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Proper 25 – 10/25/2020 – St. Paul’s

There are commandments that we live by. The Ten Commandments: you shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make for yourself an idol; you shall not use the Lord’s name in vain; remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy; honor your father and your mother; you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor; you shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. My math teachers had their own commandments as well: thou shall not write thy math papers in ink nor divide any number by zero. We may not remember those commandments but surely many of us remember our parents’ commandments that are etched on our minds and hearts and give us a bout of the heebie jeebies—use your manners; say please and thank you; clean up after yourself; take out the garbage; clean up your room and pick up your clothes; take a shower; treat others as you want to be treated; settle down; act your age; take that out of your mouth. But there are also commandments for parents, especially of teenagers: thou shalt not make any small talk with random strangers in line at the grocery store, for this shall affect the teen’s reputation in a negative way; and, remember thou art for transportation and money purposes only. Any other attempts at relevancy shall affect the teen’s reputation in a negative way. Commandments to live by.

I was raised on 618 commandments in the Jewish tradition. Some of those commandments, we found ways to work around. For example, while going to seminary in New York City, I learned of Eighteen miles of translucent wire that stretches across the Manhattan skyline, and most people have no idea it’s even there.

Nor why.

It’s actually called an eruv, and it’s tied to the Jewish Sabbath.On the Sabbath, which is viewed as a day of rest, observant Jewish people aren’t allowed to carry anything – books, groceries, even children – in public places (doing so is considered work). The eruv encircles much of Manhattan, acting as a symbolic boundary that turns the very public streets of the city into a private space, much like one’s own home. This allows people to freely communicate and socialize on the Sabbath – and carry whatever they please – without having to worry about breaking Jewish law.

One of the deadliest deceptions is the deception of religion. The deception of religion is thinking that when we go through certain religious rites, rituals, membership processes, or attend certain services or ceremonies, we are being spiritual.

The name for this is legalism.

Legalism is putting a set of dos and don’ts on people to follow, in the name of God, that God did not put on them. It’s a religion of added rules and regulations, standards and stipulations, codes and conduct, contrived by someone to determine who is and who is not spiritual. It’s being asked – if not forced – to measure up in a way that can be binding and brutal, discouraging and defeating. And it feels about a million miles away from anything authentic, anything life-changing, anything… freeing.

This is actually what set up the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day as we have heard over the last few weeks including in this mornings gospel—the “teachers of the law” and the group known as the Pharisees. They were very religious and considered to be the holiest people of the day. They had taken the Old Testament and calculated that it contained 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, and they lifted those out and vowed to obey every single one of them. And just to make sure that they didn’t break one of those rules, they made rules about the rules and laws about the laws! In fact, they came up with more than 1,500 additions. It is no wonder they asked Jesus to answer the question……Which commandment in the law is the greatest?

So how do rules about rules about rules play out?

To avoid taking the Lord’s name in vain, they refused to even say God’s name—even in honor and respect, worship or prayer.

To avoid committing adultery, they would lower their head whenever they passed a woman so that they wouldn’t even look at her because if they looked, they might lust. This is why the most holy of all were known as bleeding Pharisees because they were lowering their heads so much that they were always running into walls.

They also decided that on holy days, a person could eat but not cook; that you could bandage a wounded person but not apply medicine. And if you were a woman, you couldn’t look in the mirror because you might see a gray hair, and if you saw a gray hair, you might be tempted to pluck it out, and plucking out a gray hair was considered work, and you couldn’t work on that day.

What Jesus is demonstrating by his answer to their question about the greatest commandment is that Christianity is not about religion, it’s about a relationship.

When you make it about religion or legalism, then it quickly devolves into gaming the system. You can play it like a tax lawyer would. Loopholes and technicalities; the letter of the law, but never its spirit.

Jesus isn’t after a set of dos and don’ts—something that determines what you do. He is after something else.

Now, imagine a word that everyone knew but no one ever explained. Imagine if that word named an experience that everyone was supposed to have but no one was directing where to get. Imagine if everyone assumed this word referred to something that was very good, and almost everyone in the world seemed to want more of it. Imagine if that word was taken to be the summit of human experience, the distillation of all the world’s religions. And imagine if almost every popular song was about what it was like to find it, to express it, or to lose it. We have such a word. And the word is love.

All of Christianity distilled down to its essence so that maybe we’ll pause long enough to hear it.  Love.  Love God and love your neighbor.

Okay.  But what does it mean to do this?  How are we to love?  This is where, I fear, our overuse, misuse, and even abuse of the word love gets us into trouble.  We claim to love many things.  We love our favorite celebrities, movies, bands, and television shows.  We love going on vacation, or reading a well-crafted novel, or watching our favorite team play football.  We love chocolate or bacon or sushi or popcorn.

In other words, shaped as we are by Hollywood, romance novels, contemporary praise and worship music, and tabloid magazines, we tend to think of love as a feeling.  A spontaneous and free-flowing feeling that arises out of our own enjoyment, our own sense of kinship and affinity.  We don’t think of it as discipline, as practice, as exercise, as effort.  We fall in love.  We insist that love is blind, that it happens at first sight, that it breaks our hearts, and that its course never runs smooth. We talk and think about love as if we have little power or agency in its presence.

But this is not how the Bible describes love. Jesus doesn’t say, I sure hope love happens to you.  He says, Love is the greatest and first commandment. Meaning, it’s not a matter of personal affinity, feeling, or preference.  It’s not a matter of lucky accident.  It’s a matter of obedience to the one we call Lord.

Biblical love is vulnerable-making, and maybe we’d rather not be vulnerable.  Love requires trust, and we’re naturally suspicious. Love spills over margins and boundaries, and we feel safer and holier policing our borders.  Love takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation, and we are just so darned busy.

What would it cost us to take Jesus’s version of love seriously?  To practice and cultivate a depth of compassion that’s gut-punching?  To train ourselves into a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that we rearrange our lives in order to pursue it?  To pray for the kind of empathy that causes our hearts to break?  Do we even want to?

And yet this is the call.  Which means that we have a God who first and foremost wants our love — not our fear, penitence, or piety.  And we have a God who wants every one of God’s children to also feel loved.  By us.  Not shamed.  Not punished.  Not chastised.  Not judged.  But loved.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence or a mistake that Jesus inextricably links love of God with love of neighbor.  Each reinforces, reinterprets, and revives the other.  As heirs of the Incarnation, we cannot love God while we refuse to love what God loves.  We cannot love God in a disinfected, disembodied way that doesn’t touch the dirt, depth and margins of this world.  Our love is meant to be robust and muscular, hands-on and intimate.  Reaching into skin and bone and blood and tears.

Neither can we love ourselves or our neighbors in any meaningful, sustainable way if that love is not sourced and replenished in an abiding love for God.  Only God’s love is inexhaustible; if we cut ourselves off from the flow of God’s compassion, we will quickly run dry.  In other words, the motion of our hearts must be cyclical — love of God making possible and deepening our love of neighbor, and love of neighbor putting flesh and bones on our love for God.

In his beautiful commentary on this Gospel, Lutheran minister Clayton Schmit writes this: To love God with all our heart, mind, and soul seems nearly impossible when we think of love as an emotion.  How does one conjure up feelings for something as remote, mysterious, and disembodied as the concept of God?  We cannot look into God’s eyes, wrap our arms around the Spirit, or even see the face of Jesus.

Likewise, loving our neighbor is difficult. If love is merely our passive response to the person next to us, we are likely to be more often repulsed than moved to love. How can one legitimately look into the face of an enemy and feel unqualified love? It is nearly impossible.

But biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will.  Biblical love is something we do.

So what is it that we are commanded to do?  I believe the call is to follow in the footsteps of the one who stood in the presence of his accusers and enemies, and declared love the be-all and end-all.  The call is to weep with those who weep.  To laugh with those who laugh.  To touch the untouchables, feed the hungry, welcome the children, release the captives, forgive the sinners, confront the oppressors, comfort the oppressed, wash each other’s feet, hold each other close, and tell each other the truth.   The call is to guide each other home.

I would like to close with a blessing from A Black Rock Prayer Book.

The world now is too dangerous and too beautiful

for anything but love.

May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone.

Your ears, so you hear the cry of the poor.

May your hands be so blessed

that everything you touch is a sacrament.

Your lips, so you speak nothing but the truth with love.

May your feet be so blessed you run to those who need you.

And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire,

that your love, your love, changes everything.

And may the blessing of the God who created you, loves you,

and sustains you, be with you now and always.

May it be so.

Blesssing

The world now is too dangerous and too beautiful

for anything but love.

May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone.

Your ears, so you hear the cry of the poor.

May your hands be so blessed

that everything you touch is a sacrament.

Your lips, so you speak nothing but the truth with love.

May your feet be so blessed you run to those who need you.

And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire,

that your love, your love, changes everything.

And may the blessing of the God who created you, loves you,

and sustains you, and those you love and pray for

be with you now and always.

 

Invitation to the Offering

Anyone who has ever loved knows that to love is to give –

to give from the place we feel it most.

This giving may be sacrificial,

but the sacrifice is compromised if it cannot be done joyfully.

May we join together in the delight of giving?

Dedication Prayer

With what you see before us, God, we demonstrate our deepest love.
Receive our gifts – our very best – as sweet offerings before you.
May they be the blessing to others that they have been for us.  

Amen.