10-31-21 Sunday sermon
First Congregational Church
October 31, 2021
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
“What Does “Love” for Neighbor Look Like?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A man dies and goes to heaven when Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates. Peter says, “You need 1000 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all of the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item. When you reach 1000 points, you get in.” “Okay,” the man says, “I was happily married to the same woman for fifty years and never cheated on her, not even in my mind.” “That’s wonderful,” says Peter, “that’s worth two points!” “Two points?” he says.
“Well, I attended church all my life and gave my ten percent tithe faithfully.” “Terrific!” says Peter. “That’s definitely worth a point.” “One point? Well, I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for the homeless.” “Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” he says. “TWO POINTS!” the man cries. “At this rate the only way I can get into heaven is by the grace of God!” “Now that’s what we’re looking for! Come on in!”
Keith Wagner, of sermons.com, offered a most beautiful illustration. He wrote, “Jesus wants us to love God and others with our soul. The soul is that part of us that defies logic. It is a mystery. Loving with our souls goes beyond what people would consider as normal. We give forth our love because we want to and it probably makes no sense to outsiders.
During the course of earning her master's degree, a woman found it necessary to commute several times a week from Victory, Vermont to the state university in Burlington, a good hundred miles away. Coming home late at night, she would see an old man sitting by the side of her road. He was always there, in subzero temperatures, in stormy weather, no matter how late she returned. He made no acknowledgment of her passing. The snow settled on his cap and shoulders as if he were merely another gnarled old tree. She often wondered what brought him to that same spot every evening. Perhaps it was a stubborn habit, private grief or a mental disorder.
Finally, she asked a neighbor of hers, "Have you ever seen an old man who sits by the road late at night?" "Oh, yes," said her neighbor, "many times." "Is he a little touched upstairs? Does he ever go home?" The neighbor laughed and said, "He's no more touched than you or me. And he goes home right after you do. You see, he doesn't like the idea of you driving by yourself out late all alone on these back roads, so every night he walks out to wait for you. When he sees your taillights disappear around the bend, and he knows you're okay, he goes home to bed.”
In the verses prior to those that will be read momentarily, Jesus and the disciples had been in discussions with the pharisees, chief priests, teachers of the law, elders and Sadducees about topics of lordship, merit and right understanding when our passage for today took place. Chelsey Harmon of Calvin Seminary wrote about this passage, suggesting that it was, and perhaps still is, “a normal practice within the Jewish faith to summarize and prioritize teachings and scripture, to remember the spirit behind particular laws because of the belief that each commandment communicates something bigger about God, God’s design and God’s intent for the world.” In a way, that’s part of our gathering each and every Sunday during this time we call “worship.”
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] There is no commandment greater than these.”
32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
Thank you, Donna. Zooming in for just a moment, it’s an interesting turn - a teacher agreeing with and almost praising him for Jesus’ understanding. It’s an important teacher to remember because not all the teachers of Jesus’ day were out to catch Jesus in heresy.
The other thing that is of interest, but probably not worth an entire sermon is the differentiation between what Jesus says and what the teacher repeats back to him. Jesus says to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, while the teacher uses heart, understanding and strength - omitting soul and equating mind with understanding. What I felt God asking us to look at this morning is in zooming out, to the commandments themselves.
When Jesus says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” he is quoting the prayer that is the first of the day in many a Jewish person’s life - the prayer referred to as the schema, which comes from the book of Deuteronomy 6: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” When Jesus mentions the other commandment, he quotes Leviticus 19:18, “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Being so reminded of the Old Testament and commandments, naturally we should hear the folksy version of the big ten: Just one God, Put nothin' before God, Watch yer mouth, Git yourself to Sunday meetin’, Honor yer Ma & Pa, No killin’, No foolin' around with another fellow's gal, Don’t take what ain't yers, No tellin' tales or gossipin’, Don't be hankerin' for yer buddy's stuff.
I came across a more modern version of the big ten, and although they might be more accurately identified as the self-help commandments, they have some good truths, too.
You should not worry, for worry is the most unproductive of all human activities. You should not be fearful, for most of the things we fear never come to pass. You should not cross bridges before you come to them, for no one yet has succeeded in accomplishing this. You should face each problem as it comes. You can only handle one at a time anyway. You should not take problems to bed with you, for they make very poor bedfellows.
You should not borrow other people's problems. They can better care for them than you can. You should not try to relive yesterday for good or ill, it is forever gone. Concentrate on what is happening in your life and be happy now! You should be a good listener, for only when you listen do you hear ideas different from your own. It is hard to learn something new when you are talking, and some people do know more than you do. You should not become "bogged down" by frustration, for 90% of it is rooted in self-pity and will only interfere with positive action. You should count thy blessings, never overlooking the small ones, for a lot of small blessings add up to a big one.
Most of us have probably never actually counted all 613 commandments in the first five books of the Bible - the Jewish Pentateuch, but all of them form the whole of the Old Covenant - the pact and/or promise between God and God’s people. With Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, we have the new covenant, the new commitment and/or pledge. And I’m sure most of us are familiar with the two that replaced the 613 - Love God and love neighbor. So my first question is, “What Does “Love” for Neighbor Look Like?” ___
Thank you for your contributions. So now the second question is, “What Does “Love” for God look like?” ___
Again, thank you for your contributions. With gratitude to Amanda Brobst-Renaud of workingpreacher.org, there are some nuances that we miss, since ancient Greek is not our mother tongue.
She points out that the sound and word repetitions - in Greek - were designed to draw the audience’s attention to the repetitions in the text as well as their connection to the purpose of the New Covenant: You shall love the LORD the God of you With the whole heart of you And the whole soul of you And the whole strength of you
To love God with the whole heart And with the whole understanding And with the whole strength And to the neighbor as oneself Are even more crucial than all of the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
So now comes the third question, remembering the spirit behind the commandments, in which loving God is first so that we love neighbors rightly, now what does “love” for neighbor look like? I won’t ask for actual verbal answers to that question, because those answers are really between your heart and God. But I will guess that there is a nuance of difference in this answer in contrast to the first time the question was asked.
A rabbi was asked, "Which act of charity is higher - giving out of obligation or giving from the heart?”
All in the class were inclined to respond that giving from the heart had something more in it, but they knew the rabbi was going to say just the opposite, because in spiritual teaching nothing is logical. They were not disappointed.
"Giving from the heart is a wonderful thing," the rabbi said, "It is a very high act and should never be demeaned. But there is something much more important that happens when somebody gives charity out of obligation.
"Consider who is doing the giving. When somebody gives from the heart, there is a clear sense of oneself doing something; in other words, heartfelt charity always involves ego gratification.
"However, when we give out of obligation, when we give at a moment that every part of us is yelling NO! because of one reason or another - perhaps the beneficiary is disgusting, or it is too much money, or any of thousands of reasons we use to avoid giving charity - then we are confronting our own egos, and giving nonetheless. Why? Because we are supposed to. And what this means is that it is not us doing the giving, rather we are vehicles through which God gives… So we love others as we love God and so we pray.
God, you know how we put other things first: to be right, to be safe, to belong. We confess. We repent. We already belong to you, eternally, absolutely. We are safe in you. We need not earn your love, or prove our worthiness, or have others approve.
We only need to let the love you give us become all of us: to love you with all of our own self, every little thing we do - an act of love, and to pass that love to others, always and no matter what, to never compromise our love with anything else.
With your Spirit, we are able to stand for justice, speak the truth, say the hard things, prohibit abuse, but only with love, not anything else, anything else, to which all your people say, Amen.
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