God is Love
April 29, 2018

God is Love

Preacher:

You may have noticed that I’m not from around here.  I grew up in Alabama, the Deep South, The Bible Belt.  And I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. I have a lot to be grateful for because I was raised in the church. But unlike today’s reading in the first letter of John, I didn’t really grow up with the image that God is love. Oh ,we read that passage, we were Baptist, we read ALL the Bible, but I knew at the age of six that “I was a sinner headed to hell for my sins unless I turned from my sins to Jesus.”  Now in the picture I was given, Jesus was the nice one who loved me enough to die for me. God, the Father, was the Judge, a bit of an angry “hanging” judge who was looking for a reason to “throw the book at me” and give me what I truly deserved. It took many decades and lots of experiences with the God of Love before I was able to get rid of my image of God as the “hanging judge”.

 

So when I became a mother, it was very, very important to me how my children would be introduced to God in the church.  When we moved to Alabama from Canada with a 6 month old baby Henry and we visited a church, I always wanted to hear how they approached children’s spirituality. How did they speak of God to the children.  Did they believe God was already at work in the preschoolers life or did they wait until the child could read before their took them seriously? It was and is very important to me because i believe our first perception of God is foundational to our relationship with God and how we perceive God. And if our first image of God is a little off, then things can get shaky later on.  

 

For me,  God is love.  God’s love come first.  Before sin, Satan, or Hell.  There is God and God is love.  Without that as the foundation, as your source for understanding who God is, then you misinterpret God and your relationship with God.  Many of us didn’t have that as our primary image of God, but I wanted it for my children.

 

I read through various curriculum and approaches to introducing God to children.   Some of them just plain stunk, and many were mediocre at best. Most all of them saw the child as an empty vessel, if not an already marred vessel because of deep-seated belief in original sin, where the adult would pour in the information about God to this empty vessel.  Most approaches didn’t even have a category for believing that God was already at work in the preschooler’s life, already loved by God and pursued by God - which I what I believed. I was saddened by the church’s approach to children. Until my family visited an Episcopal church an hour from our home which had an atrium instead of a nursery and where childrens’ spirituality was taken seriously in an approach called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.  Henry was 2 ½, Kathryn was only 6 months old when I started the summer training to learn more about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd - and I liked what I learned. As Lorel shared with you last week, the Good Shepherd is the first image of God given to the child in the atrium. The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of love, protection, and intimacy. The Good Shepherd knows all his sheep by name. This is the world of the Level I child - the basis for their relationship with God.  God is love.

 

In Level 2, with the 1st - 3rd grade child, another image is added to this picture of God.  This image is another of Jesus’ “I am” statements. And we heard it today from the Gospel of John . . . I am the true vine.  This image is another invitation to a deeper relationship with God. It is also the image where we introduce the concept of sin into the atrium.

 

Here we have a houseplant that we use in the atrium to help us think about Jesus words when he talks about himself as the true vine.  Vines feel and act different from trees, don’t they? With a tree, there is a separate, very distinguishable tree trunk from which each branch grows out.  With vines there is less a distinguishable difference between the vine and the branches of the vine. The vine feels more interconnected, more of a community.

 

What is there flowing within the vine and the branches.  When I break off a leaf and I rub my fingers over the broken edge - it feels wet.  For lack of a better word, I’ll call that the sap, the water and nutrients that runs from the vine to the branches without which the plant dies.  If Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, within this metaphor, what is the sap that runs from him to us? That gives us life? There is no right answer, but think of the metaphor. What is our “sap” from Christ.  Love? The Holy Spirit? Water of Baptism? Of Re-birth? Forgiveness? Eucharist? I don’t know. It could be all those things or even more. But I do know that without this sap, we die. We wither and become a dried up branch good for nothing but the fire.  

 

Did you know that plants can get “blocks”  Something can cut off the flow of the sap from the vine to the branches. Have you noticed how this blockage can affect the whole plant? What happens to the leaf – the branch? Turns brown and dies. Anything below it on the vine is dead too, because there is a blockage.

 

And that happens to us in our relationship with God.  We can experiences blockages What causes it? Disobedience? Envy? Resentment? Apathy?  An unwillingness to love our neighbor? An unwillingness to forgive? Whatever causes it, those blockages are serious and can lead to death. In the church, we call that blockage between ourselves and God and ourselves and others “sin”.

 

And here’s the thing about community in the vine.  If there is a blockage in me and you are further down the vine, my blockage is going to affect you. We are not isolated.  We don’t have an isolated relationship with God. If I have a blockage with the vine, it doesn’t only affect me - it affects you as well. My relationship with God, be it good or bad, affects you. Your relationship with God affects me - your spouse, your children, your grandchildren, your neighbors, your church community.  We are interconnected, we are a part of the true vine together.

 

Now that blockage doesn’t scare the gardener or the Vinedresser as he is referred to in the gospel reading.  God gives us a way of removing the blockage and restoring the flow of life between us and God and each other.  It's called the Rite of Reconciliation and we find it in our Book of Common Prayer. The Rite of Reconciliation is a sacrament given to the church by God as a means of restoring relationship with God and one another. When we confess – name our blockage – God forgives us. He removes the blockage. He restores us and gets that sap flowing again. He repairs the damage done to the branch and to the Vine. And we are restored.  Because apart from the vine, we can do nothing. Apart from God, we can do nothing. Why? Because there is no sap. .. No nutrients . . No water. No life. No love.  No Holy spirit, No forgiveness.

 

I can remember the first time I heard this lesson in my Level 2 training. I was amazed.  Because sin was introduced in a such a way - as a problem that God has already solved. We simply have to avail ourselves to the solution. With this image there is no threat of eternal damnation in hell.  Only a simple confidence in a loving God, the gardener, who already had a solution to the problem. Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Restoration. Tears started to fall down my cheeks as I listened. I wanted to weep from the beauty of the lesson, from the confidence of a loving God whose desire is restoration of relationship, from the freedom from self-loathing that I had been taught always accompanied sin.     

 

How do I respond to God’s generous gift of forgiveness? to our reconciliation? Thankful joy! And what is God’s response to my restoration?  I hear his response in the parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Woman and her lost Gold coins. JOY! Joy that what was lost had been found.  “Come celebrate” with me the woman says to her friends and the shepherd says when he brings back the one lost sheep. Based on these parables, God’s response is joy at our restoration.  He turns to us in JOY that what was lost in now found - what was broken, is now restored.

 

And now we can produce fruit again. This is no half-hearted restoration of relationship. It’s the full enchilada!  

My father’s glory is that you bear much fruit! Not that you just sit on the vine and enjoy drinking the sap, but they you take that sap and bear fruit to the glory of God the Father. Remain in me, says Jesus.  Abide in me, Make your home in me and in so doing produce much fruit to the glory of the God the Father. This is the ‘abundant lavish life God promises and that he longs for each of us” As branches on his vine.  Abiding in him. Making our home in him, and producing fruit that brings glory to him.

 

And your reconciliation matters to me, because we are on the vine together. Your relationship to God affects me as well. We are all part of the vine located at St. John’s Gig Harbor.  He is the Vine. We are the branches. We remain or abide or make our home in Him and he makes his home in us.

 

Later in the same chapter of John Christ says, I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

 

God isn’t the hanging judge or the angry Father of Creation that’s just waiting for you to step out of line so he can zap you. God is love. He is the Good Shepherd. The True Vine. Remain in him and be joyful.

 

Amen.