Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Oct. 25, 2020

Posted by on Sun, Oct 25, 2020 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 21st Sunday after Pentecost

October 25, 2020

Time magazine is changing its cover for the first time in its nearly 100 years. I’ve seen those issues arrive since I was old enough to see the top of the coffee table, and always inside those red borders it said “TIME” — on this cover it says instead, “VOTE”. The editor’s explanation is all about what a critical point this election is in our country, our lives, our children’s lives, our world. Yes, it very well might be. So, Vote, please, please VOTE. Still, no matter who is elected, this will not be “the Second Coming of Christ” nor is it the Apocalypse. As crucial as voting is, more important is that we embody what Jesus commands; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And in like manner: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” No matter who wins. No matter the upheaval, the protests, the elation or desolation we feel; Love God, and love each other. That’s what we’re about, and this teaching from Jesus could not come at a more opportune time. Vital as having a good and wise president is, having a perspective of faith, loving God, and following Christ is more so. My prayer is that we can commit to this no matter how this election turns out, no matter how long this pandemic lasts.

Today as we look for scripture to relate to our lives and guide us, think of a recipe for the most marvelous soup or stew; each ingredient brings its own contribution to make the whole of it just right. Today’s ‘ingredients’ are from Leviticus, Psalm 1, and Matthew’s gospel, and flavored by the music and prayers and ‘peace-chat’ we share together. Matthew’s gospel is both similar and different from the others, and he adds his own nuances to the text. In it we hear Jesus teaching eclipse the sly intensions of his questioners, combining quotes from two Old Testament books they would have known well, into one most faithful and true way of life. He ends the answer saying, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” End of discussion! Their only response it to start splitting hairs and changing the plot against him. Let’s look at the recipe now.

In the gospel you just heard Fr. Richard read, Jesus quotes from two books of the Hebrew Bible. One is Leviticus, which Melanie read a few moments ago — and we’ll come back to that. The other is the first scripture Jesus quotes; Deuteronomy (6:5-9), which we did not have today. It says;

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise… and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The first lines form the heart of the Shema, a prayer recited morning and evening by faithful Jews. A person is to love the one God with their whole heart, soul, and mind. These teachings aren’t original to Jesus, but the pairing of them is unique, and all of God’s commandments are within Jesus’ fusion. Let’s look at the second one.

From Leviticus today, we heard the ancient origins of the other half of Jesus’ quote: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Slightly different though quite recognizable. Jesus combines two essential foundational texts in answer to his questioners, texts they already claim to ascribe to and cannot argue with.

Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy are part of the first five books of the bible called the Torah or the Law of Moses. The book of Deuteronomy is about how and why one would live a Godly life, about Israel’s essential response to its covenant with God. Leviticus on the other hand is essentially all about what is called ‘the Holiness Code’ (for people). It says what to do and not do, and in very detailed codified ways. Leviticus insists on the importance of a life of holiness, lived out in the context of social relationships and under God’s covenant. It is like the specific measurements of ingredients, instructions; if so, then Deuteronomy is like stirring the pot with a well-loved wooden spoon, the aroma, the mingling of flavors and how to best bring them out.

We have an echo of this in Psalm 1 we prayed today. Of such righteous people the psalmist sings, “They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” Living this code —not unlike a rule of life—makes us like those trees, and through these teachings we can draw up that water and bear fruit, un-withering. The living water of Jesus’ answer is drawn up, first from Deuteronomy; You shall love the Lord entirely, and then from Leviticus; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

What does Matthew’s gospel perspective bring to this stew? He adds something that Mark’s version of this doesn’t have. In Mark, Jesus says ‘here’s the first greatest commandment, and the second is this…’ In Matthew, Jesus says, “And the second [commandment] is like unto it.” Such a small thing, and yet a dramatic teaching and magnification. With this addition Jesus specifically says that the command to love one’s neighbor is the same as, or of equal rank or importance, as the commandment to love God. I think this is especially important to us because it undergirds our experience; that one cannot be a Christian all alone. The old monastic saying is, “Whose feet would the hermit wash?” We cannot love God without encountering how God dwells in each other. We cannot love each other—without each other. I know that sounds obvious and yet so much around us makes an idol of individualism, of self-certainty to the point of excluding those we disagree with, or feeling superior to or distinct from those less like ourselves. A soup with one ingredient, no matter how great that ingredient is, cannot nourish anyone.

How do we do it? How do we love each other in an increasingly violent polarized world? God has the real antidote, and delivers it through us. The biblical meaning of love is quite different from how we understand it. In Jesus’ day people understood love to mean less how you felt and more about what you do. Love is more action than feeling. This is ‘agape’ love, unlike brotherly love, philia, and romantic or passionate love, Eros. We hear one word for all and they blur a bit, loving is more intense than liking, we love a hobby or a movie and feel happy, we love someone close to us and feel deep connection or completeness. These are internal feelings about external things, a response to what is outside of us. It can often be passive or unreciprocated – the movie doesn’t ‘love us’ back.

The love commanded in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and by Jesus is the love of Yahweh; a faithful person’s chosen active response to God’s love. Never passive, because God’s love is also active. To love God with all one’s heart, and soul, and mind, is to respond to God, choose God, even as God loves us. There is choice and action involved, and less so our expecting to feel a particular emotion. True, agape love might at times come to be coupled with such feelings, but that’s not what we’re asked to do — such loving is a choice, not a feeling. One cannot make oneself have directed feelings. It is more rightly thought of as loving-kindness.

A man once confessed that he felt like a fraud saying the prayers about loving God, because he didn’t feel that emotion type love. God was too mysterious, great, even remote in some ways to him. He said he couldn’t reach out and touch or embrace God, no way to look the Spirit in the eyes, no way to make the images of Jesus breathe or hear his voice. He didn’t feel it for tyrants or mean-spirited people. He was not a fraud, and engaging the questions made him more faithful than he could see.

Biblical love is active loving-kindness; showing mercy, being forgiving, generous, open, tending to those in need. To show this loving kindness to strangers, is to try to treat them as those we already love with our feelings, even if they talk or dress or smell or vote in ways we dislike or frustrate us with thoughtlessness, or wield authority wrongly. Even voting can be part of that action. This agape isn’t necessarily coming in a tearful flood of love-laden emotion, it is a conscious choice we act on, a choice to be actively gracious, kind, merciful.

These two commandments are so closely tied as to be ‘like’ and equal in importance, because when we love the people of God all around us, we are loving God. Every time. And yes, sometimes we will experience the emotion of it stirring deep within us, as a response to God’s active love. Think of your pot of stew having now simmered long enough. Now ladle it out from Christ’s table within, to feed and feast with those around you in loving kindness. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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