Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I’m not sure if any of you are fans of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series by Alexander McCall Smith? Or perhaps you watched the HBO television series of the same name? If so, you’ve met Precious Ramotswe, the memorable protagonist who lives in Gabarone, Botswana, in southern Africa. Mma Ramotswe, as she’s often called (“Mma” being a respectful Botswanan greeting for ladies) is a strong, resilient woman with a knack for solving mysteries of all kinds. For those of us who enjoy the characters in mystery stories far more than the details of a homicide, Mma Ramotswe is our kind of detective. She is far more likely to tackle things like fraud and infidelity, lost persons and lost possessions, than she is to investigate a murder. Well known in her community for her deep sense of right and wrong, and her unshakable loyalty to family, friends, and her beloved country, she marshals intelligence, wit - and a willingness to bend the rules when necessary – to solve mysteries both great and small.
There’s another quality of Mma Ramotswe that draws many of us to her, as readers, and that is her huge heart. She truly cares about distressed clients, particularly those who have been hurt by someone else. She adores her family, she would do anything for her friends, she demonstrates patience and grace with co-workers, clients, and neighbors, and while she makes as many mistakes as the next person, she is quick to apologize when she has not acted with enough kindness or understanding in a particular situation. We might not be able to quite imagine ourselves tackling her range of cases, some of which involve crocodiles and many of which involve long solo drives out into the African bush in a rickety old van. And we might not condone every one of her unorthodox tactics. But we can admire the heart she demonstrates, time and again. I believe it’s that heart, coupled with her strength and resilience, her creativity and her persistence, that keep us coming back for more.
I had a chance to reread a few books in this series on my sabbatical – I find they’re perfect for cross country plane trips, and I enjoy revisiting Botswana now and then with Mma Ramotswe. As I did so, there was a particular scene I knew right away I wanted to share with you when I came back this fall.
You see, Mma Ramotswe – who also occasionally drifts off into deep thought - is talking with a friend of hers, a bishop, over tea outside the Anglican Cathedral one Sunday morning after the seven thirty service in English and before the nine thirty service in Setswana. “Is it true,” she had asked, “that the sun will [one day] swallow up the earth and that will be that?” The bishop had smiled. “I do not think that is going to happen in the near future, Mma,” he had replied. “Certainly not by next Tuesday, when the Botswana Mother’s Union meets. And, frankly, I don’t think that we should worry too much about that. Our concern should be what is happening right now. There is plenty of work for love to do, you know.
“There is plenty of work for love to do. That was a wonderful way of putting it, and she had told him that this could be the best possible motto for anyone to have.”
There is plenty of work for love to do.
I find it curious that love is so often portrayed simply as a feeling, and that in our culture we speak of falling into love and falling out of love as a sort of abstract state, when the Scriptures remind us that love is an action word, a verb. 1 Corinthians 13, for instance, a much-loved text about love that is read at many weddings, speaks of love requiring patience, kindness, truth-telling, forgiveness. This isn’t love in the abstract; this is “love with its work clothes on,” as Martin Copenhaver puts it - “not an emotion but a form of life that is self-giving.”
What’s more, our text from 1 John today reminds us that love is absolutely essential to our life in God. “Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:7-12)
And Mma Ramotswe’s bishop was right; there is certainly no shortage of ways to put God’s love into action.
On the one hand, that there is plenty of work for love to do can be overwhelming. Pay even cursory attention to the news – Dear, God, the news! – and it’s tempting to give up in despair. It’s all too big, too vast; there are too many people hurting, there is too much need.
On the other hand, plenty of work for love to do can actually be somewhat freeing, if looked at in a different way. Certainly there’s way too much for any one person or any one church, or for that matter any denomination or even any nation to tackle on its own. But plenty to go around also means there’s a bit of it for you to do, and a bit for me to do, and there’s not a single individual or organization in the world that can’t find a piece of love’s work to take on. We don’t have to look far to find our place.
That there is plenty of love’s work to go around also provides opportunities for people to come together, at our most ecumenically cooperative and interfaith best, as we’ve seen for instance in support for the Interbay Tent City right at the bottom of our hill. And that’s just one example. As I mentioned last week, it was a great privilege to visit congregations all over our city this summer and to see amazing outreach ministries happening in churches and synagogues… we know wonderful work is also happening through local mosques and through neighborhood associations and schools… and through corporate giving and through some remarkable nonprofit organizations.
Have any of you visited the Gates Foundation visitor center? They do a fantastic job not only of opening our eyes to just how much work needs to be done in the world, but of reminding us that every single one of us has gifts and skills that can be used in that work. Whether we are by nature and training a teacher an artist, or an engineer, whether we are skilled at building or marketing or networking, cooking or writing legal briefs, whether we are public speakers or behind the scenes organizers, the Gates Foundation Visitor Center shows you all kinds of concrete examples of how you can employ your gifts and skills in addressing urgent needs in our world. After all, there is plenty of work for love to do.
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives us in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:7-12)
Of course, I don’t need to tell you this, you who are already busy with beautiful works of love. Talk about preaching to the choir! I look around this morning and I see a congregation full of hearts as big as Mma Ramotswe’s, who know very well that love is a verb and needs to be verbed, needs to be enacted, to be worth anything at all. I ran across a lovely prayer in a Hebrew prayer book recently that said, “let my hands know the privilege of righteous deeds.” I know that many of you do know that privilege, and are putting your love for God into action by loving others in God’s name.
We’ve even been able to witness great acts of love in the news recently. In the face of devastating storms and fires and horrific acts of violence, we’ve also seen people pulling together, and giving of themselves, and taking great risks to take care of each other. A recent Time magazine essay put it this way. “We’re so hungry for goodness, for common cause, for reasons to like each other” after all of the “ugliness, division, and fear” in recent years, that it’s no surprise people “keep watching video footage … of rescue after rescue, kindness after kindness.” In fact, the author invites us to watch some of those early storm videos out of Texas occasionally, to be reminded of our better angels. “Over and over, you’ll hear people being reassured as they are supported by the arms of [complete] strangers, [strangers who don’t look like them or sound like them or vote like them]. The strangers are saying to each another: ‘We’ve got you… I’ve got you… you’re OK…” Similarly I read just this week about shooting victims in Las Vegas trying to track down total strangers who saved their lives by rushing them into their own cars, and getting them quickly to the hospital for help. And we can be sure there are countless acts of courage and kindness happening right now in Northern California, too, in the midst of the wildfires there.
When that Time magazine essayist reminds us to remember “our better angels,” we in the Church know that impulse to be kind to one another, to love each other, comes from God. And like many types of good news, we also know that reaching out in love is happening in our world far more often than it’s getting press coverage. After all, while some works of love are more public and visible in nature, others are less well known. Quiet faithfulness month after month and year after year in providing a feast through Operation Nightwatch, for instance. I’m humbled by those of you who have been devoted to that ministry for so long. Or even among our friends and neighbors, a thoughtful phone call, a well-timed card, a visit, a hug, a meal, a prayer… these can all be acts of love too. It’s no less important to do these things as news cycle after news cycle crashes over us or as we feel overwhelmed by the latest tragedy. I think it’s all the more important, actually.
In response to the awful news out of Las Vegas two weeks ago, Whitworth University posted on Instagram a quote from the band Joseph: “All I know is take care of each other.”
I’m trying to add that line to my mental playlist too, as I navigate my way through our present world, full as it is of heartache and need. For it’s also a world that is precious to God, loved by God, and equipped by God with a great many people verbing God’s love, in acts of kindness and compassion.
All I know is take care of each other.
Love is from God.
And there is plenty of work for love to do. Amen.
 Alexander McCall Smith, Teatime for the Traditionally Built, pp. 55-56.
 Martin Copenhaver, “Love with its Work Clothes On,” Journal for Preachers Easter 2011, p. 21ff.
 Mishkan T’Filah: A Reform Siddur, Weekdays and Festivals, p. 35
 “The Pursuit of Happy-ish” by Susanna Schrobsdorff, in Time, September 18, 2017, p. 115.