In this week’s gospel we again find Jesus in debate with Hebrew leaders. Today’s passage is the last of the questions put to Jesus to try to disperse the charismatic power he had among the people. The leaders knew that if they could discredit him or pose a question that he could not answer, he would no longer be a threat to them. The challenge Jesus represented to the status quo would be over.
Over the past month in the lectionary we have heard about Jesus coming out on top of every argument with different groups of established religious leaders. Today’s reading ends with the statement that no one dared asked Jesus any more questions. Those in power realized this strategy would not work and that they must take more drastic measures to get rid of the man.
The question heard today comes from a member of the Pharisees who asked Jesus, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus answered with words that observant Jews both then and now recite each morning and each evening as a part of the Shema. For Episcopalians who grew up with the 1928 Prayer Book, or now, who are familiar with rite I, Jesus answers with words that we also recognize and perhaps even know by memory.
The scripture is Deuteronomy 6: 5. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That was the first part of Jesus answer to today’s question.
The second part of Jesus’ answer also comes from Jewish law. We heard it this morning in the lesson, from Leviticus 19:18.“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Both of these parts of his answer were well known to his listeners. Perhaps what is new for them is Jesus tied these two statements together. Our love of God involves loving people too. It is the joining of our treatment of others to our love of God that Jesus stresses. By the way in these scriptures the word “love” is a verb meaning an action, not necessarily, a feeling.
Love God; Love your neighbor.
So, that’s it then, something that is easy to remember and for many something we have heard and said so many times that it is a part of our unconscious memory.
So I can sit down? Love God; Love your neighbor; that’s all I need to say?
These words are easy to remember but perhaps not quite so easy to live out or even to understand. The entire Bible, multiple commentaries, other books and sermon upon sermon have taken these commandments and wondered about them, described them, questioned their meaning and more. Who is God? Who is my neighbor? How do I demonstrate my love for God? How do I demonstrate my love for my neighbor?
I would have enough material to stay in this pulpit all morning and into the night and even then not be done! Have no fear, I am neither going to leave my message at 5 words nor speak 50,000 words this morning. Rather I am going to give one example from each part of this greatest commandment and ask you to do two things.
First for the week ahead, that is the next 7 days, I ask you to begin each morning and end each day with these words. “Love God; Love your neighbor.” This is a shortened version of what our Jewish friends use each day. I ask you to make these words the first thing in your mind as you waken and then as the last thing before you go to sleep. Love God; Love your neighbor. And then the second thing is, at some point in the week I ask you to reflect on what God has given to you as insight into the meaning of these words.
And now I will tell you my examples.
There are many different ways we can demonstrate our love of God. Being here this morning is certainly one way. Praying to God, praising him in music and words, worshiping him, asking his help, honoring him, the list goes on. Perhaps one of the best ways we love God is to appreciate what He has done for us in our lives. When we remember to thank God, we are loving Him.
This example is a true story that recently happened to me.
It took place on a Tuesday. I had had a full day going from one thing to the next. In order to have dinner on the table I stopped at Schnuck’s in the early afternoon for just a quick visit. I only needed a few things to finish up what I planned to make. I had just enough time to get the items, get them home, start the dish, and move on to my next appointment. You know the kind of day I mean. Things went well in the store. I found the items quickly and got through the check out in a timely way. I even had put the bags in the car and opened the driver’s door to sit down. When just then I heard a woman ask me if I would look at a picture she had.
The woman was about my age. She was neatly dressed in slacks and a sweatshirt, her hair styled in dread locks. There was nothing threatening about her. I paused a second, sighed to myself, and thought, ok, why not.
She had her phone out and it took a second to find the picture; there were actually 4 pictures, each of the same sight from a different angle. The pictures were of car parts; yes you heard correctly. There were a couple of doors, a frame, an engine on the ground, some metal rods pointing in all directions, plastic bits from deployed air bags. All were pieces strewn on the ground, nothing was connected to anything else. Oh, and there was blood too. A terrible accident had occurred and this was what was left.
She then told me that the car was new, one with extra safety features which caused the engine to drop straight down on impact rather than go back into the passenger part of the car.
Next she showed me a picture of a young person—in a hospital bed with so many bruises and swellings that it was difficult to say if the person was male or female. One eye was swollen completely shut. The woman showing me the pictures told me that the person in the bed was her 27 year old granddaughter who works at the Pentagon. The older woman had just returned from being with her granddaughter and said that she had 3 major injuries from the accident, her eye socket had been crushed, one knee had been deeply cut and twisted, and there were 2 broken bones in her right arm. When the grandmother left Washington DC the day before, each of the injuries was healing well. After the swelling around the eye had gone down the younger woman could see. Eventually in a few weeks more she would be fine. Her doctors were amazed and classified her as very lucky.
This was not what that woman said. Rather she said how grateful she was to God for sustaining her granddaughter. She thanked God the Father for the young woman’s eye; she thanked God the Son for her knee and God the Holy Spirit for her arm. This woman’s praise of God was genuine and from the heart. She was not overly emotional with her words, just a deep testimony of how God had loved her granddaughter and her at this terrible time.
I suppose at some point she probably thanked the doctors and emergency workers and all the rest who had helped in her granddaughters recovery but not as she told me the story. Rather her gratitude was directly to and for God. Her face seemed to shine as she talked about God and his love. This is what she wanted to tell me all along. It was an incredible few minutes for me—and to think, I could have missed it if I had not listened to her! I said my own private thank you to the Holy Spirit for causing me to stop and take a moment to say yes, I will look at your picture.
By the way—the cause of the accident which she did not tell me until we were saying our goodbyes was that the car had collided with a bear and that her granddaughter had been trapped in that wreckage for over an hour after the collision.
I don’t know that woman’s name but I can still see her face full of light and joy with recognition and praise of God’s love in this tragic situation. She is my most recent example of the commandment to Love God.
Love your neighbor.
My second example is Glen Goodman’s story. I hope you have been reading and thinking about the 4 lay people’s answers to this year’s stewardship question. “How have our hearts been opened?” They have all been wonderful and have featured a different part of our experience of Emmanuel.
Glen’s answer involved not just his heart being opened but also his eyes being opened. Glenn lives near the church. He is physically in the neighborhood. When he first moved in he noticed the indigent population but he spent his first year in the area and I quote him now, “ignoring that I was now part of a community that included all downtown dwellers, even its most needy. It was easy—often comfortable--to think of myself as a free agent, closed off to certain parts of the world around me.”
So, what did Glenn do? Well, according to him, it is not so much what he did but what call God put to him and what he learned by his responding to that call. Glenn decided to participate in Emmanuel’s sack lunch program.
Again, I quote him. “Through the simple act of my distributing lunches at the parish door once a week, many of the people I previously saw—or, rather didn’t see—every day have become part of my Champaign life. Emmanuel’s mission as a downtown church has opened my eyes and my heart to my neighbors, even those who don’t necessarily have an address.”
How has God opened your eyes and your heart and how will you respond?