Seth Patterson December 23, 2018
Scripture: Luke 1:46–55
One night a few years ago I was sitting in my apartment in Chicago reading some needlessly dense University of Chicago text (or, more likely, procrastinating from doing that same thing) and we heard a helicopter. This was a very common sound where we lived (along with the fire engines that sped up our street a dozen times a day), but this one seemed lower and was not landing at the University hospital but was hovering above us. So, being curious, I went outside to see what was going on and realized that there was a mass of people gathered a block down. I saw a line of police officers blocking the road and a crowd of 100 or so people standing in the street. I approached a police officer and asked what was going on. He said it was a Black Lives Matter march that started 20 blocks away and was moving towards the University but had now been stopped. As I arrived the woman with the bullhorn stopped the chanting and said that they were going to have a moment of silence, 3 minutes and 58 seconds, to represent the 3 hours and 58 minutes that Michael Brown’s body was left on the street in Ferguson, Missouri. The crowd sat down on the street, hushed, and except for the hovering helicopter, the night was instantly silent. About a minute into the silence an older man stood up and in a powerful baritone began to sing the civil rights song We Shall Overcome. All eyes were on him; the police officer next to me began to hum along, and it felt like a powerful moment was unfolding in front of us. Moments later the woman in charge raised her bullhorn and quietly said: “That is not what we are doing right now. Now is a time for silence to honor Mike and the others like him. Thank you.” Embarrassment and hurt poured over the man and he walked to the edge of the seated crowd and sat down with his head in his hands. After the silence was completed the organizer ended the march and the people began to wander away. The old man remained seated and the young woman remained where she was, bullhorn in hand. I watched the crowd begin to disperse, wondering if they were all going to walk back to where they began, until my police officer companion nudged me and said, “Look.” The old man and the young woman were walking towards each other. The old man looked her in the eyes and said what looked like “You were right.” They hugged for a long time. The police officer looked back at me and said, “Now that is love. Real love.”
We arrive at this fourth Sunday of Advent ready to explore love. We have skated through this season of waiting, having already sojourned on the concepts of hope, peace and joy, with love being the last of these traditional Advent themes. Three weeks ago, Paula called hope “an orientation of the spirit” in her sermon. Last week Beth built on this phrase and called joy “an orientation of the heart.” So, here is what I am curious about: Following this pattern, what then is the orientation of love? While these advent themes are certainly not mutually exclusive, we can assume that they each have their own unique orientation. If that means that love cannot be the orientation of the spirit or the heart, then what exactly is the orientation of love?
How is the word love most commonly encountered? I for one love using the word love. I love being welcomed in this space and love exploring with you all. I love my family and my friends. I also love coffee and crossword puzzles and a good sipping whiskey. I love getting a string of green traffic lights and love my wife’s Peruvian soup. I love when it snows abundantly, and I love when it is hot and humid. Nora and I have tried to teach our daughter that you love people, not things—yet I hypocritically spend my days loving things and ideas and places. Since I love listening to people, I hear people use the word love in this same way all day long. What a lovely feeling it is to love things, to express in our oftentimes limited language that something is important or meaningful for us. Is this then the orientation of love? Love is the orientation of great feelings about our everyday experience? Should we say that love is the orientation of our emotions?
Our theologian friend Paul Tillich would most certainly disagree with this answer. He argues (in the excerpt from Love, Power, and Justice read earlier) that love cannot in the end be an emotion because emotions cannot be demanded. Yet God commands us to love. If we reduce love to being solely an emotion, then one of the foundational pieces of our faith, the Great Commandment, is meaningless. It is obvious that love must have an emotional component based on the ways in which we use it daily, but that cannot be the entirety of it. While it may be true that love begins with this emotional, internal source, it cannot be its orientation. Per Tillich’s logic, love must be something beyond emotion. So then, love is the orientation of what?
My daughter was born on one of the coldest days that Chicago had that winter. Nora had a fairly typical labor experience until it was no longer typical. After midnight the baby’s heartbeat plummeted with every contraction and took longer and longer to recover. The midwife was trying to hide her concern when the door burst open. In walks a physician who even at my relatively young age seemed to be concerningly young. He was rubbing his face like he just woke up (or finished a long night at the bar) and said that he needed to do an emergency C-section or else there could be scary consequences. We quickly decided to trust this child in scrubs and Nora was prepped for surgery. A bit later I was brought into the ER and saw Nora lying in the middle of the room with a screen covering her lower half and her arms outstretched and tied to the bed to try and keep her still. The anesthesia was making her body shudder as if she was freezing cold. I sat next to her and saw a flurry of activity on her lower half. All of a sudden, the murmur of voices stopped, and a scrum of scrubs shuffled silently to another part of the room. There was no crying, no sounds of life, none of the sounds that I had expected to indicate a successful birth. Nothing. I’m holding my breath, Nora is shuddering and tied down and asking what is happening. There is just whispering and beeping and then a cry explodes in the silence. A tiny but powerful cry. The first sounds of our child, our daughter, our love. I jumped up and walked over to the sound and saw this naked little baby laying alone on a table crying. My heart broke open at the sight and sound of her. I was overcome with the very real emotion of love.
Those of you who have met or witnessed this now almost-5-year-old can see that everything turned out fine from this scary beginning. Despite the overwhelming emotion of love that I felt, I hold a deep regret from that moment: I didn’t pick her up. I stood there and left my newborn daughter cold and alone on the table. I can justify it to myself now that I didn’t know if I was allowed to pick her up, if she was healthy enough to be held, but the reality is that I am deeply saddened that I did not just hold her in my arms. Despite being filled by the emotions of love I am still regretful. I am regretful that I did not act, that I held all my love inside and did not share it with my daughter. Unlike the old man and the young woman on that Chicago street, I did not turn my love into action. I was filled with love, but I kept it inside me and didn’t share it.
I wonder if the orientation of love is action. Hope is the orientation of the spirit, joy the orientation of the heart and love . . . is love the orientation of action? To love something is to do, to share, to act. While emotions cannot be demanded, actions can. The Great Commandment demands us to love God and others as we love ourselves, not through emotions, but through actions. Love without action is known only by the one loving. Love without action means that it never leaves me and becomes known by you. I think that moment in the Chicago street was love because the old man and the young woman took action. He overcame his embarrassment, reconnected with the woman, apologized and shared an embrace. His love became manifest, became embodied, became real because it was shared.
Earlier we heard the passage that is commonly called the Song of Mary, and here the author of Luke has Mary exclaiming the many good actions of God. She has been chosen by God to do something incredibly special, and her response is not to describe how she is feeling, but to list how God’s love has been enacted in the world. God has shown mercy and strength and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. God has shared an abundant love with the world. Now God has continued these loving actions by choosing Mary to give the world the gift of a baby. God’s love of the world has not been held deeply inside of God but given freely and powerfully. The orientation of God’s love is action. God didn’t just tell us that we were loved, God chose Mary to have a baby that would grow up and show us through actions what loving God and others and ourselves could look like. God’s love is embodied and manifest and real.
Love as action can be quite difficult for us, though. It can oftentimes feel safer to hold onto love as an emotion, because we get the benefit of feeling good with none of the vulnerability associated with action. We have good and justifiable reasons why we make the choice to not turn our love into action, to keep that feeling inside felt only by ourselves. We can be afraid that our love will not be reciprocated, that it is given to an unworthy recipient, that enacting our love will hurt us later on. To pick up my newborn daughter was to run the risk of being yelled at by the medical staff in an already emotional moment or, worse yet, inadvertently hurting her. I made the less risky decision but the consequence was that my love remained inside me; it was not shared and felt by my daughter who needed to feel it. It was risky for the older man to approach the young woman on that Chicago street. It was risky for Mary to be the mother of this baby. It was a risk for God to embody love in the form of a baby in this world that doesn’t take care of its babies, children or people very well.
Yet this is what we are commanded to do, as Tillich reminds us—to love in spite of fear, anger, hurt, embarrassment, resentment; to love in spite of feelings of inadequacy and ignorance, uncertainty and insecurity, in spite of doubt. Love is not merely the emotional aspect that we feel, but love is the orientation of action. We are to act in love in spite of all the good and reasonable and justifiable reasons not to. It almost always feels easier to choose inaction and keep the love inside for ourselves.
Love is not always reasonable, yet we are commanded to do so in spite of its unreasonableness. Love is not reasonable because it asks us to commit to the risk of taking action. Love is not always reasonable because it can show up in the form of a little baby born in a barn to a family of migrants in an “uncivilized” corner of the empire. God hasn’t just commanded this of us but has modeled it for us, embodied it for us, shown us the power and necessity of sharing our love as action. A baby will be born, and we are asked to show it and all others love through our actions in spite of all of our very good reasons not to do so.