Memorial Service for Iris Winternitz: On Love

Love has the power to change everything. This is one of the deep truths of the universe, one of the greatest secrets of creation, one of the most essential tenets of our Christian faith. So it’s a shame that we hear about the great power of love more from sentimental Hallmark cards and sappy TV movies than from anywhere else. In our time, love’s power has been cheapened, and expressions about “the power of love” have replaced anything like reflection and meditation before love’s great power. In fact, for someone even to begin speaking about love’s power is enough to get people rolling their eyes and shutting down their attention. But for all this cheap love, real love still retains its power to change everything. We seem to live in a loveless world. Cruelties of all kinds happen every day, from the small, petty ways people treat each other while shopping or driving to the grand acts of destruction and vengeance we rain down upon our enemies. And even when intentions are good, tragedies seem to haunt us: decisions made from love can have unimaginable consequences. But for all this lovelessness, most of us still seek out love desperately, looking for it high and low. And not just love with other human beings; we pursue hobbies, pets, favorite foods, treasured objects with an intensity of love we are sometimes incapable of showing to even our closest friends and family.

All of us want to know whether or not we are loved. But to know whether or not we are loved, often we first must risk loving others. Unfortunately, the risk doesn’t always pay off; we can be burned easily by love. So we turn to things that can’t love us back, that can’t tell us that we are loved, but that also can’t hurt us, can’t spurn our love or drive us away. The great power of love is not found in our burning desire to be loved and to love. It is not found in our reckless pursuit of a lover, or of our favorite hobby, or in our exuberance when our favorite team wins. Those are all but shadows of real love and of the real power of love. For love’s true power is the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the bond of love.

In Romans 5:5, Paul says that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Just in case we might think this just happens for no reason, a few verses earlier Paul says that we can “have peace with God through Jesus Christ.” Peace with God is brought about by Jesus Christ, and this peace is the foundation for the bond of love.

The Holy Spirit unites us in love with God the Father and God the Son, and this bond is so strong, so sure, that it assures us of our hope, our character, and our commitment to endure the loveless world that so often surrounds us. And once we are held fast by the Spirit in God’s love, we are set free to love each other as God has loved us: not by pressure or by trying to meet our own needs, but for the sake of the ones we are called to love. We so often think of the Holy Spirit as the ethereal part of God, the wind that blows where it will, but the love the Spirit brings to us is so real, so powerful, that it takes our shadows of love and puts flesh on them, makes them weightier, heavier, than we could have thought possible.

I met Iris only once, and it was brief. She came to church here a few Sundays before she died. I can’t claim to know her very well, but I do remember being struck by how gracious she was, both in how she carried herself and in how she treated me and everyone else here at Centre. I was not at all surprised to learn later on that she had once been a runway model. Even though I didn’t really know Iris, I’ve talked to Andy and Robin about her at length. And from talking to them, Iris has struck me as the kind of person who knew what it meant to love and what it meant to be seeking love. She loved her husband Murray, and they had a good marriage. She loved her family. She loved to read. But she also searched high and low for love, a search that took on new significance when Andy was diagnosed with cancer several years back.

On the Sunday I met Iris, I believe I met someone who had found what she was seeking. And, again, from talking to Andy and Robin, I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion. Iris spent her final months at their home, living peacefully and lovingly with her family. And whenever someone finds love, deep and true love, it is a reason for us to rejoice and give thanks to God who is the source of all love.

Today, we mourn for Iris. We mourn because her body, also a gift from God, has succumbed to death, and it is good and right to mourn for every body that dies. Even Jesus wept over his friend Lazarus. And we also mourn because the bond of human love has been broken by Iris’s death; she is no longer here to receive or return the love of a son, a daughter-in-law, a grandchild, or a friend.

But friends, our hope is in the strength of a bond of love that cannot be broken by death. The Holy Spirit, the love God pours into our hearts, is also the one by whom God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. This is not a spirit of slavery, a spirit of shadow loves, but the Spirit of adoption, who empowers us to cry out, “Abba, Father!” And “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is the deep truth of the universe and the secret of creation. This is the powerful love that has already changed everything. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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