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Leviticus 26:12
Hosea 11:1-4
1 John 4:7-12, 18-21
Matthew 22:34-40
John 13:34-35

         Not long after I became your pastor, a longtime faithful member of this church invited me to his home for lunch so that we could begin getting to know each other. The meal was delicious, the conversation easy and interesting, and it felt to me like the beginning of a warm relationship.

         And then this thoughtful person shifted in his seat a little uncomfortably, and announced that he had a request:

         Would I please stop talking about God so much?

         Now, if you’ve been part of First Church Amherst for any time at all, you can probably guess the short version of my response—because I still talk about God. A lot.

         But here’s the thing: This church member and I still have a warm relationship based on mutual affection and respect. This church member still listens carefully to my sermons, and sometimes we talk about them.

         All of which is to say: I am fully aware of the many preposterous—or hard to believe, at least—tenets of Christian faith. I also realize that there is among us a very wide spectrum of spiritual belief, understanding, and practice, and that, for some of us, anyway, the idea of a personal God is simply too far-fetched.

         I can’t honestly say that I “get” that, but I fully respect that perspective.

         And yet—color me weak or old-fashioned, theologically unsophisticated or spiritually underdeveloped—I do think of God in personal terms. Not as an old white man with a long white beard, mind you, and not as any kind of human being, actually, but as a vast and incomprehensible spiritual being whose multifaceted, mysterious essence is Love, and whose power, presence, and purpose is all about relationship. I hereby confess that I believe in a God who listens and cares, a God who loves and bears love’s scars, a God who creates and empowers, gives and sustains, heals and transforms, does justice and makes peace.

         And, at the same time, I know my concept of God is incomplete, if not downright wrong. I know that, short of Jesus of Nazareth, who for me is God with skin on, and countless other Spirit-bearers who have and continue to live out the extravagant love of God throughout history and even now, even here, much of my sense of the Holy One is based on metaphor.

         But, oh, how thankful I am for the many metaphors in our scriptures and what they tell me about the mystery that I call God. They tell me that God is love, they tell me how God loves, they tell me that God longs to be in relationship with us, and they tell me that God loves us in and through relationship.

         Think about some of the many relational metaphors in our scriptures:

         God as good shepherd. God as rock. God as a stream in the desert. God as wind and breath. God as deliverer. God as light. God as power. God as freedom. God as wholeness. God as love-sick suitor, overcome with passion. God as proud parent. God as long-suffering, heartbroken parent. God as father. God as mother. God as mother hen. God as holy companion. God as king. God as a mighty fortress. God as helpless baby. God as washer of feet. God as suffering servant. God as  sacrifice. God as martyr. God as life that is stronger than death. God as bread broken and wine poured out. God as ever-presence.

         This, our scriptures tell us, this, Jesus says, is how God loves the world: in relationship. This is how God loves creation. With care. This is how God loves you. And me. And every single person. And every living thing.

         Personally. Completely. Unreservedly. Selflessly. Passionately. Tenderly. Graciously. Extravagantly. Fearlessly. Without exception. Without letting go. Without end.

         Because that is what love does, and God is love.

         This is the Love from which nothing and no one can separate us—neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.

         Not that divine Love—like anyone who’s ever been in any kind of relationship—might not sometimes want a little separation, a little space, a little relief from the human tendency to look for love in all the wrong places. Not that divine Love might sometimes grieve our unfaithfulness. And yet God just can’t quit us.

         Hear again the word of God as spoken by the prophet Hosea:

         When you were a child, I loved you. I delivered you and called you my beloved.

         But the more I did for you, the more you distanced yourself from me. You kept going after other gods and breaking my heart.

         Still, I couldn’t stop loving you. After all, I was the one who taught you to walk. I was there when you took your first step and said your first word. I delighted in you.

         You don’t remember, but when you scraped your knee and when your friends called you names, I was the one who wrapped you in my arms. I was the one who held you close and kissed you where it hurt. I was the one who tossed you up into the air and caught you as you giggled. I was the one who bent down to feed you with the finest food.

         And I am still here. I will always be with you. I will always love you.

         I invite you this morning to let your heart be opened and moved by such divine tenderness. I dare you this Lent to let yourself be loved like this—to let yourself be held and nurtured, healed and fed—for this is how God loves the world, with God’s very being.

         This is love, says the author of First John, not that we loved God but that God loved us. And we are able to love only because God first loved us.

         This is the Love that keeps the world spinning. This is the Love that creates all good things. This is the Love that kindles and sustains the inner fire called Life.

         The life of faith is all about relationship—with the Holy, with one another, with all creation. The life of faith is all about love—love for God, love for self, love for our neighbors, love for our enemies, love for all living things.

         And loving relationship is a wonderful place to find and experience the love of God. Just as nature reveals the majesty of our Creator God, various kinds of relationship reveal the tenderness of a personal God who longs for us and walks with us. Parents and children. Siblings. Life partners and lifelong friends. Teammates. Co-conspirators. Families by blood and families by choice. Companions in the struggle for justice.

         This is the ever-loving good news. And this is the no-getting-around-it news.

         Because everyone who’s ever sat vigil at a loved one’s death bed knows that love will hurt, eventually. Everyone who’s ever loved a child knows that love will ask far more of you than you knew you had or thought you could give—again and again and again. Everyone who’s ever walked with a life partner as they lose every memory knows that love will break you open and break you down. Everyone who’s ever loved another knows that love is hard work as well as great joy. Everyone who’s watched a beloved walk out the door knows that love can bring you to your knees. And everyone who’s ever struggled and sacrificed for an answer or a relationship or a justice or a victory or a cure that didn’t come knows that love can break your heart.

         And this is how we know who we are: by loving. This is how we become who we are meant to be: in relationship. This is how we are healed and delivered: by Love.

         By grace, by God, by Love.

         Thanks be to the God who loves relationship. Thanks be to the God who loves us, now and always.