Sunday, May 13, 2012

More Than a Feeling

1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Mildred and Richard were in love. They had known each other since childhood, but as they grew up they fell in love. In 1958, when Mildred was 18, the left their small, nurturing hometown in Caroline County, Virginia to be married in Washington, DC. Having returned home, five weeks later, in the middle of the night, the newlyweds were abruptly awoken, handcuffed, and taken in jail. Their crime? Being in love.

Richard and Mildred Loving (really, that was their last name) were in love with each other in a time when their love was prohibited because Richard was white and Mildred was black. They lived in Virginia under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which not only prohibited interracial marriage in Virginia, but it prohibited Virginia interracial couples from circumventing the law by legally marrying elsewhere and returning to Virginia to live. They were charged, pled guilty, and sentenced to a year in prison that was suspended for 25 years on the condition that they leave the state. The Lovings left Virginia again and moved to the District of Columbia.

In 1964, frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t visit their family in Virginia they were referred to the ACLU for legal help by then Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Three long years later, after their case made its way to the United States Supreme Court, the Lovings won the right to be in love and be married. Their sentence was overruled and the Virginia law was struck down as a violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Richard, Mildred, and their three children returned home to Virginia.

Love can’t really be legislated. Can it? We can’t tell people who NOT to love. Can we? And, for me at least, knowing that we can’t tell people who not to love, it’s hard to heard Jesus’ commandment TO love. Commandments about love are counter-intuitive to how I usually think about love.

Love as our culture commonly talks about it is something we possess. Love is a thing we try to get or a feeling we fall into. It’s butterflies in the stomach. It’s an aching, a longing, a desire. It’s a cure for an ailing heart, the key to happiness, an elusive prize waiting to be found, won, or given away.

But here in John’s gospel love seems to be something different - -something that can be commanded. Love seems to be more than a feeling for which we hope, or an impulse that flows from desire. Love is something we MUST do.

Last week we heard in the first letter of John the simple, yet profound statement at the core of the gospel, “God is love.” If we cut to the chase about all of this, about faith, about life, about our call as the church, we get to this message, “God is love.” I even said it was simple. Ha! It’s simple as in singular. It’s simple as in an argument with few points or counter-points, but let’s not be so naïve as to think it’s simple in living

The love we talked about last week was certainly more than a dizzying or warming feeling at the sound of a voice or the sight of a face. It is, in the words of John, abiding love, and abiding love is the love of Jesus. It is intruding, disruptive, difficult to offer, and maybe just as difficult to receive. Abiding is the act of dwelling with another, even a stranger wherever she is found. It is a willingness to go the distance, descend to the depths of pain and suffering, and stay there with him in darkness until the glimmer of light appears on the horizon. Abiding love is the love of hospitality, the love for the stranger that is just as strong as the love for family, friends, for self. It is love that is open to a change of plans, love that that is given without judgment, without convenience, without checking the calendar or plans for the day, or for the life. It’s the love of Jesus’ command.

It isn’t easy, is it? It isn’t easy to open our lives, ourselves to the deepest needs of others. It’s not like the things on our “to do” lists are optional. It’s not that we are TRYING to ignore the people in front of us who are aching for friendship, companionship, a good word, a hot meal. It’s just that there are all these other things we need to do first. It’s just that abiding with someone takes time, it takes an energy of the spirit that we just don’t think we have right now. Maybe once my finances are in order, I can help someone else with theirs. Maybe once I feel calm and refreshed, I can offer refreshment to another. Maybe once I have experienced the abiding love of another, I can abide with a stranger. Maybe once I have felt loved, I’ll know how to love others.

But then there comes this commandment again. “Love one another as I have loved you.” It’s not even “love one another when you feel my love for you.” Jesus doesn’t give us time to get it, to feel it, or to understand it. He doesn’t give us the excuse to wait until we have found love before we share it. He commands us to do right here, right now, because he knows love is more than a feeling. He also knows we may never get up and do it if it’s dependent on our experience or knowledge or feelings of preparedness. So, having loved us from the beginning, Jesus tells us to go out and love others. Actually, he doesn’t just tell us to do it, he tells us what it looks like and even shows us.

Love is what we do. Love is an action. Love is more than a feeling; it’s a sacrifice. Love is laying aside our schedules, our priorities, our preferences. Loving is putting down our comfort and our security to love other people. Love is active. Love is setting aside, but in setting aside it is also taking up, taking up the causes, the burdens, the pains, the injustices of others. Love is what we do with who we are.

The gospels don’t tell us very much about what Jesus was feeling. Here and there we get a few snippets of his emotions – anger, frustration, tears and sorrow occasionally – but for the most part time isn’t spent reporting or speculating about what Jesus felt about what he encountered and experienced. The bulk of the time in the gospels is spent telling us what he said and what he did. The bulk of the time in the gospels is spent showing how Jesus shared the good news with the people he met, how he healed them of their injuries and ailments, how he included the people who were left out, how he fed the people who were hungry, how he gave living water to the people who were thirsty. We don’t know how Jesus felt while he was doing what he was doing, but we know by what he did that he loved.

Today in the United States is the day that has been set aside for honoring mothers. It’s a day of flowers and gifts and brunches and pampering for many, but it can also be a day of longing, confusion, and sorrow for others. Historically speaking, the latter is more appropriate to the founding of the holiday than the former.

Mother’s Day has varied roots throughout the world. Many different cultures and religions have a day set aside to honor and give thanks for those who bring forth life. In earlier Christian understandings Mother’s Day wasn’t even about human mothers, but about the Mother Church. In US religious history this understanding was dismissed by the Puritans who barely even celebrated with obvious joy Christmas and Easter, much less a holiday that celebrated the institution of the Church.

No, our modern US Mother’s Day has its roots in the Mother’s Day Proclamation written by Julia Ward Howe, better known for penning the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In 1870, deeply saddened by the carnage of the Civil and Franco-Prussian Wars, disturbed that the sons of one family could be responsible for the death of the sons of another family, Howe called on mothers and all women actually to shape their societies, to work for peace on all levels, not just in their homes, but in their nations, and in the world. 

"Arise, then, women of this day! 

Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs." (1870 Mother's Day Proclamation)

Howe’s call to women was a call to love. All the “feelings” in the world won’t do anything unless they are applied. All the compassion, all the heartache for the loss of life that we hear about, all the sadness over what we see on the streets of the city, in shacks of forgotten villages, in the slums of the world, all the concern we can muster when we hear about the young who are abused, the elderly neglected, men, women, and children who hunger for a bite to eat - - all of it won’t do a THING if we don’t love with our actions.

Jesus hasn't just commanded us to love each other, he has shown us how to love each other, and he has given us what we need in order to do it, and he promised us joy and victory over despair when we love with actions like his.

The good news in Jesus is that he did not sit by the wayside and watch a world in pain waiting for the perfect status, the perfect checkbook, the perfect platform from which to love. He loved from where he was. He loved the people he was with. He loved with everything he was and everything he did. And now he has sent us to love in the same way – by acting on it, by healing and helping and wiping away tears, by calling injustices unjust, by working for peace not discord, by forgiving and welcoming and listening, by judging a whole lot less and serving a whole lot more. And, thankfully, he has promised to be with us, the source and shape and strength of love in the world.

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