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Fourth Sunday in Easter: “Paying Attention”
1 John 3:16-24
What would be your reaction if you were asked to preach a sermon on love? Would that be the easiest topic you could imagine? Or the most challenging? If you’re like me, you might swing back and forth between those two sentiments. But, I’ll admit, having drawn this preaching card this morning, I’m glad it was the Ace of Hearts—and not the Ace of Spades (sin).
So, to begin, I’m a big fan of the TV series “Mad Men.” Any other fans? It follows the world of Madison Avenue advertising from 1960 into the 1970’s, particularly through the experience of the genius creative director Don Draper. In the last episode, his copywriters presented him with a tag line for a new peanut butter cookie: “Peter Pan Peanut Butter Lovers Love Tinkerbell Cookies More than All Others.”
Don Draper groans and rolls his eyes, “Jesus, love again.” And his account executive Pete says, equally bored but on the defensive, “We use it all the time.”
Isn’t that true? And a refreshing admission coming from inside Madison Avenue? We’re sold this word love in so many forms—in thousands of ads, books, songs, magazines, websites, TV shows, movies. We find it at the heart of many philosophical and theological systems—including our own. Gary Chapman, author of the book The Five Love Languages, contends, “Love is the most important word in the English language—and the most confusing. . . . We use it in a thousand ways” (just as the ad men note).
“I love peanut butter cookies.” “I love my mother.” “I love skiing.” “I love spring.” “I love . . . my lover.”
Is this word just too exhausted or too unclear for us to understand what the First Epistle of John is actually asking us to do: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action”?
Well, I’m willing with great humility—and with the help of some brain science, the power of the 23rd Psalm, and the legacy of my mother’s wisdom—to examine this meaning of love with you. (When in doubt, quote your mother on love.)
First, the brain science. For this, I rely on Karen Armstrong, one of the most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world and the author of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which we’re exploring in our Sunday Forums this Easter season. Armstrong claims, “We humans are more radically dependent on love than any other species.” And she backs this claim with the science about how “our brains have evolved to be caring and to need care.”
Clearly, the form of love Armstrong is talking about here is not one sold us as a commodity or a concept in today’s marketplace. The form of love she references is the archetypal and universal expression of love: the one between mother and child.
Over millennia, warm-blooded mammals learned to protect, nourish, and nurture their young: at first through rudimentary, automatic care; then through more complex behaviors that ensured their genetic success and led to the evolution of more complex, bigger brain systems. As Armstrong describes, this was a foundation for more than the survival of Homo sapiens. In her words, “Maternal affection . . . in all likelihood gave birth to our capacity for unselfish, unconditional altruism. It may well be that the experience of teaching, guiding, soothing, protecting, and nourishing their young taught men and women how to look after people other than their own kin—developing a concern that was not based on cold calculation but imbued with warmth.”
Let me repeat that list of behaviors: Teaching. Guiding. Soothing. Protecting. Nourishing. These are specific practices of love—that we as the “little children” of John’s Epistle immediately respond to. These primal behaviors not only warm our hearts. They have a profound physical effect on us: producing feelings of peace, security, and well-being; and activating hormones like oxytocin that induce a sense of closeness to others. We as humans have been created for love—and to respond to love—at a deep level, in these behaviors, in action.
I wonder if you also hear in this list of our fundamental love behaviors the essence of the Good Shepherd in the 23rd Psalm—the One we call Our Lord. This psalm has a depth of power unlike any other I know. How many of you could call to mind any other psalm by number alone? How many of you have memorized this poetry at some point in your life? Or have used it as a lullaby for a frightened child, a comfort for the anxious, a blessing for the deceased? This psalm has a unique power to express and define love.
We hear in these verses all the qualities of the universal Divine Mother/Father that we yearn for: Teaching us to rest and be still. Guiding us in the right direction. Soothing us when afraid. Nourishing us with food, an overflowing cup, a gentle anointing. Protecting us when in danger, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
We all long for our souls to be revived. And this Psalm invites us into a reciprocal, warm, vitalizing love relationship with the Good Shepherd. This is what love looks like. This is what it feels like, this poet says. And we hear its truth, straight to the heart.
Here I offer my earthly mother Jane’s definition of love, which I believe is at the heart of the Good Shepherd’s relationship to us: “Love is paying attention.” Above all, the Divine Mother/Father gives us complete, undivided, unconditional, unwavering, loving attention. The way an attentive shepherd watches his sheep.
That’s the Good Shepherd’s ultimate job description. That’s the meaning of his devotion. That’s the Shepherd’s everlasting promise: to watch over us—in this life and beyond.
Our part? We are asked to listen to the Shepherd’s voice of love. And I humbly suggest that means for us to follow his example—“not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
To teach, guide, soothe, nourish, and protect the most vulnerable among us. To pay attention to the needs of others: not just to those already within our circle, our flock. As we hear in the voice of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: “If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? After all even sinners love those who love them.”
If we are to love in truth and action—as followers of Jesus, as followers of the Good Shepherd—we are called to tap into our innate compassion. To pay attention to those we may ignore in our community: the homeless, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lonely, the ones walking in the valley of the shadow of death.
If you don’t see these neighbors, just ask those working all along the North Shore. Through United for Action, through Project MANA, through the Family Resource Centers, through our Outreach Committee. Little children, these brothers and sisters are among us and need our compassionate care.
What is love? It is the essence of our humanity. It is the essence of our God. It is paying attention. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada
April 26, 2015