A sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 29, 2017
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
It is fairly common for Christians to think because Jesus says this in a controversy with the Pharisees, that he came up with it, or at least that he was saying something that they disagreed with. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus’ answer was from the scriptural text that is most important to all Jews, and certainly the Pharisees. From the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, it is known as the Shema: “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 is telling these figures of the religious establishment that he fully shares and agrees with the most essential point of their belief: that it is God and God alone that deserves reverence and obedience. In fact, in the Gospel of Luke, a young lawyer asks Jesus about how to attain eternal life, and Jesus asks the lawyer what the law says and it is the lawyer who tells Jesus exactly the words that Jesus repeats to the Pharisees. It’s not complicated, it’s not secret, it’s not innovative—it’s just very serious business.
In Luke, the young lawyer tries to justify himself, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. You’ll have to wait until that text comes up for a sermon on the Good Samaritan, however.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Note that he doesn’t say, “Act like you love the Lord with all your heart” or “be really showy with how pious you are” or “tell everybody if they don’t believe and act just like you do that they will be damned to hell.” The command is to live in God’s love—always—at all times and in all ways. Most people have a god that is far too small, a mascot god that does what they want, makes them comfortable, helps them feel justified in however they do things. That is not the One God of Scripture. The true and only God is no one’s mascot. I once calculated approximately how far a particle traveling at the speed of light would have travelled in the 13 billion years since the Big Bang—80 sextillion miles and change. All of that distance, in all directions, could fit in the palm of God’s hand. God’s love is likewise infinite and it is not subject to manipulation—by magic, or self-serving rhetoric, or use of power over others, or by any attempt to turn the Gospel upside down.
We like to duck out of our responsibility to the one God, who created everything that is and who loves even the poorest of god’s creatures, and find some kind of religious expression that will confirm our prejudices and privileges. It’s always a temptation. Jesus came to hold people to the truth—I think that is what is behind his question at the end of this lesson about the Messiah—the Pharisees were looking back at an idea of the Kingdom of God based on David the monarch of Israel from a thousand years before—Jesus says the Kingdom of God is infinitely more. Ultimately, Jesus speaking the truth and meaning it resulted in the discomfort that led to his crucifixion.
That seems like a big jump, but it’s not. Because it is not a matter of words or philosophies and discussion groups. The problem was Jesus really meant it and held people accountable to loving God in their lives and actions.
It was not a controversial or unusual thing to continue his quote from the Shema with his next sentence: “And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That quote comes from the holiness code in the Book of Leviticus, which lays out how the holy people of God are supposed to behave. Thus, it interprets what it is to love God with all your heart in terms of a person’s behavior. Loving other people and valuing their welfare every bit as much as you value your own is living the love of God. The God of heaven and earth leads us beyond what is good for us and into what is good. Abundant life is life for others, living in generosity, living in God with our entire heart, soul, mind and strength. Living this way is not a matter of being more religious or better than the ordinary—actually it is very ordinary and it isn’t optional at all. Being connected in love is what gives life—it is redirecting concern toward maintaining ourselves or our own community that causes life to shrivel.
At Calvary, we have the opportunity to live for others. Some of us walked last week in the CROP walk up in Clinton. Some of us will give contributions today for the relief of those affected by recent natural disasters in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and California. Over the next months we will have the opportunity to reflect on how our lives, our life together and our individual lives in the world of work and community, affect the well-being of others and how we can grow in compassion.
Let us pray once more our Collect for today:
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.