Keep It Simple

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | May 15, 2022

1st John 4:7-21

People would often show up at the front door for different reasons. The church manse was a mile away from the church building, but a world away in social terms. Whereas the church building was in a gritty “urban priority area,” the manse was on a quiet street lined with houses going back to the 1840s. The notion was, there was money to be had on that street.

My office was at the front of the house and I could see who was coming up the walk. All manner of goods were on offer from dodgy fish mongers to Irish travelers hawking trinkets. Some people said they represented charities and some people just wanted a hand-out. Some people said they were looking for work. My usual answer to people looking for work was, “This is a church manse, so we have contractors who take care of that.”

One time in response to that a guy said, “Oh, are you a Christian? What’s your favorite bible verse?”

That was a good question. I think I told him that there are so many good verses in the Bible that I couldn’t narrow it down to just one. The bible is a big book. It’s full of stories and poetry. It has recipes and shopping lists. It is drama, adventure, comedy, tragedy and sometimes horror.

So how can you narrow it down to just one verse? What would it be, if I had to live on a desert island for a year, with just one Bible verse?

And then it came to me. It’s not even a whole verse, but a half of a verse. It is found in a book of the bible called “The First Letter of John.” There is a second and third letter.

In the 4th chapter of this first letter of John there are 21 verses. The one that stands out for me, if I had to claim a favorite would be the second part of verse 16. It reads:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” I could live on that. I could survive on that. If that was the only thing I could ever know about God, if that was everything there is, my soul would never go hungry.

That makes it simple. Simplicity is sometimes a good thing. If I’m going through airport security wearing my slip on loafers and the person ahead of me in line is wearing a pair of lace up boots, I’m thinking, “Please untie those before you get right up there and have to be reminded to take off your shoes.”

With religion we sometimes think it needs to be complicated. By religion I mean any and every religion. Christianity is no better or no worse than any other religion when it comes to needless complications.

Why would we do that? Possibly because we like to be in charge. By making religion more complicated than it needs to be, we assert our control. We put our rules and our conditions in place. We can say who is worthy and who is not. Who gets in and who has to stay out. Who understands the complex calculations.

Somewhere along the pathway of making religion more complicated than it needs to be, we start to think that because this is the way we think, then God must be thinking the same thing. And then we start saying things like, “Let me tell you what God thinks,” or “I know the mind of God,” or often, “God is on our side so whatever we do has God’s blessing.”

On the one hand it seems fairly silly. We get into arguments about obscure stuff that nobody in the real world cares about. On the other hand it seems fairly dangerous because some people take their religion to the extremes of violence.

When I lived in Iowa, I served the Presbyterian church in Dows. Dows has a poplation of around 700 people. The folks there taught me a lot about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, mostly because they were kind, generous and loving.

Across the street from the church there was a house with a garden in front. In the garden there was a wooden bench. Painted on the bench were the words, “Bide a Wee.” The invitation was to anyone passing by. Take some time in your day to stop, sit, and bide a wee. Simply, to stay a while.

That’s the image that comes to mind when I think of God’s love. All that love demands of us is to “bide a wee.” It’s as if God’s love is the bench upon which we rest our souls.

I wanted us to hear that reading from 1st John today because it tells us a lot about God in a short space –

No one has ever seen God.

Love is from God.

Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

We love because God first loved us.

Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

One time someone asked Jesus what the most important commandment. That was a fair question. It would be like asking any great teacher to define the essence of his or her philosophy. If you were given an audience with a person like the Dali Lama, and told that you could ask one question, your obvious choice might be along the lines of “what is the most important thing, what is the core essence, the one thing that a person needs to know.”

I believe that the closer a person is to the truth, the shorter their answer to that question would be. The truth is not some complex reality that requires a lot of explanation and elaboration. Jesus said the most important thing is to love God wholeheartedly and love your neighbor as yourself. Those two things are like one thing. It means that if you really love God, you’ll show it by loving the people in your life.

When you think about that, that’s a pretty radical statement from someone who walked on water. You might think that Jesus would say something like, “Be like me. Learn how to walk on water.”

Jesus didn’t come to show anyone how to walk on water. He showed people how to walk on the ground, in the pathways of everyday life. He didn’t come to show anyone how to be like God; he came to show us how to be ourselves; how to be the people God created us to be.

That’s a big part of what alienated him from the religious elitists of his day. That alienation wasn’t really about the particulars of his religion, Judaism. Jesus could have been any religion and his message would have been the same: Love God and love your neighbor. It’s not so much about what you think, about the religious dogma that you believe. The core of it is what you do.

One time I was in a grocery store in North Carolina and I encountered an all too familiar scene that could have been playing out anywhere in the world. There was a woman shopping with her little girl who seemed to be around three years old. She was sitting in the cart.

Picture it – mother and child out shopping for groceries. Now add to the picture mom talking on the phone.

The girl says, “Mommy!” Mom talks on the phone.

The girl repeats, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”

The mom says, “What honey?! I’m talking on the phone!”

The girl keeps going, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” While the mother ignores her and continues her phone conversation. In the meantime, because she isn’t paying attention, she runs her shopping cart into me. She looked at me as if I was at fault.

Ellie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

Perhaps if the author of John’s letter were writing today he or she would say, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and are indifferent their brothers or sisters or children, are liars; for those who do not engage with brother or sister or child whom they have seen, cannot engage with God whom they have not seen.” 

God is love. God created you in love. God created you to be a loving person. When we make that connection it’s like we complete the divine circuit. We are complete then, because through love we are connected to God and the meaning of life.

Lord, save us from people who want to walk on water and give us people who are firmly grounded on earth. Lord save us from people who tell us what we should believe and give us people who simply live what they believe. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s