John 13:34, 35
A Lover’s Quarrel
I am never quite sure what to preach on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday because quite often the pastor’s words seem hollow in the face of the arrest, trail and crucifixion of Jesus. What are we to make of all of this for us today? Then, earlier in the week during our final Lenten study, these words that Joe read caught my attention: “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples – when they see the love you have for each other.”
Think about it. These are the last words, the last instructions that Jesus gives to his followers: “Love one another.” A good principle for Christians, or for anyone for that matter. Love one another. There is more. We are asked to love with the same radical, eyebrow-raising love with which Jesus loved and, because of this, please will know that we are followers of his. We think love and Christianity should go together, but what exactly does it mean to go out there and be loving disciples?
Have you ever wandered through a cemetery and looked at the tombstones? Those stones are the markers of human lives, a few words trying to tell us the story of a lifetime. They are words carefully chosen to remember a loved one or a friend. The American poet, Robert Frost, was walking in a cemetery one day when he asked himself what sort of epitaph he would like on his own gravestone. Think of it. It is a good question. By what words do you want your life remembered? Frost decided that he wanted these words on his tombstone: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” A few years later, there they were, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
A lover’s quarrel. The important word in the sentence is “love”. We know that there are all kinds of quarrels. We see what is happening in Palestine and Israel. A quarrel between ethnic entities and religions. Mounting tensions between the United States and Russia over Syria. A quarrel between nations. The civil courts are full of quarrels between people. Here, however, we are talking about a lover’s quarrel and love tends to put a certain twist on the dispute. Love prevents the quarrel from becoming too harsh, or cynical or despairing. While the quarrel is going on, love is making us appreciate the other person. There is compassion and commitment. Yet there is also conflict. Something is wrong. We are dissatisfied or restless with things as they are. When I was a teenager, I knew a couple who were always quarrelling. She was always trying to improve him and he was always trying to make her happy without losing himself in the relationship. Today, they have been married nearly sixty years. They quarrelled, yet there was something in their relationship that made them go on. Whatever it is, there is something deep in the relationship that gets the couple beyond the quarrel.
One day there were two guys talking. “My wife and I had a fight last night.” “How did it end up?” “She came crawling to me on her hands and knees.” “What did she say?” “Come out from under that bed, you coward!”
A lover’s quarrel with the world. The author E.B. White wrote, “I arise in the morning torn by the twin desires to reform the world and to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Another way of saying this is how Senator Ted Kennedy described his brother Robert Kennedy, “Some men see things as they are and ask why; I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’”
In the Old Testament, Amos and Hosea were two prophets who lived at the same time. Both of these men had a dispute with the people of Israel for their lack of faithfulness to God. Amos was from Judah in the south and he was outside the people of Israel, looking in at what was going on. His words tend to be quite harsh and judgmental. However, Hosea was from Israel itself. He was one of the people. Consequently, he had a burden; he had a love for his own people. While he speaks the same words of judgment, they are tempered by kindness and tenderness. Hosea has been called the most Christian of the prophets. The difference between the two prophets is that Amos had a quarrel with Israel, while Hosea had a lover’s quarrel with Israel. The tone of affection which Hosea used allowed him to be much more creative in addressing the situation.
You and I know that conflict in life is inevitable, but we should let our quarrels in life be lover’s quarrels and not just quarrels.
Do you ever have a quarrel with yourself? Some of us do regularly. When we do things that disappoint us or we say unkind and hurtful words that we regret as soon as we have said them, later we can get angry with ourselves. But we never give up on ourselves. Somehow, we separate what we have done from who we are. We don’t say, “I am a fool.” We say, “I did a foolish thing.” We make excuses for ourselves, don’t we? “I wasn’t myself when I did that.” We maintain a distance between our foolishness and ourselves.
A personal example. A number of years ago, when I was living in Prince Edward Island, I had an accident with the car. Now let me tell you, it really wasn’t my fault. The roads were icy. It was an improperly planned intersection. The other guy who whipped around the corner was speeding. Notice, that I did not say to myself that I hadn’t properly cleaned the inch of ice off the windshield or that I was going a little faster than I should have been on icy roads because I was late for a meeting. I managed to excuse myself from any cause and maintain a separation between my foolishness and me.
We usually don’t do this in our quarrels with other people. We don’t separate them from the foolish things that they say or do. We say, about ourselves, “I did a foolish thing.” Yet when it comes to someone else, what do we say? “They are fools.” We write them off. With us, there is always hope, but others are hopeless. Jesus asks us to show others the same type of love that we show ourselves. Let our quarrels with others be lover’s quarrels.
Here is another instance: make sure your quarrel with the Church is a lover’s quarrel. One thing that dismays me is that of the great number of people who were heading into the ministry in the Church when I was doing my undergraduate degree twenty-five years ago, only a few of us are left working in the Church. Many have given up on the church. A British journalist, Monica Furlong, wrote a book entitled With Love to the Church. In it, she talks about everything that is wrong with the Church. Well, we all know that the church is far from perfect. However, Furlong calls her book, With Love to the Church. In spite all her criticism, everything that she sees wrong with the Church, she still loves the Church. She loves the church because it still teaches her and she still finds the love and grace of God in the Church. She has a lover’s quarrel with the Church.
There are lots of people who have quarrels with the Church. They come with unrealistic expectations. They think that everyone in the church should be a saint. Let me tell you there are very few Churches that are full of saints. Then they come across a few hypocrites and they say that everyone in the Church is a hypocrite and they won’t have anything more to do with the church. Since theirs is not a lover’s quarrel, they leave the church rather than staying around to change and improve it.
Let me tell you about Annie. Annie grew up on a farm north of Toronto and married a farmer. They continued to farm for years until their land was purchased for a subdivision for the growing city. When I got to know Annie, she was well into her eighties. Annie could be found almost every day in the church parlor where she sat at a huge quilting rack making quilts to be sold at the church fair. In many ways, Annie was one of those people who are the glue that holds the church together. We were in a new church building and many things had changed as the congregation had moved from a small facility to a larger church and new people from the subdivisions started joining the farming community in worship. I asked Annie how she was dealing with these changes and she told me that we could change all we liked and she could embrace those changes because the important thing was the people in the church and their worship of God, not the trappings of religion. This great saint of the faith went on to say that she knew how imperfect she was, yet she felt loved by her God and if God could love her, she would do her best to love all of these newcomers. She said that there would be no place for her in a perfect Church. A lover’s quarrel with the Church.
If you have a quarrel with the Christian faith and God, make sure it is lover’s quarrel. In days gone by, if you had a quarrel with the Christian faith, then you had to leave the church. If your ideas weren’t the same as the Church, then you were told that you were sinful. I think that one of the great strengths of the church today is that we are all encouraged to question our faith, because we realize that it is in questioning that we grow.
Do you remember Job in the Old Testament? He had a lover’s quarrel with God. He says, “In the name of justice, I cry out against the God who has treated me unjustly!” Job stands his ground and, in the end, he finds out that God was on his side all along.
You might be in a situation in life where you feel that you would like to cry out against God and the injustice in your life. You might feel that you have had disaster upon disaster put upon your plate. Cry out. Express your feelings against God, but don’t turn your back on God because God will never turn God’s back upon you. There was a young man who had a terrible illness. In his diary he wrote, “Content with the universe, discontent with the world.” Content with the universe. Content with the divine who created and yet discontent with all of the disharmony, suffering and hardship in the world. Every morning as I read the newspaper, I am left asking myself “why?” Why the terrible things we read about every day while at the same time I believe in a God who is loving and caring in the midst of the mess? Discontentment leads me to work for justice and peace where I can, believing that there is a divine plan for this world of ours. A lover’s quarrel with the world.
Finally, even God has a lover’s quarrel with the world. We read about this in the pages of scripture. We experience it in our daily lives. God has envisioned a world so different from the one that we have made it. Yet if God truly hated our world, God could wipe it out and start again. However, God doesn’t! God loves our world.
Some people, because of terrible things that have happened to them, say that God doesn’t love them or that God doesn’t care. We know though that there are so many times that we turn our backs upon God, times when we think we know better and choose to walk our own way, and God remains there, faithful and steadfast, always welcoming us back. The prophet Hosea described God’s quarrel with the world like that of a man who has a wife whom he loves deeply, but who has been unfaithful to her. He is broken-hearted about it. Because of his great love for her, he will do everything in his power to win her back.
Hosea then goes on to say God’s great hope is that in the end we shall turn to God and say, “My true husband, my real lover. You are the one to whom I belong. You are my eternal home.” God has a lover’s quarrel with the world, but at the last, what remains is not the quarrel, but the love.