The story of the Great Commandment--to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself--appears in all three of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). And this commandment is rooted in the Shema, the commandment from the Book of Deuteronomy that obedient Jews recite twice a day--Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one: And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. It is by far one of the most beautiful commandments that we have because it calls us to love God with all our being, and to love each other and ourselves. In all that we do, in all that we are, our love is to be directed outwards. It calls us to love even in the midst of challenge and sorrow.
Since returning from diocesan convention, I’ve been thinking about this commandment and our Baptismal Covenant’s call to respect the dignity of every human being. At diocesan convention, the focus on our work together was on the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. You may be asking yourself, “what’s that”. The Doctrine of Discovery has its roots in a papal decree (or bull) issued in 1452 that “specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples” (http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/). Our guest speakers at the convention talked about how this doctrine has been imbedded into our laws to not only violate treaties that have been developed with Native peoples, but also to take away their land, mineral and water rights. Our guest speakers talked about the racism that is implicit in the aftermath of the Doctrine of Discovery; that Native peoples were and are considered “less than” white people, that their rituals and customs have been appropriated (the wearing of feathers, the commodification of sweat lodges and vision quests), and the naming of sports teams and their mascots (the “Warriors” or the “Redskins”). These are challenging realities that we are faced with as white people, and we have a lot of reconciliation work to do.
I’ve also been thinking about this commandment in my work with the emergency voucher program. As several of our church members can tell you, writing a gas voucher or a grocery voucher isn’t necessarily “hard” work. But when we encounter our guests, do we love them? Do we see them as children of God? In a conversation with a woman this week who came in seeking help, she mentioned that so many people had looked with her or treated her with suspicion. She was road weary, hadn’t had a hot meal in weeks, hadn’t bathed in while. When I was able to get her into a hotel for the night on Thursday just before the big rain happened, she cried. She was exhausted and grateful.
And in the course of emails and volunteer trainings and scheduling for the Warming Shelter to open on November 16, I have encountered people who have deep compassion for the unhoused. I have also encountered people who are hard hearted--why can’t “those people” get a job, save their money, get a place to live. For some, homelessness is the result of poor choices and unfortunate life events; they don’t have the skills and resources to manage their lives in a way that would have prevented them from living on the streets. For others, mental illness, abuse, and or addiction led to their situation. Our job is not to stand in judgment, but to give a hand up...to see these individuals as beloved children of God, to be the hands of Jesus in offering healing, to respect their dignity.
When Jesus is questioned by the scribe in Matthew about the greatest commandment, Jesus is being offered a theological challenge. The scribes and Pharisees had been working to trap Jesus in legalistic and theological queries as a way of challenging him--to prove that he was not the Messiah. And Jesus accepts the challenge, offers his response to the greatest commandment, and takes it a step further by adding the “to love your neighbor as yourself” part of the commandment. Through his response, he is showing that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. And he does so with love and compassion, responding to the bigger question of what matters in the kingdom of God--not just what matters in temple politics.
What comes next in the gospel for this morning is this strange little back and forth about whose son is the Messiah--God’s or David’s. It concludes in verse 46 with: No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions. While on the one hand, we could understand this to mean that Jesus stumped the Pharisees. But if we look at the course of the narrative, this is the last set of questions or tests before the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. This is a pivotal moment in the gospel narrative, and it comes on the heels of a teaching about love.
This radical love that Jesus talked about, the radical love and inclusive kingdom of God that Jesus preached, is part of what led to the cross. It reminds us that to really love God and our neighbor as ourselves, to be centered and grounded in love, is risky. And yet, it is the greatest gift we can give and receive.
Let us pray:
Holy God, whose name is not honored, where the need are not served, and the powerless are treated with contempt: may we embrace our neighbor with the same tenderness that we ourselves require; so your justice may be fulfilled in love, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
(All Desires Known, Janet Morley)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.