10/26/2014 sermon: “Change the world”

Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Tex: Matthew 22:34-46
20Pentecost, Proper 25, Year A

Change the world

ShemaI was taught that each sermon should only be about one thing. I am going to break this rule today, so I want to start with a very clear idea of where I am heading. I want to use Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question to show how our own best interests are served by doing what God commanded: love God and love our neighbor. I will assert, as shown on your bulletin cover, that loving God and loving neighbor results in a changed world, a world that benefits us and our descendants.

This is a tall order for a short sermon. But we already know about loving God and loving neighbor, don’t we? So I ask you, what does loving God entail? If this were a Forum, you might say, we love God by coming to church, or by praying, or by meditating, or by reading scripture. To which I would reply, YES. People who love someone want to spend time with that person. The same is true for loving God. If we love God, we want to spend time with God in the places where God is most accessible to us, maybe in nature, in worship, in prayer, in meditation, and in reading scripture.

As you know, I was at a diocesan clergy retreat earlier this week. The retreat leader, Martin L. Smith, is a renowned author, spiritual director, priest, and mystic. So the retreat was quite good, but challenging. Martin, like mystics of all the world’s religions, kept using erotic language to talk about God’s love for us, and how we should love God in return. Martin said that, like a lover, God yearns for us to love him back in the way that he loves us. God constantly woos us with his love. And when we reciprocate God’s love, there’s a resemblance to erotic love. We want to learn more about God, to spend time with God, to do the things that God likes. As a result, we change who we are in response to the love given us and in response to the love we give back to God.

We Episcopalians are uncomfortable with this concept. We tend to avoid emotions in relation to God, especially the messy ones such as erotic love. We are much more comfortable with turning our love of God INTO love of neighbor. But beware! The two are not the same. Jesus didn’t say that the first and greatest commandment was to love our neighbor by loving God. He distinguished between the two. Real spirituality works like a big circle, though. Loving God leads us to loving neighbor, which in turn leads us back to loving God.

If we continue to use the imagery of erotic love, loving God is like two lovers, who—having become aware of and entangled with each other—disappear from public view for a while. Eventually, though, they discover that to continue to broaden and deepen their love for each other, they must bring their relationship into public view. There their family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances all discover a changed person. Maybe, loving God, we no longer do some of the things we used to do. Maybe, loving God, we do things that weren’t part of our lives before.

When we bring our new, deeper love of God into public view, we get to practice loving neighbor. As a new Christian I could easily love neighbor if my neighbor were like me—as long as neighbor didn’t need too much or require me to stretch myself beyond the limits of my judgment. But God gave me new people to love, people who were not like me who stretched my ability to love. I have watched others learn to love neighbor, and they each seem to have experienced this same stretch.

Here’s an example. What if you continually encounter a very disagreeable person who complains bitterly about every single thing, every time you meet them? A wise woman once told me, and perhaps you have heard this also, that “to know all is to forgive all.” Her thesis was that, if we knew all the circumstances that led a person to be the way they are, or to do the things they do, if we knew all, we would understand. And if we understood, we could place ourselves in that person’s shoes. From this vantage point we could see that WE might under those circumstances, act the same way. Maybe the complainer lives in constant, unremitting severe physical or emotional pain. Maybe our love for such a person would increase that person’s ability to bear their pain.

The bottom line is that God and his son Jesus both commanded us to love God and love neighbor. And, loving God, we want to do both of these things and we stretch ourselves to find ways to love even the most difficult neighbor.

So how is loving God and loving neighbor in our own best interests, as I asserted at the beginning of this sermon? First, we can keep God’s love only by giving God’s love away. When we hoard God’s love for ourselves, we inevitably begin to think we are somehow more deserving of God than our neighbor. This is the first step in turning away from God. This is why Jesus named the two greatest commandments, instead of simply one. We cannot stop with only loving God; we have to love neighbor or we can’t really love God.

There’s another way, though, that loving God and loving neighbor benefit us. All this loving really does change the world. When we love God and love neighbor, we turn away from harmful actions and bring healthy new realities into existence. Of course, the opposite is true, too: when we do not love God and love neighbor and act accordingly, we can deconstruct healthy realities, not just for ourselves, but for years to come.

Here’s one example, which I read in David Dobbs’ review of Christine Kenneally’s new book, “The Invisible History of the Human Race.” David tells a story from the book about how what Kenneally calls the “cultural legacy from the past” shapes our reality today. He cites the case of “the poorest regions of African [which were] were regions most exploited by slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries.” These actions in the past, which had violated trust of stranger and trust of kin and trust of neighbor, had created a culture of distrust that extends to today, a culture that is antithetical to trade and economic well-being, even today.

The Bible has always warned that our bad actions today can have long-lasting negative effects. BUT the opposite is also true, and the Bible proclaims this also: our actions today to love neighbor have the power to mend our world for decades to come.

Which is the first and greatest commandment? Love God. But the second is like the first: love neighbor as self. And in doing so both we and our neighbor, and all our children, will benefit for years to come.

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Ancillary thoughts to ponder:
The LORD is long-suffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. (Numbers 14:18, KJV) See also Jeremiah 31:29-34.
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