Valentine’s Day is here this week and the focus for many is on love, expressed with candy hearts, cards, flowers, candlelit dinners in romantic hideaways — all the trappings of romantic love between people. There is nothing wrong with the frivolity and fun of Valentine’s Day, but does this candy-coated holiday really tell us anything about love? Specifically, what does it reflect about God’s love? How does that fit in with the candy hearts and all the rest?
The Most Reverend Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has preached extensively on the topic of love, most famously at the May 19, 2018 royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Millions watched as Bishop Curry preached on the power of love. Using the couple’s chosen scripture from Song of Solomon as a springboard- “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death… Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” – Curry broadened his canvas from the love of one romantic couple to the redemptive power of love for the entire world. Arguing that we know love because it feels right, the bishop told his audience of millions that the joy that love brings originates at its source: a compassionate and passionate God. Curry’s sermon became a rallying cry around the world, even spawning an imitation by Saturday Night Live comedian Kenan Thompson (“Love is redemptive. Love is kind. Love is what makes a Subaru a Subaru”).
Curry’s royal wedding homily was not unique to that moment in time. For Episcopalians who have followed the bishop’s preaching and read his book, “Crazy Christians,” the theme of the lifting, life-giving, and liberating power of love is familiar – and he has not stopped talking about it. Last week, Bishop Curry was among the clergypersons asked to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast. Unsurprisingly, he chose to recite a passage from the Bible about love: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing” (I Corinthians 13: 1-3). He then proceeded to explain to the president and politicians gathered in the room that, although this passage is often read at weddings, it is not really about romantic love, but about the love of God. Curry told the room full of powerbrokers that the author of the passage was writing during a time of turmoil and dissension in the community at Corinth, and his words were an effort to encourage them to work through their differences using a lens of love and mutual concern.
Bishop Curry recently offered more insight into understanding God’s love in an interview with Judy Woodruff on National Public Radio:
“The truth is, love is not a sentiment. It’s a commitment. It’s a decision and a commitment to seek the good and the welfare and the well-being of others, sometimes even above my own unenlightened self-interest, to borrow from the philosophers. And the truth is that you can’t build a society, there is no social compact, there is no functioning democratic society, there is no freedom, true freedom, when everybody is functioning solely on their own unenlightened self-interest.”
The love of God, then, is an obligation, in the strongest sense, that God will be present to all people, in good times and not-so-good times. God’s love is there when we are steadfast and true and also when we stray from that commitment ourselves. God’s love is bigger, broader than our own hearts, and far stronger than a paper valentine or a candy heart.
Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Neel Burton talks about the seven types of love. Fourth on his list is agape, what he calls “universal love, such as the love for strangers, nature, or God.” Burton notes, “Given the increasing anger and division in our society, and the state of our planet, we could all do with quite a bit more agape.
That is what we seek to share as members of the Episcopal Church. We recognize that to experience God’s love, we need to reach out beyond ourselves and beyond those close to us, looking past mutual dependence and quid pro quo to find the good in all people – whether they act or think like us or not. When we do that, we begin to scratch the surface of God’s love. As Bishop Curry notes, “If it’s all about me, you actually have us tearing ourselves apart. Somehow, we have got to look for common good, for the good of others. It’s the Samaritan road, the parable of the good Samaritan in the New Testament, about the one who is willing to risk to save another person’s life, to help another person’s life.”