God is Love. That's it.
Proper 17a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Let love be genuine… hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Have you ever faced a task beyond your ability? Have you ever been given a job that made you feel totally inadequate, one you couldn’t get out of no matter how hard you tried? Well, if you have — welcome to the Moses Club. Our Old Testament reading this morning gives us the beginning of the call and ministry of Moses — and you can see him wriggling with those same feelings of inadequacy that we do, feelings that would follow him throughout his long career as shepherd to the wearisome flock of Israel.
But what this scripture also shows us is that God has an answer for those feelings of inadequacy, those moments — or years! — of weakness and incapacity like Moses; those times of getting it just completely wrong like Peter in our Gospel today: the realization that you can’t do it alone, but you also don’t have to do it alone. Sometimes all you have to do is get out of the way and let God be God!
Now, most of us are well aware of how almost nothing we do is truly done by ourselves alone: that we all depend upon each other for virtually every aspect of our lives. As the old saying goes, If you see a turtle on the top of a fence-post, you know he didn’t get there by himself!
It is in part the joy of Christian community, as Saint Paul encourages the Romans: its members support each other with genuine love, with mutual affection, with zeal and ardent spirit serving God in each other, outdoing each other in showing honor to each other. But a big part of the good news is that it isn’t just each other we depend on — ultimately all of us and each of us depend on God, who helps and supports all of us. He does it by his presence with us, his teaching to guide us, his patience to give us time to complete the work, and the nourishment to bear the fruit God desires. And all of this is because of the love of God.
“Let love be genuine,” Saint Paul said to the Romans. We catch a glimpse of the most genuine love there is in today’s reading from the book of Exodus, when Moses encounters God in that bush that burns but is not consumed: the love of God that is an eternal flame that does not consume the inexhaustible being of God.
Love is eternal because it is reborn in every instant. Love — God’s love — is always now. This is especially true when you compare love to the other two theological virtues, as they are called, faith and hope. remember what St Paul said? “...these three, faith hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.” Faith looks to the past, and gives thanks for all that God has done. Hope looks to the future and trusts that God will provide. But love lives in the present, if it lives at all.
After all, it is no good telling someone you loved them once, or that you’ll love them some day — who wants to hear that? And even hearing someone say, “I have always loved you” or “I will always love you” wouldn’t mean anything unless the one saying it loves you now. Love, true love, is eternal because it is alive in every moment. Love is a fire that burns, but does not consume.
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Moses confronted that love that day he was keeping his father-in-law’s sheep, living as a stranger in a strange land. The God of love chose to reveal himself to Moses for one reason: he had heard the cry of his people in Egypt, and would deliver them, because he loved them, because they were his. The eternal love of God became, in that particular time and place, (as it always does in every time and place) the present love of God in action. The God of faith that was past, the faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, their faith in God; the God of the hope for the future, that God would visit his people and take them and deliver them out of Egypt; the eternal and everlasting love of God would be revealed on that mountain — as God reveals himself as the God who is love, burning but not consuming: the one who was, and who is, and who is to come — is always Love. As Saint John would affirm many centuries later, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Some theologians have focused on this story of the burning bush, and the Name that God tells Moses to call him by, as a way of emphasizing God as pure Being, He Who Is, or “Being itself.” I would like to suggest that Saint John’s description is more apt — rather than get involved in the debate about the nature of being, simply declare that God is love. And that when we love we are most like God.
When Moses complains to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” God responds, “I will be with you.” In other words, God is assuring Moses that he isn’t going this alone. God will be with him. And as a sign of his presence, God — after a little bit of needling from Moses — tells Moses his name, which is I AM , or in Hebrew Ehyeh.
Now Hebrew, unlike English, doesn’t have tenses, at least not in the way English does. (I hope you’ll pardon this Hebrew grammar lesson, because it is important if we are to understand God’s Name; because it doesn’t translate very easily into English, and I can hardly think of anything more important, given this reading!) Instead of past, present and future, Hebrew verbs have only two forms called perfect and imperfect: the perfect describes an action that is completed and finished. It’s the “been there and done that” of language. The imperfect, on the other hand, describes an action either that was repeated or continuous in the past, or something that is happening now that hasn’t yet finished, or that is going to happen in the future. It might seem odd to think of God referring to himself using the imperfect. After all, we always think of God as perfect! But the difference in language is that perfect is dead — it’s the past, it’s done; it’s finished. What God is saying to Moses is that he is without end — there is always more to God. We can plumb the depths and think we’ve understood God, but we’ve only touched the surface, the outer edges of God’s being. God is without end; never finished.
This imperfect form of the language is what God uses when he says I AM WHO I AM: in Hebrew, Ehyeh asher ehyeh. This not only means “I am who I am,” but, “I have always been what I have always been,” and “I will be what I will be” or “I am now what I have always been and will be.” All of this is summed up in this name: and what a wonderful way to know the name of the eternal that has always been, is now, and ever shall be.
This is God’s Name, and it assures us of the kind of presence we can rely on in our weakness or our inadequacy. Not just someone who “is there for you” but someone who has always been there for you and always will be there — for you, and with you now: whose very name means Eternal Being Present. Truly, our help is in the Name of the Lord: the eternally present helper.
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My brother in Christ Thomas Bushnell made a fine observation about this not too long ago, in relation to what I said about those three virtues of faith, hope, and love. He pointed out that while we are called to have all three — faith, hope and love — there is a reason for love being the greatest, and being an attribute of God’s own Being. We have faith, but God does not need to have faith — God is the object of our faith. We have hope, but God doesn’t need hope; God knows what is to come better than we do! Faith and hope belong to us relate us to God, because we have faith in God and hope for God’s plans for us; but love is the means by which we reflect God’s own being, as mirrors or likenesses of God, made in God’s image; and this responding love joins us to God; for God not only has love, the love we have for God, the genuine love that we have for each other and for God, joins us to God. For God not only has love, but as Saint John says, God is Love; and whoever loves abides in God, and God abides in them.
After all, as St Paul assures us in his Letter to the Corinthians, in that famous passage so often heard at both weddings and funerals (and what better places are there to be reminded of the power of God who is love!): Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love believes all things; it has faith. Love hopes all things — it includes both faith and hope — but love endures because it is embodied in the eternal nature of God, and it is through love that we are joined to one another and to God. That love of God is eternal — it burns forever, and never consumes the source of its flame.
When you feel week, when you feel inadequate, when you feel you’ve been given a task you can’t possibly even begin to undertake, trust in that love, my friends in Christ; the love that God shows to you and through each of you to each other. It will raise you up from being a member of the Moses Club to being an eternal life-long member of the communion of God: in whose name we pray, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.+