Sermon preached by Kit Sharp, Seminarian Intern
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Ninteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 23, 2011
A little over four years ago, I was standing in a friend’s kitchen with a man who had come most unexpectedly into my life two months before. Normally this person was calm as calm could be, but on this evening, he seemed unaccountably jittery. We had spent a delightful day together, and he had been his relaxed and easy-going self, right up until the moment we returned to the house. We were barely through the kitchen door when he abruptly turned and blurted out: “I know you’re leaving tomorrow, but before you go, I’d like to say something. You don’t need to say anything back, but I want you to know how I feel.”
At the mention of the “feel” word, all of me—heart, mind, body and soul—went immediately on high alert. I listened sweaty-palmed as this usually eloquent man began to speak haltingly, mumbling bits about feelings and thoughts and life. After a couple of minutes of trying to make sense of what he was saying, I said, “Are you asking me to marry you?” “Ah, yes, that’s it, sort of… Exactly. Yes. That is…If you’d like.”
He went on to add that he knew it was really soon, that he didn’t need an immediate answer, but he would like me to think about marrying him. My heart was beating like a mad thing, because although I knew with that “peace which passes all understanding” that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this man, there was one key word that I had not heard him say, a word which for me might be a deal—and a heart—breaker.
So I gathered my courage and asked the question, “Do you love me?”
I expected him to respond with a resounding, “Yes,” but instead he replied that he wasn’t sure, that it depended on how love is defined. In that moment, my frantically pounding heart well and truly stopped. If he could not declare his love for me, I thought, then that, as they say, would be that. But then he proceeded to tell me what love meant to him by saying if love is wanting to be with another person more than anyone else in the world; if love is wanting to spend all of your time with that person; if love is putting that other person first and wanting their happiness and well-being above all else, including one’s own needs, wants and desires; if love is staying with someone through thick and thin, side by side; if love is all those things and more, then, yes, he did love me.
Before he was halfway through his litany, what had been the all-important word for me, no longer mattered. My desire to hear him say the word “love” seemed embarrassingly shallow. What mattered was not the word itself, but his interpretation and description of love. What mattered was that we had a common understanding of the meaning of the word. What mattered was that we had a common description and a common prescription—a framework—within which to live into and out of this Love.
As we’ve heard in the Gospel readings over the last few weeks, Jesus has been teaching up a storm in Jerusalem, causing all kinds of commotion and consternation, especially among the religious leaders. His method of teaching has been primarily through parables, many of which are more like brain-teasing riddles than clear, authoritative messages. Were I one of his first disciples, my head would surely be scratched bare in confusion. No doubt I would have felt increasingly dismayed and worried. Was Jesus, the guy I had bet my entire life on, losing it? All this talk of vineyards and owners and tenants, all this discourse about rendering unto Caesar and wedding garments and outer darkness and so forth, was perplexing and disturbing. For the love of the Lord, couldn’t Jesus just once—just once—give a direct word, a straight answer, about something?
As Matthew tells us in today’s Gospel reading, the answer to this question, then as now, is yes…and no. We pick up the Gospel story when Jesus is entering the final round of his debate tournament in and around the Temple. With the Sadducees just eliminated from the running in an exchange over resurrection, only the Pharisees, the most law and fact-oriented of the three major Jewish sects, remain standing. One of their legal eagles, thinking to stump Jesus over the 613 laws in the Jewish tradition asks him, “What is the greatest commandment?”
Jesus replies not with one, but with two well-known pieces of the Torah. First Jesus recites words based on the Shema, the ancient prayer in Deuteronomy chapter 6, saying “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” But he doesn’t stop there. He goes to another favorite Hebrew law book, Leviticus, and pulls out the command we heard in today’s Old Testament reading: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I can almost see the lawyer smirking and the disciples’ shoulders sagging in disappointment when Jesus answers with these two very familiar and very broad laws. What about keeping Kosher? What about the Big Ten? What about “right” worship, about sacrifice and burnt offerings and the like?
I find myself sagging a bit, too. I want to say, “Is that it?” On the one hand, Jesus has now given the gathered crowd—and us—a direct—a clear and unequivocal—answer, a clear and unequivocal prescription; and that prescription, that commandment, is TO LOVE, to love wholly, fully, lavishly, withholding nothing. While at first glance this may sound straightforward, even simple, is there a bigger, a more complicated or more consequential interpretive challenge in the Scriptures? … Or on this earth? … Or in our own lives?
I don’t believe there is. If the description—the meaning—of love were simple and straightforward, there would be no poverty, no injustice, no war, no violence, no divorce, no abuse, no anxiety. There would be no sin. The Kingdom of God would have come. Period. End of story. But all we have to do is pick up a newspaper, or turn on a television, or travel a few short blocks, or look into our own hearts and minds and souls, to know that we are very far from the Kingdom of God, that we are light years away from a Kingdom of Love.
God saw this distance. God knew—and knows—this distance, this chasm, between the Kingdom of God and this world. Knowing this, seeing this, aching over this, God determined that only a God-sized and direct intervention could bring redemption to a chronically broken situation on the ground. God took the extreme, the ultimate, the radical, measure of becoming incarnate to show us, to demonstrate to us, what we could not get on our own, what we could not get through words, through law or commandment alone. In Jesus, God both shows us and tells us how to love and what love is.
But did we get it? Do we get it? Do we understand that our actions and our words must match up? Do we understand that we cannot tell our spouse or partner that we love them, and then betray them? Do we understand that we cannot tell our aging parents that they are cherished, only to resent their increasing dependence? Do we understand that we cannot profess to love God or each other and manipulate our friends or co-workers to serve our own agenda? Do we know with every fiber of our being that no matter what we may say about love, we cannot “love” a child with a slap or a fist?
What my now husband understood and was telling me back in our friends’ kitchen was essentially what Jesus was saying that day at the Temple in Jerusalem. With love, description and prescription are inseparable and define each other. For love to have meaning, for love to be and have truth, word and action, our being and our doing, must be paired, must be in relationship. The greatest commandment is not an either/or proposition. The only way we can hope to approximate loving our Creator God with all that we are is to love our neighbor, who is—without exception—also God’s beloved and beautiful creation. The way we live in community, the way we live with each other, matters deeply to God because each of us matters deeply to God. To love our God with all that we are, we must treat each other with the respect, dignity and integrity that we ourselves desire.
In pairing the two old laws, Jesus did something new. By verbally merging them into one commandment, by putting them in direct relationship, Jesus makes clear through words that our relationship with God and our relationships with each other are interdependent. Further, by coming to move among us to the point of death and beyond, through clear and direct actions, he transforms the law into active and living relationship, into the ever new and ever renewing Good News. The greatest news for us is that this great common framework, this Great Commandment, is not all that we have been given. In Jesus Christ, our God who is Love gives Love a face, a body and a name, describing—embodying and enacting—the prescription for Perfect Love for us, for all and for all time. Amen. Alleluia! And thanks be to God!