Scripture: JOHN 3:14-21
Six years ago today, I officiated at the wedding of a dear friend of Mary’s and mine. Robin married her now-husband Jesse in Michigan. They had carefully chosen the wedding date. It was π day: March 14, or 3/14, which are the first three digits of that wonderfully quirky mathematical figure. Pi, π, as afficionados know, is the ratio of the circumference of any circle to the diameter of that circle. And π, as you may know, is an irrational number, meaning that, in its decimal form, its digits neither end nor repeat. So Robin and Jesse celebrated their wedding not just on 3/14, but they did it in 2015—3.1415—and they thought seriously about beginning the service at 9:26 and 53 seconds in the morning—3.141592653—encompassing the first ten digits of π. And while that was just a bit too early in the day, they did have an entirely appropriate dessert—not a wedding cake, just an appropriate assortment of pies. That’s about as well as you’re going to do to honor π day!
And here we are again on π day. Unfortunately, I don’t have any celebratory pies for you. In fact, to the contrary, we’re acutely aware today of a rather sobering anniversary. As we’ve been reminded all week, Thursday was the anniversary of the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. Almost immediately, on that day a year ago, things began shutting down. Here, after numerous conversations with church leaders and medical experts, we at Federated decided either that day or the next day, March 12, that we would suspend in-person worship for the succeeding Sunday, March 15. At the time, we had no way to livestream a video worship service, so I recorded an audio meditation and we placed that on the website.
I remember thinking at the time that we might be without in-person worship for several weeks—I probably thought it would be six or eight weeks—and then we would be able to re-gather. Just how wrong could I have been! So just to be clear: never ask me for betting advice!
Then ensued a mad scramble to assemble what we needed for a video livestream. We had extraordinary help from every angle, with people working on lighting, sound, and the technical aspects of making this service available on YouTube. Since then, things have grown in remarkable ways. Members, friends, and staff of Federated have done stellar work refashioning what we do in order to offer an internet presence. In so many ways, we have grown and changed and found new avenues not only for conveying worship to and with you, but also for connecting us with each other for meetings and social support. I am unbelievably grateful to and for all of you who have made this possible, including those of you who have contributed financially to support these substantial changes. I am also, as I noted in my annual report this year, awed by the remarkable progress that has been made, from a tech standpoint over the last two decades, that enables us to provide worship and connections that we could not possibly have offered even as recently as the beginning of this millennium. And maybe most of all, my gratitude for you and your faithful presence over this past trying year is inexpressible.
All that said, though, this has been a year of challenge not only for the church, but also, and much more significantly, for the world in which we live. Over 534,000 deaths in this country alone. So many of our elders confined to facilities where they couldn’t see loved ones, with many of them dying alone. Loneliness and anxiety through the roof. Domestic violence skyrocketing. Unemployment at stratospheric levels. Countless people, mostly women, leaving their jobs to provide child-care and home schooling. Huge racial inequities in receiving care and accessing a vaccine. Depression and fatigue taking an enormous toll. The litany of this pandemic’s costs and losses is all-but-overwhelming.
Speaking just for myself, I mostly put my head down and set myself to the tasks at hand. But I also notice that I’m more tired than normal, and that tears are much closer to the surface. I weep at the accounts of those who have suffered and died. And I cry hearing the stories of those who have reached out to tend, in remarkable ways, to the need around them. That emotional fragility of so many of us is one of the consequences of lock-down and separation and death.
And if you’re like me in any of this, you may find yourself looking for ways to relieve that sense of loss and deprivation. So many of us crave just a little light in the shadows. And of course, over these recent weeks, we’ve received palpable signs of hope. Not only has that mysterious yellow orb in the sky shone its face much more, but the development of vaccines that are rapidly being administered lifts our hearts and points to a new beginning. We can see what appears to be the end of the tunnel, on a relatively near horizon.
And that’s immensely encouraging. Along with you, I celebrate the remarkable science that has developed those vaccines. At the same time, though, and without at all diminishing that prospect, I know I need something even deeper than a scientific and medical solution to the pain and dislocation of this past year. A vaccine alone won’t save us. Something of a different sort is needed.
Jesus knew that, too. Even without knowing anything about the trials we’ve undergone this past year, he knew that we hunger for something more significant than technical achievements, more over-arching than medical breakthroughs, more transcendent than practical solutions to any of our problems and challenges. Jesus knew that we thirst for living water, that we hunger for a deeper sustenance, that we crave soul food.
So as his night-time visitor, Nicodemus, pleads for the food that will truly nourish him—yearns, indeed, to be born anew, from above—Jesus speaks the simple words that have become almost a cliché in our culture, but words, at the same time, that we dare never forget. “God so loved the world,” he tells Nicodemus. And they are words that will, if we let them, change our lives.
Now you can hear that phrase in a variety of ways. When we first moved to Ohio, I thought the utility that provided our natural gas supply was “Dominion East—Ohio.” Years after we got here, I learned that it was actually “Dominion—East Ohio.” More significantly, the other night, I heard, on a rerun of Ken Burns’ vivid documentary about the Civil War, an actor reading Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. When he came to the end of that speech, I was prepared to hear it as I’ve always heard it—“government of the people, by the people, for the people.” When the man reciting it reached that point, though, he said instead, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and I heard that sentence in a way I had never heard it before.
We can do the same thing with this luminous phrase of Jesus, and hear it with different emphases: God so loved the world; God so loved the world; God so loved the world. With the first way, we are reminded that no matter what happens, there is a light that shines, a presence that embraces, a force that holds us tight: God so loved the world.
With the second way, we are assured that the way this God holds us is not some abstract and disembodied affection. What’s adored is not just some ethereal, ghost-like abstraction. What’s treasured is the world. What’s embraced is the stuff of this life. Christianity is sometimes caricatured as an other-worldly religion, as though all that matters is some heavenly reward at death. And as much as the promise of the gospel is indeed for an everlasting and peaceful paradise, the verse before us could not be clearer and more forceful in declaring that the love of God is for birds and elbows and sunny beaches and polar vortexes and shaded Metroparks trails. That love is poured into the midst of family tension and abject fear and blistering disagreements and debilitating despair and raucous laughter. God so loved the world.
The linchpin of the whole verse, though, is that middle word: God so loved the world. This is not just some abstract God who salutes the world or shakes hands with the world or nods politely at the world. This is a God who loves the world. This is a God who aches with our pain, who laughs with our joy, who rises and falls with our successes and failures. Think about the moment in your life when you felt the most loved—a spouse, a parent, a friend, a sibling, a mentor who accepted you and treasured you and made you feel incredibly special. That’s the way God is toward you and me at every single moment. This is the covenant God has bestowed upon us—to love us with a fierce loyalty all the days of our lives.
There’s one more thing, though. While God loves us with an everlasting love, there is something of an expectation that goes along with that. What’s asked of us is to “believe in” the gift of God’s holy Child, Jesus. Belief here doesn’t mean rational assent. We’re not being asked to affirm some logical proposition, like saying, “I believe the sun will rise tomorrow” or “I believe the Buckeyes will win the Big Ten championship this afternoon.” No, what we’re invited to do is to receive into our very core the love of the living Christ, the love that holds us with a tender and adoring ferocity. God so loved the world. Believe it. Take it in.
And then, as is always the case, the love of God is made full when we embody it. Three times in these verses, the word “deeds” appears, as if to ask, ‘what deeds are we doing to enact that love, what acts are we performing to spread that love, what practices are we engaging in to make that love come to life?’ The love of God comes to full fruition as we live it out, as we make it real.
Valarie Kaur is a lawyer and human rights advocate and film maker. She is also a Sikh, which, as you may know, is a monotheistic religion that originated in India, and in which men typically wear turbans. After 9/11, extremists targeted Sikhs. One of Valarie Kaur’s great friends, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a man she called “Uncle,” was one of the Sikhs murdered, when Kaur herself was twenty. Kaur, unsurprisingly, was filled with rage and grief at his murder, and lived with that for years.
Some fifteen years after Sodhi’s murder, desperate to break the logjam of that hate and grief, she returned one day to the gas station where he had been murdered. “I set down a candle in the spot where he bled to death. His brother Rana turned to me and said, ‘Nothing has changed.’ And I asked, ‘Who have we not yet tried to love?’ We decided to call the murderer in prison. The phone rings. My heart is beating in my ears. I hear the voice of Frank Roque [who had earlier vowed to “go out and kill some towel-heads,” and “kill their children, too.” When I hear Roque’s voice,] every emotional impulse in me says, ‘I can’t.’
“It becomes an act of will to wonder. ‘Why?’ I ask. ‘Why did you agree to speak with us?’ Frank says, ‘I’m sorry for what happened, but I’m also sorry for all the people killed on 9/11.’ He fails to take responsibility. I become angry to protect Rana. But Rana is still wondering about Frank, listening, [and] responds, ‘Frank, this is the first time I’m hearing you say that you feel sorry.’ Frank says, ‘Yes, I am sorry for what I did to your brother. One day, when I go to heaven, to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother, and I will hug him, and I will ask him for forgiveness.’ And Rana says, ‘We already forgave you.’
“Forgiveness is not forgetting,” says Kaur, who reminds her hearers that it took fifteen years for her to make that call. “Forgiveness is freedom from hate. Because when we are free from hate, we see the ones who hurt us not as monsters but as people who themselves are wounded, who themselves feel threatened, who don’t know what else to do with their insecurity but to hurt us, . . .. But if some of us begin to wonder about them,” then things can change. And so she learned that “we love our opponents when we tend the wound in them. . .. Just tending to it allows us to see our opponents—the terrorists, the fanatics, the demagogue. They’ve been radicalized by cultures and policies that we together can change.”
Love, she says, is not a feeling. Or maybe we should say it’s so much more than a feeling. Love “is sweet labor—fierce, bloody, imperfect, life-giving, a choice we make over and over again. . .. Revolutionary love is the choice to enter into labor for others who do not look like us, for our opponents who hurt us, and for ourselves” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ErKrSyUpEo&t=28s).
This is the love God shows to us. And it’s the love we are bid to show to each other. Remember what’s been lost over this past year, and let yourself grieve. And especially be tender with each other in the face of all that loss.
But remember also that the world will see new horizons as we live that revolutionary love—as we make it our point to reach out to the child from whom we’ve become estranged, as we extend a hand to the neighbor who is so different from us, as we listen to the story of one whose worldview may seem so alien.
Remember, this is π day—π, the mathematical representation of the mystery of the circle. The circle, as we know, has no beginning and no ending. And maybe most tellingly, it holds it all together; everything is enfolded in its embracing circumference. It’s why the primary symbol of a wedding is a ring. And great as marital love is, the love of a marriage is but an enticing hint of the love God showers upon us. And our work, our part of the covenant with God, is to dance in that circle of love. May it always be so.