The Failures and Successes of Love

I have an old friend who, when he writes me, ends every letter with the Latin idiom Amor Vincit omni - "Love conquers all." It is a lovely and hopeful thought, but in practice there are some notable exceptions.

There is probably not a person listening who has not been saved perhaps several times by some one of many species of love. Conversely, there is probably not a single adult listening who has not been wounded by love. Loving is dangerous business. It is like dynamite. It can blow up the stumps to clear your land, or it can blow your hand off if you are not careful.

If we could, or would, pull back the iron curtain from around our individual lives and show one another who we are and what has happened to us, we would all manifest an unbelievable number of scars, scratches, and even some open wounds that came of loving and being loved. How do I know? Not because I am psychic. I know because I have been a pastor and a counselor for more than a half century. I know because I have seen a lot of woundedness that came of loving and being loved.

Now Christians tend to extol the virtues of love as the immediate and final cure for any situation. In all candor, I must suggest to you that this is not true, certainly not in the simplistic way in which we sometimes think and speak of love. Nothing is the cure for everything!

There are levels of love which range all the way from narcissism, which is an excessive and unhealthy kind of self love, to the kind of love of which Jesus spoke when he said, "Greater love hath no one than this that he lay down his life for a friend." This is love at its highest and best.

When we read the 13th chapter of I Corinthians, most of us assume that this beautiful piece of writing is an explanation of all kinds of love. But this is not true. It is an interpretation of only one kind of love: love at its highest and best. I could recite for you many kinds or cases of love which do not fit that description at all. They are not really love. They are unhealthy means of relating expressed in the guise of love.

If we think of love without specific differentiation, we may be in for disappointment or even irreparable damage. There are more people than you might guess who could recite for you some painful examples of the failure of some kinds of love. They are wounded and cautious people. Some of them are afraid to love again because they have been wounded in the name of love. Perhaps you are one of them. If you are, I am glad you are listening. This sermon is for you.

Not only are there different kinds of love, but even the highest type of love does not always succeed, certainly not in the way in which we tend to think of success. Listen to this biblical example of the failure of love from the 19th chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, verses 41-44:

When Jesus drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation."

There is a turn in the road that descends from the Mount of Olives that offers a magnificent view of the city of Jerusalem. As Jesus came to that turn in the road, he stopped and wept over Jerusalem. He wept because they had not listened to him. He wept because he could see what was going to happen to the city. He wept because love had failed.

For love to succeed there must be willing and affirming reciprocity. Jesus knew that his way would save Jerusalem from what ultimately happened. This is what happened. In 70 A.D., less than 40 years after the death of Jesus, the Roman General Titus, besieged the city, killed or starved all its inhabitants, and finally left not one stone upon another. In their political intrigue and their struggle for power, they set the course for the destruction of Jerusalem. Solutions where love is rejected as the controlling principle always fail, ultimately. So the love of God for Jerusalem failed because Jerusalem said, "No." It was not that love was tried and found wanting; it was wanting from not having been tried.

Being a minister, I am in the business of love. It is my stock in trade. It is my prescription for the ills of persons and situations. But there are persons and situations where love fails. People say, "No." Hardly a week goes by but what I weep with someone over the failure of love.

Not only does love fail due to indifference, but there are evil persons and evil situations which neutralize love. It may be the case of a psychopathic deviant where there is no sense of right and wrong and no sense of guilt about anything. Love, at least in the short term, will have no influence. There are situations in which the most loving thing that can be done is to use some means of force. This is not to be the first response, but the response when all else fails.

It is worth noting that in Luke's account of the Gospel, immediately after Jesus came to Jerusalem, he went to the temple and used physical force to oust the money-changers and the merchants of sacrificial animals who were abusing and misusing the temple. At no other time of which I am aware in the New Testament does Jesus either use or approve of using physical force to influence the behavior of people. This isolated act seems so uncharacteristic of the man we call the Prince of Peace and the incarnation of God's love. But love had failed. People were being hurt, and the most holy of all holy places was being desecrated. It was a situation that cried out for rapid change, so Jesus did the most loving thing under the circumstance. He used the alternative of force. It was a one-time act. It was a special situation. And it is not to be taken in our tradition as a precedent for the constant and unevaluated use of force. But there it is: the alternative in a situation where love failed.

There are times in which such tough love is the only viable alternative to love as gentle kindness and spiritual persuasion.

Well, how does love succeed? It succeeds best among people of good will who have a sense of justice. It succeeds as a long term approach to almost any human ill. If you intend to use the power of love in your life as a means of relating to people, you will likely find yourself in occasional, maybe even frequent, trouble. Many of the people I encounter who have problems do not have nice problems. If you stop to help with love, you may get your hands dirty. It can be messy. I suspect it would be easy for most any of you to think of some situation in which you made a loving response to some problem and found yourself involved in ways you had not anticipated. Many, if not all, of the troubles of Jesus can be traced back to his radical commitment to justice and love.

It has been said that if you follow Jesus you may be sure of three things: You will be extremely happy, uncommonly courageous, and constantly in trouble. Can you handle that?

Sometimes love just happens. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the Catholic priest at Auburn University told his student congregation that among other things people needed in one community was shoes. At the end of the mass that Sunday morning, 200 students went to the altar, took off their shoes, and walked back to their dorms barefooted. Sometimes love just happens.

Situations that cry out for love do not always happen in a religious setting. Acts of genuine love are many times done by people who are not religious in traditional ways. The longer I live the more I see that traditionally religious people and institutions are not the exclusive source of the highest and the best kind of love. Let me give you an example.

The first African-American baseball player in the American League was a rookie, Larry Doby of the 1947 Cleveland Indians. He was reputed to be a good player and an excellent hitter. He came to bat at the first game, and the fans had waited to see him. He swung at the first three pitches and missed all of them by a foot. He struck out. The fans "booed" him. He dropped his head and went back to the dugout, walked to the end of the bench, sat down, and put his head in his hands.

The next batter was the second baseman Joe Gordon, an All Star hitter who had always hit this particular pitcher well. Everyone knew that he could not only hit the ball; he could put it out of the park. He stepped up to the plate, swung at the first three pitches, and missed each pitch by two feet. They could not believe it! A hush fell over the crowd. Joe Gordon walked back to the dugout,
went to the end of the bench, sat down by Larry Doby, and put his head in his hands.

Even today people wonder: "Did Joe Gordon strike out on purpose?" No one knows for sure, except Joe Gordon. But I can tell you this: it is reported that from that day on, Larry Doby never went out on the baseball field but what he did not reach down and pick up the glove of his teammate Joe Gordon and hand it to him.

What manner of love is this? Because Joe Gordon was willing to take a step back, he gave someone else a chance to take a step forward. In the competitive power struggles of life from which none of us, not even the church, is exempt, we must learn that it is not our own petulant striving to achieve place at the expense of everyone else that gives us the wholeness that saves. It is the strength to love in the midst of destructive competition when we have the distinct advantage, but step aside in deference to those who have not had a chance yet. Do you have the strength to love like that?

This is an example of how love succeeds. Not at weddings where we "ooh" and "aah" over God knows what. Not at weddings where we give social permission for love to be tested in the caldron of marriage. If love succeeds, it is in the trenches, when for a moment, courage overcomes cowardice and concern for someone else beats out selfishness and greed.

Our love is not perfect, but the extent to which it moves toward perfect love which we see in Christ, Jesus, our Lord, to that extent we become like God in whose image we are made.

Let me tell you a story. I think this story originated with that great story-telling preacher, Dr. Fred Craddock.

A family is out for a Sunday afternoon drive, and, suddenly, the two children in the back seat begin to beat their father on the back. "Daddy, stop the car. There's a kitten on the side of the road." "So?" said the father. "Well, if we don't pick it up, it might die." "Well, then it will just have to die. We don't have room for another animal. Our house is already like a zoo." And the father kept on driving as the children murmur to each other in the back seat: "We never thought our daddy would be so mean and cruel and let a kitten die."

The mother finally intervenes. "Dear, you will have to stop the car." He turns the car around and goes back to the spot and pulls off the road. "You kids stay in the car now." And he goes to pick up the kitten. The poor creature is just skin and bones, sore-eyed, and full of fleas; but when he reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy the kitten bristles, baring tooth and claw. Sst! He picks up the kitten by the loose skin at the neck, brings it over to the car and says, "Don't touch it; its probably got leprosy." Back home they go. When they get to the house, the children give the kitten several baths, warm milk, and intercede: "Can we let it stay in the house just for tonight? Tomorrow we'll fix a place in the garage." The father says, "Sure, take my bedroom; the whole house is already a zoo." The children fix a comfortable bed fit for a pharaoh.

Several weeks pass. Then one day the father walks in the back door and feels something rub against his leg. He looks down and there is the kitten. He reaches down toward the cat, carefully checking to see that nobody is watching. When the cat sees his hand, it does not bare its claws and hiss; instead it arches its back to receive a caress.

Is that the same cat? Not really. It's not the same frightened and hurt kitten on the side of the road. And you know as well as I what makes the difference. When love happens to you on a consistent basis, you are never the same cat. That's how love succeeds.

We have all known times when we were wild, dirty, angry, or unlovely, and God reached down and blessed us any way. I will not try to name the ways in which God has reached down to touch us. There are too many. But, there is one thing we have all seen if we looked closely when God reached down to us. There were scratches on God's hands. That is how love succeeds.

Are there any scratches on your hands? It is a good sign of the kind of person you are.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, Father and Mother of us all, we pray for new and better understandings of the meaning of love. Forgive us when we have lavished love on those who love us and who are easy to love, while keeping our distance from the stranger, the poor and the oppressed, for fear that our involvement with them might become too complicated or too costly. Heal our hurts from having been involved in unhealthy relationships initiated in the name of love. Save us from careless love. May the love that was and is in Christ Jesus our Lord be our model for giving and receiving love. Amen.