" What Is This Thing Called Love?"

February 16, 2003
Union Sunday
Second Parish in Hingham
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein

Reading: I Corinthians 13

Do you remember how the song goes? What is this thing called love? This funny thing called love. It' s a long way from Saint Paul to Cole Porter, or maybe not so long after all. We have come together this morning reflect on the power and the mysteries of love, united as one body in this beautiful church. We might not know what it is, but we know we can' t live without it. Life alone makes very little sense without love, and our lives together are most certainly impossible without it.

Just who can solve its mysteries? Why should it make a fool of me?
Cole Porter wrote those haunting phrases in 1929, at the height of his popularity, for a show called Wake Up and Dream. It was a smash hit, tuneful and simple, expressing an emotional truth known by every man and woman who was ever disappointed in romantic love:

I saw you there one wonderful day/ You took my heart and threw it away.

That' s why I ask the Lawd in Heaven above/ what is this thing called love?

Let us imagine Cole Porter standing over in one corner of this church, perhaps holding a glass of champagne and dressed in one of his typically impeccable, dandified outfits, complete with patent leather evening shoes. He regards us all with cynical cool, perhaps crafting some witty and scathing lyric to expose the vulnerability, hope and desire that bring us together as a worshiping community. (This was, after all, the bon vivant whose most famous musical, Anything Goes, featured a leading character named Reno Sweeney, the champagne-swilling evangelist who travels with a band of scantily-clad dancing girls she calls her Angels. In the same show, gangster Moonface Martin poses as a missionary in order to travel without suspicion When he meets a fellow man of the cloth onboard who wants to know if they' ve been doing mission work in Indochina, Moonface remarks " Yea, you was in Indochina and I was in Outdoor China." Porter was widely celebrated for his irreverence.) That' s okay. We welcome him anyway: we see beneath his suave, mocking exterior to the hurting human beneath.

There, in the other corner, is Saint Paul, a man who didn' t have a cynical, sophisticated bone in his body. Love for Paul was never occasion for smooth wit, but for impassioned witness to the redeeming love of the God he experienced through Christ Jesus – a power so strong it threw him off his horse one ordinary day. Paul stands before us completely without a shred of artifice, dressed in a simple cotton robe, wearing his Bierkenstocks. He so believes in the of love of God that he' d willingly accept imprisonment or even death as the consequences of bringing this message to us.

I' ll tell you, I' ll take Cole Porter any day. In the end, he' s not half as intimidating.

Love makes fools of all of us, of course it does. None of us gets all the love we need, neither is it usually given to us unconditionally. We neither give love perfectly nor do we receive it that way. Andn so we are love hounds, running through the back streets of life in search of the things to do and the people to be with who will fill our emptiness at long last and bring us to the everlasting lap of love.

Can' t be done, says Mr. Cole Porter. A closeted gay man, he had every reason to craft a defensive, clever and cutting attitude about love, and although he was devoted to his wife of thirty five years, he was never free to publicly pursue relationships that would have been most fulfilling. Love can' t be – shouldn' t be risked -- because it' s fickle and elusive and mysterious, and no better than the shallow person you were stupid enough to fall for.

Can' t be done, says St. Paul, who was also terribly tempted by his own erotic desires and who seems to have channeled his physical longings into one of the most extreme cases of religious devotion the world will ever know. Love can' t be done between two human beings, says Paul, because God loves you more and God will always want you with more ardent desire than any human being will ever manage to do.

At this Valentine' s Day season, I offer you an idea about love that I share with every couple whose wedding or service of holy union I am honored to perform: let us not think of love as a force that, in the popular saying, " unites two as one." Let us rather think of love between two as being between at least two --- and made possible by the third that is always present between them: the divine love, whose Source we can never know but in whose embrace we forever live and move and have our being. I and Thou and the third, which is God' s everlasting, inextinguishable love for us. That' s a holy trinity even Unitarians can get behind.

Much later in his life, in 1955, Cole Porter composed a song which hints of this understanding, a far lovelier and more spiritual sense of love than his earlier song promotes:

For you and I have a guardian angel
on high, with nothing to do
But to give to you, and to give to me
love forever true.
God' s shalom and love to you.