John is your friend, Jennifer is your cousin, Jane is your neighbor, Joe is your congressman.
Each person we know gets put in categories based on our relationship with them.
Friends from High School.
Friends from college.
Of course, since we are humans everything inevitably gets mixed up. These categories don’t stay in neat little compartments. You are pretty sure that the kid who is bagging your groceries down at the Hannifords was once your student. Or she could be the grand-daughter of a lady you know from the aquatics exercise class. Or both… Probably both.
It would be great if we could value all of these relationships at the same level, because, after all, if we profess to believe that each one of these people is made in the image of God, we ought to value them all at the same level. Our religion doesn’t make it easy for us. Jesus even challenges us to “love our enemy” — have you ever tried to do that? Difficult!
The truth is we’d probably go crazy if we valued each relationship equally. We’d go insane just trying to keep track of everyone, let alone trying to cater to their needs, or keep them happy. Luckily I think it’s possible to affirm a person’s sacred essence without making that person the center of your existence.
Different kinds of relationships require different levels of investment. The crucial thing is to act in a manner that assumes that each person you meet is a child of God. Doing this, you will naturally give them the respect due to them and in turn, allow yourself to focus the majority of your energy on those closest to you — your family and the handful of your closest friends, who you freely give your love.
But what about God?
Where does God fit into all of this?
It’s a good question.
The Bible seems quite clear on this subject. In both the Hebrew tradition, and also in the gospels, the emphasis is unequivocal that above all, we should love God.
When, for example, a scribe asks Jesus “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus quotes the shma y’Israel the most important prayer in the Jewish tradition, saying, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
I don’t know about you, but when I hear this kind of commandment, I get a little nervous.
I get nervous because I’m really not sure I can pull it off. How, after all, does one go about loving God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength?
It’s one thing to love my wife or my children that way — they are 3-dimensional people who I interact with everyday. I can point to the way that boy’s hair curls when the weather is hot, or how that woman makes small woodland creatures noises when I come to bed late at night — and I can say — I love him because of this, I love her because of that.
How can I do that with God? I don’t know about you, but
I’ve never seen God.
I’ve never heard God.
I’ve never smelled or touched God.
On Friday during our zoom coffee hour, I found myself among a powerful group of women, and I joked that if I recorded our conversation, I could have my mother’s day sermon.
I was joking, but the subject was as good — if not better — than any other, so I pursued it. And so I asked this group of mothers what was their most memorable mother’s day.
The words were hardly out of my mouth when Helen said:
“The first one. Archie gave me this milk glass dish that was a basket and there was an apple tree that was in bloom and he went out and took the apple blossoms and put them in this basket and he and Suzanne — who was just an infant — gave it to me.”
This beautiful memory left us all in awe. Everyone present — was smiling with smiles that were far greater than the expressions on our faces. We were smiling, if you will, with all our hearts, and with all our souls, with all your minds, and with all your strengths.
What a simple and pure expression of love! A young father filling a basket full of apple blossoms, scooping up his new daughter and presenting it, an offering, to the woman he loves.
To the end of her days, she will never forget that moment…
Something abides there.
Something pure. Something as clean and beautiful as a basketful of apple blossoms in spring.
Something abides in this moment.
This morning’s gospel lesson from the Gospel of John is a passage that forms a circle of love.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
The promise of salvation lies in relationship. Just as Jesus loved his father, so we too are to love Jesus, and this way our joy will be complete.
The verb that describes our feeling of love is the word “abide”
The word “abide” is related to the word “abode” — and the sense is similar. Something that abides in you, makes a home in your soul.
The things that abide, are the things that make us feel comfortable and safe.
The things that fill us with beauty, as a basket is filled with apple blossoms.
Fill us with beauty!
Not long after my mother died, I went down to the basement to look for a nice photograph to use for her memorial service, and as I went through her stuff I made a remarkable discovery. I came across a file folder packed with papers, yellow and tattering with age. These papers turned out to be letters that my mother wrote to her family in the 1950s and 60s. One of the letters rose to the surface. It was dated March 29th 1961 and was sent from Bangkok Thailand to Pella Iowa. I read a portion to you now — to honor her — Lois Koyama — on mother’s day:
Dear Mother and Dad:
This week we received both the recipe book and your check. For both, thank you very much. We hope that you didn’t fear for our welfare, but certainly this will be a help to us. If the Thai’s (Noi and the gardener’s family) knew of this they would feel that they were right about the bees. Early in the month we suddenly became host to a huge swarm of bees that hung a nest outside the front porch window. Noi and the gardener assured us that we would not be bothered by them if we left them alone. “If it we’re my house,” said Noi, “I would be very pleased.” Bees, they told us, are a good omen—one of the best. “You will have money,” she said. ‘They know good people, and bring only good.” The gardener is sure that one missionary’s family had to return to America because he chased away a swarm of bees.
Megumi, at three weeks, is making good progress. We can see that she is gaining weight in her face. She couldn’t be called a fussy baby, but she does cry occasionally.
It is interesting to see how different two children of the same parents are—right from the beginning! I guess a mother of one, knows quite a bit about babies, but a mother of two, knows very little. You soon find out that there is no use comparing because they just aren’t alike at all. I can see you smiling at this, with your much broader experience.
This letter is taking over a few days to get written. The reason is, primarily, that I have to catch at times when Jamie isn’t around to use the typewriter, to use the sewing machine, and also to study Thai with the tape recorder. Jamie has gotten so that anything is, or can be made to be in reach. He begins to understand it when we say “No!” He’s generally a pretty good boy, really.
I suppose one persistent memory of Bangkok will be of the birds that we hear first thing in the morning. There is a little bird, about the size of a swallow, with a long tail, jet black but with white streaks. He has a clear whistle and seems to change his tune every time he sings. He certainly has a big repertoire. For a long time I never saw him. Then one afternoon I did. When I was in the hospital I saw the same kind of bird and found that he likes to perch on the peak of the roof, or in some high place, to sing. Sleeping on the porch makes sounds, night and morning, very vivid. I hear the night watchmen beat the hours on their irons, (they don’t sound like bells) and at dawn, the crowing roosters, the convent prayer bells, and my baby, crying.
Something abides here.
Something abides among the domestic joys of a new mother…
The care with which she tends to her infant and her toddler.
Her heightened senses, delicately attuned to her exotic surroundings… the the crowing roosters at dawn, the convent prayer bells, and her baby, crying.
I believe it is God.
And filled with love.