Sunday, October 23, 2011

Learning Love--a sermon for Ordinary 30A

Rev. Teri Peterson
Learning Love
Matthew 22.34-40
23 October 2011, October 30A

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’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 neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Do you know the cartoon “love is…”? It’s a daily one-panel drawing with the words “love is” at the top, and words finishing the sentence at the bottom, with drawings of people that slightly remind me of the Little Miss… girls. Every day since about 1970 there has been a different description of what love is. Among the descriptions from the past few days, we have things like “Love is…an open door” “Love is…not even noticing you forgot the picnic basket” “Love is…not wanting to say goodnight” and “Love is…taking that second chance.”

We might almost say that love is one of those words that has so many possible meanings that it often means nothing at all. For instance—do I love mashed potatoes the way I love my family? Do I love celebrating my birthday the way I love pursuing my calling? Do I love scotcharoos the way I love God? In the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, a teenage girl explains the difference between like and love: “I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.” If all of those are love, what is love anyway?

Jesus probably had a similar problem—there are a lot of things “love” can mean. It helps, of course, if you speak a language with more nuance than English has in this case, and it helps if you live in a time with fewer material possessions and a culture that values people over things, and it helps if you are part of a religious system that tells you exactly what to do in every circumstance. So when asking which law was the greatest, the lawyer was asking Jesus to prioritize—among the 613 laws of the Torah, which one is most important? It’s a trick question, designed to force Jesus into heresy. But Jesus answers with the Shema—the Bible verse that every Jew would recite multiple times every day: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” In other words—with your whole being, love God. Then he adds a verse from everyone’s favorite book, Leviticus: “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The word “love” here is agape—one of four choices in Greek. Others include eros (erotic love), storge (affection), and philia (brotherly love). Philia and Agape are both words that imply self-giving, sacrificial, unconditional, steadfast, loyal, all-in love. So when Jesus, or Paul, or Deuteronomy, or Leviticus, call us to love God with our whole being, they’re almost being redundant—the poetic repetition tells us they really mean it, every word. In fact, the latest English translation of the Bible ends this passage with the phrase “everything depends on these two commands.”

Everything depends on these.

I’m reminded of The Five Pillars of Islam, which are confessing your faith in God, prayer, fasting, giving, and pilgrimage. In other words—the whole of the Muslim faith is held up by these five practices. Not five beliefs, not five words to say, not five books to read, but five actions to do regularly. They might say that “everything depends on these.”

What would our five pillars of Christianity be? We probably share some in common with our Muslim brothers and sisters—confessing our faith in Christ, prayer, and giving are fairly obvious. We may even say fasting or pilgrimage too. But Jesus says there’s one big pillar, and all these things are more like supporting columns—our big pillar is to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

How does this foundation play out in our faith and life, though? Just as the five pillars of Islam are practices, not simply beliefs, this pillar Jesus lays before us is also a practice, not a belief. I can say that I love God, and I can claim to love my neighbor, but does that mean anything more than that I love mashed potatoes? How does my neighbor—or my enemy—know that I love them? How does my neighbor know that I love God? Just as the letter of James says: ‘faith without works is dead.’ Or, to put it in terms most of us know: talk is cheap. Christian faith is not cheap, nor is it just talk. It’s a way of life, a practice. And this way of life changes us, and changes the world. Or at least, it should. But there are a billion Christians in the world, and still the Black Eyed Peas can ask “Where is the Love?” and we just don’t have an answer. Love has been so watered down into a song or a tv show or a feeling easily transferable between people and possessions or a nice thing that doesn’t have much to do with God. But the love of God is not nice—just as Aslan is not a tame lion, the love of God is not tame, not for our own use, and not to make us feel good. Love calls us to action—it’s a verb.

So if love, as Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Jesus and Paul call us to, is more than a feeling and more than words, then how do we do it? How do we learn love? What does it mean in a world where we apply it to backpacks and shoes and food and people and God all in the same breath? We know that God is love, we know that we love because God first loved us, we know that we are called to love God and God’s creation—including people we know, people we don’t know, and even our enemies. But that’s all so much easier said than done.

Saint Francis de Sales, who lived in the 17th century, might be able to help us out with this. He says, “the only way of attaining that love is by loving. You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and people by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves. If you want to love God, go on loving God more and more. Begin as a mere apprentice, and the very power of love will lead you on to become a master in the art. Those who have made most progress will continually press on, never believing themselves to have reached their end; for charity should go on increasing until we draw our last breath.”

We learn to talk by making sounds…we learn to read by reading everything our eyes land on…we learn to ride a bike by riding up and down the street, picking ourselves up when we fall and getting back on…in other words, by being disciplined in our practice. By doing it over and over until we have mastered the skill. Could love be the same—we learn to love by being disciplined in our practice, taking every opportunity to practice loving God and loving others, picking ourselves up when we fall down, and trying again? Eventually the training will change us—just as you never forget how to ride a bike, you can never forget how to love. So let’s get out there and practice together, because everything depends on this.

May it be so.


  1. Teri, thanks for this. It brings in and successfully links so many notions of love but leads us towards practising love - the verb. Well done. Blessings on the preaching and the hearing of this message.

  2. Love is a sermon by Teri. Wow. I really like this.