This sermon is adapted from Brian McLaren’s 2016 book The Great Spiritual Migration as part of the We Stand With Love campaign. You are welcome to use or adapt this sermon in your congregation.
Possible Scripture Texts:
1 John 4:7-8
Think of all the math you learned in twelve years of school. Or all the grammar. Or all the history. But here’s an interesting question: how much did you learn in your many years of education about love?
It’s kind of disturbing if you think about it: we invest so much energy in teaching so many things, but so little energy in teaching about love. And what is more important to our overall happiness and well-being from day to day – the quadratic equation? the date the Magna Carta was signed? how to conjugate an irregular verb? or love?
In that light, it’s interesting to think that Jesus didn’t call people to be Christians or church goers, but rather, disciples, and disciples are students. In a sense, Jesus didn’t come to start a religion, but rather, a school of love that was open to people of every religion. If we were to take Jesus as our model, we might imagine his love curriculum would go something like this:
First, if we’re Jesus’ students, we’ll learn to love our neighbors. You can think of neighbor love as Love 101 in our proposed curriculum. Putting love for neighbor first may sound strange, but it is actually the direction of the New Testament, and there is a good theological reason for it. Jesus, of course, said the greatest commandment was to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37–38). That isn’t terribly surprising. The surprise came when he added, “And a second is like it”—by which he was saying, “And the second is equally important”— “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (22:39). Even more surprising, Paul said that the whole law was summarized in love for neighbor (Galatians 5:14) and that love for neighbor fulfills the whole law (Romans 13:10).
What’s going on? Is love for God being absorbed into love for neighbor? Is theism being reduced to humanism? John offers an insight that resolves the paradox: if you don’t love your neighbor whom you have seen, you can’t love God whom you have not seen (1 John 4:20). His words recall Jesus’s own words: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to to me” (Matthew 25:40). Only through loving neighbors do we prepare our hearts to love God. We might even say that the way to God runs through our neighbors—especially those who are vulnerable. The New Testament has been teaching us this radical truth all along, but we Christians have been clever and perhaps even downright wicked in our persistent determination to avoid it.
If neighbors are those close to us, those with whom we share something in common, then our family members are our closest neighbors. Neighbor love begins between spouses and among parents and children, brothers and sisters, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. The Bible speaks to these relationships frequently, but much of its guidance is encoded in the cultures of the ancient world, cultures characterized by patriarchy and chauvinism. Traditional or conservative Christians have often excelled in teaching biblical skills of family love, but unfortunately, they have often preserved patriarchy and chauvinism as an essential part of the curriculum. More liberal Christians have been so determined to avoid the patriarchy and chauvinism that they have often been lax in teaching practical skills of family love at all. Today, we need to teach those practical skills clearly and effectively, but without the patriarchy or chauvinism.
These skills include common courtesies, gratitude, admitting weaknesses and failures, self-reporting emotions, expressing hurt or disappointment, confronting and forgiving, asking for help, differing graciously, surfacing and negotiating competing desires, taking the first step to resolve conflicts, upholding wise boundaries, saying yes and no, winning and losing graciously, creating win-win outcomes, speaking truth in love, speaking truth to power, asking good questions, requesting feedback, expressing affection, opening one’s heart, giving gifts, and seeking wise counsel. But sadly, too few parents know these skills themselves, and when parents don’t know these skills, more often than not, their children won’t learn them. This is how we’ve come to a place where millions of ill-equipped people spread damage rather than love in their homes, schools, neighborhoods, social circles (including social media!), workplaces, and societies.
To preempt this damage and to spread relational thriving instead, churches need to make these skills of family and friendship an essential part of love education, constantly teaching them through song, games, role-playing, storytelling, simulation, and through any and all other effective means.
If elementary training in neighbor love focuses on family and friends, in secondary neighbor-love studies, we learn to see the outlier, the outsider, the outcast, the stranger, the alien, and even the enemy as neighbors too. Such an education can be deeply subversive, some might even say unpatriotic. After all, political figures, military leaders, and rising demagogues consistently consolidate power by scapegoating and dehumanizing an outsider, an outcast, or an enemy. But Christian love resists their agenda by humanizing “the other” so that we see all people as brothers, sisters, neighbors, loving them as ourselves, standing with them in solidarity. This profound shift in our attitude toward the other naturally leads to a shift in our attitude toward ourselves.
Many of us suffer the shame of self-hatred or self-rejection, while others suffer from self-centered conceit or pride. Both inner maladies spread like an infection, and both can be healed when we learn to love ourselves for God’s sake, as the great Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux put it. He described a practice of standing with God, so to speak, and from that vantage point, regarding ourselves with divine compassion. In the portion of our curriculum that might be called Love 201, Christians would learn this transformative practice.
If you love someone, you will want to understand them and accept them as they grow and change; similarly, loving yourself involves a never-ending process of self-understanding and self-acceptance through life’s ups and downs. A wide range of personality tools from the Enneagram to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can help in this regard, as can a soul friend (or anam cara), as the ancient Celts called it, a friend in whose compassionate presence you can unmask and open your heart. Often it’s wise to consult a professional counselor, therapist, or coach to help you in caring for yourself, especially when you are grappling with life transitions, addictions, emotional or mental illness, or trauma.
We are finally coming to understand that love for neighbor and love for self naturally lead to love for the earth, which, I propose, is the third core course of the love curriculum. For example, if you love your neighbors as yourself, you want both them and you to be able to breathe, so you need to love clean fresh air. If you love your neighbors as yourself, you want them and you to be able to drink, so you need to love pure water in all its forms. If you love your neighbors as yourself, you want them and you to be able to eat, so you need to care about the climate and about soil and about fisheries, fields, farms, and forests. If you love your neighbors as yourself, you will want all your children and your future descendants to be able to enjoy the beauty of creation too, so you will care about conservation and you will see ecology as a beautiful and holy science.
In the process of loving the earth for the sake of your neighbors and yourself, you will naturally learn to love the earth for its own sake. You will understand that just as each work of art is precious to the artist, each bird, tree, fish, plant, river, mountain, wetland, ocean, and ecosystem is precious to the Creator. You will increasingly feel the Creator’s love for the earth in all its inherent, manifold beauty.
People who are learning to love their neighbors, themselves, and the earth will not find it hard to learn to love God, because God will not be for them a doctrine or theory separate from or inconsistent with what they already love. Rather, in their experience of love for neighbor, self, and creation, they will have already experienced God, because, as Richard Rohr says, “God is an event of communion.” They will already have come, as the Quakers say, to love and reverence “that of God in every one.” So in Love 401, Christians learn to recognize and love the familiar light they see radiant in everything they already love. They learn to inhabit God as the loving reality in which they “live and move and have their being,” the all-encompassing “event of communion” in which they have experienced countless events of communion. Each experience of love itself, they will realize, has been an experience of God, for, as John said in the New Testament, “Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … for God is love” (1 John 4:7–8).
Yes, loving a distant and theoretical God who must be approached through complex belief systems can indeed be tough—even exhausting, mentally and emotionally. But loving the God who is experienced in love for neighbor, self, and creation comes as naturally as breathing. A character from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov captures it perfectly:
Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.
Of course, we won’t insist that these elements of the love curriculum always be ordered in the same way. As long as we’re learning to care for the earth, care for ourselves, care for each other, and care for God, in whatever order or messy disorder, we can be called disciples, apprentices, or students in God’s holy seminary of love. In fact, when you leave this place and get in your car or enter your home or show up at the office or interact with friends or strangers, remind yourself that class is in session!
Questions for conversation:
What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped, or surprised you?
Share a story about a time when you failed a test in the school of love … a time when you realized you had a lot to learn about loving others.
For children: Tell us about a person you think is very loving, and why.
Make this week a seminary of love. On Monday, seek one way to express in word or deed love for others – starting with your family. On Tuesday, focus on your friends and coworkers. On Wednesday, extend love to people who are different from you, from strangers to people you might have considered irritants or enemies. On Thursday, do something kind and loving for yourself. On Friday, attend to the earth as an object of your love. And on Saturday, take a walk or sit peacefully in an attitude of love for God.
In silence, hold this awareness: Life is a school of love, and class is in session!