Introduction: What the world needs now…is a sermon about love. So fasten your seat belt…hold on to your hat…here it comes.
First we’ll introduce Valentine’s day and the romantic love which is responsible for most of our procreating activities…is it love, lust or a combination?
We’ll hear a love letter written by a soldier in the Civil War, before the days of telephones and text messages.
We’ll hear another letter – a famous letter about love and the obstacles to love…what love is and what love is not.
And finally we’ll hear an overview of our own efforts to live out our affirmation that says ‘love is the spirit of this congregation.’
And we’ll close with a poem written for a wedding by yours truly.
Sermon: “What is This Thing Called Love?”
Today is Saint Valentine’s Day, which contrary to popular belief was not invented by Hallmark and Munson’s chocolates. Historically, it was established by Pope Gelasius I in the year 496 in honor of an early Christian martyr named Valentine
A legend emerged that portrays Valentine as a priest who refused a law attributed to the Roman Emperor, Claudius II, ordering that young men remain single. The Emperor supposedly did this to grow his army, believing that married men did not make for good soldiers.
The priest Valentine, however, secretly performed marriage ceremonies for them and when Claudius found out he had Valentine arrested and thrown in jail. On the evening before Valentine was to be executed, he wrote the first “valentine” himself, addressed to the jailer’s daughter whom he had befriended and healed. It was a note that read “From your Valentine.”
Since he was famous for performing wedding ceremonies for young men, Saint Valentine’s day became associated with romantic love, symbolized with red heart-shaped outlines and the winged Cupid and celebrated with flowers – especially red roses, and chocolates – especially Munson’s, at least here in Westport!
Romantic love has its place in the broad spectrum of all the different kinds of love, from romantic to family and kinship, to friendship and patriotism, the love of country and extending to the love of pets, foods and sports teams.
Ken Burns, in his powerful documentary on The Civil War, included a letter from a Sullivan Ballou, a Union Soldier, to his 24-year old wife and mother of their two young children. The love letter was written on the eve of the Battle of Bull Run
The letter is a perfect specimen of romantic love, but it also touches on love in a few of its other forms: parental love, patriotism – love of country, love of freedom and, by the beauty and care of its language, love of words.
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .
Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us.
I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .
Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861. He was 32 years old. The letter was not mailed, but found among Ballou’s belongings and brought to her by Rhode Island’s Governor William Sprague who traveled to Virginia to bring back the Rhode Island men who had fallen in battle.
A more famous letter is attributed to Saint Paul and addressed to the community he had established around the year 50 A.D. in Corinth, a seaport in Greece. Paul heard that the community had become divided as various members vied for control with factions identifying themselves with different religious leaders. His first letter was written about 55 A.D. and it is an appeal for unity. It is no doubt the most quoted passage from Paul’s various letters – indeed one of the most often Bible passages, read especially at weddings. I Corinthians 13:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have…but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love 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.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Sullivan Ballou’s romantic love letter is addressed to one person; Paul’s letter to the little group in the sea-side village is not about romantic love, but what we might call ‘religious’ love.
He says, ‘Love never ends.’ What about divorce? Every divorce was preceded by an expression of romantic love, similar to Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife. Doesn’t divorce prove that Paul is wrong, that love does ‘end?’
Does a kindness that was done to a stranger end when you part ways? The kindness was done, it was planted in the world, it was nourishment to the heart of the one who did the act of kindness as well as the heart of the recipient.
You’re driving along a highway and notice an abandoned car and see a man a mile ahead wearing a navy uniform and you stop, drive him to a gas station and then back to his car. Does that kindness ‘end’ when you drive away never to see one another again?
I think that’s what Paul means when he says ‘love never ends.’ There’s no guarantee that early romantic love will grow into a mature love and last ‘as long as you both shall live.’
Indeed, that’s what the tragic ending to Romeo and Juliet is about – love is sometimes dormant and in such a deep sleep, as Juliet was put by the well-meaning monk, that it appears to be dead. Do you remember the story? The monk sent a message to Romeo to alert him to the trick with Juliet, putting her in such a deep sleep that her family would ‘let go,’ and the lovers could live happily ever after. But Romeo never got the message from the monk. Instead he got a message from a well-intentioned friend who said Juliet was dead, so Romeo rushed to her side and took his own life; she woke to see what had happened and took her own life – thus the love story ends in tragedy.
Romeo didn’t get the message. That is, he didn’t understand that all he had to do was to wait.
In Easter Europe, until a few generations ago, at every wedding reception there was a badchen – an entertainer who improvised songs in honor of the bride and groom. Some of the songs were joyous or humorous, but some were not.
In a humorous way, the badchen told the new couple that life was sure to bring all kinds of sorrow, and, if they were to find lasting happiness it would be an exceptional, unusual gift – a special gift…a wondrous exception. In most lives there are lots of bad things that happen.
The badchen still entertains and helps prepare the couple at Hasidic weddings in Orthodox Judaism.
I often remind a couple who are preparing to be married that they should, of course, have high hopes and expectations, but they need to be careful…they need to be reasonable. If their standards for a good, lasting marriage are too high they are sure to be disappointed, and too much disappointment leads to resentment, and resentment kills love.
‘Love is patient and kind,’ Paul says. Every act of patience and kindness is an act of love and it doesn’t end – it is planted into the hearts of the do-er and the receiver and the observers.
Mother Teresa says, ‘love cannot remain by itself. Love has to be put into action and that action is service. Kindness is a quality of inter-action; usually it is so subtle you hardly notice it by observation; but you know it by experience.
Love is patient. What about impatience? He’s not saying that one who loves is always patient, but impatience doesn’t negate those times when one has shown patience; we all have a limited amount of patience; as we mature, we become more patient.
He’s talking about mature love. Immature love is self-centered – narcissistic.
Notice the things he says love is ‘not.’ Love is not jealous or boastful, it’s not arrogant or rude, and it does not insist on having its own way, it is not irritable or resentful.
Now try substituting the word “I” for the word love in this famous letter. “I am patient and kind; I am not jealous or boastful, I am not arrogant or rude; I do not insist on having my own way, I am not irritable or resentful.”
In Woody Allen’s cinematic gem of a love story Allen’s character, Alvy has an argument with his girlfriend, Annie and he’s confused…he’s trying to understand ‘this thing called love,’ and he approaches a total stranger on the street, an older woman, and asks her about love and she says, simply, “Love fades.”
Later Alvy approaches a pair of apparently happy lovers and asks them how they’ve managed to work out such a wonderful relationship. Their response is classic:
The woman says: Uh, I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.
Smiling, the man says, And I’m exactly the same way.
We say, together, ‘Love is the spirit of this church.’ We know it by heart, and we say it again and again, not because we’re boating that we have achieved it. Not at all! We say it because we know we need to be reminded of our aspiration; we’re here to be reminded, to get a wake-up call, reminding us to pay attention, as Mary Oliver says in her poem about worship, which she titled ‘Praying.’
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Sometimes we’re boastful, of course. Sometimes we seem to suggest that our approach to religion is ‘better than theirs,’ rather than affirming that it’s right for us.
Sometimes someone will insist on having her own way, and it looks in that moment like love is not the spirit of this church.
Sometimes we get irritated…impatient…arrogant and rude.
Ty Cobb holds the record for a lifetime batting average. He succeeded a little more than one hit for every three times at bat, ending his career with an average of .366.
An excellent hitter can average over .400 in an exceptional season, but even the best hitter will fail more than half his times at bat.
You’re up! How are you hitting, so far?
We’re here to raise our average, so we’ve formed what we’re calling ‘circles of care,’ to help one another, as our affirmation says: “This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”
We used the Google Earth computer program to assign everyone to one of 24 circles of care. So far we’ve had 81 people step forward to volunteer to help organize their circle; or to provide rides to doctor’s appointments, or to assist with food shopping, or a ride to church; or to prepare a meal for someone who is unable, temporarily, to do that for himself.
People have signed up to make a telephone call or a visit to someone in their area who is shut in or recovering from an illness or from surgery.
In his poem, Lines Composed a Few Miles From Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth wrote, “That best portion of a good man’s life, His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”
The organizing effort for our ‘circles of care’ takes into account the variety of competencies in the congregation – everyone has something to give, and most of us will, at some point, be in need of some act of kindness.
We opened with a love letter written by Sullivan Ballou in anticipation of his death, followed by a letter about love and written to a community like our own – we need to be reminded that ‘love is patient and kind…and it does not insist on having its own way.’ We’ll close with a wedding poem I wrote some years ago. The wedding was held at the home of the bride’s parents’ home at Cape Cod, on the water. It was a gorgeous day and as I waited form the ceremony to begin I wrote the following:
The gods got together to make this day happen–
This is the day the good gods gave.
They painted white cloud puffs across the blue autumn sky
and sent a breeze;
They dropped sweet-scented promises in late-blooming roses;
They mixed memories in an ocean of dreams
and scattered renewed hope across the sky;
They turned loneliness inside out, stuffed it into an old black hat, and love leaped out laughing,
singing away the pain as dreams danced on top of the day.
This is the gift the good gods gave.
Set sail. Set sail and sing!