Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
October 23, 2011
FOR LOVE OF GOD AND NEIGHBOR
Texts: Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 22:34-40
It seems odd that the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” should be a trick question. Or that Jesus’ answer would be problematical. Love of God and neighbor; What’s the problem?
The Judaism of Jesus’ day had multiplied the Law of Moses into 613 commandments, 365 negative ones for the days in the year and 248 affirmative ones for the number of bones in a male body. Neither saint or C.P.A. could keep count. I do not cast stones. My growing-up Southern religion, Southern Baptist style, had uncountable hundreds. They were not written down, but you knew them, especially when you broke one. “Be nice” had at least fifty commandments under it. And “Don’t be a stumbling block to others” another fifty. No wonder we could never outrun guilt.
Micah the prophet provided a great summary of the Law, distilling the 613 into three:
What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
and love mercy,
and walk humbly with your God?
For many American Christians today justice is a communist plot, mercy is disdained and humility an affectation.
Jesus was asked for his own summary of the Law. Perhaps he had been asked more than once, some asking again because they loved the answer, others because they wanted to trip him in his own words. Jesus answered by quoting from the Shema, the great Hebrew credo in Deuteronomy:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5).
Then he quickly joined it with an essential second, from Leviticus:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).
What’s the problem here? It seems axiomatic, motherhood and apple pie. Well, someone might say, “What about the Ten Commandments?” And Jesus said, in effect, They are all in there in those two: “On these two hang all the law and the prophets,” all twenty-six scrolls.
Or they might have said, “What about sacrifices in the temple, or the dietary laws or the sabbath laws?” And Jesus said in effect, these are all important but the two greatest undergird them all. Without the love of God and neighbor they are nothing.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and remember your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go be reconciled, then come and make your gift” (Matthew 5:23-4). Which is why there are empty places in the pews today. That and the Panthers game.
In Mark the one who asks Jesus the question is an earnest inquirer, and after Jesus gives the answer he says,
You are right, Teacher; to love God with all your heart and understanding and strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
And Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). And those in charge of offerings and sacrifices squirmed.
But the scandal of Jesus’ answer was more. He tied inextricably, indissovably the love of God and neighbor. You cannot separate them. You love God by loving the neighbor. Harvard theologian Arthur McGill wrote that the word “love” for Jesus had a particular character: “an activity of self-expenditure for another’s need.”
And even more problematic, he kept expanding the boundary of who the neighbor was! Not just fellow Jews; Gentiles too, and sinners, those outside God’s Law, and foreigners and those of other races and despised Samaritans. Jesus loved pagans too!
In Moby Dick Ishmael, an upright Presbyterian sailor, finds himself a cabin-mate and bed-mate on the whaling ship with Queequeg, a fierce South Seas harpooner, a dark-skinned tattooed pagan who carries a dry shrunken head in a bag and sets up an altar in their hotel room with a wooden idol on it. But as he got to know Queequeg, Ishmael’s terror and revulsion turned to profound respect and real fondness. As Ishmael put it:
. . . how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them.
Jesus came to bend our stiff prejudices. And some did not like the elasticity. Even the enemy was to be loved, the one as close as at the office water fountain or as far away as Afghanistan.
This expansion of who the neighbor is brought and brings trouble. In the U.S., the immigrant has become the enemy. But in the Torah the most oft-repeated command is to care for the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant. Thirty-six times we hear the command. Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger among you shall be as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were once [yourselves] strangers in the land of Egypt.”
So today in the U.S., states are competing for who can pass the harshest immigration laws. And all because the White House and Congress cannot muster the courage to pass a comprehensive federal immigration law. George W. Bush offered a sensible one. As a Texan he knew both the need and complexity of the issue. But our leaders will not agree. So look at Alabama today. Did you read in the Charlotte Observer last week Peter St. Onge’s op.ed. piece on what’s going on in Alabama since their harsh law was passed?
- crops rotting in the field
- businesses closing
- families torn apart
- schoolrooms emptying because immigrant parents are afraid to send their children, many citizens, to school
- church pews empty
- police confused as to how aggressively to apply the law.1
America, America, God mend thine every flaw
confirm thy good in brotherhood, sisterhood, neighborli-hood
thy liberty in law.
(I’ve monkeyed with the words a bit.)
So the love of God and neighbor can have its challenges. But it’s the heart of all true religion, and the heart of what we are about here at MPBC.
- For the love of God and neighbor we teach children and youth.
- For the love of God and neighbor we build beautiful buildings like this sanctuary and create beautiful worship so we can worship God in the beauty of holiness.
- For the love of God and neighbor we go out on Saturdays of Service and house homeless persons and feed the hungry and work for justice and support public schools.
- For the love of God and neighbor “we are open to all and closed to none,” offering Christ’s welcome to all.
- For the love of God and neighbor we offer the Cornwell Center to members and community alike.
- For the love of God and neighbor we offer small groups and adult education and faith formation.
- For the love of God and neighbor we pray and sing and march.
- For the love of God and neighbor we become advocates, celebrants, defenders of life wherever we find it.
For the love of God and neighbor. . . .
Let me close the sermon with the first of the greatest commandments: the love of God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Not God’s love for us – which is of course where it all begins – but our love for God.
Two weeks ago Roger Haight led us in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, which end with meditations “to attain the love of God.” That is, not to attain God’s love for us, but to grow in our love of God. Ignatius taught us to spend some time every day pondering the goodness of creation, a creation mysticism, and all the gifts God gives to us. It is the spiritual practice of gratitude. Pat Adams led a small group on the spiritual practice of gratitude last year, which was very powerful for those in it.
But let me probe more deeply. How do we love God, not when things are easy, not good, but when we walk in a wilderness? Frederick Buechner tells of such a time when his daughter was hospitalized across the country, close to death with anorexia. Here are his words. I quote at length. You cannot paraphrase Buechner without losing him.
. . . to be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness – especially in the wilderness– you shall love him.
We know that wilderness well, you and I–all of us do–because there isn’t one of us who hasn’t wandered there, lost, and who will not wander there again before our time is done. Let me speak for a moment of once when I wandered there myself. The wilderness was a strange city three thousand miles from home. In a hospital in that city there was somebody I loved as much as I have ever loved anybody, and she was in danger of dying . . . .She had lost track of what being well meant, and day after day my wife and I drove to the hospital to see her, parked the car in the parking lot, went up in the elevator. We played games with her. We rubbed her back. We read aloud. She weighed less as a young woman than she had as a child. We had known her since the day she was born, but if we had passed her in the corridor, we wouldn’t have been able to recognize her.
When the worst finally happens, or almost happens, a kind of peace comes. I had passed beyond grief, beyond terror, all but beyond hope, and it was there, in that wilderness, that for the first time in my life I caught sight of something of what it must be like to love God truly. It was only a glimpse, but it was like stumbling on fresh water in the desert, like remembering something so huge and extraordinary that my memory had been unable to contain it. Though God was nowhere to be clearly seen, nowhere to be clearly heard, I had to be near him–even in the elevator riding up to her floor, even walking down the corridor to the one door among all those doors that had her name taped on it. I loved him because there was nothing else left. I loved him because he seemed to have made himself as helpless in his might as I was in my helplessness. I loved him not so much in spite of there being nothing in it for me but almost because there was nothing in it for me. For the first time in my life, there in that wilderness, I caught a glimpse of what it must be like to love God truly, for his own sake, to love him no matter what. If I loved him with less than all my heart, soul, might, I loved him with at least as much of them as I had left for loving anything . . . .
The final secret, I think, is this: that the words “You shall love the Lord your God” become in the end less a command than a promise. And the promise is that, yes, on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love him at last as from the first he has loved us–loved us even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, because he has been in the wilderness with us. He has been in the wilderness for us. He has been acquainted with our grief. And, loving him, we will come at last to love each other too so that, in the end, the name taped on every door will be the name of the one we love.2
What is the greatest commandment? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not only the greatest commandment, but a promise and our dearest hope.
1 Peter St. Onge, “What Happens After We Send the Immigrants Away?” The Charlotte Observer, Oct.16, 2011, 27A.
2 Frederick Buechner, “Love” in A Room Called Remember (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), pp. 41-45.