Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La., Oct. 25, 2020
So…what you are about to hear is a “desperation sermon.” By that I mean, I wrote it Saturday afternoon beginning about 2:30 p.m. when desperation drove me to my computer and made me start typing.
And as is typically the case, starting out with the truth seemed the best bet.
See, my usual way to write a sermon is to read the lessons the previous Sunday afternoon—several times—and again on Monday, and Tuesday. By Wednesday the sermon is taking shape in my mind and… usually no later than Friday, I’m ready to sit down and write out what is already pretty well formed in my head.
Not so this week. Indeed, when I sat down at the computer Saturday afternoon, I still didn’t know what I was going to write. I just knew, in desperation, I had to write something. Hence this odd beginning!
So.. what’s the problem? Truly difficult scripture to deal with? Jesus’ most challenging teachings? Like that bit about everybody getting paid the same no matter how little or how long they had worked?
Nope. Quite the contrary. “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.” We’ve heard it hundreds of times. We say it. Often! What teaching of Jesus could be more familiar, more accepted…. more definitive of who we say we are.. than “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.”
Indeed, I’ll bet if you did a search of my sermons, you’d learn that I go there in some fashion in most of them. So you would think that the opportunity to preach an entire sermon on this core and pillar of our faith would be met with a flood of ideas and words!
In fact, that’s what I thought last Sunday afternoon when I read the lessons for the first time. “Oh, good,” I said to myself, “I get to preach on ‘Love God and your neighbor as yourself.’ That’s a no-brainer.”
Except it’s not. Except my second thought was, “Wait a minute. Everybody knows that. Everybody believes that. Everybody knows that ‘neighbor’ means everyone: your rich neighbor, your poor neighbor, your Christian neighbor, your Muslim neighbor, your light skinned neighbor, your dark skinned neighbor… And on and on. A million sermons have been preached!”
And of course, therein lies the problem. What’s left to be said? How does one say something fresh and new about that which everyone already knows and believes?
Back in March when we were all asked to “shelter in place” in our own homes, I set out to “entertain” myself by tackling some, what I will generously call “messes” in my home. One of them was a storeroom. Sort of. Because it had long been impossible to actually store anything there because the room was piled high with…. stuff. Just stuff. Stuff waiting to be recycled. Stuff I didn’t want anymore but couldn’t bring myself to through into the trash. Stuff waiting to go to Christian Community Ministries. Stuff.
And so I cleaned it out. And there under all that stuff I found two boxes I had completely forgotten. One was a box of old books I’d picked up for a pittance at an auction. I had intended to sort through them, pick what I wanted, sell anything worth selling and give the remainder to the Symphony book sale.
The other was a box of brass objects from my brass collecting period: candlesticks, bowls, platters, etc. etc. All waiting to be polished and used or.. displayed, or.. what? I’m not sure.
So I dragged these two boxes into the kitchen and slid them partly under the little dining table where I would be sure to see them every time I sat down to eat a meal.
You know what I was thinking, right? I’ll put them right here where they will be a constant visual reminder to go through them, sort, use or dispose of, whatever.
But you also know where this story is going, don’t you? They’re still sitting there, untouched. They have become part of the furniture of that space. I vacuum around them. I don’t even see them anymore.
And that’s the problem with Love God and your neighbor as yourself. It has become the furniture of our faith.
And that’s the challenge of this sermon: How do I—or any preacher—help us all to rediscover, to trip over, to claim in a new way, this central tenet of our faith, this thing that everybody already knows and believes? Even as we often fail to do it!
How can we hear it again for the first time?
That’s it. That’s the tweet. Hear it again for the first time: Love God and your neighbor as yourself.
Now, all I can offer to help you hear it again for the first time are two quick points.
First, I think it behooves Christians to remember that love God and your neighbor as yourself doesn’t belong solely to us. I casually referred to it a few paragraphs back as a teaching of Jesus. And it is. But Jesus didn’t make it up. He was quoting his own Hebrew scripture. There it is in Leviticus. It belongs also to our Jewish brothers and sisters.
It is also claimed by Islam. Loving God is a thread that runs throughout the Qu’ran, and in the Sunnahs, which are Muslim writings held in esteem next to the Qu’ran, loving neighbors as oneself is presented as a natural outcome and extension of loving God.
Some scholars believe Islam borrowed from Christianity in developing that theology. I make this point because I believe, in this contentious age, looking for commonalities within difference—and while appreciating difference—is one of the most loving things we can do.
What I do know is that love is an unmerited gift from God. As God’s beloved, we love God back by loving what God loves—namely our neighbors as ourselves. ALL of our neighbors, and I would include our fellow non-human creatures.
Most human love is transactional. We love in order to get love—or something of value—in return. When our love is not reciprocated, we cut our losses and move on.
But we can’t love God to make God love us! Because God is the source of all love. God loves us first. We can take it or leave it, but we can’t earn it by loving God or by living a moral life or by all the piety in the world.
We can take it and love God and our neighbor as ourselves, or we can leave it… and be the unhappiest of humans, the most discontent, the angriest, the most hateful toward others. I truly believe that most human misery, prejudice, judgemental-ness, selfishness, fear, anger, hate... are consequences of people not knowing, or not accepting, or forgetting.. that they are God’s beloved.
We will never get it right all the time. All we can do, or, at least all I can do, is remind myself constantly as I am faced daily with neighbors I don’t understand, neighbors with whom I disagree vehemently, neighbors who frighten me with their anger and hostility… all I can do is remind myself again and again: I am God’s beloved and so is he or she. And that is enough. Loving is an end in itself. Love
The Sufi poets often give me words to express the ineffable. Here are the words of the Sufi saint Rabia al-Basra. She writes:
O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.