Sermon: What is love? (Baby, don’t hurt me)

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
May 6th, 2018

John 15:9-17

 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

The problem with songs, or their strength, is the way in which they can take up residence in our brains and just flatly refuse to leave. The Wesleys knew that; it’s why the Methodists became people who sang the faith. Numerous studies have found that our brains remember things better if we sing them, even if they weren’t things we necessarily wanted or needed to remember (commercial jingles, anyone?). Every week as I prepare Sunday’s service I find that a song has ‘ear-wormed’ me; decided to play itself on repeat in my head. It’s often one of the hymns I’ve chosen, which can be helpful when writing the week’s sermon. But frequently it’s some other sort of music that has only the most marginal connection to what I’m meant to be thinking about.

And so this week, while I was meant to be reflecting on chapter fifteen of the Gospel according to John, what I’ve found myself singing has been a 1993 dance hit by a Trinidadian-German musician called Haddaway:

What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more

(I had no idea who had sung the song or when it had come out until I looked up that incredibly irritating ear-worm this week.)

So, as you can imagine, this has not been a week in which my background soundtrack has been helpful. Except as a reminder of how difficult it is to talk about ‘love’ without getting caught up in cultural images of romance, and how important it is that we do. Better preachers than me have said the same. Martin Luther King Jr., in a sermon on ‘Loving Your Enemies,’ reminded his congregation that: ‘The meaning of love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring. Love is something much deeper than emotional bosh.’[1]

The commandment ‘love your enemies,’ the basis of that particular sermon of King’s which you should all read, comes from the Sermon on the Mount, from near the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. ‘Love one another as I have loved you,’ the phrase I want us to focus on today, comes from John’s description of the Last Supper, when Jesus is alone with his disciples. Maybe that makes it seem an easier commandment – to love our fellow followers of Jesus who are not, or should not be, our enemies. Except that Jesus is commanding us to love one another as he loves us, and the day after this Supper he went on to show us what that love looks like by dying for us. ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ This is how Jesus loves us, with an amazingly sacrificial love. This is how we are to love each other.

I would think it impossible for human beings to love as Jesus loves if it weren’t for the saints who have shown us how to do it. Martin Luther King was one; Archbishop Desmond Tutu is another. The author Madeleine L’Engle  writes about evangelism that, ‘evangelism is not what we tell people, unless what we tell is totally consistent with who we are. It is who we are that is going to make the difference. It is who we are that is going to show the love that brought us all into being, that cares for us all, now and forever. If we do not have love in our hearts, our words of love will have little meaning.’[2] Because that is true, I have to stop and listen when someone like Archbishop Tutu, who so obviously has love in his heart, talks about love. I’ve recently been dipping in and out of a book that he wrote with his daughter, Mpho Tutu, called Made for goodness.[3] When Archbishop Tutu says in that book that we are able to offer ‘perfect love’ in imitation of God’s perfect love for us, even the bit of me that is Calvinist and believes in ‘total depravity,’ that we are all miserably-flawed sinners, has to pause and take note. If Archbishop Tutu can go through apartheid in South Africa and come out believing in the human ability to love, maybe I should believe in it too.

What the Tutus write might seem to contradict the Calvinist heritage of the Uniting Church, but it resonates beautifully with our Methodist heritage, with Wesley’s belief that we can grow towards the Christian perfection of loving God and neighbour through our participation, by grace, in God’s love. The Tutus write:

We can offer [perfect] love because we each have experienced it from God, though often unaware. We have experienced it in the rain that falls on our garden with no regard to whether we are deserving or not. We have experienced it in the gift of warm sunshine when our behaviour merits a tempest. We have experienced it in the beauty of nature, the kindness of strangers, and the laughter of children. We have experienced it in the hundreds of graces that fill our days, though we have not earned them and do not deserve them.[4]

We love because God loves us; we love one another as we have been loved.

In his book Archbishop Tutu tells stories of human beings he has met who have shown perfect love, and then writes: ‘Hearing stories like these can inspire us, but they can also induce in us feelings of guilt as we recognise that we are not doing as much as others, or perhaps even as much as we can.’ When I read that I nodded, vigorously! ‘I share these stories,’ he writes, ‘because they tell us what we are capable of when we live out of our goodness. I certainly do not want to get your demon beating you up for not having done more.’[5] The demon he is talking about is the fear of not being good enough and of not doing enough.[6] It is the fear that we need to earn God’s love by being good. It is a demon that often hangs around churches.

‘God does not love us because we lovable,’ write the Tutus. ‘We are lovable precisely because God loves us.’[7] That is the message I most need to hear; it is the one that I most often preach. It is, as I have said so many times that I’m sure you’re sick of it, the heart of the Christian faith. We. Are. Loved. ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.’ It’s a message of utter joy.

A few moments ago I mentioned Madeleine L’Engle, the American author of A Wrinkle in Time among many other amazing books, another of the twentieth century saints. In one of her non-fiction books she wrote about the time that she was speaking at a very large evangelical Christian conference: ‘After one of my talks a young woman came up to me and said, ‘You really seem to enjoy your faith.” She added, with a wry smile, “And that immediately makes you suspect.” I must have looked startled, because she said, “Oh, yes, it’s true.”’[8]

L’Engle thought about it and decided that, yes, she did enjoy her faith, and that she was right to do so. She wrote: ‘When we deny our legitimate pleasures we are denying the Incarnation, for Jesus came to affirm, not to deny … Yes, I enjoy my faith, and enjoying my faith frees me to enjoy all the lovely legitimate pleasures of life,’ in which she includes food, card-playing, and dancing.[9] And, of course, God’s love for us. L’Engle writes, ‘It’s a tough word, love. That love that God showed us as Christmas [coming to live with us as one of us] is beyond our finite comprehension. We can only rejoice. It is glory! It is what makes our hearts sing! It is what makes us enjoy our faith!’[10]

Archbishop Tutu writes of the Dalai Lama that ‘he carries in his being the essence of joy that is the gift of a person with nothing to prove’.[11] ‘”Hey,” I have to tell him, “the cameras are on us. Try to behave like a holy man.” He is incorrigible!’[12] The few times that I’ve seen Archbishop Tutu in person I’ve thought exactly the same thing of him – that he carries in his being the essence of joy that comes from the utter certainty of being loved by God.

After several days of being ear-wormed by Haddway’s ‘what is love’  I looked up the lyrics of the rest of the song and found the verse: ‘I don’t know why you’re not fair/I give you my love, but you don’t care/So what is right and what is wrong?/Gimme a sign’. And that amused me. I don’t want to be rude about such an extremely successful song, and use King’s phrases ‘sentimental outpouring’ and ‘emotional bosh’ to describe it, but apparently the underlying message of this song, which had been stuck in my brain as I thought about today’s gospel reading, was the opposite of the message of that reading. In Jesus God has given us a sign of exactly how much God does care about us. And in return, all we are asked is to love, too. So let us enjoy that. We are loved. Rejoice!

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Loving Your Enemies’ in A Gift of Love, Penguin Classics, 2017, p. 48.

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, The Rock That Is Higher, 2002 p. 170.

[3] Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness and why this makes all the difference, 2010.

[4] Made for Goodness, p. 29.

[5] Made for Goodness, p. 33.

[6] Made for Goodness, p. 22.

[7] Made for Goodness, p. 21.

[8] The Rock That Is Higher, p. 168.

[9] The Rock That Is Higher, p. 172.

[10] The Rock That Is Higher, pp. 177-178.

[11] Made for Goodness, p. 23.

[12] Made for Goodness, p. 22.

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