In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It seems a little ironic to me in this season of presidential debates that we have in our gospel for this morning, what some might consider a debate between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day. But truth be told, this wasn’t a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. It was another attempt on the part of the religious authorities to play gotcha with Jesus, an attempt to try and catch him saying something that they could then use to discredit him. On second thought, I guess that does sound a lot like a presidential debate. In any case, our lesson for this morning is a continuation of our lesson from last week. Last Sunday, the Sadducees wanted to discredit Jesus by asking him whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. They were trying to trap him into a no win situation, because if he said it was lawful to pay taxes to the Romans, then he would alienate the crowds who loved him and hated paying taxes to the Roman invaders. If he said it wasn’t lawful to pay taxes, then well, Jesus could be arrested by the Roman authorities for sedition. As you may remember, Jesus brilliantly dodges both attempts to corner him by saying, “Give to Caesar, what is Caesar’s give to God What is God’s.”
This week, another group of religious authorities take their shot at Jesus. This time the Pharisees ask him which of God’s commandments is the greatest and most important. Now you must understand there are 613 commandments in the Jewish law. And the Pharisees were hoping that whatever commandment Jesus chose, he would open himself up to criticism because of the 612 commandments. He didn’t choose. Once again, Jesus brilliantly moves his way out of the corner they are trying to trap him in by giving them two commandments. The Shema from the book of Deuteronomy, love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and a second commandment from the book of Leviticus, love your neighbor as yourself. By doing this rather than opening himself up to criticism, Jesus perfectly summarizes 613 laws by joining together love of God and love of neighbor. “I sought my soul, but my soul, I could not see. I sought my God, but my God alluded me. I sought my neighbor and I found all three.” (William Blake). My friends in this time of struggle, in this time of strife and division, in the midst of a tragic and deadly pandemic, and on the cusp of the most hotly contested election in memory, our gospel lesson for this morning is a reminder of our fundamental task as Christians to love God, to love our neighbor.
There’s a call to reground ourselves in this essential work. Jesus wants us to know this morning is that these two commandments are deeply intertwined. As Audrey West wrote in The Christian Century, “Do you want to know how to love God with your whole self? Practice loving your neighbor. Do you want to know how to love your neighbor? Practice loving God. Repeat, then do it again.” Yet these two simple commandments are easier said than done, aren’t they? After all, who is my neighbor and what does it mean to love my neighbor and to love God? Love in this context is not a feeling. We aren’t being commanded to feel a certain way. It isn’t about liking or even being fond of someone. In this context, love is all about commitment. When I love God, I am committed to care about what God cares about in the world. That means, as Bishop Curry says, I refuse to accept and to acquiesce to the way things are. Rather I pray and work for the way things could be.
When I love my neighbor, I am committed to their wellbeing just like I am committed to my own wellbeing. I’m committed to their wellbeing, whether I like them or not. In fact, most, especially when I don’t like them. “I sought my soul, but my soul, I could not see. I sought my God, but my God alluded me. I sought my neighbor and I found all three.”
What does it mean to love your neighbor? What does it look like? The best answer I know comes from Saint Paul and his famous passage from Corinthians that we read so often at weddings. Here Saint Paul gives us what I consider a checklist for loving one’s neighbor. A checklist for love in action. Love is patient love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, love does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes, all things, endures, all things. Paul wants us to know that this is what love as commitment looks like. In order to love God, we must strive to be kind and patient generous, unassuming, humble, and polite to everyone we encounter. It means being willing to listen to our neighbor rather than lecturing them about what we think. It means striving to be pleasant and always to speak the truth, no matter what our neighbor says or does. It means doing all these things for the people we like the least as well as the people we like the most.
How different would our nation look if we lived this way, even 10% of the time? How much better off would we be if we learn to lead with love? Did you see the article in the Wall Street Journal this past Wednesday about the Mitchell and Gates families who live next door to each other in suburban Pittsburgh? These two families are both families of five and they’re not only neighbors literally, but they’re good friends. The Mitchell’s are lifelong Democrats with a Biden/Harris sign proudly displayed in their front yard. The Gates’, are staunch Republicans with a Trump/Pence sign, proudly displayed in their yard. These two families disagree politically on just about everything, but their friendship is bigger than their politics, which means they don’t define each other by their politics or reduce each other to their political opinions. Tragically, both families were so disturbed by the amount of anger and vitriol and hatred that they were witnessing between people of different political ideologies that they felt it was necessary to put a second sign in their yards. This second sign right next to their Biden sign or their Trump sign simply said, “We love them” with a big yellow arrow pointing to their neighbor.
As Bart Gates said in the article, “Our fundamental job as parents is to be good role models for our children. We don’t see them as Democrats. They’re the Mitchells. We know there are good people who live next door.” For these two couples, this was their small way to love their neighbor. Their small way to witness to the fact that people can strongly disagree and still honor and respect, and indeed love one another.
I say this is tragic because, when did we forget this basic fact? How did we get to the place where the only thing we feel for our political opponents is contempt? If we consider ourselves Christian, then this cannot be the way we live in the world. “I sought my soul, but my soul, I could not see. I sought my God, but my God alluded me. I sought my neighbor and found all three.” My friends, ask yourself, what can I do in my own small way to love God and love my neighbor? In Greek, he word neighbor literally means ‘near me.’ In this sense, our job is to strive to love and whatever way we can, each person we encounter, each person who comes near me.
During these days of pandemic, that can be as simple as wearing a mask to protect each person who comes near me. But whatever the case, we should never underestimate the power of these small acts of love that we put out into the world. As Bishop Curry writes in his new book, love is the way. “My job is to plant seeds of love and to keep on planting them. It’s folly to think that I can know the grand plan, how my small action fits into the larger hole. All I can do is check myself again and again. Do my actions look like love? If they are truly loving then they are part of the grand movement of love in the world, which is the movement of God in the world. It is impossible to know in the moment how a small act of goodness will reverberate through time. This notion is empowering and it is frightening because it means that we are all capable of changing the world and responsible for finding those opportunities to protect and feed and grow and guide love. We can all plant seeds, though only some of us may be so lucky as to sit in their shade.” Indeed, my friends, we can all plant seeds of love. One simple encounter at a time. This is the work that God is calling us to do. No, God is commanding us to do. It is the work our world needs the most. And the only thing that will pull us out of the hole that we have dug so deeply for ourselves. As Saint Paul reminds us, “Without love I gained nothing. Without love. I am nothing.”