I John 4:7-21
A popular meme series on Facebook called “You had one job.” It shows how often we fail at things which should be simple. Imagine a misspelled stop sign. A cryptic sign on a trash bin reads “empty when full.” There is a “back-to-school” display of large kitchen knives. That seems inappropriate, unless it’s a cooking school, perhaps? A cake decorator was too literal with the directions and put these four words on the cake “Just Write Happy Birthday.” Or the sign that says, “Give cyclists space,” which sits in the middle of the bike lane. You wonder what happened in each situation. Was someone in a rush? Were they distracted or just too lazy to care? There are enough fails to publish a yearly calendar with a “You had one job” photo for every day.
I enjoy the comic relief, but then I wonder why we find these so funny. From the outside, these look like impossible blunders. How could anyone make such simple mistakes? On the other side of the humor is someone who had a disappointing birthday, whose trash didn’t get picked up, or maybe lost their job. Do we enjoy seeing human fallibility? Do I see myself in these mistakes, or does it help me feel more competent to view errors that I surely would not make? (If that were true, Jeanne would never find the salt and pepper shakers in the refrigerator or a jar of pickles in the dishwasher.).
If you hear our scripture lesson from I John several times, it may sound like circular logic. “Friends, love another because God loves you. If you love God, then you will love others. If you don’t love others, then you do not love God because God is love. And because God is love, you are to love one another.” OK, is everyone clear? You have one job – love your neighbor. Any questions about this? Yes, in the back? What? Who is your neighbor? Oy!
The disciples could fill at least a few weeks of a “You had one job” meme calendar. On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus hears the disciples arguing over who is the greatest and has to repeat the servant leadership lecture. Blind Bartimaeus calls for help, and the disciples tell him to be quiet. Really, you shushed a blind man? The disciples act more like Secret Service bodyguards than disciples of love. “We have a group of children approaching Jesus from the North. Bartholomew, head them off. Keep an eye on that crying woman, the one with the alabaster jar. She looks like trouble. There is a leper at two o’clock and a lame man at ten o’clock, and Jesus has the Sermon on the Mount in 5, 4, 3…wait…its those kids again! Jesus called them over? I don’t know how he expects us to protect him.”
The disciples had one job, and it’s not to protect Jesus from others but to love people who we labeled “other” as Jesus would love them. It sounds easy looking from the outside at the disciples, but if I’m honest, some days I’m not very good at this. It’s easy to believe in love, much harder to walk in love with real people, who can be irritating, annoying, or even threatening and irresponsible. (Present company excluded-of course!)
We have one job – to love one another. Yet, most of the New Testament is written to conflicted churches. The Corinthians were fighting culture wars over whether you could eat meat sacrificed to idols. Some Galatians thought if they tried really hard to follow the law, they too could be “woke” like Jesus, and Paul said it all comes from a gift of God’s grace. Paul even had to challenge Peter, who wouldn’t sit at the lunch table with gentile believers. This letter of First John was likely written to a church in Ephesus struggling with an unnamed theological controversy. Some scholars think it was conflict with Gnostic Christians who didn’t think Jesus was truly human but only looked like it. It makes you wonder how the church survived this long through so many dangers, toils, and snares. Hopefully, there were many healthy, loving, and justice-seeking churches in the first century who didn’t need letters to remind them that they have one job, to love as Jesus loved. Maybe those letters were lost because they were too dull.
Sometimes I despair when I hear preachers spouting hateful things that don’t sound at all like Jesus. I wonder if we have made any progress in 2000 years. If only we had a vaccine to make us kind. Why is love so hard? We all know our one job, so what keeps getting in the way of loving as Jesus loved?
While there may be many answers, I’m going to focus on one thing. As much as we think that God is love, do we truly believe God loves us? Or do we so buy into a culture that worships success, wealth and power, and looks down upon losers? We lose sight of love as our one job. If we don’t trust God to really love us, we develop a sense of scarcity, of not being enough. So how could we possibly love well if we are never enough?
Think this through with me by filling in the blank. Never (blank) enough. What is in the blank for you?
Never good enough.
Never perfect enough.
Never smart enough, talented enough.
Never thin enough.
Never strong enough.
Never safe enough.
Never extraordinary enough.
If we say things to ourselves, they become our reality. Our ability to love is blocked because we think it is scarce like everything else. I can’t love enough unless I sense how deeply God loves me.
Lynn Twist writes, in her classic book, “The Soul of Money,” that feelings of scarcity are the Big Lie in our culture.
For me, and for many of us, our first waking though of the is “I didn’t get enough sleep. The next on is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think about it. We spend the hours of our days hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’er already inadequate, already behind, already losing….This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice and our arguments with life… (43-45)
I think this is at the heart of our struggle to do our one job, to love well. I have had three conversations in the last month where I told someone that they are courageously facing their challenges, and they are worthy of God’s love. In each case, I was met with a long period of silence on the phone and had to ask if the other person was OK. I could then hear them holding back tears. Each person said some version of feeling like they were not really loved because they felt they were failing so deeply.
I find two powerful prescriptions to our failures to love in I John 4. First, the epistle says we can love because God first loved us. Second, the epistle says that love castes out fear. Why are these so important? When I face out into the world, my little heart feels like a small boat in the ocean. I see people hurting, lonely, broken and traumatized. How could I ever love them enough to make a difference? I feel the great waves of racism, the distortions of truth, sometimes it feels like even our great democracy is drowning. Who am I to love enough in the face of this? There is that story again, never enough. Courage comes to me when I sense that my little love has a source in a big, wide, passionate, deep love of God. If God loves me first, then my little boat is going with the current. Small love flows into a greater tide.
I think this is what the epistle means saying, “Love castes out fear.” Fear puts us into scarcity mode, back into I’m never enough. I won’t try because I will fail. I won’t reveal my true self, because people will judge me. I won’t stand for justice, because I will just be crushed.
But when we notice we are in the powerful current, the Gulf Stream, of God’s love, fear dissipates. When I know that God loves me before I even act, fear fades because my worthiness is not up for grabs anymore. Whether I’m trying to love someone who is hard to deal with, or love in the midst of injustice, or love when I feel injured or misunderstood; the first step is always to trust the bigger love of God at work in me. Friends, we have one job, to go forth in love. Be courageous, be kind, be faithful, be just. You have an ocean behind you.