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Saying Love less

Christ Lutheran, I feel like I have quite an unpopular opinion -- as a pastor -- and the opinion is this: I think we should talk about Love less. Don't get me wrong, I love love and I do believe that cultivating a loving community is what we are doing here. But I also fear that Love has become so broad and so vague a term that we have a hard time communicating easily or effectively what it means.

For context, this comes in part from my experience working with young adults and college students who've come to the Episcopal and Lutherans churches from a wide variety of other Christian traditions and who describe endemic mistreatment all under the banner of Love.

Many of them describe experiences in former churches where pastors loudly claimed the sentiment that "This is a place of Love. We love you. To be a Christian is to love," and found that that was simply not the case.

They describe memories of having raised a dissenting opinion or asked a doubting question, and for daring to step out of line, subsequently started to feel themselves slowly iced out of fellowship or gatekept from leadership by people who had called them Family. They describe of having overextended themselves in leadership or in ministry and asking to step down for a season, only to be told that if you loved this church enough, you would stick it out. They described being told from the pulpit that God loves them and this church loves them and in the same breath, being told that there is part of their identity or their backstory that is fundamentally broken, rotten, wrong. To have your dignity questioned by people saying -- this is how we love you -- is really quite a confusing and horrible thing.

Of course these questions about Love are raised too in the course of our bible studies -- what does it mean that God loved the world before, during, and after the great Flood? What does it mean that a loving God asked us to paint red swatches over our door frames? What does it mean that we are to asked love Prodigal Sons who squander our love? What does it mean that Jesus loved Judas? Should loving our enemies feel the same as loving our friends? What does it mean that in the same breath Peter can love Jesus and deny him? What does it mean when our intent to love falls short of our acts of love? What does it mean to Love?

Now again I want to say that I love love. And when we are on the same page about what it means, the short-hand makes it easy to talk about. When I'm talking about the wordless love of a brother or mother, the love I feel in my body for my niece and nephew, the uplifting and safe and fun love of my best friends that makes me tear up a little if I think about it too hard, we all get it. Love rocks. But on the fringes, in the places where love gets hard or gritty or complicated, where "neighbor" means "stranger" or "enemy" instead of "friends and family", or where Love in invoked in word only and not in action, we lose our grip a bit I think on what we're meant to do there. And I simply don't want Love to become a strawberry frosting we use to spackle over nuance and uncomfortable things.

Well okay, so what then is Love. In the scripture of the Greatest Commandment we are told to love the Lord our God with all our soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves. I'm going to table the first half of that and focus just on the second half -- the idea of a neighbor can feel a little loaded because I might tend to think of it as all the people who live in our cul-de-sac and who live on my block or in my apartment building. The word neighbor here means two things: pragmatically, neighbor means anyone you find yourself in proximity with, so neighbors, coworkers, classmates, friends and family, people who go to your coffee shop or your church, everybody who votes in your voting district. Neighbor, broadly speaking, theologically speaking, is, well, essentially every member of the human family. The mere fact of being made in the image of God knits together every human being -- of any race, creed, orientation, or otherwise -- into one big neighborhood. Our neighbor is everyone-- friend family stranger enemy alike.

Now, this calls to mind for me the promise made by God, to us, that there is a future where the whole human race is reconciled to one another, be it called Heaven or The Everlasting Life or the Second Coming, there is a future for us where every broken relationship was mended, where every harm was repented for and forgiven, where all of humanity felt like it was on the same team, where every human is reconciled to one another and finally and fully sees one another as neighbor, brother, sister.

Can you imagine that world?

I must admit, I find it hard to imagine even on my best days! Just look around, the gaps between us feel really quite unassailable, the gaps between the the rich and the poor, the canyon between Republican and Democrat, the fractures between nations, our growing cultural fear of the stranger. It just feels so hard to imagine a reconciled future where those gaps are closed, if only even for how hard it feels to resolve one conflict between two people with the best of intentions. And yet, God promises a future where a universal neighborliness is made true. And in my esteem, Love is the work we contribute to closing those gaps.

Then to love your neighbor as yourself would mean -- to hold your neighbor in the same esteem you hold yourself in, and to hold them with the same grace and patience and compassion as you would hope to be held in. This commandment is an invitation to self reflection! What kind of patience do you hope people give to you? When you make a mistake, hope do you hope people respond to you? When you have a bad day, how do you hope you are greeted at the front door, or at the cash register, or in the council meeting? You get to think about what you hope your humanity means for how people treat you-- and then you get to give it to them too.

Loving your neighbor as yourself gets to

mean that:

You get to forgive people for things that you hope they would forgive you for.

You get to let go of grudges that you wouldn't want held against you.

You get to hold people with the patience that you would hope to be given.

You get to speak about people who aren't in the room with you, the way you hope they speak about you when you aren't in the room!

Now how many of you have ever found yourselves stuck in the middle of an intersection after a light changed?

Did it help when the cars all around laid on their horns at you? Maybe we get to lay off the horns a little bit ourselves then.

How many of you have ever been told that you are loading the dishwasher wrong?

Did it feel productive to be told that you are loading it wrong? Maybe we can learn to take a pause before we jump in to tell somebody else that they're doing it wrong.

How many of you have ever been misunderstood momentarily for something you've said and had people jump down your throat because of it? Did their taking offense easily help either of you clarify the misunderstanding? Have you ever responded to somebody else with anger, when curiousity might've helped you more?

What I'm trying to say here is that we are not so different, maybe, you and I. At the end of the day, the esteem we hold for ourselves, for our families, for our best friends, that's the esteem God holds all of us in. All of us. Even the people you've written off. Even the people we've decided are beyond redemption. Even the people we think should work a little harder to earn the grace that God gives them. Even the people who are not going to give back to us the patience, the compassion, the generosity, the care we give to them.

And if you're hearing all this and saying, well, heck, I give other people a lot more patience than I give myself. I give away compassions I don't want to think I deserve myself. I'll forgive you for things I'm too embarrassed to be forgiven for myself. Well, good news the Greatest Commandment is for you too- and then your work is to hold yourself in the same esteem you give to others. You are just as worthy of receiving the kindnesses you give away.

This has happened for me in kind of the funniest and most humbling way possible over the last few months. I remember as a seminarian, as a youth minister, even as a new clergyperson, I would look at some of the pastors out there in the world and just think: MAN, what are they thinking? They haven't a clue what they're doing. I'm definitely NOT going to be like them when I'm a priest. And Christ Lutheran I am here to tell you that I am not all tha. I've made some cringy choices I never thought I'd make, it turns out I also haven't a clue what I'm doing sometimes-- even much of the time. Things I used to criticize in others are now things are now things I've added to my priestly vision board and my to-do lists. It turns out, I didnt have it all figured out. What I hadn't figured out it seems, was not how to be different, but that we are all more the same than I wished we were.

The work of Love is, in part, realizing that our neighbors-- for all their differences from us, age, nationality, political affiliation, quirks, and all-- are really not different enough from us to be held in a different esteem than we think God holds us in. And I wonder what kind of a world that could be if we all held that to be true? I wonder what kind of a world it would be to acknowledge maybe that we're not so different, all of us. Amen.

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