In the name of God, who is love. Amen.
Earlier this week I was in a meeting with some other clergy in our diocese and the subject of Valentine’s Day came up. One of the priests was telling a story on himself, and admitting that when he’d been talking with a parishioner, he’d forgotten when Valentine’s Day was. Not only did he get the day of the week wrong, he even got the date wrong. It was clearly nowhere on his radar.
He supposed that this flub was related to the fact that he’s single – he had no reason to think about Valentine’s Day. But I reminded him, everyone, regardless of their relationship status should remember February 14th, if only as a reminder that it precedes February 15th, which, along with November 1st, is important, because those are both half-priced candy days. Who cares if the chocolate comes in a heart-shaped box? At a big enough discount, it will bring joy to even the most romantically-resistant!
Valentine’s Day is always an interesting time for communicating in the church. The whole world is thinking about love, so we are primed to capitalize on that, and to interject into the conversation a bit of the truth we understand about love. Because what we understand is that as lovely as the chocolates and flowers and cards and all the rest are – that’s not really what love is. Those are sweet symbols that point us to a glimmer of the joy we can know from experiencing and devoting our lives to love. But real love is much more complex.
Real love is often about listening and sacrificing. Ray Bradbury once said, “In that film Love Story, there’s a line, ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. Love means saying you’re sorry every day for some little thing or other.”
As followers of Jesus, we often hear about the complexities of love. In one of Jesus’ most shocking (and hard to follow…) instructions, he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…” and expect nothing in return.
It is a hard thing to do. I remember once, I was serving in a congregation and there was someone in the community who simply could not stand me. Whatever I did, he found fault. Frankly, I felt constantly attacked. It left me feeling unsteady and distracted. It sucked all the energy out of me to the degree that it really did start getting in the way of how I exercised my ministry. In the midst of that situation, I encountered this text and decided to give it a try.
So I made it a point to mention this man, by name and out loud, every day as I prayed. At first it was nearly impossible. Each time I said his name, it felt sour on my tongue. And, at first there, simply saying his name was all I could manage. But, in time, I was able to go a little deeper. It got to where I didn’t cringe in praying for him. I started calling up specific instances in our relationship where I felt hated, cursed, and abused, and asking God to intercede there.
Before you get the wrong idea – God didn’t swoop in and magically fix the situation. We never reconciled. There was no reckoning where we came to understand and appreciate one another – there was no Hollywood ending. But what did happen, was that through praying – through committing to prayer for this difficult situation – I was changed. God didn’t fix all the things that I thought were wrong with him. God fixed me. God brought healing into the situation for me.
Eventually, I made my way out of that toxic situation, and was able to grow from it. But until then, it got to the point that whenever some new offense was committed, I would deal with it, but before letting it cause me to spiral out of control, I would remember that I’d be praying soon, and chuckle to myself that now I had something new to talk about. I don’t know if I’m mature enough to say that it became an understanding of love, but it was trusting the complexity of God’s love that brought me toward a more tolerable experience.
One of the things we say about God, almost without thinking about it, is that God is love. If you go online, you can probably find those three words, “God is love” emblazoned on any number of tchotchkes and t-shirts and mugs and pens… But think about what it means. God is love. Not chocolates and flowers, but true, complex, challenging, and awe-inspiring, joyful love. No matter how we experience God, it is an experience of love. Some would even say, no matter how we experience love, it is an experience of God.
And, if God is love, the way Jesus is describing love – love in the face of adversity, cruelty, even violence – then we really have to reevaluate what it means to be loved by God. We have to throw out the transactional ideas that are often instilled in us from childhood: behave so you can get your ticket to go to heaven. No, God is calling for love in even some of those egregious examples of “misbehaving” you could imagine.
God is love, regardless of our worthiness. It is God’s love that makes us worthy. There’s this line in the Eucharistic Prayer that we’re using today, which is one of the main reasons I ever choose to use this particular version. It says, “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation… For in these last days you… made us worthy to stand before you.” You made us worthy. You made us worthy. That’s the kind of love God is modeling for us. Love that makes things worthy of love for the sake of love. Not as payment for anything, but simply because of itself.
We, who have been made in the image of God, should strive for such love. Not so we can earn our way into heaven, but so we can be truer representations of the image of God that we are. Love, as Jesus describes it, is difficult. But it’s also natural. It’s how we were created: in the image of love. We strive for such love, because it makes us more of ourselves. Amen.