The first word

Good morning, Friends!

I’m so glad to see you all here this morning, and I’m so glad to be here myself!

The past couple of weeks have been kind of a roller coaster ride for our family. All summer long, my wife and I have been sorting, discarding and packing for our big move to North Carolina.

Then one day the moving van came, and whisked all our furniture and our possessions out of the house. It felt like an empty shell. The next day, my wife and I drove across Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia, across the plains and along the big rivers and through the mountains. We didn’t get to High Point till after dark. And there on the front porch, waiting for us, were Tom Terrell and Donnie Brower. I don’t think you could pick two people who are more different, but who each represent the meeting in their own way.

You have surrounded us by so much kindness since we came here. Everyone in the meeting has been so welcoming and so eager to help.

We can only guess at all the hard work which Friends have done to get ready for our arrival. Our house across the street is beautiful. We thank you so much for all the care and generous support which you all have put in on our behalf.

You probably know that one of my earlier ministries was at Adirondack Friends Meeting in New York. It’s way up in the mountains, surrounded by forest. Our children were born there, and they were still pretty small when we moved to Indiana.

A week or two before we moved, our daughter Elizabeth was looking worried one day. She was in about second grade. I asked her what was the matter, and she asked me, “Daddy, is there anything out there except Hoosiers?”

Now we’ve moved again to another new community. We have a lot of friends around the world we keep in touch with, and one of them wrote and asked me, “Can you please tell me, what in the heck is a Tarheel?”

I hope some of you all can give me an answer to that sometime. Right now, I want us to spend some time with one of my favorite readings in the New Testament. It’s one that I share with people every year, because I think it goes to the heart of who we are as a church. It defines, for me, what it means to be a Christian.

You’ll hear it today, and you can expect to hear this reading at least once a year, for as long as I’m here at Springfield.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

– 1 John 4:7-21

God is love. That is the foundation of everything we want to do here.

By “love” I don’t just mean friendliness. I think you all are about the friendliest group of Quakers I’ve ever worked with. Everyone I’ve met in this meeting, without exception, has been helpful, friendly and kind. You all are wonderful! But I’m talking about something more.

When we say that “God is love,” we’re saying something really important about who God is and about what God is like.

We can spend a lifetime learning more about the height and depth and breadth of God. But more than anything else, we need to know that God is in the love business. God is in the forgiving and redeeming and mercy business. God is not, has never been, and never will be in the business of hating people or condemning people.

God loves us. That’s what Jesus taught. God is near us, all the time. And God is love. Not fear. Not hate. Not guilt or shame. God is love.

The writer of first John says that “anyone who does not love, does not know God.” That’s a powerful statement. As Christians, any time we catch ourselves judging people, defining other people as outside the circle of God’s love, any time we write other people off the books, any time we do that, we have forgotten the most basic lesson of all.

If we let a spirit of hatred or fear take over, a great big red light ought to start flashing inside our head. A big, loud alarm ought to start sounding.

A still, small voice is reminding us, “God is love. God is not fear. God is not division. God doesn’t call people to hate each other. God is love.”

God is the Prince of Peace, not the god of war. God is not arrogance or self-righteousness. Any time we see those things or hear them, God is far, far away. God amazing power is always the amazing power of love. God is transforming everything we know into something new. And God does it through the power of love.

When we hear those words, “God is love,” we are reminded of hundreds of stories about how things have turned around and gone a different and surprising way. Not the way we expected things to turn out. God is constantly in the business of changing the game, overturning our expectations, and upsetting the apple cart.

We get locked into a pattern when we say that things are never going to change, that that other person is our enemy. We know that we don’t trust other people sometimes. We know all about their politics or their personality flaws or their failures. We know the wrong they’ve done us and the mistakes they’ve made.

“God is love” is a kind of a trigger phrase that reminds us that there’s a different story. The old story that we have utterly convinced ourselves of isn’t the last word. People can change. God can get to them.

More important, God can get to us. We can change. Christians are always supposed to be asking ourselves, “How can God change my heart and my thinking, to make a difference in this situation? How can Jesus reach out, through me, to make a difference? What mountain can I move, with God’s help? What healing word can I say? What can I do, to turn my enemy into my friend?”

“God is love.” Those words remind us of a thousand stories about who Jesus is, and about how he dealt with people.

Do you all remember the story, about how Jesus refused to condemn a woman who had been caught in the very act of adultery? It was a bad situation. But the neighbors’ and the religious leaders’ response was even worse. They were going to gather up big stones, to throw at her until she died. How terrible is that?

Do you remember what Jesus did? He stopped the crowd in their tracks. He didn’t raise his voice. He just said one thing. He said, “Whichever one of you is without sin, throw the first stone.” And they all went home.

Then he said to the woman, “Go home, and sin no more.”

Jesus turned around a scene of mob violence, of public murder. He did it by reminding people that God is love, not hate. That God is forgiveness, and not violence. He turned it all around, by helping people to realize in a heart-changing way that God is love.

Do you all remember the story, about how Jesus fed thousands of people one evening, with a banquet on a hillside? He didn’t ask if they were worthy or not. He didn’t ask them to sign a statement of faith, or check their morals.

He saw that they were hungry, and he fed them. He said, “Thank you, God, for blessing us,” and he started handing out the food. And the story says there were big baskets full of leftovers. Because God is love. God’s love is rich and overflowing. That is the meaning of the story of the feeding of the 5,000.

Jesus said, “Feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Visit people who are lonely, or sick, or discouraged, or who are locked into places they can’t get out of any more. Do this in my name, and you’ll find that you’re doing it to me. Because this is the way God works. God is love.”

“God is love” is at the heart of how we are called to live. It’s what we are called to believe.

Let me remind you of one more story. Do you all remember the story of the four friends, who had another friend who was sick and paralyzed? Their friend couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t walk, couldn’t help themself.

The four friends got together, and they put their friend on a stretcher and carried their friend to Jesus.

If you stop right there in the story, that’s what Christian love is all about. When we pray for someone, we’re like those good friends who carried their friend to Jesus. They knew their friend couldn’t manage to get there, so they picked their friend up and carried him to Jesus, together, because they loved their friend so much.

When we pray, we are carrying each other to Christ. We’re lifting each other up. It’s exhausting sometimes. I’m sure those four friends got tired and had to set the stretcher down every so often. But they lifted their friend up, again and again. They didn’t give up. Their love and their hope and their faith kept them going.

But the story goes on. When they finally got there, there was a crowd, all around Jesus. The door was blocked by people, and so were all the windows. They couldn’t get near Jesus.

Were they disappointed? Of course they were. Were they discouraged? Maybe, for a minute or two. But they were determined. Love never gives up! That’s what this story says. Love never gives up.

Love makes another way, even when the way is blocked. Those friends were determined to get close to Jesus.

They loved their friend so much, they believed so strongly in the love and power of God, that they made another way.

Most of you know this story. What did they do? They climbed up on the roof. They broke a hole in the roof, and they let their friend down on the stretcher on ropes, to get their friend right square in front of Jesus.

I wish I could have been there. The people must have completely flipped out.

Here they were, listening to Jesus themselves, listening to him talk about the love and power and nearness of God, enjoying the message, and all of a sudden, pieces of the roof start coming down around their heads! A hole opened up in the ceiling, and they’re all scrambling to get out of the way.

The hole gets bigger and bigger. Jesus doesn’t move. He’s just sitting there, smiling. He takes it all in.

And then, a stretcher comes down through the hole, with ropes on all four corners. The person on the stretcher reaches the floor safely. Jesus smiles and says, “I’ve never seen such faith before!”

He tells the paralyzed person to get up and walk. The person gets up and tries a few short little steps. They haven’t been able to walk or move, in so long.

And then the person straightens up. Lets go of the people nearby. Takes a few more steps. Reaches out and hugs Jesus. Hugs everybody within reach. Pushes through the crowd. Waves to his friends, who come racing down from the roof to greet him.

The friends all start to dance. Everybody starts to dance! Everybody laughs, and shouts, and sings, and praises God, and gives thanks!

Everybody who was there, remembered that day forever. Because it was unmistakeably the love of God.

That’s what I’m saying. God is love. Learn about the love of God. Let it change your ideas, that you’ve held for a lifetime. Let it change your heart. Love is what God is all about. There are a world of stories out there, stories about love, in the gospels and in the life and memory of the church.

Nobody gets condemned in these stories. Nobody gets turned away. Nobody goes home empty, or ashamed. We go home, seeing things differently now. Because God is love, and whoever loves, sees God directly.

This is the good news of Jesus. I believe it, with all my heart, and with all my mind and soul and strength. Today, and for as long as I’m here, I invite you to believe it too – to put your faith and trust in this message of the love of God.

God is love. Whoever loves, knows God and sees God. Whoever does not love, does not know God.

Let’s take this into open worship together. If you feel led to respond to this word, please speak from your hearts, as the Spirit leads you.

Copyright © 2015 by Joshua Brown

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