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 Love's Command

Sermon - 10/23/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 22:34-40

Two weeks ago, our guest preacher John Dominic Crossan, said that he realized a number of years ago that he would be preaching in churches all across the country. And that meant he only needed one sermon. And he thought, if you only have one sermon, what is the message going to be? And what is the text going to be?

And I've been pondering that ever since. Because I've got at least 20 of those "one sermon's" to give :). But if I had one text, just one text, it would have to be this text from Matthew's gospel. Well, that and Micah 6:8 -- "What does the Lord required of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God", you can't leave that out. And Galatians 3:28 -- "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, we are all one in Christ". And Isaiah 11:6 -- "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb". And Luke 4:18 -- "The spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor". And the whole letter of James. If I were to give that one sermon, it would be a long one, probably take all day long :) Fortunately not the case today.

So this text, which is on that ever-growing list of scriptures that for me are central to the gospel message, is once again with Jesus in the Temple, in the last week of his life, he's gone through a series of questions put to him by the religious leaders, and there is one final question that they give him. Matthew 22, verses 34-40:


When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Well, two commandments, so I have two questions. First, how do you command love? You can command obedience, but how do you command love? And second, why is love of God the first? Why isn't it love of neighbor, to begin with the particular?

So let me answer that first question with another question: parents, do love your children because you were commanded to do so? When you left the hospital with that little bundle of life and joy, did someone stop you and say "By the way, don't forget to love your baby"?

Or spouses, those of you who are married or have been married, do you love your spouse because you were told you have to? To turn it around, try this: think of something you have to do, some obligation, some duty, some job you have to do. Now, how do you feel about that? Do you get all warm and fuzzy every time you get to take out the garbage?

My point is, that love and command go together about as well as Duck and Husky. I would have said Duck and Buffalo, however the Buffaloes were so pitiful yesterday in the (football) game, we felt so sorry for them, we had to give them 2 points. That's why Cliff Harris ran backwards into the end-zone, it was out of compassion for his fellow football players.

So I would prefer that we not talk so much about great 'commandment', as great 'commitment', because that's really what it is. When Jesus says that to love God with all your heart, all your soul, with all your mind, that's commitment.

Recall the story of the rich man who told Jesus he had kept all of the commandments. And of course, that's no easy task, as you remember in the Torah there are 613 commandments. Kept them all, he says -- 'what else do I need to do?' Jesus said, well, you lack one little thing -- go and sell all that you have, give it to the poor, come and follow me.

We are asking people to give us a commitment as part of the Saints Alive stewardship campaign next Sunday. And we just ask for a percentage. Hopefully, for those that are able to do so, a tithe, the biblical standard of 10% or more, that should be the floor of our giving. But I know that not everyone is able to do that, so at least to work to give 1% more of your income, to move towards that goal and beyond.

Compared to what Jesus asks, that's hardly asking a lot. I worry more that we ask too little than we ask too much.

Put it all in, Jesus says to that one person who makes the mistake of asking what else can he do. And so we've learned not to ask that question :)

And here Jesus says love with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind. Not a percentage of it, not just one part of your heart, not a little bit of your soul, not 10% of your mind, but all of it. And you see, that's something that you can't command, but you can commit.

In the Jewish tradition, in fact, this isn't known as a command. This is known as the Shema, the first word from Deuteronomy 6:4, that was read earlier today. It begins "Hear", which in Hebrew is 'Shema':

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.

In other words, the commands come after the love. After that love of God. This is the heart of the Jewish faith. It's rooted in love for God, commands only come after that.

Richard Rohr, the Catholic priest, Spiritual Director, some of us are going to hear speaking in Portland later this week, says: "True religion is always about love". Always about love.

And in the Jewish tradition, one of the ways that the love for God is shown is the way in which the Torah scroll is treated as that revelation of the Word of God. If you've ever been in a Jewish traditional service, you've witnessed that -- when the scroll is brought out, it's not just treated with awe and reverence (there's that), but celebration and praise, and singing and dancing, people reaching out and touching and kissing not the scroll itself (because you never touch it) but the covering over the scroll. One of the true joys I've had in my life was that opportunity when I got to carry that scroll with a Rabbi for that route when they moved the Synagogue from one location to another. It was a wonderful celebration.

It was a wonderful celebration. There's a similar tradition within some churches, of reading from the gospel, and in a very 'high church' as we experienced on our pilgrimage to the world of Paul earlier this year, when we went to Rome and visited an Episcopal Church. In that congregation, when it came time for the reading of the gospel, one of the pastors took the Bible (very ornate, large Bible), held it up high, as I think we chanted or sung, and carried it into the center of the congregation. Those who were there won't forget, I'm sure, because there was a special lectern made out of gold, in the center, way up high, and she came and put the Bible on that and read from the gospel and then we responded in some way afterwards. It was a wonderful, beautiful tradition, but it's not our tradition. We're not exactly a high church.

And it's not one I would try to emulate, for this reason: as Dominic Crossan put it, we're not "biblians", we are "Christians". That is to say, our faith is not in the book, but in the person. Christ is our Torah, not the Bible. Christ is the primary revelation of God we know and celebrate. The Bible points us to Christ, not the other way around. And Christ points us to God.

So Jesus, as the Christ, the incarnate Word of God, shows us what it means to love God. And what he did and what he taught, and how he lived, and yes, how he died, but not only that. One of my pet-peeves is when all the emphasis is put on the death of Jesus as the meaning of God's love, as if the life of Jesus was of little consequence. You see, it's in that life, not just his death, that Jesus shows us the way of loving God with all of our heart, our soul, and our mind.

Loving God, then, is the essence of our faith. It's not about believing. For you can believe without loving, but can you love without believing? It starts with love.

At that Monday evening lecture that Crossan gave, Terry O'Casey, who is the campus pastor at Northwest Christian University asked a question, and told a story as part of the question, and the story was this (the lecture was on the Lord's Prayer): the story was about the Amish community a couple of years ago, you may remember this, when a criminally insane man shot and killed several children in an Amish school. Just an enormous tragedy. And one of the parents in that Amish community said: "We will pray for God to forgive him, even as we pray that we will forgive him". And of course the media doesn't understand, is asking how you can forgive anyone who has done something so atrocious. And he said: "We pray the Lord's Prayer every day, not just on Sunday. Not just when we come to church. Every day. We pray, 'forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us'. So how can we not pray to forgive this man?".

No one who has never been in that position can really understand what that means, nor can we expect someone to forgive someone else for something so atrocious because that is what you're supposed to do as a Christian. True forgiveness is not something that can be commanded. It has to come from a deeper place. Forgiveness is an act of love that comes from that place in our soul that can only be offered freely, not commanded. And that takes a deep spiritual practice, rooted in prayer, and opening our heart to God and seeking not just forgiveness for ourselves, but to forgive as God forgives, to love as God loves.

And when we do that, it changes us. It changes the way we see others, even how we see our enemies. That we truly can love them and see them the way that God sees them.

It's part of the powerful message that Sister Helen Prejean talks about, and she of course was here this week. And we had a chance to meet with her (the Progressive Clergy Association met with her), and she told us the story of the priest in the Louisiana prison where she became the confidant of the character played by Sean Penn in that movie Dead Man Walking. This priest had attended over one hundred executions. His role, as the Warden told him, was to help these convicted killers to get right with Jesus before they met their maker. And so he attempted to do that as best he could.

Some responded well, others not. And many were quite understandably became scared, frightened, as that time drew near. And he would always assure them, he said: "Don't worry, I will be there with you, I will help you through it, it will be OK".

Well, one of the executions was not OK. They strapped the man down to the gurney, they could not find a vein, and it became a very ugly, messy affair, he was struggling and crying out, blood is everywhere, tears running down his face, and he looks up at the priest and he says: "You said it would be OK".

After they finally succeeded in executing him, the priest went to the Warden and said: "No more. I will not be a part of your killing machine".

You see, to know the God who can redeem even a convicted killer, who laments the brutal killing of a brutal dictator like Qaddafi, who can love a drunk passed out on the street, who can show compassion for a hungry drug addict, is to know and to love a very different God from the one popularly conceived as the almighty warrior-king who may be all-powerful, but is not all-loving.

To know and to love this all-loving God is to know a love that is truly deeper than all else that is. All fear, all hatred, all anger, all violence, all vengeance.

So why is the love of God the first commitment? Would it be the same if it was reversed? Or is it the case that the true and abiding love of neighbor and even love of self is rooted in that love of God? And not only love for God, but love in God, that goes to the very depth of our soul, the ground of all that is.

And Jesus says the second commitment is like the first. It's two sides of one coin. You can't have one without the other. Indeed, the letter of James was written to show that love of God without love of neighbor is meaningless. It's worthless, it has no content to it.

In this text that is found in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Luke of course adds the story of the Good Samaritan to help explain and define who is our neighbor. But John's gospel doesn't have this story. Instead, John's gospel has the story of Jesus and Peter -- remember when Jesus asks Peter "Do you love me?". And Peter says "Yes Lord, you know I love you". And Jesus says "Then feed my sheep". And three times he asks that question.

And do you remember where in John's gospel that is? It's at the very end. It's after the crucifixion, after the resurrection. It's the last story John tells. To sum up the meaning of the gospel, of Jesus' life.

There was a picture on Facebook that I saw just recently of the back of a T-shirt that said "Love thy neighbor". And then below it, it said a bunch of things like "Love thy gay neighbor; Love thy straight neighbor; Love they unemployed neighbor; Love thy rich neighbor; Love thy Muslim neighbor; Love thy Jewish neighbor", and on and on. You see, Jesus does not say 'Love thy neighbor unless. . . . . you don't like them :). Then you're exempt. Unless, you know, they're somebody who has done something bad. Unless they are part of a different religion. Unless. . . .anything. No, just 'love thy neighbor', period.

A true story of neighborly love as seen through the eyes of a child. A woman took her children out to eat in a restaurant, and when the food arrived, the six year-old asked if he could give the prayer. And so they bowed their heads, and he prayed: God is good, God is great, thank you for the food, and I would thank you even more if Mom gets us ice cream for dessert. And liberty and justice for all. Amen".

And of course, you know, six year-olds, loud, and everyone hears, and everyone begins laughing, except for one woman. She blurts out: "That's what's wrong with this country, kids don't even know how to pray, asking God for ice cream. Why I never".

The little boy began to cry. "Did I say something wrong? Is God mad at me?". And the Mom puts her arm around her son, and says "No, that's OK". And this elderly gentleman gets up, comes to the table, bends down to his level, winks at the boy, and says "I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer". "Really?", said the boy. "Cross my heart".

And in this theatrical whisper, he said: "Too bad that woman doesn't pray for ice cream. Because a little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes".

They finished their dinner, all was well, and the waitress comes and asks "Would you like any dessert?". What's Mom going to say? :) You know, chocolate sundaes all-around :). And that little boy looks at his sundae, that he had prayed for, and he picks it up, and he takes it and hands it to the woman, and says "Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul, and mine is good already".

Building community is about healing the soul. Finding that place where we know it is good and right. Finding that place in God's love where you know your soul is good, and helping your neighbor find the same.


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