Love sounds sweet and warm. It sounds romantic, like Valentine’s Day: love notes, kisses, violins and harps, roses, dinner for two with a glass of wine and a glowing sunset.
That’s all great. And … we’re not talking about that today. Today we’re talking about fierce love. God’s fierce love. Mama Bear don’t-you-mess-with-my-babies fierce love.
We start with God’s fierce love for us: to heal us, to affirm us, to transform us. We love our neighbors as we first love ourselves. God invites us to love ourselves as God loves us: to forgive ourselves for all our shortcomings. This forgiveness and love is not a free pass where anything goes, but a commitment to do better, to open ourselves boldly to God’s salvation, God’s redeeming love that transforms us into emissaries of God’s Good News.
This week we lost Black author, feminist, and professor bell hooks. In her book All about Love: New Visions, she wrote this:
One of the best guides to how to be self-loving is to give ourselves the love we are often dreaming about receiving from others. There was a time when I felt lousy about my over-forty body, saw myself as too fat, too this, or too that. Yet I fantasized about finding a lover who would give me the gift of being loved as I am. It is silly, isn't it, that I would dream of someone else offering to me the acceptance and affirmation I was withholding from myself. This was a moment when the maxim “You can never love anybody if you are unable to love yourself” made clear sense. And I add, “Do not expect to receive the love from someone else you do not give yourself.
― bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions
This self-love takes practice: one woman who hated herself, hated her body, stood in front of a mirror and asked herself if there was even one little part of herself that she could honestly say she loved. I think she started with her pinky. She loved her pinkies. She practiced loving herself with this much intention, just as she was. We can do the same.
So God loves us fiercely, tenaciously, abundantly, even when we struggle to love ourselves. And we get to practice loving ourselves. But that fierce love also gets to flow through us to the world. Fierce love combines with hope, peace, and joy, the other candles we have been lighting on the Advent wreath. Fierce love allows us to be creative and compassionate in how we respond to the brokenness of this world and the brokenness in ourselves.
What else is fierce about God’s love?
This love is fierce in its commitment to relationship with all of humanity, with all of creation. God never gives up on this human experiment, even when we give up on ourselves. Love keeps finding a way, even when everything feels dead and done.
God’s love is fierce in standing up for justice. If you look at the overarching message throughout the Bible, it is that God creates us in love, invites us to commit to that love, and asks us to share that love in everything we do. Over and over, we fail. Over and over, we are invited to keep trying. Because even in our brokenness and imperfections, we can get closer, we can experience that love in glimpses or in tsunamis that feed our soul and keep us going.
God’s love doesn’t deny our reality. God sees all the pain and suffering, all the injustice, all the fear and hate, and holds it. In the midst of all of that, God is still there with us.
God’s fierce love shows up in Mary’s Magnificat: justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry while the rich go away empty. God sees everyone who lives at the margins, cast aside because of age, race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, poverty, lack of education, disability, addiction—all the ways in which we “other” people. God sees all of those people and loves them.
Consider the two women in today’s reading. Both are unlikely candidates to bear God’s divine babies. Elizabeth is beyond the usual age for bearing children; one might even say she was old. She was married, upright, following the rules in every way. God saw her and chose her to bear John the Baptist. And when you consider what a wild card John turned out to be, you can imagine that parenthood was not an easy path for Elizabeth and Zechariah. At their age, society might have been close to casting them aside. But God said, “Wait: you’re just beginning.”
On the other end of the pregnancy spectrum, God chose Mary: an unwed teenager with little or no education or societal standing, for whom pregnancy could get her cast out of society completely or even stoned to death. God sees her, chooses her. Just as God sees us and chooses us.
Cornel West calls justice what love looks like in public. This is fierce love. When we love our neighbor, we want to be sure our neighbors are eating regularly, or have resources to get off drugs, have someplace to call home that isn’t outside. When we love our neighbor, we refuse to put up with abusive relationships, which aren’t good for the abuser or the abused. We create good boundaries.
In a society full of divisiveness, fear, and hate, fierce love can be revolutionary. In a world of brokenness and hurt, racism and poverty, fierce love can be healing.
Fierce love means that when Black men are killed by police, attention must be paid. Maybe that’s marching in the streets, as we saw after the death of George Floyd last year, as we saw with the CHOP set up right here on Capitol Hill with its signs and free food market and community building efforts and memorials. Yes, there were problems: some people tried to burn down the precinct, and violence arose in that space. It’s messy. But there was a lot of fierce love in that space.
What can I do to channel God’s fierce love, you may ask? Maybe you think you’re too old or too young or too scattered or too whatever to make a difference. Maybe marching in protests isn’t your thing. We respond in love to the brokenness of the world with whatever we have. We respond with our hearts alive to compassion, and we bring our resources to bear.
Here’s an example. Holli Johannes is a high-school math teacher in Eugene. Last year, she felt the need to respond to the George Floyd murder. She invited cross-stitchers and quilters everywhere to participate in a “Stitch Their Names” memorial project to depict 116 Black victims of racial violence. Here’s some information about this project from the website:
We are a group of cross-stitchers and quilters across the country (and beyond). The goal of this project is to honor the legacy of Black individuals for whom racism and hate have led to their deaths. Many hearts and hands (close to 100 people) worked to stitch individual portraits of those that have died. We want to honor that each individual lost represents tremendous grief and pain to those that loved them and to the entire community. We lovingly stitched the portraits together into two quilted art pieces that will travel and be displayed throughout the country. In doing so, we hope to bring additional critical awareness to the collective loss and the horrific magnitude of Black persons being targeted by racism and bigotry in this country. [About the project (stitchtheirnamesmemorialproject.com)]
Some of the names on this quilt are familiar, like George Floyd or Medgar Evers. Others you may not have heard of. Here is just one story.
James Earl Green, a 17-year-old high school senior, was walking home from his job on May 15, 1970, when he got caught in a 28-second barrage of police gunfire on the campus of Jackson State College in Mississippi. He was two weeks shy of his high school graduation. He ran track and had ambitions to go to college and compete in the Olympics someday. But there was some rally or protest on campus, the police came in, and James was caught in the barrage of police bullets. In the high school graduation ceremony two weeks after his death, his mother walked in his place. The high school gave her the letter jacket James had earned, and she kept it for the rest of her life. Tif Burns of England, who stitched the image of James for the memorial quilt, shows him wearing this green and yellow letter jacket—the jacket that he never got before he died. One of James’s sisters said that seeing James wearing the jacket gave her a sense of closure. It showed the person he was hoping and working to become but never got to be. What a gift: to remember these victims of police and other violence and to see them portrayed as the people they had hoped to become. We see you, we do not forget you. We practice fierce love in saying your names, learning your stories, stitching your images into quilts, and continuing to work for racial justice so that these killings can end.
“Love” sounds so nice. Fierce love persists even when it’s not nice, even when everything seems broken, even when forgiveness seems impossible, even when we feel so trapped in all the things we hate about ourselves that transformation feels out of reach. Fierce love gets out in the streets with “Black Lives Matter” signs when a police officer kills yet another Black person for having a taillight out or expired tabs or an air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. Fierce love camps out on the railroad tracks to block trains from reaching the refinery or the coal export terminal that allows us all to burn up this planet with fossil fuels. Fierce love writes letters to our legislators or to the paper about the need for justice. Fierce love says we can do better, people. The people in our communities can all have places to live off the streets—if we insist on making it happen. Fierce love says drug addicts need resources and multiple attempts to get clean. Fierce love says we can go to the most neglected, poverty-stricken parts of the world, as the organization One Equal Heart does in Chiapas, Mexico. One Equal Heart listens to what the people there want to do to make their lives better, and then finds ways to help them do that. And we get to support that work. Fierce love creates opportunities for forgiveness and healing. Fierce love transforms lives.
As Mary sings in the Magnificat, fierce love feeds the hungry and sends the rich empty away. It brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly. Fierce love says that an old woman, supposedly past the age for child-bearing, is exactly the right person to give birth to John the Baptist. And that a pregnant, unwed, illiterate, poor teenager is exactly the right person to give birth to God incarnate.
Fierce love says that we are exactly the right people, too, to give birth to that divine presence and make a difference in the world. If we are poets, then we write about it. If we are builders, we build tiny houses or community gathering places. If we are teachers, we teach each other how to love across boundaries. If we are cross-stitchers, we cross-stitch the images of the dead. If we are songwriters and singers, we sing God’s justice, both in the chancel and in the streets. If we are parents and grandparents, we teach our children well. Whoever we are and whatever we know how to do, we bring it all to bear when we commit to channeling God’s fierce love. And when we are able to do this—when love triumphs over fear, hate, and prejudice—that is when the Christ Child truly dwells in our hearts and in our community. Come, Jesus, come! Amen.