Matthew 22: 34-46
Sunday, October 23, 2011
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
One of the odd things about working in a church is that you start thinking about Christmas before the stores even deck their aisles. This week, I’ve been thinking ahead to how we will celebrate Advent and it’s also got me thinking about how we will celebrate Christmas in our home. Last year, our son wasn’t old enough to really know what was happening at all. This year, he’ll begin to absorb what Christmas is really about.
We’ll go to church, of course. We’ll talk about the baby Jesus. And, like most of you, we’ll have a Christmas tree with presents under it. But what kind of presents and how many is where it starts to get a little complicated for me. I grew up in a home where we were lavished with gifts on Christmas morning. We were not a family with a ton of extra money, since both of my parents were public educators and, later, my mom was a single-mom raising us on a teacher’s salary. But, at Christmas, you would have thought we were incredibly wealthy by the amount of stuff we had waiting for us under the tree.
I just don’t know if I want our kids to have that kind of Christmas. I think, more than anything, I want Christmas to be simple. I want them to remember things like the time we spent together as a family and the gifts we gave to others to be what they remember – not necessarily how much stuff they got.
But I’ll confess to have a small problem when it comes to making this a reality. And maybe this is what happened to my parents, too. I just want to buy my son things! I want to see his little face light up. I want to get him toys that I know he’ll really enjoy. And, since we are financially comfortable, I have the additional problem of actually being able to afford to do this!
Presenting someone I care deeply about a gift that I’ve picked out just for them is one of the many ways I can show them love. Love is powerful. Love trumps everything else. It’s hard to say no to love.
Maybe that’s why Jesus didn’t seem to hesitate for long when he answered the Pharisees question about the greatest law. The law with the greatest power, the one that trumps every other law, is the law to love. It Jesus’s mind, it wasn’t rocket science. And we certainly have no reason to believe that the Pharisees would have found it scandalous, either.
Nor is the very idea of boiling down the Law to one simple idea scandalous. Lots of other contemporary Jewish leaders were doing it. Sometimes, we Christians are so enamored with Jesus that we like to pretend like he was doing something totally off-the-wall and different than every other Jewish leader of his time. But that’s often not the case.
There are lots of stories about Jewish leaders simplifying the Law. Here’s just one. “A heathen came to Shammai [a contemporary of Jesus] and said to him, ‘Accept me as a student on the condition that you teach me the whole Law while I stand on one foot.’ Then Shammai drove him away with the measuring rod that he held in his hand. Then he went to Hillel [another contemporary of Jesus], who received him as a student, and said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; that is the whole Law; all the rest is commentary; go and learn.”
So the fact that Jesus gives an answer doesn’t make this passage stand out as special. In fact, it’s kind of amusing that Jesus doesn’t even pick one answer! The Pharisees, who are looking to trick Jesus, make it very clear that they want to know the ONE law that is greatest. But when Jesus picks not one, but TWO, laws, they don’t seem bothered in the least. Seems to me that if they were trying to discredit him, they could have said “Ah, ha! He picked two answers, not one. Nanny nanny boo boo!”
But they don’t. Why not?
I think part of why they don’t is because what Jesus is saying – that we are to love God more than anything and also love our neighbors – I think that thoe statements are so deeply true, so simply powerful, so incredibly pure and reasonable that they trumps everything else. Jesus’s answer trumps that fact that these Pharisees are trying to trap him. It trumps the fact that he doesn’t answer the question with just one answer.
It. Just. Is.
It’s true. There’s no arguing with it.
And after Jesus says this, they have another little debate about whether Jesus is the Messiah. And, finally, after scene upon scene of arguments with the religious authorities, it’s over. They walk away. Nobody ever asks him questions like this again in the gospel of Matthew. They’ve given up on debating this guy.
Now, there is one thing that Jesus does with his answer that I think is pretty intriguing.
The first answer he gives, the one that says we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind – that would have been a no brainer. It’s part of the Shema – that great piece of religious heritage that Jews taught even the youngest children. They were to recite it at least twice daily. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord with all your soul, all your strength, all your might.” It comes from Deuteronomy 6, if you’d like to look it up. It’s not new. It wouldn’t have been shocking.
But we he adds the second commandment – to love your neighbor as yourself – that would have been a little more avant garde. Not that anyone would have debated that loving your neighbor was important. It was at the core of their faith. But, at least in Matthew’s version, Jesus says that this second law is like the first one. In other words, loving your neighbor is just as important as loving God.
That means it’s a pretty big deal. A really big deal. In fact, the biggest deal you can think of.
What does Jesus know about loving your neighbor that makes him elevate it to this level of importance?
Well, these are words coming from a guy who is about to die for love.
For love of God, and for his love of what God can do in the world, Jesus is about to make the ultimate sacrifice.
For love of the people – to show them that he means business; to show them that there is more to life than just living; to show them that they can continue to make the Reign of God a reality even after he is gone; to show them that the evil, corrupt powers of their day really were bad, bad, bad…for all of these reasons, and – most of all – for love, Jesus gives up his own life.
Jesus knew some stuff about loving your neighbor. And I think one of the things that Jesus really understood at his core was this: loving your neighbor IS loving God. You can’t separate the two. God is not some abstract thought that exists out in the ether. God is not some kind, grandfatherly old man who sits on a cloud.
God is here and now. God is in every person you encounter. Every deed that is done. Every song that is sung. Every meal that is prepared. Every fight that is fought. Every candle that is lit. Every opportunity that is missed.
God is absolutely everywhere and in everything. There is no way to love God without loving all of creation.
And when Jesus spoke of love, let’s be clear: he was not speaking of flowery love poems or romantic passions or duty towards your family. Those were types of love, yes, but Matthew would have used the words eros or philia to describe these. Instead, he uses the word agape – an active, striving love. One that is contemplative, yet always moving. A love that is so deep it is unconditional.
Agape only exists when it is acted upon. You cannot have agape for your neighbor if you pass them on the street while they are in need. You cannot have agape for God if you fail to take time to bow in worship.
And this takes me back to my Christmas dilemma.
If I want to teach my children about agape at Christmas, do I do that by showering them with gifts that will break? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing a few gifts that help them know that I listen to them, I understand what will make them happy, and I want them to enjoy life. But I think that, if I fail to also teach them about the things Jesus talks about here – loving God and loving our neighbors – then I’ve missed the boat.
The allocation of our resources is one of the simplest and most profound ways we love. When we make a decision to give someone money or a gift that cost money, we are giving them part of our resources. When we give someone time – whether that’s me sitting down on Christmas morning to read books for a half-hour with my child or you coming in every Monday night to work the shelter – that’s giving someone a part of our resources.
Giving is loving. Active loving. It is the greatest thing we can do.
I don’t think Jesus tells us to love God and our neighbor because he’s trying to tell us how to stay out of hell when we die. I think he’s telling us something much more precious than that.
I think he’s telling us the secret finding salvation right here and now and for the rest of our eternal lives. I think he’s telling us how to be transformed through our living.
This tradition of loving through giving is alive and well in our congregation. Even our kids are catching on to it.
You might remember that after Vacation Bible School, the kids brought the offering that they had collected all week up to the front of the church to have it dedicated.
While we were standing at the back of the church, waiting to come forward, Nolan Soderquist pulled a five dollar bill out of his pocket and gave it to me. I said, “Nolan, what a generous gift! What should we do with it?” And he said, “I want to give it to God.” I said, “Let’s put it in the plate, then, and it will get to God.”
I learned from Nolan’s dad, Paul, that Nolan had decided to give this money to God because he had been taught to divide his income up into three parts. Nolan had earned $15 participating in as research study, so he saved five dollars, spent five dollars, and gave five dollars to God.
When Paul asked Nolan how he would get the money to God, Nolan said, “I’ll take it to church. They’ll know what to do with it.”
What we do with our money, as a church, matters because there are kids like Nolan counting on us to make sure their money gets to God. We are challenged to love God and love our neighbors – actively – with our resources.
Nolan didn’t look sad at all when he gave me his five dollars. In fact, he looked pretty darn pleased as he put it into the plate. Sometimes you hear people say we should “give until it hurts.” I prefer to think that we should “give until it feels good…and then give a little more.”
Loving feels good. Loving with our resources feels great. Coming together with a group of people who are committed to loving God and loving their neighbors feels awesome.
Now you may think that giving is supposed to hurt. You may have been taught that it’s an unsavory duty that must be done. You may think I’m being a little too newfangeled when I say that it can, and should, feel good.
Lest you think that, I want to share something St. Thomas Aquinas said in the 13th century:
Capax universi, capable of the universe are your arms when they move with love.
As capable as God are we.
When we love with all our heart, all our strength, all our mind; When we remember that loving our neighbor this way is how we love God; When we remember that there is no such thing as passive love – only love that is fully giving and active….when we remember these things, we are capable of the universe. We are as capable as God.
Not a bad deal, right?