In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few days ago, I heard a story about a passenger in a taxi heading to National airport, who leaned over to ask the driver a question and gently tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. The driver screamed, almost lost control of the cab, nearly hit a bus, and drove up over the curb, stopping just inches from a telephone pole. Both the driver and the passenger were so stunned that for a few seconds, neither of them said anything. Then the shaken driver said, “Are you okay? I’m so sorry, but you really scared the daylights out of me!” The stunned passenger apologized to the driver and said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that a mere tap on the shoulder would startle you so badly.” The driver replied, “No, no, I’m the one who is sorry. It’s all entirely my fault. You see, this is my first day driving a cab. I’ve been driving a hearse for the past 25 years.”
Happy Halloween, everybody! That joke is my entire contribution to Halloween. So happy Halloween, or should I say, happy All Hallows Eve. On this day of tricks and treats, on this eve of All Saints Day, we are presented with a gospel that completely sums up the Christian faith. In fact, the great saints of the church, if the great saints of the church were to have a mission statement, our lesson today would be it. To love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This essential teaching is so important to Jesus, that it is included in one form or another in all four of the gospels. In Mark’s gospel, as we just heard, it takes place during a rather friendly conversation with one of the scribes. In Luke, Jesus goes on one step further and illustrates this commandment, these two great commandments, to love God and neighbor by telling the parable of the good Samaritan. In John’s gospel, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment, which is really based on these two, and he tells them that they must love one another as he loved them. And finally in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus not only gives this summary of the law to a Pharisee who wants to test him, but three chapters later in Matthew 25, he makes it even more explicit. Laying out the direct connection between loving neighbor and loving God. These verses from Matthew 25 are a central part of the beautiful iconography of the limestone reredos behind the High Altar of this Cathedral. Matt, can you perhaps bring that up for us this morning?
Here, Jesus tells his disciples that when they feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. When they love their neighbor in these ways, they are in fact, loving Him. Indeed, this commandment to love God and neighbor expresses simply and completely the heart and the soul and the spirit of Christianity. Because you can’t really love God if you’re not striving to love your neighbor. And if you do in fact, love your neighbor, then as Jesus tells us in Matthew 25, you are in fact loving God. As Saint Augustine once said, “Whoever thinks he understands the scriptures or any part of them, so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor, does not understand scripture at all.”
The problem arises when we don’t hold these two commandments together as a unity but lean on one more than another. Because to overemphasize the love of God and have little commitment to loving our neighbor is to leave religion hollow and fake and without integrity. Worship alone without service to neighbor is hypocrisy, and one of the primary reasons that so many young people want nothing to do with the church. At the same time, focusing purely on loving one’s neighbor, thinking that loving God is no more than loving one’s neighbor, is to move away from faith into a kind of humanism. To have any integrity, the church must be more than just a, another social service agency. There is no love of God without love of neighbor, but loving God is more than loving neighbor. Loving God also includes praise and thanksgiving, study, obedience, faithfulness.
My friends, a couple of weeks ago we dedicated in the Human Rights Porch of this Cathedral, the stone carving of Elie Wiesel. As I reflect on our gospel for today, I can think of few people who better exemplify what it means to love God and neighbor. If you don’t know much about Elie Wiesel, he was a Nobel Peace prize-winning author and activist who spent much of his life in the struggle for human rights. Wiesel was born in Romania in 1928 to a deeply faithful Jewish family. In 1944, when he was only 15, he and his family were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, where his mother and sister were immediately executed in the gas chambers. Elie and his father only survived because they were chosen for forced labor. Later transferred to Buchenwald, Wiesel watched his father slowly suffer and die before the camp was liberated.
As I said on the day we dedicated this carving to Elie Wiesel, Wiesel was a person of immense and deep faith. In the darkest hours of his suffering, he went on praying. In the midst of the Holocaust, as he watched the extermination of his mother and his sister, the slow death of his father, he went on praying. Angry with God, taking God to task, but never letting go. During moments that he said consumed his faith forever, Wiesel kept on praying in spite of it all. Like the biblical patriarch, Jacob, he wrestled with God, angry that God could allow the presence of so much evil. Suing God for his absence, but never letting go of God. Moreover, he spent the rest of his life fighting for human rights. Fighting to prevent what happened to his family and 6 million other Jews from ever happening again. A great defender of Israel’s right to exist, he spoke out against the oppression of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews. He spoke out on behalf of the victims of apartheid. He protested the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and Darfur. To me, he is a wonderful example of what it means in the face of terrible evil, to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. To me, he is one of God’s great saints.
Last Sunday in Leonard’s powerful sermon about blind Bartimaeus and the crowd that surrounded him and Jesus, Leonard made the point that Bartimaeus may not have been able to see, but it was the crowd who believed Bartimaeus unworthy of Jesus’ attention. It was the crowd that was blind. They didn’t understand God’s love, and so they didn’t understand that there is no one unworthy of God’s love. My friends, every single one of us who considers himself or herself to be a follower of Jesus must wrestle with and come to terms with this commandment to love God and love neighbor. There is nothing else really when it comes to Christian living. The truth is because of this deep connection between love of God and love of neighbor, there is no unacceptable person. There is only neighbor. There is no foreigner, there is only neighbor. There is no stranger, there is only neighbor. There is no unworthy political opponent, there is only neighbor. There is no enemy, there is only neighbor. Perhaps we really don’t want to hear these commandments because we know we can never fully love God and our neighbor through our own efforts alone. And so, I think a lot of us have this tendency to translate them into something simpler, something more attainable, like loving God means going to church every Sunday. And loving one’s neighbor means trying to be nice. But it would be a mistake to reduce in any way what these commands demand of us, because we are not alone.
The truth is we are all beginners when it comes to loving God and loving neighbor. As Richard Rohr says, “We’re all starting anew every day, and we’re failing anew every day. Loving as imperfect human beings keeps us in utter reliance upon the mercy, compassion, and grace of God. We can never fully succeed by ourselves. It seems that God gave us commandments that we could not obey. Perhaps this is so we would have to depend upon the Holy Spirit. This is the greatness, the goodness, the wonder, the impossibility of the gospel, that it asks of all of us something we—alone, apart, separate—cannot do. Only by living in love, in communion—God in us and we in God—do we find every once in a while, a love flowing through us, towards us and from us that is bigger than our own. And we surely know it’s not ‘we’ who are doing it.” So come Holy Spirit, and teach us how to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Walk with us, Lord Jesus, and show us how to love our neighbor as you loved us. Be merciful to us, creator God, and forgive us when we fail to live up to what You command. For You give us the way to life abundant, but it is only by Your grace that we ever attain it.