Saturday, February 12, 2011

Epipany 6A (marriage of Ruth Mwangi and Shane Harman)

A long, long time ago, a friend gave me a violin. You might think this was a very generous gift, and indeed it was. I'd mentioned that I'd love to learn to play, and my friend said to me "Well, I thought that once, too. And somebody gave me this old violin. The only condition was, when I got sick of it I had to give it away to someone else for nothing. So if you want it, it is yours. Just - when you find out you can't play - that's when, not if - when you find that you can't play, it have to give away to someone else for nothing."

So I found a good teacher, at least I thought she was a good teacher because when she played my old violin it sounded like liquid honey. She started teaching me - giving me exercises, teaching me how to hold the violin between the shoulder and the chin, how to position my fingers on the strings, how to hold the bow correctly - and 101 other things. My family was very understanding as I recall. I imagine I sounded like a cat having its tail trodden on, trying to remember all the rules and put them all into practice at the same time - counting the notes, trying to hold the violin, the bow, gripping the neck of the violin just right… After a few months - or was it just a few weeks? - as my friend predicted I got sick of it and I asked my teacher how I could ever learn to play anything with so many rules to remember. And she said, "Don’t you get it? The rules are just there to help you to hear the music. When you learn to listen, the rules remember themselves."  Shortly after that, the violin went to a new owner, with the same condition ... I sometimes wonder where it is now, and whether it ever found an owner who persevered long enough to really hear the music it was capable of.

Sometimes Christians think that Jesus came to replace the law of Moses with the law of love. But St Matthew, who of all the gospel writers most emphasises the fact that Jesus is consistent with the law of Moses and the most ancient traditions of the people of Israel, in today's gospel, has Jesus reminding us that the law of Moses and the law of love are one and the same thing. And Jesus teaching in today's gospel reading spells it out in no uncertain terms - that we can't claim to love on the inside if our behaviour on the outside is inconsistent. This is one of those "when the rubber hits the road" Bible readings that reminds us that love is not a private emotion or a warm fuzzy feeling but the hard and sometimes costly way of forgiveness and compassion. In fact it's one of those Bible readings that, when we read it closely, might have us squirming a bit as we are forced to admit - even if only to ourselves - that there are times we simply don't live up to the standard Jesus sets.

A friend pointed out to me the other day the irony that we have this reading in the church today - when tomorrow is St Valentine's Day. Apparently, in Australia, on average every adult spends over $100 every year on Valentine's Day stuff, including cards, flowers, chocolates and meals in restaurants.  I’m not entirely sure who’s spending my share.  In the United States, one billion dollars is going to be spent tomorrow – in a single day - just on chocolates!  Considering the cost of ending global food insecurity in the world’s poorest nations has been estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation as just $30 billion a year, that’s quite a chunk.  It's cute of course, and it is also important, to remind the ones you love, and perhaps especially the one you're married to, that you're still in love - but I sometimes wonder whether what our society tells us about Valentine's Day and what the Bible tells us about love are one and the same thing. It seems the romantic mythology of our culture teaches us that love is mostly about how much somebody else can affirm us and make us feel complete – the Bible on the other hand teaches us that real love takes us way beyond our own self-interest, that real love is not private and self-centred but public and sometimes confronting.  The public face of love, of course, is justice.  So it’s a fair point – wouldn’t it be good if the next time there was a public appeal for victims of flood or fire or famine – wouldn’t it be good if we could give as big a love offering then as we give ourselves just on Valentines Day?

Don't get me wrong, romantic love needs to be worked at - and the relationships that hold us together in families where children are nurtured and where men and women find the affirmation and the courage they need to grow in confidence and integrity are the life experience in which most of us are best able to learn what God’s self-emptying love looks like in practice. So it might actually be important for Shane and Ruth to remember that their anniversary falls the day before St Valentine's Day, and for them to take the time every year to remind each other of why and how much they are in love.  And it might be good for them – and indeed for all of us – to remind ourselves that love doesn’t just grow by itself, that it needs to be fed and nurtured and that it has rules.

This is where we get back to the perseverance stuff.  To the practising of scales and the learning of grammar and the observance of the wisdom of generations who have gone before us. Love doesn't just happen, we don't learn to love our life partner just because one day we said “I do” in church, we don't learn to love God just by enduring a weekly sermon, and we don't learn to love God's people without learning the grammar of self-sacrifice and service. Real love, in other words, isn't just about saying "I love you", but about learning to live in a way that is consistent with what we claim.

But like the rules of the violin, it seems to me, the rules of love are also designed for one thing, and one thing only – to get us to the point where we can really hear with the heart. As a priest, occasionally - very occasionally - I get asked "is it right for me to do this?" "Is such and such right or wrong?" And it can be a hard question to answer. Because of course the sort of religion that insists on black-and-white answers to questions, and one single correct response to every situation, is wishful thinking, if not childish. Like the rules of the violin, the rules of love need to be reflected on, to be practised with understanding and sensitivity until we can learn to apply them in new and novel situations.

It seems to me that Jesus’ teachings were designed to challenge the way in which the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had replaced religion based on an interior relationship with God with external legalism and ritual obedience. Unfortunately ever since, there has been a movement in the church to replace Jesus focus’ on the covenant of the heart with a whole new set of rules. In today's reading, Jesus is telling us that the interior relationship of the heart and the rules of love are inseparable. Both need to be worked at.

The writer Madeleine l’Engel made some observations in one of her books about her own long marriage, which I often pass on to couples planning to be married, and which I think might be helpful for all of us to remember the day before Valentines Day.  She reminds us that to love somebody is to take a risk, and that always when we love we are unfaithful to one another, in big ways and in small ways, and that to stay in love is to learn the hard lessons of trust and forgiveness.  In words that remind me of Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel reading today, Madeleine l’Engel writes,

"No long-term marriage is made easily, and there have been times when I've been so angry or so hurt that I thought my love would never recover. And then, in the midst of near despair, something has happened beneath the surface. A bright little flashing fish of hope has flicked silver fins and the water is bright and suddenly I am returned to a state of love again — till next time. I've learned that there will always be a next time, and that I will submerge in darkness and misery, but that I won't stay submerged. And each time something has been learned under the waters; something has been gained; and a new kind of love has grown. The best I can ask for is that this love, which has been built on countless failures, will continue to grow. I can say no more than that this is mystery, and gift, and that somehow or other, through grace, our failures can be redeemed and blessed."