Everything Hangs on Love, Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 29, 2017

Proper 25

[RCL] Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

An authority on the Law of Moses gives Jesus a pop quiz: name the greatest commandment. The request is not to name the top commandment of the Ten Commandments. Specifically, Jesus is to consider the 613 commandments found in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, or The Teaching, and to select the cornerstone. These commandments include 365 “negative commandments”, sometimes described as one for every day of the year, where you are ordered not to do something, like, “Do not commit murder.” Then there are 248 “positive commandments” which describe what one is to do to faithfully follow the Torah, the teaching given to Moses.

But we know this is not a casual conversation among colleagues. Matthew reminds us that Jesus silenced the Sadducees, the priests who served at the Temple in Jerusalem. They asked their thorniest question about the Torah, and Jesus aced that test. Now it is the Pharisees’ turn. We use the term Pharisee today as a term of derision; we say someone is pharisaical if he or she is hypocritical or self-righteous. But this would not have been true during Jesus’ ministry.

The Pharisees were a sect within Judaism, which worked as a social movement seeking to change society with a greater faithfulness to following the Torah. The Pharisees championed synagogue worship in addition to going to the Temple. Jesus taught faithfulness to God and worshipped in the synagogue. Many persons would likely have seen Jesus as a Pharisee or at least being in line with the Pharisees’ school of thought. So this debate is a bit of an in-house argument.

The stakes are higher though, as the Pharisees in Jerusalem see Jesus’ growing influence on the crowds, and they seem to want to shut down this movement before it goes any further. The question then comes from a place not of wanting to learn but desiring to trip up the rabbi from Galilee. Jesus immediately answers with what is the most succinct statement of everything he taught and his every action:

“‘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.”

We are not just to love God, but our neighbor, and not just God and our neighbor, but we are to love ourselves, as only then can we love our neighbors as ourselves. Everything hangs on love.

The love Jesus is talking about here cost him his life, so this is love beyond mere sentimentality or emotion. Jesus teaches about the form of love that in Greek is called agape. This is a self-giving love, which is more concerned about the other person than oneself. Agape love starts with God, and God’s love for us. With this love of God and God’s love for me, I can then begin to see other people as God sees them. I can even begin to see myself as God sees me. From this experience, I reach out in love to others with the love that begins in the very life and nature of God.

The love that is within the Trinity is not merely a feeling or emotion. And so, God’s love for your husband or wife is not dependent on his or her likes and dislikes, job, mood, or anything else so changeable. God’s love for your brother or sister does not depend on whether he or she just got on your nerves. God’s love for your co-workers does not depend on their lovability. God’s love for your friends does not depend on whether or not they let you down. God’s love for everyone else is a lot like God’s love for you. This love is a lot more dependable than you or I, even on our best days.

Love that is more concerned about others than yourself is not about self-loathing, or being abused. Real love can also come with a hard edge, for it is not loving to become co-dependent and support someone in their abuse of their own bodies with drugs—legal or illegal—or alcohol abuse. Real love can mean setting clear boundaries. Love more concerned for the other can be lived in many ways that involve standing up to abuse and not letting it continue.

The love that wants something better than abuse and acts to make changes to end such needless suffering is part of the love God has for all creation. The love of God that was in the Trinity before creation overflowed into this world of ours, and that love continues even though we are fallen and not deserving of it. This love that was in the very life of God before Creation is the love that never fails. This is the love Jesus had, so that as he died on the cross he could look out at those who killed him, as they mocked him, and say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Forgiving those who killed him was the most precarious thing an all-powerful God could do. And in these words of forgiveness from the cross, we see that God’s love is more concerned about the other than your own self.

Agape love is a decision, an act of the will. Decide to see others as God sees them. Act on this decision rather than just whether you feel the emotions of love. Do you want to experience that sort of godly love for your friends, your family, your spouse? Then the love you have for them cannot start with you and go out to them. The love you have for others must start with God. Ask God to give you this gift. Pray for God to reveal to you the way God sees these other people in your life, especially the difficult people you deal with.

Trying to decide what to do? Put agape into the equation. Should you forgive? Should you pick up the phone and make a call? Should you write a letter? Should you make a visit? Setting aside people who have a pattern of abuse that you must avoid, in the many garden-variety painful relationships in your life, the answer is love. The decision to forgive, or call, or write, or visit, or whatever it is that will make this love concrete should not depend alone on whether you have been hurt or could be hurt. The answer should depend on answering the question, “What would love do?”

This is how the ideal of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself is made real. During this sermon, perhaps you have thought of someone who has hurt you, someone with whom you have lost contact, or broken off your relationship. Trust that the Holy Spirit has been involved in this person coming to mind. If this applies to you, then love is speaking to your heart—the love of God calling you to act on agape love.

This love I am talking about is a choice, a decision, an act of the will, and it belongs in the heart of your relationship with your spouse, your children, your parents, your siblings, your friends, your co-workers. Have the courage to not simply talk of love, but to put love into action. The love God has for you is patient and kind and will never fail. Choose to share that same amazing love with the people in your life.

Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on mostly church development related topics at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (A).

 

The Benedictine tradition of community, 20 Pentecost, Proper 25 (A) – 2014

October 26, 2014

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 (or Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1); 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Thus begins the last of Jesus’ interrogations by the religious authorities in Matthew’s Holy Week narrative.

Jesus’ response was both typical and not. He begins his response in a rather predictable way: “‘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.” Here, Jesus is quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6: “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.”

Jesus then goes on to say there is a second commandment – to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Here, Jesus paraphrases Leviticus 19: “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.”

Jesus then tells the Pharisees that all the “law and the prophets,” the two major bodies of text that make up the Hebrew Scriptures, are dependent upon these two commandments.

Jesus’ juxtaposition of Leviticus 19 and the Shema is profound. The Pharisees who heard the Leviticus portion in that moment would have known the entire passage, not just the portion Jesus quoted. In the Episcopal Church, our Rite 1 liturgy includes the Summary of the Law, yet most of us fail to realize what precedes “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” which is, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.” Jesus’ teaching on prayer echoes this: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In Sister Joan Chittister’s book “The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century,” she offers a daily reading of the Rule of St. Benedict and her commentary on it. Benedict of Nursia lived in the late 5th century in Italy and set down a rule for living in community in the last days of the Roman Empire. We Anglicans have a close connection with Benedict, as monastic communities of Benedictines were very influential in pre-Reformation England. Benedict was very clear that our spiritual life was to be lived out in community – we were not to flee to the desert or hole up somewhere. We are to live in community and to worship God through communal prayer, scripture recitation (most people could not read back then) and the sacramental life.

Part of Benedict’s rule was the idea that the monastery you entered would be the monastery in which you died, and to always keep death before you as a solemn reminder of the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. Benedict knew that living in community is hard – disagreements are bound to happen, other people will annoy you and you will annoy other people. Benedict, in his wisdom, knew that if you had a disagreement with another monk or nun, our human tendency is to “cut and run” – to leave the community or relationship and find another one. Benedict, with no modern knowledge of family systems or psychology, knew that if you left the monastery without having resolved your issues with your fellow monks or nuns, invariably you would go to another monastery and – lo and behold! – have another disagreement with a monk or nun there, usually over similar issues that drove you from the prior monastery.

When this happens, history repeats itself, behavior replicates itself and there is no reconciliation or opportunity for spiritual growth. This does not produce spiritual depth – it keeps you spiritually stunted and immature. We can act pious and holy all we want, but unless we do the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation, then our faith is a sham. As Sister Joan writes: “It is so comforting to multiply the practices of the church in our life and so inconvenient to have to meet the responsibilities of the communities in which we live.”

Living in community with other people is hard. Recall Leviticus 19: “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.”

Neither the author of Leviticus, Jesus nor Benedict said this would be easy – simple perhaps, but not easy.

It’s easy to say we love our neighbors in the abstract – it is much harder to put it into practice. In fact, Jesus’ command to love our enemies is often easier. We tend to push enemies away and keep them out of our lives. It’s easy to love in the abstract, at arm’s length. It is much harder to love up close where things get messy: loving our next-door neighbor, whose dog barks incessantly and who won’t do anything about it; or members of our congregation who don’t see things our way or just bug us; or community leaders who don’t listen to our concerns; or the priest who just doesn’t get it. Well, it’s hard, isn’t it?

In each case, what makes it hard is the pride of our own petty egos that seek the self rather than the good of the other. Letting go of the ego is the way of the cross.

As Episcopalians, we inherit this Anglican/Benedictine way of being in community. Being in community means loving God and neighbor – which, by extension, means letting go of the need for fighting, vengeance and holding grudges. It is a way of spiritual transformation that calls us into becoming more Christ-like – into becoming spiritual adults.

As Sister Joan writes:

“Adulthood is not a matter of becoming completely independent of the people who lay claim to our lives. Adulthood is a matter of being completely open to the insights that come to us from our superiors and our spouses, our children and our friends, so that we can become more than we can even begin to imagine for ourselves.”

This is the transforming power of God – and it comes to us through our neighbors who are up close and in our face.

But are there neighbors with whom being in a relationship is not possible? What about those who threaten or abuse us? What about those who threaten the community?

Well, neither Jesus nor Benedict would have condoned that behavior for the sake of loving your neighbor. Loving your neighbor is not the same as indulging your neighbor. There are behaviors people inflict on us as individuals and the community that go beyond annoyances and simple grievances. Abuse, violence and threats are behaviors that cannot be tolerated for the sake of maintaining relationship. While we can reject specific behaviors and call those who threaten and abuse to repentance, they may not respond to that call. This does not mean we cannot love them – but we may need to do so from a safe distance unless and until they can do the hard work of amending their lives and actively seeking reconciliation with us.

Yes, life in community is hard work. Holding and bearing grudges prevents us from being the loving people God has shaped us to be. We cannot love God and harbor hatred for the people God loves. We cannot presume that our dislike or even hatred of another person is how God feels about that person. Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength only comes with the spiritual gift of humility to love the very people God loves too. Remember, while there are people you know who seem unlovable, there are people who feel the same way about you. None of us is lovable all the time.

It is into this reality that grace enters. When we are at our worst and most unlovable, God comes to us. That radical, undeserved, unmerited love has the power to move our hearts to love our neighbors – even the ones hardest to love. This isn’t easy work – Jesus knew that, Benedict knew that and you know it too. But we undertake it, quite imperfectly to be sure, because in doing so we experience grace, mercy and healing in action, not abstraction.

Laying down our egos, our long-nurtured grudges and resentments, and seeking the way of love is the way of the cross through which we find fullness of life in Christ.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

Faith, hope, and charity, Pentecost 19, Proper 25 – 2011

[RCL] Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 (Track 2: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1); 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Faith, hope, and charity are three of the seven virtues; the others are prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. Faith, hope, and charity are ascribed to St. Paul. Both his writings and ministry, as chronicled by the author of Acts, show that he taught and lived these three great virtues. Let’s take a look at each of them.

Faith is our heritage going back to Abraham, who was led with Sarah into the wilderness, always assured by God there was a plan and that his descendants would be like the stars of heaven. The Abrahamic journey is more than just a trip; it is a spiritual quest that still haunts us and inspires us today. We can picture them journeying through the desert, standing out under the stars at night, and wondering where they were destined to settle.

Moses, another great leader of faith, follows the path of Abraham and Sarah in his own journey from slavery to freedom with the people of Israel. The great faith expressed in the history of African Americans as they moved from slavery to freedom still shapes our church and its life today – faith that one day all people will walk together in harmony and diversity.

Faith is a great part of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus teaches us that faith like a mustard seed is sufficient. He teaches us what faith in God can do in the face of sadness and loss. And Jesus teaches us to have faith that the Father’s will be done, just as Christ himself did as he underwent the agony of the Garden on the night of his betrayal.

Faith is the dynamo of our religion, a faith that God is at work behind the headlines, in the streets and the desolate places, bringing about a plan of salvation; faith that all of us have a part in that plan; faith that one day there will be no more crying or weeping, but shouts of triumphant joy at the coming of the kingdom.

Meanwhile, practicing faith as a virtue remains an inspiration. “She is a real woman of faith.” “He may have lost his job, but he never lost his faith.” Faith, for us, is in believing there are answers to the question “Why?” And faith does not need to know the answer right now. Faith is waiting, knowing that God may have something better for us in mind.

Hope works in our lives, not because of what we do, but as the work of the Holy Spirit. The power of our faith causes us to dare to hope, even when the cynic denies it, and hope conquers our despair at the unhappiness and folly we see in the world.

Hope is framed in the things that are unseen, according to Paul. We won’t know what to hope for because we have not yet seen what it will be.

A close ally of faith, hope puts us in a place of anticipation, not silly excitement. Hope gives us our morning resolve to arise and get going because it is God’s day, and there will be something of beauty and wonder for us in it. This hope is found most profoundly in places where the future is mocked by poverty, cruelty, and indifference. It is also found in our culture among people who know their work is not in vain, that what they are doing somehow is preparing the way for the future, and that will be better because of what we do even now.

Charity is an act of love: something that burns white hot in us, again the work of the Spirit. Charity is unconditional in its application and causes us to give freely of our abundance to overcome scarcity. Charity is giving both of our treasure and talent, but also of our love for others. It places others first as an act of obedience, not second to our own needs.

Charity always has enough for others. It is what creates miracles when people in a church decide to do something for others and find an abundance of gifts for that ministry.

Charity does more than cause us to care, it causes us to care with boundaries that allow others to grow in grace, knowing they are supported by a fellowship that cares about them but will not overwhelm them.

Charity works when elaborate plans fail. It is simple in its application and does not understand complexity. It is sometimes compared to a lamp that sheds light in the darkness of human want, darkness that is the poverty of both spirit and purse.

All three of these virtues – faith, hope, and charity – are gifts of the Creator. They are not human inventions. They existed at the dawn of creation and are firmly planted by God in what it means to be human.

One can find them in today’s gospel reading in Jesus’ rabbinical response to the question put to him, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus’ response is the summary of the law: to love God and our neighbor. In a few words Jesus summarizes all the teaching of the law and the prophets and includes, by implication, faith, hope and charity.

Who could love God and not have faith in what God is doing?

Who could love God and not have hope that God’s plan of salvation is being worked out daily and that we have a part in it?

Who could love their neighbor and not feel the heat of charity in their relationships with others we are sent to serve?

Asking the question about what God commands is good; but failure to heed the response is folly. The wisdom of the world knows little of the virtues; they are often replaced by greed, cynicism, and self-love. Christians are constantly challenged by the conflict between faith, hope, and charity and the world’s wisdom.

From today’s collect, we learn again that these gifts of God may be prayed for and increased in us:

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 Download large-print version for MS Word

Written by the Rev. Ben E. Helmer
Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island. E-mail: bhelmer1247@msn.com.

To love with the word all, Pentecost 24, Proper 25 – 2008

[RCL]Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; or Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

“All.” It is such a little word, only three letters: “all.” Not some, not a portion, not a little bit, not most of, but all. It encompasses everything, everyone, no exceptions, no limits.
All.

We call it the Great Commandment or the Summary of the Law: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself.

In the Rite One Eucharist prayer, this summary of the law was recited together every Sunday. It can be beautiful to profess together our call to total love. Yet often it is a rattle prayer. We all stand there and rattle it off together without letting it permeate, challenge, or transform. Then we go through the rest of the service and out the door to our nice cars, our modern, beautiful homes, and our comfortable American lifestyles.

Notice the word used for this text is “commandment”: an imperative, not a choice. Thou shalt. Commandments are marching orders, requirements.

Around much of the country there is a movement to put a plethora of signs with the Ten Commandments along our streets on private property in reaction to the banning of the Ten Commandment signs in public places. Many of us drive past these signs every day. There it is again: “all.” Love with all. Love God with all. Love one’s neighbor with all.

What would it mean if we really tried to do that? How can we manifest that little word into our real lives? What changes would we have to make? How would we live our lives differently?

Frankly, it is a test we fail miserably. We are the Lukewarm People.

“All” means with every ounce of our being: our hearts, our minds, our souls. Let’s break that down see what it entails.

Heart. Heart is the way we love. Scripture says, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart.” So what are your treasures? Here is a definition of “treasure”: when your mind is empty, daydreaming, when you are sitting at a stoplight, standing before the kitchen sink, the last thing before falling asleep, where does your mind go? That is your treasure. It is the thing or things that fill up your heart with worry, concern, joy, and satisfaction. It is your first priority, your interest, the center of your energy and attention. Would love of God and the strangers called “neighbors” be on top of your list? Where does your heart turn most of the time?

Soul. Psyche. Spirit. The soul is difficult to define, but it can be seen as the deepest part of a human being – the core, the intangible, eternal essence of a human being. The soul of a person cannot truly be known by another; it is always in a state of being discovered. What is at the deepest core of your being, the part no one else really knows about, but the part that holds your most profound and sacred and valued essence? Is that God within you? Does that very, very deep core essence of yourself love God beyond all things, totally, insatiably, constantly, fully?

Mind. Mind is our rational, logical self, the key to understanding, reason. It is the way we think things through, the science of our hearts, our external value system, the scale upon which we weigh life. Saint Paul speaks of “putting on the mind of Christ.” To love God with our minds is not to see the world around us with the eyes of culture but the eyes of God. Mind is not faith, but mind seeks to grasp our faith with understanding. If we love God with all our minds, our value system is not based on materialism and the things that, as Jesus reminds us, “moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal.” It is a forsaking of power, possession, and popularity. The mind of God places its treasures in the Kingdom of God.

And, oh, yes: the neighbor. To love our neighbor as ourselves. “Who is your neighbor?” asks Jesus. Our neighbor is anyone who stands beside us on this small planet, our island home. Distance is no obstacle to neighbors. A neighbor is any other human being with whom we share the image of God, which is to say, all human beings. A neighbor is not based on worth, on quality of life, on intelligence or beauty, on health or sickness, on moral development or religion, on color or sexuality or geography. We are all neighbors to one another.

So what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Do we want to have enough food and shelter for basic human survival? Do we want medical care? Do we want an education? Do we want our children to flourish safely and develop into all they can be?

To love our neighbor as ourselves usually requires two things in our culture: a pocketbook and a suspension of judgment.

If you own a house much larger than you need, and you know there are people being evicted in your hometown, what does that mean in terms of loving your neighbor as yourself?

If your closet is full of new or adequate coats, hats, and shoes, and you know there are children in town without warm clothing, what does that mean in terms of the gospel?

If you buy a new car when the old one still works and others can’t even buy gas, what does that mean in terms of your total love of God?

If you eat steak and or dine out in restaurants, and you know a third of the world is starving to death, what does that mean in terms of loving your neighbor as yourself?

The list can go on and on. And we fall short.

The two great commandments are simple, but they have teeth: they are tough and costly. Basically, we don’t comply and perhaps we can’t. That is one of the beauties of God’s call; it always stretches us, pulls us from wherever we are to be more. It is like the horizon, always beckoning, never reachable.

The secret is to want to live out the commandments, no matter how poorly we actually do it. The secret is in our heart’s desiring. Do we really desire to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds and to love our neighbor as ourselves? Truth be known, many say no. We don’t mind loving God or our neighbor, but forget that little word “all.” If we, in our own lives, want to make a choice, a decision, to love God and our neighbor as God asks us, what changes would that require of us?

The answer may lie the word “hang.” “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” This word usually gets overlooked in the text. “Hang” can mean the way we put up our clothes in the closet, or it can mean what we do with the birdfeeder or the peg we put our hat upon. But in this text, the word “hang” is the same one used for “Jesus, whom you slew and hanged upon the cross.” That shifts the entire meaning of the Great Commandment, doesn’t it? To love the Lord with all our hearts and souls and minds, and to love our neighbor as ourselves is a crucifixion. It means to die to ourselves. No wonder there are so few volunteers.

To love with that little word “all” costs everything. Everything. It is the Great Kenosis: a total emptying. God asks no less. God asks everything. God asks all.

Do we dare? Can you believe there is a resurrection in our own life on the other side of that void of death, that emptying, giving, surrendering love?

All. Only “All.”

Written by the Rev. Sister Judith Schenck
The Rev. Sister Judith Schenck is a retired priest and a Franciscan Poor Clare solitary in the Episcopal Diocese of Montana. Email: sistermonk@bresnan.net.