This past Tuesday I joined a group of fellow United Methodist clergy at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in West Baltimore. We met for an hour in the basement of the church, where earlier in the day children had found a place to be on a day of no school and where volunteers from all over had prepared and delivered meals for 500 people. After we met, our little group drove a few blocks, first to New Shiloh Baptist Church and then to Ames Memorial UMC, on the edge of Sandtown, just a couple blocks south of North Avenue. Once out of our cars, we walked north up Pennsylvania Avenue. We stopped and joined a sidewalk worship service in front of Simmons Memorial Baptist Church. Then we walked the rest of the way to North Avenue to join a crowd of a thousand or more people demonstrating peacefully in front of the burned-out CVS.
The scene on North Avenue was joyful and disquieting at the same time. On the west end of the block was an unmoving line of police officers standing shoulder to shoulder, shield to shield, dressed in full riot gear. Hovering overhead were several police helicopters. One circled regularly only a hundred feet above us; the others were further up and away. Flanked the streets were journalists from all over the world: television crews, cameramen, newspaper reporters, interviewing and taping and taking notes. And in the middle of the street, in the midst of all these outside influences, were people who clearly belonged to this neighborhood. And they weren’t screaming or throwing rocks or setting cars on fire. They were dancing. With all their strength, they were dancing. A drum corps, playing as loud as anything I have heard in my life, accompanied them as they moved up and down the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues. Children and teenagers. Boys and girls. Almost surrounded by a police force they do not trust and journalists ready to call them thugs and delinquents, they danced over and over, beautifully, powerfully, fearlessly.
Friends, a lot of nonsense about the City of Baltimore has shown up in the news this past week. Some it has come from journalists, some from talking heads, and some from politicians and government officials. But I went down on Wednesday to bear witness to the truth. That’s what we’re about, as Christians: we bear witness to the truth. And the truth is this. In Sandtown and Penn North and Druid Hills, the love of God is on the move, breathing life into communities on the verge of death. The love of God was at work in worshipers who stood in the streets to sing and pray. The love of God was at work in clergy and gang members who gathered together to talk children back to their homes Monday night. The love of God was at work in a city councilman who dared to call the media out on its thinly veiled racism. And the love of God certainly was at work in those passionate dancers. Yes, the spirit of antichrist, in the negative stream of reporting and the ill-chosen words of so many and the way some seemed to hope for a heavy-handed crackdown, stole the spotlight. But the Holy Spirit, the Love of God, the Spirit of Christ, was perfecting love this week in Baltimore City.
Love is maybe the worst word in the Christian vocabulary. It is a horrible word, a word that distracts us from the demands Christ makes upon our lives, a word that offers us false comfort when we decide that we will only follow Jesus so far. So often we fall back on the word love the way a recovering addict runs back to his dealer at the start of a relapse. We sentimentalize love to death; we hollow the word out until the only thing left is a vaguely nice feeling; we chase a love that asks nothing and promises everything. There are days when I’d like to just throw the word out entirely, ban it.
But my favorite passage in all of Scripture—and it’s been my favorite for 25 years and counting now—is 1 John 4:7-8: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Because we have sentimentalized the word love to death, most of us most of the time believe love and knowledge have very little to do with one another. We think that if you have strong feelings about God, then you love him. And if you have lots of book-learning about God, then you know him. And once we buy into this split, most of us choose one or the other. We tend to harbor a lot of contempt for people who choose differently from us. But there are some things you can only know about God if you love him passionately. And there some ways you can only love God if you use the intellect he has given to study and think and understand as best you can.
Because, as John tell us, God is love. God is love, so God’s love comes before we can destroy the word love with all our useless babbling. God’s love shows up in Jesus Christ, demanding that we love real people, people who are hard to love, who challenge us, who are angry and complicated. God’s love binds us together with such difficult people, and God’s love insists that we proclaim the good news to others so that we can have a bond with them, too. God’s love even dares to suggest that you might be the difficult person. God’s love doesn’t care about your sentimental feelings, because God’s love delivers cold, hard truths about God, about you, and about this world.
God’s love comes first, so that you and I are not lovers of God, we are beloved by God. Our love, if it is to be anything more than a false comfort or a drug of choice, is and can only be a response to the love we receive from God the Father in Christ Jesus the Son through the Holy Spirit. This is why humility comes before love. Humility is living your life as a response to a gift. In Jesus Christ we have been offered God’s love, the greatest gift anyone could ever want, which means that if we want to love as God loves us, we need to be humble beyond all measure.
In Baltimore last week I witnessed a complicated love: a love that was joyful and exuberant and repentant and sorrowful and angry and outraged and agitated and peaceful. And this is a far cry closer to the love of God than our strong feelings or even John Wesley’s heart strangely warmed. There is no difference in God between truth and love and justice and anger and righteousness and peace. We can’t divide God up into little bits and say, “This part of God is love”; “That part is just”; “This bit is angry”; or “This much is righteous.” God is one, and God is love.
Now maybe some of you think I’m just trying to be provocative or that I’ve got an agenda. I do have an agenda: I’m bearing witness to you this morning so that you and I might share a common bond, with each other and with our brothers and sister in Baltimore City. And the common bond we share is the Holy Spirit, the Love of God in Person, who unites us in truth with the Father and the Son and the whole body of Christ. Sharing a common bond, being church together, means wrestling with a difficult love and being confronted by truths the Spirit will not allows us to escape.
So I invite to come to the table this morning where difficult love and difficult truth are poured out on us and on the gifts of bread and wine, uniting us with Christ, with each other, and in ministry to all the world. Come ready to receive; come willing to give. Friends, I went to Baltimore to witness to the truth and love of God at work in the city. Maybe you’ve had trouble seeing truth and love this week. Maybe you’ve been looking for the wrong kind of truth or the wrong kind of love. Come, and receive healing for your vision. Come, and have your sight restored. Then go, and bear witness by your words and your lives to real love and real truth, united in and by the one true God who is love; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.