When I was a little girl, I always wanted to give my mother the perfect gift. No matter what the occasion, I wanted to make sure my offering would be just right. I’d ransack department stores for the perfect sweater, earrings, or perfume, wanting to present her with a suitable token of my love. And it was always a guessing game. It was no help to ask her what she wanted, for she always gave the same answer: for my sisters and me to be nice to one another, to refrain from arguing for one day. I don’t know why I didn’t take that request very seriously at the time. It seemed like a non-answer, just something nice to say instead of revealing what she really wanted. But as I’ve grown up, I realized that my mother’s perennial request was what she wanted more than anything in the world. For many years, my sisters and I couldn’t quite make it through the day without bickering. There was just enough difference and just enough similarity between us that squabbles and quarrels were a given. It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other, but we didn’t always show it.
Now that we are adults, and my sisters have children of their own, we get along so well I nearly have to have the telephone surgically removed from my ear. I could talk to Elizabeth and Marie every day for hours, if time and circumstances allowed. I desperately want to be a part of their lives, and the lives of their daughters. We love each other fiercely, and even though the gift is made bittersweet by the many miles between us, we have been able to give my mother her heart’s desire for Mother’s day for years now.
“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. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
The first letter of John has a lot to say about love. It is this passage that gives us the transcendent doctrines that proclaim God is the source of all love, that we can love only because God has loved us, that God is love. We are reminded that God’s love is so profound that he sent Christ into the world that we might live through him. This love is wondrous, and, like God, much more vast than we can grasp, yet even if we comprehend a sliver of this great mystery, we are filled with the confidence of salvation. Fear is cast out by this perfect love. This is heady stuff. And even though John’s letter rivals the brainiest works of Greek philosophy, his head is far from the clouds. He knows that genuinely loving God includes the hard work of loving God’s creation, loving our sisters and brothers, our neighbors, even our enemies.
Just as I couldn’t fully love and honor my mother without loving and honoring my sisters, we cannot believe for a second that loving our brethren here on earth is not just as important as loving our Heavenly Father. Love of neighbor goes hand in hand with love of God. You just can’t cultivate one without the other.
And so we have a steep endeavor before us: abide in love. This is the path to the heart of God: to love one another, to live in love. Abiding is a tough word, and an even tougher action. Sometimes it is interpreted simply as waiting, resting. But that is only one dimension of the life we are called to live. Abide is related to the word abode, or dwelling. To abide in God is to make a home in God. This is a cozy enough image, but anyone who has spent anytime as a homemaker knows that it’s a lot of hard work. Floors must be swept, bathrooms scoured, meals cooked. Without daily upkeep, a home becomes unlivable. Abiding in love, abiding in God, requires the same daily work as maintaining a household, though the chores are more along the lines of prayer, scripture reading, fellowship, and service.
Living in love is something we cannot accomplish on our own; we can never pray or read or serve enough to earn our keep. We cannot earn our home in God by good works. We can, however, respond to the invitation to live in God by faithfully following the loving example of his Son. And that brings us full circle to this insurmountable yet indispensable responsibility to love our sisters and brothers, for no one loved more powerfully than the one who laid down his life.
There is yet another meaning to the word “abide”: to put up with. “I cannot abide by this,” someone will say in angry indignation. This makes for a slightly off-color interpretation of our beautiful text for the day, but it also reveals bit of truth we might miss otherwise, so hear me out. “God is love, and those who put up with love put up with God, and God puts up with them.” Maybe I’m just a cynic for appreciating this reading so very much. But isn’t there something to it? Love isn’t an easy thing.
When couples marry, they enter a covenant to love one another even through the turbulent times. They are reminded, even amid the glorious happiness of their wedding day, that a marriage binds them together in sickness and in health. There are times in every relationship in which loving someone means putting up with them for a spell. Mothers certainly know this. For every day they spend receiving roses and affirmations, they spend many more putting up with the various antics of their kids—whether their kids are two or fifty-two. My mother certainly put up with a lot, and I never doubted her love for my sisters and me.
Sometimes the people we are called to love – and, if we remember correctly, God expects us to make a good faith effort at loving anyone and everyone – aren’t terribly lovable. So we put up with them, even when they are unpleasant, unkempt, ungrateful. We abide in love for them.
We even have to put up with God, and I apologize if that sounds irreverent. Even the most faithful Christians tire sometimes of the hard work of Christian discipleship. God calls us into places and practices that stretch us and transform us. Sometimes we grumble even as we try to obey, wondering if it wouldn’t be easier if God didn’t love us quite so much as to challenge us to change.
We put up with one another, we abide in love for one another, for the sake of a God who manages to put up with the whole lot of us. God’s love for us is unconditional. As the Gospel of John proclaims, he is a vinegrower, pruning away our branches that cannot bear fruit. But every flash of his blade works for our benefit and for the building of God’s peaceable Kingdom. God’s grace continues to shape us, and his love continues to recreate us, as he makes his home in us. For we are God’s abode, the ones in whom God desires to live. And if it’s hard work to abide in God, just imagine what hard work it is to make a home in you and me. I think we have the better end of the deal.
We often follow the example of Jesus, calling God our Heavenly father. But God certainly loves us with the love of a mother, that love we celebrate today. Just as my mother wanted her household to be marked by peace and kindness, our scripture today reveals that one of God’s ultimate concern is that we live in love for one another. This is the acceptable sacrifice for our God: not simply tangible treasures, but patient, abiding love. Amen.