First John 4:7-12 (NRSV)

In 1969 a song was released by a Canadian Rock group Mashmakhan. The song was called “As Years Go By.” It was quite popular for a while and earned the band a brief, international recognition. I mention it because, over the years, every time I set out to write a sermon about love, this song pops into my head. Some of you will remember it, but for those who don’t, let me share the words with you.

A child asks his mother “Do you love me?”
And it really means will you protect me?
His mother answers him “I love you.”
And it really means you’ve been a good boy.
And as the years go by, true love will never die.

At seventeen a girl says “Do you love me?”
And it really means will you respect me.
The teenage boy answers “I love you.”
And it really means can I make love to you.
And as the years go by, true love will never die.

At sixty-five his wife says “Do you love me?”
And it means I’d like to hear it again.
Her husband says to her “I love you.”
But it really means I love you till the end.
And as the years go by, true love will never die.

Now you’re asking me if I love you.
And it really means will I marry you.
And I answer “Yes, I love you.”
But it really means that I won’t be untrue.
And as the years go by, true love will never die.

I will love you forever.

It’s an interesting song isn’t it? I was thirteen when it came out. I can’t say it was ever one of my favorites, but the words have stuck with me. As pop love songs go, I always thought it had kind of a unique insight. If you move through the verses, the shades of love change. At first, love is protection and approval. Then it moves through love as respect, desire, reassurance, commitment, hope and loyalty. At some level, most of us might agree that “True love will never die.” But just try to nail down what we mean when we say it, and we find ourselves going off in a multitude of different directions.

Love covers so much territory; everything from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach,” to Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield.” Love is the substance of our highest hopes and dreams. It is the subject of our greatest literary triumphs. But it can also be a manipulation used to sell cars, toothpaste and casual sex. It’s kind of stunning when you think about it. How can one word, one idea, stretch itself across so much of our human experience?

The answer, I think, is that love strikes to the very heart of what it means to be human. No matter how unique and individual each one of us may be, when we get right down to the core of our essential humanity, what we find is a longing, an emptiness, a desire for wholeness that, to one degree or another, we all share and, to one degree or another, we all spend much of our lives chasing after. Love covers so much territory because it is the word we use for anything and everything that fills, or promises to fill, or fails to fill the hole in our hearts. And, because that hole is ultimately infinite, no finite experience of love can ever be completely satisfying. So we find ourselves continually chasing after it

In Mashmakhan’s song, it’s not that any of the people asking for or giving love are wrong. It’s simply that love has so many different faces; so many different expressions. Ultimately, if we really want to get to that true love that never dies, our only choice is to do what John did in his New Testament letter. He came to an understanding that love is another name for God. Those who love are born of God and know God, because God is love. Any time and every time we experience love in our lives, in whatever form, we are experiencing, to some degree, the presence of the living God.

There’s an old book by J.B. Phillips that I’ve always liked. It’s calledYour God is Too Small. It talks about how our ideas of God often get in our way because they too easily narrow down our understanding of who God really is. If God is truly infinite, which is something all of our major religions agree on, then any idea, any doctrine, or creed or theology of God that we have, can only be less than God truly is. But we often get stuck in our small ideas of God and fail to allow God to simply be God. Ideally, if we want to mature in our faith, it’s important to keep reminding ourselves that God is always bigger, always more, always beyond even our best, our most cherished ideas of God.

With that in mind, and assuming John is right, that Love is another name for God, then J.B. Phillips could just as easily have called his book, Your Love is Too Small. I actually think that might have been an easier way for us to understand all this. For most of us, God seems so mysterious, so abstract, so hard to get a handle on. But love, as Mashmakhan understood, is woven through many of our most familiar experiences. And if our love is too small, well that isn’t so hard to understand. It just means that we think there are or should be there are limits on our loving. But Love is always bigger, always more, always beyond even our best, our most cherished ideas of Love. That’s certainly been my experience.

A few years ago, I had a sort of revelation on all this. When Pam and I become parents, whether we knew it or not, we immediately began to harbor notions about what our children’s future was going to be like: college, career, marriage, family — all the traditional stuff. I don’t remember ever thinking about it much. I just assumed these things were the general direction we were headed in, like most everybody. But then, one after another, all these assumptions began to crash into reality. Our beautiful daughter Sarah fell in love with a young woman, Mary, who later became Sean. The two of them have a wonderful, non-traditional marriage, coming up to their fifth anniversary. Our son, meanwhile, gradually came to the awareness that he was gay, and then that she was Transgender. She is now our beloved second daughter, Corinne.

To be honest, all these non-traditional gender identities and relationships were not what I would ever have wished for my children. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with it, but simply because the world we all grew up in is not kind to people who violate our usual expectations of what is “normal.” The whole idea of “normal” is being completely redefined these days, and I don’t think any of us really know how all that is going to play out. What I do know, is that with each of these changes in the lives of our children, Pam and I had a choice to make. We could have drawn a line in the sand and said to our children, “No this is unacceptable. It is wrong. We will not be a part of it.” Or we could love and accept them for who they were and who they were becoming. What we came to, eventually, is that God was trying to tell us that our love had been too small, that it needed to grow and change and become more inclusive.

We’re certainly not alone in facing these issues. A recent Gallup Poll estimated that, as of 2016, some ten million adults in the United States now identify as LGBT. What that means, one thing it means, is that an awful lot of families are having to make the same kinds of choices that Pam and I wrestled with. And believe me, I understand that these can be very painful choices. I had a conversation recently with a family out in the Midwest. Their son has recently informed them that “she” is Trans. But because they are members of a very conservative church, they feel they can’t be honest with their faith community or their pastor about what they are going through. They are facing one of the most difficult, most painful challenges of their lives, but unless they want to reject their daughter, their church has no support to offer them. So, they are now looking for a new church.

Just this last week, I received an email from someone who might be coming to one of our services. In part, the email said: “I was invited to your church and it sounds like you have a lovely service. Before attending any church it is important to me to be sure they do not discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation.” Because of our Open and Affirming vote last November, I was able to say very clearly that this person would be most welcome here. I want you to know that I am proud, as your minister, that you have allowed me to say that on behalf of our church.

Of course, when God invites us to consider whether or not our love it too small, it is not only about the LGBT community. It’s also about the homeless, the immigrant, the victims of the opioid crisis, the hungry, the naked and those in prison. It is about anyone and everyone we are tempted to exclude from our love, our circle, our tribe, our party or our church.

There is a wonderful movie out recently called Come Sunday.Pam and I saw it on Netflix last week and I’ve been recommending it to everyone. It’s based on the true story of Evangelist Carlton Pearson. Pearson is a fourth generation, fundamentalist preacher who suddenly comes to believe that, in God’s love, everyone is already saved. There is no such thing as hell. His new beliefs run dead against the teaching of his tradition. Nearly everyone in his life tries to pressure him to give up what they believe is a heresy.

At one point, he is called up before a convocation of bishops for what is essentially a heresy trial. When they invite him to speak in his own defense, he has a conversation with the head bishop.

Bishop Ellis, I want to ask you something. Is there anybody you have loved in your own life, anybody you were close to — an uncle, a brother or friend — who backslid and is in hell right now?

My daddy, yeah, what about it.

How do you know?

Because he sinned until the day he died, that’s how I know.

How long’s he been there?

Fifteen years.

And did you love him?

Course I did, he was my daddy. But he beat my momma, he beat me, he was a fornicator…

And now God’s punishing him. He’s suffering in hell. He’s tortured and tormented for all eternity. So let me ask you something. Would you get him out of hell if you could?

That ain’t up to me.

But what if it was? What if there was a way we could negotiate with God, with Jesus and the blood. You’d get your daddy out of there as quick as you could wouldn’t you?

I can’t answer that.

Of course you would, anybody would. So the question we have to ask ourselves is this. Are we more merciful than God?

Pearson did not win that argument. He didn’t manage to convince the Bishops. But neither could he reconcile himself to a church and a teaching that had become narrow, exclusive and self-righteous. The questions he was asking and the answers he was coming to are right at the heart of the church today. As our society changes, as our understanding our ourselves grows and changes, many of us find it harder and harder to accept that the circle of God’s love should be so narrowly defined. Our understanding of God’s love has been too small. God always bigger, always more, always beyond even our best, our most cherished ideas of God.

Let me close with the words from the Prophet by Kahlil Gibran:

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
When you love you should not say,
“God is in my heart,” but rather,
“I am in the heart of God.”

Amen.

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