God's Love Story

I don’t watch much TV, but I do love to be judgmental about shows. It’s kind of a hobby. Also, I’m usually a few years behind in my knowledge of what’s new. I just found out about a reality show that’s in it’s seventh season called “Married At First Sight.” The premise is outrageous: single folks agree to get legally married to a stranger the moment they first meet, at the altar. A panel of experts, including a pastor, create what they believe are three compatible couples based on some kind of “scientific” matchmaking. The series documents each couple’s journey as they go from wedding to honeymoon to early nesting. After several weeks together, each couple must make a decision: do they stay together or get a divorce? The first thing that comes to my mind is: how much do reality TV pastors get paid? Just curious. But my second response is more along the lines that the show might just signal the end of western civilization. While it’s entertaining, it’s exploitative. Love is a sacred part of life, not meant to be a stunt for ratings.

And then there is the question of how likely it is that love can work out this way. To be fair, the show claims a success rate of about 28% of couples who stay married. But that doesn’t dissuade my crankiness about the premise. Love shouldn’t be forced, right? The heart wants what it wants. If you suddenly have a pop song by Selena Gomez stuck in your head, you’re welcome. But that expression dates back before Selena. “The heart wants what it wants” was Woody Allen’s infamous response to questions about his scandalous behavior when he left Mia Farrow for her 18-year-old adopted daughter. That digression could be a entire sermon on its own. Back to the heart wanting what it wants. It’s a way of saying that love isn’t logical. And the expression really goes back to Emily Dickinson. She wrote those words in a letter trying to console a friend whose husband was going to be gone for some time. She understood that no amount of reason could talk her friend out of an emotion created by love and distance.

Of course there is a place for reason and careful thought in matters of love, there has to be. That’s why we require premarital counseling in the Episcopal Church, and why you won’t see an Episcopal version of “Married at First Sight.” But reason will only move the heart so much. Our hearts have to be persuaded by something more than a rational argument. That’s what Jesus came up against on one pretty difficult day in Nazareth.

Today’s gospel story gives us that famous proverb, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown.” The backstory is that Jesus was getting pretty famous. He had traveled far and wide, casting out demons and healing people. He taught in synagogues with authority. He even calmed a storm at sea. All of which was pretty impressive, except to the people back home. Not only were his family and friends unimpressed, they were offended. They didn’t buy it. This was just the same Jesus they had known his whole life. Who did he think he was, claiming an outright spiritual authority? Village carpenters never made it big in the rabbi business. And as they scoffed, we’re told that Jesus could do no deed of power there, except cure a few people. The short line that comes next speaks volumes about what Jesus must have felt. “He was amazed at their unbelief.”

Jesus, of course, could have tried to win the argument. I would sure be tempted to pull off some miraculous stunt as divine proof to win them over. Or to justify myself by listing all the deeds of power on my Son of God resume to date. But Jesus didn’t choose that option. Because he knew that this was about love, not a logical argument. God so loved the world that God sent the son. It all started as love story. And love stories are not completed through logic or reason or winning an argument, and certainly not through divine coercion. We cannot be simply told to love God back. It wouldn’t work. Our hearts have to be moved. And so Jesus pressed on with his ministry of persuading hearts through healing and teaching. He commissioned twelve of his followers to go out and do the same. The love story would unfold from there. Crossing time and distance, it has come all the way here. And now we are the ones with the chance to respond. We’re the other half of the love story.

Loving God in return is an invitation, not something forced. And the invitation comes to us in different ways. Sometimes it comes to us as mercy. Other times as grace we haven’t earned. Or as forgiveness given which we would hardly give ourselves or one another. As healing we can’t logically explain. As a sense of worth or lovableness that the world doesn’t give us. As peaceable teachings and compassionate practices. It comes in many ways. Ultimately, the invitation to love God comes in the shape of a cross. It comes to free us from the grip of our own ego through the power of sacrificial love, a love without limit or end. And isn’t a limitless and unending love the ultimate desire of our hearts? All other desires really do roll up into that one. And so, on a difficult day in Nazareth, Jesus chose to press on. That’s what you do when you’re filled so completely with sacrificial love.

If you’re anything like me, you might be composing some rebuttals in your mind. All of this love business can start to sound a little too sweet or sentimental. Or perhaps you’ve got a weight on your shoulders that doesn’t leave much room at the moment for talking about love stories. If that’s the case, you’ve come to the right place. Love can’t be forced or reasoned into, but it can be practiced. We practice love here. We bring our wounds, our worries, our joys, everything to this place. While holding it all up to the light of Christ, we practice loving God, ourselves, and each other. I do believe that we get better at it with practice. Our hearts get trained to want and to do good and holy things. And by grace, as we’re practicing love in this place, we begin to see beyond a simplified, sentimental love to something more.

A 17th century Anglican named Jeremy Taylor once wrote about love. “In heaven indeed we shall first see, and then love,” he said. “But here on earth we must first love, and love will open our eyes as well as our hearts, and we shall then see and perceive and understand.” In heaven we’ll understand everything, but for now, on earth, we start with love. Not just sentimental love, or reality TV love, or logical love. We start with love that is shaped like a cross. That’s where we start to understand that we are part of God’s own love story.

Kate Alexander