A retired Methodist pastor in Elkhart, Indiana, takes scraps of metal discarded by local companies creating band instruments, and assembles works of art from them. One, titled, “Doxology,” is a beautiful cross that hangs in the narthex of a local church there. What a gorgeous image, that of a cross – the most potent symbol of God’s redeeming love – represented through discarded scraps assembled into a new creation. Maybe this is the real work of love, to participate in God’s re-assembling of the scraps of humanity and the world around us into a new work of art.
Did you know that the part of our brain called the hypothalamus, which together with the amygdala brings about a fight or flight safety response – “danger, danger, warning, get out, run, or strike out, lash out with words or body” – this same hypothalamus is also involved in the feeling of love? This might make more sense if you think of the nervous excitement or anxiety one can feel when “falling for” another person – “danger, danger, this feels really special, this person makes me feel really wonderful, what do I do about these feelings?”
Fascinating, isn’t it, that one part of our brain is so intricately connected to two such different responses? I mean, our brains are constantly defining some things as “bad” and other things as “good” and the hypothalamus, apparently, is involved in all of the above. And it’s a good thing to be defining things as “bad” or “good”, “safe” or “unsafe,” except when it limits the scope of our possibilities and healthy risk-taking. Or more to the point, when it limits the possibility for God in Christ to work new possibilities through us – participating in God taking the scraps and scrappiness of us and others to make a beautiful new creation. When it gets in the way of God in Christ helping us to take the risk to love, knowing that the very same hypothalamus that causes healthy fear can also cause us to be afraid at the moment that we are risking everything in order to dare to love another person. Or people. Or an idea that seems new and beyond what we have previously understood.
Jesus gave us the new commandment to love one another as God first loved us. Jesus gave this commandment on the night in which he was betrayed by one of his beloved and chosen disciples, Judas. I wonder if Jesus felt afraid that night? Was his hypothalamus telling him to run? Maybe. Jesus was, after all, fully human as well as fully God. Yet fear was not allowed to rule that night or to rule Jesus. Love for the disciples – including the one who would betray him; love for this world that would compel Jesus to the cross would also compel Jesus to leave a parting gift for the disciples and us. A new commandment.
Let love be your guide, your practice and your might. Let love help you dare to meet those around you not with fear but with faith. Let love overwhelm your baser instincts. In brain terminology, let God help your hypothalamus choose the path of love even as you may feel fear or trepidation. Don’t live from the baser part of your brain or any baser part of your humanity.
Now…it’s really tough right now, not to live from the fight or fight place in our brains right now....Right now, we continue to live through a pandemic that has claimed the lives of one million people in this country. Right now, we have heard about another mass shooting – this time in Buffalo, NY mere hours from where some of us live. Right now, as we continue to hear about the travesty of war between Ukraine and Russia. Right now, it might seem especially risky to do or try anything risky. Especially something as risky as loving other people who might not love us back. Or who might not even like us. Or who might believe fundamentally different things than we do. Or who might even be dangerous.
Yet you might remember the story that I told of that courageous teacher who disarmed the sixth grader carrying a gun that sixth grader had just shot and injured several people with, and that teacher disarmed that little girl using a hug? We can’t make our best decisions from a place of fear. Not as people, not as a congregation, not as communities, nation, or world.
Jesus’ commandment to love one another is always timely, but right now, maybe more than ever, it is also good common sense. To build the practices of love not just within our hearts, but using our brains. Routing a deep conduit through which the love of God in Christ can pour through us. Knowing that if these practices of risk and risky love make us feel anxious, we might very well be just where we need to be.
Yes! This is where Jesus calls us to go. To the new ideas that are grounded in the age-old story of love. To the new relationships and the new possibilities. Our true safety comes from and resides in the love of God in Jesus Christ in which we and this whole world are held. Nothing in the world – none of the violence that we grieve can take this away from us. And when we face the fears of our hearts and this world head on - knowing like Jesus that the betrayer will do the betraying – we will know failure and grief and sadness; yet Christ’s commandment to love is backed by Christ’s commitment to love – all the way to the cross and the grave and into a resurrected life that makes it possible for us not to stay in our fear and grief, but instead to build the extravagant practices of love. To participate with God in Christ in bringing together the scraps – like that cross hanging in the narthex in Indiana fashioned from discarded bits of metal - to form a new work of beauty and grace out of love