Love isn’t a noun, it’s a verb!

Posted: May 4, 2021 in Uncategorized

John 15:9-17

Love isn’t a noun, it’s a verb!

One of the most fallible things today is to say I or we have the truth and if you listen to us you will have it too. Why? Because theology can never begin by assuming it already has the answer. And any theology that does not begin with radical doubt is basically dishonest. (Scott 2001)

Biblical scholar and Jesus Seminar Fellow, B. Brandon Scott. Made that statement which is not only challenging to all of us who engage in theological and biblical discussion or study groups, but also personally challenging, to all who would follow the Way of Jesus. One old is quotes as having said, that the first word in religion must always be ‘No’. ‘No’ to all the nonsense that often goes under the name ‘religion’, Why? so that there is space to say ‘Yes’ to the more profound insights, of the best in religions.

And as Brandon Scott also reminds us: “Our faith is not a single moment of coming to faith or conversion, but an ongoing activity or process.  This is not to say that there might be a moment when once can mark a change or an awareness but rather to acknowledge that our faith grows and develops in response to our concrete experience…  The issue is that we don’t know or can’t know what we need faith for.  Faith is in its very nature a gamble about what might be, not what certainly is” (Scott 2001:1148).

But it can be hard to say ‘No’ when the politics and interpretations from the past,
or the church bureaucracy of the present, have framed or shaped a story in a certain way. That’s because for two thousand years there has been this big contradiction between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus.

So let me offer a few initial comments about what I mean by that.

The religion of Jesus is found in the things he talked with people about. How to live. How to treat one another. How you can be made whole, here and now. How you can help make the world more whole, here and now. A constant pressing at the margins, for justice and empowerment, as he ate with toll collectors and prostitutes, called the poor blessed, and praised the confessions of common folk.

The religion about Jesus is about believing a certain story, often aimed at frightening people into accepting agendas such as: hating gays, or independent women, or the sanctioning of torture against so-called ‘middle-eastern terrorists’. Coupled with the promise that if you do ‘believe’, you’ll be ‘saved’ after you die.

It is my opinion and of many people today that Jesus would have hated that story. He, would have said ‘No’ to that ‘about’ story.

Today we have one of those ‘in process’ stories as our gospel story. And you will have recognised it is a story about ‘love’. But not the ‘Women’s Day’ or ‘New Idea’ celebrity love story. Or the Hallmark card, sentimental, love story. Yet it is a love story which has inspired our storyteller to both tell it and to wrap it around the name of Jesus. And more importantly for my claim today, a story where where ‘love’ isn’t a noun, but rather a verb.

I want to share with you a love story and a prayer written by Davidson Loehr.
and quoted by Rex Hunt more recently. Both are about love as a verb. Not as a noun.

The story…

A monk, Friar Bernard, lamented in his cell on Mount Cenis, the crimes of mankind.

Rising one morning before daybreak from his bed of moss and dry leaves, he

gnawed his roots and berries, drank of the spring, and set forth to go to Rome to reform the corrupt people there.

On his way he encountered many travelers who greeted him courteously. And the cabins of peasants and the castles of lords supplied his few wants. When he came at last to Rome, his piety and good will easily introduced him to many families of the rich.

On the first day he saw and talked with mothers with babes at their breasts. They told him how much love they bore their children, and how they were perplexed in their daily walk lest they should fail in their duty to them.

“What!” he said, “and this on rich embroidered carpets, on marble floors, surrounded by expensive sculpture, and carved wood, rich pictures, and piles of books about you? “You’re rich Roman pagans, not even Christians! How can you be good people?”

“Look at our pictures, and books,” they said, “and we will tell you, good Brother, how we spent last evening. “These books are full of stories of godly children and holy families and sacrifices made in old or in recent times, by great and not mean persons. “And last evening, our families were all gathered together, and our husbands and brothers spoke sadly on what we could save and give to others in the hard times.”

Then the men came in, and they said, “Greetings, good Brother!  Does your monastery want gifts? Let us share with you.”

Then Friar Bernard went home swiftly with other thoughts than he had brought, saying, “Their way of life is wrong – they are not even poor, and they are not Christians! “Yet these Romans, whom I prayed God to destroy, are lovers. They are lovers.  What can I do?”

That’s the story.

Davidson Loehr offers this comment: “Friar Bernard has a couple choices.  He can try to forget what he’d just seen and felt, and return to his comfortable beliefs, or he can realize that his beliefs are too small to hold life, or even to serve it in a way that isn’t a curse to others.” (DLoehr. First UU Church, Austin, web site, 2006)

Now the prayer and it is a little edited.

We pray to the angels of our better nature and the still small voice that can speak to us when we feel safe enough to listen. Help us to love people and causes outside of ourselves, that we may be enlarged to include them… Help us remember we can, if we will, invest ourselves in relationships, institutions and causes that transcend and expand us. Help us guard our hearts against those relationships and activities that diminish us and weaken our life force. And help us give our hearts to those relationships that might, with our help, expand our souls and our worlds. We know every day, both life and death are set before us.
Let us have the faith and courage to choose those involvements that can lead us toward life, toward life more abundant… May we see more clearly in these matters. May we have the will to hold to those relationships that demand, and cherish, the very best in us. Just that.  Just those.  Amen. (DLoehr. First UU Church, Austin, web site, 2006).

The question we are left with is “what does it take to let love get lived?” I think as others do that Love, of the kind our gospel storyteller is talking about, is a verb rather than a noun.

This love creates – a dynamic, living whole, a strong harmony, a deep unity, which does not diminish or weaken, but rather expands our life force, encouraging a response in expressions of joy. And it is greeted in open and honest ways that can lead us toward life more abundant.

Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian reformer of early 19th century America, once wrote near the end of his life: “I have had great powers and have only half used them.” We all have great powers that we have only half used, suggests Davidson Loehr. “Isn’t that one reason we come here to church – to keep being exhorted to develop the other half of our great powers, and to use them to help ourselves and our world come alive?  We come seeking wholeness, and so often we don’t want to admit that we can have it.” (DLoehr. First UU Church, Austin, web site, 2008). It is as if we would rather wallow in self-pity or hide from the fear we have created.We lock in the idea that we are not good enough to love wastefully in rules about belief, and creeds and literal prisons of certainty that we can never achieve, and we maintain myth as an untruth, as opposed to a liberating ground from which to live.We make Love an unassailable noun when in fact it is a verb.

Like faith it is not in the conversion event that we grow but in the living of it. It is in the loving that love exists not the other way round. Love as a noun is that which we escape from by giving it all sorts of meanings from romance to blind acceptance but as a verb it is clearly an action that changes things. Nothing is ever the same after an experience of loving and being loved. Look at that which happens between almost every parent’s experience, be careful here not to fall back into the noun, Love as a verb is unconditional. Amen.

Scott, B. B. 2001. Re-imgine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

  1. David Kelly says:

    Reminds me of this quote:

    ‘The phrase “God is love” only becomes real when it is backed up by the actions of people
    who love God.’

    (Hajime Tanabe)

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