June 19, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Revs. Chris and Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Ground Rules and Sky Seeking Love
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and forgive… as the Lord has forgiven you… Above all clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together in perfect harmony…”
Hear the glory of the sky-seeking, love-soaring scripture. Then the letter takes a turn: You have heard it said, “Wives be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord”… But I say to you, husbands love your wives and do not treat them harshly. You have heard it said, “Children obey your parents; this is your duty in the Lord…” But I say, parents do not provoke your children or they may lose heart. You have heard it said, “Slaves obey your masters…” But I say, “Masters treat your slaves fairly and justly for… you also have a Master in heaven.”
A little more than nine years ago, Mariah and I made promises to each other: to love and sustain each other in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow. They were easy promises to make.
But it’s one thing to promise love during a wedding ceremony. It’s another to thing to love each other in the messiness of life. What does loving Mariah look like if if she gets cancer and can’t work and the medical bills start piling up? What does it look like if I develop dementia and don’t remember her face and become a shell of who I once was?
Love is more than a promise. It’s a thing we do. And in real life, it gets messy.
So we look for examples.
We look to movies and books and stories. We look to family and friends and colleagues. We look to God and Christ and scripture. In the messiness of real human relationships, we look for someone to tell us what love looks like.
We look to the marriages and relationships in our church communities. We look to people who have been through this before. We look to people who can share their experiences. We look to people who can say, “We’ve been here before and we know this journey.”
The church supports marriages by sharing in the messiness of our relationships: offering congratulations and comfort and consolation. The church supports marriages by showing us what love looks like.
And that’s what the writer of Colossians is giving us in our reading today.
He gives us a lofty instruction: clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love; do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.
And then he gets down to specifics. He gets down to here’s-what-that-looks-like-in-families.
He give some instructions that – when this was written almost 2,000 years ago – were normal, expected, and utterly unsurprising: wives be subject to your husbands, children obey your parents, slaves obey your masters.
And those sound horrible to us here today. But then they were the usual. For generations, people looked at those rules and thought: that’s what being clothed in love looks like.
And there are people today who read these illustrations and think that’s what love looks like. There are people who write books and attend conferences and listen to radio shows that teach that this is what love looks like.
I understand the impulse.
When I was in college, I took jazz improvisation lessons. Every week I was given a set of licks: sequences of notes to be played and memorized in every key so that when I say a D minor chord followed by a G7 followed by a C major 7 I would know what to do.
After college, I worked as a cook and I was given recipes. Every day I cooked the same dishes again and again so that when I saw shrimp and angel hair and tomatoes and onions and garlic and stock and wine I would know what to do.
Examples and rules and licks and recipes are good things. We can use them to help each other. In the messiness of real life, real relationships, real marriages, we can share the hard and honest truths of our lives to guide others.
We can say, “Here’s what I did when I faced what you’re facing.”
And that’s a good thing.
But there’s a danger: we can confuse the examples and rules and licks and recipes and advice for the thing.
Jazz isn’t just licks. Cooking isn’t just recipes. Being clothed in love isn’t just a set of rules. And it certainly isn’t a set of rules that just reinforce the same-old-same-old of old men ruling over women and children and slaves.
And the writer of Colossians knows that.
That’s why he doesn’t stop at ‘wives be subject to your husbands’, he goes on to ‘husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly’. He doesn’t stop at ‘children obey your parents’, he goes on to ‘do not provoke your children’. He doesn’t stop at ‘slaves obey your masters’, he goes on to ‘masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly… for you have a master, too’.
He pushes the boundaries of love a little further.
We can help each other by teaching each other. We can even help each other by admonishing each other. We can help each other by sharing the wisdom that comes form study and experience.
But we cannot confuse what love looks like to us with what it will look like in the end. We cannot confuse how we love now with being clothed in love.
For Christ, like the writer of Colossians, is always pushing the boundaries of love a little further. Until they are altogether open.
Chris is making the case that this star-soaring love gets explained by examples which become instructions, so don’t confuse the rules for the love. That’s right. At the same time, maybe it’s the example of love that helps us get a glimpse of the sky…
It might not surprise you to learn that Chris and I were in the same preaching class in seminary. One day a poet came to teach our class, and he led us in an exercise: Complete the sentence “Love is…” (fill in the blank). Then we went around the room and each person shared their sentence.
One person said, “Love is that which is most real.” // Love is that which is most real, the true essence of all that is. Then the person sitting next to her said, “Love is a macaroni necklace.” And this student told a story of coming home after a difficult day to find that his preschool-age son had made him a macaroni necklace.
I don’t know which student had the better answer; you can decide that for yourself. But it was meaningful to hear these two responses back-to-back. What can we say about love, except that it is the everything of everything and it’s this gift my son made?
What can be said to invoke the kingdom of heaven? That it’s a day of judgement when all the nations stream up the mountain to share a banquet of rich foods and well-aged wines? Or maybe the kingdom of heaven is like this mustard seed that will grow, then take over your garden, then turn into a tree. Maybe it’s like a woman who hid an obscene amount of leaven inside the dough she was kneading.
Instinctively, we recognize these as metaphors. The macaroni necklace is not the whole story of love. A mustard seed is not the whole promise of the kingdom of God, but these familiar objects illuminate the shadowy edge of the something that is so transcendent, so impossible to define. The mystery of the love of God cannot be explained, only exemplified. Only pointed to and practiced. Only experienced and shared. How will this love change us? Only all the time, in every way…
A metaphor doesn’t give the whole picture, it doesn’t try. But once in a while, on a good day, a metaphor gets it exactly right. When it does, you’ll know it when you hear it. It’s the difference between saying love is a present from a child, and love is this macaroni necklace, this one right here.
In the first section of our scripture today, the writer is pointing toward the promise of new life in Christ. Earlier he writes, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is… Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died (metaphorically) and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” This is the love that is seeking the sky, then the sky beyond the sky….
Now I can believe that our lives are hidden in this love beyond the stars, but what does that mean for us now?
A few minutes ago, Chris spoke about ways in which the church can support those who are married. It is also the case that loving marriages strengthen the church. Any time one person loves another, we’re all drawn deeper into the love of God, the love that is our source and our destiny, love so implausible in theory.
How can we possibly believe in a love that calls us to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves? Ask any dating couple who is in the blissful haze of falling madly in love.
How can we possibly understand how God could love Jesus and let him die? Ask any mother who has sat with her dying son and let him go.
How can we possibly believe in love that forgives the people who should have known better? Ask the brother whose sister was killed who looks over at the defendant in the courtroom and says, “Whether or not you’re sorry, I forgive you.”
This love is hard to believe because it doesn’t make sense when you think about it. It’s impossible not to believe, because the sky-seeking love of God is in this room.
Marriage is one example. It does not capture the fullness of God’s love. And sure, there are many ways to know God’s love apart from marriage. But once in a while, on a good day, our human relationships get it exactly right. Then we’ll see. God’s love is so much more than we could ever imagine. Always so much more.
“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds together everything in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” Amen.