St John’s, Tolpuddle
Sunday 6th May 2018
Acts 10.44-48; John 15.9-17
Where is love?
Does it fall from skies above?
Is it underneath the willow tree
That I've been dreaming of?
Where is she?
Who I close my eyes to see?
Will I ever know the sweet "hello"
That's meant for only me?
Who can say where she may hide?
Must I travel far and wide?
'Til I am beside the someone who
I can mean something to ...
Where is love?
Some of you may recognise those words from the musical Oliver! They are sung poignantly by the young orphan Oliver after he is thrown into the cellar at the undertaker’s where he has been working following a fight with Noah Claypole, another employee who has insulted Oliver’s mother.
Orphans in the time of Dickens were often very poorly treated, and, although his work Oliver Twist is fiction, the scenes he paints are based in reality. Workhouses and orphanages were not in the main good places to be.
Oliver’s mother had died in childbirth, and the child had been brought up grudgingly by people assigned to care for orphan children under the Poor Law. In many cases, as in Oliver’s, the so-called carers provided the minimum and took the money.
Those who do not know what it is to be loved react in different ways.
Some harden themselves so that the pain of lovelessness doesn’t penetrate them.
Some self-medicate with drugs, alcohol or food which ultimately make things worse since each of these dulls the pain only for a short while and each time more is needed to take away the fear of loneliness.
Some self-harm because to externalise the pain helps them to feel some kind of control, others because they know no other way to express their deep inner agony or because they feel dead inside and it makes them feel alive in some way.
Eating disorders sometimes have their roots in never feeling good enough or self-judgment.
Some seek respite in sex – either through promiscuity or prostitution – but find that none of it really fills the gap inside.
Some become ardent self-publicists in the hope that someone might notice them and make them feel good.
Some suffer in complete silence or internalise the pain, which can lead to depression.
Some hope that material goods will make them feel valued and successful.
Some end up bullying others because they don’t know how to be any other way.
Some get caught up in gangs because they then have a place where they belong.
For many, many people, what is behind all these behaviours is that they don’t know what it means to be loved.
We learn what love is by being loved. But Oliver Twist in fiction and many people in reality never experience that for themselves.
Human love is always only going to be partial but most people end up having enough of it in order to survive.
But what if they heard that there is a kind of love that never fails, a love that is unconditional, a love that demands nothing?
What if they heard that this love doesn’t depend on whether they are rich or poor, black or white, immigrant or native, straight or gay, male or female, fat or thing, clever or intellectually challenged, talented or not, old or young, obedient or wilful, Syrian or Kurd, from the Windrush generation or a politician, homeless or living in a mansion, well or sick, sad or happy?
What if they heard that no one had ever done anything too bad to be included in this love?
Of course, for words to be real, they need to be followed by action. Telling a person about the love of God means nothing, if they don’t also have a chance to experience it.
Some will reject it, for a variety of reasons, often because they don’t know how to respond.
But others will receive it with joy and learn what it means to be loved to the full.
“As the Father has loved me, so I love you”: the words of Jesus to his disciples, the words of Jesus to us.
Only God can love perfectly. The love that God has for the Son is a perfect love. But the Son then tells us that we too are loved with that perfect love.
And how do we know that means? We look at the life of Jesus and the stories he told.
We see a man who loved the sick, who spent time with the outcast, who touched the leper and the dead, who ate with prostitutes and sinners, tax-collectors and the abandoned.
We hear the stories he told – the son who ran off and wasted money but who was welcomed home by his father with open arms, but we also hear of the older brother who didn’t know how to receive the love that he already had.
We hear how the first will be last and the last first, how what will be judged is hypocrisy and self-righteousness, pride and arrogance, those who prevent others from knowing the love of God.
And what about us?
Do we really know deep down what it is to be loved by God?
How open are our hearts to the love of Jesus?
Love begins with the love of God, and we can only truly learn to love if we can truly receive that love. Our love – for God, for others and for ourselves - is a response to that love.
So what do we have to do to ensure that we are held by that love? It’s easy: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”
What were those commandments? To love God and to love our neighbours as Jesus loves us and as we love ourselves.
Our world is sick at the moment.
But it always has been and always will be until God’s kingdom fully comes. That is the world we live in, and that is the world Jesus lived in. It is a condition of the propensity of human beings towards selfishness and messing things up.
We read our papers and watch our tellies and we see hatred, wars, stabbings, young people under enormous pressure, adults succumbing left, right and centre to stress, people viewed as economic units, murder, divorce, abuse I don’t need to go on. Much of it is round us all the time.
It’s hard to know how to respond. The world in which Jesus lived was very different. T
o his hearers the poor would have meant the people they saw each day, the leper the one from their community who now lived apart, the sick were their neighbours.
We have those too, but we also know about global poverty, water and food shortages, wars abroad. What can we do to change those?
Not all of us are called to change the whole world. Some of us might be but haven’t got our ears or hearts open. Maybe there is someone hear this morning that God is longing to reach because there is a need it is your ministry to answer. Could it be you?
For most of us, though, our calling is to have our eyes and ears open to God’s love, that we might notice the people and places that God puts in our hearts.
There is a calling for every Christian person, there’s no let-out just because you may be feeling old or tired. It probably won’t be the same calling that you had in younger days, but the deepest call is to love, and no one is ever too old or frail to do that.
Love comes in many forms.
Love involves the giving of self, but let’s not forget also that we are called to love ourselves as well as others.
Loving oneself is not about self-centredness but about knowing that we are God’s precious children, that that makes us valued and important.
Loving oneself means that we cannot be rocked when others try to tell us that our value is based on wealth or status or looks or brains. So often those voices are the loudest around. That is why so many young people are struggling today because those voices drown out the ones that tell them they are worth it, that they are love-able, that they are valued.
Just sit where you are for a moment and ponder what it means to hear God say to you: you are my precious child, I love you. You are valued and important.
As we come to receive bread and wine later in this service, let us remember what Jesus said: “No one has greater love than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends.”
And, then, let us rise from the table renewed and strengthened in the knowledge of the love of God, so that we can go out into God’s world as people of love not hate, light not darkness and trust not doubt, and be the change God has called us to be.