THE DEMANDS OF LOVE
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
May 24, 2020
Texts: Isaiah 40:1–11; John 15:12–17
Every house has one – you know, the junk room, or as my mother called it, the “storage room.” Boxes of old everything stuffed into nooks and crannies, a treasure trove of stuff that would be gone through some day. It was my favorite place on rainy afternoons. I would sneak in and look in the boxes that I knew held little secrets. I could usually get away with it because, since my parents were deaf, they couldn’t hear me creep in. But the deaf have a sixth sense, and one Saturday afternoon, my mother caught me going through stuff.
I had found an old box of strange looking wooden coins and coupons. They were old World War II ration books. Some of you will remember them. The government found it necessary to ration food, gas, and even clothing. With not a single person unaffected by the war, rationing meant sacrifices for everyone. The Food Rationing Program began in May 1942 as a way to control supply and demand and to avoid public anger with shortages and not to allow only the wealthy to purchase commodities. Basic commodities such as sugar and coffee were rationed; shoes and especially items made from rubber. I found an old poster that said, “Do with less so they’ll have enough.” The “they” were, of course, the troops who were giving up a lot more than those at home.
My mother explained about the stamps and wooden coins. People traded rationing stamps with others to adjust for family needs. She had traded her adult shoe stamps for children’s shoe stamps so my growing feet would have shoes and winter boots. She had traded certain commodity items so that I would have enough milk. I had read about the rationing program but actually finding the coupon books and wooden coins and getting my mother’s explanation put a different face on the abstract word. It was clear that loving someone meant putting that person ahead of your own.
There are many kinds of love, of course, many more than the fixation on only romantic or erotic love. What all love shares in common is putting the other – the object of love – above yourself. But what kinds of demands do we make on the object of our love, whether it be a spouse, a friend, a church, or a nation?
For we do make demands on who or what we love. Perhaps that is because we think of love as a goal oriented affection. We love so that something will happen to somebody or something. After all, love is an investment of our personhood in that other, whether it is a person or a thing or an ideal.
But although this approach to love is deeply human, it is also limited. Love, true loving, is not just love. It is abiding, being present with whom or what we are loving whether our loving results in anything or not. The way that we love may change depending on life’s circumstances. People who have survived the deaths of the objects of love – whether the object was a spouse, a parent, a child – or a job, a marriage, a home – know that the nature of loving changes but doesn’t really end.
So, what does abiding love mean? How do we love without making our loving the center of loving itself? Jesus gives us some clues. First, the relationship is an equal one. “I have called you friends,” John’s text says, “because I have told you everything . . . .” In a truly equal relationship, the lover does not withhold from the beloved. Friends who really love each other, care for each other do not withhold from each other, even when it hurts, even when it threatens the friendship.
Back in another life, in New Haven, a really good friend of mine had lost her husband. About two or three years later, she met a man who was not good for her. She was so head-over-heels in love with him she didn’t see what was going on around her. He was cheating on her, and, I suspected, was using her insurance money to support at least one of the women he was seeing on the side.
Several other friends had figured it out but felt they had no business telling her. I knew how turbulent widowhood could be and seized what I thought was the right time to tell her about the new love in her life. Needless to say, she was furious! She told me that I was just jealous because I didn’t have a love in my life, and, you know, all the rest. She cut off all contact with me, but the seed I had planted sprouted and she started to think about what I had said.
Although she married the scum, she didn’t transfer her assets into his name and realized several years later that he had been unfaithful all along. She ultimately divorced him. We met through a mutual friend many years later, and she thanked me – it still hurt. Of course, it did. She had invested a lot in him but, fortunately not everything. Sometimes, friendship costs.
Laying down one’s life for one’s friends doesn’t necessarily mean literal death, but it does mean the death of our preoccupation with the self and our own needs. It means putting the other first, putting their welfare even above our own, caring for those people and things we love. Loving, even – perhaps, especially – in families, marriages, and churches means abiding with those we love even when they rub us the wrong way. For, to be sure, even the people we love the most rub us the wrong way from time to time, and there are times most of us don’t want anything to do with them. Who was it who said, the more I know people, the more I love dogs? Or cats. The nice thing about pets is their utter dependence on us. People aren’t like that – not those we hold equally, at least.
That’s what is meant by “I have called you friends.” As the monologue astutely points out, servants don’t know what the master is doing, but friends, persons who are equal to one another aren’t kept in the dark. When we are friends with each other, we tell each other how we feel, what we think, when we are angry and when we are joyful. When we are friends with each other, we abide with each other through thick and thin, loving the other, caring for the other. Loving, abiding, and caring are not easy. I suspect that they weren’t even easy for Jesus. But it is what we are called to do to meet the commandment given: That we love one another.
Let us pray: Loving God, who has given us the capacity to truly love, help us to love even when it hurts, to abide with those we love, and to show our love for your world by truly caring for it. We ask this in the name of him who truly cared for us, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.