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The Way of Love

Throughout Lent, we’ve talked about the ways of Jesus: the way of integrity, perseverance, second chances, and inclusion. If we consider him to be our mentor, teacher, guide and example, then the way he lived, and the way he taught are so very important. There are so many other ways we could talk about, but one of the most important is love. The way of love was crucial to who Jesus was and who he called us to be on our own spiritual journeys.

This is not bumper sticker love – I love my dog, I love soccer, I love my truck, I love my church. Nor is this love trite, sappy and absent of pain and heartache. This way of love that Jesus exemplified was deeper, grittier, stronger, it was love with teeth (so to speak). To me that looks like an unconditional love, one that survives conflict and struggle. Love with teeth doesn't necessarily play it safe. It is wiling to risk, to be courageous and to be vulnerable. It is honest, fearless, and has integrity. Sometimes gritty love means we need to let go. It always calls us to our higher selves, and reminds us to look for the higher selves in others.

Think about all this as we talk about the scene in John 12 where Mary is anointing the feet of Jesus, much to the dismay of Judas.

To set the stage for this anointing, please know that Jesus' arrest and death was mentioned three times right before this took place. The writing was on the wall, as they say. Unless Jesus went into hiding for a while, it was inevitable that the Pharisees and chief priests track him down, arrest him and most likely kill him.

Then, during a banquet in Jesus’ honor, Mary brings out a very costly jar of ointment, worth almost a years’ wages, anoints Jesus’ feet with it, and dries his feet with her hair. Judas doesn’t seem to have an issue with the act, or the intimacy of the act, but he raises a stink about wasting expensive ointment that could be sold and used for the poor. Of course, we’re told that he’s basically a thief and wanted to sell the ointment and take the money for himself. Regardless, Jesus defends Mary’s actions saying that she has anointed him for his burial. We have an amazing juxtaposition between the haughty selfishness of Judas and the selfless giving of Mary.

Jesus doesn’t stop her or admonish her. Why? Perhaps because she is living what he has been preaching to them over and over, to love God and to love others (he says this at least 4 times in the gospel of John). She loved him through her actions. She heard what was going on, she accepted his decision and his fate, and she did what she could to show her support and her love.

Interestingly, Jesus himself closely echoes this action when he washes the disciples’ feet in the next chapter. Remember that in these washings Jesus was trying to get rid of the master-servant relationship, to show in a concrete way that everyone is equal and loved within the divine embrace. He exemplified a new order, the way of love.

Here’s the key: love is an action. It is an action that enhances life. And when we participate in this action, we experience transcendence. John Shelby Spong, in his book Unbelievable, moves us away from a “being” type of God (no white guy in the sky) and gives us a new way to understand the divine. Spong suggests that "God is the name by which we call this experience of love." Spong said, “The more we give love away, the more we make the experience of God visible. God is not a being, external to us; God is experienced in the presence of love, God is the dimension of transcendence flowing through us.”

If I could give us all a guiding question to ask as we navigate through life it would be this: What would love do?  What would love with teeth do in this situation?  What would expansive, life-enhancing, unconditional love do?

I could easily point my finger at other people and tell them they clearly need to ask this question more. But the reality is that I have to start with me. Oh, but this can be a hard thing to do.  Asking this of myself means that sometimes I might have to keep my snarky comments to myself. It means sometimes I might have to bite the bullet and make the first step toward reconciliation (even if I don’t think I’m wrong, or I didn’t start the conflict). It means I might need to recognize my own biases and judgments for what they are and strive to change. It means that sometimes I have to let go, even if it is hard. It might mean risking, being uncomfortable, standing up with and for. It might mean I have to get my ego out of the way and get my priorities straight.

Phillip Gulley, in his book If the Church Were Christian, tells a story about two families, both of whom were active in his congregation. One family was especially dogmatic, while the other family appeared to be more flexible. Within several years of each other, both families had teenage daughters who became pregnant out of wedlock.

The first family reacted with anger, demanding the daughter marry the boy who’d impregnated her. They took their daughter’s pregnancy personally, accusing her of tarnishing the family’s reputation. Within a few years, the daughter divorced, and to this day remains emotionally distant from her parents. The second family, though initially shaken by their daughter’s pregnancy, rallied around her, urged her to continue her education, and treated the father with respect and dignity; when the child was born, they joyfully welcomed the infant into their family.

I’m sure both sets of parents would say they loved their daughters, but where do we see love in action? What if they had both asked: What would love do? How would love treat this scared young woman and young man?

Philip Gulley tells another story about when he was a young aspiring Quaker pastor and received a call to a small urban congregation in Indianapolis. There were all of 12 people there on his first Sunday, but he soon found that the congregation was very compassionate, loving and had an easy, unaffected manner. The wonderful attitude seemed to stem from its founders – Lyman and Harriet Combs. By the time he met them in 1990 they were both retired. Lyman spent his days volunteering at a homeless shelter and Harriet made herself available to anyone who needed her – babysitting, transportation, visiting the sick and lonely… all done with good humor and great joy.

Over the years the Quaker meeting seemed to have taken on their spirit – light and bouyant. They were generous, caring, welcoming. They were apt to empty their bank account for someone in need and easily accepted and welcomed the homeless and mentally ill who, given their urban setting, often found their way to worship. But, oddly enough, they didn’t seem to care a whit about church growth. The denomination as a whole spent lots of money trying to attract new attendees and Philip had a not-so-hidden desire to pastor a growing congregation. But not so much the church.

Once he asked Harriet about this and she said, “I guess it was never our goal to have a large church.”

“Then why are we here?” he asked her.

“To love,” she said smiling.

So, while Gulley was busy counting attendance numbers, Harriet was busy cheerfully going about the work of loving – never excluding, never judging or gauging the worth of a person before caring for them. She had an aptitude for restoring a person to fullness of life without condemnation. People wanted to be like her.

Nope. Loving isn’t easy. Judging and condemning are much easier. Shaming and blaming are easier. But none of those things lead to wholeness, for ourselves or others. The God I know is the action of love, the energy of love, the hope and grace and forgiveness of love. It’s our task to accept the love for ourselves and give it away, thus sharing the experience of God with the world.

Love & Light!