Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Monday, October 30, 2023

YEAR A 2013 pentecost 22

Pentecost 22, 2023
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We use the word “love” a lot in our culture.  We say we love all sorts of things.  As C.S. Lewis points out, we use the same word for a huge list of different loves:  I love my new shoes; I love my cat; I love my family; I love my wife; I love my country; I love God.  One word covering everything from my shoes to God.

Now, of course, these are not all the same kind of love.  But we don’t have multiple names for love in English.  We have to add modifiers about size or amount or something in order to make the distinction.  I love my new shoes, sure.  But I love my wife a whole lot more than my shoes.  (Because I am a hopeless romantic!)  And I love God more than I love my country.  And, if I had to choose, I would definitely pick my family over my cat, because I don’t think our cat really loves us anyway.

And we also don’t have ways of distinguishing between different kinds of love.  I definitely love my wife in a completely different way than I love my country.  In fact, those two kinds of love have very little to do with each other.  But we’re stuck with just one word having to fill in for all these different kinds of love.

And what’s interesting is that you can see the difference between these loves based on how much they are rooted in emotion or effort.  On the one end, my love for my shoes is purely an emotional reaction; and on the other end, my love for God has very little to do with emotion.  And then if you follow through on that, the more my love is emotional (like my shoes), the less lasting it is.  I don’t make any kind of effort to love my shoes, and when it comes down to it, I could do without them.  And, if I’m honest, it takes some effort to love my country sometimes.  My love for my country isn’t based on emotions; it’s something deeper.  And, if I’m really honest, my love for God takes the most effort of all.

Because lots of times, I spend entire days being angry with God.  If I got angry with my shoes, I’d just get rid of them.  When I’m angry with my children, or with God, getting rid of them is not an option.  I have to “work” at those relationships.  My love for my family isn’t based on how I feel.  Same thing with my love for God.  Because my family and God are too important to me to be based on simple emotions.  Too important to love based on how I’m feeling on a given day.  Emotions are real, of course, but they come and go.  And they change over time.

So why all this talk about the different types of love?  I mean, you already know that I don’t love my shoes the same way I love my family, right?  Well, the limits of our English language are exposed when we have a gospel text like this one today.  Jesus is talking about love, and we need to know what kind of love he’s talking about.  Does he want us to love God and our neighbor the way we love our new car?  Or that most-fleeting of loves, the way I love watching the Buffalo Bills win?  Or some other kind of love?

The Gospels were written in Greek, as I've told you 1,000 times.  And the Greek language has many different words for “love.”  Four of them, in fact.  And the four kinds of love are very different.  There is philia, eros, agape, and then a fourth one that wasn’t defined in Jesus’ day, so we’ll ignore it.  Philia is the kind of love you have for your friends and family.  Philadelphia is called the city of brotherly love, because that’s what the name means.  Eros is passionate love, the kind of love you have for someone you’re dating, or hoping to.  And, most important to us, agape’ is unconditional love.  

Agape love is the kind of love God has for the world.  Remember that familiar John 3:16 verse?  You know, like the guy with the sign at the football games?  For God so loved the world?  That’s the agape love.  God’s love for the world is unconditional agape love.  A love that does not rely on emotion, or good behavior, or anything else.  Unconditional means unconditional.  

So . . . the point of all that explanation is so that we can look again at how Jesus answers the lawyer who is assigned to trap him.  The lawyer asks Jesus to name the most important of all the commandments.  The question is not about the 10 commandments; it’s about the Law of Moses, which is really plural, because there are 613 of those laws.  613 rules to guide one’s life at every single moment, and he asks Jesus to pick the most important one.  It’s yet another test designed to trap him, because he can’t possibly pick the right one out of 613, right?  I mean what are the odds of that?  Well, I guess 1 in 613.  But nevermind.

Jesus, however, knows the most important command.  It even has a name for faithful Jews.  It’s called, “the shema,” which is the first word of the sentence in Hebrew, meaning “Hear,” as in listen.  The shema is used at morning and evening prayer for the Jewish faithful, and the second verse is, “you shall love the lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.”  Jesus picks that as most important, which also subtly connects his answer to the act of worship, since this verse is used at least twice a day in worship.  But then Jesus makes an astonishing further move . . .

He says, “And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.”  A second one is like it.  Loving God with all your heart and soul and strength has nothing to do with people whatsoever.  God is one thing, and people are another thing.  So where does he get off saying “And a second is like it?”  

Let’s just let that question sit for a second and go back to love.  The word Jesus uses here, as I mentioned is agape: unconditional love.  And, as I said, unconditional love is an act, not an emotion.  Unconditional love does not change because circumstances change, or because people do things we do not like.  As a matter of fact, you can have agape love for people you don’t even like.  People who drive you nuts—your enemies if you will—those are people you can still love.  Those are people that you can still wish the best for.  Your enemies can still be loved with agape love, even if you would sooner move out of state than talk to them.

This agape love is the love that is commanded in the shema.  You are to love God unconditionally, with all your heart and soul and strength.  Some days you may be very angry with God, or disappointed with God, or disconnected from God; and that may make you feel like you don’t love God . . . if you make the mistake of thinking love is an emotion.  But agape love is not an emotion.  It is an action; it requires effort, or at least intentionality.  Loving God is a decision you make, not an emotion you feel.  And that is why it is a command:  You SHALL love the Lord your God. We are commanded to love God, which is very different from a feeling of love for God.

And now you’re saying, but uh . . . how do I possibly do that?  How will I know when I am doing that?  How can I decide to love God with all my heart and soul and strength?  I don’t even know where to begin, let alone know that I am doing it . . . What if I don’t feel anything for God?  What if I’m angry at God?  What if I feel like I am just going through the motions?  How do I love God in this way?

Jesus said, “And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.”
I don’t want to overemphasize the word “like” there, but for a moment . . . let’s give it a shot.  What if loving your neighbor is like loving God?  What if loving your neighbor as yourself is like loving God with all your heart and soul and strength?  Remember that John 3:16 verse I mentioned?  For God so loved the world?  As we heard last week, the people around you are the eikons of God.  Made in God’s image.  God loves the world.  God loves the people in this world.

Maybe this is all just a perfect circle . . . If God so loves the world that God is willing to die to redeem the world, and if God commands us to love God, then maybe loving people like God loves people is how we know we are loving God.  If God loves people that much, maybe trying to love people at least gets us on the path to loving God.  

Have you ever noticed that when you pray for other people you feel better than when you pray for yourself?  Like praying for someone else sometimes puts my own problems in perspective.  Or, sometimes, praying for someone else reminds me that God loves them, even when I may not necessarily even like that person?  The power of prayer isn’t that it accomplishes something elsewhere; the power of prayer is that it changes us, and molds us into the kind of people who are the hands and feet of God in this world.

Loving your neighbor IS loving God.  And loving God IS loving your neighbor.  A second command is like it . . .

But before you get concerned that you will be heading home with an insurmountable task of loving God and your neighbor, let me remind you of this . . .

Every time we make a promise to do what God says we should do, we always promise “with God’s help.”  This past Wednesday night, as we discussed ethics, we looked at the Baptismal Covenant. which you can find on page 305 of the prayer book.  Here’s the second question:  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  And we answer . . . I will with God’s help.  I will with God’s help.  God guides and directs us . . . we only need to be willing to be guided and directed.  And in making the promise (and adding, “with God’s help”), we have put things in the right order.  God says, love your neighbor, and we say with confidence, I will, with God’s help.  With God’s help, we will love God and our neighbor with an unconditional love.  WITH GOD’S HELP.


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