I heard this one when I was a seminary student: newly ordained minister asking wise, experienced minister: “What should I preach about?” This answer came back: “Preach about God; preach about twenty minutes.”
I’ve followed the twenty-minute advice, though with shrinking attention spans today fifteen minutes will suffice. But I’ve avoided preaching about God in recent years. It’s easier to talk about Jesus or current events. For today I decided I should return to that sage advice, so I will preach about God and I will preach about fifteen minutes.
But not yet! I must explain why I’ve avoided God. There are two reasons. First, Western philosophical and theological traditions have found a dimly Christian God in nature, or creation, or the cosmos, whatever you choose to call it. I’ve decided they were all wrong about that. (I’ve given up on humility, too.) No, the only god found in nature is the energy that creates and destroys, on and on, without privileging anything, certainly not humankind.
Years ago, I sat on a rock overlooking Pine Lake along the Canadian border, enraptured by the setting sun. I said to my camping companion, “How wonderful it would be to live in greater harmony with nature!”
He replied, “Don’t kid yourself, buddy. Nature is out to get us, and in the end it will.” He was right, of course. Being enraptured was not wrong. We could all use a little more rapture. But I was wrong to imagine that we humans could merge with nature in greater rapture.
My second reason for avoiding God has been my irritation with those across the theological spectrum from conservative to progressive who seem to know precisely who God is and what God expects of us. Earlier I tried to be that confident, but no more. God is mostly mystery, into which we peer but where we only catch glimpses of the divine. I have given way to modesty when speaking about God, not confidence.
Well, there, I’ve spent half of my fifteen minutes avoiding God by telling you why I avoid God. Now I must stop avoiding and preach about God.
Two years ago, on a Thursday evening, I was stationed in a gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Art wearing a huge white metal pin, the size of a waffle, with large black letters that said, “Ask Me.” It was a slow night, mostly questions about where the nearest restroom is, when does the museum close, but nothing about art. Then a woman approached me, with a glint in her eye, who said, “Can I ask you anything?”
“Of course,” I hastily and foolishly replied.
“What is the meaning and purpose of life?” she inquired.
“Love,” I replied, “love. That’s all you need to know.”
“Oh my God,” she shrieked, “I never expected a docent to say such a thing. You’re right, love is life’s meaning and purpose.” And off she went.
That’s what I will say about God: God is love. Wherever there is love, God is there. On what authority do I make that claim? Here I am tempted, as a retired seminary professor, to launch into a learned discourse. But not today. Simply to answer, the bible, the church and my personal experience. The Christian bible traces the story of Jesus Christ embedded in the founding stories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The church is the community of Christ’s followers. And my personal experience of love in that narrative and community confirms it.
Scriptural texts should be interpreted through the lens of love. Where texts embody love, God is there. Protestant scholars and clergy have often employed the lens of Jesus Christ—a valid recognition that not all bible passages are equally loving. But that is too narrow. Finding Jesus in the Older Testament is inaccurate and denigrating to Judaism. No, love is the better interpretive lens.
Using love that way, the bible passages read today sparkle with love. Psalm 14 displays the love of God in its reminder that observing God’s law requires care for the poor and oppressed. The fool who says there is no God is free to continue a self-centered way of life, paying no attention to the poor. God’s law is guidance for loving the poor and restraining the selfish rich.
The reading from Ephesians speaks of grasping love’s width, length, height and depth. If you do that you will know the love of Christ, and then you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God. There it is again: God is love.
Even the two stories from John’s gospel, the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water, seem different if we view them through the lens of love. Rather than miraculous suspensions of nature’s laws, which is the traditional interpretive lens, through the lens of love these are stories of Jesus’ love for the hungry crowd and his love for the disciples. Again, God is love.
As the old song says, “Love is a many-splendored thing.” I will speak of only two of love’s splendors: love as justice and love as restraint. In a progressive church like First Church and a progressive denomination like the UCC, love as justice does not need to be sold, just practiced. Love as restraint may be less obvious. An easy example of love as restraint would be restraining a child from running into a busy street.
Let’s try a more difficult example: loving Donald Trump by restraining him. He requires restraining from running out into the street where foreign policy and domestic policy are fashioned. He must be restrained from destroying the core values and institutions of the nation we love, the world community of nations and the environment. We must not hate Donald. We must love him by restraining him.
In our federal government those restraints could and should be applied by congress and the Supreme Court. At the moment they lack the courage. That leaves it up to us, the people. While the people lack formal restraining authority, in the end what we believe, what we say, what we write, where we march and donate will make a difference. So, we need to take heart and have courage, trusting that loving Donald Trump by restraining him is in keeping with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, and that love will prevail in the end. That is the Christian promise and hope—God is love and love is God.
There, in spite of wanting to avoid God, I have preached about God and preached about fifteen minutes. May my life and yours embody the love of God in ways that are filled with justice and restraint.