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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.