I hear it all the time. Whether talking to engaged friends or working with a couple in premarital counseling, inevitably the question will come up, “So why do you want to get married?” And then I get the response, “Well, we’re just so in love.” Though their googly eyes are endearing and make me somewhat nostalgic for a time long ago, my thought is almost always, “Cute. I wonder how long that will last.” Though I try not to squash their mushy moment, eventually we get around to talking about life outside of their love bubble – talking about what happens when they argue, how they will negotiate the in-laws, and who will balance the checkbook. Those are the times when the warm emotions of love are sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. I do not meant to suggest that those warm, fuzzies of love are temporary necessarily; I simply mean that the emotional experience of love is not enough to sustain any relationship – neither those between couples, family, nor friends. We are right to assume that love is necessary for relationships, but our definition of love has to be much bigger if we are to maintain any kind of meaningful relationships with others.
Sometimes we forget the multilayered meaning of love when we hear passages like the one from our gospel lesson today. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and… love your neighbor as yourself.” These commandments are so familiar to us that we sometimes forget how hard they really sound. If our definition of love only includes the emotional kind of love that we might call “being in love,” does that mean we need to have googly eyes toward God? I know very few people who profess to be “in love” with God. In fact, I am not sure we would even say that we love God. We might be grateful to God, we may revere God, or we might even be in awe of God. But I know very few people who would say, “I love God.” That emotion just feels strange to us. And yet, Jesus says today, love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
Now the second commandment is a little easier. We are used to loving our neighbors – loving people is what we are used to doing. We love our friends and our family. But Jesus says to love our neighbor, not just our friends. Our neighbor includes those grouchy neighbors next door, that kid from school or that guy from work who always pushes your buttons, and most certainly that woman who cut you off while driving. Our neighbor also includes those neighbors that often go unseen by us: the teen at JFK High School whose family cannot afford clothes and school supplies this year, that family who picked up our produce in Huntington Station through Food Not Bombs, that homeless man who received basic toiletries from St. Ignatius this week, or that Veteran’s family who is struggling to put life back together after returning to Plainview from war. About these grouchy, mean, and unseen neighbors Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When I work with those couples planning weddings, I am grateful when they choose the First Corinthians passage for their wedding, “Love is patient, love is kind…”[i] I am grateful because then we can talk about what love really is. We can talk about how love is more than simply a warm feeling or even a passionate desire. In fact, when scripture talks about love, more often than not the kind of love scripture is talking about is not a passive emotion, but an active mercy. In scripture, love is not something we feel, but something that we do. To help us understand the difference, scripture will often translate the word for love as “loving-kindness.” Love is not a feeling, but a choice: a choice that we have to make over and over again. As one person explains, “To love neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as one would act toward those close to you. We treat the stranger as well as we treat those that we love emotionally.”[ii]
So what does this active love look like? For our neighbor, this kind of love is a bit more obvious. The next time someone is rude to you or unkind to you, instead of reacting to them defensively, perhaps you take a moment to wonder what happened to them in life that made them act this way toward you. Once you start to wonder about what things make them human and what has hurt them in life, your ability to be angry with them for hurting you lessens a bit. In my early working days, I worked with a woman who most of the time was pretty pleasant to be around. But there were times that she lashed out – and when she did I used to be both perplexed and angry. I eventually started avoiding her altogether when, in a totally different context, someone who knew her shared with me that her father and an ex-husband had been alcoholics and were both abusive. Suddenly the pieces fell together for me. She had not known the kind of love that God commands – and I had not loved her as my neighbor. The next time she snapped at me, her snapping felt less personal and awful – and instead I could see a vulnerable, hurting person who did not know how to love. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, this is the kind of shift in thinking Jesus invites.
In some ways, loving our neighbor is a tangible task we can imagine assuming. But loving God still feels a little foreign, let alone loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul. Luckily, God leads by example. Our stories of God tell us of how, time and again, God chooses God’s people, makes covenants with them, forgives them, and invites them into relationship again. God’s love for God’s people is not an emotion, but an action. Just recently we reheard the Exodus stories of how as soon as the people get out of bondage, they complain about not having food, not having water, and feeling separated from their creature comforts. We heard again about how when God takes too long with Moses up on the mountain, they quickly revert to worshiping a golden calf. And yet God keeps providing for, caring for, and loving them. This is our model for how we are to love God too. “We can love with our heart: through generosity to God’s people. We can love with our soul: by worshiping God and praying for our neighbors and ourselves. And we can love with our minds: studying God’s Word and letting it correct us, enlighten us, and send us out in loving action to the world.”[iii]
As we continue to prayerfully walk the way through this stewardship season, I first wondered whether this lesson really had anything to say about stewardship. But as I thought about loving God and neighbor, I realized that is what stewardship is really all about. Like love, stewardship is not something we feel or think about – stewardship is something we do. When we make a financial pledge or contribution, we are expressing to God our gratitude for our blessings. We take money from our pockets – money that certainly could be used for a hundred other things we want or need – and we instead give that money to God. This is our full-bodied way of loving God with our heart, soul, and mind. And, when the church uses that money for educating our children, serving our neighbors in need, and sharing the Gospel in our community, the church helps us to love our neighbor through our money too. Jesus is certainly inviting us to change our feelings about God and our neighbor – but Jesus is also inviting us to change our actions toward God and neighbor. That is what love is.
Next week, you will have the chance to act on that love. We will process our pledge cards forward, as a symbolic gesture of our financial commitment to the work and ministry of St. Margaret’s. We commit to funding the worship, which helps us love God with our soul. We commit to funding the outreach and evangelism, which helps us love God with heart. We commit to funding education and formation, which helps us love God with our minds. And we commit to funding a ministry that enables us to not only love God, but to love our neighbor as ourselves. I cannot think of a better way to invest our money than to invest our money in love. Amen.
[i] 1 Corinthians 13.1-13.
[ii] Clayton Schmit, “Matthew 22:34-46 Commentary,” 2011, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1063 on October 21, 2014.