Martin Luther preached a sermon in 1534 on this morning's Gospel text in which he said this: "God, who is infinite and indescribable, also gives in a manner immeasurable. For what He gives He does not give as a deserved and fair payment for services rendered but as the words read, out of love. Therefore he is a Giver who gives from the heart and out of unfathomable and divine love, as Christ says: "God so loved the world" (John 3:16). Now, as we see, among all virtues, none is greater than love. A person is glad and willing to risk and hazard everything he has for the sake of the object of his love. Patience, chasteness, moderation, etc., are fine virtues, too; but they are trivial when compared with love, which includes all other virtues and brings them in its train. Thus the man who is pious and just is unjust to no one and gives every man his due. But where there is love, a man gives his entire self and is willing and eager to do anything for which he may be needed . . . Our heart should expand, and all sadness should disappear, when we look at this unfathomable love of God's heart and sincerely believe that God is the supreme and greatest Giver and that His giving flows out of love, that sublimest of virtues."
As I read this one paragraph quote from Luther's sermon, I underlined some form of the verb "give" nine times. Out of divine love God gives in a manner immeasurable. He gives even though it is not deserved. He is a Giver who gives from the heart and out of unfathomable and divine love. God is the supreme and greatest Giver and His giving flows out of love.
Luther focuses in on the word "give" in John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. "Divine Love Gives."
John 3:17 -- "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned."
I remember standing by the hospital bed of a man who was dying and who seemed to be in a bad mood. I asked him if he wanted me to pray with him or was he so angry at God for what was happening that prayer would make him feel worse?
He looked at me and said, "No, I'm not angry at God. There have been plenty of times when I felt I had done so many things wrong; I figured that God had given up on me. But lying here in the hospital, I've felt God's presence in this room and feel him giving me his love."
He went on: "When I was young, I thought I had to be perfect for people to love me. I thought that if I ever did something wrong, they would stop loving me. So every time I did something wrong, I would make excuses, I would lie, I would try to find someone else to blame. I didn't realize what an angry person I became when I acted that way. I thought it was my doing things wrong that turned people off— not my anger. But lying here in the hospital — sick and cranky and dying, but feeling God's presence in the doctors and nurses who try to help me, in the friends and family who come to visit me — I've finally learned that you don't have to be perfect to be worth loving. I only wish I had known that sooner."
"Divine Love Gives." God gives us his love, gives us his Son in spite of our sin and imperfection.
"But I thought I had to be perfect." Where did so many of us get that idea? Did we get it from parents who hoped we would make up for the empty spaces in their own lives?
From teachers who took for granted everything we did right and seemed to focus on every mistake? Or, maybe from pastors who told us over and over again how Adam and Eve broke one rule and were punished forever?
Do women get that message of perfection from movies, fashion ads, and the Oscars last Sunday, featuring actresses and models with figures you can’t hope to match? Do we men get it from relentless pressure to sell more, to produce more, to earn more and from a society that makes fun of the losers in the Super Bowl for being only the second best football team in the world? Then there’s the jokes about the team that doesn’t win one game.
I read a newspaper article about the National Spelling Bee where every year at the finals they have to provide a “comfort room” where children who have spelled hundreds of words correctly can go to cry, throw things, and be comforted by their parents when they finally make one mistake. The hundreds of correct words are forgotten as they feel like failures for having gotten one word wrong.
We do that to one another. We focus on one another’s failures rather than the successes. We give one another judgment rather than love. But “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”.
A God who gives his only Son out of Divine Love is not a God who looks for reasons to punish people for being less than perfect; just as it is a mistake for parents to be excessively disappointed and judgmental every time their child makes a mistake.
I believe in a God who knows how complicated human life is, how difficult it is to be a good person all the time, and who does not expect a perfect life — but a faithful life — so that "everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
If God could not love flawed, imperfect people, God would be very lonely, because imperfect people are the only ones around. And, if we can't accept and love people with all of their imperfections, we condemn ourselves to loneliness as well.
I listen to too many people blaming their parents for having made mistakes in raising them. They were amateurs when it came to raising children — a task where even experts don't always know the answers. In their loving, faltering way, they gave us something more valuable than a perfect childhood. They taught us what a complicated thing love is and what a challenge it is to love and raise children.
And, as we grow up and become a parent ourselves, we grow to appreciate what a complicated thing love is and what a challenge it is to love and raise children and, in our case, foster children for 15 years.
Our children have the right to make mistakes and to learn from them. When our children were first learning to walk, taking tentative steps and falling down, we didn't scold them for being clumsy. We praised them for trying to do something new and challenging. How difficult it is to maintain that attitude as our children grow up.
When our children do wrong, they need to know we won't stop giving them love just as God gives his love to us in spite of our sin. If our children don't know that we'll keep loving them, then we teach them to be liars and there will be no confession of sin and no repentance. If we did not know that God would keep loving us, then there would be no confession of sin and no repentance. We would all be liars.
This past Tuesday night, Sue Clay, Dave Worsencroft and myself represented Divinity at the Cassidy Theater in a Town Hall meeting sponsored by the Parma Heights Police Dept.
One of the speakers was a mom named Rene who lives around the corner on Lafayette. She told us three of her four children are battling addictions. She facilitated a support group for families of addicts here at Divinity for a while. One of her handouts is entitled, “An Open Letter to My Family”.
I am a drug-abuser. I need help.
Don’t solve my problems for me. This only makes me lose respect for you – and for myself.
Don’t lecture, moralize, scold, blame, or argue whether I’m stoned or sober. It may make you feel better, but only makes the situation worse.
Don’t accept my promises. The nature of my illness prevents my keeping them, even though I mean them at the time. Promises are only my way of postponing pain. And don’t keep switching agreements; if an agreement is made, stick to it.
Don’t lose your temper with me. It will destroy you and any possibility of helping me.
Don’t let your anxiety for me make you do what I should do for myself.
Don’t believe everything I tell you. Often I don’t even know the truth – let alone tell it.
Don’t cover up or try to spare me the consequences of my using. It may reduce the crisis, but it will make my illness worse.
Above all, don’t run away from reality as I do. Drug dependence, my illness, gets worse as my using continues.
Start now to learn, to understand, to plan for recovery. Find Families Anonymous, whose groups exist to help families in just your situation.
I need help – from a doctor, a psychologist, a counselor, from some people in a self-help program who’ve recovered from a drug problem themselves – and from a Power greater than myself. – Your “User”
Mature love sees the faults in ourselves and in the ones we love and is capable of loving flawed and imperfect people.
In our Gospel text, God gives us permission to be human, to make mistakes, and he will not condemn us as long as we are faithful to Jesus Christ. And so we can give ourselves permission to be human, to try and to stumble, to be momentarily weak and to feel shame, but to overcome that shame with moments of strength, repentance, and faithfulness.
We need to learn to define ourselves, not by our worst moments but by our faithful and love-giving moments. Life is not a spelling bee where one mistake wipes out all the things we have done right. Life is not a test for which the passing grade is 100% and anything less is a failure.
As the baseball season is getting under way, let me say that life is like a baseball season. Even the Cleveland Indians will lose a third of their games. The goal is not to win every game but to win more than you lose, to be faithful more often than unfaithful, to give away the love that God has given to you. If you do that often enough, in the end you may find you have won it all because the one you have followed first won it all on Easter morning.