When you hear the word “love,” you may first think of romantic love, or some other kind of love that can be conveyed with a heart-shaped Valentine.
More than a thousand pop songs have the word “love” in their title, and thousands more tell stories of loves found and lost. “All you need is love,” the Beatles assure us. Love makes the world go ’round, another song says. Love is central to the plots of movies and plays and novels and poems and TV commercials.
About the last place you’d expect to find a heartfelt and sober-minded appreciation of love is a commercial that appeared for the first time a month ago during the Super Bowl. But there it was, plain as day: a slow-paced, carefully worded message from, yes, a life insurance company – New York Life, to be exact.
If you haven’t seen it, Google “love commercial” to find it. As the commercial shows various scenes from several stages of life, the narrator says:
The Ancient Greeks had four words for love.
The first is Philia. Philia is affection that grows from friendship.
Next is storge, the kind you have for your grandson or brother.
Third is Eros, the uncontrollable urge to say “I love you.”
The fourth kind of love is different. It’s the most admirable. It’s called Agape, love as an action. It takes courage, sacrifice, strength.
On its website, New York Life says Agape stands out above all the other kinds of love. Why? Because it inspires us to put the needs of others above our own. It’s about doing what’s right, being the best person you can be, building better futures. Since 1845, the company says, “we’ve been helping people put their love into action for their families and loved ones.”
There are lots of ways of doing that beyond buying more life insurance. We’ll be looking at some of those ways for the next six weeks, throughout the season of Lent.
The focus of our study is a book by Tom Berlin titled Reckless Love: God’s call to love our neighbor. Tom Berlin is pastor of a large United Methodist Church in Virginia. He’s co-author of several good books on church growth. As a key figure in UMCNext, he represented several progressive groups in the recent negotiations that led to the Protocol for dividing the church.
If you join the small group discussions that follow worship each Sunday during Lent, you’ll see video presentations by Tom. He is not a slick presenter. He is a thoroughly real guy who struggles with what it means to love God by loving your neighbor.
That New York Life ad is right about several important things. Agape, love as an action, is hard. It takes courage, sacrifice and strength.
It’s not that other kinds of love don’t involve action, and may not also require courage, sacrifice and strength. It’s that Agape love is special because it is not directly motivated by personal interest in, or affection for, the one you love.
That’s why Jesus can command you to love not only God and yourself but also your neighbor. And who is your neighbor? As Jesus makes clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan, your neighbor is anyone you encounter who needs the help you can provide.
That’s also why Jesus can command us to love even our enemies – because agape love is radically inclusive. It covers everyone, whether we like them or not, whether they like us or not, because we’re all made in the image of God and we’re all precious in God’s sight, no matter how messed up we are.
Agape love may involve emotion but it is not necessarily motivated by emotion. It is simply wishing the best for another. It is willing good for another. It is acting for the best and for the good of another.
Wishing, willing and acting. We’re talking about an attitude of the heart that finds expression in our actions.
There is no way that this is remotely easy. That’s why we’re talking about it during Lent, which is a season of repentance, a season of turning from one attitude to another.
During Lent, we hope to turn away from the way the world does things and turn toward the way God want us to do things – and, don’t you know, those two ways are so often diametrically opposed.
During Lent, we hope to turn away from the world’s way and turn toward the Jesus way. As Tom Berlin says in his book, there ought to be a difference between the way you think and act and live and love Pre-Jesus and the way you think and act and live and love Post-Jesus. If meeting Jesus doesn’t change you thoroughly, you haven’t met the real Jesus. You’ve met an imposter.
Being changed by Jesus and learning to love God’s way is the primary commitment of your life, Berlin says. Being changed by Jesus and learning to love God’s way is the only way you’ll break out of the vicious circle of life the world’s way and find your way into the virtuous circle of life the Jesus way.
Loving God and loving neighbor are intertwined. You show your love for God by the way you love your neighbor. You can’t see God, the first letter of John argues, so you must show your love for God by the way you treat those you can see.
That’s why the great Hebrew prophets are always railing against pious shows of devotion and phony shows of religion. These are all hypocritical and meaningless unless they reflect a genuine love for the other whom God loves just as much as God loves you.
OK, love is hard enough. What’s all this about “reckless” love? Love sounds reckless enough. Why make it worse?
Obviously, the word “reckless” has many negative connotations – reckless driving, reckless gambling, reckless living in general, the way we imagine the Prodigal Son lived in that parable Jesus told. Now attach the word “reckless” to the word “love,” and you might conjure up all sorts of visions of wild sexual encounters.
The kind of reckless love God is talking about is nothing like that. God’s reckless love is not eros, or attractional, sexual love. It’s agape “wishing the best for another’ love that crosses conventional social boundaries. It crosses boundaries of race and ethnic origin, language, social status, income, where you live and so on. Cross the wrong social boundary and some people will think you’re weird, at best – at worse, subversive and dangerous.
God’s reckless love also crosses boundaries of personal convenience. Am I the only one, or are there just some people you cannot get along with; people who are so hard to deal with that you would just as soon avoid them altogether?
Tom Berlin issues this warning. When you try to love recklessly, you will encounter so many difficult people that you will start to think that God is messing with you. And the truth is, he says, God is messing with you. God keeps putting you in contact with difficult people so that through loving them you will learn to love everyone, and therefore you will grow in your love of God and neighbor.
We’ll spend the rest of this series of messages looking at the various kinds of difficult people you can encounter, and how you can best deal with them in a recklessly loving way.
Here’s a powerful thought from the great Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. She says that loving another person “as is” is the hardest spiritual work in the world. Why? Because, she says, when you meet someone, you want to “use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control” that person.
You don’t want to accept anyone “as is.” You want to change them. But the only person in the world you can change is you. If you truly want to help someone, you have to let God change that person. To do that, you have to give each person you enough freedom and personal space for God to act.
Theologian Tom Wright says that you have to not only accept each person as other but also affirm and celebrate that otherness. You have to want everyone to become not who you want them to be but who God wants them to be.
You have to cherish and yet let go. That sounds a lot like parenting, doesn’t it? Treating someone that way is truly reckless and radical love.
Tom Berlin reminds us that love is not a principle we believe in or an aspiration we hope to achieve but an orientation to life that sets the course of everything we do. It’s an orientation to life that has to be renewed moment by moment. We have to begin every day and begin every encounter with love on our minds.
How can you do that? Let me show you a way. As I list some encounters you might have in a common day, please respond to each with the words, “Begin with love.”
When you wake up in the morning, what do you do? You…
When you first encounter your spouse or your housemate or your dog or your cat, you…
As you head out to buy groceries or run other errands, you…
When you’re accosted by a grouchy clerk at the store, you…
When you dread the meeting you have to attend, or the task you have to do at work, you…
When the lights go out or the cable service fails, even before you dial the help number, you pause to remind yourself to…
When the person trying to help you is in a noisy call center in India and you can barely hear him, let alone understand him, before you start yelling, you…
When you’re watching the news on TV and some politician says something blindingly stupid, before you scream in outrage, you…
When your spouse, or another person you value highly, unthinkingly says something so hurtful that your eyes sting, you…
At the end of the day, when you’re trying to lift up the good in your thoughts and set aside the bad, how do you pray? You…
And as you drift off to sleep and your mind wanders, what attitude journeys with your thoughts? You always …
Whatever happens day or night, you always…
When you do that, don’t you know, love does make the world go ’round.
A message delivered March 1, 2020, the First Sunday of Lent, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Mark 12: 28-34a.