The Great Commandments

The Great Commandments

October 29th, 2017

(Matthew 22:34 46)
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”‘? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

A fellowship of Sadducees, members of a Jewish sect that did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, had just challenged Jesus with a question about life in the afterlife. We are told that Jesus’ response had silenced them. So now the Pharisees, the first string team, if you will, has come with yet another question. Which is the greatest commandment?

From the point of view of a Pharisee it was like asking what is more important? Driving on the right side of the road or stopping for a red light? Stopping for a pedestrian or maintaining a safe distance between your car and the vehicle ahead? For the Pharisee, break any of the 613 commandments and you are lost.

Nevertheless Jesus has an answer: ‘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.”

I take this to mean, for me at least, that love of God and love of neighbor are the fundamental principles by means of which all other commandments, indeed all other Scripture are to be interpreted. For example: Is it a sin if I lie to the Gestapo about the Jewish family hiding in my basement? I think that example is a bit more clear-cut than most of the dilemmas you and I face in our daily lives. It is for that very reason that it becomes the example.

So the question arises, is it possible for you and me to know what is the loving thing? How can we love God and neighbor?

St. Theresa of Avila said, “We cannot be sure if we are loving God, although we may have good reasons for believing that we are. But we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor.” I’m not as convinced as Teresa was. Nevertheless, it does seem wise to focus on loving the neighbor. So let’s consider three ways of expressing love for the neighbor.

Be patient with others and with yourself
Sacrifice to help others
Do not hurt or harm others

If you and I would love others we must be patient with others. And with ourselves. Patience is a way of loving.

I live with Leah. God is teaching her patience. And I wish she would get it, right now!

Most of us recognize that we must be patient with small children. We know that we get the chicken by the long process of hatching the egg, not by smashing it. What is true of children is true of all of us. We are all a work in progress.

No loving relationship works without patience. Patience means waiting for the other person to unfold in his or her own way and in their own time. You can’t love yourself unless you can be patient with yourself. That means being patient while your own life progresses in its unlikely way. In its unsteady fashion. Offering surprises along the way.

Patience is not sitting and waiting. Patience is looking at the thorn and seeing the rose. Looking at the night and seeing the day. Lovers are patient, knowing it takes time for the moon to become full.

I used to think it was important every Sunday to lead the perfect worship service. It was a standard I was never able to meet. Always mistakes. Sometimes small mistakes that no one else noticed. I would become angry with myself.

I still make mistakes. You all have watched me make mistakes. The bulletin is here in front of me and I will put things in the wrong order. One day I learned to laugh at my mistakes and I found that the congregation laughed with me. Not at me, with me. It was just a matter of being patient and forgiving with myself and leading worship became fun.

The alternative to patience is anger, disrespect of self and others. Let us rather be a patient and forgiving people.

Those who love others will sacrifice to help others. Sacrifice to help others and never sacrifice others to help yourself. Give of yourself, of your wealth. Be available to assist others.

Listen! Somehow I managed to participate in the planning of a stewardship program that required me to preach three stewardship sermons on top of a prior sermon by Charles Spencer. Four stewardship sermons. How did I let that happen? But then, you see, Christian stewardship is intertwined with every other Christian value, like loving God and neighbor.

So for this one Sunday I’ve thinly veiled the stewardship message in a sermon about loving God and neighbor. I’m telling you what you already know: To love God, to love your neighbor is going to cost you. It will cost you emotionally. It will cost you blood and sweat. And it will cost you money.

I firmly believe this congregation is an important conduit of God’s love into the city of Joplin and the surrounding area. We must support the life of this church along with our giving to other worthy causes in the community. It’s one way of loving God and neighbor.

When I say that I do not mean to ask you to do something that is easy. I want to challenge you to give extravagantly. Try to do at least a little more than you think you can do. Paul wrote that God loves a cheerful giver. What the Greek actually means is: God loves a hilarious giver. Someone who gives beyond reason, joyfully.

If you’ve raised children whom you love, then you know love is expensive.

A third way of loving God and neighbor: Do no harm. Do no harm to neighbors, but here I want to expand your definition of neighbors. I want to include animals. I want to include the earth, this delicate biosphere in which we share our lives.

If you’ve listened to native Americans pray, you may have heard them conclude their prayers with the phrase, “All relations.” They would live in harmony with all creation. Traditionally, when a native hunter killed an animal for meat, he gave thanks to the spirit of the animal for giving itself as food for his people. There is no swaggering pride at what a great man he must be for having killed this great twelve point buck. Like all things, it was a gift.

How shall you and I care for the earth? This earth is the house God has given us to live in.

A child once explained why Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. He said, One day Cain and Abel asked their father why it was they couldn’t go back to the Garden. After thinking for a moment, Adam said, “Well, boys it’s like this: Your mother and I sort of ate ourselves out of house and home.”

If you accept the science of global warming, you have a sense that humanity is working its way out of house and home.

Last weekend I listened to Terry Gross on NPR as she interviewed Jeff Goodell. Goodell has written a book, “The Water Will Come”

Goodell told of his visit to the Norfolk Naval Station, the largest naval station in the world. He said he was there at high tide and the streets and barracks were flooded.
So at Norfolk they had built several new piers, he said, “these enormous piers that cost millions of dollars. And they… built them… 4, 5, 6 feet higher than the old piers. And I said to the commander, well, did you do this for sea level rise? And he basically said, yes, but we didn’t say that because if we would have said that, then we wouldn’t have got funding from Congress. They would have zeroed it out because they …don’t want to talk about climate change in any way.”
Who would know that how we care for the earth might have an impact on our national security? Whether you believe global warming is man-made or not is of no consequence. Either way, we have to find new ways to cope with Mother Nature. We must learn to take better care of God’s earth.

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