Sunday, October 23, 2011

Once More With Feeling

Do you ever get tired of me preaching about love?

I try to mix things up. I usually preach on something that pops up in the week's lectionary readings. Once a month I preach on whatever question I draw from the sermon suggestion box. I retell stories from the Bible at times, and on rare occasions tell new stories. I cite pop culture a lot, for that contains our current values and modern mythologies. Ever so often I dive into a specific movie, TV show or book in depth, if I hear echoes of the Gospel there. Once in a blue moon I engage in a conversation on a topic using my puppets or dummy. I read lots of translations, commentaries, throw in archeology, history, etymology, psychology, medicine, and science where appropriate. I don't shy from confronting elephants in the room and I point out when good Christians have different positions on certain issues. And yet, when I come to wrap it up, it all boils down to God's love.

I didn't grow up in a particularly religious home, so I didn't get it there. When I was small, we did go to church occasionally. In fact my first memory is being in church, surrounded by people singing. I didn't know the hymn so I joined in with a song I knew: "Old MacDonald." Still, though we lived just a block from church, we stopped going. Mom did for a while read to us from the New English Bible's translation of the gospels. When I was a tween, my mother felt we needed a religious background and we church-shopped until we found a Presbyterian church to our liking. But love was not a major topic of the 40 minute long sermons the preacher routinely gave. I discovered that theme when I read the New Testament as a teen. And when our youth group was asked to run a service at the skid row ministry our church supported, and I was asked to preach, my topic was God's love, something I frequently read in the Bible but rarely heard from the pulpit. Apparently the same was true at the mission. After I sat down, the preacher who ran the mission got up and agreed that God loved us but IF YOU DIDN'T ACCEPT CHRIST AS YOUR LORD AND SAVIOR YOU WERE GOING TO HELL. His hellfire coda to my homily only ran 5 minutes but it effectively shattered the mood. As we toured the soup kitchen afterward, one homeless man told me my talk of God's love almost had him at one point. I admit I didn't feel too loving towards the guy who ran the mission.

So here it is again. In Matthew 22:34 and following, Jesus' critics are testing him. The Pharisees, who really got into parsing the 613 laws found in the Torah, ask Jesus which of them is the most important one. The word in Greek is "megas" from which we get our prefix mega and simply means "big." So this is a big picture question. And it was a common discussion among rabbis. Even they could see that some laws were of greater weight than others. In fact, to save a life, a Jew is permitted to break other parts of the law. Thus when Gentiles hid Jews from the Nazis, and their rescuers could only give them non-kosher foods, often obtained at great risk using falsified ration cards, the Jews could eat the food since it was a matter of life and death. But which laws took precedence over others? And in this hierarchy of commandments, what stood at the summit? Jesus' choice of Deuteronomy 6:5 was a popular one. Loving God with all one is makes an excellent starting point and overriding principle for any ethical system. But Jesus throws in another popular answer as well: Leviticus 19:18, about loving one's neighbor as oneself. And linking the two shows real incisiveness of thought. People will sometimes do very unloving things to their fellow human beings out of their so-called love of God. But as God tells Noah, murder is wrong because humans are created in the image of God. In a sense, killing a person is symbolically killing God. Logically, therefore, any act of intentional harm towards another person is evil for the same reason. Sadly, this still needs to be spelled out today. As the author of 1st John says, "If anyone says "I love God" but hates his brother, he is a liar, because the person who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen." In other words, loving other people shows a functional grasp of what loving God means. Whereas the mere assertion of loving God doesn't qualify as evidence that one really loves him.

I love the way N. T. Wright translates the next verse: "The entire law consists of footnotes to these two commandments--and that goes for the prophets, too." Footnotes explain the main text; they don't replace it. People often forget that. All the numerous things the Bible tells you to do or not do are just working out the implications of the commands to love God and love others as ourselves. In fact if you do any of the other commandments but do them out of something other than the spirit of love, you're probably doing them wrong. Without love, a pat on the back could just as well be assault. Without love, being frank with someone could just as well be trash talking them. Without love, sex could just as well be rape. The intent behind an action, whether it's meant to harm or to help, is as important as the action itself.

Skill is also important. Right now we are still trying to teach my toddler patient how to play with the dogs. Pet them, I tell and show him. Don't pull their hair or poke their eyes or put your finger in their noses. The dogs are amazingly patient and gentle with him. If it's too much, they just walk away. But not every dog will be so forgiving. He needs to learn the difference between petting them and punishing them.

There are times when even loving gestures can seem like punishment. Ever try to remove a deeply embedded sand spur from a dog's foot? It's a rare canine that will sit still for that. It's the same with humans. When in pain, people will lash out at others, even if they are trying to help the sufferer. We forget that being cut open with a knife can be bad if an attacker's doing it, but good if it's a doctor. So when you have to do something unpleasant but necessary to help someone, be firm but gentle. And when it comes to God's Word we need to use it surgically to heal, not wield it sloppily or maliciously to harm. That difference is lost on some who quote Scripture.

You need to learn how to love properly. We are also teaching my patient not to bite the folks he loves. He doesn't do it out of anger but when he's snuggling against your chest. Consequently it is more alarming to his mother than to me. It reminds me of the Doctor Who episode we discussed last week. When his TARDIS, in the form of a madwoman, sees the Doctor for the first time, she kisses him and then bites him. Biting, she says, is like kissing, only there's a winner. But love isn't a fight or a competition. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves precisely so we can remind ourselves how we do and do not like to be treated and act accordingly towards others. Empathy is absolutely key in learning to love.

Paul gave us a wonderful break down of the elements of love in 1st Corinthians 13. Love is patient, he begins. The old word "longsuffering" is closer to the original Greek. And indeed for impatient people, waiting can be torture. It can literally be painful if you are waiting for an infant to get the idea that biting is an inappropriate way to show affection. But if you love someone you are willing to give them and your relationships enough time to mature.

Love is kind. Odd how people forget to be kind to those they love. It's seems like we are the most cruel to those we claim to adore the most. A report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds in this country, amounting to 3.3 million reports a year involving an estimated 6 million children. More than 78% of the abuse is neglect. And more than 5 children die every day due to abuse, the highest rate in the industrialized world. I'll bet most of the parents responsible would tearfully declare their love for their children. If true, their "love" is deficient in both patience and kindness.

Love is not envious, boastful or arrogant. That's because one of the wonderful things about love is that it takes us out of ourselves. Anyone truly in love is not thinking about him or herself, but of the other. In a real love relationship, both people are more concerned about each other and more committed to the relationship than they are to their personal prerogatives. As Paul says, love does not insist on its own way.

Love is not rude. It isn't easily provoked, nor is it quick to take offense. It doesn't brood over past wrongs or store up grievances. In a recent article entitled "4 Pieces of Relationship Advice Movies Need to Stop Giving," Dan O'Brien points out that only in films can a person be a "giant, manipulative, selfish [jerk] and also a sweet, deep, compassionate softie." And only in films is that cool. It's interesting that TV has recently dealt with 2 such characters by having the womanizer in "Two and a Half Men" killed by his jealous wife and having Dr. House thrown in jail for driving a car into his ex-girlfriend's dining room. That's recognition that, in real life, such people may have relationships but they are not pretty and their partners are miserable and in need of therapy. If you love, you have to be able to forgive and let go.

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but celebrates truth. A seriously disordered love lets the loved one get away with murder, sometimes literally. We've seen parents cover up for kids who broke the law and harmed others. We've seen women stick with their boyfriends even if they abuse or kill their children. That's not love. That's indulgence or dependence. That will never help the person you love become a better person. Love can't live on lies, either. Love depends on trust and trust requires truth. More devastating than any bad action one commits is the sense of betrayal when the other person realizes it was covered up and they were lied to.

I like the way J. B. Phillips translates the next verse: "Love know no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything." Real love has staying power. It hangs on. Look at anyone who has come back from a real setback or challenge, be it addiction, jail or illness, and 9 times out of 10, you will find they were supported by the powerful love of one or more family members, friends and/or God. Love is a strength we can impart to others.

I've been using examples from romantic and familial loves but the same principles operate in loving God or our neighbors. You act with patience and kindness. You put away envy and bragging and arrogance. You don't act rudely or selfishly. You avoid being quick tempered and resentful. You don't let wrongdoing slide. You stay truthful. You don't let anything stop you from loving the person.

"What the world needs now is love," wrote lyricist Hal David in 1965. And though today's popular music sounds nothing like that Burt Bacharach song, the statement is still true. Our public discourse is more shrill and aggressive than ever. The most innocuous topic draws vitriolic rhetoric on the internet, talk radio, opinion TV shows and political debates. Our politicians are more focused on winning elections than making the country they supposedly love work. Partisans are more intent on making points than on making sense. People defend one minority by attacking another minority. Customer service is a nightmare on both sides of the phone. Etiquette and self-restraint are unknown. Unfiltered disclosure of whatever happens to flit through one's mind is the order of the day and other person's sensibilities are their problem, not ours. We just don't care who gets hurt by our words and actions. That's apathy. Which is the opposite of love.

The world needs love, God's love. And he has given us, Christ's disciples, the task of showing it to the world. It isn't easy. We can't repay evil with evil. I saw a picture of a man in Key West holding a sign that says "God hates [gays]." Next to him was a man holding a sing that said "F*** this guy." They're both wrong. We can't hate the haters. We are to love and pray for them. Hating those who hate you is just treading a Moebius strip of recrimination and retaliation. Love breaks such cycles. It doesn't insist on its own way and it doesn't insist everyone agrees with its opinions.

Sadly even the church hasn't learned this lesson. We have church officials bad mouthing one another and suing one another and fighting over material goods and the use and absence of words and who can affiliate with whom. I'm not sure what message we're sending the world but it doesn't sound like the good news of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself through self-sacrificial love.

Jesus didn't say "love one another only if it's easy." He didn't say "love another only when you are in complete agreement." He didn't say "love one another except when it comes to an issue I never addressed." There are no conditions on his commandments to love. If folks don't like that, fine. There are plenty of religions where you are free to hate all you want. Join the never-ending war to eliminate everything about anybody who ticks you off. Good luck winning that battle. Just don't say you are following the one who is God's love incarnate. That's hypocrisy. And we all know how Jesus felt about that.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is God Incarnate and God is love. Everything else is footnotes.

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