Tomorrow will be Valentine’s Day, that wonderful day when we celebrate our love. Cards will be given, flowers delivered, chocolates shared. A secular holiday in our culture to be sure, a Hallmark moment. But it is a good thing to honor and celebrate love in all its variety, even if it means a last minute trip to CVS to get a box of Russell Stovers’ chocolates, a red Snuggie, and a funny card.
Funny thing, though. St Valentine, after whom this holiday is named, wasn’t a particularly romantic saint. He was a martyr, a priest who opposed Claudius II in the third century. There are some who say he married young Christian couples against Claudius’ wishes, but the only thing we know for certain that he was a priest and a martyr. Not quite so romantic, but still a tale of the love of one man for Christ. The expression of that great love was his willingness to put himself at risk by living out his faith during a time when being a Christian meant you would be killed if you were caught. Not quite so romantic as the marrying story, but it is in fact a representation of a higher standard of love than a simple warm story of a priest presiding at the secret marriages of sweet young lovers.
A higher standard of love….it is a common practice on this holiday to tell stories of extraordinary love, love stories that meet a higher standard of some kind, and because I, too, am a romantic, I’m going to share one with you today, one that I first heard a few months ago on the radio[i].
Mark was one of four children of an Irish-American family – his was the first generation here in America. He was a good boy, the one who never got into any trouble, who was virtually invisible in a boisterous family. When he graduated from high school, there was no money for college. Shortly, he immediately enlisted in the Air Force. When he completed his basic training, he shipped out to Korea, serving as a Military Policeman. He had only been there a short while when he met a beautiful Korean girl named Ha. They started to date. He was head-over-heels in love with this beautiful young woman. As the term of his assignment in Korea was coming up, he knew that he wanted to marry her. Being a good Irish boy, he wrote his mother. “Mom, I have fallen in love with Ha and I want to bring her home.”
Well, he was quite young and his mother thought this was precipitous, so she wrote back and said, “You’re way too young and this is way too soon.” So Mark listened to his mother and did not propose to Ha, although they continued to date.
And then he was shipped back to the US. He didn’t want to leave – he asked to be reassigned back to Korea – but he was rotated stateside. He wrote to Ha for a while, but then family problems required his help, so he left the Air Force and became a police officer in their little town. He was working all sorts of overtime to help the family, and he stopped writing to Ha. She was heartbroken, but thought that this meant that he didn’t want her, so she moved and began her own business. After a couple of years, Mark realized that he missed Ha terribly and started writing again, but Ha had moved, not once, but twice. She was making a new life for herself, without Mark. But Mark kept trying to find her, taking out ads in Korean newspapers, sending letters everywhere he could think of, trying to reconnect with the woman he missed so deeply.
His family knew nothing of this. They thought that the interlude with Ha was long over. Mark said nothing to them. He just worked and helped and privately continued his search. He continued his search for years.
And finally, some dozen years after they had parted, one of his letters was answered by Ha. He could hardly believe it after all this time. In fact, her reply came a full year and a half after he had sent that particular letter. She had wanted to mull over whether she could open up her heart again.
She told him that she was now a very successful business woman in Korea, with several fitness centers. She helped train the Korean Olympic teams. She had locked away her heart after Mark had broken it. To say that she was suspicious of him coming back to her after all this time would be an understatement. But he then proposed a meeting, in neutral territory. They would meet for a week in Hawaii. Finally he told his family what was going on, much to their shock and amazement. This was not the quiet solid Mark they knew. This was a wild romantic.
Ha had agreed to this meeting. When they met in Hawaii, it was as if they had never been apart. The young love had changed, of course – they were no longer in their early twenties – but the intensity, the connection was there, like a hot ember still glowing. So he asked her to marry him.
But her life was in Korea, and she had become a very independent strong woman with a business to run. She had to go home and think about it. He was disappointed, but it goes without saying that he was a patient man. They continued to communicate, and he waited.
But a couple of years after the Hawaiian trip, she became terribly ill. Her illness would require surgery and after care. The doctors told her she would have to give up the business – too much stress. And Mark kicked into action. She had to come to the US for the surgery. While she was winding down the business, he would call her every day, often twice a day. He was caring, solicitous. And her fears about the depth of his love, whether he would abandon her again, slowly faded away. She said “every day, he showed me how much was his love. He showed me. He called every day. He was always arranging things to help me.” He showed her a higher standard of love than mere romance. Ha came to the US. The surgery was successful. He cared for her in recovery. And then, seventeen years after they had first met, they married.
If they had married in the first flush of young love when Mark was first in Korea, who knows if the marriage would have been successful? The one thing I do know is that he showed her something beyond mere romance in his search for her, his patience with her decision-making, his care for her during her illness.
That’s what true, deep love is really about.
And that is actually what our Gospel reading today is about.
On the face of it, it doesn’t seem that way. Jesus is talking about the law. What you just heard in the gospel comes right after Jesus says, “I come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”
All the Pharisees were trying to paint him as a heretic who was trying to overthrow the law, but Jesus said, “No, I’m not getting rid of the law in my teaching. I am taking it to a new level of understanding. And it is a new level that starts with the premise of love. God’s love, our love for each other.”
You see, the old law, the old covenant, was a list of rules. Like filling out your tax returns…you’d go down the list and make sure you checked off each box, did each thing on the list. With tax returns, that’s a good thing, making sure you simply follow the rules. It’s mechanical, legalistic. But it doesn’t make you think about how you relate with the source of those rules. Just like the tax return doesn’t cause you to reflect on the relationship between the individual and the government (except to grumble), a religious system based on memorized rules – a checklist or recipe book of what you need to do – does little to make you understand your relationship to your God, or how that would shape your relationship with each other.
No, Jesus is arguing for a higher standard of the law, one based on love. Jesus says, “You have heard it said ‘you shall not murder,’ but I say to you, you not only shouldn’t murder, you should find a way to reconcile with those with whom you are angry.” He says that it is not enough simply to follow the rule that is easy for you to check off the list – not many of us want to murder anyone at this moment, I hope – he says you’ve got to think about your relationship with others. If the relationship is broken (the sort of thing that, at its worst, might lead you to want to kill them) then you have to look into your own heart and sort it out. You have got to love, as God loves us, as Jesus demonstrated his love. Jesus demands a higher standard of love – the insistence that we work to repair broken relationships – not just the demand that we don’t kill each other.
Jesus says, “You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you that if you even think about it, it’s just as bad as if you had done the deed.” I doubt many of us in this room have committed adultery, but I’d bet if you searched your hearts you would remember moments when you thought, “Wow, that person is gorgeous. I wonder what it would be like to be with her/him?” Jesus says that if you love God, if you love your partner with whom you have a committed relationship, you love them enough to not only avoid cheating on them with your body, you don’t cheat on them in your imagination. Our promise of love and respect is a higher standard than the mere physical. Jesus demands a higher standard of love – the insistence that we do not take our partner and our relationship for granted by having a wandering heart, not just the demand that we don’t have physical intimacy with someone other than our partner.
Jesus says, “You have heard it said, “do not make vows falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to God,’ but I say to you do not make vows at all. Only God makes vows. You should just do what you say you are going to do and don’t make a big show of swearing about it.” It is not good to make it seem more certain that you are going to do something by saying “I swear I’ll do it.” Just be honest. Don’t feel like you need to make the show. Jesus demands a higher standard of love – if we love and respect those with whom we have a relationship, we don’t need to make a grand declaration to put some sort of seal on it. We need to do what we way we’re going to do, because we love and/or respect them, not because there is a checklist that says “okay, swear to it now.”
Jesus is not talking about laws in the Gospel today. He is talking about love. A higher standard of love. Not merely doing things because we want to check off a list that keeps us out of trouble, but doing things because we have engaged our hearts and minds and souls and have determined what is the right path, the Godly path.
We celebrate this holiday in praise of love, and if we take it seriously, we take Jesus’ words seriously. We do the hard work of going beyond the checklist kind of doing what’s right, of doing what is expected. We do the hard work of assessing what deep and lasting love requires, that higher standard.
Mark understood that, and worked for years to achieve it.
Jesus taught that, and demonstrated it by giving his very life on the Cross to save us, out of love for us.
It’s more than a card or a nice dinner out. It’s deep, and it’s difficult sometimes, and it’s lasting.
You have heard it said that love is simple, but truly I say to you, if you do it right, it’s deep and difficult and a continual challenge and the greatest joy you will ever experience.
May God bless your love, and those you love, and may you set a high standard for your living into that love, higher every day.
[i] NPR, “This American Life,” “Slow to React” Jan 23, 2011