Well, happy new year again, my friends. I hope you had a safe and happy and healthy first week of the new year. If so, you are doing pretty great. Give yourself a little pat on the back. And if not, we’re here for you in that too.
Somewhere around New Year’s Day, one of my kids saw me playing a word game on my phone. I’m usually not a games on the phone person. I had downloaded this one sometime around Christmas Day. And my kid was like: hey, Dad, you’ve been playing that game a lot. And I thought: maybe that’s so.
So I checked the game stats they showed, and I had played that game of scrabble like 119 times. I had mostly won it, so… but I thought that’s a lot of hours in one week. Think about all the accumulated stress that’s driving me to that much distraction, that much distraction that isn’t life-giving or restorative for me at least at all. So I deleted the app and figured I’d look for some other ways to find peace, life, and purpose in the new year.
We’re still in a vortex of unknowns, facing many of our personal and collective limits, living with all kinds of tensions we’d rather not have. New year, old fear. So I find myself asking
How can I live? What is my way forward?
And as a pastor in this community, I find myself asking that question for us as a community.
What’s our way forward?
In those questions and prayers, a few things keep coming back to me. They’re all versions of something I saw a fellow pastor post on Twitter the other day. They wrote: If we want a good year we probably can’t count on 2022 being good. But we can create goodness in our immediate proximity through prayer, kindness, generosity, and friendship.
If we want a good year, we probably can’t count on this year being good. That’s true every year, really. But we can welcome goodness, pay attention to goodness, create goodness. This pastor listed a lot of ways toward that goodness: prayer, kindness, generosity, friendship. All of which are great.
I’m drawn to a slightly different list, when in the New Testament, we read that in a world where everything falls apart, faith, hope, and love remain – these three things – and the greatest of these is love. Love never fails.
We have been unabashed here at Reservoir about the centrality of love in the way of Jesus and of the power of love to uplift and transform every area of our lives and every corner of this world. Three years ago, our new year series was called Training in the Studio of Love. It was a good one, I think.
This year, we begin the year with a series we’re simply calling “Love is…” And today, we’ll think about how love is knowing and being known. Love is about relational knowledge, the process of knowing another and of becoming known by another, to another as well.
Let’s read the two scriptures that will anchor this teaching. First, from the gospel of John – the Bible’s fourth and latest set of stories about the life and teaching of Jesus.
John 1:9-14 (Common English Bible)
9 The true light that shines on all people
was coming into the world.
10 The light was in the world,
and the world came into being through the light,
but the world didn’t recognize the light.
11 The light came to his own people,
and his own people didn’t welcome him.
12 But those who did welcome him,
those who believed in his name,
he authorized to become God’s children,
13 born not from blood
nor from human desire or passion,
but born from God.
14 The Word became flesh
and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
glory like that of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.
This poem calls Jesus three things – Word and light and flesh. It’s a refashioning of the Bible’s very first poem, the story of God, where we hear God spoke, Let there be light, and there was light. And God speaks into being life after life. Some have read this on the surface – as an account of creation out of nothing that climaxes in this earth and our species. Others now read it as living, loving energy which encouraged that ball of dense matter some 14 billion years ago to explode into ever expanding, ever more beautiful and complex life, you and me included. Word, light, flesh – all a miracle.
John is so taken by how Jesus speaks and what Jesus reveals that he reframes the story of God to center Jesus. Jesus the word – the embodiment of God’s communicating presence – speaking love and possibility and guidance and truth to all creation. Jesus the light – a life-force, a truth teller, someone who helps us see better.
And then this third word, not just the creator but the created, that word flesh – human, muscle, blood, brain, heart, sinew, one of us, living among us. Word and light with a heartbeat.
The climax of this poem is that moment – the Word became flesh and made his home among us. As the late Eugene Peterson wrote – moved into the neighborhood. The story of God – word and light of God become flesh. Love of God saying to us all:
Let’s be neighbors.
We’ll come back to this.
Our second scripture is more mundane, just a little bit at the end of the longest letter of the New Testament, the one called Romans. It goes like this:
Romans 16:21-23 (Common English Bible)
21 Timothy my coworker says hello to you, and Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, my relatives.
22 I’m Tertius, and I’m writing this letter to you in the Lord—hello!
23 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, says hello to you. Erastus the city treasurer says hello to you, along with our brother Quartus.
Paul, the writer, sends greetings, as does his partner Timothy and then some of his relatives. And then there are two really prominent Roman citizens living abroad with Paul. There is Gaius, this Roman-named person wealthy enough to host a good sized meeting in his home. On my kids high school sports teams, back when we had parent gatherings and potlucks and all, the same wealthy parents tended to host them all – because they were the people who could fit 50 or more people in their home and hire cleaners to spiff the place up and pay for all the wine 50 parents can drink.
That’s Gaius, and Erastus is just like him – another professionally successful, prominent Roman. They send their greetings to the friends in Rome. But so do Tertius and Quartus, whose names literally mean third and fourth. Kids born to families so poor, of such low status, that their kids are merely named for their birth order. Number two, number three, number four. Kids destined to be slaves like their parents were, people of no account in the world.
But here they are in the scriptures – brother Quartus, and writer Tertius – getting to pen for the apostle Paul some of the most famous words ever written in any language ever, the book of Romans. Where brother Tertius gets to say hello, mattering, belonging as much as Paul or the city treasurer or that family with the huge living room or anyone else. It’s beautiful.
There are two things I want to draw out of all this for us in this new year.
I want us to notice what the love of God is like, and I want to invite us into a very particular way to express beloved community in our church over the next two winter months.
What is love?
Along with many Christians of my generation, I was taught the love of God has a word, a Greek word, agape. This comes from a long line of Christian teaching that says there are many types of love. There is stroge love, which is familial affection. There is philia love, brotherly and sisterly love between friends. There is eros, erotic love, the sensual, romantic love of lovers.
And then there is God’s love, agape love – the self-giving, self-sacrificial love that seeks the good of the beloved regardless of feeling or circumstance. That is God’s love, we were taught, and that is the model for our love as well. There were related slogans. Love isn’t a feeling, it’s a fact. Or love is a decision.
Well, there’s some truth in this. It’s good to keep choosing love, even when we’re not feeling it. But there are a lot of problems with this way of defining love too.
This dispassionate, disinterested picture of the love of God doesn’t speak to the heart, it doesn’t heal, to think God may or may not particularly have affection for me or desire for me, but God will seek my good nevertheless. That doesn’t actually feel like the greatest of gifts.
And it doesn’t empower great love among people either. For instance, feminists note that this kind of teaching – often by men – encourages women to stay devoted to men who neglect or abuse them. Ignore your feelings, stick with your decision, stand by your man. Religion that empowers abuse is bad religion. Ideas about love that empower abuse are not love.
Scholars of love have shown that all love, including the love of God, is bigger than this. Roberto Sirvent has written about how healthy love has a wider palette. When he surveys love, he talks about four qualities of love.
The first is “love as robust concern.” Love as robust concern is the parent’s longing to see a child have great outcomes in life, for no particularly self-interested reason, simply because. This aspect of love is the most similar to Christian teaching on agape. God becomes flesh out of God’s robust concern for you and me.
The second quality is “love as value.” Love as value is a parent’s longing for the flourishing of a child because the parent sees and believes in the child’s worth and special qualities. God becomes flesh because God thinks we are worth it. God values us.
“Love as union,” the third quality of love, is about developing a shared identity. In love we surrender complete autonomy; ourselves and our freedom aren’t lost, but they’re constrained. A lover desires reciprocity and makes decisions not just for oneself but for the relationship. Love as union is a parent’s intimate connection with a child as members of a shared family. Love that seeks connection and even reciprocity isn’t a lower form or love but a more invested one. From birth we are looking for this kind of intimacy of union. We are looking for a face who is looking for us. God becomes flesh because God wants to be one with us, intimate with us. This too is God’s love.
And lastly, “love as emotion” speaks to how those who love are responsive to one another and changed by one another. Love as emotion shows us why happy children make happy parents and vice versa. God becomes flesh because God feels for us, because it makes God feel better when we feel we are loved.
The God made flesh in Jesus has robust concern for all of creation, you and me included, and is interested in the greatest possible flourishing for all humans and all other life as well. The God made flesh in Jesus highly values the worth of all of creation, measuring each human life to be of inestimable worth and finding saving value in other lifeforms as well. The God made flesh in Jesus seeks intimate connection, even union, with all of creation through the ongoing participation of God in the life of the world. And the God made flesh in Jesus has profound emotional investment in the well-being of human life and the life of the universe as well. All of us matter deeply to God. When we search for God, we are looking for someone who is already looking for us.
This is why God moved into the neighborhood. This is how God is saying to us all today:
Kids, I love you. Let’s be neighbors.
So the first thing I invite you to do in this new year is to remember every single day that you are loved by God, that you are a beloved child of God. That you are not just loved by a God that seeks your good, and who is invested in you, who knows you and wants to be known by you, and wants you to experience that you are known and deeply loved. We’ll practice this at the end of the talk.
Secondly, I want to invite you into a particular expression of love in this community, to our own expression of that Romans 16 experience that every one of us matters.
Some of us are Gaius and Erastus types – we have wealth or big houses or are professionally accomplished. And some of us are more like Tertius or Quartus. We were born to people who didn’t believe in our future, or into a county or culture that didn’t see and validate us. Some of us are poor, are disabled, are dismissed by others in any number of ways. Some of us, frankly, are both, or somewhere in between.
None of that tells us how much we matter to God, though, and none of that tells us how much we matter to one another.
Here’s a way to practice that. I learned it from our involvement in the interfaith social justice collaborative we’re in called GBIO.
It’s called a relational meeting.
A relational meeting is where two people meet – in person, over zoom, over the phone, it doesn’t matter. Two people meet for between 30 minutes and an hour to simply know part of each other’s stories. That’s it. To matter to one another.
It’s a one-time thing. There’s no obligation to have a follow-up meeting or conversation unless that happens naturally. There’s no obligation to become good friends. It’s simply a practice of knowing and being known, of forming a wide network of people in your life that you know and care about in some way, and who know and care about you in some way.
In GBIO, we have these relational meetings a lot because they form networks of people who’ll show up for one another when we need each other.
In a church we do this because it makes us more of a church too, a place where we know and are known, where we all matter.
You’ll be hearing throughout the month about our community groups, which are our primary way of knowing and being known at Reservoir, of having acquaintances and eventually friends here, of having people you can show up for and who will show up for you.
But we’re also inviting you to have three 1 on 1 relational meetings this winter – between now and the end of February – with another member of the Reservoir community you don’t know well already. You’d say to someone else in this community: hey, the church is inviting us to have three relational meetings. Can we have one? Or someone will ask you that. And then here’s what you do.
Anyone is free to say yes or no. Some of us are more introverted. Some of us are busier. Some of us won’t want to participate in this for whatever reason. All that is fine.
If you ask someone and they say yes, or if someone else asks you and you say yes, set a time and how you’re going to talk – over the phone, over google meet, outdoors on a walk, whatever. Plan on 40 minutes to an hour.
And then when you have the time, each of you just share a little bit of your story with the other. You can respond and ask questions and all – it’s meant to be a natural conversation. But each of you share.
If you’re not sure what to talk about, here’s the prompt I encourage you to use. Share something about where you come from, something about where you are today, and something about where you think you’re going. These could be very concrete – like talking about the town or city you lived in as a child, and where you live today and what that’s like, and where you hope you’ll be in a few years. Or it could be more abstract – like some significant event in your past, and how you’re feeling about some part of your life today, or a dream or goal you have for your future. Whatever you’d enjoy sharing. However it is you’d like to be known.
And just thank each other for your time and for sharing and that’s it. Keep the conversation to yourselves. It’s not meant to be a point of gossip or anything.
If we each have three conversations like this, so together we have hundreds and hundreds of them, Reservoir will end our winter a stronger, more beloved community, and lots of us will experience a few more opportunities to know we matter and to convey that to someone else as well.
I invite you to get started today by reaching out to one person you’ve met and talked to before here. I’ll post about this on our blog this week and we’ll announce it again next week. And if you have no idea who to ask, how to get started, we’re posting a link in the chat now where if you don’t know anyone at Reservoir, we’ll help match you with someone else who’d like to have a relational meeting.
There’s a lot that’s wrong in our world right now, friends. So much. If we want a good year, we probably can’t count on 2022 being good.
So let’s welcome the goodness of God. Word and light and love made flesh to us. Love of God glad to know us, glad to be known, eager for us to know how known we and loved we are as well.
And let’s extend these circles of knowing and being known in this community as well, practicing the loving connection beyond our current circles that has been some of the magic of the people of Jesus for two millennia now.
Let’s take a minute to pray together, let this soak in.