THE WAY OF LOVE
The Rev. Helen Havlik
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 4, 2018
(preached by the Rev. Linda Rubingh, pulpit supply)
When Jesus called his disciples, he had in mind a community of believers working together to share the good news of God’s love and forgiveness. Working together requires certain things of us: to live in community, to live simply, to serve humbly and to trust God and each other are just the beginning. As Jesus nears the end of his life, he spends his time teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem, where anyone can listen in and learn what else it takes to be God’s people. I’m reading from Mark, Ch. 12, beginning with vs. 28. Here is God’s Holy Word.
Elias Chacour is a Palestinian, a Christian, a priest in the Melkite tradition of the church dating back to the first disciples. In his memoir, Blood Brothers, he talks about the roots of the current Middle Eastern conflict, the tentacles of which twist in many directions, including his own heart. But he had an epiphany when, as a newly ordained priest, he was sent to a Palestinian village that apparently had been devastated by the Israeli occupation. Chacour soon learned, however, that this community and the church he was sent to serve were responsible for their own problems—brother hated brother, gossip was tearing apart the peaceful fabric of the village—even the president of the church was waging a hateful, private war on Chacour’s next door neighbor. It took awhile but one Sunday he knew what he had to do not only to remind people of this commandment to love God and love neighbor, but show them how to live it. So as worship was ending, as people waited for the benediction and before they could see what was in his hands, Chacour hurried to the only door to the sanctuary and chained and padlocked it. Holding the key in his hand, he turned to the people and said, in effect, “We have not loved God or neighbor. No one leaves here until we have asked for and received forgiveness from each other and from God.”
Whom or what do you really love most in this world? Every time we open the Bible this question confronts us. It’s right up there with “what’s the meaning of life?” and “why do bad things happen to good people?” It’s a major concern—because what we love most becomes the center of our lives. It’s where we put our time and our talent and our energy and our resources, especially our money. Jesus knows this as well as anyone. And so do the religious people of his day, the scribes and Pharisees. And they also know what scripture says about it: the only thing, the only One worth all of our time and our talent and our energy and our resources was and is and will always be God. Jesus is quoting first from Deuteronomy and then from Leviticus, where the command to the people of Israel is stated very clearly, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” And while we’re at it, love your neighbors like you love God. In fact, as Jesus puts it, loving God and loving neighbor are two sides of the same coin. Together they are the greatest commandment. And if that’s the case, then we’re all in trouble, aren’t we? When I really hear this, I begin to squirm. For all our talking and singing about love, what often passes for “love” nowadays is a watered down version of what Jesus intends here. I think we know something important depends on you and me not just feeling love but living it. Love isn’t what we feel but what we do as we will the best for God, ourselves and others. The question is what does it mean for us to hear and follow?
We know that God loves us. This is the message we hear again and again, with Jesus being the proof beyond all proof of this love. This is the covenant love of the Old and New Testaments that goes way beyond mere feeling, to an unbreakable commitment. God is our God and we are God’s people. God loves us and asks for our love in return. We may fail at this and yet there is forgiveness and in forgiveness there is hope. Does this mean that God lets us out of our part of the bargain? No—we’re still commanded to love God and others as God has loved us—but it does mean God covers our part of the deal, too, so that where we fail, God helps us to succeed. This is what grace is all about. And this is where the scribe is on to something. He sees that keeping such a commandment means depending solely on God’s grace—ritual is important but not enough. Your life must change, too.
So Jesus points us to Leviticus, Ch. 19, for some concrete examples, straight from God’s mouth, of what it means to live love by willing the best for others. It starts with considering the needs of those who are poor or alien in the land: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap” it all—something should be left to those who don’t have enough to survive. Then you shall deal with people plainly, honestly, in good faith. Twice God says that you and I shall not steal from our neighbors. We are to respect the people around us who have special needs and disabilities. We are to act with justice, refraining from gossip and not profiting when our neighbors are in trouble. And “you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus says that God has a very clear vision of how God’s children ought to behave—and it’s grounded in limitless unconditional love. This vision’s not all that new—Moses brought it down from the mountain in the Ten Commandments and the prophets spoke of it—Micah summed it up by saying, “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God?” But what was very old sounded very new on the lips of Jesus because no one actually had ever lived up to what the Lord required! That is until Jesus came along to show us what living that vision looks like. And not only live it himself, but to call us to live it with him, so that our lives become the sign of God’s rule of peace and justice.
Only love can break your heart. Only love is real. Only love remains. Only love can save the world. Wynonna Judd sings, “Only love sails straight from the harbor and only love will lead us to the other shore. Out of the flags I’ve flown one flies high and stands alone. Only love.” And from the Beatles, “It’s only love and that is all. But it’s so hard loving you.” It’s one thing to agree people should love God and neighbor—it’s another thing to live that way, as the people at Elias Chacour’s church found the day they forgave each other. It’s God who reaches out to us first with love and forgiveness so that we are able to respond by living according to what God commands: loving our God and loving our neighbors, with all that we are and all that we have. Today, as we honor and remember the saints of the church and share in the Lord’s Supper, we know that as in love Jesus has claimed those who have gone before us, he claims and empowers us. It’s up to us to claim him and his love.