A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
October 23, 2011
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matthew 22:34 – 46
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “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.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
I had not exactly planned on going up. It is true that I planned the event. I was the one who pitched it to parents and confirmands, excitedly revealing how much I loved going on the ropes course. And I do. In fact, I think it is one of the best youth ministry tools available to accomplish a multitude of group building, faith-stretching experiences that would take months to accomplish on the ground.
But when I planned the event I had not yet injured my back, and certainly did not anticipate climbing the ropes with it still a bit sore and tender. That would have been, as my husband gently put it, not my smartest move. So, when we needed another person to strap in to a harness and volunteer to be a part of the first 8 to go up, I figured one of these young, agile 8th or 9th grade athletes would step up. But when the confirmands showed their nervousness and hesitated to volunteer even after a bit of prodding. I knew that God was calling me to push beyond what I had anticipated.
Since I have, in fact, done this before, I thought – no big deal. I’ll bow out if I feel any pain at all, I thought, and it’s only fair if I ask these 13 and 14 year olds to do this, I should be willing to do it as well. So, when it got to be my turn, I hoisted myself up the ladder and climbed the staples up what looked like a telephone pole in the middle of the woods – up to the platform which was 30 or 40 feet in the air. No big deal, I thought, I’ve done this before.
And then, I stood up and looked around. My breath caught in my chest. I clung to the pole a little more tightly and thought, “What the heck am I doing up here? What did I get myself into?” I gave a hesitant thumbs up to those ants who were shouting to me from the ground: “Great job Julie!” And I prepared to put a foot on the wire cable that extended 30 feet across the abyss of air below, to the next pole…
If the story we read in Matthew’s gospel this morning had happened today it would have been a tweet; Jesus boiling the Law down into a pithy 140 characters able to be texted and tweeted in one, short, powerful phrase. Not to simplify but to draw out the essence of what drives our life of faith.
It’s quite possible the lawyer didn’t think he would be able to do it – the approach and question to Jesus is a “test” – and a hostile one, really, as the Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus where the Sadducees failed. Perhaps they are trying to make him look silly, since they imagine no one could boil the 613 commandments of Jewish law into one. Perhaps they are trying to make him look bad, hoping he will emphasize one aspect of the law over another to the detriment of the whole. After all – what can one truly say in 140 characters? After all – how can one truly boil anything down to it’s essence without losing most of it’s value?
Jesus responds much as he does when tempted earlier in Matthew’s gospel by Satan himself – by quoting scripture. This saying of Jesus is quoted so often, it’s easy for us Christians to forget that Jesus didn’t make this little bit up – instead he wed two pieces of his own Jewish heritage and scripture that had not been joined before. The first, the Shema, the prelude commandment of the ten, is written on the hearts of all Jews. Jesus and his followers would have prayed these words multiple times every day, including the lawyer and the Pharisees. These are the words written on small scrolls and rolled up and hung in doorways of every Jewish home. It is the essence of Jewish-ness: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.
The second is like it, but not the same, as Jesus puts it, and is at the center of what is often called the “Holiness Code” found deep in the heart of the Torah. These chapters in Leviticus are so called because of the frequent interruption in commandments with the phrase: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…” The idea is that the holiness of God is reflected in the holiness of God’s people, and their lives are to show that holiness in action.
What God is – so we should be too. Holy, kind, loving… Loving our neighbor as ourselves.
The question asked to Jesus is one we all have asked, in some ways. What is the most important thing? What is the thing to be rooted out of our faith which stands as primary? I can recall many instances when I have been asked to boil down my faith into a nutshell – both by young believers and old, by people in our faith tradition and by people well outside of it. And this answer, given by Jesus, is well attested by others in our Judeo-Christian tradition.
There is a story of Rabbi Hillel that when a man challenged Rabbi Hillel to teach him the whole of Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel responded by saying something strikingly similar to the response that Jesus gives, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow,” he said, “this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”
The rest is commentary. It is not surprising that for humankind, we need a lot of commentary. The Leviticus verses read just a bit ago by Reverend Crawford provide some of that commentary: “you shall not render an unjust judgement, you shall not be partial to either the poor or the great, you shall not slander, you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”
Each of these in their various commands might call to mind different images in our newspapers this past week – the body of the slaughtered Khadafi, stories of assaults against women in and around Manhattan and Westchester, pictures of our ravaged earth or the protesters camping out in lower Manhattan. How exactly do we interpret, “Do not profit by the blood of your neighbor” or as it reads in another translation: “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life”?
Do we paint with a broad brush or a detailed one? Do we see this as general, referring to safety, (for instance, drive carefully, don’t pollute, keep to ourselves…) or do we see this as a reminder that everything we do has repercussions for those around us (not only should we not pollute, but we should recycle, be kind, stand up to bullys, speak out for justice.)
There is no question that the challenge of loving our neighbor is one that deserves commentary again and again as history evolves and unfolds, as new animosities arise and new struggles present themselves. We need to learn this commandment again and again as we rethink and remind ourselves who is our neighbor, and what it looks like to love them.
So too the question of loving God is one that takes rethinking and remembering. As Christians we perhaps don’t remind ourselves as often as we could those words of the first commandment. We don’t often ask ourselves, what does it look like to love God with all our heart and soul and mind. It is easier in some ways to contemplate loving our neighbor than it is to contemplate such a mysterious and elusive being in our lives as God.
In each of these commandments cited by Jesus the key word in this text is “love,” and the love named is the “agape” kind of love. If you remember your Sunday School teaching on the different words for love in the bible, you will remember that “agape” is that love that is not erotic, and not simply friendship, but instead a sacrificial, self-emptying, unconditional love. This is the kind of love that cannot be separated into only a small piece of our lives but is a kind of love that requires all of who we are – our hearts and souls and minds. It is a love that requires every bit of us. Nothing is hidden from or exempt from giving to God …or neighbor.
As if to explain the way we are to love God whole-lifedly, the Shema names those three aspects of our life with which we are supposed to love God: with our heart and soul and mind. It is a comprehensive list for good reason.
Some of us are very good at loving with one of those three. There are those who give of their hearts to both God and neighbor easily and willingly – compassion flows from them easily and freely. Perhaps those are the kind of people who regularly go on the Midnight Run or serve at HOPE. Perhaps they are a parish care visitor who finds time every week to call on their visitee and offer a kind word or a ride to church.
It may be harder for those heart-lovers to love with their mind, or consider the ways they love with their soul. Perhaps it is less compelling for them to attend adult education classes or join a bible study. Perhaps it is less easy to discuss how one’s political choice is affected by one’s faith in Christ. Perhaps it is harder to be thoughtful not only about those hungry and homeless and imprisoned we are called to love but to think about why they are hungry and homeless and imprisoned and seek to change those root causes through activism or protest: Using our minds as well as our hearts to love God and neighbor.
Or maybe it is the other way around – maybe for you it is easy to be the thoughtful, erudite Christian. Perhaps you are well read in history and theology, well versed in Christian thought from Augustine to Calvin to Barth to Bonhoeffer. It is certainly fascinating to think about philosophy and theology and world religions, but belief in God can be daunting and strange. There is certainly a way of engaging in faith that keeps living it at a distance. Sometimes it is much easier to study prayer than to get down on our knees pray. Sometimes it is much easier to theologize then to actually step into the river of belief and get your feet wet. Sometimes it is easier to think about loving God and neighbor, easier to preach about it, than it is to actually do it.
Loving with our soul might be even trickier to flesh out, since our understanding of soul is far less tangible than our heart and minds. Perhaps Jesus and his Jewish ancestors are lifting this up because they knew how our inner selves can be so easily drawn away from our God. How easy is it for us to let other desires, other fears, take up residence as the centermost thing in our lives. Is it our children, our financial security, our jobs, our homes that lodge themselves inside and become the most important thing? Is it our worry for our aging parents? Our longings for relief and rest? Is it our illness or aging body?
How do we move to a life of keeping God at the center of our soul?
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Back on the platform, I prepared to step out onto the high wire. Now, for everyone who does it, there is a different moment that tests us beyond what we expect. It may be stepping off the ladder or reaching over the platform to a hand-hold that cannot be seen. But for many, the moment when you have to let go of the pole and place all of your weight on the wire is one of pure faith. You have step from a sturdy platform to a very un-sturdy cable. You have to trust that the harness and rope will hold you if you fall. You have to trust the belayer on the ground to hold the rope if it slips. You have to put a foot out into the abyss of air that hovers beneath you. But the thing is, you cannot put a foot on the cable without letting go of the pole; you cannot do it half-way. You have to trust, you have to risk, you have to step out and put your whole weight on the wire.
It is in some ways a blessing that the love of neighbor and the love of God are so intertwined, since both give us practice for the other. When we love our God, when we begin from a relationship of closeness with our creator, when we understand that all that we are and all that we have come from God – then we begin to understand the ways that loving our neighbor is an outpouring of our love for the divine. We might begin to see God’s beauty in each and every person we meet, treating our neighbors as God’s holy one, wanting each and every person to be fed and clothed and safe.
The all-in quality of this kind of love is risky and frightening, and difficult for our western eyes to understand it. How often have you worried about a friend who became obsessed with a certain charity so that it began to consume everything in their lives? How often have you known someone who seems to give too much of themselves and your first instinct is to worry that they don’t have enough balance or that they might get burned out? In fact, I have a conversation about achieving balance in my life at least once a week.
Balance is good, it is necessary. But the challenge is that Jesus does not ask us to live a life of balance. He asks us to live a life of love. Of whole-hearted, soul-filled, thoughtful, whole-life love. There is no balanced way to love. There is no way to put just one foot on the wire. There is no way to love half-way.
There is a great quote from Saint Francis de Sales that goes like this, “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and (humanity) by loving. Begin as a mere apprentice and the very power of love will lead you on to become a master of the art.
The only way to learn to love, then, is to love.
We might begin by understanding our resources, our time, our talent, our money – as an outpouring of gifts from God, and letting our grip on those things loosen. Perhaps we might be able to give more away and in so doing show the love of God and neighbor that is the essence of faith.
We might begin to live as though our every action, every word, every thought has the power to harm our neighbor or keep them safe from harm, and live accordingly.
We might begin by putting down the book on prayer and putting words to thoughts – asking God for even the most incidental things, offering thanks at every joy, letting God infuse our lives in the conversation.
We might begin by not always seeking balance but becoming un-balanced in our loving, by risking it all and letting our whole selves be held in the grace and love of God.
We might begin, even now… Amen.