We’re going to start with a Bible quiz. I’m going to quote a scripture, and if you know where it is found, I want you to call out the book and the chapter. We’re going to start with an easy one.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,
And the earth was without form and void;
and darkness was on the face of the deep.” Genesis 1
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Psalm 23
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”
1 Corinthians 13
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” John 3:16
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength… [and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I didn’t think anybody would be able to name it, unless you had already read your bulletin and looked it up. It’s not one we have memorized by its reference. And yet Jesus says these are the greatest commandments. It seems like this is one we should know by its reference, but I don’t and doubt that many of you do. One of the reasons is that it occurs in all three gospels in slightly different wording. So listen to this one from Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked [Jesus], “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Jesus is not saying anything revolutionary in this passage. In the first part he is quoting part of the Shema, a passage from Deuteronomy that every Jew of the time would have known. “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” It was the Jewish answer to our question today: What matters most? It was the guiding principle of Jewish life. All of the rules, all of the sacrifices, all the requirements of the Law, the Torah, were all about fulfilling this commandment: to love God with all that you have and are.
It’s a difficult concept for us to understand. It sounds simple enough: love God. But what does that mean? What does that look like? I’ll be really honest here. I struggled with this for years. You see, in the conservative evangelical world I grew up in, I knew what loving God meant. Loving God meant spending time in prayer every day, praising God and thanking God, not just asking for things. Loving God meant spending time in Bible study every day, or at least every week. Loving God meant asking in every decision What Would Jesus Do? Loving God meant giving 10% of my income to the church. Loving God meant worship that moved me to tears and praise. Unfortunately, in that world, loving God also meant believing that God loved me in spite of myself, that I had to work to please God, that I was to blame for Jesus’ suffering, that I had to believe certain things or my loving God would send me to hell. I ultimately had to reject such a view of God, and with it, I jettisoned my understanding of how to love God. It took me a long time to get past the belief that I have to do certain things in order to be loved by God and therefore in order to love God. If I am no longer required to read my Bible and pray every day, if I am no longer required to worship in particular ways, what does love look like? And how do I love this being I can’t see or hear or feel? If I don’t know how to define God any more, how can I love what I cannot define?
For me, the answer has been some of the same actions but for different reasons. It has meant returning to my roots but without the requirements. I can love God by reading scripture and studying theology even though I don’t have to do so in order to earn God’s love. I can love God by praying, even if my prayers are different. I can love God by giving to the church because I want to, not because I have to.
St. Augustine famously said, “Love God and do as you wish,” or “Love God and do what you will.” This quote has been misinterpreted over the years, taken out of context. But listen to the whole passage:
“Love God, and do what you will:
whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace;
whether you cry out, through love cry out;
whether you correct, through love correct;
whether you spare, through love do you spare:
In all things, let the root of love be within,
for of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”
“In other words, Augustine is arguing . . . that when the love of God is the governing principle of our lives, then all that we think, say, and do will necessarily be yielded to that love. If our love of God is real and profound, then obedience and faithfulness, right thinking and right actions will flow irresistibly from that love.”
That’s what matters. And that’s what brings us back to the scripture. Jesus quoted part of the Shema to answer the question of which is the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. But then he went beyond the Shema, quoting Leviticus instead: “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s partly what St. Augustine was talking about: that if we truly love God, we will love our neighbor. The second flows from the first. It’s cause and effect. That’s what matters most in life, in faith. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The two cannot be separated.
I have used this illustration before, but I repeat it knowing thatyou do not hang on my every word and commit them to memory. Dorotheos of Gaza was a 6th century monk and abbot who gave an illustration of the relationship of God with humanity, saying it is like a wheel. God is the hub at the center of the wheel, and each person is on a spoke. If one wishes to draw closer to God, one moves along the spoke. Moving along the spoke naturally means drawing closer to the next spoke. Dorotheos taught that you cannot get closer to God without get closer to others, and you cannot pull away from others without pulling away from God.
To answer our Lenten question, what matters most is relationship with God and others—not having the right beliefs, not doing all the right things, but living with love, acting through love.
Now here is where my sermon takes a distinctly different turn than I thought when I planned it. Here I am saying we have to draw closer to each other, while also saying we’re not going to shake hands, we’re not going to touch, we’re not even passing the plates or the pew pads. So instead of finishing this sermon the way I planned it, I want to talk about what we do next because of the coronavirus COVID-19. As we’ve already mentioned, Dr. Jenny Jubulis will lead a conversation after worship for those who want to stay, so that you can learn directly from an infectious disease doctor. But what I want to talk to you about is how we respond as a church—not to germs, but to one another. How do we care for one another? How do we support those who are already suffering from loneliness, if they’re now going to be quarantined, too? For example, I’m thinking that today we should get a list of people who are willing to serve as care contacts. What I mean by this is that, for now, we create a list of our oldest and most vulnerable members, and we recruit people who are willing to call them twice a week to check on them, to see if they’re alright, to see if they need food or medicine brought to them. If the virus doesn’t get bad here, that’s probably enough. But if it gets bad, we may need to check on more than just our elderly members. We may need to widen those calls. So maybe we should create that system now, just in case. [Get feedback and give instructions.]
What else can we do to love our neighbors who are part of this faith community?
What else can we do to love our physical neighbors?
Remember that the command includes love your neighbor as yourself, assuming that we always look out for our own interests. This is not always true. So take care of yourself, too. Love yourself, too. And may the love of God unite us all.