23 Pentecost 2021

Photo by Kristina Paukshtite on Pexels.com

Have you ever thought about how confusing we must sound to the rest of the world when we say “God is love”, “Love God.” Love your neighbor.” Without any further explanation?

I googled songs with the word love in the title and here a just a few of the top hits: “Stupid Love” (Lady Gaga); “All You Need is Love” – (Beatles); “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Elvis); “I Love Me” (Demi Lovato); “Love Lies” (Khalid); “Kill this Love” (Blackpink); “Addicted to Love” (Robert Palmer) “Love Child” (Diana Ross & the Supremes); “Love Shack” (B-52’s) and there were a lot of other strange references to “LOVE.” So what do we as Christians mean when we talk about love.

Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”   This morning we hear that the two greatest commandments involve loving God and loving our neighbor.  A very circular formula, but what does it all mean? Clearly modern culture sees love as something very different from what Jesus is speaking about and often does not see it as positive.

We heard this morning in our Gospel reading, Jesus’ response to the question“ Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Jesus is quoting from the Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament) when he makes this statement.

His first statement is from Deut. 6:4.  “Hear, O Israel” – Hear in Hebrew implies not only taking the sound into your ear, but obedience to what you have heard. “ The Lord is our God. The Lord alone.” This Is the NRSV translation from the Hebrew in Deut. “The Lord, our God, the Lord is one” is the NRSV translation from the Greek in Mark.   The Hebrew encompasses both of these meanings. There is only one God and we are called into relationship with God.

Monotheism is a given for a great many people today who accept that there is a god, but that was not the case in Moses’ time.  Every town, every tribe had a pantheon of gods they worshiped.  Moses is clarifying for the people that for them there is only one God, this is the God of Abraham, the God the gave his name to Moses in a burning bush, the God that delivered them from Egypt and kept them safe in the wilderness, the God that was bringing them to a new land across the Jordon.    This was their God and this God is a unity into God’s self.  Christians still adhere to this belief, but we describe this unity as revealed in Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Nicene Creed begins “ We believe in one God” and then describes this triune God.

Deut 6:5 continues : You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  The Hebrew word for love tends to be almost as variable as the English, so what is Moses saying?

Moses continues first with the reminder that one should “Recite them [God’s commandments] to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”  Loving God must in some way mean keeping the relationship between you and God as the most important thing in your life.  It is important enough that you should teach them to your children always, at home or away from home.  It is not confined to when at church.  It should be your last thought at night, when you lie down, and your first thought in the morning, when you rise. The Jews devised traditions to help them remember. 

Moses then gives warnings to fear God, to serve God, to make oaths only in the name of this God (Jesus will later say, don’t make any oaths at all) and most importantly “do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are around you.”  It one point in time I would have said actual idolatry is not an issue for us here in the United States.  The idols of which we must be aware of are things like power, money, and physical desires, this hasn’t changed, but more and more the practices of eastern religions and indigenous religions, including worship of other gods, is creeping back into practice.  I am including indigenous Europeans in this.  Druids have made a great comeback in Great Britain. In Scandinavia, the national governments now recognize multiple pagan cults as religious groups. In Germany, neo-pagans are reviving a pantheon of pre-Christian Germanic gods. I have run into some individuals who consider themselves Christian, yet participate in pagan rituals. We cannot assume we live in a monotheistic culture, but part of loving God means turning away from all other gods and being faithful by constantly nurturing our relationship with the one and only God.

The second thing Jesus said was “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus is quoting this time from Leviticus 19:18.  “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  This passage was originally interpreted with neighbor being your kinfolk, your tribe, perhaps even your nation, but there were commandments even in the Torah about how to treat foreigners.  Exodus 22:21 states “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Jesus goes even further:  He tells the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  He describes a man who has been attacked by robbers and left for dead.  He describes two “holy men,” a priest and a Levite,  who cross to the other side of the road when they see the man lying there.  They may have thought they had good reason to avoid him.  If he was dead and they touched him, they would not be able to perform their duties in the temple until they had completed the appropriate cleansing rituals, but Jesus puts the welfare of a person ahead of the rites of the temple.  He describes a third person, a Samaritan, who would have been an outsider, an alien – different race, different denomination, not liked and not trusted because of who he was.  This man stopped, performed first aid, put him on his donkey – which meant he now had to walk,  took him to an inn, paid for his immediate care and offered to cover any additional expenses.  This person did not worry about who he was helping, only that the man needed help.  This person did not worry about the cost to himself, but only that the man was cared for.  When Jesus asked the crowd who was the “neighbor” the response was “The one who showed mercy.”  He said, “Go and do likewise.”  Loving our neighbor means first recognizing that our neighbor extends beyond our immediate family or community or denomination.  Our neighbor includes anyone who needs our assistance that we are able to help.  None of us can save the whole world, but we can all to a little bit.

There is a story (first printed in 1969 by Loren Eiseley) of a young boy who was walking down the beaching picking up starfish that had washed ashore and was throwing them back into the water.  An old man observed him and asked him why he was doing this.  It was impossible for him to save every starfish that washed up on the beach, but the young boy, reached down and picked up another one, and tossing it in the water commented that he was aware of that, but that “at least I made a difference for that one.” Note: Don’t try this at home.  It can injure the starfish.

I think LOVE as described in the Bible is about making a difference through building relationships and doing what we can to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  It is not a “feeling.”  It is a commitment.  It is an act of the will whether we feel like doing it or not.  I think we will find however, that the feelings of joy and peace will follow our acts of LOVE.

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