Sunday, February 15, 2009

So This Is Love

Here's my sermon from today. I kinda got goosebumps at the end. My only regret in preaching it is that I moved away from the pulpit and preached it off cards. I think I would've put even more energy into it had I not been worried about that and just had the papers in front of me. Oh, well, live and learn. I was also a little nervous about parts of it because the church I preached in tends towards the conservative side, and well, you know what they say about the prophet in her home town. But I think it went very well! Without further ado... 

So This is Love- SoS 2:1-11, 8:6-7; Romans 13:8-10, John 13:31-35

 I’ve been thinking about love a lot in the past few weeks, and not just because yesterday was Valentine’s Day. Sure, the television has been filled with ads about buying the right piece of jewelry or even the perfect car for that special someone, and the stores have been full of pink and red since about Christmas Eve, but my real focus on love started right around January 20, Inauguration Day.

 Although I originally missed most of the reading of the inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander, I caught enough to be interested and search for the text later. One stanza, in particular, stood out:

                        Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself

                        others by first do no harm or take no more

                        than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?[1]

 That phrase has been pounding in my head for weeks: What if the mightiest word is LOVE?

I chose these three texts today because they all speak of love, although all in distinctive ways. The love in the Song of Songs in particular is of a different type than what Jesus and Paul were talking about. The ancient Greeks used three different words that we translate as “love.” First, there’s philia, which is love for family or friends, platonic love. That’s why Philadelphia is known as the “city of brotherly love.” Next is eros, romantic or erotic love, what our lover in Song of Songs is describing, and finally agape, often described as “charitable love” and sometimes translated as charity, it implies unselfish, giving love. It’s also many times described as “Christian love,” but I would argue that all of these would be forms of Christian love.

I want to talk mostly today about agape, but first I want to explain why I chose these verses from Song of Songs, since I just mentioned that the love written about there is eros. I chose them because of their portrayal of love as powerful. At the end of the first selection, the female lover warns the daughters of Jerusalem, as she does often in the book, to “not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!” Love can do powerful things, so watch out! The second selection may be familiar to some of you; it is often read or sung at weddings. These verses take it even further—“love is strong as death,” “many waters cannot quench love, nor floods drown it.” The writer of the Song of Songs, who may be Solomon, or may not be, is stating without reserve that love is mighty.

Jesus was well aware of the power of love. In the Gospels he tells the disciples and the crowds quite explicitly who and how to love. We’re back to that agape word again. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we’re told that Jesus said the two most important commandments are to love God with all our hearts, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And then here in John he gives a new commandment, very simple: love one another. Just love one another, that’s it, that’s how you follow me, he says, by loving one another.

Now, here I want to make something very clear. Jesus was not saying we should all somehow force ourselves to feel all lovey-dovey towards each other, that we should create this world utopia of happiness and rainbows and all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. See, this, I think, is where people get really hung up on one of Jesus’ other teachings on love, that we love our enemies. People get so frustrated that they cannot feel love for their enemies. Anger, a want for revenge, disappointment, fear, yes. But love? I count among my enemies anyone who hurts children, perpetrates domestic abuse, or, at the moment, takes a huge bonus out of government money when the economy is falling apart. If one such person walked into this church right now, would I be able to look them in the eye and feel my heart warm and swell with love? Uh…NO.

But that’s ok—because that’s not what Jesus intends. When Jesus says, “love one another,” love is not feeling, it’s action. That’s really important, so let me repeat it: this love is not something we feel, it’s something we do. And if we do it right, we do it without distinction, expectation, or condition, because that’s the way God loves. Paul gets it right in his letter to the Romans when he says that all the commandments in the law—the commandments given by God to Moses—can be summed up by saying “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus particularly stresses that we should love those who don’t love us, because that’s more difficult. “Even sinners,” he says in Luke, “love those who love them.” He acknowledges that loving each other, and particularly loving those with whom we disagree or have hurt us or who just seem to be following an evil path, is hard.

But by doing this, he said, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” As the old hymn says, “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

They will know we are Christians, followers of Christ, by how we love. But what does that mean? Matthew’s account of the Gospel gives us some examples: feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, clothing the naked, caring for the sick. And again, Jesus does not say love one another…except for this group, those people, and anyone who’s like this.

Jesus preached a love that was radical when he lived and is still radical more than 2,000 years later. “Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And yet is this what we see around us? As a pastor-to-be, I’ve already found that when I share with people my chosen profession, it often sounds to them like an open invitation to share their thoughts, and more often their problems with Christianity. What I’ve heard over and over again, and what I see portrayed in the media are stories of exclusion where there should be inclusion, of close-mindedness in place of open hearts, of acting with fear, anger, and hate instead of with love. All by people who claim to be followers of Christ.

Now, should any of my enemies that I mentioned earlier make their hypothetical way into this church, would I feel love for them? No. Would I forget what they’d done, or not demand they receive consequences for their actions? Absolutely not. I would, however, welcome them to come and worship with us, and join us downstairs for coffee and fellowship. I would love them. Now, to be clear, love is not always welcoming—if one of those people caused harm or posed an immediate safety risk, I would love them and everyone else by asking them to leave. Jesus may have encouraged us to offer up the other cheek if we’re hit, but he was instructing his followers not to respond to violence with violence. I do not believe that following his commands to love one another and to love our enemies means allowing ourselves to be abused.

That being said, Jesus’ command to love one another is intimately connected to justice, and sometimes we do have to risk it all in the name of love. There are countless examples: Oscar Romero, the three nuns killed in El Salvador in 1980, Martin Luther King, Jr., …these are more contemporary examples, but the list is long, and stretches back millennia. People who have declared that they would not stop loving, even at the risk of their lives. They knew how powerful love is—and so did their enemies. Mahatma Ghandi knew the power of love in non-violence when he said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” He was also assassinated.

When Jesus started his ministry, he was ignored by the religious and political elite. As he continued, he was ridiculed for his willingness to eat with outcasts. Then, seeing his growing following and challenge to the status quo in both the religious and political spheres, he was killed. “Love is strong as death, and passion fierce as the grave,” our lover proclaims. It reminds me of that Easter hymn that says, “where, o death, is now thy sting?” They ignored him, ridiculed him, fought him…and then he won, because he loved all the way to the end, even asking God to forgive those who had put him on that cross. 

Now, I’m not suggesting we all go and put our lives at risk in the name of love, but this radical love is risky. We risk having to let go of notions of who belongs and who is an outsider, of loving without receiving anything in return, of loving people who by their beliefs or differences or simple unfamiliarity make us uncomfortable, of changing the whole world, and that, even if it’s for the better, can be terrifying.

“What if the mightiest word is love?” What if every action or reaction we made every day was to love? Imagine, for a moment, that each member of our government made every decision based not on what was “morally right” or best for the bottom line, but by what best followed the commandment to love one another? Imagine if people in areas of conflict came to negotiating tables not with the goal of getting everything they wanted but with the goal of loving the others there? There are much smaller things too: imagine someone cutting you off in traffic and instead of yelling and/or making an unfriendly gesture you smile and say—even if they can’t hear you—have a nice day? If you, intentionally or unintentionally cut someone off, which would you rather get? How could that change your perspective? Imagine taking a big breath and pushing aside your discomfort with the hungry and homeless to volunteer a couple hours in a shelter or food kitchen. Many, many, many of us—particularly in this economy—are only one paycheck away from being homeless ourselves. Imagine taking five minutes to send an e-mail or write a letter to our government representatives about a justice issue—child health care or torture or outsourcing jobs. Imagine if you were someone affected by one of those issues, how you’d feel knowing someone took the time to do that. Imagine you pick up the phone and call someone who’s sick or lonely or simply someone you’re thinking about. Imagine if you were the recipient of that phone call. Love one another. Love your neighbor as yourself. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In my mind, it is no longer a question. Love IS the mightiest word, and when made an action and not simply a feeling, love IS a raging flame which no water can put out. When we go out from this place today, let us make sure the world knows that we are followers of Christ by the way we love one another. Amen.  

[1] Elizabeth Alexander, “Praise Song for the Day,” Graywolf Press, found at NY Times online,, accessed 13 February 2009.

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