This sermon was preached at a service where we had a baptism and the reading was not the usual lectionary reading.
October 26 Greatest commandment
Matthew 22:34 – 40
I got lost in my car recently. Well not lost in my car, it is too small to get lost in, but I was driving and got lost. Well again not really lost but stuck in some twisting roads in an industrial estate near here. I drove past the same factory about 6 times, some times going one way, and then passing the same building driving the other way, each time with growing despondency that I would ever be able to find my destination.
I don’t have a GPS in my car so I have to rely on a google map on my phone which I did not have on this occasion,or heaven forbid – the old Melways. Except my Melways is getting on a bit now and have several times been shredded as it lies under a pile of junk in the back of the car. More than once I have in desperation turned to it to find the precise page I was after was precisely the one missing from that section. And then I find myself lost, not knowing the way.
I will tell you the time I most appreciated having some directions. It was the challenge in finding my way across the north of Spain, on foot, as I walked the Camino de Santiago (Spanish word which means way or road or path). No GPS or Melway, although there are maps. But what most pilgrims rely upon are yellow painted signs or symbols. Like an old youth group chalk chase across the top end of Spain. Arrows to guide you left, right, or straight ahead through the winding towns and villages, and the stylized scallop shell (symbol of baptism and the Camino) just to reassure you that you are still on the right path when you are out in the countryside.
That is one of the major roles of religion – to point people to the right path, to give guidance as to how to live and what guideposts have been erected by people who have trod the path/journey through life. Many people have commented with the decline of organised religion and the growth of people pursuing an individual spirituality whether they will be in touch with these signposts and maps and guides that have been hammered out over centuries of time.
Jesus (as well as virtually all the first Christians) was Jewish and Judaism is not terribly sentimental or pietistic. It tends to be down to earth and one of the ways you can see that is the story that the rabbis insist that the signposts, the guidance of the faith had to be able to declared succinctly; actually one rabbi went so far as to declare that it should be able to be done in no longer time than a person is able to stand on one foot
That is what is happening in today’s gospel. Jesus is again embroiled in controversy, being tested and challenged about his understanding of the teaching of the tradition. That was not entirely surprising, it was the way rabbis taught, a vigorous clashing of minds, interpretations.
Jesus is here being asked to make his tradition and scripture live for him and his hearers. Handle it, use it, apply it, befriend it. He is being asked to go to the heart of the faith. Cut through all the trappings and embellishments. What is it about, what path should I trudge, what guideposts do I attend to, what values do I hold as I live my life? And of vital importance today as we have baptised Isabella, what do I teach my children or grandchildren about these weighty matters?
And Jesus does not shirk the issue but gives a direct and clear answer. He does not fudge and he does not give the rather generalised answer that a politician in an election campaign may give, terrified of alienating some interest group or other, “All commandments are from God and so all are to be treated equally –so answer is – all are equally important”.
Jesus answer is based on the part of the Hebrew scriptures known as the Shema, from the first word in the Hebrew text – Hear O Israel – Interesting to note the first thing Israel is commanded to do is hear –and to do that you got to shut up long enough to listen! “Hear O Israel the Lord your God is one God”. And if you do hear and hear with your spiritual ears attuned what you will actually hear is something prior to the first and most important commandment to love God. Oh yes, although it is the first commandment it is not the first thing we say or hear. No the first thing is You are loved by God.
Having established that we are now ready to hear the first commandment. You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and might. What a beautiful thing. How exquisite that the first commandment is one to love the power that fires the universe, to fall in love with the Eternal. That that should be revealed as the secret towards which all people and all cultures reach. There are other times and places when we are implored, commanded, urged, beseeched to obey God, to worship God, to serve God, but here Jesus is quite unequivocal our first calling is to love God.
O Lord, whatever share of this world
You could give to me,
Give it to your enemies:
Whatever share of the next world
You want to give to me –
Give it to your friends.
You are enough for me.
O God, my whole concern and desire in this world,
Is that I should always remember you
Above all the things of this world,
And that in the next
I should meet with you alone.
That is why I always pray:”Your will be done.”
O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.
Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī 713/17-801
Quoted from The Essential Mystics, Andrew Harvey
Our relationship with the Creator of the universe is to be passionate one. It raises the distinct possibility that you can totally be convinced of the existence of God, but not love God. But as Jesus tells the story we are to learn to love God, and as we grow into that relationship it will complete the circle of love that has first found us. Any love we return to God is simply reflecting back what has first been put into our heart by God.
So Jesus has not invented something new; it is there in the scriptures; been there all along. Nothing new. The point being we do not need new teaching, we do not need to be told something we do not know. Love God. Just do it become it, let it soak into your bones and spirit and let that love take you into God.
For many of us the first of the two commandments cited by Jesus is harder to understand. What does it mean to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength? The second commandment, the one about loving neighbour as self, is not easy to obey, but its meaning is rather clear—especially when we read it in Luke’s Gospel. There it is followed by the question “Who is my neighbour?” And we have the parable of the Good Samaritan to focus our thinking. To love neighbour is to care for woundedness wherever we find it and to reach beyond the narrow boundaries of the familiar and comfortable. Doing that is anything but easy, but understanding it is not all that difficult.
There is a story that St John the Apostle, when an old, blind and frail man used to be carried to the front of the church to deliver his sermon. There came a point when people began to be frustrated with him. About a month earlier he had delivered one of his shortest ever sermons, Love God, that is all. Just love God, and if you manage that, love your neighbour. Ooohh, deep they muttered, and the next week the same message, Love the Lord your God. Oh, bit the same as what we heard last week a few were heard to mutter upon leaving the church. And the third week, a simple message of loves God, and your neighbour. By now a few of the leaders were appointed to have a word with the learned and revered apostle. Umm, a few of the brothers and sisters are starting to get a little restless that you are repeating yourself. Couldn’t we have something new? And John, gestured for them to come close to him, to lift his head so he could whisper, “Why do you seek something new and different before you have completed the calling that is already before you?”
Now I could do a lot worse that say to you sit in silence for the rest of the time of this sermon and just let that sentence around your heart and spirit and will and mind. Love God…. love God with all you are worth, with all you have. Have you yet learnt to love God?