Many years ago, in the mid-80’s, we were members at Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver; I sang in the choir and we sang at an interfaith event we were hosting. It was a service of peace, I believe. There were representatives from the major faiths in the Greater Vancouver area and a leader from each faith community led a prayer and reading. There was also a round table discussion about our different faiths; each faith leader spoke briefly about their beliefs and traditions. What I remember about this event is that when it came to the Christian faith leader, that person talked about love, quoting the story from Matthew that we heard a moment ago—loving God and loving neighbour. The Jewish Rabbi talked about the Torah as a way of freedom; the Imam talked about Allah and obedience; the Buddhist talked about being present and meditation; the Hindu spoke about openness and the path of yoga; and so on. They all mentioned love, but the Christian leader was the leader who said that our faith was built on the foundation of love. At the end of this round table, each faith leader spoke briefly of their appreciations of what the others had said and affirmed their desire to be one human family. I remember that the other faith leaders appreciated the Christian focus on love.
That emphasis on love resonated with me because what I remember most growing up in the United Church with my dad as the minister, was love. I remember him saying—and you’ve heard me say this many times—greater than the power that can tear us down is the power that can lift us up and that power is love!
I for one like the fact that there are many definitions of love in the Bible. The Greek has many meanings that were outlined in the Call to Worship—love of God and God’s love for us; love of neighbour and philanthropy; love of self; love of one’s romantic partner; playful love; compassionate love; even love of things.
In Hebrew, there are also nuances when it comes to love. “Ahava” is the noun for love and “ahav” is the root, which means, “to give.” In Hebrew the word is often modified when describing God or God’s loving action; words such as “steadfast,” “constant,” or “compassionate” are used as modifiers. Lots of these references are found in the Psalms in particular.
And interestingly, stats-wise, there are 310 references to love in the King James Bible—charity was often used instead of love in the King James Bible. In the New International Version, love is mentioned 551 times; in the New Revised Standard Version, 538 times.
Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel about loving God and loving neighbour was quite unique. The traditional Shema of Jewish people, part of which is, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” But Jesus joined the love of neighbour to this requirement to love God. It was a masterful stroke of genius to combine these two commandments and in essence, they form the core of Christianity.
I’ve had a number of conversations over many years about my liberal, progressive view of Christianity. I’ve been accused of being too liberal and too progressive; in other words, they say, I haven’t focused on obedience enough. Or I’ve been accused of being anti-nomian, one of those ten-dollar words. Antinomianism is a world view that rejects legalism and argues against strict moral or social laws. In Christian terms, antinomianism is a heresy and means to take God’s redeeming love and grace to such a degree that following the moral law of the 10 Commandments, for example, or other commandments isn’t required. And sometimes, being cheeky, to this accusation, I say, “And your point is?” I don’t think of myself as an antinomian, nor do I think of myself as being bound by strict moral or religious laws, unless that law is about love. I think that love needs greater amplification in our world.
And part of the amplification is love of neighbour. It feels like we are flying apart rather than coming together. I worry that we let fear dictate too much of how we live and what is happening in the world. I worry that there is a strong self-centredness in our actions and motivations. I worry that we don’t engage in enough sober second thought before we speak or act. I worry that we let differences define our worldview, rather than seeing that we are part of one family. I worry that we do not see uniqueness and beauty in different cultures. We need love more than ever to stitch us together in new ways as a human family.
In talking with folk since the summer, I’m finding that yes, there is anxiety and there is loneliness. There is depression because we can’t see an end to what we’re experiencing with COVID. But, I’ve heard some people talk about strangers they’ve encountered and the meaningful conversations that have occurred about how they are. Some store employees are seeing people at the till ask with meaning, not just in passing, “How are you?” And they are really interested. People are meeting on the trails and having a safe conversation without getting into controversies and differences but talking with real concern for the other.
Where do we start when it comes to our attitudes to others or our interactions? Do we start from love? Do we start from fear? Do we start from cynicism? Do we start from a negative place? Do we start from curiousity about people? Do we start from a place of compassion?
There’s an age-old story of a traveler who asks someone on the road, “What are people in the next town like?” The person on the road asks, “What were they like in the last town you were in?” The traveler says, “They were a terrible, complaining lot. I didn’t want to stay.” The person on the road, with wisdom and years of experience says, “Well, then you’ll probably find the people in the next town a terrible, complaining lot, too.” We can start from a place of love and compassion and, person to person, help spread that love, and it can begin with our attitude.
So maybe, in thinking about love again, I do have some laws that I think are important. One of these laws might be that we not react out of fear, but frame our uncertainty about something or someone that we don’t understand as a curiosity to know more. Maybe another law is that we pause x number of beats before we say something or react in some way that is aggressive or confrontational in a situation that is uncomfortable. Maybe another law is that we cultivate gratitude in our lives and let that sense of graciousness influence our behaviour and thinking; meditation is helpful for that, and mindfulness. And maybe we do something about our own negativity, take responsibility for it and let the winds of change blow through us. We all need that!
And for me it all comes down to love. Love needs to be consistent in our relationships, in our sense of God, in our own sense of self. And there are no wiser words than Paul’s in the middle of 1 Corinthians 13, mentioned elsewhere in this worship:
“love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; it does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” May it be so. Amen!