Sermon on the eve of St. Valentine’s Day: Westcott College, Cambridge University

Saturday, February 13, 2021

by Fleming Rutledge

Earlier this week I came across an article in Hello! called “Health Intelligence.” Actually I was looking for the latest lowdown on the Royals (as of yesterday, we learned that Peter Phillips and Autumn are breaking up just in time for Valentine’s Day), but I couldn’t bypass this first paragraph in the health and beauty section. Some minor celebrity named Louise Parker (I don’t know who she is, but I suppose you know) writes as follows:

“I believe in love, big time… It’s getting close to Valentine’s Day and we’re going to be bombarded with social media posts about eternal love and flowers and all that jazz…but there will be little about loving yourself…It goes against every bit of Britishness in my body, but what I’m saying is that you have to love yourself first. Give yourself permission to put yourself and your needs at the center of your life. Because valuing your time, your routines, and the life you have created is the ultimate love letter.[1]

I can’t speak for you, but I find that incredibly sad. Many, many people in the prosperous parts of the world believe that they can create their own lives, and the consumer culture powerfully shapes that idea. This enthusiasm for “self-love” and “self-esteem” (and indeed “self” everything) has been in vogue for quite some time. I greatly enjoyed reading something in the obituary of the Duchess of Devonshire. As you doubtless know, she was a legendary character, the youngest of the six fabled Mitford sisters and one of a dwindling band of survivors of the Blitz. She was proud of her traditions and dismayed by the new trends. She said, incredulously, “There is this extraordinary thing called ‘self-esteem’ which is pumped into children now.”[2] The Battle of Britain, one concludes, was won without lessons in “self-esteem.”

Because of its vast commercial value, Valentine’s Day is associated almost exclusively with romantic one-and-one love. Love within families and communities is not in view on this day, which makes it deeply problematic for people who are experiencing isolation and loss. For them, the holiday is a mockery. I must say, something like this crossed my mind when I listened to Bishop Curry’s sermon at the wedding of the Sussexes. The good Bishop, who I hasten to say is an extremely popular and respected leader in the American church, went on and on waxing enthusiastic about love when a good many of the most famous divorces in the world were right out there in front of him along with plenty of broken hearts and plenty of people secretly miserable in their marriages (it appears that Autumn Phillips was one of them). There is also the certainty that many people who were listening wanted desperately to find a person to marry and it has not happened for them. They, too, are in need of love and, perhaps, are finding that so-called self-love doesn’t do the job. What is the news for them?

A person dear to me died recently. He was a devoted longtime member of Grace Church in New York, which I served for many years. When he was in his thirties, he was diagnosed with  AIDS, contracted through same-sex liaisons. His history was well known to the members of his

[1] Hello! Magazine

[2] Sarah Lyall, “A Duchess With a Common Touch,” The New York Times 11/26/10.

prayer group, and later, to the whole congregation. He was one of the very first people with AIDS to embark on a program of treatment which proved successful, and he lived for 30 years more. He lived alone for the rest of his life—and yet he was not alone. Despite the fact that he was physically unimposing, very quiet and modest and never called attention to himself, he was beloved. I left Grace Church in the 90s so I did not fully realize just how beloved he was until I went to his funeral. There was a remarkable outpouring from his church family. I think his nephews and nieces were quite astonished at the depth of it. This is the church of Jesus Christ when it is working the way it is supposed to.

One of the most famous of all love poems is that of William Shakespeare. There has never been a more eloquent description of what real love is like.

…Love is not loveWhich alters when it alteration finds…
O no! it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken…
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom…Sonnet 116

I am thinking of a couple I know who have been married more than 50 years. The wife is someone you don’t forget because her face is badly disfigured. One side of her face was paralyzed from a stroke. It hasn’t stopped her for a minute—she participates in everything, especially her church, and her husband is obviously devoted to her. You can tell that she must once have been quite pretty. The particularly interesting thing is that the stroke occurred during the very early years of their marriage. Love did not alter when it alteration found.

But then there is another couple whom I knew well, years ago. They themselves testified that their marriage had been solid until he developed a medical condition that required his wife to perform some personal services for him. She told her friends that it gave her great satisfaction to be able to do this, that it gave her a feeling of deeper connection to him and a heightened sense of love for him. But he couldn’t endure it. He couldn’t stand having the young woman he’d married serving him in this way, and being dependent on her in this way. When his life altered, his love for her altered. He rejected her and married someone else. Such is the fabric of Sin that runs through all human life.

I don’t think self-love is the answer to problems like that. B. F. Westcott referred to it as “impunity in self-indulgence.”[3] Self-love requires us to tell ourselves lies about ourselves. Love must come from somewhere else. Here are some words from, of all people, the former Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He is speaking about people who cannot receive love with confidence and joy:

The reason [that] an individual cannot accept the you, cannot come to terms with him, is that he does not like his own I (one’s self, we might say) and, for that reason, cannot

[3] B. F. Westcott, The Victory of the Cross (London: Macmillan, 1889), 77. Westcott House, where this sermon was preached, was named for him. He was one of the great scholar-bishops of Durham.

accept a you…But how does one go about affirming, assenting to, one’s I? The answer may perhaps be unexpected: we cannot do so by our own efforts alone…. We can love ourselves only if we have first been loved by someone else. . . . If an individual is to accept herself, someone must say to her: “It is good that you exist”—must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love.[4]

Thus the apostle John writes,

This is how the love of God was made manifest among us: God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.

I heard a story about a grandfather. Actually, in my mind I have this story mixed up with my own father, because he was very much like this. The grandfather’s little grandson came up to him as he was sitting in a chair, put his hand on his knee, and said, “I love you, Grandpa.” The grandfather twinkled at him and said, “I loved you first!” The little boy was so delighted with this that he soon came back and they went through the routine again. It became a game that the whole family delighted in. At the grandson’s wedding rehearsal dinner, he raised a glass and said, “I love you, Grandpa.” And the assembled company rejoiced in the grandfather’s reply: “I loved you first.”

This is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.

Let’s go back to Louise Parker and her belief that “valuing your time, your routines, and the life you have created is the ultimate love letter.”[5] Well, no. The ultimate love letter is one that all of you know: I Corinthians 13. It’s often read at weddings. I’m not the only person who thinks that’s a mistake. Everyone gets the idea that the passage is all about romantic love, which it is not. Christian love, the love that Paul and John are talking about, is challenging and difficult. W. H. Auden once said that marriage is “infinitely more interesting and significant than any romance, however passionate,” because marriage is “not the result of fleeting emotion but of time and will.” Auden knew whereof he spoke: he considered himself married to Chester Kallman, and a more trying person to be married to could hardly be imagined. My husband and I celebrated our 60th this past October and I can testify that the original passion of long ago has little to do with the survival of a marriage. Commitment against the odds is more like it. In the end, an enduring marriage is a triumph of the grace of God.

A really good way to understand First Corinthians 13—I got this idea from someone else (I forget who), long ago—is to substitute the name of Jesus for the word agape—love.

[4] I have fooled around with the pronouns.
[5] Hello!

When we read in the Old Testament that the people of Israel are married to Yahweh, the Song of Songs, with its depiction of intense longing, has its important place. But the image of Christ the Bridegroom puts the greater emphasis entirely on fidelity, constancy, unconditional commitment—not our commitment to God, but God’s commitment to us. The meaning of the image lies in the selfless devotion of the Lord to us, his unconditional love for us, and his determination to rescue us from our own self-destructive impulses. Christian love is not subject to passion, because passion is notoriously short-lived. The love of Christ “alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom…” his own doom, not ours. For us he descended into hell itself, to bring us out of darkness into his own marvelous light.

Christian love is about loving others more than ourselves. It is not measured by feeling, let alone by Valentine presents, but by actions. The first letter of John: Let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18).[6] Love has to do with discovering the other person’s need and serving that need even at cost to yourself. By this we know love, that [the Son of God] laid down his life for us (I John 3:16). Joining ourselves to him, praising him, worshipping him, receiving his gifts and participating in his life—that is unimaginably more than any self-help program can possibly deliver.

Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and reigning, is himself  God’s love letter to the world.

[6] Afterthought: Many people these days say “love you” a lot. Many of the younger members of our family say “love you” at the end of every person-to-person meeting, every Zoom meeting, and every phone call. I asked my sister if she remembered our parents ever saying “love you” or even “I love you.” She agreed with me that they never said it. We also agreed immediately, with one mind, that they didn’t need to say it. It was perfectly obvious to us that they loved us. They were exceptionally loving parents, “in deed and in truth.”

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