Sunday, June 17, 2007

Do You Love Me?

This sermon was preached June 17, 2007 for morning worship at the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst. The sermon focuses on John 21:15-19, although I Corinthians 13 and Song of Solomon 8:6-7 were read during the service as well.

Our gospel reading this morning comes from the 21st chapter of John’s gospel—and describes a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to seven of his disciples. Earlier, in chapter 20, the gospel writer has told us about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. John has told us of Jesus’ meeting with Mary Magdalene outside the tomb; his appearance to the disciples in a locked room; and his display of wounds, proof of his post-resurrection body, to the disciple we know as Doubting Thomas.

Now, in chapter 21, the risen Jesus encounters a group of disciples along the shore of Lake Tiberius and, when they fail at first to recognize him, he sends them off on a fishing expedition. When the disciples return from this expedition with nets bulging with fish, an enormous catch, they recognize that their companion has been Jesus. The disciples sit down for a meal with him, and the questioning begins:

“Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Simon, Son of John, do you love me?”
and again, “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?”

Three times Jesus asks it, three times Simon Peter says yes, and three times Jesus answers: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”

So what is this story about? Well, it’s about a lot of things. One commentator I consulted said categorically, “This story is about the rehabilitation of Simon Peter,” noting that as Peter denied Jesus three times at the crucifixion, here he affirms Jesus three times and is given Jesus’ commission three times. Another commentator saw this passage as conferring the ministry and leadership of the church upon Peter, and a third saw it as a foreshadowing of Peter’s own death on a Roman cross some thirty years later, and thus a warning about the cost of discipleship. A fourth speculated that Jesus command to “feed” and “tend my sheep” sets forth a metaphorical blueprint for pastoral ministry: because “pastor” means “shepherd,” the sheep and lambs are members of congregations, children as well as adults, who need pastors to sustain them with the gospel, embrace them with attention and spiritual devotion, and nourish them with the elements of Bread and Cup.

And I agree that all of those things are indeed there in John 21 to inspire us. And each interpretation would be worthy of a sermon of its own.

But this morning I’m going to talk to you about what speaks to me in this passage. I think this passage is all about Love—what love is, how God loves us, and how we are blessed to love one another.

Now no sermon is complete without a requisite embarrassing self-disclosure from the preacher, and so here is mine for today: I am in love with love. More specifically, I love Romance Novels. You know, those paperbacks shelved in the “romance” section that feature embracing couples on the covers? Usually both man and woman have long hair that is blowing artistically in the wind as they cling to one another on top of a cliff, or in the jungle, or in front of a waterfall, or even in the snow. Romance novels are books that feature a love story as the central narrative—usually love between two people who couldn’t be more wrong for each other—and these books always, always conclude with a happy ending. The Happily Ever After is required, and the HEA usually features marriage and a baby on the way.

I’ve loved these books since I was a teenager, and now I am a devoted fan and have a large collection. I know it seems like a weird combination for a minister! I don’t dare reveal my profession to the bookstore cashier.

I know I’m not the only one who loves these books. They account for a large part of paperback book sales and are one of the most profitable categories in the publishing industry. But why on earth admit this to you now—and what on earth does this have to do with John 21?

As I’ve thought about my enjoyment of these little books, I have come to see that romance novels, like so much other human art and expression—and indeed, like so much of our spiritual writing and faith life--and like our Bible passage for today, come to that—these novels deal with eternal and essential questions like “What is love? Do you love me? Do you know me? Am I worthy? Am I lovable? And how can I best reveal and express my love?”

Love is one of the most central of our human dramas, and I would assert, one with many spiritual and faith dimensions as well—although, of course, romance novels chronicle romantic love and not divine or faith-focused love.

In the context of romantic love, romance novels follow the opening of hearts, the recognition and embrace of the Other, and the unfolding and joyful realization that redemption, change of life, and a joyful future are possible, and can be claimed by the hero and heroine.

We think about love a little differently in faith terms. Perhaps we would say that love claims center stage in our spiritual drama as well. In faith terms, we experience the opening of our hearts as we recognize God—the joy of reconciliation as we claim God’s promise of forgiveness—the unfolding and joyful realization of God’s great love for us in his gift of Jesus Christ, Christ’s incarnational birth, his atoning death, and his resurrection—and the loving promise of a joyful future, eternally with him.

OK, so I’ve made the comparison, and now I’m going to follow that comparison right to the limit.

Here are some classic romance plots and how I think they relate to the life of faith:

The powerful, handsome, wealthy Duke falls in love with the mousy, intellectual, poverty-stricken, unsuitable governess—and sometimes she’s even in disguise—a woman no one else notices or thinks attractive. He sees her, though; he looks past the surface, sees through her disguise, thinks she is beautiful, and falls in love with the woman she really is.

I think this plot speaks to our overwhelming need to be seen for who we really are and loved anyway—even if we believe that “real, revealed self” is unworthy, or inadequate, or unlovable.

Many of you know that I work in hospice care. Every day I hear about our patients and their families--people who are struggling with the changes and challenges that have come to them as a result of illness. Perhaps they have scars from surgery, or a missing limb, or an ostomy bag. Perhaps they’re incontinent, or unable to get out of bed. Perhaps they’ve had a stroke, or their hair is gone, or they’ve gotten thinner, or heavier, from chemotherapy or medication. And I know that part of their struggle is: am I ugly? Am I a whole person any more? Am I worthy? Am I—lovable?

And every day I see families, and devoted spouses, caring for their loved ones, telling them with words and showing them with their caregiving that—no matter what you look like, you are beautiful to me; no matter how unworthy you feel, you are worth the world to me; no matter if you feel unlovable, I love you and I want to be with you and I want to care for you.

Isn’t all of this something we believe to be true about our relationship with God? In the same way that the handsome hero sees the plain heroine for who she is and finds her lovable; in the same way that the caregiver sees the patient’s body for what it is and finds him lovable; In the same way that Jesus, knowing the inadequacy and unworthiness of the disciples, seeks them out by the sea of Tiberius, provides them an enormous catch, and sits at table to eat with them--God sees us for who we really are, in OUR unworthiness and inadequacy—God loves us anyway, wants to be with us, and wants to take care of us. That’s what love is.

Another classic romance plot: the wild, frightening, tortured hero with dark secrets meets a young sweet innocent woman who, against all reason, trusts him and believes in him. He saves her from disaster, and in turn he is changed and saved by her love.

Doesn’t this speak to us of our abiding hope that that that no matter what our dark secrets, sins or deficiencies, we can be loved enough to be forgiven, redeemed and saved?

Isn’t this the message Jesus brings to Peter in our passage for today: That no matter your past sins, inadequacies—no matter how many times you denied me at the foot of the cross--you are loved and trusted and redeemed? And isn’t this the message of love, redemption and salvation Jesus Christ brings to us in the crucifixion and resurrection—that no matter who we have been or what we have done, we are loved enough to be forgiven, loved, and saved? That’s how God loves us.

And another plot:

In a marriage of convenience, the hero and heroine are forced to marry, usually at least one of them reluctantly and grudgingly. Along the course of the novel they encounter adventures, disasters, trials, and situations that require them to help, care, and support one another. Strangely enough they fall in love by the end of the book. Maybe because they’ve learned how to do loving things, and in the doing of love they’ve learned to embrace one another in love.

Acts of kindness, mercy, and care that enact love may not always be extraordinary or dramatic. Some of you may remember that musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” Do you remember the song Tevye and Golde, the couple who’ve been married for 25 years, sing together? When Tevye asks her, “Do You Love Me?,” for the first time ever, Golde is amazed.

“Do I love you?” she sings to him testily,
“For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
For twenty-five years I've lived with him
Fought him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that's not love, what is?
Yes, I love you.”

Acts of care and devotion and support, year after year after year without fail—even without words--that’s love. That’s how we can best love one another.

It’s a truth expounded in romance novels, it’s a truth sung about in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and it’s a truth Jesus makes plain to Peter when he says, “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and Peter says yes. But that’s not the end of the conversation. For Jesus, love is more than an emotion to be experienced and acknowledged; if you love me, he tells Peter emphatically, “Tend my sheep. Feed my lambs.” Love is not only a feeling. Love is a doing. Love isn’t something that happens to you. Love is something you do for others. It’s an active pursuit, a work of faith. And it’s revealed in your acts of service, your acts of kindness, your acts of mercy, your care for those around you who are in need. We act lovingly because God loves us; and in turn, our loving acts draw us closer to one another and to Him.

Do you love me? It’s a question that reverberates in this Gospel passage—in art and writing and in human expression of every kind, including my favorite, romance novels—in all of our lives, and in our Christian faith and experience, as we move from infant to child to adult to elder, with all the blessings and frailties and challenges of every stage.

We all want that assurance that we are loved despite our flaws and that we are forgiven and saved. We all need the assurance that we can best find, know, and express love by the act of loving itself. Thanks to the witness of Scripture, thanks to Jesus Christ and his resurrection, thanks to the care we give and are given by others, we know what love is, how God loves us, and how we are blessed to love one another—for certain and for all time.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a sermon even an atheist like me can love. Beautiful!

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Sherrie Holmes said...

This brought tears to my eyes, Melinda. Eloquently and beautifully written. Thank you so much for posting this so that it reaches a broader audience. The message of love is one of the most important messages of all.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

Dear Rev. Melinda. I thought your sermon was very thought-provoking, so I've quoted from it on the Teach Me Tonight blog. I hope that's alright.

5:57 AM  
Blogger Maggie Robinson said...

I've linked to you (without your permission, so tell me if you want me to yank it) on Maggie Robinson Means Romance under the heading "In Others' Words." This is really just exceptional. Wish I could listen to you every Sunday!

7:30 AM  
Blogger anne said...

Oh! Ohmygoodness...RevMelinda, that sermon's beauty and insight are beyond my capacity to describe! Thank you so much for sharing it with us! May I link it to one of my own blogs?

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Melinda: I think your sermon was absolutely wonderful. I liked it so much I plan to forward it to my own pastor. He's a reader, but not of romance, as far as I know. (I'm also glad to find that your sermon was firmly based in scripture.) Thank you for allowing us to see into your heart. KathyK

2:03 PM  
Anonymous shaina said...

very cool. take out the jesus stuff and it sounds like something my rabbi might say, were he a reader of romances.
hooray for love!
(ps i found this through the Smart Bitches)

9:02 PM  
Blogger Amelia Elias said...

As a Buddhist, this sermon also touched me. The parallels you drew between common romance plots and the human spirit were fabulous. I'm deeply impressed!

8:44 AM  
Anonymous Fellow Romance Reader said...

You go girl...It was awesome...thanks for sharing...BTW wasn't that 3rd plot a Julie Garwood? LL

1:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you have helped me to remember what my life is for, not what others can do for me, but how I can live for Jesus. My prayer is that He will make a difference through His Love.....Cathie

8:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Melinda -- Thanks for sending the link! What a great sermon! Engaging in the kind of way that hooks into the longing in us all and connects it with the eternal Longing.

8:06 PM  
Blogger Caren Crane said...

Rev. Melinda, thank you for this sermon. I often find myself at a bit of a loss when having to defend writing romance to my friends at church. Most are accepting, but a few feel I should be writing something different and more God-centered. But you made a wonderful point that Jesus' great commission was that we love God and love each other as we love ourselves.

How better to celebrate this commission than to write about love and how it changes lives for the better? I will take this message with me and keep it close to my heart. Thank you!

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Grace Elliot said...

Awesome sermon, picked it up via a FB link. I write romance and was worried about how it would be recieved at my church - is it not too frivolous a thing, should I not be devoting my energies to something more worthy et.c ? - but this sermon put it all in context.
thank you so much, bless you.

8:25 AM  
Anonymous Tili S. said...

I'm a Harvard student taking a class about medieval ideas of love, and we just read several sermons by Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs. I posted a link to this sermon on our course discussion forum, because I think in a way it's the modern version of the readings we did in class: both take popular, ostensibly secular love narratives and apply them to divine love. Like several other commenters, I'm not a Christian, but I was touched.

8:08 AM  
Blogger RevMelinda said...

Grace, thank you so much for reading and commenting--I'm glad you found it helpful! Tili S., your comment especially tickled me since I hold a degree from Harvard myself (M.Div. 1988 from the Divinity School). Blessings to you both!

6:17 PM  
Blogger Deb said...

This was absolutely beautiful! I loved reading it and I'm sure it was awesome to hear it spoken. Thank you.

4:13 PM  

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