Longest Night Service – December 20, 2016

Rev. Catherine E. Williams – The Gift of Love: 1 John 4:7-12

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This evening we are featuring lavender, butterflies, and love. I confess I don’t know that I can string these together with sufficient credibility. Our Stephen Ministers got together earlier this year to brainstorm what we would like this evening to look like; we ended up with lavender, butterflies, and love. There is a great amount of symbolism in each of these elements, and I hope you can connect with any or all of these themes – according to your preference or your need. But for my short reflection this evening, as I inhale the calming fragrance of lavender, and enjoy the visual inspiration of the colored butterflies, I want to take advantage of the reflective, contemplative nature of this service and think for a little while about  love as a gift.

The gospel reading begins with the apostle encouraging us to love one another because love is who God is, and if we say we are people of God we are pretty much saying we are people of love. And yes, I’d be the first to acknowledge that some people and some situations make it much easier than others for us to respond as people of love. But think with me for a moment about a time when you received love from another person, a time when you felt loved. What was that like? Was it the time you sat across from a grandchild who suddenly looked up, caught your adoring eyes, and blew you ten kisses? Was it a time when you were at one of your lowest moments and got an unexpected phone call, note, or text message that said someone was thinking about you? Was it the expression on the face of someone whom you knew was just as in love with you as you were with her or him? Was it the meals, cards, calls, flowers, or other signs of care that you got while you were sick? Was it the earthy smell of someone who reminded you of your granddaddy who always told you, you were his favorite? Whatever it was, I’m guessing it stirred something deep inside of you that made you feel valued, accepted, uplifted, and cared for, among other things. Love, in whatever form, does something to us; it touches the image of God in us and puts a little shine on it, it reminds us who we are, it can sometimes change how we see ourselves.

Love, in God’s dictionary, is not an abstract idea. It doesn’t stay in the feeling zone, or simply roll around in the mind. God’s kind of love is active. It extends itself outward, it shifts its center of gravity to include others. Isn’t that what God did in sending Jesus Christ to earth? God so loved the world that God extended himself outward in becoming like one of us. That’s why Christmas in so many different ways, is about giving and receiving love; to me the gifts only really matter if they are expressions of love. And it’s a good thing God’s love didn’t come to us in a limousine or a private jet, else we’d have reason to be suspicious about whether it was really meant for everybody. No, God’s love entered the world in the lowliest of ways so everyone – from the least to the greatest – could see it, could hold it. Whether shepherd or king, whether carpenter or priest – God’s love is available to all.

thSo I’m recommending that we keep our eyes and ears open for the ways in which God’s love comes to us during this season? I have to say that just like the paradox of a Messiah in a manger, God’s love comes to us in unexpected ways. Yes, it would be nice to get a phone call from that estranged son or daughter, but let’s not miss God’s love in that unexpected gesture from a friend or coworker that somehow moved us. Yes it would have been nice to be staring out the window at lush green leaves warmed by Florida’s summery sun, but let’s not miss the glorious glow of a wintery New Jersey sunset that leaves a glow around our heart. I’m inviting us to be a little more mindful this Christmas, a little more open to the myriad ways in which God’s gift of love is born into our lives again and again.

But the best part of God’s gift is that we get to pass it on. And this is not the kind of re-gifting that is bound to happen in a few days with socks and ties and sweaters – that’s not the kind of passing on I mean. I’m actually thinking of two simple ways in particular. The first is by just being present. The loving gift of presence – just being there with someone. I remember my first time as a chaplain being called into the emergency room, and being asked by the doctor to sit with the wife of a man whose life the doctor was trying to save, but who was more than likely not going to survive. Those were the longest hundred and fifty minutes I ever just sat with someone, not knowing what to say, and in fact not saying much more than, “Can I get you another glass of water?” But each time I remember and feel again the wordless hug of gratitude the widow gave me as she left, I am reminded of how deeply meaningful it can be to simply be present with someone. Some of you may know that there are many times when the wordless presence of a friend speaks in a language that can’t even be translated into English or whatever your first language might be. Just being there, just showing up, just inhaling the same air of pain, or confusion, or joy, or excitement – even without words, can be a powerful gift of love. God gave that to us in Jesus one of whose names is Emmanuel – which simply means God with us. Sure there are times when he is the Word and speaks grace into our lives, but sometimes “God with us” is enough.

Second there is the gift of listening. When God reveals to Moses his intention to do something about the condition of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt God says to him, I have heard their cry. When Abraham’s son Ishmael is in the desert with his mother about to die, he begins to cry, and the Scripture records that God heard the cry of that pre-teen, and sent an angel to tell his mother this. God who is love, listens. The Stephen Ministers have often heard me say that being listened to feels so much like being loved that most people can’t tell the difference. The gift of a listening ear is one of the most underestimated gifts of all time. You may not be able to wrap and place it under a tree, but I can almost guarantee that if you give a friend, a relative, or even a stranger the gift of a listening, non-judgmental ear this Christmas, it will probably rank up there with their most treasured moments.

God is with us! God hears us! God loves us! Now no one has ever seen God; but if we who are God’s people love one another, then God becomes present in this world through us. You know, coming to think of it there may be a connection with the lavender and butterflies after all. Butterflies remind us of the life cycle where birth happens all the time. Maybe they can offer us the gift of hope tonight, that the birth of Jesus that we celebrate will signal the birth of something new for each of us. And the lavender? Well look…it just sits there and exudes its own fragrance, modeling for us a way to be present, to simply show up and be who we are, as we exude the fragrance of Christ in our lives. Thanks be to God – the One who is with us, the One who hears us, and the One who loves us. Amen.

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