Sunday, October 26, 2008

Today's Sermon: Matt 22:34-46

Sermon for Oct 26, 2008 – Matt 22:34-46

It’s more than a little ironic that I’m preaching today on the Great Commandment. After all, it was just a few weeks ago that I preached on the Ten Commandments, and talked about how important they were as guidelines that would keep us safely in relationship with God and with each other during perilous times.

And now I’m going to tell you how the Great Commandment, those words we just heard in the gospel, are what we need to focus on, to love God and to love each other.

So am I confused or what?

Actually, this whole series of sermons that we’ve had over the past several weeks, about our purposes as people of faith, have been all about stripping away that which isn’t essential and focusing on that which is. When we talked about anger and forgiveness, we talked about how anger gets in the way, and how we can learn to deal with each other over difficult things in a way that doesn’t turn us into a doormat, but helps us get to a healthy solution. When we talked about worship, we talked about how the things we do and say and sing in worship reinforce our understanding of the kingdom of God – it’s not about fancy ritual, it’s about modeling what Jesus Himself did. And now we’re back talking about commandments. Rules. Guidelines.

On the face of it, it may seem that Jesus is replacing the Ten Commandments with two. Sounds a lot easier, doesn’t it? If we have to think of keeping track of ten commandments every day, that’s a lot of work. So Jesus is reducing them to two: love God and love your neighbor.

I like that kind of math. Seems simple enough. I can manage two commandments.

Well, wait a minute. Maybe it’s not quite so easy.

First of all, we need to remember, earlier on in the Gospel of Matthew, way back in chapter five, Jesus told everyone “ I haven’t come to abolish the law – including those ten commandments – but to fulfill it…Therefore, whoever breaks one of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”
Gee whiz. Now it seems like I’ve got TWELVE commandments to worry about!

Sometimes it seems like we’re surrounded by rules and restrictions and guidelines, and it’s easy to forget one or two, or to think that by fulfilling one, we’re getting crosswise on another one.

If I’m supposed to be honoring my father and my mother, and I’m supposed to go to church on Sunday, but my mother is very ill so I stay home from church to take care of her, am I doing a good thing or a bad thing?

If I’m with my children in a war zone and we are attacked, and I kill the attacker to save my children’s lives, am I doing a good thing or a bad thing?

If I tell a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, am I doing a good thing or a bad thing?
Commandments are challenging . And now here we are hearing this story of the Great Commandment, and we wonder what it means.

It sounds simple enough. "`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."

It’s a boiling down of the ten commandments to just two. But, oh, what a two they are! We are supposed to love God utterly and completely. Okay, I can do that. God has given me everything – life, the world, his love, all creation. I know I’m supposed to love God, and I can do that.

But then comes the hard part: “the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The second is like it. That love of neighbor is supposed to be like our love for God. That’s a lot harder. We find it easy to love God, because God is different from our neighbor. God loves us no matter what. God loves us even though He knows exactly how messed up we can be. God loves us enough to forgive us when we make a mistake. God is always there for us, even at three in the morning when we can’t sleep because we’re worried.

My neighbor probably wouldn’t be too happy about me calling him at three in the morning because I can’t sleep because I’m worried. My neighbor might get angry with me when I make a mistake that causes her some grief. My neighbor doesn’t know me all that well, doesn’t understand that when I mess up, it isn’t because I want to cause pain, it’s because I was trying to do something good and guessed wrong. My neighbor gets ticked off at me for what seems like stupid reasons, and to top it all off, he’s got a yard sign for the political candidate I’m against!

And I’m supposed to love that neighbor just like I love God? I don’t think so!

But Jesus says it, and I trust and love Jesus. So what do I do?

The heart of ministry, the heart of being a follower of Jesus Christ, is that love. And it’s a radical kind of love and commitment. It’s not the easy kind of love. It’s not about sitting around with those who think the same way that we do, it’s about engaging with those who think differently, and listening thoughtfully and offering our view respectfully, and caring for them in the midst of it all.

At the end of our service of Holy Eucharist, Pastor Jeunee will offer a blessing drawn from the words of Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Do not repay evil for evil. The passage continues: If your enemy is hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Paul reinforces Jesus’ message throughout the Gospel. Jesus says it over and over again, both in words and in His actions: Love one another.

The message of this difficult command to love one another no matter what is made more poignant if we take a closer look at when the Gospel of Matthew was written. It is believed by most scholars that Matthew’s account was written shortly after the fall of the Temple, after the year 70. There had been many battles between the various groups in the Jewish community; there were Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and then this cult of Jesus, originally viewed as just another Jewish splinter group. The Jews were under the thumb of Rome. Everything was gone, especially the temple that had been the center of their worship life. By this time, Jesus’ followers were no longer considered Jews, they were a separate group. So Jesus’ followers in the Matthean community had less than nothing – they were attacked by both Romans and the Jewish groups. They had less than nothing. If they followed the practices of the world around them, they would have gone silent, gone into hidden communities and had not attempted to continue to spread the Word. But the fact is that they did continue to preach Jesus’ Gospel, even though it put them at great risk.

Why? Because that was an expression of what Jesus had told them to do. If you’ve got Good News, even if it’s not necessarily the news that others around you may want to hear, you preach it.

Why? Because that’s an act of love, and if Jesus tells you to love your neighbor, you want to share it with them. It’s what Paul tells the followers in Thessalonika in today’s reading: “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” That’s love.

How, then, do we, here in 2008, share the Gospel? St Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” This is our ministry: it is a ministry of love. We preach when we show love in our attention, in our care, in our actions. We show that love not only to those we have no trouble loving. We show love to those who make us angry, to those who are cruel to us, to those who view us as stupid or misguided.

It looks something like this: a teenager goes with her mother and her mother’s church group to rebuild in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She claims she is an agnostic, but she feels the need to do something to help those who have lost so much. Some of the people whom the group help are difficult, angry, exhausted people. One old woman in particular is hostile to the group. Are they there to steal her things? The group becomes a little angry; after all, they’ve spent their time and money to come down to Mississippi to help these people. Can’t she be a little grateful? But the teenager starts to play with the woman’s little dog, and to talk to her about the dog and how this elderly woman cared for the dog and her ailing son in the aftermath of the storm. She accepts the woman as she is. She sits with her and talks with her. Slowly, the woman begins to trust the group. Not because of anything the Christians, the grown-ups who were members of the group did. Because of the agnostic teenager who modeled Christ’s love better than any of us did. She preached the Good News. She expected nothing in return. She showed the love that Christ expects from us to each other, even to those who are the least lovable.

The reduction of the commandments from ten into two is not a mere division problem. It’s a call to a radical redefinition of what our lives must be, if we want to call ourselves Christian. We no longer have a discrete list of “do’s” and “do-nots,” we have a carving away of all that is superfluous, so that we know exactly what we have to do. We love, pure and simple. We love God, and we love our neighbor. Every word, every action, every thought must be tested against those few words: is this something that expresses my love of God? Is this something that shows my love of my neighbor?

Simple and hard. Simple, because it is nothing more than two phrases. Hard, because is it a call to live the glory that is Christ in all we do. But we can do it, not alone, but with Christ at our side.

The Psalm reminds us:
May the graciousness of the LORD our God be upon us; *prosper the work of our hands;prosper our handiwork.

May it be so.


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