Text: Luke 1:46-55
When I say the word “love” what image comes into your mind? A dozen red roses? A diamond ring? A box of chocolates? A plump angelic figure with wings and a bow and arrow? Maybe the image is of someone’s face that is dear to you—your spouse, friend, mother, father, brother or sister? Often our images of love are of those things that leave us feeling all safe and warm and good and snuggly on the inside. We’ve been taught, and our culture has reinforced, that love is a feeling—and not just any feeling but a warm, fuzzy, comfortable and safe feeling.
I was reminded, however, a couple of months ago of the truth: that love is more than a feeling. Karla and I were in Nashville, TN, learning about a non-profit organization called Thistle Farms. Thistle Farms is a powerful community of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction. It employs more than 50 survivors through the organization’s social enterprises that include a natural body care company, Thistle Stop Café, artisan studio, and global marketplace called Shared Trade. Started in 1997 by Rev. Becca Stevens under the name Magdalene, Thistle Farms includes a two-year residential program and advocacy services for up to 700 women yearly. One statement on their website reads, “Thistle Farms stands for the truth that, in the end, love is the most powerful force for change in the world.”
As I sat that day and listened to founder Becca Stevens, who is an Episcopal priest and chaplain at Vanderbilt University’s St. Augustine’s Chapel, talk about her vision for helping women caught in a cycle of violence and oppression, I was struck by her somewhat firm and almost non-emotional tone. At one point as she described the work of Thistle Farms she said, “Love and faith are not feelings.” Awakened by her words, I fumbled for my pen and paper to write them down, because I knew that she had spoken a truth that is often missed or forgotten. Maybe I would articulate it a bit different than Rev. Stevens. I would say that love and faith are more than feelings. But her basic premise is right. Love and faith are not feelings. Love and faith are actions lived out in our daily lives and with our physical bodies.
And so, I have been thinking about images of love that move beyond simply feelings. Images beyond those that inundate us this time of year—stockings filled and presents under the tree—and the images of love that flood us as we ring in the new year, and all the images that swamp us in February with flowers and hearts and boxes of chocolates. Now don’t go out of here and say the pastor is against Christmas presents and kisses under the mistletoe and chocolates on Valentine’s Day. I like all of those things and the feelings that come with them. But today, I am asking us to think about the images of love that represent more than a feel-good moment. Images of love that more deeply and fully represent the kind of love that we are preparing ourselves to receive in the coming week.
I’m thinking of an image of love that I heard about after the San Bernardino attack. The story is told of a co-worker who threw himself on top of his colleague during the shooting and said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.” The story would go on to tell how that co-worker died protecting his colleague. Love is more than a feeling. Love is an act of selflessness and courage in the face of danger.
I’m thinking also of an image of love from this past week. Some of you heard me tell parts of this story on Wednesday night. Driving to a breakfast appointment Wednesday morning I came upon an accident where a man and his dog had been hit by a car. My first view of the scene, before any first responder’s had arrived, was of the young man who had been hit, run over, crawling on his side in the middle of the road to get to his dog that was lying seriously injured several feet away. Bloodied and broken, all the young man wanted was to get close to his frightened and hurt companion. But the picture of love didn’t stop there. It included a woman and two men who interrupted their lives to stop and give aid. Their clothes, good work clothes, stained by the blood of the young man and dog. The woman’s hand badly injured by the dog when she instinctually reached down to comfort the frightened animal.
Love is more than a feeling. Love is risking getting involved and having your life interrupted when you see a friend or stranger in need.
I think of that unforgettable image of love from Tiananmen Square in 1989 when an unknown protestor stood in front of a column of tanks the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests by force. An image of love, broadcast around the world on live TV, that represented the courage to engage the powers and principalities of this world that keep people oppressed.
Love is more than a feeling. Love is putting our very bodies on the line for justice.
I’m thinking of another image of love that same year, 1989. The protesters/citizens in Leipzig, Germany, who for several months preceding the fall of the Berlin wall, gathered on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church – the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas – to sing. Over two months their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice, until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world. Later, when someone asked one of the officers of the Stasi, the East German secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others, the officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”
Have you ever noticed how often Luke employs songs in the first several chapters of his story about Jesus. Mary sings when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth. Zechariah sings when his son John is born and his tongue is finally loosened. The angels sing of peace and goodwill when they share their “good news of great joy” with the shepherds. And Simeon sings his song of farewell once he has seen God’s promises to Israel kept in the Christ child. And of course, Mary sings her song of her blessedness—the text we have read this morning.
Why all these songs? Someone said of singing that singing is an act of resistance. Of course, that’s not all it is. Sometimes it’s an act of joy and sometimes of camaraderie, but it’s also an act of resistance. The slaves knew this. When they sang their spirituals they were both praising God and protesting the masters who locked them out of worship but couldn’t keep them out of the promise of deliverance of the Bible. And the civil rights leaders knew this, too, singing songs like “We Shall Overcome,” when so many in the society didn’t give them a chance to advance their cause of justice, let alone triumph.
Love is more than a feeling. Sometimes love is a song we sing as an act of solidarity and resistance.
There is one other image of love that I’ve been thinking about this week. There are times when I see the image of love as I observe one of you sitting by your loved one’s bedside holding their hand as they struggle to take the next, last breath. Your heart breaking that you can’t spare them these moments of struggle and transition. Your love in those moments is more than a feeling—more than the heartbreak you feel at watching the one you love die. Your love is a commitment, a promise that you made to have and to hold until death do us part.
Yes, love is more than a feeling. It is a promise, a commitment.
According to Luke, when Mary sang, she didn’t just name God’s promises but she entered into them. Notice, for instance, that the verbs in Mary’s song are all in the past tense. Mary recognizes as she sings that she has already been drawn into relationship with God, the one who has been siding with the oppressed since the days of Egypt and who has been making and keeping promises since the time of Abraham. The past tense in this case doesn’t so much signify that everything Mary sings about has been accomplished, but rather that Mary is now included in God’s history of redemption.
Mary sings of God’s mercy, promising that God lifts up the lonely, the downtrodden, and the oppressed, not just of her day, but of our own as well. So as we take up her song on behalf of all those who mourn, or are lonely, or do not have enough food, or live in places of strife and war, or who struggle with mental illness or care for them, and so many more we do so recognizing that love is more than a feeling. Love is mercy and the willingness to be witness to the pain and suffering of the world.
The world needs our love…the kind of love that Valarie Kaur, a Sikh lawyer and activist, describes in her speech to the Parliament of World’s Religions. “Love calls us to look upon the faces of those different from us as brothers and sisters. Love calls us to weep when their bodies are outcast, broken, or destroyed. Love calls us to speak even when our voice trembles, stand even when hate spins out of control, and stay even when the blood is fresh on the ground. Love makes us brave. The world needs your love: the only social and political force that can dismantle injustice and remake the world around us—and within us.” Yes, love is a feeling, a very important feeling. And love is more than a feeling. May we allow such love to make us brave.