An old Zen parable:
Two brothers worked together on the family farm. One was married and had a large family. The other was single. At the day's end, the brothers shared everything equally, produce and profit.
Then one day the single brother said to himself, "It's not right that we should share equally the produce and the profit. I'm alone and my needs are simple." So each night he took a sack of grain from his bin and crept across the field between their houses, dumping it into his brother's bin.
Meanwhile, the married brother said to himself, "It's not right that we should share the produce and the profit equally. After all, I'm married and I have my wife and my children to look after me in years to come. My brother has no one, and no one to take care of his future." So each night he took a sack of grain and dumped it into his single brother's bin.
Both men were puzzled for years because their supply of grain never dwindled. Then one dark night the two brothers bumped into each other. Slowly it dawned on them what was happening. They dropped their sacks and embraced one another.
Love is a difficult thing to define, but it is an easy concept to illustrate, isn’t it? We know when it is present in our lives. And we know when it is absent, as we feel a very deep sense of loss in our lives. The search for love is an ancient one that echoes down the corridors of time. Our desire for it and our ability to give it is unique to the human condition. Love is also the center of our faith. John’s letter tells us plainly—God is love, and whoever lives in God and God in them, lives in love.
And we know this because of God’s love that he sent his son to die for us on the cross that we might be here today. Unfortunately though, our cultural norm as 21st century Christians is a by-product of the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment. This began in the West in the 17th and 18th centuries with the end of the religious wars that had torn apart Europe.
The Enlightenment encouraged religious tolerance for good reason and the use of the mind and intellect in religious thinking. As a result, this encouraged a lot of theologies, including deism – which was a favorite of several of our founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
Deism is the notion that there is a creator God, but there is no personal engagement of God in our world. No Holy Spirit, no miracles, no movement, no extension of the throne of God and all it entails in our world today. The Enlightenment was also influenced by the scientific revolution which began to question assumptions about the natural world that we live in.
With the expansion of science, Christians were forced to become more critical thinkers—and that is a good thing—because it helps us to love God more with all of our minds. But another result is that we have swung as a culture to being overly critical. And with that, we have narrowed our faith to a list of beliefs and dogmas, squeezing out all of the mystery of God in this world because of our wider scientific worldview.
And with that, biblical scholarship began to take precedence, particularly in our seminaries, over the defining characteristics of what it means to be a Christian. The definition became having correct knowledge, having the right beliefs and that was all that we needed.
That’s the message of the 20th and 21st century regarding our faith. That faith somehow became severed from action and we as a church today inherited this world view. And with its inheritance we have ceased to recognize that our defining characteristic as the body of Christ, as disciples of Jesus, according to Jesus himself in John 13, is not correct theology or dogma, but rather that we love one another.
That’s how the world will recognize us, through our love, not through our apologetics. So back to the parable: Love is not just being kind. Although kind is very good, love is much deeper than that because it is connected to the mystery of God—it’s a response to it. In fact love originates from God – that’s what scriptures tell us—that true love cannot be manufactured from nothing. It plays off something that was created a long time ago.
Think of it as a Wimbledon final between the world’s number 1 and a near unranked also-ran. There is no chance for an upset. That is until early on, the underdog wins a serve. Then wins another game, and then another. Soon the nerves of the underdog are calming, while, the champ becomes more and more frustrated. Bad shots begin to pile up as his angry energy is rebounded by the challenger, who seems to just get the racket in front of the ball. The challenger is using the force coming at him, to return the ball. He is playing the best game of his life, simply returning the fiery smashes coming at him.
God’s love works the same way. God loves, God has already done the work of love. We simply hold out our lives and reflect back to God what God has already reflected to us. And we get to play the best game of our lives.
So how does that work? First of all, love begins by letting go of our expectations for someone else. Instead we let God uncover a person. When we love our neighbor we are called to do so like Michelangelo approached a piece of marble. Did you know that he spent four months just looking at piece of marble that had been turned down twice by other artists? That piece became the statue of David. Four months, just looking! In those months he was waiting for the marble to speak to him about what it wanted to become. Michelangelo’s job was to simply wait and listen.
So when we truly love someone, we don’t bring to the table our own agendas of love or what we want that person to become. Instead we are called to invite God to show us how to love people as they need to be loved, so they can become what God has already envisioned them to be.
This requires a lot of patience, a lot of listening and a lot of waiting. Things that we do not uphold in our culture as positive things. But that’s what God calls us to do in love.
The second thing that God tells us is that love is the absence of fear. If we had read more of I John, it would have come out that perfect love casts out all fear. Fear clouds our judgment of another person. But in real love, we set aside all of our pre-conceived notions of another.
How many times have you not loved another because of fear? I can’t count the number of times I have let fear override the call to love: the homeless person in the median, a student across the classroom who did not look like me, the guy on the airplane who did not speak the same language, the middle school kid I saw crying, but did not talk to because of my own PTSD from middle school.
You have been there, haven’t you? We are all human, but fear is the enemy of love.
If there is nothing else you take away from this morning, remember this: fear is the enemy of love.
The answer to all the horrible and seemingly random things that are happening in our society right now is not to hide away, hunkering down with people just like us—our tribe—in fear, encasing ourselves in walls, either real or metaphorical. The answer is to love more, to love everyone, to watch love transform lives and then maybe bad things wouldn’t happen so much anymore. Because perfect love casts out all fear.
The third thing is that love is action. It is not a feeling. It requires us to do something. There’s a fellow from San Diego, Bob Goff, whose book and blogs address this perfectly, his book is “Love Does.”
The point is love requires something of us. Just as God released his son, just as Jesus gave up everything to come down here to die on a cross for us, so that we might have abundant life here and now, love is painful because it requires something of us. If it isn’t painful, then it likely isn’t love.
Finally, love is not about someone needing to fulfill something in us, it is about wanting what is best for someone else. Love and compassion are intimately bound, compassion is being with someone in their suffering.
So this is the hardest part about love, there is nothing in it for us. Nothing tangible, at least, except one really important thing, we get to have a purpose. We get to be reflectors of God and God’s image. We get to bear that to the world. And that is a pretty remarkable thing—when we get to love one another.