Sunday, October 26, 2014

Love God, Love Neighbor: Sermon for Proper 25A

Click here to listen to the sermon.

A Sunday school teacher was discussing the 10 commandments with her 5 and 6-year-old students. After explaining the commandment “honor thy father and thy mother,” she asked: “Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?” One little boy answered: “Thou shalt not kill.”

God’s law leaves nothing out. When we look in scripture, and particularly the Old Testament, we find commandments that cover almost everything in human life. It’s incredibly detailed and comprehensive. So if you’ve ever thought that having 10 commandments was challenging, consider the fact that in Jewish law there are 613 commandments!

That list of 613 includes “positive” commandments instructing persons to do certain things, and “negative” commandments to refrain from other actions. And actually, not every rabbi agreed that 613 was the correct number of commandments. There could be more than that, or less. And even where there was agreement on the total, many did not agree on the actual list of commandments to include among the 613.

To make things more complicated, some rabbis maintained that all 613 commandments were equally authoritative. Picking and choosing among the commandments, or ranking them from the most important to the least, would have been seen by these rigorist rabbis as undermining God’s authority. God’s law is not a cafeteria or a drive-thru window!

Another school of rabbis made a distinction between “heavy” and “light” commandments. Obedience to “heavy” commandments was absolutely binding and non-negotiable. Few would have disagreed, for instance, that commandments like “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy”, or “You shall not murder” would fall into this category. But with “light” commandments there could be some wiggle room. Of course, not everyone in this school of thought agreed on which commandments were “light” and which were “heavy.”

So it’s against this complicated background of debate and disagreement that Jesus’ enemies confront him with a final test. “Teacher,” they ask, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matthew 22:36)

They’re hoping to trip Jesus up by forcing him to give an answer that will either embarrass and discredit him or turn the people against him. It’s a “no-win” situation. But that doesn’t deter Jesus from giving a confident answer.

According to Jesus, the first and greatest of all of God’s commandments is this:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37; cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

Coming straight out of the book of Deuteronomy, Jesus cites the Shema as the most important of God’s commandments. The Shema is the basic creed of Judaism. It’s the most important expression of the monotheistic essence of the Jewish religion. Recited twice daily with morning and evening prayers, the Shema lies at the heart of Jewish spirituality. It’s the anchor in the shifting sea of life’s changes and chances. It’s the grounding of faithful obedience. And it’s the compass that points hearts and minds to the One who alone is the source of all that was in the beginning, is now, or ever shall be.

The Shema says: love God with every fibre of your being. Love God with everything you own. Love God with every hope and longing that fills your heart. Love God above all things in this world. Love God as though your life depends upon it, because it does. Let nothing and no one else step into God’s place. It doesn’t matter how you feel. Love is not primarily about feelings. Love is about doing. It’s about faithful obedience. So love God by obeying God’s will with everything that you do, with everything you have, and with everything you are. That is the greatest commandment.

Jesus could have left it at that and probably hit a home run. But instead he wades deeper into the waters of possible controversy by adding another commandment to the “most important” list.

Once again quoting scripture, Jesus says: “And a second is like [the greatest commandment]: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Leviticus 19:18).

Everything intended by all of the commandments in the scriptures, and everything proclaimed by God’s prophets - it’s all summed up in these two commandments. It’s all fulfilled when human beings love God and love others.

Love God. Love others. That’s what gets at the heart and soul of God’s holy law.

By summarizing God’s law in this way, Jesus gives us a touchstone for determining whether or not our love for God is genuine and true, or whether we’re simply going through the motions. Jesus gives us a way to discern whether or not we are living lives of authentic discipleship. And it all hinges on how we treat other people.

A passage from the first epistle of St. John the Apostle hammers the point home:

“But if we say we love God and don’t love each other, we are liars. We cannot see God. So how can we love God, if we don’t love the people we can see?” (1 John 4:20 CEV)

“How can we love God, if we don’t love the people we can see?” How, indeed!

By linking love for God with loving other people, Jesus grounds our faith in the messy, busy, complicated stuff of everyday life. This means that following Jesus can’t be reduced to attending church on Sundays (as critically important as that is!). Following Jesus is not just about worshiping God. The real test of discipleship comes with what we do during the rest of the week.

As one deacon said when dismissing the congregation after Mass one Sunday morning: “Our worship is over, now the service begins. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Now the service begins. For loving and serving the Lord can’t be separated from loving and serving other people.

So what does that look like?

It looks like everything that happens in our lives every single day.

How we respond to the driver who cuts us off in traffic. The words we say in response to someone who hurls an insult at us. How we deal with persons who interrupt us when we’re trying to get something important done. What we do when a beggar asks for money. How we deal with the impulse to fire off something nasty on Facebook or Twitter. What we say to the telemarketer who interrupts dinner. How we deal with our feelings of frustration when we’re running late in the morning and trying to get the kids out the door to school. How we respond to someone who expresses religious or political views we find troubling or even offensive. And on and on and on it goes.

Several times each year when we renew the Baptismal Covenant, we promise anew to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbors as ourselves (BCP, p. 305). Seek and serve Christ in all persons. Even difficult persons. Even mean persons. Even persons who irritate us and make us angry. Even persons we don’t like and would prefer to avoid.

It’s as if our Baptismal Covenant is saying:

“Treat every person you meet as though he or she is Jesus Christ.”

“Even when it’s initially hard to see, look for Christ in them. Don’t stop looking, because he’s there.”

“Serve Christ in them, even if you don’t feel like it.”

“Love them as Jesus loves you by being generous, patient, and kind.”

Every interaction with another human being gives us a chance to practice our faith by loving our neighbor as ourselves. Each person we encounter during the day - starting with our families - offers an opportunity to love others as Jesus loves us. We can be grateful that everyone we meet, no matter how nice or nasty, helps us grow closer to Jesus.

One of the saints summed it up when he said: “Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me’” (St. Josemaría Escrivá).

Of course, it’s an understatement to say that all of this is challenging. Following Jesus can be difficult. Becoming holy is hard. We’re not always going to get it right. We will make mistakes. We will sometimes respond to others with selfishness instead of love.

But every time that happens we have yet another opportunity to put our faith into practice by repenting and returning to the Lord. We can always ask for help. We can always say to someone we’ve hurt or let down: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. How can we make things right?”

And we can give thanks that the call to love God and to love others is not something we do on our own. We do it together. We do it as members of the larger St. Luke’s family. And by God’s grace, we are helping each other grow more and more into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, the One who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Musical Interlude with U2: "October"

And the trees are stripped bare 
Of all they wear
What do I care? 

And kingdoms rise 
And kingdoms fall 
But you go on 
And on ...