How Do I Love Thee

Pastor Rachel Livingston 

 I. Beginnings

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…let us love one another because love is from God and God is love…Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his steadfast love endures forever.  As we look at our scriptures this morning and our poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning it is no secret that our theme this morning, on our journey of engaging poetry from well-known poets, is love.  We see that our psalm, could be its own poetry prose, a collective of words and themes, but overall reminding its reader that God’s steadfast love endures forever.  God’s love for us, humanity, those made in the image of God endures forever.  What a great theme to engage with after a week of division, waiting, and anticipation.

The book of 1 John, an epistle of sorts, a book that is believed to have the same author as the 4th gospel, John, was written to a divided community, a community that was torn and at odds with each other, a community who was distrustful of one another, a community that believed they had irreconcilable differences, a community that had split over fundamental belief systems.  It is not completely clear what caused the division within the community, but what is clear is that there was a rift within the community and the writer of this letter was writing to bring encouragement to this community in the midst of storm, in the midst of pain, in the midst of chaos, and in the midst of catastrophic division.

Does this sound familiar? Does it feel eerily similar to something you have heard? Something you have experienced or maybe even recently witnessed???

II. What’s Going On In The Nation

At the tail end of this week, we have to admit that there has been a long journey of division within the country that made its culmination and reared its ugly head during this week.  This journey began long before this week as the tension of division and hatred has been building for months, maybe even years as it has laid just beneath the surface, bubbling, waiting to be burst – leaving mess within hurt and pain within its wake.  If the results of the election have told us anything, it told us that the country is awfully divided by distrust and fear.  Not just in the presidential election but it quite a few different elections across the nation.  Some were going out to bring about something new to the country, and others were trying to hold onto the continuation of what we have.  Some feeling as if the continuation of the current government would maintain an established structure that they appreciated and felt obligated to maintain, and others felt as if the continuation of this government would be a threat to their very being as they feel it would encourage white supremacy.  No matter what the reality of the situation is, I bring this up not to declare one side over the other, but to acknowledge the real feelings that people had and still have in this time.  This division had one side demanding that each vote be counted, and others feeling like the ballots have been compromised and cannot be trusted.  What the election revealed is that people are completely distrustful of one another, they do not believe people are working with honesty, and all sides seem to think that the other is using some sort of propaganda or trickery to gain some sort of advantage. We have seen that people are genuinely fearful of what the future holds. We are so torn apart and people are feeling unsafe in their own skin, they feel unsafe within the boundaries of the country that they have been born into, the only land that they know, the only land that they have called home.  Others are feeling justified in their mistreatment of the other, ignoring the humanity in each human being that affirms the image of God imparted to each one of us, as people act with hatred and say the most vile things to one another.  The sorrow that is in the air from the hearts of some people is undeniably present in the air.  The heaviness of indecision feels like it is cracking the nation as we all sit in wait, exhausted as we try to keep an eye on the results.  We are a people that feel fundamentally torn over ideologies and perspectives, a people that is utterly exhausted as we have had to stand in limbo waiting for something…some news…some change…some results…some something.  We don’t seem to be able to empathetically put ourselves in anyone else’s shoes and yet we make uncaring and intolerable decisions that are based on us not working to love or understand one another.  And all these stressors are finding their way into our close relationships, in the way of family and our closest friends – it is not just something that is dividing those folk we think are distant from us on the opposing side of politics.  Its separating us from people we know and love, not just the people whose faces and beings we don’t really even know.

 III. We Must Love One Another

And in the midst of a chaotic mess, in the midst of a turmoil that seems to not be able to make any conscionable sense, our scripture gives the answer in the midst of all the mess.  The scripture tells us to love one another because love is from God.  But in the midst of a world that seems to be greatly affected by hate, what does love mean, what does it look like, what does it even feel like?  The reality is that we must first and foremost love our neighbor – our neighbor being potentially anyone, any person that we come into contact with – the next door neighbor, the outcast, the prisoner, the democrat, the republican, the man, the woman, the Latino, the Black person, the White Person, the LGBTQ queer person, the child, any person could potentially be and essentially is our neighbor.  We are called to love all people that we come into contact with, demonstratively and with earnestness in our hearts.  This means that we must look at all people as human beings, with the image of God impressed upon them. This means that all people are worthy of respect and dignity.  This means that our actions must reflect the love within our hearts that shows people the love of Jesus Christ, it means that they should feel the warmth and caring nature of the loving spirit of God.  But it also means that in the absence of justice and the respect of human dignity, that we stand in a place that seeks to demand the honor and respect that is due any human being.  And sometimes true love is messy, sometimes it requires us to lean into the truth that allows us to sit in-front of our enemy, not to allow any sense of abuse to continue, but to confront the reality that oppression is intolerable and must be torn down, that injustice must be rejected, that intolerance of any kind is not of God, that structures rooted in racism, sexism, and classism must be dismantled and replaced with structures that implement and construct God’s love, God’s peace, and God’s justice.  It means that as we function in love, we seek to release those in oppression from the hatred that tears down their existence, but we also seek to provide the tough love that encourages the oppressor to put down their destructive ways and to take on the love, that in Christ, tears down oppressive structures. Love means standing in the gap and being a brother or sister to those that we don’t exactly know, but understanding that through Christ we are all children of God.  Because we are created to be in relationship with one another – we need one another to survive.

We are to be transformed in God’s love, filled throughout with God’s love, that we move and function in God’s love.  We are to fully love God and allow God’s love to transform us that we intrinsically, without thinking, show the love of Jesus Christ to others, no matter who they are. And the reality is that if we cannot function in love, then we do not know God because God is in fact love.  So, if we do not understand love, then there is no possible way that we can claim that we know God or are children of God.  How can we claim that God lives within us, and then function in ways that we hate our brother or our sister or sibling in the nonbinary? We make ourselves liars if we say God lives within our hearts, but we cannot function in love. So in a world that functions in a way where chaos and hate are pervasive, let us be filled with God’s love that we are the presence of God within the world.  Let us be the people in which God’s love is perfected in.

 IV. We Must Understand The Love of God

But to fully be this loving presence within the world, to be transformed by God’s love we must understand the love that is held within God, to understand just how much God loves us.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways….a poem we have known more so to be romantic.  Yet we must remember that within God is so much love that it shows us how to love in many ways.  Any capacity of love that flows from us is first taught to us by God.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use

How does God love us, we literally cannot count all the ways, but it is clear that anything we know of love is first shown to us by God.  How do we know the love of friendship if we have not allowed Christ to be our confidant in our darkest moment?  How do we know the love of a sibling if we have not allowed the brotherly love that God has shown us at work in the body of Christ as we seek to function together in love?  How do we know the love of a parent if God had not adopted us and claimed us as God’s own? How do we know the love of a lover if we have not allowed God to intimately know our being in vulnerability?  And how do we know the love of God if God had not sent his only son for our redemption?

How many ways does God love us, we have been shaped and molded by God, intricately designed and made with significant care.  We are cared for and we are loved.  God’s love runs deep, it touches the soul and is so big that it fully encapsulates us and surrounds our very being.  God so loved the world that God sent Jesus Christ as a living sacrifice that we might find new life, that we might find the atonement that makes us one with God.  Jesus Christ, God made flesh, loved us so much that he endured the lashing of whips, beating, the bruising, and the tearing of the flesh, he was nailed to a cross and he endured the suffocation as he lifted himself up just that he might breathe, he endured excruciating pain of hanging on the cross as he hung his head and died.  And yet on the third day he rose, early Sunday morning that we might be reconciled back to God, that we might find new life.  So as we go out into the world that is filled with pain and suffering, a world that is filled with people being at each other’s throats, as we seek to spread God’s love, which will be a hard task indeed, we must remember how overwhelmingly present God’s love is for us.  When we understand that, then we will be able to understand what unconditional and empathetic love looks like, a love that must be spread to other people.

 V. Conclusion

Let us continuously find hope in the fact that God loves us and let us then be fully transformed by that love and be the presence of love in the world.  Let us be the love that gives warmth to the forgotten, let us be the love that tears down the walls of oppression, let us be the love that brings light in darkness, let us be the love that wraps our loving arms around the lonely and abandoned, let us be the love that brings joy in sorrow.  Let us function in the love that God calls us to, the love that lets the world know that God lives within us and doesn’t lead people to us, but to the God we serve. 

How does God love us, let us count the ways…

And how do we love God? May we grow in faith that the ways become countless

And how do we love our neighbor? May we be so filled with God’s love that the ways are so innumerable that they reflect the love found in Christ

Let us love God freely, and love our neighbor freely.

Let us love God purely, and love our neighbor purely.

And let us love God and our neighbor that we put our passion to use – that after a week that has been wrought by chaos and division and left our country in a place of exhaustion – that the love of Jesus Christ would be present enough to transform the world we live in, transforming us and all those we come in contact with .

How do I love thee? Through the love within me, because I know and have been transformed by Jesus Christ.  How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

May God’s love always flow through us and may we be forever changed.  Amen.