and victorious proving God’s love is steadfast and endures forever. As such, Christians have been provided a Way ever since to be a part of that Love incarnate. It is not the only Way, but it is most certainly THE Way for followers of Jesus.

As I’ve preached before, Jesus’ Way has in essence four parts: (1) God is love; (2) believe in love; (3) love love; and (4) be love. According to Jesus in Matthew 25 (31-46) everyone and every nation is only judged on how we do the last one, be love. As our text today indicates love is God alive in humans. And that is true whether a person believe love is God or not. It is true whether someone believes God is only in those who believe as they do. See, no belief or non belief by us or anyone else can alter the fact that the nature of God is love and love is always God.

ALL LOVE REALLY NEEDS IS FOR US TO BE LOVE. And this logic necessarily applies to belief and non-belief. It applies to atheists, agnostics, Christians and all other religious people. According to Jesus we are all judged on our efforts at being love. It’s not about getting our theology right. It’s about getting our acts right. It’s about getting God alive is our being-ness by our being love in the world. If you wonder why every week in this church we discuss love. Jesus’ life of love and today’s text asserting God is love, and Jesus’ declaration that love is the greatest commandment IS why.

On my recent vacation Nancy has a new job and was unable to leave so I was basically alone on a retreat at the ocean for a few days. It was cold and off season and I almost had the place to myself. My back has been hurting more, so I did a lot of just sitting on the beach. I had a book, but, I did not read. I just looked and listened, what I call praying, what others might call meditating. I suppose a passerby willing to brave the cold might even have called it “A crazy guy sitting in the cold staring into space.” Once I got settled and focused in prayer I notice that in every inch of creation awe awaited, not just in the sun dawning’s colors, not just in the dolphins or the other animals, but in the waves and clouds, and geology; in the smell of salt air . . . in everything everywhere. If I was open to see it, I found myself IN awe. By awe I mean feelings of reverence and admiration. There was deep respect and awareness of how wonderful each nook and cranny of creation is. In all of earthly creation I could see heaven. I just had to stop and notice and there was God soaking IN everything. In those prayerful moments I could no more separate God from creation than I could visually separate a drop of water from the ocean, or the sound of a drop in the roaring breath of God in the crashing waves.

Theologies that humans come up with pretty much understand God in two basic ways, God is either separate from creation or a part of creation. Fundamentalism and Atheism by-and-large both separate God from creation. In Fundamentalism God stands above creation. In Atheism God is non-existent in creation. In both, God as a separate being from the reality of creation is either accepted or rejected.

What is not in question for Atheists and Fundamentalists is creation being a reality. Reality exists for Atheists and Fundamentalists, and of course for all the rest of us. That may seem obvious, but what those who accept or reject God as separate from creation ultimately argue about is: whether there is a divine entity beyond creation which has supernatural powers over reality– powers that can be invoked or provoked by pleading, appeasing or upsetting the separate entity.

Most of Americans imagine Christianity as being about a god separate from creation, with supernatural powers over it and a god who needs to be pleaded to, appeased, and not upset. But there have been, and are, Christian theologians who understand God as a part of creation, not separate from it but part and parcel of it. God soaking reality. God who is not supernatural – which means beyond nature – but naturally in all of nature, not above it. In it. And loving all of it.

The retreat experiences I related about noticing that in every inch of creation awe awaited, are my way of trying to explain it. I often mention Paul’s way of putting it, that God is that which we live and move and have our being in. Today’s invocation and Lectionary lesson we heard Sandy read track this theology: that God is so much apart of creation we are swimming in God, we are all in the warm womb of the Creator. Wherever we go, there is God. We are told in verse 13 of our lesson that “we abide in God and God in us.” And that when we love, we know this. And verse 12 makes it clear that when we love God lives in us. In short, God is Love and Love is God Alive in Us.

Our lesson today evidences that God is not separate from creation, not supernatural, but very much a part of it. Abide in the text means lives in, Love is our abode–and most remarkably we can be Love’s abode!

In addition to the two ideas that God is either separate or apart of nature, in theology humans also tend to have three basic ideas about the character of God. God is either indifferent, angry or loving. And while people seem to claim God can be a mix of those three characteristics, it is pretty hard to imagine all three co-existing in an omnipresent existence that soaks reality. Just as water cannot be cold, boiling and just right all at the same time . . . How can the reality we live and move and have our being in be indifferent, angry and loving simultaneously?

If we think about it, really think about it, the nature of reality evidences an overwhelming nurturing characteristic. Indeed it evidences a drive toward more– more of what is BEING, continuing to be. In the Bible we sometimes hear it expressed in a divine call to be “fruitful and multiply.” Make more generations. In science we hear it as survival instinct or survival of the fittest. Make more generations. In both the Bible and science we also hear it in the call to well being. See, it’s not just about more “being.” “To be or not to be?” is not the question. The question is: How to be well so there is better and more being?

And not just well being for our self or our family or our tribe and its generations to come. It is well being for all peoples, which is why Abraham is told he will be a blessing for all nations; and why Jesus lived and died and rose to save all from lesser ways of being. We cannot practically deny reality. Nor can we practically deny there is a longing for more of it. The evidence of is beyond a reasonable doubt.

If we understand that reality and all the more-ness of it – what was, what is, and what will be– IS God, then it is pretty much impossible to be an Atheist or an Agnostic. Because we know reality exists. If God is reality, what Paul calls that which we “live and move and have our being in,” then God exists. Psalm 139 validates it too, asserting there’s nowhere God is not:

Where could I run from your Spirit? Where could I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you’re there; if I make my bed in Death, you’re already there. I could fly away with wings made of dawn, or make my home on the far side of the sea, but even there your hand will guide me, your mighty hand holding me fast.

When we understand that God IS being, God IS reality, then God’s existence IS not the question, but rather what is the nature of God? What is THIS IS-NESS? What is it like? 1 As I said, humans have come up with three basic ideas:

(1) Reality, God, is indifferent – Does reality, God care?
(2) Reality, God, is threatening– Does reality, God, punish beliefs and behaviors.
(3) Reality, God, is loving— Does reality, God, desire well being?

In other words, if God is more than creation what “more” do we experience in creation? Awe and love and drive to more of it, is my experience. And that seems to have been the experience of Jesus . . . and Paul. And it is the answer that can be found throughout the Bible. It is the answer found in our existence if we stop and prayerfully look–and when we find it, we are IN awe in every possible way that we can imagine.

1. In addition to Paul and Psalm 139 the specific ideas on God as reality are influenced by a monk from the middle ages, Meister Eckhert, (who asserted that God is being itself) and Marcus Borg (especially his wonderful book Speaking Christian, and the chapters on God and the character of God, p. 65-83).