What is love?

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a call with a book study group from another parish, who were wrestling with how we live our faith in the real world.  The group had read the book I wrote a couple of years ago, and they wanted to discuss it with me.  Over the course of our conversation, someone asked me how it is that I came to serve as a priest in an urban, downtown parish.  I paused and thought about it before offering my honest response.  And here it is: I serve in an urban, downtown church because, by myself, I am not a courageous person.  That’s the truth.  And here’s what I mean: It would be tantalizingly easy for me in my life to pursue ministry in some idyllic parish somewhere, buffered by storybook aesthetics and amenities that grant me permission to imagine, slowly but surely, that the whole world looks like me and shares only my values and concerns.  A large part of me would prefer that life.  I could envelop myself in it, and, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I have an innate tendency to want to do so.  Serving the Cathedral, serving and proclaiming God in the midst of the city, forces me to be and do otherwise.  The Cathedral exists in the very heart of the financial, judicial, and recreational center of our city.  And, we abide among those who live on the very margins of society.  To put a fine point on it, I can’t walk from our parking garage to my office without interacting with the homeless virtually every day.  The Cathedral’s context forces me, forces all of us who make our spiritual home here, to leave our bubbles and engage in the blessed, complicated mess and panoply of real life.  And I need it to do so.  I need the Cathedral to remind me, daily, of God’s greatest commandment.

The wily Pharisees ask Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?”  In response, Jesus draws forth the deepest conviction from the Jewish tradition.  He recites a portion of the Shema, which is, according to the Talmud, “the first thing that a child must learn to say and the last word that should come out of a believer’s mouth before he or she dies.”[i]  Jesus says, “‘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.’”

Jesus’ words, quoted from Deuteronomy and Leviticus[ii], beg three questions for us: Why is the first commandment first; why is the second commandment second; and, first of all, what is love?

Love me | Gülen yüzlü semboller, Emoji ve Semboller

Modern love is almost always conceived as an emotion.  Love is understood as the feeling of love, that heady, passionate, upending rush to which we so readily give ourselves and of which we despair in confusion and lament when it dissipates or disappears.  That’s the very problem with the modern conception of love.  Like a Gulf Coast hurricane, it hits with full force, but then it eventually peters out, sometimes leaving damage in its wake.  Too many marriages end, for instance, because of this conception of love.  When the feeling of love ebbs—when the couple no longer feels in love—then they are left wondering what could possibly remain, and how the life they’ve built together can endure in such a drought.  And they walk away.

But that conception of love—love as primarily a feeling—is the creation of Romantic poets.  As hard as it is to say and hear, it is not central in Scripture, and it is not what Jesus means today. 

Love, in scripture, is not primarily a feeling.  It is a dogged act of will.  It is an all-in commitment that surrenders the self to something beyond the self, and once the self is surrendered, it cannot be taken back.  Love is courage, and hope, and steely-eyed dedication that is most pronounced exactly when warm and fuzzy feelings are not present. 

Such love is what God expresses when God creates, not once-upon-a-time, but in every moment, as God doggedly wills the creation to be and holds us in being against the chaos that would, if God’s love flagged even for an instant, unravel the world.

Holding a glowing earth globe in hands - care protection - Blackhawk

Such love is what Jesus expresses when Jesus doggedly carries the cross on the Way of Tears and travels through the agony of the Passion and death itself to draw us with him into eternal life.

The first commandment is that we love God with all our hearts, and all our souls, and all our minds.  In other words, the love that creates us and holds us in being, the love that saves and redeems us from darkness into light, we are to receive and return to God.  That is the whole meaning of life, in fact.  We are the love song God sings, and our lives are to be the echo of that song back to God.  And not only when we feel the warmth of God’s presence, but with a dogged commitment of will even and especially when feelings of ecstasy, or comfort, or peace are absent.  Because that’s what love is.

But when we grasp this about love and about God—when we find ourselves wanting to return God’s love to God—how do we do it?  The answer is why Jesus tethers the second commandment “like unto” the first.  We can worship, and sing, and pray, but the Incarnate Christ tells us that the way God receives our love is not through such things.  Indeed, on their own they are merely flattery, and flattery is never true love.  The way we echo God’s love for us, and what God wants from us, is to love our neighbors as we ourselves are loved

And this, too, even when warm feelings toward our neighbors are not present, or, more so, when the feelings that are present are fallen, petty, human feelings of disagreement, or disregard, or disgust.  Even then, our love for neighbor must be as dogged and persistent as God’s creating love, as Jesus’ redeeming love. 

Our love for neighbor is the surrender of our will to God’s will, and such surrender is really difficult for twenty-first century Americans.  Part of the surrender is that we don’t get to choose our neighbors.  They are the entire human family—including those who look, and think, and believe, and act differently than we do—and, beyond even that, our neighbor includes the whole good earth God has made.  We are to love them all, with the same commitment with which God loves us.

I make my faith home at the Cathedral, and I suspect you do, too, because you want to echo God’s love in this way.  And if you are like me, you need the courage to do so. Which is why we are at Christ Church.  Here, we cannot escape Jesus’ words.  I mean that literally, as they are enshrined in stained glass just above the organ console as we approach the Cathedral high altar.  Beyond that, in downtown Houston we find ourselves in the midst of both the broken despair and blessed fullness of God’s world.  Every category of neighbor is at our doorstep.  We see them, and we acknowledge them, and, with the love of God given to us and flowing through us as our dose of courage, we love them.  And if we can do it here, then perhaps we can echo that love everywhere we are and everywhere we go.  God’s love echoed through each one of us adds a note to the world’s song.   

8 Nelson Mandela Quotes That Inspire Me Every Day | Lion World Travel

To end with a different metaphor, in 1994 Nelson Mandela wrote, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.  Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going.  Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”[iii]        

Love the Lord your God will all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  Openly, doggedly and with courage; today and always.  And the chorus of God’s song will resound to the ends of the earth.

[i] https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1024&context=aussj.

[ii] Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.

[iii] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom.

Friends in low places

Blame it all on my roots
I showed up in boots
And ruined your black tie affair.
The last one to know
The last one to show
I was the last one you thought you’d see there.
And I saw the surprise
And the fear in his eyes
When I took his glass of champagne.
I toasted you
Said “Honey, we may be through,
But you’ll never hear me complain…”[i]

Wait, wait, wait!  Don’t launch into the chorus!  We’re not supposed to engage in congregational singing during COVID!  Plus, the walls of the Cathedral might come tumbling down like those of Jericho with a chorus of Garth Brooks.

Garth Brooks - No Fences (2014, CD) | Discogs

So why would I quote Mr. Brooks at the outset this morning?  Because we read in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ parable about a banquet that ends up populated by exactly all those friends in low places.

Let’s set the scene.  A king has prepared a wedding banquet, and the king’s preparations exceed generosity: Fatted calves, oxen, all the stops pulled out.  But when the time arrives, those invited not only choose not to come, but scoff, sneer, and deride the gift.  Some even do violence to the king.  It is then that the doors are thrown open to the friends in low places, “both good and bad,” scripture amazingly tells us, as any and all are invited to the banquet.

More than a preacher’s hook at the outset of a sermon, Garth Brooks’ song actually is apt.  When the tables turn, the shock and surprise of those who think they are entitled to be at the feast—so entitled that they choose blithely to skip it—is palpable.  The surprise is equal for the many who are then invited in.  It’s beyond the realm of their comprehension that they have been invited into the very heart of the king’s home.  One can imagine one of these latter guests lifting a glass in astonishment that he, of all people, sits at the table of the king.

         This astonished relief is perhaps the most common sentiment of those who come to grasp the radical depth of grace.  From St. Augustine to Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel, we read stories of those who, due either to their publicly-known indiscretions and failures or the darkest secrets of their hearts, can’t imagine that the God of grace and goodness could ever accept them.  Have you ever felt that way?  Do you feel that way now?  But then, the parable happens in their lives.  Somehow, somewhere, the astonished recognition dawns that, despite the late hour, despite their paltry effort, despite the repeated backsliding into sin, God wants them.  God throws open the doors.  God embraces them with God’s whole heart.  God embraces you.  God embraces me.

When life knocks you to your knees, just remember you're in the perfect  position to pray. | Kneeling in prayer, Prayers, Life verses

This is the best news.  If you’ve been paying attention these past few weeks, you may recognize that today’s parable is a variation on a theme.  For several Sundays, we’ve read Jesus’ parables in which, as my friend Austin Rios says, “God’s constant invitation to live in relationship is rejected by some, abused by others, and how God’s response is to fling open the doors of salvation as wide as possible.”

But today’s parable ends with a disconcerting twist.  Once all the friends from low places have been invited into the banquet, the king spies someone without a robe.  The king asks, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”  The guest remains silent; he does not reply.  And he is thrown out of the feast, back into the darkness.

Does God retract God’s open invitation to all?  Does God embrace some only then to decide that God doesn’t care for them after all?  There are several crucial interpretive keys in this last paragraph of today’s reading. 

The first key is the missing robe.  It is a wedding garment, the sign that the guest himself is wedded to grace, that he is committed to this banquet, that he wants the joy of God’s heart to be his own.  But this guest wears no wedding robe.  He is a true wedding crasher, a pretender through and through.  He is not one whose arrival has been marked by the astonished surprise of his acceptance.  He desires no relationship with his host, with the wedding party, or with anyone else there.  That is what a wedding robe would signify.  This guest simply wants to enjoy the surroundings, the trappings of the wedding, drink champagne and eat beef tenderloin.  He wants to be in the presence of God’s grace, but he does not want truly to participate in it. 

The second key is that, even without a wedding robe, the king—God—calls this pretender “friend.”  Such an utterance is never casual for God.  It is, perhaps especially here, God’s intimate expression of love and care.  Even for one who comes with no desire or intention to know God, or to participate in God’s love, or to be a true part of the community of grace, God extends friendship.  God (patiently, I think, and likely with some divine confusion) asks the man why he has come without his robe—why the man would attend the banquet but not be wedded to grace—and even then the man doesn’t not adorn himself.  He closes himself off in silence.

We must take care to note that the turmoil described at the end of the parable—the weeping and gnashing of teeth—is not God’s doing.  God doesn’t inflict these things as punishment.  Rather, they are simply what life is like when we choose not to live into God’s acceptance of us and wed ourselves to the profound and universally-available gift of grace.  When we choose to walk outside or, perhaps worse, when we choose merely to pretend to be part of God’s community of grace, then life is dark and angry—sometimes frantically so—and everything is marked by a pallor of sorrow. 

Friends, the world is dark and angry enough these days.  We need no more pretenders, who claim God but dress in clothing other than the Gospel of Jesus.  We need not be pretenders.  It is time for each and all of us to hear the herald of the king, calling us—yes, us—into the banquet.  Though we may have trouble looking in the mirror and accepting ourselves, God looks upon us in love and invites us to be wedded to grace.  When we put on that robe, not only our lives but the world begins to change.

And how does that look?  If the life of the pretender is dark and troubled, what is a life that weds itself to the God who accepts us even with all of our faults and flaws?  For that, we turn to St. Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians today.  Paul says:

“Rejoice in the Lord always…Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near to you, so do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Matthew 22:1-14 – The Invitation | Fr. Charles Erlandson Erlandson

Imagine our lives, and our world, if we just. started. there.  Imagine if we cleaved in our thoughts, our passions, our speech, and our relationships to that which is true, and honorable, and just.  Imagine if we extended that to, and expected that of, one another in love.  Darkness, anger, and anxiety would subside, and the joy of the banquet would become real.  We would feast with one another, wedded to God’s grace, and we would rejoice that all are invited to the table. I’ll lift my glass of champagne to that.

[i] “Friends in Low Places,” Dewayne Blackell and Earl Lee.  Recorded by Garth Brooks on the1990 album No Fences.