God is a Relationship

Dorothy Day. Image is in the public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

I hear a lot of folks talking lately about how the world isn’t what it used to be.  They’re worried about the decline of human society, the decay of public morals and values, and the emptying of mainline Protestant churches.  For many of these folks, these three series of events are related.  They say, “People just aren’t coming to church anymore, so society is going to pieces.”

A lot of people wonder why this is the case.  There are a lot of theories.  Some say it’s because of the cultural changes that happened during the 60s.  Some say that our country’s tolerance of religious diversity has left people in a state of moral and spiritual confusion.  Others say that our society’s addiction to busy-ness and constant entertainment has distracted people to the point where they just don’t even have time to think about church anymore.

Personally, I think some of these theories have valid points.  And I think the whole truth about the matter is probably bigger and more complex than any single theory can fully explain.  But there’s one theory that stands out to me more than the rest, if only because it’s the one I hear most often from people who don’t come to church.  And here it is (the number one reason most people give for not coming to church): “It’s hypocrisy of Christians who claim to believe that God is love but do not extend that love to other people.”

Isn’t that interesting?  When you actually go and ask people why they don’t come to church, they tell you: it’s not because of diversity, and it’s not because they’re too busy, and it’s not because of the 60s.  It’s because of Christians.  The author Brennan Manning once said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

As Christians, it seems that we don’t take our theology seriously enough.  We think we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength without loving our neighbors as ourselves, but Jesus calls FOUL on that play.  He says you can’t have one without the other.  If you try to separate them, you end up with something other than the God revealed in Jesus.

Central to our Christian faith is the belief that God is love.  Did you get that?  God is love.  Most people breeze right by it without thinking and end up with the wrong idea about who God is and how God works in the world.  What they tend to hear is “God is loving” (i.e. “God is basically a nice person”).  In other words, they think that the Old Man in the Sky (who made the world and controls everything that happens) is a nice guy.  But that’s not what the text says.  The text is taken from 1 John 4:16 and it says, “God is love.”

There’s a big difference between being loving and being love.  God is love itself.  God can be found in the dynamic interchange of energy between people who care about each other: family, friends, lovers, even enemies.  Wherever there is love, there is God.  In fact the full text of 1 John 4:16 reads, “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”  The Creator of the universe is not separate from it.  God is not “out there,” floating on a cloud or in some alternate dimension.  No, God is right here.  As the apostle Paul says in Acts 17, “In [God] we live, and move, and have our being.”  God is within us and all around us, wherever love is found.  God is love.  God is a relationship.

Our ancestors in the early Christian church came up with an interesting way of expressing this truth.  They left us with a kind of puzzle that could never be solved.  And they called it the Trinity.  According to the doctrine of the Trinity, we Christians believe in only one God who eternally exists as three persons: traditionally called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is both three and one, one and three.  Each person in the God-head is co-equal and co-eternal with the others.  There is no hierarchy or pecking order among them.

The doctrine of the Trinity has always been controversial.  In ancient times, Jews and Muslims accused Christians of being polytheists.  In more recent years, people have identified the sexism inherent in using exclusively male terms to describe the Father and the Son.  In any age, the Trinity comes across as confusing.  Many have tried to solve the puzzle, but all have failed.  So, this morning, I won’t even try to offer an answer to its question.  We’re going to let the mystery stand and focus instead on the implications of that mystery for our lives as Christians.

And just what are those implications?  Well, according to the mystery of the Trinity, our one God exists in a state of relationship between three persons.  In other words, God is a relationship.  God exists, not as an individual entity, but as the dynamic exchange of perfect love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Because of this, it suddenly makes sense to say that “God is love.”  God is love because God is a relationship.  Wherever love and compassion are established on earth, God is present.  “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”  That is the practical application of the theological doctrine of the Trinity.  That is where we begin to live what we believe and show ourselves to be either followers of Jesus or just another group of hypocrites.

The only way to faithfully testify to the presence of the Triune God in the world is through acts of love, not supposedly infallible announcements of dogma.  If God is a relationship, then we usher and invite people into greater spiritual awareness by being in relationship with them, regardless of whether or not they ever darken the door of our church.  Moreover, if God is a relationship, then we come close to God, not through dogma and rituals, but by intentionally engaging in relationships with the people and planet around us.

Jesus spoke about this very clearly in Matthew 25 when he said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”    Offering food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, shelter to the homeless, friendship to the lonely, and justice to the oppressed are not simply good deeds that improve the reputation of the church in the community, they are our best way to participate in relationship with the Triune God.  God is a relationship, so relationships are the places where God is most fully known and experienced.

There is no one I can think of in the last one hundred years who lived this Trinitarian theology more fully than Dorothy Day, a Catholic activist who opened homeless shelters and soup kitchens for the unemployed workers of New York City during the Great Depression.  So remarkable was this woman, she was not content to simply found and fund a charitable agency for the poor, she moved into the shelter and ate the donated food with her clients, who she simply regarded as friends.  In them, Dorothy Day was seeking and serving the Triune God.

She wrote in 1937:

Every morning about four hundred men come to Mott Street to be fed. The radio is cheerful, the smell of coffee is a good smell, the air of the morning is fresh and not too cold, but my heart bleeds as I pass the lines of men in front of the store which is our headquarters. The place is packed–not another man can get in–so they have to form in line. Always we have hated lines and now the breakfast which we serve, of cottage cheese and rye bread and coffee has brought about a line…

The [Pope] says that the masses are lost to the Church. We must reach them, we must speak to them and bring them to the love of God. The disciples didn’t know our Lord on that weary walk to Emmaus until He sat down and ate with them. ‘They knew Him in the breaking of bread.’ And how many loaves of bread are we breaking with our hungry fellows these days–‘ 3,500 or so this last month. Help us to do this work, help us to know each other in the breaking of bread! In knowing each other, in knowing the least of His children, we are knowing Him.

This morning, I want to urge you toward similar action in your own life.  I invite you to participate in the life of the Trinity, to get caught up in the infinite whirlwind of perfect love that flows between the persons.  In that Great Love, incarnated in the myriad little loves that surround us every day, may you find God: not the monolithic “Old Man in the Sky” but the dynamic energy of love that pulses through all creation.  And, through you, may others come to believe in the God who is love.  May they find that God here in our church as they enter into relationship with a community of Christians who really do live as if they believed that “God is love, and all who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”  May it be so.

Elements of Worship: Relationship

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.  Part 5 in a series of 5.

The text is Matthew 5:23-26.

I saw a thing online this week that was kind of funny and cynical all at the same time:

“Marriage: Betting someone half your stuff that you can put up with them forever.”

Kind of harsh isn’t it?  It makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.  That hasn’t been my experience of marriage (for the most part).  Marriage isn’t supposed to be like that.  I think most of us would probably agree that any person who takes that sentence as his or her main idea about marriage is probably pretty confused about what love really is.

Then again, I think it’s more than fair to say that you and I live in a society that, as a whole, is also pretty confused about what love really is.  The evidence you can gather in a single hour of primetime television or pop radio would be more than sufficient to demonstrate what I’m talking about.  We might all laugh at the idea that marriage is “betting someone half your stuff that you can put up with them forever” but there are some other fairy tale proverbs out there that people in our society buy into hook, line, and sinker without even thinking.  At no time of year is this insanity more apparent than Valentine’s Day.

For example, when two people are in a relationship (let’s just assume they’re young) and one of them says to a parent, “Mom/Dad: how will I know when I’m really in love?  How will I know when I’ve found the one?”  What do people usually tell them?  “You’ll just know.”  What kind of malarkey is that?  I don’t know about you, but when I was trying to decide about asking Sarah to marry me, I was a nervous wreck!  I didn’t know anything!  On the one hand, I had this great relationship with someone I really cared about.  On the other hand, I was so scared that I couldn’t even see straight.  And it’s not like one outweighed the other or one canceled the other out.  Love in one hand.  Fear in the other.  Both existing in the same place at the same time.  “You’ll just know”?  There was no “knowing” about it.  Just a choice: Love or Fear.

Here’s another crazy one that you hear sometimes: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  Who in the world came up with that?  Well, I did a little homework.  As it turns out, that line comes from a 1970 movie called Love Story.  The main character (whose name just so happens to be Barrett), played by the actor Ryan O’Neal, says it at the very end of the movie.  What I find particularly funny is that this same actor, Ryan O’Neal, was in another movie called What’s Up, Doc? With Barbara Streisand.  Barbara repeats the line and Ryan O’Neal, in a beautiful moment of self-parody, responds, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”  I couldn’t agree more.

If anything, real love should make us more ready to say “I’m sorry.”  Real love is a choice, not a feeling.  It’s a choice that we make once, accepting the reality that we will have to make that same choice again and again for the rest of our lives.  A big part of choosing love over fear (in marriage, church, work, or family) involves our willingness to seek and offer forgiveness when things go wrong.  It’s easy to talk about love when everything is going great, but it’s something else entirely to love someone when everything has gone wrong.  The process of seeking and offering forgiveness is more broadly referred to as reconciliation.  Reconciliation is love in action.  It’s what happens when the rubber meets the road in real life and real relationships.  Anyone who has really experienced it can tell you that reconciliation is the single most miraculous event that can happen in any human relationship.

I have a hunch that that’s why the ancient Jews and Christians zeroed in on reconciliation as their primary metaphor for describing what happens in the relationship between God and creation.  They called it redemption or salvation.  The early Christians thought of this relationship as taking place in and through this person named Jesus.  Jesus was more than just an inspirational philosopher to them.  They saw something unique in him that they identified with the God of their Jewish ancestors.  This identification was so strong that the early Christians would say that to look at Jesus was to look at God.  If you want to understand what God is like, they said, just look at Jesus.

They used all kinds of poetic metaphors to describe the relationship between God and creation that was happening through Jesus: it was like being healed from a sickness, raised from the dead, or freed from captivity.  It was like being blind, and then being able to see.  It was like being hopelessly lost, but then finding your way again.  These were all valid metaphors for describing their experience of the relationship between God and creation that was happening through Jesus.  But the mental image they used most often was that of reconciliation.  It was the most amazing and miraculous thing that could happen between two people, to be at odds with one another and then make peace, so it made sense for that idea to quickly rise to the top and become the dominant metaphor for describing what was happening in their new and growing relationship with God.

This was and is a beautiful thing.  Christians to this very day tend to think of their relationship with God in the same way.  The only problem is that, when forgiveness and reconciliation becomes the only metaphor for describing our relationship with God, it can easily become twisted into something it was never meant to be.  The sole emphasis on forgiveness as a metaphor for salvation led, over the centuries, to an obsession with guilt and sin.  Salvation, they thought, was all about getting your sins forgiven.  In other words, it’s all about getting back on God’s good side so that nothing bad will happen to us after we die.  Christians began to think of themselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  Theirs was an unhealthy obsession with guilt and fear that, I think, led to a gross distortion of who God is and what salvation is really all about.

I don’t think we’re “sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  I think our ancestors in the faith took the most beautiful moment in a human relationship and applied it to their relationship with God.  If we’re going to recover reconciliation as our primary metaphor for salvation, I think we need to let go of our baggage of guilt and fear.  We need to remember that reconciliation begins with God, whose love is unconditional.  Our trust in that love is what gives us the strength to be honest about who we really are and what we need to work on.

That’s why we confess our sins at the beginning of worship each week.  It’s not about guilt and fear; it’s about honesty and trust.  Knowing that we are loved (no matter what) is the key to owning up to our faults.  We have nothing to hide and nothing to be afraid of.

As this great love gives us the power to make peace with ourselves, we are also commissioned and ordained as peacemakers in the world.  Once we have experienced that love for ourselves, we are called upon to pass it on.  Have you ever noticed how the passing of the peace in our service is supposed to happen right after our prayer of confession?  That’s no coincidence.  We receive God’s love and then we immediately give it away.  Love begets love.  Grace begets more grace.  Jesus told his followers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Jesus took the idea of reconciliation quite seriously.  For him, it even trumped the importance of a worship service.  As we heard in today’s gospel reading: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  This call to peacemaking and reconciliation is so important that Jesus was even willing to interrupt a worship service for it.  Real love should be able to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you”.  This is love in action, not just feeling.

It’s worth mentioning that this peacemaking is not always easy.  It gets complicated.  Nowhere is it more difficult than it is for those who find themselves in physically or psychologically abusive situations at work or home.  The call for forgiveness can too often be manipulated by abusers who merely want to maintain power over their victims.  “C’mon,” they say, “can’t you just forgive me?  Don’t you believe in forgiveness?  What would Jesus do?”  They might even quote scripture to back up what they’re saying.  If you’re dealing with that kind of person: get out of the relationship.  You can’t work toward forgiveness and reconciliation if you’re still in a position where you or others are in danger of being hurt.  You can’t forgive that person until you’re safe.  Get to safety first, then work on forgiveness.

What’s more is that forgiving does not mean forgetting.  I don’t know where “forgive and forget” came from, but I can guarantee you that it’s not in the Bible.  God would never want you to put yourself or your dependents back into a dangerous situation.  Sometimes, the best way to forgive is from a distance.  Don’t put yourself in jeopardy.  Make peace in your heart as best you can.  I promise you: it still counts.

Real love is able to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.”  Real love is a choice, not a feeling.  Each week in worship, we re-enact a powerful ritual of redemption.  In our prayer of confession, we are empowered by God’s unconditional love to honestly face ourselves (warts and all), trust that we are loved anyway, and then go back out into the world as peacemakers and agents of reconciliation.  God is not concerned about guilt and fear-mongering over what particular sins you may have committed last week.  The quality of our relationship with God is measured by the quality of our relationships with one another.  One surefire way to measure the actual quality of our relationships with one another is to look at how willing and able we are to say things like “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” to one another.  This is love in action.  It raises us above our culture’s twisted ideas about love and brings us back to a place where we can experience what real love between people is all about.  And that, of course, points us right back to God’s infinite and unconditional love, in which we live, and move, and have our being.