Pentecost 21 Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 Thessalonians 2:1-8 Matthew 22:34-46
Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, in whom we live and move and have our being, give us open hearts and minds. Grant us a vision of you as you are, and of the world as it might be. Touch our hearts; give us words of truth for living our lives. Then set us free to do what you ask of us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I have been a priest for ten years and a deacon for five years before that, and there is one thing I’ve learned in that period of ministry. It is the fact there is no way you can please everyone. Usually it is a mistake to try. You end up like the rather timid pastor who was told by part of his congregation to preach the “old fashioned gospel,” and by the rest to be broad minded. One day he got up to preach and ended up saying, “Unless you repent, in a measure, and are saved, so to speak, you are, I am sorry to say, in danger of hellfire and damnation, to a certain extent.” He had really learned the fine art of straddling the fence.
Jesus was often put into situations where he may have been tempted to straddle the fence. When he was put in such situations, he was able to always turn the tables on those who sought to trap him, or trip him up, as we saw in last week’s Gospel.
A lawyer was questioning a farmer about an accident. The lawyer said to the farmer, “Tell me what happened right after the accident, when you reportedly said, ‘I feel fine!’” The farmer began to speak, “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road.”
At this point the lawyer interrupted saying, “Please answer my question. Didn’t you say you felt fine immediately following the accident?” And turning to the Judge the lawyer asked that the witness be instructed to answer the question.
The judge looked at the farmer and said, “Please answer the question.” The farmer began again, “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road.”
The lawyer interrupted once again, “Your Honor, please instruct the witness to answer my question.” The judge looked at the lawyer and then at the farmer and then back to the lawyer and said, “Let’s just allow the witness to tell his story.”
The farmer began once again. “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road. When we came through the intersection this big truck hit us broadside. I flew out of the truck in one direction and Bessie flew out in the other. I came to just as the highway patrol officer got there. He went over, looked at poor Bessie lying there on the road, and then he come over and told me she was hurt something awful and in pretty bad shape. Then he went back to Bessie, pulled out his gun and shot her dead. He then came back to me and asked me how I felt. I said, “I feel fine.”
In this weeks’ Gospel, a lawyer (they were even around then), asks Jesus in an attempt to trip him up, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” And Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
There were 613 laws listed in the Torah, the Jewish equivalent of the Bible. They were seen as direct revelation from God. How would you like to be the “traffic cop” or the gatekeeper who insisted that everyone follow these laws? The Pharisees, as a professional group, were such gatekeepers. They were determined that God’s will be followed. Many were mere legalists, concerned with the minimum of what was expected of them. But many were quite sincere. Just doing their duty.
Jesus’ response is known as the great commandment. That we love God and love each other. He cares deeply about how we treat each other. The call to love one another finds its grounding in Jesus’ love for us, therefore we should love each other. Jesus said in John 13:34, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” God shows his love for us, and expects that we in response, will love one another.
Do you remember the song from a number of years ago that went like this? “What the world needs now is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing there’s just too little of.” Jesus, in the gospel today, speaks plainly and pointedly when he says to love God and neighbor is what people need the most in life. His words are just as true and relevant for us today as they were in his own day.
For many, the word “love” spills out of their mouths too easily. We see love portrayed as something on the TV or movie screen. Something that we fall into or out of as the mood arises. This happens when our expressions of love arise out of our selfishness. When love is used in this manner, the emphasis is, most of the time, on the self and not on others or on God. However, Jesus turns that around, by focusing on love of others and God. To be a loving person; to love God and our neighbor means that we think of the needs and interests of God and others first. Interestingly enough, most of us discover that when we spend our life fulfilling and serving the needs of our neighbors, of others, then our own needs and interests are also fulfilled. In this way, we love God too.
Jesus tells us to love. Love motivates us to relate to others in special ways. Love motivates us to live in ways that are creative, helpful, nurturing, sustaining and lifting up. Love is not a feeling. Love is action. Love is something we do. How do we do love? If we could see through the eyes of Jesus, we would see with compassion. He cares about our needs, our hurts, and our brokenness. He understands our sinfulness—it should come as no shock or surprise. But instead of judging us, he is ready to forgive, to mend, and to restore us to his side. We are all precious in the sight of God. Jesus wants us to see through his eyes.
Lois Cheney, in her book, God is No Fool, tells about a man who tried to keep life at arm’s distance. Listen to her words; “He saw people love each other. He saw friends love friends. He saw mothers’ love children. He saw husbands love wives. And he saw that all love made strenuous demands on the lovers. He saw love require sacrifice and self-denial. He saw love produce arguments and anguish. He saw it bring disappointment, pain, and even death. And he decided that it cost too much. And he decided not to diminish his life with love.
“He saw people strive for distant and hazy goals. He saw men strive for success. He saw women strive for high, high ideals. He saw young people strive for attainment. And he saw that the striving was frequently mixed with disappointment. And he saw the strong men fail, maimed, and even killed. He saw it force people into pettiness, grasping at those things they both saw and didn’t see. He saw that those who succeeded were sometimes those who had not earned success. And he decided that it cost too much. He decided not to soil his life with striving.
“He saw people serving each other. He saw men give money to the poor and helpless. He saw whole groups work to build up, cleanse, and heal others. And he saw that the more they served, the faster the need grew. He saw large portions of money freely given – sometimes lining already fat pockets. He saw new schools filled with uncaring teachers. He saw ungrateful receivers turn on their serving friends. And he decided that that cost too much. He decided not to soil his life with serving. “And when he died, he walked up to God and presented him with his life. Undiminished, unmarred and unsoiled, his life was clean from the filth of the world, and he presented it proudly to the mighty God saying, ‘This is my life.’
“And God said, ‘What life?’”
In his fifty-six years on the planet, Adolf Hitler did incredible harm and was responsible for millions of terrible deaths. Yet in all of the horror that he unleashed, there are pinpoints of light and nobility. And a German soldier, Private Joseph Schultz, was one of these pinpoints.
He was sent to Yugoslavia shortly after the invasion. Schultz was a loyal, young German soldier on patrol. One day the sergeant called out eight names, his among them. They thought they were going on a routine patrol. As they hitched up their rifles, they came over a hill, still not knowing what their mission was. There were eight Yugoslavians there, standing on the brow of the hill, five men and three women. It was only when they got about fifty feet away from them, when any good marksman could shoot out an eye of a pheasant, that the soldiers realized what their mission was. The eight soldiers were lined up. The sergeant barked out, “Ready!” and they lifted up their rifles. “Aim,” and they got their sights. And suddenly in the silence that prevailed, there was a thud of a rifle butt against the ground. The sergeant, and the seven other soldiers and those eight Yugoslavians stopped and looked. Private Joseph Schultz walked toward the Yugoslavians. The sergeant called after him and ordered him to come back, but he pretended not to hear him.
Instead he walked the fifty feet to the mound of the hill, and he joined hands with the eight Yugoslavians. There was a moment of silence, and then the sergeant yelled, “Fire!” And Private Joseph Schultz died, mingling his blood with that of those innocent men and women. Found on his body was an excerpt from St. Paul: “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.”
Let us lay our lives before the Lord our God and be transformed by the power of love. Let us love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and our neighbors as ourselves.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, Loving God, help us to honor the great commandment you have given us. Help us to discover real meaning in our lives through loving you and our neighbors with ALL our heart, ALL our soul, ALL our strength, and ALL our mind. Help us be like Christ in whom we believe and, in whose name, lift this and all of our prayers. Amen.