Sermon preached April 26, 2015
Texts: I John 3:16-21
Joan Baez, “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjIPvClNGIE
If you don’t appreciate my love of music, you could, in part, blame Bob Dylan. I first encountered his songs in a song book for Christian youth groups. When I started exploring ideas and music more broadly in my late high school years, I remembered Bob Dylan and sought out his music. And you couldn’t know Bob Dylan without knowing Joan Baez. Joan Baez often sang Dylan songs, and recorded an entire album of Dylan covers, including “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word.” It is a Dylan song that Dylan has never recorded himself.
The song is a connected series of scenes and thoughts as the singer puzzles over the idea that love is just a four-letter word, something that covers disappointment, something that is supposed to last but doesn’t. The song is beautifully sung, but rather depressing in its theme. By the end, the singer does not need to be assured that “love is just a four-letter word.”
A few weeks ago, Julie and I watched last year’s Academy Award winning film “Birdman.” It is a rather strange movie about an actor who had played a superhero in Hollywood trying to bring a serious play to Broadway. Early on in the movie, as we watched the play that was being brought to Broadway, I said, “Hey, that’s Raymond Carver – the short-story writer.” Yes, the play Birdman was trying to bring to Hollywood was based on the short stories of Raymond Carver, particularly the story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is a story about four people, two married couples, sitting around a table drinking gin and talking about love. For one of the married couples, it is a second marriage, and previous relationships have not ended well. The most painful vignette in the story is how a woman named Terri talks about a former boyfriend who beat her, and yet continues to assert, “Say what you want to…. It may sound crazy to you…. Sometimes he may have acted crazy. Okay. But he loved me. In his own way maybe, but he loved me.” (Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, 138)
We talk about love a lot here. Our mission statement says that we are a place “guided by the teachings and unconditional love of Jesus.” We talk about love a lot, here, but how is our talk about love different from all the love talk in the world around us, where sometimes love is little more than a four-letter word, or love masks abuse and control, or where love is soft and squishy, or where love is fickle?
Awhile back I read a book about F.Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. I became curious to read his first novel, the one that earned him fame and money, and put him in a position where he could marry his beloved Zelda – This Side of Paradise. It is the coming of age story of Amory Blaine, like Fitzgerald himself a young man from St. Paul who went to college at Princeton. The novel includes no shortage of episodes about love. Within two weeks Amory and Rosalind were deeply and passionately in love. The critical qualities which had spoiled for each of them a dozen romances were dulled by the great wave of emotion that washed over them. (145)
There are problems, though. Rosalind is from a well-to-do family and Amory’s family’s money is coming to an end. He will not be able to offer her much if they get married, at least at first. He is working for an advertising agency. Rosalind’s mother warns her daughter: “You’d be dependent absolutely on a dreamer, a nice, well-born boy, but a dreamer – merely clever.” (149) Another man appears on the scene, wealthier, and he wants to marry Rosalind. She tells Amory, “We’re pitiful, that’s all. The very qualities I love you for are the ones that will always make you a failure” (151). She goes on. “Marrying you would be a failure and I never fail” (152)
Is that love? What do we talk about when we talk about love?
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. Eugene Peterson renders that last part in this way: let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love.
That’s the kind of love we are talking about, and trying to live out, a love that comes from knowing we are loved – loved by a God who is bigger than our hearts, a love flowing from a generous heart. It is a love that moves us beyond, in the translation of Eugene Peterson, “debilitating self-criticism.”
The writer says strong things about this kind of love that is at work actively and truthfully. When we love, we abide in God. When we love, we hang with God, we remain in God’s sphere of influence, we continue to pay attention to the whisper of God’s Spirit. In some sense, of course, God never stops trying to influence us. That’s the meaning of grace. What I think the writer here is getting at is that when we love, that when we know that we are paying attention to that movement of God’s Spirit in our lives. When we live with generous hearts and spirits, when we care for those in need, we know we are hanging with God.
This is what we talk about when we talk about love. This is why for us love is not just a four-letter word. Our understanding of love affects who we are and what we are about together. This week I was asked about my definition of the church. It needed to be brief – fifty words. My initial reaction was that I would have liked to have done some research and then get back to the person. That academic part of me remains important. But I continued to think about that and decided that I had given this a lot of thought over the years, and every day I want to live out some idea of the church. So I responded. The church is a community of people who have been touched by God’s grace and love in Jesus Christ and who are seeking to live in such a way, individually and together, that they grow in love of God and others, and witness to the grace of God in Jesus. When I finished typing, I did a word count – exactly fifty words. But that’s how I see what it means to be the church, to be a community on the Jesus way. We seek to love each other and grow in love individually and together. That’s what we talk about when we talk about love. It’s not just a four-letter word.
And our love extends beyond our community. One morning this week I attended a workshop on ACES – adverse childhood experiences. Such experiences include things such as feeling humiliated or threatened by an adult in your home, being physically abused by an adult in your home, being sexually abused by an adult, feeling no one in your family loved or supported you, parental separation or divorce, lack of food or clothing or parents too chemically dependent to care, mother/stepmother physically abused, chemical dependency or abuse in the household, household member significantly depressed or suicidal, household member incarcerated. The workshop developed themes also found in Robert Putnam’s recent book Our Kids, where he writes: Recent research has greatly expanded our understanding of how young children’s early experiences and socioeconomic environment influence their neurobiological development, and how, in turn, early neurobiological development influences their later lives. These effects turn out to be powerful and long-lasting…. Early environments powerfully affect the architecture of the developing brain. (Robert Putnam, Our Kids, 109, 110) Putnam goes on to write: Kids at any socioeconomic level can encounter such adverse experiences, of course, but those who grow up in low-income, less-educated families are at considerably greater risk (114).
I John 3:17, The Message: If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.
During that workshop on adverse childhood experiences, a hospital chaplain named Sara Lund shared a story, and she gave me permission to share her story. I mention Sara’s name because she meets here every month with an organization called Blue Star Mothers, a supportive group for women who have children in the military. We are glad to provide them space.
Sara shared that she entered a hospital room one time and the patient said to her, “You are the very last person I would want to see.” Rather than turn away, Sara decided to hang in there with this guy a bit longer. “You know, that’s the very most interesting thing I’ve heard all day.” The patient invited her to stay and talk. She asked him what would make him say that. She heard about some of his difficult experiences with the church. After a bit, the man said to Sara, “If I was a praying person, this is about the time I would ask for a prayer.” Sara said, “Well, if you were to ask for a prayer, this is the prayer I would say.” Being willing to hang in there with someone when they are hurting or angry, that’s a form of love in action, love that is more than a four-letter word. That’s what we are talking about when we talk about love.
May God’s Spirit full us with love, with a love that our hearts cannot contain, a love that overflows for others – “more and more with knowledge and full insight” to use a phrase of Paul’s (Philippians 1:9), a love that overflows in actions. That’s what we are talking about when we talk about love. It is so much more than a four-letter word. May it continue to be so. Amen.