See What Love . . .

Preached on April 22, 2012
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Easter 3B: 1 John 3:1-7

My fondest memories of the Presbyterian Church of my childhood center on baptism.  I remember the pastor holding the newly baptized infant in his arms and walking down the center of the aisle of the church. As he walked he would say, “See what love the Father has for the child that we should be called children of God. And so we are.”[1]  In that moment, looking at this new creation, it was impossible not to believe those words.  It didn’t matter if the baby was crying or laughing, sleeping or drooling, it was so obvious that God loved that child.
A couple of days ago, I was blessed by the opportunity to hold in my arms the newest member of St. Mark’s – Samuel Wade Najem born on Wednesday, April 18th.  At 9 pounds, 8 ounces and 23 inches I could look into his face and hear those words again and again, “See what love the Father has for the child.”  God’s love poured out, God’s abundant grace shared with the world, shared with baby Samuel.
But as I drove home from the hospital, I began to wonder, “When do we lose that certainty?”  I know God’s love of Samuel is true. I know it is true of his brothers, David and Joseph, of Neena and Leela, of Patrick, of Addison, of Peyton, of every child gathered here this morning. 
At some point along our life’s journey, we are all taught and most of us learn that it is better to give than to receive. And while this adage has important practical implications and is, in many situations, very good advice, I wonder if in accepting it, we have lost sight of an ancillary truth: that those who do not experience what it is to be loved unconditionally, impair their own capacity for loving others completely.  In other words, our ability to give love and to give love to others out of an abundance of love becomes incapacitated by our rejection of or our inability to believe in God’s unconditional love for us.
As infants, it is easy to see the love a parent has for a child – the baby depends on the parents for everything. And, when that love is tragically absent, the family often becomes the focus of the news cycle as stories of neglect and abandonment garner attention.  But as we mature, our parents – as loving as they may be – are not God and are, therefore, not capable of perfect love. We experience times of disappointment and we begin to adapt, learning early on to make attempts at “earning” love.  What I’m trying to describe here is not some pathological condition but rather a way in which I’ve been exploring the challenge we face as adults to accept the fact -  the capital ‘T’ Truth - that God loves us unconditionally.
By the time most of us reach adulthood, we have come to learn what sorts of behaviors lead to positive reward.  Our culture adds to the lessons of childhood teaching us that we must work hard to get ahead – in other words, that hard work pays off – that we can earn approval from others – that we can earn love? And perhaps the passage from the first letter of John doesn’t help either. For immediately after reminding us of God's love for us, comes this:
“Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he [Jesus] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.”[2]
Tempting as it may be to read into this that doing the right thing or things means God will love us – that is, that we can and must earn God’s love – what the author seems to be saying is actually the opposite: that those who fully accept God’s love – God’s abundant gift of grace - will no longer sin, God’s love will change them.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”[3] Accept the Good News.
But some of us, even those who dedicate our life-work to a journey of faithfulness, cannot feel God within us, and we feel frustrated. Does any of this ring true for you: You pray for hours each day and then continue to lash out at those around you; you seek out spiritual masters – in the form of therapists, self-help books, yogis, or nutritionists – and try to make that person into God; you develop a spiritual practice, a discipline, but stay at arm’s length from where that practice might lead you, remaining disconnected from the spirit within and around you. So what hope can we find? Where might we regain this capacity to accept God’s loving embrace?
The answer, I believe, lies in the children around us.  It is no mistake that Scripture is filled with images of God as parent and of God’s people as children.  We need to be like children in order to fully accept God’s loving embrace. Children understand – and more importantly, accept – love as part of the way things are and the way things ought to be. A list of quotes attributed to children has been floating around the internet for several years now. The sentiments they express are quite valuable to us grown-ups. Here is just a selection:
·        Rebecca (age 8): “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands go arthritis too. That’s love.”
·        Billy (age 4): “When someone loves you, the way they way your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.”
·        Karl (age 5): “Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other.”
·        Danny (age 7): “Love is when my mummy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK.”
·        Emily (age 8): “Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more.”
·        Bobby (age 7): “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”
·        Tommy (age 6): “Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well.”
·        Cindy (age 8): “During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. I wasn’t scared anymore.”
·        Mary Ann (age 4): “Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day.”
·        Jessica (age 8): “You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”[4]
For those of you who entered the sanctuary through the doors behind you, you walked past the baptismal font. Some of you may even have stopped and dipped your fingers into the bowl, reminding yourself of your baptism. The placement of the font at the entrance to the church serves as a reminder of the grace and love of God through Jesus Christ, reminds us that while we may come from a variety of places – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually – when we gather here to worship we do so as a part of Christ’s body.
I encourage you to walk past the font whenever you come to worship here – dip your fingers into the water, even splash around a bit if you’d like.  And when you do, remember your baptism and remember these words, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”[5]  We should say it a lot because, as Jessica reminds us, people forget.

[1] Paraphrase of 1 John 3:1.
[2] 1 John 3:4-7 (NRSV).
[3] 1 John 3:2a (NRSV).
[4] B.A. Robinson, Compiler, “Love as perceived by some children 4 to 8 years of age,” Religious Tolerance: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, (first published here,  February 2009), accessed online on April 21, 2012.
[5] 1 John 3:1 (NRSV).