School for Love
When my son was just a little guy, I used to coach Initiation hockey. Initiation was for 4 to 6 year olds, most of whom were learning to skate for the first time. I remember the first session we had. The parents were all in the dressing room, bundling their little darlings into bulky hockey equipment and tying up their skates. The kids were excited. And when the ice was ready, and they were ready, I told them to get out there onto the ice and skate. With entirely predictable results. Most of them had their feet go right out from underneath them as soon as they hit the ice. There were kids falling everywhere, sprawled on the ice in a shotgun pattern that extended out from the door. Some managed to stay on their feet and glide a bit. Some were running on their skates. The more determined ones would fall down and get up again in an endlessly repeating cycle.
And as a rookie coach, I learned pretty quickly that you can’t just tell 4 year olds to go skate. You have to break down what it means to skate, to teach them the different components, how to glide, to use their edges, to push with their feet, to turn, to start, to stop and so on. And you need to teach them some basic postures needed just to be ready to skate: they need to learn balance, to bend their knees, to keep their head up, to lean forward but not too much. That’s how you teach children, that’s how you teach adults to skate. And for even the best skaters, it’s a life-long learning experience. One of the first things many NHL players do is hire a skating coach to break it all down, and to help them improve their skating.
In today’s gospel, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And Jesus responds “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
This is not a new teaching. Jesus is quoting here from the Hebrew scriptures, from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The first part, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, is known as the shema, and it was recited twice daily as a prayer by faithful Jews, every morning and every night. They would all agree that this is indeed the greatest and first commandment.
Jesus then takes a second commandment and elevates it to the same status as the first. “A second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Again, this teaching is not new, but Jesus puts it in front of us with renewed emphasis, renewed urgency and renewed importance.
Love is at the core of our faith. Love is who God is. Love is what we’re called to do. These two commandments trump everything else, put everything else in its proper place and perspective. On them hang all the law and the prophets. As followers of Jesus, this is what we need to focus on, this is what we need to learn and to practice. In fact more than anything else, church should be a school for love.
Now I know that some of you might think that sounds a bit cheesy. I know that if I say we’re going to teach other to love this morning, some of you will be suppressing a giggle. Love is an overused word in our language, and it’s not always used well. But let’s go there anyways.
School for love is now in session. And it begins with Jesus’ words.
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
For me, these words immediately raise two questions: the second is “who is my neighbour?” and we’ll come back to that. The first is “what does it mean to love?”
Too often, when we hear the word love, we either go straight to romantic or even erotic love, or we go to some bland notion of being nice to each other. There’s nothing wrong with nice – but it isn’t love.
So let’s break it down, just like we do when we’re teaching skating. What are some words we can use for love? And let’s try if we can to keep them in the form of verbs, since that’s the way Jesus uses the word love.
Here’s a few words that I came up which help to break open what we mean by “love”:
Practice mercy. Be compassionate. Bring peace. Reconcile. Care. Give. Forgive. Practice nonviolence. Be kind. Act justly. Friendship. Sacrifice. Respect. Advocate. Commit. Dignify. Build Community. Welcome. Be gracious. Honour. Accompany.
Does that help us understand what Jesus is talking about? It doesn’t sound cheesy or bland anymore, does it?
So here’s your first School of Love homework assignment. Take this list home and any other words you want to add to it, and try using each of these words as the word for love in the second commandment. What would it be like to practice mercy with your neighbour? What would it mean to dignify your neighbour the way you would like to be treated with dignity? What does it look like to act justly towards your neighbour? And so on.
That's the assignment. But, here’s a little help to do your homework. Before we start, we need to remind ourselves that love is not just a verb, it’s a transitive verb. We’re not talking about love in the abstract, or loving something abstract, we’re talking about loving someone, a real, concrete human person.
Therefore, just like when we were teaching skating, there are some basic postures that we need to adopt before we can really love, care, reconcile, sacrifice, welcome and so on. Because all of these things involve two people, you and your neighbour. And so to begin to practice Jesus’ commandment, each of us needs to adopt a certain posture towards our neighbour, just like the skater needs to bend her knees before she can start to skate.
Here are a few postures that are needed, you may be able to think of others:
Presence: you need to be there with your neighbour, committing time and attention
Listening: to love your neighbour you need to get to know your neighbour. Listening is a good start
Empathy. Put yourself in your neighbour’s shoes.
Positive regard: Our children taught us one way to do this last Sunday. We need to see each other as created in the image of God.
Non-judgment: I know, that’s a hard one. But isn’t that how you’d like your neighbour to be towards you?
Affirmation. We learn to see God’s image in each other in concrete ways, and then we tell each other what we see.
Now we’ve done the theory. We’ve learned some basic postures that will put us in a position to love, and we’ve tried to get a sense of what love means by opening the word up into other words that break out some of love’s different aspects.
What does this all look like in practice? It looks like Jesus. Week after week, we hear stories about Jesus, the one whom we believe looks more like love in action than anyone else. When others want to turn children away, Jesus welcomes them. When others won’t touch a man with leprosy, Jesus reaches out and touches him. When others reject her, Jesus heals a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years. When others are preoccupied with Sabbath rules, Jesus breaks the rules in order to heal a man with a withered arm. When others condemn a woman caught in adultery, Jesus forgives and protects her. And when Jesus himself is rejected and condemned, he practices nonviolence, forgives his accusers, and gives his life for our sake. We tell these stories week after week for a variety of reasons – but the main reason is so that we can see and learn what it means to love.
How are we doing so far? Are we getting a sense of what it means to love? Of how big this is, of how important it is?
Then get ready for the hardest part of all.
Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” And in Luke’s version of the story, the lawyer then asks Jesus, “and who is my neighbour?”
Do you remember the story Jesus told? Yup, the story of the Good Samaritan. Your neighbour is the one who you despise, the one who is your enemy, the one you need to protect yourself against, the stranger, the one who isn’t one of us.
“Boom.” Mind blown. I have a hard time loving my kids. Can I forgive, honour, care for, be gracious to a Samaritan? An enemy? An ISIS terrorist?
We’ve got a lot of learning to do in our school for love. This is going to take some practice.
So here’s what I suggest we do, every week.
Let’s start by gathering together and welcoming each other, especially welcoming, honouring and affirming those that are different from us, because that’s how we learn the best. So if you’re rich seek out one who is poor, if you’re young seek out someone who is older, if you’re cisgender, seek out one who is transgender. We are blessed here with a beautifully diverse community that can serve as a school for love.
Then, let’s hear stories of love. Let’s tell stories about Jesus, and how he loved those who were strangers, foreigners, marginalized, and those who were his enemies.
Let’s be present to each other. Let’s listen, let’s talk, let’s empathize, let’s suspend judgement, let’s affirm one another. Let’s learn to see God’s image in each other.
Let’s also be honest about ourselves and the challenges that love poses for us. Let’s confess our failings, and then receive forgiveness, so we know what that’s like and we can forgive others.
Let’s spend some time expressing our own needs and learning the needs of others.
Let’s bring peace to one another and practice reconciliation.
Let’s be generous and giving, offering what we have for the needs of others, offering our time, our gifts, our money.
Let’s share a meal together, a meal that’s open to all.
Let’s sing, let’s pray, let’s celebrate and lament together.
And then let’s send each other out in love, to love and serve.
When I used to teach skating, the children that learned to skate the best were the ones who practiced. If we want to learn to love, we need to practice. Which is why this place operates as a school for love, every Sunday morning.
Homily: Yr A Proper 30, Oct 29 2017, St. Albans Church
Readings: Leviticus 19.1-2,15-18,33-34; Ps 90.1-6,13-17; 1 Thess 2.1-8; Mt 22.34-46
Inspired by Brian McLaren's The Great Spiritual Migration
 Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration.