All We Need Is Love?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 11, 2001
That hymn we just sang is based, of course, on the immortal words of St. Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal... Love is patient and kind; it is not envious or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things... Love never ends... And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Now, Paul is among the last people any of us would probably want to have as a friend. He seems to have been quite a hard-headed and domineering type of guy, not to mention something of a encrusted chauvinist, even by the standards of his own time. (“Women are to be silent in the churches,” he is said to have said, as well as numerous things about wives being submissive to their husbands, and so on and so forth.) There is some irony, of course, in citing old St. Paul just a few days before Valentine’s Day, in a sermon about the joy of human love. This is also the man, I’d remind you, who counseled all of his followers to remaincelebrate while awaiting the Second Coming of their Lord Jesus Christ. If everyone had followed St. Paul’s advice back then, there wouldn’t be very much use for a Valentine’s Day today...
But when it came to speaking of love-- of the workings of the Holy Spirit both within the individual heart and within the community of faith-- old Paul did speak with the voice of an angel, it seems to me. His words are worth remembering, and repeating, and even lifting our voices in song about.
Certainly, there never has been a subject that has had more songs written about it than love has. Ever since I chose the topic for this week’s sermon, these lyrics from the Beatles have been rumbling over and over again through my head (kind of fitting, too, as we do seem to be in the midst of a Beatles renaissance of sorts):
There's nothing you can do that can't be done
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how the play the game
There's nothing you can make that can't me made
No one you can save that can't be saved
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
There's nothing you can know that isn't known
Nothing you can see that isn't shown
No where you can be that isn't where you're meant to be
All you need is love...
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need..
Love is all you need...
With all due respect to both St. Paul’s-- McCartney and the ancient one of Tarsus-- and to John Lennon, too, of course-- it’s not “easy”, this thing we call love. Nor is it always, on the day-to-day surface of things at least, always patient and kind; never envious or boastful; never arrogant or rude.
Way back in the 15th Century, the French writer Francois Villon complained about the “debasement” of the word “love” in his own time. That was in the 15th Century! Think of what Villon might think were he to be transported into our modern age, with all of its squabble and squeal and meaningless babble and noise of our mass communications and incessant advertising. Way back in the 15th Century (which had its own problems, to be sure), Monsieur Villon couldn’t imagine the kind of “debasement” that still awaited that holiest of words. He couldn’t imagine the kind of assault that men and women in the modern world would face, day in, day out, from those forces always anxious to exploit and commercialize and sensationalize and cash in on the deepest of human emotions.
But the human spirit-- and the love that burns at its heart-- survives and abides, in spite of all those ads for Hallmark and AT&T and McDonald’s and Diet Coke and Folger’s and Calvin Klein underwear.
And love, if we are honest, is a subject that is better experienced than written about, or spoken about. For who can doubt that there is a language of the heart, so much deeper than our imperfect, imprecise human language?
But because this love touches us most deeply, we human ones write of it most often, perhaps. And speak of it most frequently, as well. Such is one of the many paradoxes of love.
With all due respect to the Fabulous Four, the most beautiful words on love, perhaps, are those of St. Paul. But Paul sets the bar pretty high for us struggling everyday folk like us to meet:
“Love is patient and kind,” he writes. “It is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right...”
That’s a very tough bill to fill. The danger is, of course, that those of us who have in the courses of our lives loved and loved well-- and know that we have done our best to love one another-- will compare the loves we’ve felt, the loves we’ve lived, to Paul’s lofty ideal and come away feeling kind of puny and weak.
Always patient and kind? Never jealous? Never boastful? Sometimes, to read idealized visions of love like Paul’s, we might well feel that try as hard as we can, we’ll never pass the test; try as we might, we’ll never be able to measure up.
It might help to remember the context in which Paul wrote his words. He wasn’t just writing a love ditty that he hoped would make the Ancient Near Eastern Top 40. Nor was he righting a self-help manual for struggling couples in ancient Greece. No, Paul’s ode to love are words found originally in a letter from a pastor to a congregation whose members were struggling to get along-- who were squabbling among themselves; whose members, no doubt, were exhibiting more than their fair share of jealousy, boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, I’m-a-better-Christian-than-you-are-ness, irritability, resentfulness-- and probably burn out, too.
So Paul, like any decent minister, is looking out at the situation and giving his congregation some advice:
“DON’T DO THAT!” he says to them.
“DON’T BE THAT WAY!” he tells them.
BE THIS WAY (the “more excellent way”) instead.
Don’t act toward each other in arrogance or rudeness or through lording it over one another or through coercion-- but through love. And I will show you what real love means...
Paul isn’t saying that love between two people has to be perfect for it to be valid. Nor is he saying that it has to exhibit all of these highest characteristics all of the time. Paul is simply saying that love is of God. It is the most power-filled gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the empowering force in human life which can ennoble us and deepen and strengthen us and make us so much more than we would be without it.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things...”
With love, we can survive anything that Fate might mount against us. We can find triumph in tragedy, comfort in affliction, and peace and promise even at those times when our lives seem confused or dreary. Because we have love, we can bear all things, believe in life, hope for the future, and endure the dark nights of our souls-- not only in our individual lives, but in the life we share together as children of our Mother Earth.
Love might not be all we need. We need faith and hope, too. But would we even have a place for faith and hope in our psyches if the fire of love didn’t burn within our souls?
Love gives us patience, as well. The patience to bear all things, to suffer through even the insufferable (for there may well be great gifts enveloped where least expect them).
In the Jewish tradition, there is a story about Abraham and Sarah. Abraham was a devout man of God, and so his tent, it was said, was always open to anyone. He believed that it was his religious obligation to provide hospitality to all who needed it, and to befriend those who wearily traveled across the sands of the desert.
One day, an old man happened by, looking for a place to rest from the heat of the midday sun. So, of course, Abraham and Sarah took him in at once; they were only too happy to oblige, to give the old man a place to rest, and something to eat and drink.
But, to put it mildly, the old man and Abraham didn’t hit it off-- at all. The traveler was loud and obstreperous; he had an opinion about everything-- opinions which Abraham disagreed with just about in their entirety. But not only that-- he was hog, a real glutton! He devoured every bit of food that Sarah put before him-- and even had the gall to ask for more! He was eating them out of house and home, consuming far more than his fair share of the stores they had so carefully laid up.
Finally Abraham could take it no longer. “Out of my tent!” he shouted at the old man. “I will have no more to do with a man like you! I can’t even bear to be in your presence! Get out! I’ve wasted enough of my hospitality already!”
So, the old man stumbled out, back into the heat of the desert. But before the traveler was even out of sight, Abraham heard the voice of his God, Yahweh, calling his name: “Abraham! Abraham!”
Abraham was used to this: “Speak, Lord, your servant hears you,” he answered.
Yahweh responded: “For eighty years, I have cared both for you and for the old man you threw out of your tent. I continued to claim you as one of my own, even though at times you seemed to forget all about me, and thought you had done it all yourself. You are interested in only your own voice, and don’t listen to mine. You satisfy your own wants, and forget about those of others. But I have waited patiently, because you are one of my children. If I could bear with you for eighty years, certainly you could put up with that old man for an hour or so more.”
Abraham fell silent and humble before his God. Then he went out into the desert and found the old man, and brought him back to his tent to rest.
Love might not be the answer to all questions we face. But it lets us know where to look first, and it helps us to open our eyes.
An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.
“Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance, and be able to tell if it’s a sheep or a dog?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
Another student asked, “Could it be when you look at a tree in the distance, and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”
“No,” the rabbi answered once again.
“Then when is it,?” the students wanted to know.
“It is when you can look into the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, then it is still night.”
Love deepens us toward compassion. Compassion for all living creatures, for all life. Transcendence of the mundane earthly reality, toward the deeper reality of the Spirit. Transcendence of the illusion of separateness, toward the deeper truth of our interdependence.
Love is the voice of our god, our goddess, our higher power, speaking in our souls, moving in our actions. Love gives us the power we need to welcome the stranger (the other, the lover, the sister and brother) back into our tents, back into the innermost sanctuaries of our very beings.
Love does not make life easy. But would there even be a life worth living if there wasn’t love?
The many forms our human love takes are the closest we human ones approach unto the ways of the divine. That we love as imperfectly as we do is our greatest tragedy. But that we are able to love at all is the greatest miracle there is-- and our most profound hope for the future.
Blessed be. Amen.