“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
These concepts are taught to all Christians from the time we are very young. And it’s no wonder. Love is the most powerful force in the universe – the sacred energy that binds us all together like spiritual gravity. Scientists are even starting to see similarities between the relatively new concept of Quantum Entanglement and love. David Kaiser, an MIT physicist, said “It’s this really delightful, really strange thing. Somehow what happens to one particle can have an impact on what we would expect the second one to do, even if those particles are nowhere near each other.” Or in other words, when we love, we have an invisible, imperceptible but real impact on others and are impacted by them, no matter the distance between us.
Based on these popular scripture passages Wilbert just read, it is clear that love of God and love of neighbor are at the very core of our theology in the Christian church, but especially here in the UCC. We’re not one of those fussy denominations that loves to nit-pick every last little rule on ritual cleanliness from Leviticus or picks and chooses which bible passages give us privilege and deny it to others… we focus on God’s BIG AGENDA, and that is LOVE.
But as my faith journey has progressed – from my childhood in the UCC and through other spiritual traditions I’ve studied – I’ve come to realize there is an important element to this equation of Love of God and Love of Neighbor that appears to be missing. Because between love of God and love of Neighbor, there must be love of SELF. And unless we put as much emphasis on that as we do on the other two, then I believe that we are ill-equipped to be successful at any of them. And by putting equal focus on all three, I believe we become much better Christians and much better human beings, more fully able to create God’s kingdom on Earth.
So let’s look at what I mean by this holistic view of love of God, love of Self and Love of Neighbor.
LOVE OF GOD
Let’s start with Love of God. For how many of you is singing “Jesus Loves Me, this I know” one of your very first memories of going to church as a child? I don’t know about you, but for me it took a few more decades before the power of this simple childhood song finally sunk in. You see, so much of what we learn in church as children is at a time when most of us really aren’t fully capable of processing and understanding what it all means. We learn the words to hundreds of hymns, prayers and Bible verses, but we’re often well into adulthood before we realize that these simple words are an invitation to enter into a very personal relationship with God where we can tangibly feel His love. And we each come to feel that in a different way and at a different time in our lives.
You may experience God’s love in prayer and meditation. Perhaps in this very sanctuary during one of Tina’s sermons or during one of Paula’s majestic hymns. Or perhaps in nature or with your pets. With someone you love. Or maybe in a moment of grief or hardship. Maybe God is even a trusted and loving conversation partner for you every day. There are many ways to experience God’s love for each of us. The trick is finding the one that just naturally works for you. And some of us have to work at it a little hard than others, and sometimes we even forget to seek it. But it’s always there for us – we simply have to open our hearts and call God’s name.
But for many of us - and certainly for me - there are often barriers in our lives that prevent us from fully experiencing that love. And the primary barrier for many of us, I believe, is the inability to love ourselves the way God does.
LOVE OF SELF
As a fat, gay kid coming of age in the 80’s in Des Moines, Iowa, the messages I was getting from the world around me were very mixed at best. My parents loved me the best they could, and my UCC church was generally a pretty safe place with the exception of a bully or two, but from just about everywhere else, I was being told that both my childhood obesity and my emerging gay identity were sinful, ugly and shameful and I was pretty convinced I wasn’t worthy of anybody’s love, let alone God’s. My daily life consisted of hiding who I was, not loving who I was and trying to excel enough in other parts of my life like academics so that at least the adults around me might think I had some value as a human being. But I certainly didn’t think I did at the time.
I was in a lot of pain and trying a little too hard to prove that I was worthy, and that made me unpopular with my peers, bitter, competitive and probably not very nice sometimes. And in not having enough compassion or unconditional love for myself, it made it difficult for me to love my family, my friends or the world around me the way I might have. And it made it much harder for me to believe that there was a God who loved me, because I didn’t really feel worthy of that love.
But the Lord moves in mysterious ways. It my late 20’s, I’d moved to Europe and once there, really never found a church that felt like home. So introduced by a friend, I joined a personal growth organization called Pathways Institute and studied more eastern spiritual traditions like Hinduism, Buddhism and a lot of psychology. I discovered the concept of the heart chakra, the idea that we have an energy center that can foster deep connection and compassion towards others, nurture a sense of inner peace, help accept things as they are, without desire for change or control. It's linked with the ability to give and receive love freely, as well as to feel a sense of contentment and a strong connection with the sacred and the world around us. Imagine a phone booth to God inside your heart where anytime you want to go to feel His peace and love, you just close your eyes, put your hands on your heart, take a deep breath, and you feel peace, connection, love and resource.
The result of developing my heart chakra in this ancient Eastern tradition is that I became a fundamentally better, happier, kinder, and somewhat ironically, more Christian person. The unconditional love I was able to develop in myself led to the understanding that I was made perfectly in the image of the divine, and that helped heal much of the trauma that I felt from the invalidation and shame I experienced in my youth. And though that healing continues today, I know I have a place I can go to inside when I feel off balance, angry, fearful or am on the verge of being unkind to find God’s peace and love. And I’m convinced that’s pretty much the only thing that has made my relationship with this extraordinary man possible for the past 26 years. And of course, his presence in my life reminds me of God’s love for me every day, because he is my greatest gift in life.
But in undertaking this spiritual journey, I had sort of left the church behind for the better part of two decades. So when I first moved back from Europe to Arizona five years ago, it was a very real question whether or not I could ever return to mainstream Christianity. I remember walking into this sanctuary, listening to the prayers and experiencing the rituals of my youth that I hadn’t practiced for so long. Hearing scripture that I hadn’t heard for decades. They all felt sort of strange at first. But then, all of the sudden, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Jesus is the incarnation of the heart chakra. He is the living embodiment of unconditional love, compassion, and healing. He is the energy that I carry in my heart that guides, calms and inspires me. And everything just fell into place for me. A lifetime of spiritual development unified in a single moment. Jesus loves me, this I know. And that’s why I’m standing here today.
What I now realize is that I had a lot of trauma that stood in the way of me fully loving God, loving myself and loving my neighbor. I think many of us do. And I think that fully enabling that flow of love is core to healing that trauma, becoming our best selves and to becoming true Christians.
LOVE OF NEIGHBOR
So what about the last leg of our journey of love? Loving our neighbor. The good news is this is where things get easy if you’ve worked hard enough on the first two steps of this three-step program. See, love is not a limited resource like water or gold or time. By opening up the flow of love between yourself and God and within your own heart, you actually increase love in the universe, and it grows and overflows into the world around you. I like to call it spiritual economics. We can often spend very little energy – a little of our time, talent or even a simple smile – and have an exponentially larger impact on someone who so desperately needs it. A penny of love from us can be a like a bar of gold to someone who is hopeless and feels unseen, unloved or forgotten. But we can only make that happen when we are channeling God’s love through our hearts as the unlimited resource that it is because we accept and embody that love fully ourselves. Look at Mother Theresa. Look at Gandhi. Look at Martin Luther King. Look at Jesus. I believe they understood and lived this concept and provide an example to us of how to get this formula right.
Love of God, Love of Self, Love of Neighbor. So, Church, it’s time for a spiritual checkup. Are you blocked in any of these areas in your spiritual life? Do you fully experience God’s love? Do you love yourself fully as the blessed child of your Creator? And do you feel fully equipped to love your neighbor? Are you putting on your own mask before helping others?
To conclude, in our New Testament reading, the expert in the law correctly answers Jesus by saying: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus responds by saying: “Do this and you will live.” Perhaps in saying this, what Jesus was telling us is that fully enabling this trinitarian flow of love is the BEST and ONLY way we were all meant to live. It’s not always easy. It can take a lifetime of work to perfect. But I believe it is our very first priority as Christians to do this. But our other reading from First Corinthians gives us hope. Three simple little words that are so central to my theology and to our marriage that they also hang in bronze at the very center of our home in Cave Creek – LOVE NEVER FAILETH. I hope that this promise – God’s promise - lives in your hearts and in your home and in your life as well. Amen.