– by Cassandra Erkens, Certified Lay Preacher –
You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. That is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.
– Ex 22:20-26/1 Thes 1:5c-10/Mt 22:34-40 (148) Pss II 30 Mon
Tonight’s readings are a perfect bundle: the first reading from Exodus poses the problem regarding how humans often treat each other, especially the underprivileged; In the second reading, St. Paul congratulates the Thessalonians on the positive effects of their example of loving one another as scripture commanded them to do, and then in the Gospel, Jesus publicly affirms the messages they have been gathering from the old testament in his own words. All three of tonight’s readings align with the one true rule for all of Christianity: Love. Specifically…
Love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment in the journey of the faithful.
I don’t know about you, but I’m still figuring this love thing out. Dave and I will be celebrating our 31st wedding anniversary this week, and he can probably tell you how much I still have to learn (but I don’t want him to do that!).
Our gospel tonight is a continuation of last week’s. Remember last week the Sadducees were trying to trick Jesus with their question about paying taxes but Jesus exposed their foolishness by suggesting they pay onto Caesar that which was Caeser’s and – as Corein taught us – by revealing that the Sadducees themselves were holding the coins they were not supposed to be holding, based on their own rules.
There’s a little dynamic between last week’s gospel and this week’s gospel that’s worth exploring to fully understand the context of what’s happening here. A crowd has gathered around Jesus and in it we have both the Sadducees and the Pharisees and likely a handful of the Jewish citizens. Together, the Sadducees and Pharisees are trying to cast dislike and distrust on this new teacher by revealing him to be in opposition to their laws. Though they were engaged in the same mission, these are not unified groups. The Sadducees were a very conservative and traditional group of religious elite. They were deemed ‘the Old Believers’ and they held themselves as a priestly aristocracy and a political force for Israel. They stuck firmly to the laws of Moses and they did not believe in the new-fangled Jewish beliefs and doctrines about things like angels and spirits and an afterlife in heaven like the Pharisees did. The Pharisees, also a religious group, were considered to be more representative of the common man and they were more modern in that they accepted revelations after the laws of Moses. They listened to their respected elders and the prophets of the time. They read the scriptures and letters that we now accept as the Old Testament. If you step back to look at it, it seems that very same dynamic is still happening today in our political and religious realms. One could draw that parallel in our modern factions fairly easily.
So, when Jesus put the Sadducees in their place before the gathered crowd, the Pharisees were likely a little smug – a little like you and I might be if a car blew past us on the highway at exorbitant speeds and a few miles down the road we see that driver being issued a ticket. We’d be driving past probably smiling and thinking ‘a ha! You so deserved that!’ So the Pharisees probably seized the moment as their chance to one-up the Sadducees and actually succeed in tricking Jesus. The Pharisees argued a lot about their own 600 + laws. Even the brightest among them couldn’t determine which was most important so how could this man, this agitating outsider, named Jesus, who seemed even more radical then them, do it?
But Jesus does do it and here Jesus takes a ‘twofer’ – they asked for one rule and he blended two into one: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. The Sadducees and the Pharisees each professed to know and love God, but they clearly did not love each other, so Jesus’s statement is very pointed at them in that moment. In essence, Jesus is saying that these two commandments are not only similar, they are complementary and inseparable. In other words, it is not possible to love God and not love your neighbor and vice versa because we are made in the very image and likeness of God. If you mistreat your neighbor – as our first reading from Exodus so clearly and painfully illustrates – then you mistreat the God who created and dwells within your neighbor.
Think of it like an equilateral triangle – all sides are equal and connected. And the relationship between God and myself is the same as the relationship between God and my neighbor.
I must maintain the same relationship with my neighbor as I have with my God. Love for our neighbor is a matter, not of feelings, but of words and actions by which we share with others the same unmerited love that God lavishes on us.
But here’s the challenge: Life is hard. People aren’t like me and so I might not like their words and deeds. When that happens, I might talk about them rather than with them. I discredit them in the eyes of others. I actively avoid them or block what they are trying to do. I cast them a dirty look. Worse, I engage in bullying them.
When I do such things, I am not just doing this to that person, or that group, – I am doing that to the God I profess to love when I am here in this space worshiping with you.
And maybe I’m not good to myself. Maybe I am hurting in some way the Temple of God that I carry within. Maybe I over indulge in things that are not good for me. Maybe I secretly enjoy gossiping and causing conflict for others. Maybe I deny my God-given talents and don’t live into my life’s purpose. And maybe I don’t step up to protect and defend all of God’s creation when I see it being harmed.
Sister Maryann Mueller, with the Franciscan Action Network, notes that, “any victim of violence makes us all a victim of violence. Legislation or a tweet that dehumanizes any child, any woman or any man, dehumanizes us all.”
Today our newspapers are filled with negative stories. And it’s breaking my heart. Today, it’s in the news and it’s all around that people are speaking so negatively about groups and about each other. The bullying is emotional, social, and physical. It’s become so problematic that even Burger King, a fast food company, put together a new ad to serve as an anti bullying public service announcement. It’s a great ad:
They ran a “Junior vs. Junior” experiment in their own store about how people would respond to a junior in high school being bullied versus a Whooper Jr. being bullied. They hired high school actors to act out a bullying scene in their dining area – complete with name calling, physical jabs, pouring liquids on the young man’s lunch, and pulling his chair out from under him. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, they bullied Whopper Jr.’s, pounding them into smashed pieces, then wrapping them up and serving them to customers who were dining in, and who had been watching the student bullying. Not surprising, in 95% of the cases, customers were incensed and adamant that their Burger King Whopper Jr. was inappropriate; they demanded justice. Yet only 12% of the customers stepped in to stop the bullying.
When one among us is harmed, we are all harmed. Now we have a new image of God. We are the broken and God is beyond our reach – towering above us, if you will. Nowhere to be found in our midst.
We can, and we must fix this. I’m glad for God’s ongoing forgiving Grace, but I cannot rely on that alone for my own redemption. If I keep this human dynamic we have going on, not honoring the God within us all, then I am not improving my own spirituality and I am simply taking advantage of the Grace of God on high. I no longer have an equilibrium or partnership with my God.
Our second reading tonight gave us the answer: model the right words and deeds. Live the Word of Life in the here and now. As I strive to restitute myself when I stumble and to stand for justice for all, I can rebuild and even grow that relationship with God through my relationships with others. God is in the here and now, sitting right beside you, resting within you.
All 3 of our pillars at Spirit of Hope – radical hospitality, provocative nurturing, and courageous compassionate leadership – offer us the pathway and even the command to take our words and deeds out into our world. We talk often of radical hospitality and we provoke new thinking, and nurture each other regularly in this holy space. But daily, we must practice courageous, compassionate leadership to make those other two pillars come to life outside of this space.
I stand before you as a member of this community asking you to live into our baptismal call. We are all the ordained and we are all more powerful than we could imagine. WE make this world a better place in our deliberate choices. One small act can do big things.
A few years ago an actual student in a high school on the west side of the twin cities was tired of all of the bullying in his school so he decided to send out a positive tweet a day about a person in his school that he knew was being bullied. His tweets were not only ‘liked’ and retweeted – his entire effort caught on like wild fire, and soon all of the students were sending out positive tweets about classmates.
Mother Teresa gave us quote after quote about how to walk this world with courageous, compassionate leadership. I’ll offer 4 of her quotes here:
Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love. – Mother Teresa
Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person. – Mother Teresa
A life not lived for others is not a life. – Mother Teresa
Peace begins with a smile. – Mother Teresa
We can all be preachers of the Good News, and our actions will always speak louder than our words.
Now, I figure if Jesus can sneak in a twofer, so can I. I was only supposed to preach this weekend, but I’m going to stretch my time a bit if I may. I’m inviting this community to join me in a week-long challenge to practice our pillar of courageous, compassionate leadership in our daily lives.
I’m sending around cards. This is certainly optional, but I invite you to take one with you. Try something that’s a bit of a stretch for you this week. Smile authentically at someone who annoys you greatly. Offer a hand to someone who needs help. Forgive someone. Stop an act of bad behavior with grace and confidence. Defend your neighbor. Recognize and activate the God in you. Write what you did on the card and bring it with you next week to place in the Courageous Compassionate Leadership basket. Do not add your name; tape it closed, or put it in an envelope if you prefer. I promise I will not read them. I just want us all to see the evidence and celebrate the good work that we can do together in this hurting world that so deeply needs us to love one another.
My words are done and now it’s your turn to preach the Gospel, and if you must, you can use words.
Photo Credit: Johannes Ko, “Triangles”. Some rights reserved. Available at www.flickr.com.