October 29, 2017 – 21 Pentecost A, Proper 25
Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
The Rev. Jamie Osborne
Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
These are familiar words. They sum up a life lived for God. Love for God. And love for neighbor.
These two commandments form the road map of our life. If you ever come to a fork in the road, or you are just looking for the general direction you should travel, this is it. Love God and love your neighbor. There you have it. It’s simple and straight forward.
At least, it seems straightforward, but what does it mean to love God? Loving our neighbor is an idea we can more easily wrap our minds around. We realize there is a connection between loving God and loving our neighbor. We understand that we all have an innate desire to care for ourselves, and we should extend this same love to others. We gather money and resources to help others. We try to be kind and patient and forgiving. At every Easter and at every baptism, we renew our baptismal covenant and vow that with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self. Loving our neighbor as our self—we know what that looks like.
But the greatest commandment, to love God with all of who we are. That’s something different. My neighbor doesn’t know me the way that God does. God knows everything about me. God knows the skeletons in my closet. God knows and sees the things of which I am ashamed. Beyond all of my posturing, all of my accolades, and the image I try to project, God sees me as I am. All of me.
To love God means that I must acknowledge that I am fully known. And that can be a terrifying thought.
A woman and her daughter are caught in the tragic grip of prostitution, addiction, and poverty. In total desperation, she contacts a man in the city who is known to help the down and out in the area. Through sobs and tears she tells him about the awful situation she is in. She tells him about the prostitution, her drug addiction, and how she has no money to buy food her young daughter. After hearing her gut-wrenching story, the man struggles to find something to say to her.
He finally thinks to ask if she has ever thought of going to a church for help. The woman is totally shocked by his suggestion and replies “Church? Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
I think of this woman and the deep shame she carries. It makes sense. Why would she try to approach God by going to church when she believes that she is unworthy of God’s love? What would people say if they really knew her? And beyond what people might say, what would God say?
The circumstances of our lives may be totally different than hers, but the fear is still the same. If God knows all the ways the shape of my life has been made crooked and has been distorted by sin, will God still love me?
What Jesus cites as the greatest and first commandment is not an innovation. It is found in Deuteronomy and the book of Numbers and it was referred to as the Shema. It was the Jewish confession of faith and the most significant prayer in Judaism to this day. It was to be said upon waking and before going to sleep.
Deuteronomy 6 reads: “Hear, O, Israel; The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
The commandment to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might was more than a command. It was a way of remembering and orienting one’s whole life to God. In fact, the Shema and all the whole law was a way for Israel to remember the love that God had for them so that they might love God. The law, all of God’s commands were to help Israel remember God so that they might love him with all they were.
Deuteronomy 6 continues after the Shema with these instructions: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The greatest commandment was a call to remember God’s saving love and to live life as a loyal response to that love. To remember, that God had brought Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. To remember, that God had brought them through the waters of the Red Sea. To remember, that God gave them manna to eat and water to drink in the wilderness. To remember, that God would bring them into their promised land.
And the commandment is the same for us. It’s a call to remember all that God has done for us in Christ and to live life as a loyal response to God’s love. To remember, that God has brought us out of the slavery of sin and death. To remember that God has brought us through the waters of baptism. To remember that God nourishes us with Jesus’ body broken and his blood poured out. And to remember, that he has gone to prepare a place for us.
To love God with all that I am is to remember that I am fully known by God and that I am loved, and to continually offer myself to God even when the shape of my life has been made crooked and has been distorted by sin.
A surgeon named Dr. Richard Selzer shares this story of a woman on whom he had performed surgery. In order to remove a tumor from her cheek, he had to cut a nerve which left her mouth permanently twisted in palsy. After the surgery, he is in the hospital room with the young woman and her husband. He can’t help but notice how they lovingly gaze at each other and touch each other in the small room.
The young woman asks, “Will my mouth always be like this?”
“Yes, the surgeon replies, “it will. It’s because the nerve was cut.”
She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles.
“I like it,” he says, “It’s kind of cute.”
Dr Selzer goes on to say: “All at once I know who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”
When I think of that young man’s crooked kiss, I think of Jesus who stretched out his arms of love on the hardwood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. God coming to humankind and twisting himself onto the cross to show us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And as you come to the altar this morning and eat the body which is given for you, and as you drink the blood shed for you: Remember.
Remember that God’s love for you is stronger than your failures and the things you may be ashamed of. Remember that God is merciful and is always willing to forgive you. Remember that God’s love for you is and this world is stronger than even death itself.
And in all of our remembering, may the greatest commandment become our greatest promise, because to love God with all that we are is to remember that we are fully known by God and that we are loved.
“Hear, O, Israel; The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”