Sunday, April 11, 2010

Where Love Lives

Where Love Lives

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Second Sunday of Easter April 11, 2010

I John 3:11-18

Little children, let us love,
not in word or speech but in truth and action.NRSV

Thomas Andrew Dorsey has often been called the “Father of Gospel Music – this is the African American musician Thomas Dorsey1 – not to be confused with Swing era band leader Tommy Dorsey. Thomas was called “Georgia Tom” in his early years as a blues pianist. It is said that gospel music was the result of a combination of Christian praise with the rhythms of jazz and blues music. And Dorsey was there at the very beginning, in fact, many people believe he was the beginning of what we have come to think of as “Gospel Music.”

Before he found his way to the beginnings of gospel music he recorded a popular, raunchy jazz tune in 1928 that sold 7 million copies, an enormous success in those days, by any standard. The son of a Georgia preacher, Dorsey drifted away from God for a time. Then, in 1932, during a revival meeting in St. Louis, he received a telegram that would change his life. In the clinical way that telegrams used to bring news, he read that he had lost his wife and newborn son in childbirth. He was bereft: “God, you aren’t worth a dime to me right now!” Dorsey cried out, in his despair.

Then, living in the midst of that despair, he began to make a different response. Sitting at the piano, he created the lines of the first true gospel song, the song that Christine sang for us just a few minutes ago: “Take, My Hand, Precious Lord.” He fit the lyrics to what was already a familiar tune. The following Sunday, the choir of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in South Chicago, Illinois, sang it, with Dorsey playing the accompaniment.

Dorsey later described his process of writing this well-loved song:
“After putting my wife and baby away in the same casket, I began to feel that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve him anymore or write any more gospel songs. I wanted to return back to the jazz world that I once knew so well before. Then a voice spoke to me and said: ‘You are not alone.’ Everyone was so kind to me in these sad hours.

The next week ... in my solitude, I began to browse over the keys like a gentle herd pasturing on tender turf. Something happened to me there. I had a strange feeling inside. A sudden calm, a quiet stillness. As my fingers began to manipulate over the keys, words began to fall in place on the melody like drops of water falling from the crevice of a rock.”2
That song, which has been recorded by countless artists, from Elvis Presley to Roy Rogers, was Martin Luther King Jr’s favorite gospel song, and was requested by President Lyndon Johnson for his funeral service. Dorsey eventually wrote more than 250 gospel songs. He once said, “My business is to try to bring people to Christ instead of leaving them where they are. I write for all of God’s people. All people are my people. What I share with people is love. I try to lift their spirits and let them know that God still loves them. He’s still saving, and He can still give that power.”

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

Lifting spirits ... letting people know God loves them: Such places are places where love lives.

In an old story, a revered teacher from the old country asked his students, “How can you determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?” What is the difference between darkness and light?

One student replied, “When from a distance you can distinguish between a sheep and a dog?”
“No,” says the rabbi.
“Is it when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?”another suggested.
Again the wise teacher responded, “I’m afraid not,” and then revealed the answer:
“The hour of dawn is when you have enough light to look human beings in the face and recognize them as your brothers and sisters. Until then the darkness is still with us.”

This goes to the heart of our passage from I John. John wrote, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.” This is the reason that the idea of love’s lack brought to John’s mind the Old Testament story of Cain, who murdered his brother Able. Absence of concern for others is not benign, it is a toxic, death-dealing way to live. Even Jesus said as much in Matthew 5:21-22:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment...”
The heart does not mark the difference between hating a brother or sister in the faith, and murdering, they are both born of the same seed. To hate is to cut off relationship, to despise, and murder amounts to the completion of that idea.

When John writes “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another,” he is clearly not referring only or even mainly to life beyond the grave. In I John, eternal life is something in the present tense, something that comes to life every time a child of God, a brother or sister in Christ, is loved. This is not the stuff of sweet bye and bye, but of the right now.

Filmmaker Woody Allen, whose memory, like Ben Franklin or Oscar Wilde, will surely live on far past his death because of his many quirky observations on the world, once said, “I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But of course, Allen is thinking of biology, not theology. When John says, “Whoever does not love abides in death,” he is writing theology, declaring that where love has gone missing in action, where there remains hostility within the family of faith among people God intended to be brothers and sisters in faith, where community is disregarded and only the will of individuals is taken into consideration, that is death. Death of community, death of the self-giving love communities established in Christ’s name are supposed to emulate, death of what Christ himself died to bring to birth. Just as when brothers and sisters in Christ love each other heaven and life eternal are already breaking in to our world, so when we do not live in love, we are dead already, dancing the Dance Macabre with death itself, without even realizing it.

Perhaps some of you will recall the now-classic novel by Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In 1714 a rope bridge across a rocky gorge in the Andes Mountains collapsed, and five people on the bridge plunged to their common deaths. In the novel, a monk, ready to start across the bridge, saw the whole thing happen before him, as “he saw the bridge divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below.” Brother Juniper sets out to discover who these people were and to see if there is any common link, any observable purpose in what happened to them. In the end, he declares,
“Soon we shall die, and all memory of those five will have left the Earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
If we ask most people about it, love is understood as a fragile emotion at best, here one moment, gone the next. You can lose it. You can fall into or out of it. It can abandon you as quickly as you find it. But we know our own faith is not characterized by such fragility when we describe it as the love of God. One friend of mine said that it may appear as gossamer-thin as a spider’s web, but in reality it – like a spider’s web – it has astounding strength.3 Paul said as much about the sort of love which John declares in this letter, when he said that nothing “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”4

The great East Indian Christian convert and missionary, Sadhu Sundar Singh, once walked with a companion through a high pass in the Himalayas, when they came upon the figure of a nearly frozen man lying unconscious in the snow. Singh began trying to revive the stranger, but his companion protested, saying, “We will lose our own lives if we burden ourselves with him.” Still, Singh insisted they pause to help the man. Convinced that this idea was futile, even dangerous, Singh’s companion abandoned him and walked on.

Though he was alone with his charge, Singh was resolute. He managed to get the man’s nearly frozen body on his shoulders and began to continue his journey, carrying his heavy burden. Before long the physical exertion not only warmed Singh, it also warmed the stricken man, reviving him. Soon the two men were able to continue their walk side by side.

A day or two later they came upon Singh’s original companion, who had chosen to go on alone, discovering his frozen body in a heap in the snow.

How do we know that love lives and brings us into the presence of something that is eternal? John declares that love takes on this sturdy, eternal character…
  • When all God’s people are seen as gifts to be celebrated and not burdens to be borne.
  • When we can say, with meaning, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother, she’s my sister.”
  • When, despite our native reluctance, we follow the apostle’s advice when he wrote:
Brothers and sisters in Christ, “Let us love, not in word or speech but in truth and action.”

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 http://www.npr,org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1069272

2 From sermon materials for "the Bridge Is Love," by Carl Wilton, September 4, 2004.
3 Ibid.

4 Romans 8