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This is that time of year when candy hearts, boxes of chocolates, bouquets of flowers, and Valentine's cards begin to appear in our stores. (Who am I kidding? Those things began to show up before the 12 Days of Christmas were over.) But we are in the middle of a season that talks a lot about love.
In our cultural context, love is often presented as a romantic feeling, as a passionate emotion, one that frequently needs to be proven with expensive gifts. In the movies, love is what compels people to act like fools in pursuit of one another. Love is the feeling that drives the romantic leads toward one another. It is the spark that kindles the fires of passion.
Alternatively, love is portrayed as a soft, vague, "fuzzy" emotion. A kind of kum-ba-yah ethic, proclaimed by hippies driving Volkswagen buses and handing out flowers. It seems weak and idealistic. A warm emotion but little more.
These interpretations are so prevalent that they even infuse the religious traditions that have a decidedly different take on the matter. The passage from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians that Blane read for us earlier is a case in point. It is one of the most powerful declarations of the importance of love in Christian scripture and yet it is frequently chosen as a reading at weddings because it sounds "romantic." And given that, some of the injunctions of the religious traditions can sound odd. We're commanded to love God and to love our neighbor. And we hear those ancient injunctions and we wonder: how does one command a feeling? How on earth do you tell someone to love someone else? How can I be commanded to love someone I don't even like?
I don't know about you, but the question of who I feel love for and who I don't is largely out of my control. Believe me, if this were something we could control, I suspect our lives would be a lot easier. I know mine would.
II. WHAT IS LOVE?And so it's very important to ask ourselves what it is we mean when we say love.
Well, religiously speaking, love is not an emotion; it's a behavior. It's a way of living in right relationship with one another. When we're told to love God, we're not being told to have warm, fuzzy feelings about God. That's a kind of sentimental faith that gets us nowhere. We're told to be in right relationship with God. When we're told to love our neighbor or, even more difficult, to love our enemies, we are not being told to have positive emotions about them. We're told to build right relationship with them. That doesn't require us to like that person. But it does require us to love them.
The passage from 1 Corinthians we heard read earlier is all about what it is that love does, not what love feels:
That's not a feeling, that's a doing. And let's not underestimate just how powerful an action it is.
III. THE POWER OF LOVELove is not soft. It is not weak. It is much more powerful than any of us realizes.
In May 2015, about 250 mostly armed anti-Muslim demonstrators showed up at a mosque in Phoenix, Arizona to protest. Many of them wore T-shirts bearing profanity-laced messages denouncing Islam and defaming the prophet Muhammad. A counter demonstration was opposite and each group yelled and taunted the other across police lines. There was, at least, no violence. Members of the mosque indicated that they were not surprised by the event and that anti-Muslim sentiment had been around for a long time, as had hatred, bigotry, and racism. But their response was not fearful, or violent, or hateful. Instead, it was loving. The president of the mosque invited anyone to join him and the 800 members inside for prayer. One man, wearing a profanity-laced shirt, accepted the invitation and was profoundly changed:
Another man, who was invited in had earlier declared that he didn't care whether the shirt he was wearing was offensive or not. Afterward, he assured a small group of Muslims that he wouldn't wear it again. "I promise, the next time you see me, I won't be wearing this shirt," he said to one man, as he shook his hand, smiling. "I won't wear it again." That is what love can do.
Don't let anyone tell you that love is "fuzzy" or "soft." It takes guts to love someone.
And it's precisely that kind of guts that we're going to need in a time dominated by fear.
IV. LOVE AND FEAR
For over a decade, I led a spring break trip down to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in western North Carolina. On our first year there we had the privilege of participating in a sweat lodge ritual there. And during that ritual, as we sat in contemplation and reflection, our host, Curtis, said, "There are two great powers in the world: love and fear." I remember being immediately struck by that-we are so accustomed to thinking of hate as the opposite of love. He continued: "All that is good in the world-compassion, justice, mercy, charity, peace-comes from love; everything bad comes from fear: hatred, violence, greed, injustice."
It's an interpretation of a statement by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the Swiss-born psychiatrist and author, who said:
This is not a new sentiment, limited to the Native Americans or to modern psychiatry. It is an ancient sentiment, found even in the New Testament in the epistles of John, where we read: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18 NRSV)
Love is literally fearless. Now, that's not saying it's not scary. Being willing to love is being willing to be vulnerable, whether it's in opening your heart to someone you care about or in extending an invitation into your mosque to a a gun-toting protestor with a profanity-laced T-shirt.
These acts of love risk much-but because they go ahead anyway, they are fearless. They don't deny the fear, they simply refuse to let it define one's actions. And thus, acts of love "cast out" the fear.
There is a lot of fear at loose upon the world right now. It is informing our actions and our reactions. It is coloring the way we are seeing the world both in the choices that are made and the responses to those choices.
I will not say that there are not things to be frightened of. I would be a hypocrite to do so. There are things at loose upon our world that quite franky scare the … heck out of me. But love is the moving forward in right relationship in spite of the fear. That is the "casting out."
If we would vanquish fear, and the effects of fear, we must not cave into that very fear. If you would change the world, you can't change it by buying into its main export: fear. To change the world fear must be cast out, and only love can do that.
Only love can help us to encounter someone from a fundamentally different background or different worldview and seek to build right relationship. It's the only way to bridge the partisan divide, the cultural divide, the geographic divide. It is not weak concession; it is powerful engagement. And only love can sustain us when there's that kind of work to be done. As our former University Chaplain Rev. Joe Eldridge would say, in any movement for justice, anger can get you started; but only love can sustain you. Anger at or hatred for the opposition will sap you. Before long it will twist your heart into the very thing it despises. Only love for your opponent-the sincere desire to be reconciled, to be in constructive relationship, can sustain any work. All of the successful movements that changed the world-from King's teachings in the civil rights movement to Mandela's desire to build a South Africa for white and black South African alike-were built on love of the very people you oppose.
That doesn't make it easier; I know. But love is never easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. And love is certainly not sentimental, or soft, or fuzzy.
And so I come back as I frequently do, to the words of martyred El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who penned the words we read earlier, speaking to his Christian context, but in words that apply to all:
it is the force that will overcome the world.
Let us not tire of preaching love.
Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love,
love must win out;
it is the only thing that can.
Words of Sacred Tradition
Texts Used in the Interfaith Chapel Service
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 • Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Quran 2:165 Yet there are men who take (for worship) others besides God, as equal (with God): They love them as they should love God. But those of Faith are overflowing in their love for God. If only the unrighteous could see, behold, they would see the penalty: that to God belongs all power, and God will strongly enforce the penalty.
76:8-9 And [the righteous] feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive,- (Saying),"We feed you for the sake of God alone: no reward do we desire from you, nor thanks.
11:90 But ask forgiveness of your Lord, and turn unto Him (in repentance): For my Lord is indeed full of mercy and loving-kindness.
85:14 • And He is the Oft-Forgiving, Full of Loving-Kindness.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 • If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.