Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Increasing Our Capacity to Love

May 9, 2004

The Rev. Blair A. Pogue
Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna, VA

Leviticus 19:1-2; 9-18; Psalm 145; John 13:31-35

Today’s readings from Leviticus and the Gospel of John both mention the word love. In Leviticus God tells the Israelites through Moses that they should love their neighbors as they love themselves. In John Jesus tells his disciples that they should love one another just as he has loved them. Today is mother’s day. Many of us gave or sent our mothers cards telling them – in so many words – that we love them. What, exactly, does the “word” love mean? We throw it around so much, hear it so much, but I’m not sure we really think about its meaning. What does our culture mean by the word? What does the word mean to us as Christians, as people of faith?

Let’s begin with our culture. Most of us here today would probably say that we love and have loved people. By saying this we usually mean an intense emotional feeling, and sometimes romantic love. Most of us sign our letters to friends with the salutation “love” meaning deep friendship. At the same time we speak of loving vacations, ice cream, and someone’s new outfit.

Out of curiosity, I googled the word love. One hundred and twenty two million references came up. The first page on my computer included the following entries: “Love, Courtney, charges to be dropped?”; “Troll: a Love Story (from the Village Voice)”; “The Love Calculator” – something which, “helps you calculate the probability on a successful relationship between two people” in an “affective” way; “Love Dogs”; “Love Cats”; “Free Love and Personality Tests”; “Love Poems and Quotes”; and the Question “What is True Love?” followed by the sub-questions, “How do I know if I’ve found it?” and “How can I make it last?” and including a website for the curious, Other than Courtney Love’s latest antics and “Love Dogs” and “Love Cats,” love here seems to be about romantic relationships and finding the love you want and think you need.
What about a biblical understanding of love?

Today’s passage from the thirteenth chapter of John takes place at the last supper. Jesus has just indicated that he will be betrayed by the one to whom he gives a morsel of bread. He dips the bread in the wine and hands it to Judas saying, “what you are going to do, do it quickly.” Jesus knows that the time has come for his crucifixion and death, and he prays that his disciples understand the import of all that he has done and said. Prior to the meal he washed the disciples’ feet and gave them a new commandment, that they love one another just as he has loved them. It will be through their love for each other that others will know that the disciples follow Jesus. It will be through their love for each other that others will see and come to know God. Jesus’ ultimate goal is that his love for his disciples and those around him, leading ultimately to his death on the cross, makes God known.

In our reading from Leviticus, the Ten Commandments are taken to a new level. The people of Israel are called to manifest the character and nature of God in their words and actions. They are called to be holy as God is holy. Other ancient religions did not appeal to the person, nature, and actions of their deities as the basis for moral thinking and acting. Judaism, by contrast, appealed to a God who was holy and beyond reproach. The Jews’ God spoke to them through Moses, exhorting them to choose life. Choosing life was living a life pleasing to God, rooted in God’s vision and promises.
In Leviticus God’s people are instructed to, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Love here is not a vague expression of sentiment, but something expressed in concrete acts of mercy and service. Holiness is expressed through love for neighbors, the poor and the alien, the rich, the deaf and blind, truth and honesty. God’s people are called to live lives of integrity and interconnectedness. Each set of instructions is emphasized by the closing phrase, “I am the LORD.”

How do these passages relate to us? How are we to live our lives in light of these commandments to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love others as Jesus has loved us?

I recently learned of a woman who underwent a near-death experience. The woman began to fade away and to see an intense light. The feeling was overwhelmingly one of peace. And then she heard a voice which she believed to be the voice of God. The voice told her that she needed to go back. She wasn’t ready to die yet. She needed to increase her capacity to love.
We need to increase our capacity to love. This is, I think, what God has been trying to teach us from the dawn of Creation. From the creation of a world deemed “good” to Abraham and Sarah to the Prophets to Jesus, God has reached out to us, attempting to get the message through: we need to increase our capacity to love. One of God’s primary attributes is love. If we want to be rooted in God, if we want to live the lives God intended for us to live, we must daily ask God to increase our capacity to love.

Increasing our capacity to love is not about feelings – although feelings may come into play – but about committing ourselves to the way of God – not just through resolutions but by asking God to work in us, to do a new thing. Love manifests itself in concrete acts of compassion, service, and inclusion. It involves seeing others as God’s beloved. It involves openness and humility. It comes from a posture of thanksgiving, from having received and experienced God’s grace. Love desires to give back. Love is not toleration of dysfunctional behavior on the part of others, but calling ourselves and others to a higher standard of commitment, to behaviors that give rather than take life.

Already, I see so much that is of God in this congregation. I constantly witness and learn about people who have been welcomed here – especially those who could easily have fallen through the cracks. I see the many people who give their time to further God’s mission here at Holy Comforter and beyond. I see the people working quietly behind the scenes, never asking for a word of thanks or praise, preparing the altar for worship, taking consecrated bread and wine from this altar to homebound parishioners, serving as spiritual companions and listening hearts to those who are ill and alone, teaching our children and young adults about Jesus, volunteering at Five Talents, facilitating small group Bible studies, tutoring children in our community, loving our brothers and sisters in Honduras, and making meals for those without food in the route 50 motels. I know that many of you are the light of Christ to co-workers, acquaintances, and friends. I see the outpouring of love and support when each of us shares news of a birth, an illness, a death.

In these and many other ways, we are increasing our capacity to love. It is a daily practice. I leave you with three questions. If God were to call you home today, would you be ready? What would God say to you? How large is your capacity to love?

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