Heart and Soul
July 28, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Matthew 22: 35-40
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Maybe it is because I spent this last week at Vacation Bible School, with preschoolers – eighteen three and four year olds – actually, it seemed like there were about 738 of them
Maybe it was singing the same songs every night, and going home exhausted…anyway, whatever it was, I had this idea that today, we might work together a little bit on this sermon. We are going to start with a simple exercise of naming pairs of things – things that go together. Not opposites, like hot and cold, but complements, like biscuits and gravy. I’ll name the first item in the pair, and you fill in the blank. Ready?
Salt and …
Left and ….
Man and …
Boys and …
Left and …
Love and …
Good job, friends!
Now, here’s the most important one:
Love god and love…
Right. That one is the very most important pair, and we know it because Jesus said so. “On these two commandments hang ALL the law and the prophets.” What’s the greatest commandment? It is actually a pair of them – love God, and love your neighbor. Now, you may know that the Torah, the five books of the Law, consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And I’m sure you know that when Jesus was asked about Scripture, he could only refer to the Hebrew scripture – the law and the prophets. (He couldn’t exactly refer to the gospels, could he, since they were written after his death and resurrection?) So when he was asked about the greatest of the laws, he gave this answer that is really two laws in one.
There’s a wonderful story from the Jewish tradition about this two-in-one law. Rabbi Hillel was a revered teacher of the law who lived approximately from about 30 BC to 10 AD; his teachings would have been extant in Jesus’ time, and were well known across Palestine. Tradition tells us that the Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel, was a teacher of the Apostle Paul.
So Rabbi Hillel is revered as a Jewish doctor of the law.
The story goes that a non-Jewish heathen asked Hillel to summarize the Torah- the 613 commandments that make up the law. This smart fellow told Hillel, according to one version of the story, that if Hillel could recite the Torah while standing on one foot, he would convert to Judaism. Hillel stood on one foot and said, "What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary"
The Jewish encyclopedia of 1906 adds that Hillel assumed the premise that love of God came first, and that love of neighbor naturally follows. So simple! So obvious!
Even a child can understand this. If you do not want Arky to knock down the block tower you have built, do not knock down the block tower that Arky has built. If you would like to color, and Olivia would like to color, plan on sharing the coloring book with Olivia. Jerking the coloring book out from under her is probably not going to contribute to your goal.
Even a child can understand it.
So why is it SO DARN HARD FOR US TO DO?
Probably that answer is different for different people, and different for each of us at different times and in different situations.
Perhaps we love self first, and God and neighbor only when it suits us. We get the “love of self” part but we aren’t so keen on part that goes “Love God with your whole strength, your whole heart, and your whole mind, and your neighbor…” So most of our choices, most of our actions, most of our thoughts are centered on what makes us happy, or what we think will make us happy. We live a life that is just all about ourselves.
Some of us love God just fine, and we do okay with ourselves, but we can’t love our neighbors because we are too busy with our yardstick of rules, seeing if they measure up to our expectations. Are they nice enough, good enough, Christian enough? Are they conservative enough? Liberal enough? Can they pass our litmus test of isms and beliefs and actions? Do they look like us? Believe like us? Worship like us? Do they conform to our understanding of what it means to be good? We love our neighbors, but only in certain neighborhoods.
And some of us do pretty well with love of God and neighbor, but we can’t love ourselves, at least not well enough, not in ways that are truly life-giving. Some of us commit the sin of self-deprecation, of believing that we are unlovable, of failing to see ourselves as God’s beloved. Probably that last category is a small group – most of us do just fine most of the time with thinking well of ourselves and not so great with extending that love to strangers.
But when we commit that sin, of believing ourselves to be unworthy of love, we are arguing with God just as surely as any non-believer. So what does it mean to love God, love neighbor, and love self?
Hillel had something to say about that, just as our own teachers of the New Testament did.
In his teachings the love of God, love of neighbor and love of self encompassed the whole span of human responsibility. It is founded upon a basic respect for self – as being made in God’s image, for one’s heart and soul and mind and body. Not selfishness or pride or self-gratification, but an understanding that we are made in the image of God, and that we are loved AS WE ARE!
There follows from that a deep and abiding connection to community, in which the great commandment is lived out.
Hillel famously said: "If I am not for myself, who is for me?
and if I am only for myself, what am I?
and if not now, when?"
The third corollary of this great commandment is the love of neighbor, the care for others both within and outside of our communities, and the cultivation of peace among all people.
In a short while we are going to celebrate with Brooke and Allan Dir and their whole family the baptism of their child, Carter. We are going to welcome Carter to this family of God, and we are going to promise that we will support and nurture him and his entire family, helping him to know the love of Jesus and to build a strong faith, to live as a child of God.
We will be reminded of our covenant promises, made in our baptism, that we renounce evil and powers in the world which defy God’s righteousness and love; that we renounce the ways of sin that separate us from the love of God; that we turn to Jesus Christ and claim him as Lord and Savior; that we will be Jesus’ faithful disciples, obeying his word, and showing his love and justice.
We will make those promises on behalf of Carter and ourselves, and along with his parents and his extended family. And we have warrant for making those promises, because we have experienced the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in powerful and amazing ways ourselves. In this community we have the opportunity of serving our neighbors by welcoming the stranger feeding the hungry, sharing our resources, and most lately, welcoming about a hundred people into our building for five nights in a row, working together as the body of Christ, living out the idea of
one body and one Spirit,
one hope of our calling,
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all,
who is above all and through all and in all.
When we baptize Carter, that is the faith into which we baptize, on behalf of the whole church. When we baptize him, we are promising to show him by our lives how to follow the great commandment, and to teach him how to live a life in keeping with Jesus’ teachings. But more than anything, we are saying to him what God has said to us, what we are called to say to each other, that simple, lovely statement that is so challenging to live out:
You are loved.
On the last night of Vacation Bible School, it was my turn to offer the closing prayer.
I thought of our pre-school lesson that night: Jesus welcomes the children. It had come to me as an inspiration, a God moment, that after we told the story of how Jesus welcomed the children, we should bless the children just as Jesus did.
So Laura and Jill and Brice and Addison and Britney and I lined up, and the children came to each one of us, one by one, to receive a blessing. In spite of the fact that simply lining up and taking turns is sometimes a challenge for three and four year olds, they waited quietly, solemnly, patiently, and each one came to us, where we knelt down, looking into their sweet faces, into their eyes, and said, “Jesus loves you, just the way you are.”
And in the last moments of Everywhere Fun Fair, as I looked at the crowd of children and adults filling this sanctuary, some of them probably unchurched, many of them unconnected to community, many of them struggling in ways unknown to me, all of them my neighbors, made in the image of God, as I looked out across this sea of faces, it seemed the Spirit spoke to me, to remind me to bless them, to tell them that they are loved.
And so I invited them, as I invite you now, to receive a blessing.
Place your hand on your head, and repeat after me:
“Jesus loves me.
Just the way I am.”
It is so simple, my friends. A complementary pair – heart and soul,
Love God and …
On these hang all the law and the prophets.