St. Valentine's Day. Valentine's Day, named after a Roman priest who lived about two hundred years after Jesus, who died on February 14th. The legend is that he used to send letters of love and encouragement to fellow priests who were being persecuted for what they believed, who were loving maybe a little too much in the way that Jesus loved. The way that Jesus loved brought many of them to torture and martyrdom death. In fact, St Valentine himself lost his life because he loved a little too much, like Jesus.
I was in a The Christmas Tree Shop the other day, and I passed through an aisle that was filled with Valentine’s Day stuff—lots of candy, stuffed animals with red hearts, rows of Valentine’s cards. I stopped for a moment at this stuffed bear. It’s arms were open like this, and there was red writing stitched onto its white chest: “I love you THIS much!” For a moment I thought of buying it for someone, then looked at the price and thought, nahhhh. There were two young men right next to me, debating about a small stuffed dog. One of them was clearly buying for his girlfriend. “Dude,” his friend said, “you’re not even official yet. You don’t have to do that much. Just get her that one, and you’ll be golden.” I smiled. I guess there are minimum requirements for budding relationships on Valentine’s day.
The first girl that I “fell in love with” was in 7th grade, and I hoped she would be my first real girlfriend. I did stuff that I thought was romantic, but kids today would probably say it was creepy. I left her anonymous notes at school that included poems or lyrics from popular songs, and I wrote awkward sentences telling her how pretty she was, how smart, how funny. And finally I bicycled to her house with roses and candy—I spent a lot of money---and left them at her doorstep with a note revealing my identity as her secret admirer.
On the way home I saw my best friend and told him what I had done and he said I was crazy. And I was, of course. When you’re in love, you do crazy things, you go way overboard. For a while I thought I had a chance with Carole, but then I’d be tortured if I saw her hanging around other boys instead of me. And in the end I went down hard when she told me that she only wanted to be a friend. So Carole never did become my girlfriend, but weirdly, years later she married a minister.
When you are in love (or at least think you are), you usually go way beyond the requirements. You are excessively generous with your heart, your time, and sometimes with your wallet. You are always thinking about what you can do for the love of your life, putting his or her needs and desires ahead of your own.
I think there is something of that in the Gospel today, where Jesus refers to the Ten Commandments, and specifically the third, sixth, and seventh. He tells his friends that the commandments are really important, but he says that they are the minimum requirements, like getting the small stuffed dog for Valentines Day. It’s about love, excessively generous love of God, and love of our brothers and sisters, not just fulfilling the letter of the law. It is crazy love, way overboard. Of course you shouldn’t kill someone, but you shouldn’t even allow your heart to murder them with hateful thoughts, shout at them with anger and contempt, even when they cut you off on the BQE, or disagree with you over politics. Of course you shouldn’t steal, but rather you should share whatever you have with those who are more needy. Of course you shouldn’t be unfaithful to your husband or your wife, but rather you should love them and respect them and serve them as though they were the Lord Himself.
It’s about love, excessively generous love of God, and love of our brothers and sisters, not just fulfilling the letter of the law. This is what made following Jesus so inspiring and exciting, but also so dangerous. The world—and even the Church—offers laws that keep us inside the lines, that don’t demand that much of us. And if we follow them, well, we probably won’t find ourselves in jail, and we may even be seen as upstanding members of the community. But truthfully, we will not be bringing about the Kingdom of God.
There are some people who call themselves Christians, but if they do not love excessively and radically, I say they are not really following Him. And I include myself in that group. There are some people who say that America is a Christian nation. But if its people do not love excessively all species of life---human, plants and animals---from conception to development and to diminishment, if they do not nurture, respect and support the weakest and most vulnerable among all species, I say they are not really following Him. Paul says that following Jesus is crazy and that “it is not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age”, no matter what they say at a prayer breakfast or on Twitter.
One of my heroes was a Jesuit priest from India. His name was Anthony DeMello, and I was at a talk he gave just before he died. In the talk he said: "Your priests back in the parish are not going to be happy to hear this, but I believe that God would be much happier, according to Jesus Christ, if you were transformed into a loving person than if you followed all the rules and practices of the Church. If you become love, when you are transformed into love, then you have God.”
And he told a story about the wedding of a couple in Italy on St Valentine’s Day. They arranged with the parish priest to have a little reception after the wedding Mass in the parish courtyard, but it rained, and they asked if they could have the reception in the church itself, promising that it would be very low key and quiet. The priest reluctantly agreed, but the couple and their guests were a little too happy, they drank a little too much wine, and they made more noise than they promised. The priest got angry and threw everyone out. He told the couple that it was undignified and improper and that he never should have allowed it. And then a little girl came up to him and reminded him that Jesus loved to be at weddings and that he would probably have enjoyed being at this one. And the priest said "I know Jesus was present at a wedding banquet, YOU don't have to tell me Jesus Christ was present at a wedding banquet! But they didn't have the Blessed Sacrament there!"
Tony DeMello said that there are times like that when the Blessed Sacrament becomes more important than Jesus Christ, and when dignified, respectful worship becomes more important than love, when the letter of the law of the Church becomes more important than life, and when God becomes more important than our brothers and sisters.
It’s like all of our faith, it‘s like all our religion. It’s a matter of loving too much, in the way that Jesus loved. It sometimes seems like we've got a lot of rules and regulations that we Catholics are supposed to follow—coming to Church on Sunday, confession at least once a year, fast before communion, no meat on Fridays in Lent, and lots of time someone will come up to me and ask me if it’s OK to break one of them and change it around or exchange one for another, and you know, what I usually say to them is—what do you think?, because I can tell them what the rule is but if you're just concerned with the letter of the law, if it’s just a matter of making sure that God is going to be on your back about it, well then, what is that, what kind of love is that, what kind of faith is it, what kind of careful dance are you trying to do? Is it loving too much, in the way that Jesus loved, or is it not really loving much at all?
Listen, my brothers and sisters. These are tough days to love excessively, extravagantly. You and I know that hateful things are being said by many people these days, Republican and Democrat alike, liberal and conservative, and, yes, Christian and Muslim and Jew.
That is why it is so important to gather here this morning and to hear once again the challenge to love excessively and generously with your heart, your time, and sometimes with your wallet.
We are here so we might commit ourselves to be a gorgeous people of excessive, crazy love not hate, a people who dare to love even our enemies, to see the world not as our rulers do but as Jesus saw it, to see the widow and orphan, the strangers and sojourners through the immensity of God’s love and not through the narrowness of our little hearts.
We are here to take on the challenge of Jesus’s love so much that we actually give away what we have to the poor, we actually turn the other cheek to those who strike us, we actually try to love our enemies, even those we count in our families. We are here to do all that because our hearts are inspired to follow Him, as people have done for over 2000 years.
It is wild and crazy dangerous, and we may need the blessing of St Valentine to encourage us as we face the real possibility of being persecuted for what we truly believe, and dare to live. St Valentine, pray for us. Good Jesus, be with us in love.