Go into a store during these next few days and you’ll see lots of cupid hearts and red roses. Valentine’s Day is coming, the day when our country celebrates love. We use that day to remind us that love makes the world go round. Turn on any radio station and listen to the songs. How many of them are about love? 80%? 90%? 95%? We live in a society where love is constantly held up in front of us as the ideal, as the thing we need the most. “All you need is love,” sang the Beatles for all of you old timers out there. And yet, look around this society. Do you see a whole lotta love? You see crime and violence and fear separating people from one another. No love there. You see competition and rivalry for jobs, for promotions, for wealth. No love there. You see families that can’t get along without wounds, resentments, grudges, and bitterness. No love even there. If love is such an ideal, if love is all you need, how come there’s so little of it? St. Paul throws his two bits into the act today with his hymn to love. “I will show you the way which surpasses all others. There are three things that last: faith, hope, and love and the greatest of these is love.” Love is the greatest, says the apostle. Society says we need love. The Bible says we need love. Our hearts tell us we need love. What is going on? If everyone and everything agrees that love is the answer, why isn’t there more of it? Where is it?
Maybe the question isn’t where but what. The problem might be that what society holds up as this crazy little thing called love is not love at all, or at least not what the Bible means by love. It could be that we’re looking for love in all the wrong places. Remember, for example, that Jesus said after he washed the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If we imagine love as a picking up instead of a laying down, if we conceive of love as something that we get instead of something that we give, we are bound to notice love’s absence more than its presence. However, when we think of love as giving, as foot-washing, as caring, as serving nothing can keep us from having love like that. Love in the Bible is not symbolized by hearts and flowers. Love is symbolized by the cross, by Jesus laying down his life for us. That’s the kind of love which will fill up the ache deep in our hearts. That’s the kind of love we need. As anyone who has been married for more than a few years will testify, love is not something you have once and for all but is hard work that you must keep at. Love in the Bible is not so much about what I am feeling as it is about what I am doing.
In Judaism Sabbath starts when day becomes night so it’s very important to know exactly when night officially falls. They asked the wise Rabbi how to tell the moment. Is it night when you can’t tell the difference between a man or a woman walking down the street? Is it night when you can’t see if the piece of thread that you are holding is white or black? No, said the Rabbi, that’s not it. It is when you look in the face of any man or woman and don’t recognize there your brother or sister. If you cannot see the face of God in the people around you, no matter what time of the day it is, it is always night.
All of us would like to see more love in our families, at school or work, in our bruised and battered world. Yet the Bible teaches us that in the end love is something that we make, not something that we take. St. Paul tells us how to make love. Love, real love, Bible love, crucified love is patient, kind, not jealous and all the rest. So if we want to make this world a better place, a more loving place, we have the yardstick with which to measure ourselves. Just plug your name into the list and see how loving you are. “I am patient. I am kind. I am not jealous. I am not self-seeking. I am not prone to anger. I do not brood over injuries” and all the rest. If you are anything like me, putting my name in the list serves as a vivid reminder of why the world needs love. I have put limits on my trust and my hope. I have failed to make enough love.
Admitting that we don’t measure up should not be cause for despair but an invitation to a new and fuller kind of loving. The Old Testament lesson from the prophet Jeremiah reminds us where all this love talk came from. Before we were formed in the womb God knew us and God loved us. Before we were born we were dedicated to love, to God’s love. I am with you, says the Lord. So the most important step to move from taking love to making love is knowing that the reason we exist is so that God can love us. God has loved us first and thus made us lovable. Once we know ourselves as created with an imperishable, divine love we can give love away. Love is not being filled with warm and mushy feelings but being convinced to the core of our being that God is loving me just as I am. The reason I can be patient is because God is patient with me. The reason I am kind is because I have felt God’s kindness. The reason I can endure is because God puts up with me. Once we let God love us just the way we are, then we in turn can love one another. It is our being loved that empowers us to love.
Look at the example of Jesus in the gospel. It didn’t take much for the people of Nazareth to change from speaking favorably of him to being filled with indignation about him. How easy it would have been for him to become bitter at his treatment. But nothing that was going on in them out there, even their intention to throw him over the edge of a hill, could change the love he was feeling in here for them. Jesus could love even those who rejected him because he knew he was the Beloved. As the beloved, he could love. No one can stop us from loving. We will be able to love — with patience, with kindness, without anger — when we believe to the core of our being how much God loves us. In God’s love we are always forgiven. With God’s love we can forgive. In God’s love we can find consolation. With God’s love we can share consolation. In God’s love all pain is healed. With God’s love we can bestow healing. In God’s love the sun will shine. With God’s love we bring light and warmth to one another. In God’s love I possess the good news. With God’s love I can bring good news. In God’s love we are whole. In God’s love we are one.