Perfect Love

Sunday, June 14, 2020
Pastor Megan Torgerson

1 John 4: 7-21

I re-read the first sermon I ever preached here at Augustana, from September 14, 2008. In that sermon, I warned you how much I love stories. Perhaps you have fallen victim more than a few times to my need to tell you just one more thing, to spin just one more story, to stay just fifteen minutes longer…or thirty minutes… or whatever, the time’s not important.  In the eleven years and nine months to the day since that first sermon, I’ve gotten to tell you lots of stories.  Some about me, or my family, or the saints who have mentored me, or the dumb stuff I’ve gotten myself into.  By this point, you probably know my stories better than me.

In that first sermon, I said to you that I like stories because they entertain, but most of all, because stories tell us who we are.  The stories we tell and how we tell them give us meaning.  It is why the stories of scripture will always hold my attention. They’re not merely fascinating.  They also tell me who I am and who God is.  In the stories of Sarah and Hagar, Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, Ruth and Naomi, Hannah and Elizabeth, I hear God repeating over and over: you are loved, dear child, you are loved.  I have chosen you.  You are mine.

This heartbeat, this constant call of God, this pattern of affirmation, I hear it all through scripture.  I hear the story of a God who created all things in love for love.  I hear how God could not let disobedience and deception destroy that love so God rewrote the rules.  I hear how God constantly kept reminding the people – you are loved, you are loved, you are loved – through Abraham’s wanderings and Jacob’s deceptions and Joseph’s trials and Moses’ protestations and David’s leadership (or lack thereof) and the splintering of the kingdom and the diaspora and the exile – no matter how the people messed up, and they always did, God kept calling them back, welcoming them home, reminding them: you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.

God’s love for us, God’s own people, it could only grow and multiply.  So God could not and would not stop loving.  God, who is relationship itself, a trinity of Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier in perfect unity, God came to be in the flesh to be physically present with the people that God loved so much. Or, as my favorite Bible passage from 1 John 4 puts it, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent the Son”.  God’s love grew to a point where God would no longer wait for us to love God back.  In love for us, God walked the earth with us to suffer at our hands and die and then defeat death and sin so that it couldn’t haunt us any more.  God loves us so much that God would rather be killed than let us die.

But this story just keeps going.  Because death and sin are now dead, because God has broken them through the simple power of Christ’s love, now the loving power of the sanctifying Spirit lives among us.  And now God’s love grows all the greater, because now it is not only God’s love changing the world, but it is God’s love changing us.  Or, as 1 John reminds us, “… whoever does not love their family member, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”  God’s love abounds in us not so we can be special and certain, but so we can be holy and compassionate, free in the world, doing the work our neighbor needs of us.

This love I know, this love I see throughout the story of scripture, the love shown to us in the teaching and healing and renewing power of Jesus Christ, the love burning in our hearts by the presence of the Spirit, this love is not clean and easy.  It doesn’t call us to stay put or play safe.  This love pushes us out, forces us to take risks, demands that we start getting uncomfortable, sends us into the unknown.  These fringes, these borders, these grey areas, these are the places God has always gone, always claimed, always loved.  And because we live in God and God in us, that’s where we go, too. And it might seem scary, but don’t worry: there is no fear in love because perfect love, the love of God at work in you, it drives out fear.

Far be it from me, with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat and a heart bursting with grief and anticipation, far be it from me to tell you how to feel right now.  But I will take a guess, and I guess you might be a little afraid.  The world is turning.  We can’t be in our worship space together.  We’re calling into question everything from our racial identity to our community structure to our political goals.  And I’m not going to presume that I’m so important or special, I’m leaving, and that’s one more change, one more unknown, in a season of transition and uncertainty.

You can be scared.  But you can’t stay scared.  Because, beloved, perfect love drives out fear.  The story of God’s love does not end here.  It continues on, and it pushes out fear with the sheer force of love lived out for your neighbors.  And your neighbor needs you.  Your neighbor needs God’s love at work through you.  And, people of Augustana, I’ve seen you do it before and I know you’ll do it again.

I’ve seen you roll up your sleeves to pack meals for people next door or across the world so they won’t be hungry.  I’ve seen you sit next to kids and teenagers to teach them and pray for them so they won’t be alone.  I’ve seen you send piles of cards to folks with a scary medical diagnosis or the deep grief of losing a loved one so that they’ll know comfort.  I’ve seen you drop everything and show up at another church with an armload of groceries in hand so others can know stability and security in an uncertain time.  I’ve seen you open your heart and your checkbook and even the very doors of this building so people won’t have to sleep on the streets. I have seen how far you will go to ensure others know God’s love.  I’ve seen God at work through you.  God has worked through you before and will keep working through you tomorrow and next week and in the unknown future.  I know it’s true.  Don’t be afraid.

When I leave here, my time in your story of faith ends.  But I do hope, in some way, that my story will mean something for how you speak of God’s work in your life.  I don’t get to pick my legacy, but I will hope that it is one of love.  I hope you’ll remember stories that reveal a loving God who reaches out to us all.  I hope you’ll feel motivated by stories of service and compassion.  I hope you’ll remember that God’s not done with you yet, and while the ending cannot be known, the story of God’s love keeps being told through your words and actions.

I hope you know that when I tell the story of Augustana, and its place in my story of faith, I will tell of your love.  I will tell of your prayers, your encouragement, your accountability, your generosity, and your compassion.  I will tell the truth: that I love you, beloved in Christ, and I always will.  Thanks be to God.

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