Sermons

"The Two Greatest Commandments: Sermon for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost, Year A"

"The Two Greatest Commandments: Sermon for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost, Year A"

Oct 29, 2017

Passage:Matthew 22:34-46

Preacher: The Venerable Chris Wrampelmeier

Series: Pentecost

Category: Faithfulness

Keywords: faithfulness, love, mercy, rules

Summary:

The Pharisees challenge Jesus--asking which rules are the most important. Jesus stumps them by giving them the "Great Commandment". In this sermon, we find out what's so "great" about this commandment...perhaps it's simply understanding who our neighbors are, and that with God's mercy and love, we can follow the "rules."

Detail:

I am a lawyer. I did not think about becoming a lawyer when growing up, but like most lawyers, I was drawn to rules. I may not have followed every rule, but I paid attention to them. A family friend recalled how as a child I would insist thatmy playmates, her children, sit still and listen to me read aloud all the rules of a complex game we were learning. I am sure it was not an effective way to teach us how to play.

You don’t have to be a lawyer to love rules. Americans love rules. With our not having a common racial or ethnic origin or even a common arrival date in thisland, our constitution and laws are what bind us as a people. Laws and the respect for laws are what unify us as a nation. You can see this love of rules even in the games we most choose to follow: football and baseball. Each sport has intricaterules that baffle those unfamiliar with them. These rules make a difference between success and failure in each game. Perhaps soccer has had such a tough time taking off in the United States because its rules are too simple for our spectators. Law as entertainment extends to television and movies, where there are always shows ofcourtroom stories, legal dramas, or comedies based in law firms. Even if you have never set foot in a court, you understand the concept of a lawyer questioning a witness from watching these shows.

So it is not hard for either me or you to envision the scene in today’s gospel. A lawyer among the Pharisees puts Jesus to the test by asking which of all the many, many commandments is the greatest. Jewish religious law is filled with rules governing life and behavior. Jesus’ answer would show his theology and could expose him to criticism by his enemies, who were anxious to discredit him. It is a simple cross-examination technique: ask the witness a question, then turn his answer against him.

Here the tactic fails because they can’t criticize Jesus’ response. Jesus pulls both parts of his answer straight from the Torah. His opponents could not argue with his citing the commandment to love God. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself comes from the Leviticus reading today. Jesus ties the two commandments together by stating that on them hang all the law and the prophets.His response is conservative and must have disappointed his enemies. His critics silenced, Jesus then goes on the counter-offensive, posing a question to the Pharisees that they cannot answer.

But for a people that love rules almost as much as the Pharisees, where do the two great commandments leave us? How do they answer specific questions we face, both personally and as a society? As Christians, where does our faith tell us to draw the line between individual responsibility and societal responsibility? Must we oppose all wars? Is there a Christian position on tax reform? Oncontroling greenhouse gases?On health insurance policy?

I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that Jesus’ declaration of the two greatest commandments does not answer all the religious and ethical questions in our lives. We still must struggle with each question. The good news, I suppose, is that Jesus always makes us struggle with his teachings so this lesson is no different. If Jesus wanted to give easystep-by-step directions to life’s questions, his parables and hyperbole were not the way to do it. Our church also makes us struggle with Jesus’ teachings. Our church doesn’t pretend the answers are simple, and it doesn’t dictate those answers for us. I am reminded of first year law school, during which the professors would answers our questions with questions.

The great commandments give us a guide by which to judge our choices. We shall love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. We shall love our neighbors as ourselves. The command to “love” is a command to act, a command to respond. “Love” here is not an emotion. It is not a feeling nor is it passive. God’s love, His creation of a world for us, calls for a response by us to Him. We are to commit ourselves only to Him and to demonstrate our gratitude in how we behave.

In a similar manner, we are actively to show generosity, mercy, and kindness to all our neighbors, committing ourselves to them as much as we care for our own selves. Again, it is not a command to feel good about everyone, to think nicely about everyone. It is a command to act, putting others’ interests on par with our own. “Love” is an action verb.

I find these laws hard to live by. I’d rather not think about how my spending reflects my priorities and how those priorities don’t show I am as committed to my neighbor as much as I am committed to myself.How can I each day face the question of whether I am properly responding to my Creator and properly showing mercy and kindness to those in this city, nation, and world? I am going to fail; I am not going to follow those commandments each day.I see why many in Jesus’ lifetime would prefer strict adherence to rules regarding diet, ritual purity, and animal sacrifices rather than reorienting their lives to love God fully and love their neighbors equally.

Our response to the Gospel starts with rememberingGod is a God of mercy. God is not a football referee, throwing the flag for each of our infractions. God is not a courtroom judge, punishing us each time we break the rules. God calls us to respond to his love and to love Him above all. God calls us to act generously and mercifully to those around us. But God knows that much of the time, we will not do these things.

That is not to excuse our failures but rather to keep trying despite those failures. Because when we succeed, we succeed beautifully. We hear—notoften enough—storiesof love and sacrifice:

a woman donating a kidney to her co-worker, saving the life of that single parent,

volunteers who help gut and rebuild houses in hurricane-devastated areas,

a woman on a plane offering to hold her exhausted neighbor’s baby, calming the child throughout the flight,

a high school senior who founded a club to ensure no one ate lunch at school alone,

handlers and their therapy dogs who visit the sick and injured in hospitals, including those hurt in the Las Vegas mass shooting,

people working with refugee families in our city, making this strange land a little less strange and far more welcoming,

people packing lunches for the Amarillo homeless and others delivering the lunches on Sundays,

eucharistic visitors who include in our worship members of this church by bringing the bread and the wine to their hospital rooms, homes, and nursing homes.

One such story is our story.In February 1996, the nave, narthex, parish hall, library, and offices of this church burned to the ground. Over the next year, the church seemed to fall apart, with many families leaving. Although we worshipped in the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School gym for the next six years, old members and new responded to God’s love by keeping this church alive and then growing it. They raised new buildings from the ashes of the old. These buildings stand for the commitment these people made to God, giving back to God what is God’s.

Just as importantly, this congregation responded to its neighbors. Before the fire, there was a formal Outreach Committee of a few dedicated persons who would be responsible for outreach for the whole church. Now all of us have that duty; we are a committee of the whole. While it may be your ministry to participate in this activity and not in that one, we at St. Andrew’s recognize that loving our neighbor is a commandment given to all. Our reach outside the church has grown beyond all expectations. The Trunk or Treat event today is just one prominent way this church has moved its boundary stakes.

Our neighbors are not just those outside our walls, but those who come inside as well. In the years since the fire, the people in this church learned and showed how to welcome and befriend both those who remained in this congregation and those who found their way to our doors. St. Andrew’s acquired an energy and a purpose. That energy and purpose drew people to this church, and those peopleinvited more people. Just as our new nave was finished,the Episcopal Church faced a crisis that broke apart other parishes and dioceses, but the congregation of St. Andrew’s remained wonderfully at peace with itself. I hope my perception is shared by everyone else, that we looked beyond labels and appearances to see the person in each of our neighbors. In our neighbors, we saw how much more we had in common than just a Book of Common Prayer.

In the process, we witnessed how people we might never have known anywhere else would go far out of their way to love us and our loved ones in times of joy and in times of tragedy. We redefined ourselves to be members of a family, a family that gathers both around a common table in this nave and around many tables in our parish hall, Loundes Hall, and the houses of parishioners. It is a family that anyone may join.

Our challenge is to maintain the energy and purpose that attracted so many of us to St. Andrew’s. We must glorify God, our creator and sustainer, our reason for being. We must look outward, greeting and befriending visitors and newcomers. We must look outward, seeing beyond our personal needs, beyond our parish’s needs, to addressalso the needs of those in our community and elsewhere.

In other words, all we have to do is follow the rules.