Learning to Love
Finally something which they can all agree on! After three days of conflict and disagreement in the Temple, finally something upon which they can all agree.
Which commandment in the law is the greatest?
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
This was the Shema, Deuteronomy 6.5, the words that a faithful Jew would write on their doorpost and pray twice a day, morning and night. Surely they could all agree that this is the great commandment.
The problem is, it’s not enough. Maybe it’s because God is a mystery to us. Maybe it’s because God is invisible, intangible. For whatever reason, we need more to go on. The commandment to love God, in human hands, can go in too many different directions, and not all of them are good.
For the elders of Israel, loving God meant preserving the institution of the Temple, even if that meant cutting a deal with the Romans on taxation which oppressed poor people.
For the chief priests, loving God meant focusing on the Temple system of sacrifice, even if that meant neglecting more important matters of justice, mercy and faith.
For the Pharisees, loving God meant a scrupulous focus on purity laws, even if that meant that people who couldn’t comply with the law were excluded.
For the church throughout the ages, loving God has at various times meant fighting wars, marginalizing queer people, and colluding with colonial powers.
Which is why Jesus isn’t finished answering the question yet. Which is why Jesus can’t just leave it at loving God. Which is why Jesus elevates a second commandment to the same level as the first.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
“And love your neighbour as yourself.”
It’s like a sanity check. You can’t love God if you’re not loving your neighbour. The two go together. As John puts it “if you don’t love the neighbour that you can see, how can you love God whom you have not seen?”
Love is the core of our faith. 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, all moral imperatives, all human rights, all matters of justice. As followers of Jesus, this is what we need to focus on. This is what we need to learn and to practice.
When my son Jonathan was just a little guy, I used to coach Initiation hockey. Initiation was for 4 and 5 year olds, most of whom were learning to skate for the first time. I remember the very first session. 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, ready to go. And as soon as the ice was ready, I told them to get out onto the ice and skate. A rookie coaching mistake, with entirely predictable results. Most of them had their feet go 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. Thank goodness for all that equipment. 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.
I learned pretty quickly that you can’t just tell a 4 year old to 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 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. Even for 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, go back to basics and help them improve their skating.
Jesus tells us, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Learning to love is also a life-long experience, and it too requires practice.
Too often, when we hear the word love, in our minds, we either go straight to some notion of romantic 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 would when we’re teaching skating or any other skill. What are some of the components of love, the ways we can love, what are some of the words we can use for love. And let’s try to keep them in the form of verbs, action words, since that’s the way that Jesus uses the word love.
Any suggestions? Put them in the comments, jot them down at home. In verb form, which sometimes might take two words.
Here are some of my words that for me help to break open what we mean by “love”:
Reconcile. Care. Give. Forgive. Be kind. Act justly. Sacrifice. Heal. Respect. Be merciful. Advocate. Commit. Dignify. Build up. Welcome. Be gracious. Honour. Accompany. Be compassionate. Make peace.
So here’s your first assignment. Take this list of words, add your own, and try using each of these words as the word for love in the second commandment. What would it look like to reconcile with your neighbour, as you reconcile with yourself? What would it mean to dignify your neighbour, as you dignify yourself? How about advocating for your neighbour, as yourself. What does it look like to act justly towards your neighbour? You get the idea. Every time we take one of our “love” words and imagine what it looks like to insert it in the commandment, we learn a little more about what it means to love.
However, here’s another tip. We’ve already reminded ourselves that love is a verb, not a noun. But we also need to remind ourselves that love is not just a verb, it’s a transitive verb. We’re not talking about loving in the abstract, we’re talking about loving a real, live, concrete, quirky human person.
Therefore, just like when we’re teaching skating, there are some basic postures that we need to adopt before we can really love, care, reconcile, be compassionate, dignify, welcome and so on. Because loving involves 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 adjust their balance and bend their knees before they can start to skate.
Here are a few postures towards our neighbour that will help us learn to love. You will certainly 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. Understand their situation.
· Positive regard: 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.
Love is the core of our faith. It’s what we need to learn and practice. So let’s do it. 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 looks like by opening up the word into other words that break out some of love’s different components.
What does all this look like in practice? It looks like Jesus. Week after week, we gather here to 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.
Love God. And love your neighbour as yourself.
Homily: Yr A P30, Oct 25 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Deut 34.1-12; Ps 90; 1 Thess 2.1-8; Mt 22.34-46