Sermon for Sunday, October 23, 2011 || Proper 25A || Matthew 22: 34-36
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“`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.”
On this beautiful Sunday morning sitting in the stillness and silence of this sacred space, against the backdrop of all that’s going on in our country and in our lives…all of our cares and concerns and commitments…all of our worries and anxieties…I wonder how we hear these gospel words today about love?
Does it seem too lofty an ideal—to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, and with all of our soul, and with all of our mind? Or do these words wash over us like a soothing balm that brings comfort and peace to our otherwise troubled souls? And what about loving our neighbor as our self? Does this divine imperative feel impossible and unrealistic, like some over the top, pie-in-the-sky idealism, or does it stir a tender place in our hearts that awakens us to some small ember waiting to catch fire?
And I wonder, too, if maybe a lot of us have heard these words so often over the years that we don’t even take them in anymore, don’t really hear them at all…that maybe they just sort of float right by us like one more age-worn bromide: Love God, love one another, yeah, yeah, whatever….
And yet this, God tells us in Christ, is the Great Commandment: To love the Lord our God with all of our heart, and with all of our soul, and with all of our mind—and to love our neighbor as our self. It’s not, as they saying goes, the Great Suggestion. It’s not a “wouldn’t it be pretty to think so” sort of thing, to borrow a phrase from Hemingway. It’s a commandment; a divine commandment. In fact, says Jesus, it’s the divine commandment on which hang all the law and the prophets—on which, in short, hangs everything. Including our happiness.
So I’d like to talk to you this morning about this Great Commandment, and about how it can, in fact, be great for us….how these words can energize and inspire us to live lives of freedom, joy, and blessing– rather than bearing down on us like one more burden or placating us like one more platitude. Because our God is a loving God and He gave us this commandment with the same loving and generous spirit in which He’s given us everything else we enjoy– from this crisp fall day to our friends and families to the very breath we draw and the DNA that makes each of us unique. All is gift—even, if not especially, this commandment to love.
Yet how can you command someone to love? We all know we can’t force ourselves to love someone if the feeling’s not there—even if that someone happens to be God. So forget about that idiot neighbor with whom we disagree on just about everything. We can hardly stand him much less love him, right?
But biblical love is an entirely different sort of love. Biblical love is an act of the will, not an emotion. It’s what we do, not what we feel. It is, as New Testament scholar Douglas Hare puts it, “not affection, but commitment…[it’s] a setting of the heart, something we choose to do, a way we freely choose to live our lives.” Biblical love is an active decision we make to behave in a certain way in relationship to God and in relationship to each other, whether friend or foe.
The famous 19th century psychologist and philosopher William James once said that “If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.” In the contemporary vernacular we might say “Fake it till you make it” or “Act as if” to denote the same idea. The point is that attitude follows action. You don’t wait for some sublime, mystical experience, to love God with all of your heart and mind and soul. You live your life as if nothing in this universe matters to you more than your relationship with God, and get ready to fall head over heals in love! You don’t wait until you feel warm fuzzy feelings towards your annoying neighbor before treating him with compassion and mercy. You live your life as if that annoying neighbor is your dearest friend, and get ready to feel your heart break open with compassion when you discover he is just another wounded soul like us all.
To love God with all of our heart and all of our mind and all of our soul is to put the one thing that will never let us down first in our lives…the one thing that has the power to change all other things…the one thing that never has anything less than our best interests at heart, whose love for us is absolutely, resolutely unfailing, and who will guide us and lead us through the most difficult days of our lives if we but ask. To love God with all of our heart and all of our mind and all of our soul is to live as if we really believe that only in him can we find the joy we search for in so many other pleasures and the satisfaction we look for in so many other pursuits. To love God with all of our heart and all of our mind and all of our soul is not a feeling—it is an act of the will, a decision we make, a commitment to a certain way of life. And having made that commitment there are certain things we do: We nurture and develop the relationship by spending time with Him and getting to know Him. We read what He has to say in the Scriptures, we listen to what He has to say in prayer, we worship Him in community with others, and we make sure all of his people are treated at least as well as we would treat ourselves. Especially the most vulnerable, and even the most unlovable.
“If you love those who love you,” Jesus says in another gospel, “what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” Again, Jesus isn’t talking about warm fuzzy feelings of love. He’s talking about treating every single one of God’s creatures—whether the annoying neighbor next door, the homeless woman on the subway, or the protester at Dewey Square— with fairness and mercy and compassion–if for no other reason than because we’ve made a commitment to act as if nothing in this world matters to us more than God….until, in fact, nothing does.
And when nothing does—when nothing in this world matters to us more than God– we will know a freedom and a joy unlike any we can imagine. Because when a healthy relationship with God is the most important thing in our lives, we’re set free from any unhealthy attachments to the other relationships in our lives—like to our jobs, our money, or our possessions; our friends, our family members, or our bodies. None of these relationships are wrong—it’s only when we become unduly attached to them that they become disordered, or in biblical language “idolatrous.” When a robust relationship with God is the most important thing in our lives, we know the unmitigated joy of loving and serving God by loving and serving His people—at work, at school, at church…running errands, cooking food, serving meals…giving generously of our resources and offering all that we are and all that we have to His service.
Freedom and joy…this is God’s greatest desire, God’s own dream, for each and everyone of his people…for each and everyone of us. Ever has it been, and ever will it be. But so much seems to get in the way: Our cares and concerns and commitments… our worries and anxieties …our unhealthy relationships to things we put before God rather than after. “The world is too much with us,” said Wordsworth. Indeed.
But into the stillness and silence of this sacred space, even against the backdrop of all that is going on in our country and in our lives, breaks the gracious gift of God’s Word, restoring God’s blessing to His people with the Divine Promise we know as the Great Commandment:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and all of your soul, and all of your mind—and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
God is speaking this Word to us. God is speaking this Word for us. And God is waiting to speak this Word through us, into freedom and joy. So I invite you to “fake it till you make it,” to “be the change you seek,” and to “act as if.” Then get ready to fall head over heals in love—with all of your heart, and all of your soul, and all of your mind. Amen.