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A New Commandment

Fifth Sunday of Easter: 28th April, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35)

I took two weddings yesterday. The weather was beautiful, the music exquisite, the suits, dresses and wedding gowns spectacular. At one stage there was not a dry eye in the church as the bride sobbed her way through the vows. Love was most certainly in the autumn air yesterday at St Peter's. Love is a primal human emotion that we all experience in one way or another. It is not hard to find a quote about love; here are just a few I found on the internet

  • At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet. (Plato)
  • If you have it [Love], you don't need to have anything else, and if you don't have it, it doesn't matter much what else you have. (J. M. Barrie)
  • Love is a friendship set to music. (E. Joseph Cossman)
  • True love comes quietly, without banners or flashing lights. If you hear bells, get your ears checked. (Erich Segal)
  • They do not love that do not show their love. The course of true love never did run smooth. (Shakespeare)
  • Like the measles, love is most dangerous when it comes late in life. (Lord Byron)
In his book Spiritual Evolution (2007) this is what the psychiatrist George Vaillant has to say about love (p. 87):
Love is not about words. Love is about attachment, music, odours, and the spiritual ecstasy that, depending on the speaker's choice of words, we can still call many things, including God .... The spirit behind the New Testament words "God is love" can be found in the Qur'an and the Bhagavad-Gita. It can be found in the writings of Judaism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Even the self-consciously atheistic Great Soviet Encyclopedia explains to us, "Love is the point at which opposing elements of the biological and the spiritual, the personal and the social, and the intimate and the universal intersect."

Our earliest experiences of love, or the absence of it, come from our parents. I am fortunate; my Dad taught me some great lessons about love. He's not a particularly touchy-feely person, but as a child I knew that I was loved by him. Dad taught physics at Manchester University in England, so we didn't see much of him during weekdays, but I remember as a child he would always take the time each night to read me a story and say prayers with me when he came home from work. Then at weekends and in the holidays we'd often have Father and Son times together. Dad would take me to see science museums, and radio telescopes; we'd go to book shops; I'd go into work with him sometimes, and in the holidays we'd go on train trips together — he'd visit cathedrals and I'd go train spotting. Dad taught me a love of learning and a curiosity for the world I live in.

I'm very aware through my pastoral work that not everyone has a good Dad; I've heard many heart-wrenching stories of child abuse, but these are so often accompanied by stories of resilience and love that come from the most unexpected places. I'd like to share with you a love story, a platonic love story I might add, between an 87 year old woman and an 18 year old boy at university. It is a beautiful story, and profoundly theological without mentioning the word God once. It is called quite simply "Rose".

The first day of university our professor introduced himself and challenged us to get to know someone we didn't already know. I stood up to look around when a gentle hand touched my shoulder. I turned around to find a wrinkled, little old lady beaming up at me with a smile that lit up her entire being. She said, 'Hi handsome. My name is Rose. I'm eighty-seven years old. Can I give you a hug?' I laughed and enthusiastically responded, 'Of course you may!' and she gave me a giant squeeze. 'Why are you in university at such a young, innocent age?' I asked. She jokingly replied, 'I'm here to meet a rich husband, get married, and have a couple of kids....' 'No seriously,' I asked. I was curious what may have motivated her to be taking on this challenge at her age. 'I've always dreamed of getting a university education and now I've got the chance!' she told me.

After class we walked to the student union building and shared a milkshake. We became instant friends; every day for the next three months we would leave class together and talk non-stop. I was always mesmerized listening to this 'time machine' as she shared her wisdom and experience with me. Over the course of the year, Rose became a campus icon and she easily made friends wherever she went. She loved to dress up and she revelled in the attention bestowed upon her from the other students. She was living it up.

At the end of the semester we invited Rose to speak at our football banquet. I'll never forget what she taught us. She was introduced and stepped up to the podium. As she began to deliver her prepared speech, she dropped her prompt cards on the floor. Frustrated and a little embarrassed she leaned into the microphone and simply said, 'I'm sorry I'm so jittery. I gave up beer for Lent and this whiskey is killing me! I'll never get my speech back in order so let me just tell you what I know.'

As we laughed she cleared her throat and began, 'We do not stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing. There are only four secrets to staying young, being happy, and achieving success. You have to laugh and find humour every day. You've got to have a dream. When you lose your dreams, you die. We have so many people walking around who are dead and don't even know it! There is a huge difference between growing older and growing up. If you are nineteen years old and lie in bed for one full year and don't do one productive thing, you will turn twenty years old. If I am eighty-seven years old and stay in bed for a year and never do anything I will turn eighty-eight. Anybody can grow older. That doesn't take any talent or ability. The idea is to grow up by always finding opportunity in change. Have no regrets. The elderly usually don't have regrets for what we did, but rather for things we did not do. The only people who fear death are those with regrets.'

She concluded her speech by courageously singing 'The Rose.' She challenged each of us to study the lyrics and live them out in our daily lives. At the year's end Rose finished the degree she had begun all those years ago. One week after graduation Rose died peacefully in her sleep. Over two thousand college students attended her funeral in tribute to the wonderful woman who taught by example that it's never too late to embrace life, to love others and to be all you can possibly be.

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


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