SCRIPTURE LESSON: Romans 8: 31b, 35, 37-39

LOVE WINS. sticker in car window“I was expecting to like you,” Glenn said with a grin a few months ago at Christ in the Desert monastery. “Why is that,” I asked. “When I pulled in next to you last night, your ‘Love Wins’ bumper sticker was the first thing I saw.”

Some of us have been driving around with those two words on our back bumpers longer than Community Spirit has existed. I think it was Kim Floyde who got the ball rolling more than ten years ago. Back then we all bought our little stickers for a buck each from Rob Bell’s wildly successful megachurch, Mars Hill, located just outside Detroit.

Perhaps you recognize Bell’s name. His book, Love Wins, garnered lots of attention when it was first published nine years ago. Time Magazine promptly named Rob Bell one of the world’s 100 most influential people. And many who had given up on Christianity found in Bell’s thoughtful argument a reason to circle back around. The book’s subtitle alone won a lot of people over: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

The book’s catalyst had come from a sticky note someone had left on a piece of artwork hanging at Rob Bell’s Michigan church, part of a series on peacemaking and peacemakers. On a portrait of Mahatma Gandi someone had left this message: Too bad he’s burning in hell.

In Love Wins, Bell rejects the existence of an eternal place of punishment designed by God. Instead, Bell argues that God’s love never stops pursuing us so as to win us over, even in the afterlife.

A near-instant success, when the book came out Bell started giving talks and taking interviews. He was a man in demand. His Christian Evangelical peers noticed and before Bell knew it, he had been labeled a heretic, accused of endangering the very souls of his readers.

Bell was undaunted by this but attendance at his growing church began to slow, then fall sharply, and Bell resigned from Mars Hill and for a time wandered a spiritual desert he had not seen coming.

Never in all these years that you and I have been driving around with our Love Wins messages on our cars, never in all the times we have passed along to visitors and friends our red, black, and rainbow bumper stickers, never on the many occasions when we have used this potent assertion to communicate a central tenet of our faith here at Community Spirit have I thought that what we were doing was drafting off of and reasserting the theme Bell takes up in his book.

When we have insisted here so regularly and with so much conviction that Love Wins, I have never heard this to mean that we, too, reject the existence of hell. Not directly, not specifically anyway.

And neither have I gotten from our bumper sticker claim that what we are doing is communicating exactly and exclusively what the LGBTQ community is announcing when they proclaim with bold and frequent courage that Love Wins.

Among our LGBTQ kin, people whose lives have been made a living hell by individuals and institutions, religious and otherwise, the insistence that Love Wins is not intended to be a claim about what does or doesn’t happen in the afterlife.

No, when queer folk and their allies insist that Love Wins, they mean now. They mean that in this life, in each mutually affirming relationship, love is love is love. In other words, it’s not whom we love that matters to God, it’s THAT we love. (Note to readers: my sincerest apologies if this is too simplistic.)

Certainly as a church we stand with Rob Bell when he insists that Love Wins. Like most in the United Church of Christ, it is not a stretch for us to reject a God who rewards some and punishes others eternally and who uses Christian salvation as the sole measuring stick.

And in a similar vein, of course we affirm and echo what Love Wins means within the gay community and those in solidarity with it.

But to insist that Love Wins—as we have done, do now, and will continue to do—is to make even wider, even deeper, even richer claims. Claims you and I endeavor not only to put into words but to put into action whenever and wherever possible. As Carol Keeney put it so well a few weeks ago: to love someone is to choose to act in their best interest.

Our denomination is incredibly fond of saying “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” As such, we challenge ourselves to be continually listening for and responsive to the new word, the new message, the fresh revelation the Spirit is speaking into our midst.

We don’t place the period. Only God does that. And where does God do that? Fish around in your worship basket. Check your bumper sticker. The most potent part of our message isn’t a word at all; it’s a punctuation mark. Love Wins Period. Full stop. End of sentence. Finito.

Who gets the final say? What gets the last word? Love, God insists and our church echoes. Love. Not hate. Not fear. Not indifference. Not injustice. Not war. Not violence. Not cheating, lying, denying, gaslighting, or greed. Not any of the moved and methods we humans use to get our way and exact our will.

No, love and love alone wins. Even as we find ourselves living through times that have us gnash our teeth, cry into our pillows, shrug our shoulders, change the channel, or perhaps even wish we were never born,, even still we hold fast to the belief that God will not rest until love has indeed won.

When we say Love Wins, we are insisting that there is no power greater than love. No force that can prevent its victory or permanently unseat it. No priority or practice that can succeed in overtaking it. Even, especially, when we aren’t entirely convinced this is true, still as a church we say that Love Wins. Period.

Love Wins is much harder to assert now than it was just five years ago when we first claimed it as one of our Five Smooth Stones. At least for me this is the case. It’s far less an abstract claim than it was when we were first getting our footing as a church, that’s for sure. Some days it takes everything I’ve got to not cave, to not give in to thinking that maybe, just maybe Love Wins is no longer true.

When I’m in this place, when I’m overtaken by my uncertainty that truly love does win, I go looking for something more enduring than my opinion and my headline addled emotions.

Love Wins has always struck me as a claim profoundly rooted in Easter. To say that Love Wins is to first admit that Maundy Thursday and its death-dealing betrayal happens.

To say that Love Wins means willing to see that Good Fridays happen too, that the innocent among us are sacrificed, as are those who stand up for them.

To say that Love Wins calls us to acknowledge Holy Saturday when it comes, those cruel hours that feel utterly endless, where all we are left with is crushing loss and unanswered questions.

To say that Love Wins is to insist that even in the face of these realities, even as we know who has suffered and why and how, that even as we cannot undo what has been done, Easter remains God’s given. Love Wins Period.

To say that Love Wins Period is an assertion grounded in Easter. The God who has made us and claimed us refuses ever to forsake us. To say that Love Wins is to boldly announce that the God of love cannot and will not abandon what and whom God has created.

To say to ourselves and the world that Love Wins is to insist–even when reason or cynicism would argue otherwise–that not even the most willful and powerful among us, not even the most anti-life, evil actions can or will prevail.

The other day I caught a radio host interviewing a financial expert. The conversation centered around the inevitability of a recession and what ordinary people can do to protect their investments and avoid huge losses.

This is a conversation the world has with itself. How do I protect my interests? How can I advance my advantage? How can I be sure I’m not harmed when the horrible, inevitable thing comes? How can I get ahead even if this means someone else suffers?

Hidden within every injustice are these questions. Within every violation against humanity are these agendas.

But in Jesus, in the working of the Holy Spirit, we see what love does. Love hedges no bets. It seeks no advantage. It hides behind no propaganda. And it refuses to ask one person to pay the price for someone else’s comfort or convenience.

Love gambles. Love puts it all down on love, on (as Carol said) the willingness and capacity to act in the best interests of another.

Love gambles. And many times it looks to have lost. It looked that way on Maundy Thursday. And on Good Friday. And on Holy Saturday. All the way up until dawn on Sunday morning, it looked to all the world as though love had gambled and lost—and in the most humiliating, violent way possible.

It was only then, when those who felt everything good and true and right had been taken from them, every new moment with the One whose walking and talking felt most like Love itself, it was only then, when they went to confirm that all indeed had been lost, it was only then that they discovered what you and I are still struggling to grasp. No, love did not lose. No, love did not die. Love won.

Love won. Love wins. Love will always win. Period.

We might wish our two-word affirmation ended with a smiley face. We might wish the way were easier or softer or that the end of the struggle could be scheduled, penned in on our calendars so that our angst and anxieties could be managed.

But this isn’t how it works. All we know, all we have is this: the assurance that Love Wins.

Not always will this feel enough, but it will always, always, be true. Love Wins. Period.

Amen.