What is Love?

Mieke Vandersall
Not So Churchy
July 18, 2016
Matthew 22:34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Things are not always as they appear.

The week after Pride I was walking by the Stonewall with my friend Catherine and our dogs. We are in earshot of three police officers with bullet proof vests, gigantic machine guns and hard police hats and are talking about potential movies we will see this weekend. There seem to be cops with machine guns at the Stonewall on a daily basis now. Perhaps they we bored that early morning, ready to complete their shift, or just starting one. One of the men butted into our conversation and asked us what we are going to see. As one who rarely has a friendly chat with a cop, I kind of just stuttered and looked at him while Catherine chattered on. It was 7am.

He suggested we go to see Central Intelligence, quickly adding that this movie might be a little violent. Said the man holding a machine gun, strapped across his chest. He then went on to say that maybe we should see Finding Dory, because he had heard that was good, but what was really good, he had heard was the Secret Life of Pets. I stood there, staring, confused and feeling I needed to run. What. Was. Going. On. So. Confused.

It was cognitive dissonance I was having during that moment and in the time that followed. I am not supposed to have friendly chats about animated movies with the police. I knew that because of how I present I was having a conversation about Finding Dory that the queer youth of color who hang out on my street could never have had. I knew that he was protecting the Stonewall because it was now a national monument and we are in the wake of Orlando. I knew that guns don’t actually make me feel protected or safer. And besides, I don’t think of a cop as someone who was looking forward to seeing The Secret Life of Pets. Cognitive dissonance. Things are always more complicated than they appear.

I was told by a preaching professor that we should use the word “love” carefully when we preach, that it isn’t a word to be thrown around as easily as Hallmark does, or as quickly as I sign off on my emails with that word. Biblically speaking, it is a word that provides a great deal of cognitive dissonance. Love as a word is confusing and as an action, as a thing, is even more confusing. Love is never black and white.

Like the greatness of the holy, love is a word that we can try and pin down, define, understand, grasp but we never fully will. Perhaps that is why some people, some people in the Bible even, say that God is love and love is God, because they are equally hard to define words.

Love is as complex as the deep abiding love and knowing that couples find after being by each other’s side for 50 years. Or the activism we find in the Black Lives Matter movement, the love of God’s people so much that we must work against oppression, so that black lives can live without fear just for existing. Is it the overwhelming feeling you get when you see beauty, true stunning beauty? Is it what I feel when or the action itself of standing and offering the bread and juice of communion, or when Hannah walked into the baptismal bin and I poured rose water on her head? Is it what happens when we sing? Please, Jesus don’t stop singing. Is it how some Spirit might have interceded with my constant cranky chatter one morning to have a police officer with a gun recommend that I see the Secret Life of Pets?

Or is it the opposite of things? Opposite of the feeling I get when people don’t sign up to be greeters and clean up people. Opposite of what I fear is the new normal for us, the continual violence that does not stop. Opposite of watching Donald Trump say that his vice-presidential running mate can make mistakes because he is human but Hillary Clinton cannot. Is that love?

There are medieval contemplatives who equate erotic love with love of God. Listen to their words:

Sefer Hasidim, a 12th century rabbinic collection from Germany, sees in Deuteronomy 6:5, which is the predecessor to the reading tonight, a call to love God with a passion far more intense than that of a couple experiencing the pleasures of intercourse after a prolonged separation. [1]

In these words I find a passion, an engulfment, an emptying out. Perhaps this is part of what is required of us to be able to experience God’s love. Love your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul. Empty out. Till nothing is there, till there is a space to be filled. Love with all.

Last week when I was on a little break with a friend, we did morning prayer every day. The formula for morning prayer that we use is quite churchy, but you know, I kind of love it. It is the same formula my friend and I have used since we left seminary and started going away with each other each year. In the time for the prayers there was this little part of the prayer for Monday morning that we are to fill in the blank: Pray for ways that we see indications of God’s love in the world.

We sat there in silence. Empty. We had nothing. My friend admitted she was having a hard time finding these indications. We sat longer. We kept sitting. Until we starting coming up with things. The horses who approached the fence the day before to greet us. The early morning dew on the fields. The rhythms of the earth. The activists in the Black Lives Matter movement. The baby blanket I just finished for a friend. The friendship of many years that we had been given. Soon the list began to grow, but it was hard. They felt like little tiny words that started to come out rather than a cacophony of love. The whole experience was cognitive dissonance. Is this really where we are, that when the going gets tough that we are having a hard time finding indications of God’s love? In biblical times, the going was always tough, and they managed to find indications of God’s love. I mean really.

36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

When Jesus used his voice and said these words, the people were trying to catch him, trick him into saying something that would make him guiltier than he already was. They put riddles before him and he kept responding, shocking and confusing, providing plenty of space for cognitive dissonance. They tried to get him to weigh in on marriage practices, and on the resurrection of the dead, they asked him whether or not they should pay taxes to the emperor. His answer amazed them, to the point that the people who were trying to trick him with this question heard his answer and left.

By the time we get to the story for today, all the naysayers gathered together to catch him and they knew they would get him with this question: Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

He had the guts to use his voice and speak this answer: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, love your neighbor as yourself.

This time, at the end of this story, no one asked him a question again.

Love. Everyone. Even when they are trying to trick you into death. That’s the punchline.

Over these past weeks I keep seeing headlines equating hate as the opposite of love, claims people are acting out of hatred. I actually believe that hate is just as hard of a concept to define as love is, and when I see these kinds of things I find my heart growing sadder and lower, eager for more nuance and complexity, more grace and understanding.

I just have a hard time believing that hatred is driving the violence we are seeing, no matter who is picking up a gun. Pain? Perhaps. Frustration? Yes. Anger? Maybe. Isolation? Probably. Does all of this, if not worked through, lead to violence? For sure. Is it hatred? I just don’t know about that. Is hatred an easy word to throw around? Yes.

Is it harder to try and put yourself in the shoes of others, as people, as a nation, and ask questions, and understand? Cause creates cognitive dissonance, but I do think that is love. Loving yourself and neighbor both is stepping back and trying to understand. Loving your neighbor and yourself both is trying to show grace, and using your voice to push yourself and others to empathize greater. The opposite of love, isn’t hate, I don’t believe, it is giving up. It is stopping the process of trying to understand. It is staying in the boxes that we construct to keep the cognitive dissonance from occurring. It is refusing to grow.

Where do you see indications of God’s love? Try and start noticing the times that you are stretched. When you are afraid and you move forward anyway. When you want to give up and a small voice tells you that you can’t. And you don’t. When you think you are at empty and that allows for space for God to fill you again and for God’s voice in you to be heard.

[1] This comes from the Feasting on the Word lectionary serie