October 23, 2011
Scripture: Matthew 22:34-46
Love One Another,
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
It is good to encounter a well-known text this morning, a Word that is familiar even among those for whom the Word may be most unfamiliar. It is good to travel a clear path, to receive a slice of the gospel pie that is sharp and direct. This morning the words of Jesus fall like sugar upon our ears, sounding of something sweet and kind, not punitive and condemning. We hear the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And a second like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We eat up this commandment of the good news - it is good, we say, to love. To love God. To love yourself. To love your neighbor. It is so good, we say. Yes! we say. Right on, Jesus! we say.
Yet, even as we hear, like candy to our ears, the greatest and sweetest of the commandments flowing from the lips of Christ himself, we experience some discomfort beneath the Word we receive this day because we question how truly and how deeply we really do say yes to this candy coated gospel directive – to love God and to love our neighbor.
The Christian faith is a quest for meaning and a journey toward greater understanding, one that breeds questions and doubts, fears and longings. How do we measure our faith? How do we measure the extent and nature of our love – for God and for one another?
In our own individual lives and contexts it seems fairly easy to quantify our love. When we think about our Christian faith as an individual journey, it becomes a journey of the human experience, the meaning and measure of which accompanies the unfolding of our lives. Love develops and evolves through our growing up and coming of age; our falling in love and then making that love more than an elusive nostalgic notion but a public commitment - exchanging vows holy, binding, and true. Love ripens through our own mistakes and missed opportunities, through awaiting and enduring childbirth; through broken relationships, the paralyzing hand of betrayal and our ability to forgive; love grows by way of supporting a friend through illness or a child through failure.
The loving relationships that we hold in our individual lives are important in God’s eyes, in Jesus’ eyes. Marriage, parenthood, forgiveness, reconciliation, birth, and death of loved ones. However, the love that Jesus here speaks of in this moment in the gospel is not entirely descriptive of this sort of love that we experience on a daily basis with family and friends. This love that Jesus proclaims to the Pharisees and Sadducees is broader and wider, more communal than individual, more social than private. This is a radical departure for the Pharisees and Sadducees.
These two commandments that Jesus presents are actually taken from the Hebrew Bible – the first from the book of Deuteronomy and the second from Leviticus. The first commandment from Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” was one of the most fundamental, ancient, and widely read passages in the Jewish tradition. Here Jesus is accusing the religious elite of an egocentric and self-aggrandizing application of this commandment; they lift up their love of God at the exclusion of others. So, Jesus adds the second commandment as accompaniment to the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Jesus does not intend our love for God to be solely individual, to mature according to our own isolated and specific contexts. When Jesus says love God and love our neighbor, Jesus is urging us to love what God loves; to love as God loves.
Jesus does not want us to come to this place on Sunday morning and sit in these pews and pat ourselves on the back for doing so, telling ourselves that we are well-intentioned, good and godly people, as the Pharisees and Sadducees did in his day. Jesus wants us to wonder what it means that we sit in these pews. He wants us to wonder what it means to call ourselves Christian. He wants us to wonder what it means to that we sing hymns, pray prayers, and bless shawls. He wants us to wonder who is out there and not in here. Jesus urges our wonderings about our community; the kind and quality love that it engenders and the purpose it serves. Are we loving what God loves, are we loving as God loves?
* * * *
I recently accompanied our youth group to an event at Old South Union Church in Weymouth where we heard from a fantastic motivational speaker, Ed Gerety, who works primarily with youth. He told a story about a kindergarten class that he recently visited as a guest speaker. He talks about how he walked into this classroom full of 5 and 6 year olds - all buzzing about all over the place – then the teacher calmly clapped her hands and they all magically took to their seats. “This is Mr. Gerety,” the teacher said, “Can you say Hi to Mr. Gerety?”
“Hi, Mr. Gerety.” The dozens of little voices chimed in together. He had their undivided attention and he asked the kids what they liked about school. He took several answers from the kids – “Recess,” “Snack Time,” “Free Time,” “Math.”
Then this little boy in the front row raised his hand straight and high and said, “Our seeds.”
At break time, Ed was still curious about this little boy’s response, so he went over to him and asked him, “What are your seeds?”
“I’ll show you,” and he took Ed by the hand and led him over to the far side of the classroom, a wall lined with windows. “We each got a pot with some soil in it and we pushed a seed way down deep into the dirt.” Ed looked at the twenty-plus tiny pots with small seedlings sprouting out of them; they all seemed to be growing so uniformly and well.
“Which one is yours?” Ed asked the boy.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Ed asked
“I don’t know,” he said again.
Ed picked up one of the pots and looked underneath. Then he picked up another and looked underneath. “There are no names on these,” he said, “How do you know which one to water?” He asked the little boy.
“We water all of them; we take care of each other’s.”
Ed got a lesson in love from this 5-year old that day.
I believe, too, this is a lesson in loving as God loves, indiscriminately and without condition.
“God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” Gen 1:27.
“For God so loved the world that he sent his One and only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” John 3:16.
We cannot truly love God and exclude any of God’s creation or creatures. We cannot truly love God for our own feel good satisfaction. We cannot truly love God without loving one another.
The measure of the extent and nature of our love comes when we ask the question, how well have we loved those we find difficult to love? Jesus came into the world as the embodiment of God’s love. Jesus loved prostitutes, sinners, traitors, tax collectors; Jesus loved through betrayal and the cross. Jesus loved as God loves.
The measure of the extent and nature of our love will come when we, as a community of Christians, ask the question, how will we accept those outside of our designated circle of love? What boundaries, what stipulations have we placed around our own commitment to love our neighbor?
For Jesus said, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43-44).
Who would be difficult for you to love? To eat with, to be generous toward, to care for?
It is precisely that person whom Jesus is calling you to love. How would it be for you to place one of these shawls upon their shoulders? How would it be for you to water their sprouting seedling, making sure it grows tall?
Hold to that image. Pray about that image.
In her book The Holy Thursday Revolution, philosopher Beatrice Bruteau writes that, “If we cannot love our neighbor as ourself it is because we do not see our neighbor as ourself.”
We sit in these pews, we call ourselves Christian, we sing hymns, pray prayers, and bless shawls with the hope and longing that we have the wisdom and the courage to love our neighbor as ourself. Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus proclaims, “I came into this world not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them,” – with love.
Jesus brings love to the heart of our faith because love is at the heart of the human condition. Our ability to love – or not to love – rules our lives; binds us tight or sets us free. May this sweet gospel directive – to love God and to love one another – set us free.