Last week, in my first sermon on “Love,” I quoted a Baptist deacon, a mentor of President Jimmy Carter’s who said, “There are only two loves, the love of God, and the love of the neighbor who sits, or stands immediately before us.” Though I will let the deacon’s statement stand, and in context, it can. I would be remiss if I did not point out that Jesus defined not two loves, but three. In Mark Chapter 12 Jesus said that “the first and greatest commandment was to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength.” He then added, “A second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” That is three loves, God, one’s neighbor, and one’s self. Over the next several weeks, I will take them up, one at a time, beginning with our love for God.
Loving God is easy for some. It is easy for a preteen boy like the one described by John Greenleaf Whitter in his poem, “Ode to a Barefoot Boy.” Whittier’s barefoot boy lived in these United States when there were fewer broken bottles scattered over the landscape, and the countryside still had the fresh smell of a perpetual spring. According to the poet, the boy was a little “man” with hair of gold and cheek of tan. At that time, he belonged to a privileged class, though ignorant of it. He had knowledge never learned of schools because his primary textbook was the world of nature, including green fields, dark woods, and cool, flowing creeks filled with crawdads, tadpoles, and little silver fishes. On top of all his other benefits, the barefoot. Boy enjoyed “health that mocks the doctors rules.” He could eat anything he wanted, stay-up as long as he dared, and then sleep with such carelessness that he could always awake fresh, and ready for a new and exciting day. When raised in a religious family, taught to pray, and taken regularly to public worship, such a child learns to love God as easily as one learns to swim, or throw a baseball, or ride a bike. The author of Psalm 16 articulated the place of this boy in the world—and people like him, when he wrote, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, yea I have a goodly heritage.”
No all children are as blest as Whitter’s barefoot boy. Many children have been born (and will continue to be born) in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many have lived with the horrors of terrorism and war, and many more have grown up in ignorance and poverty, raised by damaged people in broken homes. Many are cursed, beaten, and abused. Their bodies recover, but their psyches often do not. They learned their first lessons not in the fields and woods but on the streets, rightfully called mean. Many of these children are like the teen age Girl in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play, “Whistle Down the Wind.” When told of a God who loves her and promises her life after death, she responds, “I don’t give a damn about life after death; I just want to know there is life after birth.”
You and I have more in common with the barefoot boy than with the children of the streets. “The lines have fallen for us in pleasant places.” We were born to loving parents. We grew up in homes that were warm and dry, and we seldom went hungry. We had our health—which, with few exceptions, we took for granted. We received a free public education that lasted 12 or 13 years, and when we finished high school, many of us even went to college or secured good jobs, with good pay, and the hope of lifetime employment. Many of us married and raised children of our own. Most enjoyed a long, carefree life—right up to the point when we realized we had grown old. Only after we had grown old, did we learn the truth of the words once displayed on an embordered pillow by the American actress, Bette Davis: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”
Thankfully, with age, we have grown kinder and more understanding. For now, we know that it is harder to love God through pain than to love god in pleasure. Now we admire those who manage to love God through severe allergies, allergies, migraines, arthritic joints, broken teeth, and various diseases ranging from shingles and covid to diabetes, and cancer, and heart disease. Even if we have a serious disease, we can usually point those who are worse off than we ourselves. I have been watching a friend die of heart disease. It is a terrible death—and I have watched fearing a similar fate, but his decline has been rapid. This is such a contrast to living with a protracted sentence of death like ALS, aka “Lou Greig’s disease.” I have watched at least a handful of friends succumb to ALS and other diseases that robbed them of their mobility, and and cannot imagine a death that is worse than that—being imprisoned in one’s own body. The great physicists, Steven Hawking lived with ALS for more than 50 years before dying at the age of 76.
Some people have learned to love God through pain. Others have learned to love God through the loss of a job, and the uncertainties of unemployment, and the reality of bills that are stacked higher than an elephants eye. Still others must learn to love God through the suffering and death of someone they love. In the course of my ministry, I have seen far, far too much of suffering and grief. Like many pastors, I feel there is no higher calling than that which God laid on the prophet Isaiah in the 40th chapter of the book which bears his name. There we read, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, Says your God.” Likewise, I admire no pastor or Christian worker any more than I admire the author of Psalm 107 who sat with the people of Israel in exile, by the waters of Babylon, and wept with them as they remembered the good life they left behind in Jerusalem.
Perhaps you know the name of Rabbi Harold Kushner, a best-selling author. The late Rabbi lost his son to progeria—or rapid aging. By the time the boy was ten, his body was like that of someone in their sixties. In his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” a study of Job, Kushner wrote:
“Ultimately, there is only one question that matters, ‘Is God Good?’ Everything else is just idle talk—like people make at cocktail parties.”
“Is God Good?” That is the question! For if we believe that God is good, then we can trust God, and perhaps even love God in the face of hardship, suffering, uncertainty, and loss. If we do not believe that God is good—then we may hate God as easily as we once loved him.
I had a friend whose wife was stricken with a terrible disease while she was still quite young. Their love for one another was put to a terrible test. On his job, my friend worked hard for his money. At home, he worked harder still, not just to make the meals and do the chores, but to keep hope alive in his wife and their children. He made a heroic effort and nursed his wife to the very end. When I visited with him after her death, he confessed that the only way he had kept his faith in God alive was in his anger at God. He said there were times when he hated God. He was ashamed of these feelings, and he asked if there was any way back. I said, “Yes. God can take our hard feelings. God loves us even when we cannot love God.” I then told him, as I have often told you, that the only God I can believe in is the God the New Testament calls “the God and Father of our LORD Jesus Christ,: who, in the person of the Eternal Son, robed himself in human flesh, lived among us, cared for us, taught us, then endured the cross, despising the shame. He died not just “for” us but “with” us. I told him that, for me, the cross of Jesus Christ is not just the justification of sinful humanity before a holy God. It is the justification of that same God’s goodness and love before the bar of human reason and experience.
I think all of you will agree with me when I say that loving God is complicated, and more complicated for some than for others. Here are several suggestions that make it a little easier—or, at least, a little easier to understand.
First, we must never forget that “Stuff happens,” and sometimes, like Forrest Gump, we step in it. God does not send it, or place it in our way, or sling it at us. We just step in it. I have told you before how a Moravian pastor, recently widowed, stopped me on the street and told me that God had showed him why his wife had contracted cancer and died. He was a genius, and I expected a long explanation. He took just three words. He said, “She was human.” I believe there is a randomness in the universe that goes along with our human freedom. We cannot have the latter without the former.
Second, we must make sure that the anger we have toward God is not misplaced. We cause a lot of our own suffering. As the man said, “It is not so much that we break the law of God as that we break ourselves on the law of God.” We also cause pain for one another. It was not God who killed 18 and wounded 13 in Maine before turning the same weapon upon himself. Likewise, though some militant Muslims may disagree when I say this, God does not inspire or condone the terrorism of Hamas. And though some militant Jews may disagree, God does not inspire or condone the indiscriminate bombing of the Arabs. Several weeks ago, I mentioned Wolfheart Pannenberg, the great Christian theologian. Pannenberg said that, even in a purely history of religions sense, that is, even without miracles and all the things that make our religion unique, Jesus was superior to Moses and Mohamed because Moses and Mohamed tied their respective followers to a piece of geography, whereas Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Of course—Christians have not always kept this Word of Jesus, so it is often a moot point. If you don’t believe this—then read John Ehle’s book about the Cherokee removal entitled, “Trail of Tears.” Or see the new Martin Scorsese film, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Despite the LORD who said, “Love your enemies!” Christians can be and have been just as vindictive as our Abrahamic cousins.
Third, we must keep God’s commandments. Jesus said, “If you love me; keep my commandments.” This saying of Jesus is deeply rooted in his own obedience to God. The Bible teaches us that obedience to God is its own reward. As we read in Psalm 1:
1 Blessed are those who walk not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers; 2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditates day and night. 3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, that yield their fruit in its season, and their leaf does not wither. In all that they do, thy prosper.
We love God by keeping his commandments—and, in turn, those commandments keep us and protect us from much harm.
Fourth, we love God by loving one another. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus loved us sacrificially. As he said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And In 1st John 4:20 we read:
If we say, “I love God,” and hate our brother and sisters, we are liars; for those who do not love their sisters and brother whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
That Baptist Deacon who said, “there are only two loves that matter,” understood that loving our brothers and sisters and neighbors is not easy. We are not called upon to love the nameless, faceless mass of humanity, but the human being who stands before us and pleads with us for our help. That human being may be a member of our own family that always rubs us the wrong way. Or a neighbor who always support the candidates we refuse to support. Or one of those children who grew up on the mean streets and is still avidly seeking even one break that will allow them to have a better life. John Wesley understood the importance of loving our neighbor in tangible ways when he wrote:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
Some will say, “Worth helping others is an impossible never ending task. Yes, but like the late Saint Teresa of Calcutta, we can learn to help the many, one at a time. We can turn toward the person who stands before us, see them as a person, and, at the very least, listen to them. We may do more. We may not, but seeing and listening and being present to them is the first step. After that—who knows? I will leave you with Paul’s words from Romans 5 that both haunt us and encourage us. Therein we read, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” God’s love can inspire us to do for others what our natural affections cannot. When it does, then God not only loves us, God loves through us.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.