Sunday, May 25, 2003

Easter After Tremors:
The Call to Love
First John 5:1-6

(Shared with the people of Friendship Church, May 25, 2003)

The whole thing began thirteen months earlier when young John Blanchard, about to ship off for duty with the Army during World War Two, went to a public library in Florida and checked out a book. He liked the book. But even more interesting to him were the notes penciled into its margins. Both the notes and the handwriting suggested a person of insight and thoughtfulness. In the front of the book, he found who had last borrowed the book, a woman named Hollis Maynell.

With determined effort, John Blanchard was able to find Miss Hollis Maynell’s address. She lived in New York City. John sent her a note and asked if she would be interested in corresponding. For thirteen months, they wrote to one another constantly and a romance blossomed. John asked Hollis for a photograph, but she refused. She told him that if he really cared, it wouldn’t matter what she looked like.

For John's return from Europe, they had arranged to meet for the first time at 7:00 one evening in Grand Central Station. “You’ll recognize me,” Hollis had written, “by the red rose I’ll be wearing in my lapel.” At the appointed time, John looked over the throngs of people “for a girl whose heart he loved, but whose face he’d never seen.”

Soon, he caught sight of a beautiful young woman with blonde hair, wearing a stunning green suit. She was gorgeous and John moved toward her without noticing that she wasn’t wearing a red rose. When they practically stood next to each other, the blonde affected a provocative smile as she asked John, “Going my way, sailor?”

It was then that John saw another woman wearing a red rose in her lapel. She was almost directly behind the girl. She was probably twice John’s age. She wore graying hair tucked under her hat. She was plump, had thick ankles, and looked matronly. John ached as from the corner of his eye, he saw the girl in the green suit walk away.

John did what he needed to do. He walked over to this woman whose words—first in the margins of a book and then in a yearlong correspondence—had so won his heart. “I’m Lieutenant John Blanchard,” he said, “and you must be Miss Maynell. I am so glad to meet you; may I take you to dinner?”

The woman smiled. “I don’t know what this is about, son,” she said, “but the young lady in the green suit who just went by...begged me to wear a rose on my coat. And she said [that] if you were to ask me about dinner, I should...tell you that she is waiting for you in the big restaurant across the street. She said it was some kind of test.”

Jesus was once asked what the greatest of God’s commands are. He said that it’s to love God and to love neighbor [Matthew 10:34-40]. That answer summarizes the meaning and theme of every commandment God has given. We’re called to love as we have been loved, even those we find unlovable [Matthew 5:47; First John 4:11]. I think that Hollis Maynell was a wise young woman because she realized that love isn’t worthy of the name if we aren’t willing to share it with everyone.

Our Bible lesson for today tells us:

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments...”

You and I have a strained relationship with our heavenly Father when we refuse to love all His other kids. Hollis Maynell tested John Blanchard’s love that day in Grand Central Station. The test of our relationship with God, which we confront every day, is our willingness to obey God by loving others.

I say willingness because none of us is perfect. If you think that you can wake up tomorrow morning and say, “Okay, God, this morning I resolve to be completely loving” and that you’ll be successful, you’re in for a big disappointment. The Bible says that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23]

But God will take a willing person and lovingly—sometimes painfully—teach us to obey His call to love [Hebrews 12:7]. The closer a person grows to Jesus, the more they find that in sometimes understated ways, Jesus nudges them to obey His call to love.

And when we heed that call, good things happen. Some of you have heard me tell a true story I read a few years ago that came from a letter sent by a young person who had attended a Christian rock concert. She wrote to one of the performers to explain that before some classmates had dragged her to the concert, she had decided that on that very night, she would take her life. “Your concert saved my life,” she wrote. “I decided not only that I would not take my life, but that I would also follow Christ.” What changed that young woman’s life wasn’t anything the artist had said, either in his music or between songs. At some point in the concert, playing his guitar, the artist had looked into the face of that desperate young woman and he had smiled. In that simple, sincere smile, she had seen the kindness of God. She was loved back to life. That’s what Jesus did for us on the cross. Our call is to grow so close to Him that we become conduits for His love to reach others, even in things as simple as a smile.

Jesus’ call for us to love includes those we can’t stand. That isn’t an easy thing. But I have a little secret to share with you. I call it the Pastor’s Silent Prayer. You don’t have to be a pastor to pray it, although I’m sure it was a pastor who first did so.

Before sharing it with you though, I have to make a little confession. It’s this: I am human. I have a full complement of faults. I’m a sinner. I also have my own personality traits and characteristics. While I’m a people person who tends to like most people very well, through the years I’ve also learned that there are some people I like more than others. There are also people who like me and people who don’t like me. Because of my sinful nature, I find that I want to spend time with and love only the people I like and who like me. But Jesus has called us to love all people. So, when I’m put into situations where I have to be with people I don’t like, I say my little silent prayer, “Lord: Love these people through me. Don’t let me get in the way of their experiencing Your love.” I’ve found that Jesus answers that prayer.

Maybe that’s what John, the writer of our Bible lesson for this morning is getting at when he says, after looking at the sin and selfishness that pervades our world:

“...whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

We may be imperfect. But the powerful love of God, poured into the lives of those with faith in Jesus Christ, trumps and overcomes all our flaws and sins. God patiently works with the willing follower of Jesus to transform them into the loving people they were made to be. God made each of us to be indispensable members of a single human family knit together by His love. His love is so powerful that He can even use the willing Jesus-follower to love people they might find unlovable.

I sometimes get angry with myself. I feel like a spoiled son of God. He has lavished so much love, forgiveness, and grace on me. Yet I find myself forming harsh judgments of others and failing to extend love to others. Jesus commands me to love; but I can be cold and loveless. What I have to remember is that, in the words of the Bible, while we live this life, we only see through a mirror dimly [First Corinthians 13:12]. God isn’t finished with any of us yet. I guess I need to remember how loving my God is. He even loves me when I fail to love. He loves me when He upbraids me and condemns me for my lovelessness.

On his deathbed, the painter Jean Renoir spoke of the use of light and color in his art and then referring to the lessons he’d learned, uttered his last words, spoken as an elderly man. He said, “I think I’m beginning to see...” On earth, we will never fully see what it means to be the loving person Christ died to make it possible for us to become. But I am convinced that the best lives are lived by those who, being born of Christ, spend their lives learning how to love.

[The true story of Hollis Maynell and John Blanchard is re-told by Max Lucado in Stories for the Heart. The true story of the teen who wrote a rock musician is something that I read more than a decade ago and I can’t remember where I read it; I do remember that the artist was Eddie DeGarmo, who went on to become a recording industry executive who developed such artists as dcTalk, among others. The story of Jean Renoir, which in my original message and in the original post of it, I identified as Marc Chagall is cited in Alan Loy McGinnis' book Confidence. I couldn't find the book at the time I was preparing the message and am now able to correctly identify the artist who uttered these words at the time of his death.]