What’s Love Got to do with It?
Okay, I must admit it, I am a fan of Tina Turner and I couldn’t resist titling this morning’s sermon, “What’s Love Got to do with It?” after her Grammy winning song. She grew up Anna Mae Bullock in a family in Tennessee where her father abused her mother. One of the places where she found joy was singing in the church choir. She makes her way to Los Angeles where she comes to fall in love with a band leader by the name of Ike Turner. The two of them go on to success after success as Anna Mae is made into pop star Tina Turner, but, sadly, Tina has repeated the mistakes of her mother and Ike turns out to be just as abusive as her father. One evening the words to the song “What’s Love Got to do with It?” come to her.
A few years ago, there was a knock at the door and when I opened the door, there were two young men standing there with Bibles. They didn’t waste any time, “Do you love God?” they asked. Somewhere in my upbringing, I was taught that when someone is standing on your front porch, you don’t slam your door in their face, but you are nice to them. So, I asked them, “What does it mean to love God?”
In this morning’s reading, Jesus gathers his disciples around him. It is the night of the Last Supper. He knows that he is moving towards the cross and we can almost feel the sadness in his heart at the thought of leaving his dear friends. He says to them what is on his heart, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” What is Jesus’ central commandment? Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Had I been there, I would have asked Jesus, “What does loving God look like?” You might tell me that it is doing all the things that Jesus did for people while he was walking through the Holy Land. It is to live life with justice and integrity for all people and for all creation. This is the point of many a sermon. Here it seems as if Jesus is telling us that we have a choice to love him and that choice is central to our Christian faith.
Next week, I am performing the wedding of a young woman whom I saw grow up. One of the things that I really enjoy as a minister is being a part of a couple’s wedding. Some of the words I like to use near the beginning of the ceremony is a statement paraphrasing the apostle Paul when he says, “Where love is, there God is too.” To me the focus of the ceremony is when the minister looks at the couple and says, “Alex, will you love Sandy?” then “Sandy, will you love Alex?” Have you ever thought it strange that the minister doesn’t say something like, “Alex, do you love Sandy?” “Sandy, do you love Alex?” This couple standing up at the front of the church are supposed to be in love. However, the minister asks, “Will you love one another?” It is something that they are being asked to do. Here, we are saying that love is an act of the will. It is a promise, something that you decide to do. This is almost counter to what we have come to believe about love. We think that we just fall in love as if it is something that we stumbled across. Yet, Jesus tells us to love.
I preached a sermon on love in which I said that we choose whom we love. In the sermon, I said there comes a point in a relationship when you might say that this is not the best match for me but I still choose to love that person and be with them. (Of course, this doesn’t apply if we are in an abusive relationship!) Later that week, one of the pillars of the church came to see me. He was married and had a teenage family. He said to me that on Sunday morning he had decided to leave his wife and family. He was no longer in love. When they came to church, he already had his suitcase packed and in the trunk of the car. He was going to tell his wife he was leaving when they got home after church. The idea that he had a choice to love or not was one which spoke to him and he had decided on the way home from church to focus his love on his wife. Many years later, they are still together.
Time and time again, we have to remind ourselves that the stories that we have in the Gospels about the life of Jesus were written to demand a response from us. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” What is Jesus asking of you in this? Perhaps dangerous to say in our free thinking, self-aggrandising society, but isn’t Jesus asking for some sort of obedience?
As modern day people, we don’t like to be told to do something, especially when it comes to our religion. I think that one of the hallmarks of faith in the United Church is that the Church believes that each believer has to decide, with the help of the Holy Spirit, where they stand on ethical, religious and moral issues. The Church does not say, “Thou shalt do this…” instead it offers us guidelines which have been formulated by the community of faith and asks us to consider them. This past year, one of my colleagues made international headlines when she said she didn’t believe in God. Can you be a minister and not believe in God? A very challenging discussion was held in the courts of the church with the conclusion that to be a minister, one must hold to and obey the basic teachings of the Church.
In one of my former congregations, a young man was elected at the annual meeting to be on the finance committee. He was rather new to the workings of the church, but considered to be great for the committee as he was an up and coming accountant in one of the largest firms in the city. In fact, the congregation was so confident in his abilities that at the first finance committee meeting he was made chair of the committee. This young man took his responsibilities seriously and asked one of his co-workers who was on the finance committee at the local synagogue what should happen with the church finances. You can imagine the surprise of the finance committee at its next meeting when the new chair showed up with a stack of bills, one for every household in the congregation. He told them that he had taken the budget that had been approved at the annual meeting and divided up the amount by household and that was the fee for belonging to the church. After all, this is what they did down the street at the synagogue. A wiser, more senior person on the committee explained that in the church we give what we feel we ought to give. When he told his co-worker this, he was told, feelings should have nothing to do with it. We tell them what they ought to give. We have an obligation to give. I have often wondered about this. Should feelings be what motivates our commitment to Christ?
For years, the story which intrigued me was the one of the widow’s mite. Here is this woman who comes and gives all that she has to give to God. The question in my mind was always why did she give everything? The standard, textbook answer is that she felt a sense of gratitude for what God had given to her. I ran into another widow. Janice had nothing and yet always managed to put something on the plate on Sunday. She had lost both parents in the influenza epidemic at the end of the Great War. She had had a bout of polio in the fifties. She lived in a rundown house at the edge of town. From time to time she had to go to see a doctor at the regional hospital and at the age of 80 could be seen hitchhiking twenty miles to the city for doctor’s appointments. When I got wind of this, I would try to arrange my visits to the hospital with her appointments so that I could drive her. On one of those drives we were talking and we somehow got onto the topic of church offerings. I asked her why she thought a person would give and she said, “I give because I think I’m supposed to give. If you are going to be a disciple of Christ, this is what you do. You give. He gave to us. We give to support his work in the world.”
We live in a world that is so feelings oriented. We feel like getting married. We feel like attending church this morning. We feel like going for a walk along the oceanfront. We feel like visiting our friend in the hospital. We feel like being spiritual today.
So much of what passes for spirituality today falls far short of the picture of Christianity that we receive in the scriptures. There, we see spirituality as a matter of specific daily obedience to the way in which Jesus lived his life. Rather than being the sum of our highest religious aspirations, he is the one who comes to us, intrudes upon us and commands us. It has been said that “Spirituality is too often what we make out of it. Christianity is what Jesus makes out of us.” He commands us. He commands us to love.
This is how Jesus speaks of love. If we will keep his commandments, if we will love Jesus by being obedient to his ways, then we will love him in a very deep and profound sense. We have a choice. What’s love got to do with it? Everything.