(1 John 4: 7-21)
Abraham Lincoln was once criticized by an associate of his for his generally congenial attitude toward political rivals. The associate asked, “Why do you always make friends with your rivals? You should destroy them!” To which Lincoln replied: “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make them my friends?”
Lincoln’s words are wise ones for our day and time. In this age of hyper-partisanship, mistrust and the loss of open and honest dialogue, they seem like echoes from some far-off distant utopia. We have lost the art of civil discourse, it seems; forgotten, as my pastor mentor and friend Art Ross once said, the ability to disagree agreeably. We are more divided than ever before.
And the root of this divide, it seems, is something more than the inability to get along, more than the inability to be kind and cordial. It is, at its very heart, a loss of the ability to love.
Today is Rally Day Sunday, and our Christian Formation Ministry Team has chosen for this year the theme “Rooted In Faith.” You and I, we are grounded in the rich, fertile soil of this faith community and the love of Jesus. And from that rich and fertile foundation, and by the grace of God, we are able to grow in various ways. For the next five Sundays, we’ll look at some of the ways we grow: in discipleship, in hospitality, in generosity, in gratitude, and today, in love.
And you and I would be hard-pressed to find another passage of scripture that delves deeper into this matter of love than our scripture reading today. I asked you before I read the passage to see if you could count how many times you heard the word “love.” The first is probably obvious: love. If you were counting, the word “love” appears thirty times in the passage – thirty times. And every time it is a particular word for love that is used: it is the Greek word agape. Quick Greek language lesson here: the Greeks had three different words for “love.”. One was Eros, used for physical or sexual love. The other was Philos, the kind of love in friendship.
The third word, Agape, actually was the least used of all three. Agape love is a love that transcends physicality or mere acquaintance. Something more than a feeling, more than something that comes and goes like the wind. Some have taken to describing agape love as “love in action.”
Interesting, isn’t it, that while agape may have been the least-used words for love back in the day, here in this passage it is used every single one of those thirty times.
There’s another word you may have heard a few times as well – and that word is “abide.” The Greek word, meno, can mean to reside, to lodge, to settle, to endure. Something that is permanent. Something that lasts. Six times this word appears here.
It was Aristotle who once famously said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Seems like the writer of 1 John had this same thing in mind here. Love. Abide. Let agape love reside, endure in us.
And it seems simple enough, does it not? Not exactly an earth-shattering message at face value. Conjure up any of the well-known love exhortations in our own day and time. Bishop Michael Curry from Harry and Meghan’s wedding: There is power in love. The Beatles: All you need is love. Charles Dickens: A loving heart is the truest wisdom. Lenny Kravitz: We’ve got to let love rule. Shakespeare: Love asks no questions. I could go on and on. I’m sure you could too.
That’s the problem with love. It’s obvious, it’s right in front of us. It’s what we know we’re supposed to do. Which makes it all the more difficult to do.
That’s why words like Abraham Lincoln’s are noteworthy, because they seem so counter-intuitive. It is one thing to feel love, because feelings are fleeting. It is another thing to act in love, because our actions mean something.
So what can happen, people of God, when agape love truly abides in us?
A couple of weeks ago I shared a story about a camp friend of mine and their neighbor. Today I share with you a similar but different tale; this of the neighbor of a friend who lived a couple of blocks away from me. We spent a fair amount of time together in our younger years – sometimes we’d ride bikes, or watch a movie, or shoot baskets in his backyard. Although we always had to tread carefully when shooting baskets, because the basketball goal backed up against a fence, and on the other side of that fence was the yard of Ms. Watson. And you did not want to cross Ms. Watson. Almost every time we were out there, Ms. Watson would come out and yell at us over the fence, accusing us of crazy things – we were being too loud, we were scaring her cat. We never saw a cat. Maybe that’s because we were scaring it, but I wasn’t so sure….
One time we were playing basketball and I missed a shot, which is one of the few things I’m good at in basketball – I missed a shot, terribly; and the ball went over the fence and into her yard. We didn’t get the ball back. Even my friend’s parents couldn’t make any headway with her. The two of us were convinced that Ms. Watson was some minion sent by the devil himself, because there was just no explaining her and how she treated us.
Most of the time I assumed Ms. Watson was just born the way she was. But every once in a while I’d wonder about her – who she was, where she was from. I wondered if she ever married or had kids – I never saw anyone else with her. I wondered if she’d always been this way, mean and spiteful, or if something that happened in her life that caused it. I wondered what she did at Christmas, when all of us were celebrating with our families. Or on her birthday – did she have a cake? Who came to her party? I wondered if she had anyone who loved her, or if she had anyone to love. I wondered all these things but then she’d yell at us and I’d stop wondering.
One afternoon I walked in the front door of my friend’s house, which led right into their kitchen. I saw my friend standing there, and he was opening a bag of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies and placing them on a paper plate. I told him that chocolate chip cookies would be the perfect snack before we went outside and played a little one-on-one. And that’s when he told me that the chocolate chip cookies were not for us.
He covered them with saran wrap and took them out to his backyard. I followed him, all the way to the edge of the fence, wondering what was going on. And then without warning, I watched my friend step up on a stump against the fence and lean over into Ms. Watson’s yard, calling his neighbor by name.
I thought he’d lost it, honestly. What was he doing? Sure enough, I heard Ms. Watson’s back door swing open. She made a beeline to the fence, fire in her eyes, and stopped just a few feet away from us. And with a voice that conjured every ounce of hate and malice, Ms. Watson belted out, What do you want??
My friend was so calm, beyond calm, as he extended the plate of chocolate chip cookies and told them they were for her. She froze, then she glared over at me as if to gauge whether this was some kind of joke. To be honest, I was wondering the same myself. But it didn’t seem to be. My friend stood there, holding the plate of cookies, so calm. Ms. Watson took slow and deliberate steps to meet him at the fence.
She took the plate of cookies from him, then lifted them to her face and peeled back the saran wrap and began sniffing them as if checking for traces of poison or something. Either that, or she was just taking in the sweet aroma of store-bought chocolate chip cookies.
Ms. Watson looked at us, clearly uncertain what to do. This was the last thing she expected from either of us. She continued looking at us in silence with an expression neither of us could read. And then at long last, a faint trace of a smile broke out; revealing itself cautiously and with much effort, as if it had been a long, long time since her facial muscles had contorted like this And for the first time that I could remember, she spoke in a tone that did not suggest anger. Thank you, she said. I like chocolate chip cookies. And with that, she turned and walked back to her house with her plate of cookies, nibbling on one as she went.
It took us a little while to get used to the new Ms. Watson. I mean, she wasn’t totally changed – it wasn’t like she came over and started shooting hoops with us or anything. But she did give us our basketball back, and the cookies she started baking and giving us on that same paper plate far exceeded anything bought in a store. She didn’t yell anymore. And she actually brought her cat out to meet us.
I never asked my friend what possessed him to do what he did that day. Maybe it was because I didn’t need to. Because “love in action” needs no explanation, really. It vouches for itself. And in the end, it’s not just about changing the other person. It’s about changing ourselves, too.
They say that love is the stuff of Valentine’s Day cards and mushy love songs. They say love is “I heart you” etched into tree trunks and hugs and kisses. But the kind of love the writer of 1 John writes about, the kind of love Jesus lived, is everything about stepping outside our comfort zone and extending our very selves, not just into the places where they’ll be warmly received, but also where they may very well be torn to pieces. Love – agape love – is about standing on a stump and leaning over a fence with a paper plate of chocolate chip cookies, no matter what comes out of that back door when it swings open.
Love is about living faithfully in a world paralyzed by uncertainty and fear – something we live with every day, every news cycle seeming to up the ante one more notch than the day before it. Love is about living in that kind of world and choosing, against every instinct and despite advice to the contrary, to refuse to let uncertainty and fear take hold of us. Love is about confronting head-on the forces in our world that subjugate, that dominate, that wreak of injustice; and work diligently for reconciliation and redemption.
Love is about looking upon a world made long ago, a world which had seriously gone awry, veered way off course; and instead of trashing it and starting over, love is about choosing to empty yourself into human form and walk this earth not like a human, not with the humans, but as a human; fully human, fully God. And love is about realizing that the only way to destroy one’s enemies is to do everything in your power to make them your friends.
Love is a dangerous, dangerous, thing. But love must be our action. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said:
Somewhere, somebody must see that force begets force, hate begets hate. And it is a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for everybody. Somebody must have sense enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.
May you and I, followers of this great agape love, have sense enough to do that – with a plate of chocolate chip cookies, with our very lives. And may we always remember that we destroy our enemies when we make them our friends.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 From Loving Your Enemies, a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.