October 28, 2023 - 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25)
One of the most difficult parts of writing a sermon is that you have to be ready to change it due to current events, even if you’ve already gotten it written for the week. Bear with me as this is a less-polished version than the sermon I had originally written for this week.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear that Jesus is asked by a lawyer what the greatest commandment in the law is. And Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your 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.” Jesus summarized the law and the prophets in two great commandments – to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Our stewardship here on earth – that is, our responsibility to serve God with time, treasure, and talent – is guided by the love of God and neighbor. These two commandments are the foundation of all other moral obligations and ethical principles. These commandments reveal to us God’s heart and God’s character, which we are called to imitate.
So how do we respond in the face of brutality in our nation and our world? How can we – here at _____ – really make a difference in Maine or in the Middle East or in Buffalo or in __fill_in_the_blank__?
We’re told we have to love God and love Jesus and love our neighbor. And I ask… Why? Why do I have to love the people who have committed atrocities against other people? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this as I’ve gone through the discernment to ordination. I’ve spent time thinking about this as I sit with a family who is losing a loved one to cancer or to an act of violence that is unfathomable. I’ve prayed a lot. I’ve looked at the Bible. And sometimes it just doesn’t work for me… I don’t want to love others or the God who has created the people who have caused immeasurable harm and pain.
Let’s look at the verse again. This morning, I could lead us through in-depth studies on the words heart, soul, and mind. The thing is, though… that’s not necessary. Sometimes we need to get a bigger picture, and the overall meaning of the verse is easy to understand: love God with everything you’ve got. Jesus said that is the greatest commandment, although there is a second one like it.
But what is love? Where can I find this feeling of love for God or those people in whom I just cannot see a glimmer of holy?
My friends, we think of love primarily as a feeling. It’s an internal feeling we have about someone, and it takes two common forms. There’s erotic love – that which is sexually charged. That’s the kind you read in Harlequin romances, or perhaps in the Hebrew Bible stories like Song of Solomon, Kings, Chronicles, Esther, and the list goes on. (Parents, if you see your child picking up the Bible after this sermon, it’s not a bad thing!)
But there is a second kind of love, which is a deep emotional attachment. Perhaps we see it most easily in the love that parents have for their children. Eroticism isn’t present, but there are deep feelings of concern and deep emotional attachments. As parents, we never stop worrying about our children, even when we are old and they begin to worry about us. These deep emotions may also exist towards our own parents, and to a few dear friends.
So in the common English of today, I love my husband, and I love Zak, but I don’t love ____ here in the pew. There is nothing personal about this ____; I like you, I respect you, and I value you, but I don’t have the same feelings for you that I have for Brian. You may indeed be pleased about this!
When we read, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” using the English of today, it is telling us to love God like I love Brian. That’s where we can get hung up. It’s not going to happen for me. I am not married to God, to start with.
But in the culture of Jesus, the word used for love in today’s verse (ἀγάπη) had a different connotation. It was not an internal feeling, but rather what you did.
Let me say that again: Love is, first of all, what we do, not what we feel.
You see, in the Christian sense, we are all family. I am obliged to look after all of God’s creation and help them if they are in trouble. I am obliged to help ____ here in the pew, to watch his back. I might not like ____ at all, but that doesn’t matter. In a healthy Christian society, I will look after him anyway. I am attached to him as family, by my connection to the group, and it has nothing to do with feelings.
THAT is the ἀγάπη love of the New Testament. Who am I attached to? Who am I devoted to? I am totally attached and devoted to God, so I will do what is appropriate. I will do what this family relationship requires of me, and I will do it to the best of my ability. THAT is loving the Lord with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind.
Jesus said there was a second commandment like this one… You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I don’t have feelings for ____ but he is my neighbor, and so I will treat him with the same care and concern I show myself. The story of the Good Samaritan teaches us that whoever we meet is our neighbor. So I will relate to him with the best respect and the best care I can manage. I’ll never be all gooey and soft inside about him, though…
Except… that when we devote ourselves, when we seek to fulfill our obligations of compassion towards others, we are changed as we do it. There is a kind of fondness that grows, a new appreciation of a person, and even a new appreciation of God.
In loving God and watching how God loves what God has created, we get a unique sense of God’s heart and character, and Jesus tells us that we are to love in the same way. We WILL fall short. We will constantly have to remind ourselves to love, because it isn’t easy work. But being able to look at a neighbor, even one who has perpetrated great evil, and being able to say, I see the image of God at work in that person – perhaps taken over by evil – that is the intense ἀγάπη love that we are called to practice day in and day out. And in doing so, we can align what we do as stewards of God’s creation with God’s commands and priorities. Thanks be to God.