Sunday, October 23: The Greatest Commandment

Sorry I got behind, folks! I will post October 16th soon- I seem to have misplaced the file. For now, here's a sermon on the Greatest Commandment according to Matthew, which you can read here.

Love. That’s the subject of the day. Love. The content of the greatest commandment, the moral, ethical, and behavioral ideal that faithful people are called—or more precisely, commanded, to uphold. This is the big one, as far as commandments go.

The gospel story we heard today is short on plot and long on importance. A lawyer asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest. This question, like so many posed by those associated with the Pharisees, was a trick question. The goal was to discover that Jesus had a preference for the moral law or the ceremonial law. The correct, orthodox, party line answer was to say that the whole law was equally great. After all, the law was instituted by God. No one aspect of that law could be any better or worse, and greater or lesser, than any other part of the law, because the law, according to Jewish tradition, was God’s. Jesus goes and answers this trick question with words that have been stamped on many a greeting card and embroidered on countless parlor pillows: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He goes on to add an additional commandment, a second commandment that is like the first, indeed, inextricably linked to the first. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love. How can love be commanded? You can’t compel a kid to like brussel sprouts. You can’t force a French horn player to enjoy rap music. And you can’t demand that someone feel affection for you. Isn’t love the heart of all that is romantic? Or if you’re a bit of a cynic, maybe you understand love to be the result of a chemical reaction in the brain—simply the consequence of a particular set of electrical fireworks going off in the mind.

If our definition of love is that it is a mysterious feeling, explained either by romance or science, then this scripture, this greatest commandment, is troublesome. But as Christians, our definition of love cannot be solely rooted in emotions. Emotions, in and of themselves, are not bad. Bursting with wonderful feelings of love for God and for our neighbors—is a wonderful thing. It just isn’t exactly what Jesus was talking about when he commanded to love with all our soul and all our mind. Even the part of this greatest commandment that demands that we love God with all our hearts is not dealing exclusively in the sphere of emotions. Love is a verb. That might sound like a cliché; so much has been said and sung about love that it is easy to sink into layers of cliché. But I mean this literally. The Greek word for love that Matthew uses in writing this gospel narrative is a verb. The greatest commandment does not pressure us to have a feeling. The greatest commandment demands that we love. Love with the totality of our hearts, souls, and minds. Love God, and love our neighbors. And this means that we are called to hard work, because authentic love is more akin to manual labor than a walk in the park.

One of my heroes of the Christian faith is Dorothy Day, the lay Catholic woman who started the Catholic Worker in the early 20th century. Our own Come and Be Fed program is indebted to the Catholic Worker; the original community of Christians in New York City more or less invented the concept of the Soup Kitchen. The Catholic Worker movement was dedicated to witnessing Christ by strenuously practicing the virtue of love. The workers provided the basics for the destitute residents of New York City’s ghettos. They offered food, shelter, and advocacy, loudly protesting the plight of the least of these, arguing for a major reform of how the poor, disabled, and mentally ill were treated in the United States. And the core of the Catholic Worker’s motivation was the desire to live out the greatest commandment, the call to love. Dorothy Day didn’t romanticize this commandment. In her ministry, Day repeatedly referred to the words of Dostoyevsky, who wrote, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” For Dorothy Day and the members of the Catholic Worker community, loving God and neighbor meant sacrificing—laying down privilege and creature comforts for the sake of people they didn’t even know. They did more than simply feel a warm and fuzzy feeling. They loved hard enough to break into a sweat. And, quite importantly, they understood the deep interconnection of the first and second commandments. They understood that you can’t love God without loving your neighbor, and you can’t love your neighbor without loving God. Day put this another way. She said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

As Christians, we believe that love is elemental to the nature of God. The first letter of John even equates God with love. He writes, “Let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” These are strong words. The writer of this letter clearly takes seriously the importance of the greatest commandment. He recognizes that the absence of love is the absence of God.

I recently read a retelling of a very profound story in a sermon posted on the internet. The story, called The Great Hunger, was written by the Norwegian novelist, Johan Bojer. Since I have not read the story myself, I’m going to stick with the way the Professor Zersen told it. He writes,
“It happened that an anti-social newcomer moved into the village and put a fence around his property with a sign saying, “Keep Out.” He also put a vicious dog in the fence to keep anyone from climbing it. One day, the neighbor’s little girl reached inside the fence to pet the dog and the dog grabbed her by the arm and savagely bit and killed her.
The townspeople were enraged and refused to speak to the recluse. They wouldn’t sell him groceries at the store. When it came time for planting, they wouldn’t sell him seed. The man became destitute and didn’t know what to do. One day he saw another man sowing seed on his field. He ran out and discovered it was the father of the little girl. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.” The father replied, “I am doing this to keep God alive in me.”

I like this story, and what it says about love, because it doesn’t paint a warm and fuzzy portrait of love. It doesn’t teach, like so many pop songs and even some of our own beloved hymns, that love is a feeling. I think it is safe to assume that the father of the girl who was killed did not particularly like the man responsible for his daughter’s death. He most certainly did not long for the man’s friendship. He quite understandably felt anguish and perhaps even rage toward the man who owned that vicious dog. But he acted lovingly. He loved the man in a devastatingly simple way: he planted seed in his field. That act of love was rooted in the deep faith that God is love, and failing to love is failing to receive the presence of God.
Love is the foundation for so much. Without love, grace is a sham. Without love, forgiveness is impossible. Without love, we live and move and have our being in chaos.
This active love we are called to embody with our hearts and souls and minds—this love is a commandment. We are not politely requested to act lovingly. We are not playfully cajoled to love God and neighbor. We are commanded by the very Creator of the Universe to love. This is law, sisters and brothers. God’s law. We who have tasted and seen that God is good—we must respond to God’s goodness by obeying God’s law. But we cannot live up to the expectations of this law on our own. We are not asked to love on our own. As followers of Jesus, as members of the Body of Christ, we have been given a bouquet of crucial gifts. We have been given the example and teachings of Jesus Christ. We have been given the power of the Holy Spirit. And we have been given the unparalleled gift of grace.

There is a lot of hard work to do as we endeavor to fulfill this commandment to love. But ultimately, the only way we shall be capable of following the greatest commandment is by opening ourselves up to God’s love. By the grace of God, we shall become channels of God’s own love, ordinary vessels for God’s extraordinary compassion for creation. By the grace of God, let us love.


Sunday, October 9th

If this were a story of a perfect party, a party drummed up by Martha Stewart, a party made memorable only by its gourmet cuisine, I wouldn’t know quite what to do with it. Such parties are all but foreign to me. My family history includes a number of parties that didn’t work out quite right. Sure, we had a few successes, but we seem to have a terrible track record. There was the time my grandmother literally made a VAT of potato salad for my sister’s graduation party. A week after the party, we still had three quarters of a vat of potato salad left, and my mother decided to discreetly send it down the garbage disposal while my grandmother bathed. Let this be a word to the wise: garbage disposals do not appreciate being asked to consume gallons of week-old side dishes. My mother was frantically trying to unclog the sink when my grandmother returned from her bath. Neither were terribly happy with the scene. Then there was the time my parents threw a sweet-sixteen party for my eldest sister. They decided to play it safe, and hire one police officer to patrol the parking lot of the city lodge to ensure that none of the teenagers got too rowdy. Well, the police apparently didn’t have much to do that night, because soon the police officer’s colleagues starting showing up to visit. By the time the kids’ parents came to pick them up, there were four police cars outside the party. Not that there was anything inappropriate going on—no loud music, no alcohol. But all the parents who saw the squad cars were appalled. So much for our reputation.

Parties are dangerous business. They are supposed to be fun, but so many factors threaten their carefree goal. There is the matter of food. Will we have too much, or too little? There is the matter of entertainment. Will people appreciate a game of charades? What if no one likes the band? And then there is the matter of invitations. Who’s in, and who’s out? Do we risk hurting the feelings of those who do not make the cut? And what if no one comes? Then what?

The parable set forth by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew unfolds within the ordinary context of a domestic party. A King wants to honor his son and daughter-in-law with a Wedding Banquet. Immediately, what should be a joyous occasion takes a terrible turn. The invited guests refuse to show up. The King sends out his slaves to plead with the guests to come. He encourages the slaves to describe the feast he has prepared— and this is no shabby feast. The guests of this party will dine on oxen and calf—the finest meats available. But the messenger slaves are treated with unconscionable violence. Some are even murdered. This celebratory feast is transformed into a violent rejection. The enraged King returns violence for violence, sending his troops to decimate the cities of the offenders—even as his dinner still simmers over the fire! And then he devises a new plan to populate his party. He tells his slaves to invite anyone and everyone they find on the street to come to the wedding banquet. Since the ones who had appeared worthy turned out to be disinterested at best and violent at worst, the King tries his luck with the ordinary riff-raff, the random folks who happen to be on the street when the slaves sweep by with the invitation.

The party commences. The memory of the day’s violence must still be on the minds of the King and his slaves. But the smell of the meat is delectable. And the delight of these guests—some good, some bad—must be palpable. They didn’t know they would be attending a feast when they woke up this morning. Some probably assumed they would go hungry. I can imagine their gratitude that they have been welcomed into this opulent gala. On Wednesday I received a call from a man desperate to find dinner for his family. He didn’t know about Shared Bread. As I told him the particulars and ensured him that there would be plenty for his whole family, he sighed deeply with relief that the crisis for the day had been averted. The gift of a meal is sometimes the best invitation a person can receive. But as the guests settle into their seats, the King notices that one guest has come unprepared. He is not outfitted in a wedding robe. The King’s honor is thoroughly offended, perhaps even worse than it had been by the guests who outright rejected his hospitality. He demands that the guest be cast into the darkness and prevented from reentering the party. The story concludes with foreboding words—many are called, but few are chosen.

The thing about parables is that they utilize symbols that we don’t always understand. We live in a different context, so some of the objects that are given special meaning in Jesus’ preaching are foreign to us. The wedding robe is one such object. To our 21st century American ears, it is easy to hear “wedding robe” and assume that this means appropriate wedding attire in our context. If that is true, this is a troublesome story, particularly if we are to assume that the King in this story demonstrates something about the nature of God. If we don’t understand the meaning of the symbols in this parable, we are in danger of seeing a mean-spirited God. After all, if you invite an impoverished homeless person to attend a swanky wedding reception, you can’t very well expect her to show up in a Sax Fifth Avenue gown. We need to read this parable in context— and we know from a whole slew of biblical passages that Jesus would never condemn someone for being economically poor. Jesus blessed the poor, and handed out a fair amount of warnings to the rich.

The wedding robe is not a symbol of economic privilege. The wedding robe is a symbol of honor, of preparation, of respect. When the King’s guests donned their wedding robes, they were not only accepting his invitation, they were allowing his invitation to transform them. By clothing themselves in the wedding robes, they were doing more than just showing up. Whether they were good or bad, rich or poor, the second-string wedding guests demonstrated that they were responding fully to the unexpected invitation.

The wedding robe symbolizes the way we respond to God’s gracious invitation to the heavenly communion feast. We are all invited—we are all called—but do we take the invitation lightly, or do we let the invitation transform our very souls?

The wedding banquet guest who failed to respond fully to the gift of the feast was caught totally unawares. Jesus said that he was struck completely speechless. He had nothing to say for himself. He had shown up—wasn’t that all that was required of him?

God issues an invitation to each and every one of us to come to the table of grace and redemption. The gift of faith is extended to all. But we are called to be more than Christians in name. We are called to more than simple belief. We are called to be followers of Christ. We are called to all kinds of hard actions that are part and parcel of the Christian faith. Accepting the invitation to the feast of God and genuinely receiving the gift of faith living lives that reflect God’s grace. This is not a matter of earning salvation by doing good work. As the apostle James wrote, faith without works is dead.

Authentic faithfulness means living and loving like Jesus. Following Christ means repenting from anything that holds us back from God. Following Christ means seeking justice and righteousness. Following Christ means forgiving those who have hurt us. It means loving each and every human being with whom we come in contact. An evangelical writer once said that the Christian need only cultivate two loves: the first, for God, and the second, for whoever is standing before you at the moment. When we accept the invitation to the feast of communion, we are not joining a country club. We are committing to carrying the cross of Christ—sharing the burden of planting seeds for the Kingdom of God in a broken world.

This parable is a searing judgment—through and through. It is a reminder that we worship a God who is more than simply nice. Through Christ Jesus, God has taught us how to live— not just what to believe, but how to live. But we must recognize that in the parable, only the King had the prerogative to send away the unchanged guest. This parable does not give the go-ahead to judge other Christians whom we deem to be ungracious, unloving, or unrepentant. This parable is a reminder to each and every one of us that we are called to be gracious, loving, and repentant.

The feast to which we are all invited is a sacrament of the Kingdom of God. We experience a taste of it here, as we take and eat the bread and the cup. This meal proclaims a heavenly feast in which all are reunited and united—good and bad, enemies and friends. Be transformed by this feast, sisters and brothers. Receive the invitation and respond to it with your whole life—for the gift which we are given is life everlasting. Amen.