The text for today’ s homily is from the Gospel reading: (Matthew 22:36-40)
Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? He said to them,
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul , and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
There have been voices in every generation that have said that love is the world’ s only hope. But that sounds so trite and sentimental as to be an almost embarrassing assertion. It just sounds too simplistic to say, If only we would love, then things would be fine. It embarrassed one of the great atheists of the 20th century, the English philosopher Bertrand Russell. He wrote that despite all the complexity of the world’ s problems, our most urgent need is not for a new invention or technique, but for something profoundly simple: The root of the matter is very simple and old-fashioned, a thing so simple I am ashamed to mention it for fear of the derisive smile which wise cynics will greet my words. The thing I mean – and please forgive me for mentioning it – is love, Christian love, or compassion.
But once we’ ve uttered the word love , we’ ve actually raised a lot more questions than we’ ve answered. Because Love means just about anything these days. We say we love Ben & Jerry’ s Ice Cream, we love our cats and dogs, we love being with old friends..
The word Love is used for every slight degree of sexual attraction. There was a popular movie around a couple years ago called, Love Actually . I didn’ t see it, but my friends who did tell me there was not anything in the movie that could possibly be called love .
Someone has suggested that there are really three kinds of love. There is because love . I love you because you have been good to me or because you please me in some way. There is If Love . I will love you if you look good, or behave yourself or if you do what I want you to do. And then there is Anyhow Love . No matter what, I love you.
The reality is that every human being needs love. We would never have survived infancy without it. And we would spend our adult lives locked in the misery of our own self-absorption if we didn’ t find at least some ways to love and be loved. The danger, though, is that we think love is something we can go out and find for ourselves. Listen to this little poem by D.H. Lawrence:
Those that go searching for love
only manifest their own lovelessness,
and the loveless never find love,
only the loving find love,
and they never have to seek it.
It’ s one of the great paradoxes of human life. The very thing we want most – to be loved – is not something we can go out and get. Instead, we have to open ourselves to receive it by joining the company of lovers. Only the loving find love.
One of the most important books I ever encountered fell into my hands sometime in my early 30′ s, and it has stayed with me ever since. It’ s the psychiatrist Erich Fromm’ s work called The Art of Loving . Fromm starts off by saying that people go into love with three fundamental misunderstandings: First, that the problem of love is primarily that of being loved rather than of loving; second, the assumption that the problem of love is the problem of the object…that if I can just find the right person or the right cause to love, then of course, I’ ll love. And third, the notion that falling in love is the point of love, instead of its being the beginning, the first lush blossom that has to give way if real, enduring fruit can grow.
No. Fromm says that loving is an act of the will. It is an art of caring for the other that has to be learned over a lifetime. You remember the old Peanuts cartoon where Linus says, I love humanity. It’ s people I can’ t stand. Love is particular. And we should be able to love anyone, Fromm says, not just the people who suit us or please us. You see, loving isn’ t the same thing as liking, which is a useful distinction to hold onto at home, or even at church. We don’ t have to like someone in order to love them! But then an odd thing happens…slowly, by loving someone, by caring for their well-being in all their prickly particularity, and praying for them, we can begin to find things to like in them.
That’ s the kind of love we hear about in Paul’ s great hymn to love, If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. It’ s hard to even read it in church these days because of its sentimental associations with just about every wedding we’ ve gone to. But if you listen carefully, there’ s nothing sentimental; about this tough-minded view of love. Love turns out to be work – hard work. No matter how eloquent you are, Paul writes, how smart or talented or generous, without love, it’ s all a waste of time. The word he uses for love is the Greek word agape , the same word Jesus used for God-like, self-giving, love. Agape entails a decision, a commitment, to care for the well-being of the other. Here’ s how Paul describes it:
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 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
I wonder if brides and grooms really hear that . If they did we wouldn’t be seeing 50% of marriages ending in divorce. I wonder if partners hear that, if neighbors and citizens of the community hear that. Love’ s work means bearing what we thought would be unbearable. And don’ t think of this as a passive kind of loving. To love means to speak the truth, to say hard things, to be willing to hear hard things. It means saying no sometimes, setting limits and accepting responsibility. It can look like changing diapers and doing the dishes. It can look like a father patiently calming down his daughter who has been crying all through church one morning. It can look like a woman, with all the demands of her own life, helping her own mother into church, as she helps her mother with everything else in her life. Love looks like insisting that our youngsters come to church , because like brushing their teeth or going to school, they need it whether they know it or not.
I recently read an account of a young professor who years ago found himself on a plane sitting next to Dr, Martin Luther King, and as they traveled he revealed to Dr. King that he was active in the civil rights struggle on his own campus. And because of this work he had become alienated from his father. He told Dr. King how his father could not understand him and how they had grown apart. What can I do? he asked Dr. King, to raise the consciousness of my father, to make him see that he’ s a racist? Dr. King put his hand on the angry man’ s hand and said, Your father is doing the best he can. He has not had many of your opportunities; opportunities that your father has provided for you. As a Christian, you must be patient with him and love him.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Let’ s face it. Few of us are very good at loving. It takes practice – starting maybe with small things, like learning to love the person living in the house with us, or working at the workstation next to ours. Learning to care for who they are, to want the best for them, to pray for them. That can take awhile. But eventually we begin to get the hang of this loving, and it can stretch and grow and take in more and more of the world around us. But hard and costly as it is, this work of love is the key that unlocks life itself. Only the loving find love , DH Lawrence says, and they never need to seek it.
I close with this ancient blessing:
Life is short, and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.