Sunday, October 29, 2017

Pentecost 21-A, 2017: Jesus' core message: LOVE

I had the joy and privilege of preaching and celebrating with my good friends at St. Thomas in Burnsville, NC. A truly wonderful community!

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

(Note: If the above audio player doesn't work on your device, click HERE.)

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Yesterday I was at a luncheon for Pastor Appreciation Day with some incredible friends and colleagues in the Women
Pastors Alliance an interdenominational group of ordained women in my area – mostly Baptist and Pentecostal preachers, and a couple of us who aren’t. Our speaker, AME Pastor Pamela Mack, from Winston, spoke to us about “sandpaper people.” So I’ve been thinking about sandpaper people since then.

We all know sandpaper people. Here’s an example from my life: I stopped at the grocery story one day after church, still in my collar, and a man walked up to me in the fruit section and said; “What are you – a nun?” I replied, “No, I’m an Episcopal priest.” He practically yelled at me… “You’re a priest?” Women can’t be priests…it says so in the Bible! You’re sinning!” (He meant it)

I had all kind of snarky responses pop into my head, including that if he could find in the Bible where it says women can’t be ordained as priests, I’d love to see it… but instead, what I said was, “If I’m sinning, then pray for me.”

Sandpaper people can be fine, or medium, or coarse. The fine ones irritate you. The medium ones injure you. The coarse ones work to destroy you. Sandpaper people can rough us up or smooth our edges – the choice is ours. And this is the point Jesus is making in today’s gospel, which is very simply about love.

It’s important to notice that Jesus is talking to a Pharisee – a wealthy, educated, powerful man who operates from a position of power and authority in a patriarchal system. Aware that Jesus had shut down the Sadducees as we heard in the gospel story last week this Pharisaic lawyer tries his hand at entrapping and discrediting Jesus. Which commandment in the law is the greatest? he asks.

Knowing he is being baited again, Jesus uses the opportunity to speak his core message: love. Paraphrasing Deut. 6:5, Jesus says, “You shall love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” What it actually says in Deuteronomy is: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Then he couples that with a portion of the law from Leviticus. I want you to hear the whole command as it is in Levticus: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself (19:18)

“On these two commands,” Jesus says, “hang all the law and the prophets.” There is no single greatest commandment. Everything is held within the container of these two laws in relationship to each another – loving God and loving all people.

If there is a denser, more important utterance from Jesus, I don’t know what it is.

Jesus’ whole life on earth, his work and ministry, his prayers, the sacrifice of his life, his resurrection commissioning – all go back to this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… [and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

So what does he mean by “heart,” “soul,” “mind,” and “as yourself.” Let’s take a minute and look at those words because he chose these words carefully. Remember, he paraphrased Deuteronomy.

There are lots of words for love in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek – the languages of the time. The word the gospel writer chose, knowing Jesus’ intent, and remembering that the New Testament was written in Greek, is a word that’s probably familiar to you – agapāo – agape love.

This love is a deliberate act of judgment, a choice to regard the other person with respect and kindness. Agape love also gives preference to one over others. Jesus says love God this way; but also love your neighbor this way. Give God preference over all other gods; and give your neighbor preference even over yourself.

Loving a neighbor as self would be a real challenge to a Pharisee who is used to having the power to categorize people and therefore dismiss them as unimportant, unclean, or even sub-human; and “the law” would back him up. But Jesus showed us a different way. I think of the story of the woman caught in adultery, the lepers and demoniacs whom Jesus healed, and the criminal on the cross next to Jesus who was promised paradise.

We face the same challenge today. How do we treat law-breakers, women, refugees, the infirm, the homeless, the addicted, and the just plain irritating? Really. Want to know who irritates me? Sit in the left lane and don’t pass anybody. But that’s just me.

Whom do we categorize and, therefore, dehumanize? More importantly, how can we imitate Jesus’ way? Hold that thought and let’s look at a few more of Jesus’ words first.

Neighbor: This word translates as “any other member of the human race.” That’s pretty clear. Love any other member of the human race as yourself.

Heart: this refers to the seat of our compassion, the location of our moral compass.

Soul: (you’re gonna love this) this refers to the breath of God within us that gives us life. When Jesus is calling us to love with all our soul he is calling us to follow in his way. We are the other for whom Jesus gave his last breath, his whole life. If we love with all our soul, then, we are giving our life for the sake of the other.

Mind: yes, it’s thought, but this refers to our consciousness being called into active, strenuous effort by our moral affections, that is, by our heart. The word ‘mind’ then refers to the relational dynamic between comprehension and compassion – which I think is why Jesus chose this word instead of “might” as in Deuteronomy.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and love your neighbor as yourself.

So, let’s return to that question I posed earlier: How do we better imitate Jesus’ way of loving with all our hearts, minds, and souls? There are cases where that’s a no-brainer. Most of us who are parents or grandparents wouldn’t think twice about giving up our lives, even our last breath, for our child or grandchild. And, there are all kinds of heartwarming stories about people donating a kidney or offering bone marrow or their blood to a neighbor in need; even when they don’t know them.

Agape love is natural to us in certain circumstances. The challenge comes when we are facing sandpaper people. But our Baptism compels each of us to love and serve in Jesus’ name, that is, his way; to be people who regard all others with respect and kindness.

Everyone has a story – even sandpaper people. Being agape love in their presence means we might just hear their story and understand what choked out their love and left them hopeless or poisonous. Being agape love means embodying Christ for them through our preference for them; serving them by caring for them “gently, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” as the writer of the epistle to the Thessalonians says, “sharing with [them] not only the gospel but ourselves, because [they] have become very dear to us.”

All people are dear to God – even sandpaper people. All bear the image of God. All deserve the opportunity to be restored to love which is, after all, our ministry as the church: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. (BCP, 855)

As they are restored, we are all made whole.

St. Thomas has had its share of sandpaper people. Every church has, and every church will because sandpaper people will always be with us. They may be irritating, or even destructive, but they come to us to be restored to unity with God and with us - and Jesus showed us how to serve them: by loving them with all our hearts, and all our souls, and all our minds, loving them as ourselves. Amen.

No comments: