Owe no one anything, except to love one another. Betty, you owe no one anything … except to love them. Dan you owe no one anything … except to love them.
Friends this is the good news this morning. It is so good, I don’t want you just to hear it from Deb or from me—I want you to hear it from each other. So turn to someone sitting near you … go ahead turn! And if there is no one near you or you can’t catch someone’s eye, look up here and we will tell each other.
Repeat after me—“You owe no one anything … except to love them.” Amen.
In our reading for this morning, Paul, the man who spouts more rules in his writings than anyone else, the one obsessed with right conduct and right living, here near the very end of possibly the last letter he wrote that appears in our Bible, Paul tells the Romans and you and me that all of those rules and guidelines about how we are to live with one another really all boil down to love. Love fulfills all of the law in regards to one another, Paul says. Love is the only thing we owe one another. It is the thing we are called upon to extend to family, friend, neighbor, stranger, ally and enemy alike.
Love has been the subject of countless movies, songs, commercials, dreams and books in our contemporary society. Here in the church love has often been called the central aspect of Christian theology. The word appears in the Bible more than 500 times, we sang about it in our opening hymn and we practiced, proclaimed and pledged it around this font just a few moments ago.
And yet, I wonder how often we think deeply about or explore closely. Exactly what love is. In the midst of the brokenness of this world, where pain, suffering, injustice and scandal seem to be the norm, we somehow seem to still trust that we know what love is, what it means and how to give and receive it. After all it is love.
Julian Barnes wrote a book that the Chicago Sun Times called stunning. They called it a flawless diamond. It is entitled “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters.” Each of the 10 Chapters covers the reality of life and its stories. How trouble seems to be intertwined with living. Now the witty, sarcastic, dry and hilarious Barnes may be among the last people I can imagine grabbing a beer with the Apostle Paul, what he says about love, though, is something I think Paul would raise a glass to.
It is in that half of a chapter, named Parenthesis, stuck between chapters 8 and 9 that Barnes writes about the single most important thing in the history of world. He says that human history is and I quote “ridiculous without it.” That one thing of course is love.
Just as the ancient theologian Tertullian, claimed that he believed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ precisely because it is impossible, Barnes writes that love is essential precisely because it is unnecessary. He says that love does not guarantee that either you or the object of your love will be happy—love in no way makes everything alright. Barnes reminds us that we can build damns like the beaver without love, we can organize complex societies like the bee without love, we can travel long distances like the albatross without love, we can put our head in the sand like the ostrich without love, and, if we are not careful, we can even die out as a species like the dodo did without love. Love is not necessary, but it is essential. Without love, the world, Barnes claims becomes brutally self important.
Barnes argues you cannot love someone without imaginative sympathy. You cannot love someone without beginning to see the world from another point of view. The very point of view of the one you love. It is love, Barnes writes that moves us beyond ourselves. Without love the history of the world is ridiculous. And the future … well it is meaningless … a long slide into self absorption and decay.
Love is essential according to both Barnes and the Apostle Paul because love is generative. The good and important news for this morning is not so much what love is, but what love does. Here in Romans, near the end of Paul’s writings, Paul grabs our attention and focuses it directly on right living. But rather than talking about all thou shalt nots, even though they remain important today, Paul turns our focus and imagination toward the generative power of love. Because Paul knows love is a power that can never, ever be content with status quo. Love is a force that builds upon itself and one that binds us together.
Jesuit scholar Edward Vacek puts it this way. He defines love as an affective and affirming participation in the goodness of another being. Love is not merely some kind of approval of what is already present in the one we love. It is not merely a result of a judgment of what is. It is the most dynamic process in all of creation. Love, Vacek writes, joins people together with our holy creator in moving toward the fulfillment of God’s dream for us. Every act of love, he says builds a community of love. Full human community is not the starting point of history but our destiny and love it is what will take us there.
Our vision here at Old South calls us to live lives of faith at the contested crossroads of our world, to engage in service and justice making, to speak to the world from our faith and to speak back to our faith and one another from our work in the crossroads of our world. I am privileged to be part of a taskforce that has been charged to wrestle with how we may live our way into that kind of life. This taskforce has been charged to get this congregation not just to think about, but to get involved directly with acts of kindness, justice, compassion, service and learning.
We have been charged to stand on the great shoulders of those who have come before us and to continue to establish Old South as a place synonymous with mercy and with justice. Yet mercy without love descends into pity. And justice without love? Well, the great Reinhold Neibhur said this, “Any justice which is only justice soon disintegrates into something less than justice.” As we go about our work here at Old South we need this passage from Paul to be engraved on our hearts, for we are called not just to serve the world but to engage in love making with our world. We owe the people of Boston and the world nothing … except to love them.
Without love even the greatest of actions we might conceive of would be nothing more than clanging gongs or noisy cymbals … they would be ridiculous. But bathed in love the work we are being called to undertake becomes ways of co-loving this world with God. Bathed in love they not only affirm that all human beings are already God’s beloved, they suggest that each of us are beings capable of as yet unimagined possibilities. Each of us are God’s love songs waiting to be sung. Service without love is meaningless ... Justice without love is ridiculous.
But there are a couple of things that we must keep in the back of our minds as we begin this work. First, while sharing our love might just help to repair the world as the official, bright red Old South T-shirts say, the generative powers of love means that not just the world but ourselves will be impacted. Remember Barnes said we cannot love someone without imaginative sympathy. We cannot love someone without beginning to see the world from another’s point of view.
If we do our work at the crossroads right, we cannot love the world without encountering it and seeing this place and our world and ourselves through a whole new set of eyes. As we look at the differences of the people we encounter through the eyes of love we will end up seeing our own differences through their own eyes. As we love their differences we will have the chance to love our own. And when, through love, we see the unimagined possibilities that God has placed within them, we will have the chance through their eyes to see our own unrealized and unrecognized potential in ways we never could on our own. The truth is we could never be who God has dreamed we might be unless we love others and gain the eyes to see who we might be.
Just as importantly anytime we profess love through words or actions, we do not just affirm the one we love, we confirm that they have a hold on our own lives. Think about it—we know this—it is love, when we say I love you to our partner, spouse, friend or family, we say something like “You make such a difference in my life that I would not be the same person without you.” So if we are to engage in love making with the world, we will miraculously discover that we will end up saying the exact same thing to those we meet at the crossroads, “You make such a difference in my life that I would not be the same person with you.” Bathed in love, our actions of service and justice will leash us to our brothers and sisters in ways that unleash God’s design for our lives. That is the first miracle of love making.
The second miracle is this—if we truly love the world we will not just give love away—we will create it. You see as human beings are loved, we have a natural tendency to return love to those who love us. It is a great gift of our creator, it is a tendency hard wired into who we are. Sure, people can and do refuse to return love. Each of us bears the scars to prove it. But that refusal goes against our very created natures as God’s beloved. When we infuse justice with love we cannot help but to foster it in those who we love. Love is a generative thing. We owe Boston and the world nothing but to love them.
In the end, Paul says it all comes down to love and Julian Barnes would certainly raise a glass to that notion. Barnes concludes his half of a chapter, that one stuck between chapters 8 and 9, with this observation: “How you cuddle in the dark, governs how you see the history of the world.” How you embrace love in the quiet and stillness of the night affects how you live into the morning.
Sisters and brothers, as Paul writes in our passage for today the time for us to awake and greet the new dawn is upon us. As you leave this place and go beyond these walls I hope that you crawl out of slumber, wipe the sleep from your eyes and face this world of ours in all its beauty and all its pain. Remember: Owe no one anything … except to love one another because love fulfills the law, love brings us closer to God’s dream for us, and without love, the whole world and anything we might do, even in the name of God would be ridiculous. Amen.