Love in Translation
by Louise Westfall
Today’s text contains the very first Bible verse I could read and translate from its original language. Agapatoi, may panti pne-u-mati piste-u-ete, alla dokima-zeh-teh ta pne-u-mata aye ek tou Theou estin. Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God… Don’t be too impressed, because it’s standard fare in Greek 101. The syntax, structure, and vocabulary are among the simplest in all of Scripture. Turns out translating it is easy…but practicing it?—not so much! A reading from the first letter of John, in the fourth chapter, reading verses 7 through 21. Listen for God’s word to the people God loves, which is to say, all of us. [I John 4:7-21]
Simple, right? God is love. We love because God first loves us…so much. Love removes fear and judgment. Love is God. Loving God and loving other people go hand-in-hand. Ah! It’s a lovely text.
…Until you try translating into action; until you realize its scope; until you encounter someone who seems entirely unlovable. In fact it would help this sermon a lot if you would bring to mind the face of someone who for you fits that description. My own picture is of someone I’ve never met but who spews what I regard to be lies and hatred continuously from his popular news platform. I confess the picture of him mars the beauty of the foundation of my faith: that God loves people. Loves indiscriminately, pouring it out upon righteous and rebel, proud and profane, humble and harried, outliers and regular old liars. God loves Tucker Carlson and whoever came to your mind. And God loves you and me; everybody.
It’s shocking, really. But unavoidable, if this text is to be believed. People of faith do not have the luxury of carrying anything but goodwill toward…anyone. Look, we don’t have to like them. We don’t have to agree with them or let their words and deeds go unchallenged. But because God has first loved us, we are called to seek their well-being and appreciate the love of God in them and for them. I stand here guilty as charged, but determined to do better.
Because it’s this shocking truth, friends, that can change the world.
A recent NY Times article is a glimpse of how. The banner headline read They Overcame Mutual Loathing, and Saved a Town. “Loathing” is not too strong a word to describe the fear and anger between loggers and environmentalists in the timber town of John Day, Oregon, after an environmental lawyer from Portland, Susan Jane Brown, had halted logging in local national forests by suing to protect endangered animal species. The sawmill, largest employer in John Day, was threatened with closure. As angry as they were over this serious threat to their livelihoods, a delegation including loggers and the sawmill owner, John Shelk approached Brown and invited her to go with them into the forest. She admits she was a little scared (and took a large friend as a bodyguard) but went and eventually they spent three days together, visiting forests and discussing the pros and cons of tree-cutting. “It was very tense,” she remembers, but as they talked frankly each side was surprised to find the other not entirely evil. Brown admitted that she hadn’t considered the human cost of her action-–the loss of good-paying employment, the death of the community’s major business. And she had not known environmental benefits to controlled logging in seriously overgrown forests. The best hope to revive the forests was to clear out small trees and undergrowth–which meant hiring loggers to do the work and reopening the sawmill. So the two joined forces and won a 10-year stewardship contract to subsidize forest thinning and restoration. This saved the mill and kept the town alive.
What love looks like in this example is a willingness to learn from and listen to one another, a capacity for empathy, commitment to the common good and ability to balance competing needs, and a kind of relational vulnerability in which both sides come into each other’s space.
Both sides agree it hasn’t been easy. Every step has been viewed as suspect by one or the other. But they have stuck with it, including regular meetings over meals and conversation. Brown has even built a weekend home in John Day, viewed as evidence of her commitment to community well-being. Nicholas Kristof, who reported the article, commented: I normally cover people who are exchanging insults, occasionally gunfire. So there’s something exhilarating about being in Brown’s home in John Day, with lumbermen and environmental lawyers arguing amiably around a dinner table, antagonists who have also become friends. [from Nicholas Kristof, in the NY Times, April 11, 2021]
What love looks like in this example is a willingness to learn from and listen to one another, a capacity for empathy, commitment to the common good and ability to balance competing needs, and a kind of relational vulnerability in which both sides come into each other’s space. Love can’t simply be theoretical or general: I love poor people. I love migrants. I love prisoners. I love people whose world view is completely different from mine. It has to be embodied, demonstrated by actions that promote their well-being, and in speech that builds up. Love like this is evidence of the Divine among us. It has impact. It makes a difference.
There is a famous story told by the old rabbis: A master was teaching the students that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us something.
One clever wag asked “What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?”
The master responded: God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of all: the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. Look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right. This means that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say, “I pray that God will help you.” Instead, for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help. There is only you. [from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Volume 2, 1991]
Ironically, I can’t imagine a more compelling witness to the God of love than a loving human. A person lending a hand, making a sacrificial gift, listening to another’s pain, unexpectedly forgiving, working to change an unjust law, putting an uncomfortable new learning into practice. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and Divine love is perfected in us.
One of the women who studied this Biblical passage in “Text-plorations” recently likened love to Covid-19. It multiplies exponentially. She was quick to point out that love’s outcomes are infinitely better than a raging viral infection (although the writer of the Song of Solomon did call love a “raging flame that many waters cannot quench”), the truth is that love begets love. It spreads as it is shared through breath and hands. It spreads through proximity, by drawing closer to one another across differences, divisions, conflict, and fear. No, we’re not perfect, and neither is our love. But God is present in every act of love, however small, however tentative, however much like baby steps. God IS love, and helps us translate that glorious Word into actions that will repair, restore and reconcile this broken and beautiful world and all its broken and beautiful people.
As my Greek professor (and piano instructor, and parents and teachers of all kinds) remind us: practice makes perfect. Thanks be to God!