The Spirit of Love: Loving God

Psalm 116

This morning we are starting a mini-series on The Spirit of Love by talking about loving God. One of the worst feelings is loving someone who doesn’t love you back. And yet we talk a lot about how much God loves us, but not much about how much we love God. That’s pretty common for churches like ours — progressive, on the formal side — we talk about God’s love for us, but not about our love for God. It seems to emotional, not rational enough, or too  vulnerable, or just too evangelical in a way we don’t like. Whatever the reason, it’s just not language we use.

However, it does feel icky to be loved by God and not love God. Like spoiled children who take whatever we can get, or a manipulative lover who sticks around because nothing better has come along yet, it feels awfully self-centered to go on and on about how much God love us but not ever affirm that we love God. 

I firmly believe that we do not have to keep falling into the same patterns as our spiritual ancestors. We do not have to fit in their boxes or use their labels. I think we can be progressive and clearly say that we love God. We just might need to work a little harder to be clear about what that means to us.

Let’s begin with some scripture this morning. I’d like you to sit back and relax and center in on the words of Psalm 116 as I read them out loud, which is what the Psalms were designed for.

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
    he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
    I will call on him as long as I live.

The cords of death entangled me,
    the anguish of the grave came over me;
    I was overcome by distress and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “Lord, save me!”

The Lord is gracious and righteous;
    our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the unwary;
    when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return to your rest, my soul,
    for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,
    my eyes from tears,
    my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before the Lord
    in the land of the living.

I trusted in the Lord when I said,
    “I am greatly afflicted”;
in my alarm I said,
    “Everyone is a liar.”

What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his goodness to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful servants.
Truly I am your servant, Lord;
    I serve you just as my mother did;
    you have freed me from my chains.

I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord—
    in your midst, Jerusalem.

Praise the Lord.

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God. 

I chose this Psalm for us this morning because of all the beautiful emotions and feelings expressed in it. The sense of emotional connection to God is important. That is what feels “real” for many of us. It’s what takes Christianity from our heads to our hearts. If I ask you whether God is real, most of you who say yes would say it not because you’ve made a calculated rational decision. It’s not because you’ve weighed all the evidence for and against God and decided in favor of God’s existence. You would say God is real because at some point you have personally had an experience that was moving for you. You have internal confirmation, a personal conviction, a sense, a feeling, maybe something you can’t even fully describe. It might have happened while you were singing or playing an instrument or sitting quietly or laughing with friends or listening to a sermon or praying or crying or celebrating Communion, but you felt something, something that keeps you coming back to God and to church even when the feeling isn’t there. This faith is not a head-trip. It’s also a matter of the heart.

AND ALSO, it can’t be all about the feelings. It’s also about action, as all true love must be. Do you want to guess which book in the Bible has the most to say about loving God? Not about God loving us, but about our loving God. You want to guess – I assume you can tell I’m setting you up for a surprising answer. How many of you would have assumed it was the Psalms? Yeah me too. It’s not. Maybe something in the New Testament, then? Maybe something with Jesus? Again, no. The book of the Bible that has the most to say about humans loving God is the book of Deuteronomy. A book that we think of as primarily being about rules is the book that has the most to say about loving God. The reason is because in Deuteronomy, love for God is inextricably tied to obedience to God. In the Bible, love for God is not primarily about how we feel; it’s about what we choose to do.

Listen to Deuteronomy chapter 6 verses 4 through 9: “Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when your rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Deuterononmy 11:1 – “Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always.” 11:13 — “love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul” 11:22 — “to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him and to hold fast to him” 30:16 — “Love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws” 30:20 — “love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life” We demonstrate our love for God by following God. 

So, ideally, we have both feelings of love and actions of love. We long for congruence between our words and our actions; we want them to match up and be in sync. Sometimes that happens, but sometimes not. Emotions certainly make it easier to act. It’s easier to act in a loving way when you have loving feelings, whether that’s towards your spouse or your child or God. But also, actions can create emotions. We can choose to do it before we feel it. Sometimes, feelings follow the actions.

More than a decade ago, I had a season of life when I just didn’t believe in God anymore. I wanted to. I wasn’t angry about anything. But a lot of the things had changed for me, and much of what I had been told about God and the Bible just wasn’t standing up to the test of real life. And my belief just broke. I couldn’t rationalize enough good evidence for God, and I didn’t feel God as I had in the past. I wanted to love God, but I just couldn’t.

Do you know what I did? I kept coming to church. I kept singing the songs. I kept praying the prayers. I kept listening to the sermons. And I kept celebrating Communion, as we are about to do. 

It is not hypocritical to celebrate Communion when you don’t feel the love or have the belief. It is not wrong to come here and sing and pray the Lord’s Prayer. No, if you don’t feel like you love God or if your belief is wavering, this is exactly where you should be, because the actions can lead you into something new. That’s the significance of ritual, that’s why we need rituals. Rituals give us something to do, a way to put actions around our thoughts and feelings. Rituals give us yet another way for God to speak to us, through an embodied experience. 

Last week we were visiting with some of our Legacy Members and we celebrated Communion with one of our dear members who has dementia. We had the bread and the cup and prayed the Lord’s Prayer together and at the end, she began to cry, and she said, “I feel so much hope.” Friends, that’s not me. That’s Jesus showing up in the ritual, speaking to her at a level that’s deeper than her cognition. Rituals ground us in an experience that both includes us at a very personal individual level, and also transcends us to expand to all our siblings in faith throughout time. We do it because we love God, and doing it sparks in us love for God.

Which is why our ancestors in the faith have insisted for hundreds of years, this is the joyful feast of the people of God. People of all genders, all ages, and all races—people with every type of body—come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and gather about Christ’s table. Amen.

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