LOVE ONE ANOTHER
The renowned poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born on March 6, 1806, in Durham, England. One of her most famous works is, “Sonnets from the Portugese” which is a declaration of love for her husband, Robert Browning who, because of her complexion, called her his little “Portugese”. It goes like this
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
In today’s gospel we see Jesus and his disciples at the last supper. Jesus is also talking about love. You remember this scene from Holy Week. Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey and acclaimed as king of kings by the crowds but is being pursued by the authorities who want answers to their questions about this kingdom of God he proclaims. A lot of drama has already taken place. There has been a confrontation with Judas and he has left the scene. He is on his way to the high priests to have them arrest Jesus. Everything is beginning to move quickly and Jesus only has a few more hours at most, to be with the disciples. It is at times like these when we get to the essentials, down to the brass tacks, when that which really matters rises above all other issues. Jesus is trying to convey that which is absolutely essential about his teaching about God and he says to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you…. you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” How are we to love? – as he has loved us, intentionally, sacrificially, giving up ourselves for the sake of the other. This kind of love is easy when we choose to do it, when we want to give that love. Have you ever tried to love someone you did not care for?
When I was serving St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, we helped staff a soup kitchen once a week that was run by an ecumenical consortium. It was visited by the homeless, the alcoholic and drug-addicted, the down and outs who needed a little sustenance. Clay was a parishioner who worked as a legislative assistant in the state government. I had talked him into volunteering one day and it was a real breaking down of barriers for him. His assumptions about love, life and faith were shattered. Clay shared with me that his mother had a real thing about cleanliness. Anyone have a mother like that? His mother was a nurse. From an early age Clay was taught that when he went through a push door, he was to shove it with his fist keeping his fingers closed. If the door had a handle on it, he was to pull it open with his little finger. “This way,” his mother instructed, “you will not get any germs on your hands.” “At the age of forty-eight,” he said, “I probably have the strongest little finger in America.” One day, Clay was serving a hot meal in the soup kitchen. He did not really understand why he was there and he was not sure that the people coming through the line deserved his attention but he had committed himself to serving food for the afternoon so he was trying to make the best of it. They were serving chili and two pieces of buttered bread that day. A man came through the line who looked even more dirty and broken than the others. Clay was overwhelmed by his stench. “I was horrified,” said Clay, “by the layers of dirt on his hands.” Before he realized it, the man reached over and clasped Clay’s hands in his own and blurted out, “Brother, I love you. Thanks for being here.” “I’m glad you’re here too,” Clay stammered after swallowing hard. Clay tried to smile after the man shuffled over to one of the tables with his meal. The next man stepped up for some chili. As Clay handed him his bowl, a little of the chili spilled on to Clay’s hand. Without even thinking about it, he licked it off. Then it hit him. That was the hand the dirty man had just clasped! Clay momentarily froze, repelled to think that he had just licked something that the smelly, dirty man just touched. It was a moment of truth and change. Clay became a different human being that day. “No longer was Jesus just some handsome, bearded man I pictured in my mind,” he said. “Now he had the scarred and stubbly face with fingers stained yellow. He was dirty. He smelled bad and he wore cast off clothes. I had just served him chili and bread.”
The Broadway musical, Les Miserables, is based on the classic novel of the same title by Victor Hugo. The hero of the story is a man by the name of Jean Valjean, a man who has been imprisoned for 18 years because he stole some bread to feed his sister’s hungry child. Upon being released from prison, Valjean gets into trouble with the law again. But a kindly bishop intervenes in a most graceful way to give him another chance to redeem himself, and this time Valjean succeeds. He vows to spend the rest of his life helping others, and so he does. Near the end of the musical, just before he dies, Valjean sings some of the most memorable and moving lyrics of the whole show: “Take my hand and move me to salvation. Take my love for love is everlasting. And remember the truth that once was spoken “To love another person is to see the face of God.’” Those words keep ringing in my ears- “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Sometimes we make a big deal about our spiritual search for God. Some people undergo tremendous disciplines, or make long pilgrimages to discover God in their lives. We often forget that we need only express our care for the person right next to us, to love those around us, to see the face of God. We don’t have to pursue some grandiose scheme to find God. We don’t have to multiply our prayers. We need only pay attention to the broken among us. We need only minister to our nearest neighbor… “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” says Jesus, “if you have love for one another.” Amen.