Sunday, July 30, 2017

What Is This Thing Called Love?

What Is This Thing Called Love?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

July 30, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Psalm 100

1 John 3: 16-18

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come into his presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he that made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him, bless his name.

For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.

Rather than starting this morning with the New Testament lesson, and the answer it gives, we’ll begin this morning with a question, and the best way to put a question like this to us is to hear it, and hear it more beautifully and poignantly, than you could by me merely speaking it. . . so listen. First you hear the clarinet . . . , and then the rest of the orchestra comes in . . .

What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?

That is our question. What does it mean to love? What is love? What is it that Christ says is the greatest commandment? What is it that we are to do? How should we think of it? This is going to be the theme of this next series, entitled, Love Defined, but not Confined. . . let us start, what is this thing called love?

Every year when I was teaching I began my classes with the same lesson. I used it as an introduction to what I think literature is all about. I would have them do their best to try and define "love", not that all literature is about love, of course not, couldn’t be, well maybe at some level, and if you stick with me I think you'll understand what I'm getting at.  It's cool because Love is a word that means so much, and it means something personal and it means something different to each person, and it means something even to teenage boys, who can find meaninglessness is most anything. It also is a word that is very much packed with experience, and each of us have experienced love in one of its forms throughout our lives. Even love’s absence is a noticeable form of Love, I’ve found. Love is something that is universal, it lives in all times and all places. It is an idea that is infinite, and so I know I am setting the boys up for failure, when I send them back to their dorms on the first night of school with a blank piece of paper, and the assignment that says, define love. . . and don't just define it from the dictionary, I want you to define it completely, every possible aspect of love, leave nothing out. Ok, go, gentlemen. . . good luck.

What would you do? Here is what they would do every single year. They always come back with basically the same ideas, it was like clockwork. There is the dictionary definition that would always come out first, and it is always easy to spot it, those cheaters think they're so smart. . . . something like . . . "the intense emotional feeling of attraction and attachment to a person or object." That was always first. . . the quite proud of themselves literalists were always first. . . smiling. . . but, then from some of the more slack likely creative types you get a few words trickling in, words like, passion, romance, affection, preference; sometimes unconditional would creep in. But in those first try definitions so much was always left out. . . it always was. . . which at this point is very good for the lesson because the bait is set. . .their minds are beginning to work, and they are already realizing that there is more to it instead of less, more to words than what the dictionary has to offer, more to answers than any mere sentence could bring to the table, and that is key, so next I push them further to get ideas down on paper. I ask them to come up with two word phrases that have love in them. . . like tough love, puppy love, love shack, love hate relationship. . . on and on. . . and as they say them I’d rush to write as many as I could get on the board, usually at least twenty or so, and with all of them on the board it is easy to see some of the major holes in their first definition. It just doesn't go far enough. . . and I ask them, what they think about their original definition. . . they always say it's pretty bad. . . it sells itself short. . . it is a cheap version, it is too limited.

It's at this point that I get into the root of the problem with them. . . and I get to do so by showing them a Greek root that is found in the assigning word, the cause of the problem, and the result of the problem, all at the same time, and that is the Greek root, "Fin." It is the root in words like "final" and "finish." And for the choir I think we had "fine" in our music this morning, like DC al Fine. . . where you go back to the beginning and then sing it through to the fine, to the end. . . yes the root fin means end. You see I'm always working on their vocabulary. . . you have to have many levels going on at once. . . kinda like a sermon. . . but yes this root "fin" is also in the word "define" because that is what you are doing. . . you are putting ends on where the word begins and ends, the boundaries of meaning that make the word itself. That is what you do when you define. . . but the problem with a word like "love" as I am trying to get them to see is that you can't put ends on it because . . . here is the next one. . . love is "infinite". . . do you hear it again, there is the "fin" again, this time describing something that has no ends. You can't define something that is infine. . . it doesn't work. . . because no matter what you do, when you set the ends you will end up, and here is the last one, "Confine," you always confine. . .  when you try to define the infinite.

So then with their minds swimming. . . I tell them, O. K.  so now do it. I want you to define Love. . . "but Mr. Atkinson you just said it was impossible." Sure it's impossible. . . and I'm the teacher and I'm telling you to do it, so go ahead. I tell them, this is not the last time that I will ask you to do something harder than what you can do (Remember the other week when I told yall having a Presbyterian Pastor teaching high school is tough, I’d have no trouble with telling my students to do something impossible). Now with them flabbergasted, frustrated, and utterly confused. . . I ask them. . . how do you do it. . . how do you define something that is infinite without confining it? How? . . .  Blank stares. . . Come on guys don't quit on me now. . . it's day 2. . .

Hand goes up. . . yes. . . "You could just be vague. . . "

"Sure"  you can just be vague. . . but isn't that just what we had on the board at first. . . a vague definition that really doesn't help us and sells us way too short?" Yes, beeeeep, thank you for playing, no good, too easy, I won't let you punt. . . I told them this anecdote. . . and it connects here. . . so you have a community. . . I tell them. . . let's call it a school. . . and the school has a religious tradition, but that religious tradition, though still there, does not reflect the make up of the school. . . maybe it does to a certain majority, but the school has grown much more diverse. . . so you decide to water down the message so as not to offend. . . you try to make everything safe. . . and vague if you will. . . what happens. . . nothing right. . . it all becomes a waste. . . no one gets anything out of it, because it is a lifeless, vague version of something that should be giving life. . .  Think about it with love. . .what if all you had was this vague definition limiting people's concept of how love works, what love does, how it affects people, what it is. . . what if you go with the definition of love that we started with. .. that whole intense feeling of attraction thing. . .and then that intense feeling of attraction isn't returned, and you get that amazing all encompassing pain that goes with love sometimes. . . but your definition doesn't include it because you were being safe and vague and. . . men do you see the problem? That person may think that their love wasn't real, they may down play their experience. . . they would be missing something extremely important.  "Yes coach, we get it." So next try. . .

How do you define something that is infinite? I start to give them hints. . . remember that you are in English class. . . its day 2 and this is an introduction exercise. . . more blank stares. . . I ask them. . .What if I were to say, "love is like a hole in the head" . . . it's painful. . . it takes life. . . but then also, sometimes when you are in it your brain seems like it going to fall out, and you lose your mind completely. . . or that your head has this hole. . . and it is the shape of love. . . and if it is not full. . . you will never be whole. . . we could go on and on couldn't we. . . what if I said "love is water" it gives life, it's refreshing, it's powerful, it cleans and refreshes, starting you out anew. . . it also could be dangerous . . . especially when out of control. . . when it rises too quickly. . . when those floodwaters are raging. . . what about when it's not around,. . . life just can't flourish. .  . everything dries up and dies. Do you see figurative language. .. poetry. .. this is what allows you to define something indefinable. . .why does it work? Because it leaves itself open for interpretation. . . the writer means it a certain way or ways, but it also allows for the reader to take it another way, and every reader will bring his own ideas and take it a different way. . . why because experience. . . love like other infinite ideas, is something that is infinite because everyone's experience is different and should be taken into consideration. . . to leave out someone's experience would be to sell love short. . . again confining the infinite.

I had a student one time, at the end of the year, they had to write college essays, and he had struggled all year with the work I assigned. His first draft of his essay was about how he has ADHD, but that he has worked to overcome it, by playing with a pencil under his desk. . . and the essay was atrocious, it hoped to say I over came my ADHD so you should accept me into your college, but what it really said is I have no idea what I’m doing, I know I’m supposed to say I’ve overcome my ADHD so you would accept me, but I haven’t, and you probably shouldn’t. We worked on another essay idea, that allowed him to show that though he has ADHD he thinks, but thinks differently. I told him to list some things he was interested in, and then try to link them together into an essay that like ADHD bounces all over the place. He did, and it was awesome and at the end of it he wrote, Love is like a tatoo. . . recalling back that first assignment from day 1. . . he said it hurts sometimes, but if it is real it leaves its mark on you. Success!!!!

But that is not the only way. . . how else guys. . . how else can we define the infinite. . . blank stares. . . but they are interested ones. . . you see I’ve got them now. . . how else. . . come on guys remember it is English class. . . still nothing. . . remember it's English class and now we've gotten Poetry covered already. . . someone says "stories" . . . yes narratives. . . why . . . because again we are bringing experience, showing experience, showing life. . . I point up to star crossed love. . . on the board as one of those two word phrases from earlier. . . I could define that sure. . . or I could write and perform Romeo and Juliet and I would take you much further. . . I could define what it is to be an orphan, or I could Oliver Twist. . . obviously the story is not enough. . . interpretation, connection, all of that is part of the deal. . . it needs to be there in the intimate relationship between writer and reader. . . and so I tell them that is what we will do this year. . . we will read some of the great works of world literature. . . looking at how people throughout history have tried to define things that were indefinable. . . I ask them what are some of those things. . . those infinite things. . . we already have love. . . what about hope. . . what about dreams. . . what about friendship. . . what about evil. . . what about good. . . what about human nature. . . what about God. . . these are the ideas we seek to understand, to study. . . because they are the ideas of humanity. . . and they always have been. End of lesson. . .

Now what does this have to do with us, here on Sunday morning. . . Listen to this from 1 John 4, not our official reading, we’ll do that last, but from the same letter:

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Do you see the metaphor, that famous of metaphors. . . pairing two of these infinite ideas together. . . God is love. And just like love. . .  God is infinite. . . God is hard to define. . . and yet we seek to do so, oh so often. And the danger is just like love. . . when we define God. . . we confine God. . . We make God small . . . we sell God short. . . we try to put God in a manageable, definable box. . . one that makes us comfortable. . . one that gives us a sense of security. . . one that allows us to be in control. . . one that fits our lives. . .and then with God in that manageable box we use God for our purposes. . . whether they be controlling other people. . . or judging other people. . . or making us feel better about ourselves and our situation. . . but just like the Israelites in building their golden calf. . . this God is a mere shadow of God's true reality. . . God's infinite reality.

So how do we then get to know God. . . how do we get to tell others about God. . . to communicate about God if we can't define. . . the answer is similar to how I told my students to define love. . . through metaphor. .. through relationships between things. . . common threads and comparisons. . . that is poetry. . . and also through narratives. . . between these ideas we get to share our experience, for that is what we do, that is what we have to give and to get from eachother. . . experience. . . relationship. . . all of these teach us about each other. . . and give us more and more of an understanding about God. So then it makes sense that the way that we get to know God is to love one another. . . to get closer to God by getting closer to eachother. . . loving our neighbors. . . listening to them. . . telling our stories. . . It's all there.

And that is what Jesus is for us. . . metaphor. . .in the sense that Jesus is both God and man. . . a comparison of two unlike things. . . brought together. . . and it shows so much about both. . . so much about eac. . amazing metaphor. . . and narrative. . . God coming to us. . . walking with us. . . tried by us. . . dying for us. . . and then raised. . . again busting through any perceived limitations we may seek to place on the infinite. . . that's quite a story. . . and it is a story that could teach us beyond what any other thing could do, because it meets us where we are, allows us to experience it for ourselves. . . and creates that wonderful relationship between the teller/actor/creator of the story, and all of us blessed, open hearted witnesses. It is love forever defined by metaphor and narrative, it doesn’t confine the infinite, but sets it free in that relationship. . . and so we come bit by bit to understand what love is, and also what God is. . . that we in the weeks to come will try to define love without confining it. . . setting it free from the bounds we may have placed on it. . . expanding it beyond what is safe, and what we have been actually able to accomplish, for an infinite idea like love can never be done. I do though wish to pose a definition, and it is connected to God is Love, it is connected to metaphor, it is connected to historical experience, and it is as close as we can come to such a definition. . . it is contained in our New Testament lesson for today. . .and will be our starting place for our foray into it next week, take a listen. 1 John 3: 16-18

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Is the definition of love, to follow in Christ’s footsteps, and to sacrifice, to give of your complete self, for others? Could anything less, anything else begin to suffice? We will begin there next week. Amen.