There was a Far-Side cartoon years ago on one slide it showed a man plucking the pedals of a flower and muttering to himself, “She loves, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not.” And then in the next slide we see the object of his love and she is staring off into space and thinking, “I love vanilla.”
Love is grand right? But what exactly does love really mean? We use love in all sorts of ways. I love my wife. I love chocolate! I love to play chess. I love a beautiful sunrise. We use love to express physical desire and attraction and to express taste bud reactions. We use it to express strong positive emotions. We use it to express strength of will and commitment. So what exactly was Jesus talking about when he said love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength?
When most of us think of love we think of a strong affectionate feeling. And certainly that is what love is, but the type of love Christ was talking about goes beyond this. You see, feelings don’t always stay fervent. We feel strongly about one thing on one day, but the next day maybe not so much. Our feelings for other people may be very strong and passionate, yet these feelings over time grow less strong and less passionate. And that is OK. Feelings are simply emotions and we cannot sustain emotions over long periods of time. This is why when we marry someone we covenant with them. That is, we make a solemn oath that we will stay faithful for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until we are parted by death. Do you see? We are talking way beyond emotions here. An emotion cannot sustain warm, gushy feelings of love through sickness and poverty, and times when things are not going well. Sure when everyone is healthy and happy and things are going very well, then it is comparatively easy to be in love. But the kind of love required for marriage is a tougher more resilient love. It is stubborn, perhaps even a relentless love. And this love is the type of love we are to have for God the Father. We are to love and trust our Father God in sickness and health, in times of trouble and happiness, in times when we are financially OK and in times when we are really struggling. Our love for our Father God goes beyond an emotion; it is to become a way of life. We make our love for our Heavenly Father a commitment, which needs to become a part of how we think and live. We commit to this kind of love in response to his love because he has for us a relentless, stubborn love. This sort of love requires strength of will and purpose. This is the kind of love Jesus tells us we need to have for God our Father.
A rabbi asked his class, “Which act of charity is higher–giving out of obligation or giving from the heart?” All in the class were inclined to respond that giving from the heart was better, but they knew that often spiritual principals are opposite than the world’s. And sure enough, the rabbi said, “Giving from the heart is a wonderful thing. It is a very high act and should never be demeaned. But there is something much more important that happens when somebody gives charity out of obligation. Consider who is doing the giving. When somebody gives from the heart, there is a clear sense of oneself doing something; in other words, heartfelt charity always involves ego gratification. However, when we give out of obligation, when we give at a moment that every part of us is yelling NO! because of one reason or another–perhaps we do not like the beneficiary, or it is too much money, or any of thousands of reasons we use to avoid giving our money away–then we are confronting our own egos, and giving nonetheless. Why? We give because we are supposed to give. And what this means is that it is not us doing the giving, rather we are vehicles through which God gives.”
This is the sort of love Jesus is telling us we must develop. When we feel passionately about something it is not so hard to act upon it, but after the passion has settled down then we see the kind of love and commitment that we really have.
Jesus said we are not only to love God our Father but our neighbors as ourselves. During the course of earning her master’s degree, a young single woman found it necessary to commute several times a week to the state university in Burlington, Vermont which was a hundred miles away. Coming home late at night, she would see an old man sitting by the side of her road. He was always there, in subzero temperatures, in stormy weather, no matter how late she returned. He made no acknowledgment of her passing. The snow settled on his cap and shoulders as if he were merely another gnarled old tree. She often wondered what brought him to that same spot every evening. Perhaps it was a stubborn habit, private grief or a mental disorder. Finally, she asked a neighbor of hers, “Have you ever seen an old man who sits by the road late at night?” “Oh, yes,” said her neighbor, “many times.” “Is he a little touched in the head? Does he ever go home?” The neighbor laughed and said, “He’s no more touched than you or me. And he goes home right after you do. You see, he doesn’t like the idea of you driving so late all alone on these back roads, so every night he walks out to wait for you. When he sees your taillights disappear around the bend, and he knows you’re okay, he goes home to bed.”
Love for our neighbor, in the same way that love for our Father God is to be more than an emotion, more than how we feel at a given moment. We are to love our neighbors as we love and care for ourselves. Love for self may or may not include feelings of great affection; sometimes people don’t like themselves very much. Nonetheless even without feeling affection we care for ourselves by putting on clothes, eating, getting sleep, and so on. This is the love Jesus wants us to have for our neighbors. Just as we look out for our own needs, we are to look out for the needs of those around us.
Love for God and love for our neighbor is therefore not simply feelings of affection. It goes beyond feelings and moves into action. This month at St. Andrew’s we begin our annual stewardship campaign. It is during this time we expect our members and ask our regular attenders to consider what they plan to give to this church this coming year. We do this without embarrassment. As Christians we are told to give and so we give out of obedience. We give back to God in response to his great love for us and out of thankfulness for all he has given us and done for us. Scripture teaches that from very early times God’s people gave one part out of ten back to God. We still follow that guideline. We know and can attest that as we trust God and give this one part in ten back to him, he helps us with our other monthly financial obligations. This past week most of you received a letter from me. This coming week you will receive a letter from Craig our senior warden. In Craig’s letter you will find a pledge card. We ask you pray about it and then to fill out and return the pledge card so that we are able to set-up a budget for this coming year.
Martin Luther once said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” Christianity is not like this. Christ calls us into a life of love which is to mirror God’s love for us. It is not a ‘she loves me; she loves me not’ nor an ’I love vanilla’ sort of love. Christ’s love for us led him to give his life on our behalf and he suffered greatly in his sacrifice. And in response to his great love he calls us to follow him. So let us love God our Father with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, and all our strength. And let us love our neighbors as ourselves. Amen