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Pentecost 21 October 29, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for Sunday, October 29, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Were you and I invited to the home of Jewish friends for the celebration of Passover, we would hear a brief reflection on four different kinds children and the questions each one could ask at Passover. The first child, says the Passover ritual, asks this question: “What are the laws the Eternal One has commanded us to follow?” To this child, says the Passover text, you must teach all the laws that pertain to Passover, for this child asks the most important question: “What does God ask of you and me?” In today’s gospel reading, we hear a similar question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” But, of course, this is no question asked by a wise child at the Passover table. Rather, it is a trick question, a challenge to Jesus posed by those who are trying to discredit him. His answer, as many of you know, is one of the most famous in the entire New Testament and Christian history. What does he say? Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.
It’s not uncommon to hear Christians and Christian preachers talk about love. Indeed, some would reduce Christianity to that one word love as if the Christian faith alone had the corner on love. But then the skeptic wonders, “What about the Jews?” After all it was a Jewish Jesus who quoted the Hebrew Scriptures in response to his interrogators’ question about the greatest commandment. Or this: Do only religious people have the market on love? After all, scientists suggest that every human being can experience the feeling of love to the degree that the brain and adrenal glands release dopamine into the body. Every human being can, at least potentially, experience the feeling of euphoria, of falling in love, to the degree that the neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, awakens one’s desire for another person. (Sorry to get so “chemical” on you, but it does matter) Is this what Jesus speaks of when he mentions love: something all human beings can experience, not just Jews or Christians? And so I wonder: does any one faith have the corner on love?
Maybe we should consider the community of Christ followers to whom Matthew wrote this gospel. For we do know that it was a community marked by uneasy divisions. Some members insisted that one must first become Jewish in order to be a disciple of Jesus the Jew and as a Jewish Christ follower strictly adhere to the Law of Moses. Others, drawn from the gentile, non-Jewish world, recognized baptism as the one and only public act that made one a disciple of Jesus and that there was no need to follow the Law of Moses. We thus discern a group struggling with a diversity of opposing viewpoint and yet truing to stay together. But then we might ask: Why stay together? Why not do something very American and that is, shop around? OF course, the problem is this: the world in which Jesus and his first followers lived knew nothing – knew nothing – of what you and I may take for granted: the rights of the individual; the intense American focus on personal spiritual development; and the American practice of dipping into a religious community and staying around – so long as there are no problems that impinge upon the individual’s expectations of religion.  Consumers we are; consumer Jesus was not.
For Jesus and his followers, to love God with one’s whole heart, the heart as the center of thought in the ancient world, meant exclusive attachment to the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, to Jesus. To love one’s neighbor meant to be attached to this group, this community, come hell or high water. To love God, to be attached to God, would thus mean to accept one’s responsibility for and to others, especially those most vulnerable. Indeed the first reading in today’s liturgy, which Jesus quotes in the gospel, spells out what ethical love looks like, of what attachment to others entails: that is, to accept one’s responsibility, as a maturing Christ follower, toward those who struggle with poverty; to those in need of justice; to refuse the impulse to be vindictive or to spread harmful gossip or to profit from the misery of others.
I wonder, dear brothers and sisters: are you attentive to news reports that narrate the sad display of injustice, vindictiveness, harmful and false gossip, and profiteering from the misery of others in our regional and national life? I am mindful at this moment of the sad and sorry state of affairs in Puerto Rico – a truly vulnerable community – in which wealthy private investors from the mainland U.S. are rushing to privatize much of the country’s infrastructure and thus make profit from the misery of others. I am mindful of proposed solutions to the “homeless problem” in Tacoma in which economic factors alone seem to dominate – “How much will it cost to take away the ‘problem’? “– a view that overlooks the humanity of the many who suffer with the effects of war, abusive relationships, and governmental neglect.
At a recent newcomers’ dessert party, one of the newcomers asked how we, at Christ Church, “spread the love of Jesus into the larger community.” It was a good question, one that all of us should consider frequently. To that question, I offered this simple response: we spread the love of Jesus by striving to love each other here – that is, by nurturing the bonds of attachment to this little community of disciples so beloved of God and – and – by loving and thus caring for those, serving as advocates for those who may never enter our church: those who have been overlooked, stigmatized and stereotyped, forgotten and neglected, in a nation that claims to offer every one the pursuit of happiness and not yet delivered on that promise.
To love God and to love the neighbor: which is most important you?
But to answer that question – which, of course, is a trick question – means that we have answer this question as well:
Which is more important, breathing out or breathing in?