Sermon: Love God, Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

Sermon preached at Christ Church, La Plata & Newburg (Wayside), MD on October 29, 2017

21st Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25) Year A, RCL: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:16, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-41

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.

Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

With 613 commandments to choose from, Jesus replies in the words of Israel’s creed, the Shema, found in Deuteronomy, Chapter 6, verses 4-5, and in The Book of Leviticus, Chapter 19, verse 18.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

If the Pharisees had hoped for an unorthodox reply, they were sorely disappointed.  The astonishing wisdom of Jesus silences his opponents—but he has not finished with them yet.

Many people use this gospel lesson as a way of oversimplifying our faith. Often, when the church is trying to grapple with a complicated and uncomfortable issue, we hear people, with the greatest sincerity and honesty, say something like this: “Do we really need to worry about these things.  Aren’t we just supposed to love God and love our neighbor? “  And usually the discussion pauses for a moment or two.  

Part of the problem boils down to the meaning of love in our culture.  The word “love” is often used in our culture to mean anything from, on the one hand, a person’s highly emotional response directed to another individual to, on the other hand, one person’s vague sense of good will toward another.  Often, when we use the word “Love” in religious contexts, we tend to think of this vague sense of good will.  Using this view of love, do we want to boil the essence of religion down to a combination of:

• a vague sense of good will toward our neighbor, however exclusively or inclusively we define the word “neighbor” -- we’ll return to that later; and 

• an even more vague sense of good will toward God. 

In the Bible, love is not an emotional feeling.  In the Bible, love is definitely not a vague sense of good will.  Rather, love - in biblical terms - is always something active.  Love is the active commitment to the well-being of the person or persons loved.  The commitment is always put into action. 

In our gospel lesson, when Jesus was asked this question by the Pharisee, it wasn’t a trick question.  Jews had been asking each other the same question for centuries.  “What is the core of the Torah; what is the heart of the law?”  It was a good Jewish question.  And Jesus gave the Pharisees a good Jewish answer.  Jesus’ answer wasn’t all that different and revolutionary.  Probably, the response of many of the Pharisees after Jesus’ answer was something like: “Well, that was a good answer.  He annoys us in a lot of ways, but he gave a good answer to our question: a good, mainstream Jewish answer.” 

There were similar responses to the same questions.  A famous example of one of these answers involved a rabbi named Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus.  Hillel was teaching some of his students when a Gentile came into the room and offered Hillel a bet: If Hillel could teach the Gentile the whole Torah - all of the law - while Hillel stood on one leg, the Gentile would become a Jew.  Hillel thought a moment, stood on one leg, and said:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. 

That is the whole Torah.

The rest is commentary.

Go and study. 

Jesus’ answer followed in the tradition of such responses.  Jesus told the Pharisee: “You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”   

Love of God involves an active commitment to God, a commitment that involves the whole being.  It’s not a vague feeling of good will.   

The part about loving God with “all your mind” is particularly important, particularly today.  Lately, there’s been a lot of mindless religion in our society. Mindless religion can be very dangerous.  Mindless religion can be found within any faith tradition.  No faith is immune from it.  The one common feature of mindless religion in all faith is its destructiveness.  In loving God with our whole being, it’s important to include loving God with all our minds. 

Jesus also told the Pharisee: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Love of neighbor involves an active commitment to the neighbor’s well-being, not just a vague feeling of good will.  The important thing here is how inclusive a view we have of who is our neighbor.  In Luke’s Gospel, we also find this passage where Jesus speaks of the heart of the law as loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  In Luke’s Gospel, this passage leads into the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We need to remember that, when Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, he gives us an incredibly inclusive definition of neighbor.  Our neighbor is anyone who needs us now. 

As well, Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  The “as ourselves” bit is also very important.  Many religious people have not been taught to love themselves properly.  Many have learned to think: “I’m a sinner; I’m a sinner; I’m worthless; I’m worthless;” without any real sense of self-worth as a beloved child of God.   

Many Christian believers have taken the Christian teachings about our constant need for God’s grace to be a mandate for low self-esteem.  This is a real problem, which has been noted both among pastoral counsellors in the churches and among the mental health profession in the broader community.  It’s a problem both for men and women, but it’s often more severe among women.  As Christians, we affirm that we are created by God in God’s image.  God doesn’t make junk. You’re not junk. 

Jesus challenged the people of his day - and he challenges us today as well - to:

• a loving commitment to following in God’s ways;

• a loving commitment to the well-being of our neighbor (defined as inclusively as possible); and 

• a healthy self-esteem, knowing that we are made in the image of the loving God. 

I suggest to you that Love is a Decision.  Love requires each of us and all of us to 1) Decide to Love God; and 2) to Decide to Love One Another.  It is our choice, and while we are commanded to do so, we haven’t always shown that we do what we should, have we?  But deciding to love both God our Maker and our neighbor as ourselves is our choice.  And it’s not only about choices and decisions.  It’s also about our decisions and our actions.

So here we are.  It is once again Stewardship time.  For me, Stewardship is EVERYTHING that we do after we first say, “Yes, I Believe!”  So Stewardship is NOT a vague kind of love.  You may consider your response to the call of stewardship as Time, Talent, and Treasure, but I have come to understand it differently as Self, Service, and Substance.  Self, Service, and Substance.  It sounds fresh to me and it feels a little different because 1) It is about what I give of myself -- Self, 2) any works I offer to the Church, God’s people, and the world, -- Service, and Yes, 3) Substance --Money.  Each of these are ways we use to show Love – to God, to my neighbor, to myself.  You are being invited to consider what your individual and collective mission and ministry will be as people of God working in the vineyard known to Christ Church (La Plata, MD or Wayside in Newburg, MD).  How will you choose to show love to your neighbors? 

This year’s Stewardship theme is taken from Psalm 24, verse 1: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.”  As you prayerfully discern what your response to the call of Stewardship might be, please remember this: All that we are and all that we have belongs to God.  And we belong to God not as slaves, but as children.  Last week, we heard about taxes and the coins used to pay them, and the gifts that are due to God.  Rendering to God what God has a claim on is not burdensome; it is liberation.  Because we cannot divide our love between God and our neighbor.  Because we live lives that are whole and not fragmented, and this brings us freedom.  Because, if our first and foremost priority is the service of God, our decision is made for us.

Yet you might still have issues with money: who EARNS it, who SPENDS it, HOW and WHY.  I remember that Socrates was trained as a stonecutter who never spent a day cutting stone.  His wife worked to support them and their children, so he could provide free lessons to his students.  That sounds much like Chrissie supporting us after I left my former career to discern what and where God would next lead me and us.  At first, I struggled with that, thinking I was not contributing so I had no say in the money.  I had to remember the power of our Love over money to put my feelings into perspective.

In his book, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Press, 1999), Thomas Merton wrote, <quote> "If what most people take for granted were really true -- if all you needed to be happy was to grab everything and see everything and investigate every experience and then talk about it -- I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle until now ... What a strange thing!  In filling myself, I had emptied myself.  In grasping things, I had lost everything.  In devouring pleasures and joys, I had found distress and anguish and fear." <unquote>

Steady and adequate income IS a great plus in life, but is not the primary thing.  We all know, there are too many who have too little to make life good for themselves and those they love.  The need is so great.  Too many wonder where valued work can be found, where food enough is available for their next meal, or where they might lay their head in comfort.  Money would help, but money is not the root of this story's message.

If you, like many people, feel many claims upon your time and finances and energy, then it can be freeing to realize that there is only one claim upon our lives: to serve God in joyful freedom

Typically, like the denarius from last week’s gospel, a coin is impressed with an image of the authority upon which the coin relies.  Here in the USA, coins and bills bear the picture of presidents who function as model representatives of the sovereign people.  But we, who are in the church through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, can be called the currency of God’s realm.  Each of us bears the image of our authority, our Creator.  We were received into the household of God with the sign of the Cross, and marked as Christ’s own forever.

Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


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