Sermon: How Wide; How Long?

I don't call my parents often enough. When they call me, I don't even pick up the phone often enough. This is not a recent revelation on my part, everyone in my family knows this about me. And I say that as a confession, not as a boast. I should call more often. I want to call more often. I don't have any good reason for being a flake of a son. I love my parents; I give my folks credit for almost everything in me that I like about myself, and I have the particular blessing that there are few people in the world that I can talk to as easily and joyfully. The last time I was at their house was in April. I had been asked to do a wedding in Birmingham, and I said yes because it seemed like a great excuse to go stay with my folks. On the day of the wedding, I showed up 15 minutes late for pictures with my shoes untied because I just couldn't pull myself away from home and the happy conversation we were having. (Please note, I was late for pictures, the wedding itself started right on time). That night after the wedding was done, I came back to the house to pack my stuff, and as I headed out the door Mom and Dad both gave me big hugs and said "Call soon." The words are a familiar part of our goodbyes, and the look in their eyes was equally familiar - the look that said "it means so much when you do." There was a time when that look would have been a terrible burden for me. It can be a terrifying thing to realize how much you mean to someone. The distance between love and a guilt trip is perilously short. And I want to be clear, it is terrifying in the best possible case. Today, I'm not dealing with the worst case scenarios. I’m not talking about what happens when someone loves their ideal of you. Sometimes a parent loves their ideal of a child more than the child itself; sometimes a lover loves "being in love" more than their beloved; sometimes a pastor loves what the church should be more than the church itself; sometimes the church loves the image of a pastor rather than the person of their pastor. All of these are the worst case scenarios - all of these are idol-worship and blasphemy. Serving someone's idol is exhausting and suffocating; those burdens weigh us all the way down to the ground. But that's not what we're talking about today. Today we're talking about the real thing. And with love, even the real thing can be terrifying in its own way. Even when love is spoken with the most compassionate intention, we turn in into an obligation: They say "I love you" and we hear - "call me." They say "I love you," and we hear - "cut me some slack" They say "I love you" - and we hear "you are ridiculous to be so angry." There is no love so pure that we cannot turn it into an obligation or a burden of shame. My parents are wise, and they understand this. And so, when my folks say 'Call soon' they don't say "Call soon; we love you so much." They often tell me they love me, but they put the “I love you” in a different part of the conversation. Or they let it show in their eyes. It is so difficult to let someone know that we love them, that we want to be with them, that we miss them, without wielding that love as a weapon against them. Our love is fierce and it is strong, but the hearts of those we love are fragile and easily frightened. I want you to consider that this paradox is just as tricky for God. How can God love us in such a way that we won't receive it as a burden? How can God say "i love you, I love you, I love you" without us hearing "So be better, straighten up, stop letting me down.” I think that is the mystery behind all those times in the Bible that people are afraid to look in the face of God. I think if we saw the unfiltered love shining in God's face, we couldn't bear it. If we saw the love in God's eyes, the tears in our own would never, ever stop. This is not God's fault, it's our weakness. Our ears cannot handle how loudly God wants to shout "I love you." And so, instead, God says it through other people. God intends to say it through the church. That is the only way I can make sense of what Paul prays in Ephesians today. First, Paul says that God has already recognized all people in earth and heaven. Paul doesn't pray that God will love all people - that is already done. It's accomplished. But then Paul says something that seems to me to be very strange. Paul says "I ask that God will strengthen you. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts. I ask that you will have the power to comprehend how wide and long and high and deep God's love is." This is a strange prayer. Paul is asking God to do what God already wants to do. Paul is saying "God, help these people to understand how much you love them." Meanwhile, surely God is saying "If only these people could understand how much I love them." But we can't. We can't understand. Not directly. We are not yet real enough to accept all the love God has to give, and so God has to give it indirectly, piece by piece, through other people's prayers. Prayer, like love, remains for me one of our faith's greatest mysteries. I don't have a firm grasp of how and why prayer works in the world. I cannot believe that our prayers do much to change God's mind. The last thing the world needs is a God who does whatever I want. I cannot believe that my prayers make God more active in the pain and the needs of the world. It's not as if God is sitting on the sidelines waiting for me to pray - "Hey, get your head in the game." And yet. I pray. I shout at God, I plead with God. I beg God. I thank God and I praise God. I confess to God things that God has already known for a very long time. And in the praying, I have experienced God's presence. I have seen bodies and souls change in big and small ways that I can't account for in anyway except to say that a prayer was answered. When someone joins this congregation the first commitment we ask of them is that they promise to pray for one another. We don't do this because we think our prayers are a magic joystick by which we can manipulate God's creation. As best as I can tell, we pray because that is part of how God makes us the church. When you pray for your neighbor, you are saying "God loves you, right here. right now. in the midst of whatever terrifies you, whatever hurts you, whatever disappoints you about your own self. God loves you." God is trying to shout "I love you," but instead God lets us say it, in a voice and volume that human ears can bear. Every prayer we offer is a whisper that says “The love of God.” Fallen as we are, we aren’t usually ready to greet love head on. We come to accept love indirectly. The best parenting advice I ever heard was at a men's retreat when a man said "The best thing you can do for your kids is love their mother well. Whether you're divorced or married, treat her with respect, and your kids will learn about love and respect by osmosis.” I would add that anyone who wants to love a spouse well should cultivate friendships with other people who will support that marriage. Befriend people who help you see when you are loved well. And anyone who wants to cultivate real friendships shouldn’t start too directly, either. Don’t start by saying “I love you; let’s be friends.” Grow comfortable with both small talk and with silence and with all the indirect ways that we love one another. And we should all grow comfortable with prayer. Because prayer is the way that we love each other while placing the burden of that love in God's hands. Prayer allows us to love each other without burdening each other, without coercing each other, without demanding that our neighbor give in to the tyranny of our love. And in the same way, prayer allows God to love the world through us. The church exists to make the world strong enough to understand God’s love. Because none of us start out with any ability to understand that kind of love. We come to it piece by piece, indirectly. I've heard some folks tell me that they never realized how God loves them until they had a child of their own. I should confess here that I did not have that experience. When Elsa was born and Jenn and I became parents for the first time, we loved her at first sight, but the overwhelming lesson I learned was fear. I remember thinking, "This child too important to put in my hands." I don't imagine God loves me in that way. I don’t even think my own father loves me in that way. I remember calling him once while Elsa was sleeping in her crib and asking "Did you ever feel like you just weren't ready?” The silence hung for a moment, and then Dad said. "No. I remember feeling really happy. But I don’t remember feeling that way. But remember, I was older than you are now. I'm sure you'll grow into it.” Thanks, Dad. Good talk. Glad we understand each other. But sure enough, the years passed and the fear receded. About this time last year, Jenn and I found ourselves in a freshman dorm room with Laken, the newest, eldest child that God had planted in our hearts. We found ourselves saying words I’ve heard so many times before - "call soon." And even as we said them we were hoping for that call, and hoping at the same time that this new moment in life would be too full and wonderful, and that time to call would not come too easily. And as we drove away, I looked down many years to come, realizing that we would be saying “call soon” for the rest of our lives, to increasing numbers of children. There will never be so many visits or calls that we will get tired of them. There will never be “enough.” Even so, there will come a time when we have to stop speaking, when even our best intentions will make our love overbearing. And some portion of love must go unsaid. They'll have to learn it indirectly. As we drove away, I found myself praying with many more tears than usual. And then I began to sob, to think someone would pray thus for me. I realized what depth of love lay behind all those "call soons." And now, I learn that all those prayers - any prayer that has ever been offered for you - has been just a whisper of what God is trying to shout:

HOW LONG! HOW WIDE! HOW HIGH! HOW DEEP!

They need to understand this! So let us pray:

Almighty God you know our neeeds before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things for which we do not even dare to ask, and for which in our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.