Sermon for Sunday, May 17, 2020 – “Commanded to Love”

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decoah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

When my cousin Danny was a toddler, he delighted in escaping from his house. His parents tried every strategy possible to keep him safe inside; but every so often, he’d wake up early, manipulate the new childproof lock his parents were trying, and hit the road – sometimes buck naked. His par- ents soon developed a neighborhood phone tree. Whenever Danny was missing in action, droves of people would be mobilized to spring into gear on “Danny Patrol”. Once they found him on his Big Wheel two miles from home. 

A while ago, I heard the story of another little boy who approached the whole running away from home thing in a different manner. “You don’t love me,” he yelled to his mom one day, “I’m running away.” She let him go, watching to see what would happen. She was surprised when he began rid- ing his tricycle furiously around the block, over and over again. Finally, a neighbor stopped and asked him what he was doing – “Running away from home,” he said defiantly. Puzzled, the neighbor asked, “Then why do you keep going around the block? The boy replied, “ ’Cause my mom said I’m not allowed to cross the street.”

Obedience kept that boy close to home, close to where he needed to be. And obedience keeps us where we need to be, at home in God.

As we heard last week, Jesus has promised that we have a home in God. Later Jesus also says, “Abide in me,” make your home in me. Jesus wants us to have the peace that comes from abiding in God’s love, of being at home in God. Yet there are times when we feel like running away from God, times we feel distant, like God doesn’t care, times we don’t feel like being at home with God. It’s a gift, then, that Jesus gives us commandments for obedience to them helps keep us close to home.

Sometimes we’re told that it is obedience that gives us a home in God. If we do what we’re sup- posed to do, then God will reward us with a place of honor. Yet that isn’t what we see throughout the Gospel of John and throughout scripture. Jesus comes to dwell with us and to draw us into relationship with God. God acts first, always, to reach out to us – God’s beloved children – to assure us that we have a place and a home in God. God our parent provides the home. And, it seems that Jesus calls us into obedience so that we may be kept close to home.

The specific type of obedience that Jesus calls us into is the obedience of love. Jesus commands us to love God and love others. We don’t often view love as something that can be commanded. We think of it more as something you feel, an emotion. Yet, we know that human love can’t be sustained by emotions alone.  Sometimes love does bubble up and flow out of us.

But more often, love requires work- the day in, day out work of living out love. When people call to check on you even when they’re exhausted, when your spouse helps with dishes even after a crazy full day, when you clean up because you know it will make the house feel better, when you keep volunteering at the food pantry, making masks, advocating for immigrants even when you feel crabby – that is what love looks like. We practice love and live it out. Love is an action much more than it is a feeling.

That’s how it is with love for God as well. Sometimes we get the message that being a Christian means always feeling ready to praise the Lord – being so full of thankfulness that you can hardly wait to say grace at meals or do acts of service. Sometimes we do feel like that. Yet Love of God is not about emotions. Jesus didn’t say, “If you love me, you will always feel on fire for me.” Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The way to God is not to have strong feelings for God. The way to love Jesus is to obey his command that we practice love of God and love of others.

Mother Teresa wrote of a difficult period she had in her life. For seven years she didn’t feel religious fervor, joy, confidence in her faith, or even a very strong connection to God.  And yet, she knew that she needed God, even though she wasn’t feeling a lot of benefits. And so, she kept showing up. 

She kept showing up for her prayer time every day. She kept showing up to serve. She kept following Jesus’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” She knew she loved Jesus, even though she didn’t feel it, and so she lived out love. Finally, after seven years Mother Teresa was blessed by a true sense of joy, a renewed faith, a feeling of deep love.

Now, I think God knows that most of us can’t go seven years without feeling some of the benefits of faith and so I think God gives us a little more help. But the truth is, we can’t always be ruled by our feelings. If even someone as faithful as Mother Teresa went for seven years without feeling close to God, we just may have a few dry, empty days as well – especially right now. We may have days when we just are tired of the people around us, and don’t like online worship, and have a lot of reasons to be crabby and lazy; but none of that ultimately matters.

What matters is that God has chosen us as beloved children. What matters is that God gives us a home, a home in which we can live in peace through good times, and bad times, and just plain OK times. Obedience helps keep us close to that home. And regular practices of faith help us to live out love as Jesus commands. They provide what teacher L. Gregory Jones calls the “grace of daily obligation.” Our obligations to take out the garbage, pick up our mess, or just listen, are all things that give us chances to live out love to others. In the same way, the grace filled daily obligations – prayer, study, service with others, worship, and giving – are what help us to live out love. These things pro- vide a way to actively do love of God and love of others.

In the time of COVID-19, we also have a number of other daily obligations that allow us to live out love – wearing masks, staying home to save lives, staying physically distant. Sometimes the demands of all these practices will feel constricting, just as some of the demands of home and family often feel constricting. There will be times when we want to just get on our tricycles and ride away furiously around the block. At those times, the grace of daily obligations like prayer and worship can keep us close to the peace and the home God gives us.

Of course, there are also times when we just cross that street and run away – times when we’re like my cousin Danny on his Big Wheel – and end up miles and miles from home. Yet then and always, God goes out searching for us. God has a “Danny Patrol” and an “Amy Patrol” and a patrol just for you.

In fact, in our Gospel reading today Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as the one who is sent to draw us home into God. When Jesus says here that the Spirit is our Advocate, he uses the Greek word paraclete which literally means “one called to come alongside.” The Spirit comes alongside us to draw us into relationship with God. As we move through this life, close to home or far from home, the Spirit searches for us and comes alongside us to bring us home.

So, in one way, the Spirit is a little like our “Danny Patrol.” Of course, the Spirit is also so much more. Jesus says the Spirit also abides in us and is in us. The Spirit helps us to live out love and keep Jesus’ commandments. The Spirit works through and transcends all the practices of faith in order to get through to us and draw us deeper into God.

Beloved child of God, you have a home in God.
The Spirit is with you and in you and alongside you.
You can live out love for God and others.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.