Sunday, October 23, 2011

Not Optional...

Thanks to Lindy Black, Wayne Brouwer, Kathryn Matthews Huey, Clayton Schmit, and Christopher, "The Twisted Christian," for expertise and assistance in writing this sermon.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain — that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees — as far as Zoar. The LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 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.

Matthew 22:34-46
When the Pharisees heard that he 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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This passage represents only a small part of an ongoing effort on the part of the religious and political elite to discredit Jesus, to make him contradict himself, perhaps even make him commit an act of treason. It’s said that “politics makes strange bedfellows,” and the fact that the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians, who didn’t agree about anything, ever, were working together against Jesus speaks volumes about the danger he posed to the powers that be, to the status quo.

With that said, this Pharisee, an expert in the law, who asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest, well, he must not have been having a good day.

I mean, think of it: The Law of Moses is not two, or ten, or even a hundred laws. There are, by some counts, over six hundred, and some of them can be pretty tricky. There are, of course, laws about eating: what food you can eat, what food you can’t eat; there are laws about harvesting and what kind of clothes to wear and about feasts and festivals and sacrifices and tithing and offerings and protecting against mildew, there are laws about everything! If this guy was really an expert in the Law of Moses, why, I bet he could have come up with some arcane, little-known law that hadn’t been used since King David was tending sheep!

Instead he tossed him a softball, almost as if all this lawyer wanted Jesus to do was to prove that he was Jewish. Or perhaps he wanted to see if Jesus would speak against the Law, thus committing heresy, or perhaps he expected Jesus to be the one to pull up some ancient law that no one alive had ever heard of, touting that as more important than the other six-hundred-and-change.

But when Jesus answers this legal expert, it isn’t with a clever turn of phrase; he doesn’t even really say anything new! He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and the last part of Leviticus 19:18. And most scholars agree that Jesus wasn’t even the first among teachers and rabbis one to put them together like that.

This answer isn’t even what shuts the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Herodians down. It’s what Jesus says next about the divine origin of the Messiah, the Christ.

So if he was only saying what every good Jewish male old enough to recite Scripture already knew, I have to wonder why Matthew – himself a good Jewish male – even bothered to put it in the Gospel as he wrote it.

And I hesitate to say this, because it almost sounds trite, or sentimentalized, and I tried to find a way to say it that didn’t go all Hallmark on us…

But I really think that this is here, in this specific context, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for us. And by “us,” I mean every human being on Earth who desires a closer relationship with their Creator, but who may not have been brought up in a strictly Jewish tradition, for whom “loving God and neighbor as yourself” would not have been a lifelong teaching, for whom Jesus’ answer to the lawyer wouldn’t have been a “duh” statement.

And I think it’s there, and in that context, and stated in that way, not only because the two points that Jesus make are important, but because those two points that Jesus makes are inseparable.

Loving God and loving your neighbor have a very specific meaning here. Remember that the Gospels were written in Greek, and ancient Greek had no less than three words for “love.”

The kind of love that we are perhaps most familiar with, the kind of love one feels, the kind of love that stirs our hearts and our passions, is “eros.” That word doesn’t show up in the New Testament.

Then there’s “philos,” which means a kind of brotherly love, friendship, comradeship. In the last chapter of the Gospel of John, when Jesus asked Peter three times “do you love me,” it’s how Peter kept responding. “Lord, you know I’m your friend.”

Both of those words indicate more of an emotion, a feeling, than anything else.

Emotions are complicated, of course. We are familiar with love as an emotion, but the way most Americans use the word is devoid of that kind of emotion. Much of the time, “love” is used as nothing more than an emotionally stronger word than “like.” With that kind of “love,” saying we love God, even believing that we love God, is pretty easy. I love to watch Kevin Spacey or Pauley Perrette act, I love buddy bars and coffee, I love college football and NASCAR, I love Jesus and God… you get the idea. If we can treat God as a concept, if we can make this idea of God into one where God is our buddy, a cosmic vending machine or a doting, slightly forgetful grandfather, then we can “love” God, meaning we derive as much pleasure from God as we do from a good football game or a nice cup of coffee.

Even if we acknowledge the emotional component of love – romantic or friendly kinds of love, the “eros” or the “philos,” we could still love God, to a degree. But to love God in the way that Jesus specifies in our reading today, with all our heart, mind, and soul? If we think of love as an emotion, that seems pretty much impossible. How does one conjure up feelings for something as remote, mysterious, and disembodied as the concept of God? We cannot look into God's eyes, wrap our arms around the Spirit, or even see the face of Jesus.  If we could, that might evoke in us a profound feeling of love. We might fall in love with Jesus' beauty and grace if we could know him as Mary and Martha did. But we can’t. Christ has risen, has ascended, is at the right hand of God, preparing a place for us, and we are left with the commandment to love an intangible God.

Is Jesus calling upon us to do the impossible?


The word that is used in our Gospel lesson today for how we love God and love our neighbor is “agape.” I’ve seen it described as a “passionless” kind of love, a kind of love separate from feelings, and I’m not sure I like that, but “agape” is certainly something that can, and often must, operate separate from, and sometimes counter to, our emotions.

Agape, you see, is active love. Love that is not necessarily felt, but love that is done. Love which is a verb.

English writer GK Chesterton once said of this Gospel lesson, “Jesus here tells us to love our neighbors.  Elsewhere the Bible tells Jesus said we should love our enemies.  This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.”

This love toward our neighbors is inseparable from love for God – with all our heart, soul, and mind – precisely because it is love lived-as-a-verb, an active reflection of the extravagant, abundant love God has shown for us in Jesus Christ.

This is not a surprise; in fact, the same book of Leviticus which Jesus drew from for the phrase, “love your neighbor as yourself” details for those who follow the Law of Moses just how loving your neighbor looks:

Leviticus 19:9-18 tells us that the person who loves his or her neighbor: will not reap the fields bare, but will leave some for the poor, will not steal, will not deal falsely, will not lie, will not swear falsely by God's name, will not defraud a neighbor, will not keep a laborer's wages overnight, will not “revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind,” will not render an unjust judgment, will not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, will judge the neighbor with justice, will not engage in slander, will not profit by the blood of the neighbor, will not hate the neighbor, and will not take vengeance or bear a grudge.

Yet with all of that, Jesus’ summarization of the Law is not intended to be a checklist. Rather, Jesus is laying out a worldview. The question becomes, how do we see ourselves, others, and God in this life? Jesus reminds us of the basics found in love.

I read an excerpt this week from Ernest Gordon's book, To End All Wars. It is the true account of what took place in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp made famous by the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. The camp stood at the end of the Bataan death march that so few survived. These Allied soldiers, deep in the jungles of Asia, teamed up in pairs for survival, each watching out for a buddy.

One prisoner was six-foot-three, and built like a tower of iron. His fellow captives thought, if any could come out of this alive, he would. That was before his buddy got malaria. Their captors did not want to deal with anyone who was unable to work, so this man, like all the others who became sick, was confined in a “hot house” until he succumbed to heat exhaustion, dehydration, and the collapse of his bodily systems.

The sick man was locked into a hothouse and left to die, only he didn’t. You see, every mealtime his strong buddy went out to him, and shared his meager rations. Every night, his strong buddy sneaked from the prison barracks, and brought his own thin blanket to cover the sick man.

At the end of two weeks the sick man recovered well enough to be able to leave the hothouse and return to work. He survived captivity and lived to tell about it. His buddy, however – the strong man all thought invincible – died very shortly of malaria, exposure, and dysentery. He had given his life to save his friend.

The story does not end there. When Allied troops liberated that camp at the close of the war in the Pacific, virtually every prisoner was a Christian. There was a symphony orchestra in camp with instruments made of the crudest materials. There were worship services every Sunday and the death toll was far lower than any expected – and you can chalk all this up to the silent testimony made by a strong man toward his buddy facing death.

There is much that pretends to be wise in our world but nothing can match the profound wisdom and strength of true mercy. We have received, and continue to receive, mercy beyond measure from our loving Creator. It is not a treasure to be hoarded, but a gift to be shared. Can we love others without finding that love first in God, who loves us so deeply, so exuberantly, so egregiously? Can we love God without it coming to expression in our care for others, living the words of Matthew 25? “I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in, naked and you clothed me, I was sick, and you visited me, I was in prison, and you came to me.”

Love is not a feeling, it is not the stronger tense of the word “like.” Love is a verb.

And love – for God, for our neighbor –  is not optional.

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