Sunday, October 25, 2020

Love your neighbor, all of them


Today we have the final debate with the scribes and Pharisees. After this Jesus moves into a denunciation of them as false prophets and hypocrites. Soon he will be arrested, tried and crucified.

This passage contains such an important concept to us today that these exact words are used in the Summary of the Law in Rite 1 and in the Penitential Rite 2 in our Book of Common Prayer. I use this at the start of each service during Lent, a time of reflection, repentance and prayer. This is what we call the summary of the law: Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God will all your heart and all your heart and all your might and the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself. ON these two hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus teaches that he did not come to overturn the law but to fulfill the law. He is the Messiah and he knows that he is not what they expected. That is what the rather confusing second half of today’s passage is saying. He is telling them that the Messiah is more than the Son of David that they all expected. This second part of the passage is Jesus using a long-standing theological debate about the nature of the Messiah to make the Pharisees look bad. The actual answer is not important to us today.

However, this love of God and neighbor is also an essential tenant of St. Paul’s. We have it on our T-shirts and in many other places. This is a core value for us. Because of this I want to really focus on this concept. The question is what does this mean to you and how does it inform you as a member of our parish.

This message of love your neighbor is even more remarkable when you look at the setting of this teaching. Jesus has just finished several parables that have taken the Pharisees and the Sadducees to task for how they are leading the people of Israel astray. The Sadducees have been silenced in the answer Jesus gives them about life after death. Now the Pharisees take their turn and challenge him with the question about what is the greatest commandment. The language in the original Greek makes clear that this is not a friendly question, but a bitter challenge.

The Pharisees are not friends or supporters, but enemies not only of Jesus, but of Matthew’s community. The question itself is nothing extraordinary. The topic of heavy and light commandments had gone on for centuries and Jews still debate it today. When you have 613 commandments, 365 though shalt nots, intentionally one for every day of the year and 248 things you should do (corresponding to the number of body parts known at the time). How can anyone remember all of them much less follow them was a common question.

Jesus answers with the statement that combines the Shema Deut. 6 that specifies the command to love God with an equally famous passage from Leviticus about love of neighbor. The Shema is the prayer every faithful Jew says upon rising in the morning and before going to bed at night.

Jesus says that these two commandments love God and love your neighbor are so important that all the other commandments hang on these two. Think in terms of the image of a door with two hinges. The two hinges on which the door hangs and moves are these two commandments.

Now this isn’t hard until we come up against the neighbor who to be honest, drives us nuts. Maybe their politics or religious views are opposed to ours. I am certain that all of us can think of someone who is very hard to love because of what they do, say or believe. That is the major problem facing us in churches, our country and the world.

Just as I was struggling with this whole problem and believe me, I really struggle with this when I get passionate about a cause, an injustice that I perceive or something that lights my fire and I know it happens. I open up my app on my phone for my Morning Prayer time and there it is, the prayer from page 816 of the BCP; the Prayer for Our Enemies. You see along with love of neighbor Jesus also reminds us that our “enemies” are to be prayed for as well. I would prefer in this instance to replace enemy with “those with whom we differ.”

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love those with whom we differ. Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Note that the prayer asks God to lead them and us, deliver them and us in ways that ultimately lead to reconciliation. We are asking God to help us change as well as the other. The important part of the message here is that we control how we react to situations. We cannot control another’s actions, but we can control our own actions. That really is the only hope if we are to put things back together. A willingness to forgive and a willingness to love even those with whom we disagree is what we really need.

Does this seem a little naïve? Well maybe, but then again some variation of the Golden Rule is in every faith tradition. At one time I had a poster with many versions of this from 8 different faith traditions. They all had the same message. To treat our neighbor as we want to be treated. That is the essence of love your neighbor as yourself.

Then there is the neighbor whom Jesus really calls us to pay attention to again and again. Without a doubt the poor, the widow, the orphan, little children and the outcast are the recipients of Jesus’ attention, healing and love. Jesus taught this by expanding the concept of neighbor in the parable of the good Samaritan. Pope Francis refers to this as the preferential treatment of the poor. Our Presiding Bishop is constantly reminding us that the Way of Love involves caring for the least of these. That is at the heart of the social gospel and the call of our Baptismal Covenant.

Last Wednesday I sent out the first of four videos about some of our programs that your pledges help support. The first was done by Joyce who oversees our Outreach programs and talked about Katy Christian Ministries and our work with the schools. By the way I am pleased to let you know that on Thursday KCM contacted me about getting the homework buddies program restarted in the coming weeks because of their concern for the kids who are falling behind given the current challenges. One thing they will be looking for is people willing to help tutor once a week. If you are interested let me know.

Next Wednesday you will see a short video from Steve and Lonnie McConnell about our work with the Beacon homeless ministry in downtown Houston. The following week will be one on the Gathering Place which we hope to resume in the not too distant future and the last week will be one from Julia on our children and youth ministry. These are all about loving our neighbor and the difference your financial support makes.

Earlier this week I got an offer for a fancy reprint of an article that was written shortly after I arrived here talking about my arrival as the new pastor. The headline grabbed my attention. New rector wants to get St. Paul’s more involved. This was a good reminder of much of what we had started to do and were planning before this season of Covidtide disrupted our plans.

This also reminded me that the needs are just as great or even greater in the Katy and greater Houston community than before the virus. Many of the groups we work with are designing new ways to do their ministries and I want us to be ready to help. I want us to build the base of money and people to be ready to respond to the opportunities the needs of our community will provide. This means designing a budget that is ready to hit the ground running as 2021 begins. Loving God, Loving our neighbor, that is what we are called to do. You know this, you’ve have proclaimed it, now we need to live it.