Sunday, October 23, 2011

The greatest commandment

A sermon for Proper 25 A on Matthew 22:34-40 
“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

I have a deep and visceral memory of hearing those words at church every week growing up on Sundays from the priests. Father Chillington, who was an ancient retired priest and read them in a shaking, gravelly voice; Dr. Tourigney, the founding rector, who declaimed them almost as a threat; Dr. Moore, who was an orthopedic surgeon and priest who I remember being very gentle. But no matter who spoke them, I remember that I loved them. The summary of the law is probably the first Bible verse I learned by heart—it’s a toss up between this and some of the “comfortable words” that were also used in liturgy each week.  

And they are our moral compass. We are as Christians fundamentally called to love God, and love our neighbor. 613 laws of the Old Testament are condensed by Jesus into two—and it’s not entirely clear whether that makes it easier or harder to follow. When our youth group was studying laws and commandments last spring, we recognized the advantages of having every aspect of your life clearly proscribed morally in the laws—look at the Leviticus text this morning, which extrapolates from “Love your neighbor” the specifics of how to do that: don’t hate your family, you’re responsible to let your neighbor know when he or she is sinning; and you shall not take vengeance against any of your people. But the very vagueness of the great commandment—and it’s really a single commandment because it’s impossible to love God if you hate your neighbor, and vice versa—requires us to again and again hold our actions, our thoughts, and our practices up against them and ask, “Does this help me love God? Does this help me love my neighbor?”

One of the questionable moral practices we’ve let Nathan do is watch TV. I’m not sure that watching TV helps him love God or his neighbor better, but if means I get a relaxed shower in the morning while he’s watching TV, I know that it helps ME love God and my neighbor better. 

We own only one DVD of a cartoon, and it’s the Pixar movie, “Up.” Nathan has grown obsessed with it and in the last month I have probably watched significant parts of it about 15 times. It’s one of the most amazing movies about love that I’ve ever seen. The first 10 minutes or so tells the love story of Ellie and Carl, from meeting when they’re about 8 until Ellie dies when they’re old and gray. I’ve probably cried 13 of the 15 times I’ve seen those first 10 minutes now. But then the rest of the movie goes beyond romantic love into love of neighbor, love of place, love of nature, and fidelity to all of them, as Carl takes off in his house lifted up by thousands of helium balloons with a young stowaway, Russell, to search for Paradise Falls, the South American icon he and Ellie had always dreamed of visiting. Misadventures ensue, during which Carl’s tag line is “None of my concern…la la la!” regarding the boy, the dog and the bird who quickly come to depend upon him. But it’s when he discovers that it is his concern that he finds joy again.  

Ellie, after her death, ends up becoming the divine character—Carl talks to her, looking up at their house as it floats over them, and reads her holy book, a scrapbook of “Stuff I’m going to do” she began when she was a child. He starts judging his actions by what Ellie would think. And what he discovers is that Ellie wants more adventures and happiness for him than he does for himself. When he is being a curmudgeon and rejecting the love of the boy, the dog, and the bird, he’s not really loving Ellie—Ellie had longed for a child, and seems to have been some sort of zoologist. It isn’t until most of the way through the movie that Carl finally embraces the boy, the dog, and the bird and in addition to giving him the strength for the big comedic finish, it allows him to let go of their house, the icon of the past that he’s been clinging to throughout the movie, as powerful an act of oblation and self-offering if I’ve ever seen. 

So if it’s in loving our neighbor that we truly love God—and Ellie—then who is my neighbor, and how do I love them? When Jesus answers that question in the Gospel of Luke, he does so with the parable of the Good Samaritan—the notion that our neighbors are surprising is part of the gospel. In the “world is flat” culture of the 21st Century, our neighbors are not just those in geographic proximity to us, but pretty much everyone in the world, because what we do here impacts them, and vice versa. Our neighbors are in Mlowa Barabarani, Tanzania, at the Church of the Epiphany in Qatar, and everywhere in between.

But in this vast and impersonal city, I wonder if it might be good to take the neighbor concept in the opposite direction. Who is physically your neighbor right now? If you’re sitting in a pew with a family member, skip over them—who are your nearest neighbors in front of you, behind you, and to your side? In thinking about it this week, I noticed that while at coffee hour people often talk mainly to their friends in the congregation, but when I look out here from the pulpit, I see that people don’t necessarily sit near their friends. Do you know the name of the people around you? Do you know their profession? Do they have children? What drew them to Epiphany? What draws them to God? What is their favorite moment in worship? Their least favorite? Favorite Bible story?

It is one thing to love our neighbors that we don’t know. That’s more of a moral position and an attitude. It’s a lot harder to love people we know, because people we know are imperfect, and it’s risky to love people—they may disappoint us, they may betray us, or they may love us back, which might be the riskiest outcome of all. But Jesus commands us to love, Now even God can’t command our emotions. But God can command our actions. God can command us to make the effort to love—it may not get to our heart, but at least with our mind and our soul we can work at loving.

I think, overall, Epiphany is a very loving church. But it’s time for us to grow. And that means loving new people. I know that some of you will hate this, and I’m sorry, but I beg you to play along for the sake of the community because your presence is a gift to us, maybe more than you know. I would love it if during the Peace today you didn’t just say “Peace” to the people around you. Introduce yourself—even if you think they know your name. And share something with them—favorite Bible story, if you’re up for a challenge, answer Jesus’ question today: “What do you think of the Messiah?”. But make that first act of love, which is to say that you are my concern. Who you are matters to me, and the better I know you, and the better I love you, the more I can love God with all my heart, my soul, and my mind. In these eight years with you, the more I have gotten to know each of you… the more I have loved you, and I have faith that you do—and will—love each other as much as I do. And that will bring us closer to God.

A friend’s preaching today on a quote from Dorothy Day, the Roman Catholic holy woman of the 20th century that I’d like to close with, and let you stew on for the rest of the day: "I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least." Let us love God deeply.

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