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.

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