Sermon for Sunday, October 26th, 2014 || Proper 25, Year A || Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8; Matthew 22: 34-46 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
I wonder how Jesus’ gospel words about love sounded to you just now? I am so aware that as we gather on this beautiful Sunday morning in the stillness and silence of this sacred space called St. Stephen’s, we’re hearing the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor against the backdrop of another week of bitter partisan politics and crazy, mindless violence: A shooting rampage in California that left two law enforcement officers dead, a hatchet wielding terrorist attack in New York that injured two more officers, and yet another episode of gun violence in a public high school—this one in Washington State—where one student was killed and four others seriously wounded.
“`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.’
Does it seem too lofty an ideal—to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind? Does this divine imperative feel impossibly unrealistic, like some over the top, pie-in-the-sky idealism, or do these words wash over you this morning like a soothing balm that brings comfort and peace to your otherwise troubled soul? Does being here, in God’s church, touch some small ember of desire in your heart that’s just aching to catch fire and burn with the love of God? And what about the commandment to love your neighbor as your self? Does it seem somehow more doable after a morning of prayer and praise and song and sacrament, all shared here in spiritual community?
Or maybe you’ve heard these words about loving God and neighbor so often that you don’t really hear them at all anymore… maybe they just sort of float right over you like one more age-worn bromide: Love God…love one another, sounding overly simplistic like the infamous words of Rodney King when he queried, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
But I hope not. I hope by the time you leave here this morning you will hear this call to love afresh, as if for the very first time. Because this 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 our neighbors as ourselves–is meant to empower us and energize us! It’s meant to be the weapon with which we are armed when we leave the sanctity and serenity of this holy place and return to the crazy, broken, out of control world out there. This Great Commandment is meant to be nothing less than our salvation.
Now I know some of us hear it with guilty consciences. After all, every week in our corporate confession we admit to God that “we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
But God didn’t give us the Great Commandment to make us feel guilty. Whatever else we may or may not know about God, we know our God is an extravagantly loving God, so please believe that He gave us this commandment with the same loving and generous spirit with which He’s given us everything else we enjoy– from this crisp fall morning, to our friends and our families, to every breath we have the privilege of inhaling, to the miracle of the DNA that makes each one of us unique. It’s all gift—even, if not especially, this commandment to love!
Yes, you say, but how can you command someone to love? Well, we all know we can’t force ourselves, or will ourselves, into feeling love for someone —even if that someone is God. But remember that biblical love is a different kind of love than what we usually think of. The kind of love Jesus is talking about in the Great Commandment isn’t something we feel, it’s something we do. It’s an act of the will, rather than an emotion. It’s a decision—a choice we make– to take certain actions and behave in certain ways in relationship to God– and in relationship to each other—that are life-giving and loving— 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 this same idea. The point is that attitude follows action. You don’t have to wait for some sublime, mystical experience to act as if you love God with all of your heart and mind and soul. It needn’t take the tongue-like flames of Pentecost for you to take the actions of one whose heart is on fire for God. Make a decision to prioritize your life as if nothing in the entire universe is more important to you than your relationship with God, and I can assure you that by God’s grace it will, in time, be true.
Likewise, don’t wait to feel good feelings about people who anger or annoy you; treat them with compassion and mercy now. Don’t wait until your heart softens with forgiveness towards people who hurt or harm you; be kind and generous with them now. Pastor David Ewart goes so far as write that, “You may actually hate your neighbor, but you will still love them in the Biblical sense if you continue to act for their well-being, don’t tell lies about them, and refuse to cut off your relationship with them.”
To love God with all of your heart and all of your mind and all of your soul is to put the One who will never let you down first in your life…the One who has the power to change everything…the One who never has anything less than your best interests at heart, whose love for you is absolutely, resolutely unfailing, and who will guide you and lead you through the most difficult days of your life if you but ask. To love God with all of your heart and all of your mind and all of your soul is to act as if you believe that by following in the footsteps of Jesus you will you find the peace you pursue in so many other past-times and the satisfaction you seek from so many other sources. To love God with all of your heart and all of your mind and all of your soul is to decide to live your life in a way that actually can make a real difference, a way that can heal bitter divisions, end mindless violence, change people’s lives, and literally transform our world so that out there looks and feels a lot more like in here.
St. Francis de Sales is said to have advised his followers that, “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so, you learn to love God and man by loving.” So when you leave the sanctity and serenity of this holy place and return to the crazy, broken, out of control and divisive world out there, I invite you to take the Great Commandment with you. Memorize it. Carry it in your heart.
Then act as if. Fake it till you make it. Be the change you seek—until you experience the unmitigated freedom and joy of loving and serving God by loving and serving God’s people—generously offering all that you are and all that you have to God’s divine service—practicing patience, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.
Unmitigated freedom and joy is God’s greatest desire for each and every one of His people. The Great Commandment is the roadmap for getting there. The Great Commandment is, indeed, our salvation. Amen.