by Ellen Sims
texts: 1 John 5: 1-4, John 15: 9-17
Jesus commanded us to love one another. But can love actually be commanded?
Bonnie Raitt once sang:
“I can’t make you love me if you don’t.
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.”
I agree. No one can order you to love someone. So did Jesus charge us to do the impossible and illogical?
Not if Jesus understood love as an action rather than a feeling. The songwriter is correct that “you CAN’T make your heart feel something it won’t.” But we can DO love, and then perhaps the feeling may follow. We can love others by seeking justice for them without even knowing them. This kind of love is not dependent on personal affection and connection. It doesn’t require affinity and common values and a shared history. Doing love, as opposed to feeling love, means we act in certain ways: offering ourselves to those who may seem unlovable or irritating, trying to understand and connect with those who are different, seeing beneath the surface to a common humanity, giving with no thought of receiving. That’s the doing of love.
You might recall that Mother Teresa’s journal, published after her death, revealed that for most of her long life she felt bereft of any sense of Christ’s presence. She confessed that she no longer felt that God was with her. But as Rev. James Martin wrote some years ago (the same Father James Martin who was Spring Hill College’s commencement speaker yesterday and whom I met Friday night with the thrill of knowing there’s just one degree of separation now between me and that other Catholic luminary he knows, Stephen Colbert—-that Father James Martin!) Saint Theresa came to understand her experience of God’s remoteness this way:
“In time, Mother Teresa began to understand these feelings of God’s absence as a way of identifying with Jesus’s feelings of abandonment on the cross and also as a way of entering more deeply into union with the poor, who also often feel abandoned. For decades, then, Mother Teresa remained faithful to her original call” but “without [feeling] the benefit of a warm and sustaining prayer life. This makes her already remarkable ministry among the poor even more extraordinary.”
What a shallow, ephemeral form of love our culture admires. But Christian love is countercultural. If your spirituality is not highly emotional, that’s no sign you are less spiritual than someone who has visions of God or is moved to tears or is enraptured at spiritual high points. Some of us have known God through highly emotional experiences. Others of us have never “felt” God’s presence as much as we have simply trusted in it.
You remember in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye asks, “Golde, Do you love me?”
She responds, “Do I what?”
“Do you love me?”
“Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow, after twenty-five years why talk about love right now?”
But Tevye persists until Golde finally realizes:
“For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. For twenty-five years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?”
Golde defines love in terms of actions: I’ve done this. And this. That adds up to love.
My 17-month-old granddaughter has ALL the feels, and she can experience them all in ten minutes or less. Friends, I want ALL the feelings, too. But I have seen bad religion manipulate people emotionally: telling people to repeat words and phrases in ways that resemble brainwashing, pumping up the music to intensify the fervor, working the crowd into a heightened emotional state.
I hope our worship life together brims with joy, expresses honest grief, supports serenity, accepts anxiety and even anger, and fosters gratitude. I believe there’s a richness in worship which welcomes—but does not manufacture—emotional responses. I hope scripture and prayer and singing and silence touch you where you are vulnerable and take you not only to new insights but a wider range of feelings. Let’s accommodate and give expression to and honor the feelings — but let us never manipulate those feelings. Because that’s a cheap high. Which won’t last. It’s a spiritual opioid that ultimately leaves you empty.
What WILL sustain us is a deep-down faith in the work of love: a belief in the God who loves and in the Jesus whose way was love and in the Spirit’s nudge toward love. When we are doing love, we often feel the love. Yet we don’t have to. We can, on faith, know that the power of love is real even when we’re not feeling it.
These words are said to have been found on the wall of a concentration camp:
“I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining
And I believe in love, even when not feeling it
And I believe in God, even when God is silent.”
I believe in love even when I’m not feeling it.
Our relationship to one another, like our relationship to God, is not contingent on what we’re feeling at a given moment. A pastor I know once irritated some in his congregation by stressing they didn’t have to be friends with one another. Church, he insisted, was not a social club. They didn’t have to like each other. They didn’t have to like him. Instead, they had to show love and care for one another.
I think he was right. We have to DO love and then, maybe, feel that love.
What have you been waiting to do until you have the right feeling about it?
My sense of being called to pastoral ministry was not supported by emotional nudges and spiritual highs. No visions or voices. I didn’t FEEL specially equipped for the role. I have now “all the feels” one might hope a pastor would feel about her responsibilities and her congregation. And the years of the ordination process truly stretched me spiritually, intellectually, AND emotionally. But my ordination vows were taken after I felt many feelings but not because of those feelings.
I’m not dismissing intuitions or the more mystical ways of determining God’s direction for your life. But don’t wait for a “sign” to do some brave act of love. You already know what love demands. And loving someone doesn’t require that you like them.
That was a hard concept for me for a time. George and I joined churches when moving to a new city, choosing the next church mainly because we thought the people there were our kind of people. There were lots of churches we visited where we just didn’t FEEL the fit was right. But I came to understand over the years that all church relationships take WORK. And I began to see that not only was the church stronger when I didn’t base my commitment to the church on whether or not I always LIKED the other members or even the pastors. What mattered was whether or not I could serve them with love and serve WITH them with love. In fact, I grew more when I had to DO love rather than FEEL love.
As Richard Rohr’s devotionals have emphasized this week, we are creatures made by and for relatedness, connection and communion. In fact, “the basic template of reality is Trinitarian, it’s relational. God is relationship.”
I so want your needs to be met here at Open Table. But I ask you to consider that if you help meet others’ needs, you might end up enlarging your faith and your capacity to love in the process. If it hasn’t happened yet, there will come a time when you’ll want to bail on us. You’ll get frustrated by one of us—or all of us. It will be easier just to leave and not work through whatever is the problem. But I hope you’ll stay. Because that’s the very situation that can teach you and us how to love better.
Open Table is not a social club. We are not in relationship because we necessarily LIKE one another. Our bonds lie in a shared friendship with Jesus. Though we do enjoy being together, the kind of love that forges relationships within a faith community is not based on liking one another. It is based on the selfless and endless love Jesus lived and that we are, with one another’s assistance, trying to emulate.
As mutual friends of Jesus, you and I are also called to befriend the world. While few who follow in the Jesus way of friendship will be called upon to die for another, we are regularly challenged to live for others, often at the expense of our own individual wants and wishes. As friends of the type Jesus means, we hang in there when relationships get frustrating. We try to think the best of one another. We speak our truth honestly but gently, empathetically, but with enough self-knowledge to keep our own ego in check. We care less about being right and more about doing what is right for the other. We see the other’s happiness as essential for completing our own joy. We become friends to the friendless. It’s not easy to love in that way, but we believe that our friendships in this faith community and in the larger world are qualitatively different when they are grounded in the kind of love Jesus offered.
A story is told by John Phillip Newell about how the founders of a new religious community in Scotland visited an established monastery for a three-day retreat in preparation for starting their new community. A wise old monk was going to teach them all the essential of community life throughout those three days.
“On the first day the old monk shambled into the room and said, ‘Today I have just one thing to say: God loves you. Now go away and think about that.” And he left them to their contemplation. On the second morning he again stood before them. He announced, ‘Today I have just one thing to say to you: You can love God. Now go away and think about that.’ And off they wandered and pondered. On the third morning, the wise old monk appeared again and said, ‘Today I have just one thing to say to you: You are to love one another. Now go away and live this truth as a community.’” (John Philip Newell. A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.122-123)
That’s what Jesus commanded. Love one another. Let us go from here and live this truth.
PRAYER: God, it sounds so simple. It’s really hard. But in the school that is your church, we will continue in the lessons of love. Amen