Sunday, October 31, 2021

The Greatest Commandment

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Katy TX 77493

October 31, 2021

 As much as I would like to look at our passage from Ruth today since it only appears once in the three year lectionary I feel compelled to look at our gospel passage. This passage may be one of the most essential passages in the gospel of Mark for our parish and for our world. Some who are new to the parish may not have noticed that we use Love God and our neighbor as a guiding principal at St. Paul’s. In fact, that is really our purpose statement, why we are here. 

 The question of what commandment is the greatest is not an unusual question or topic for debate among Jewish scholars. At Jesus’ time they recognized not just 10 commandments, but a total of 613 commandments 248 positive and 365 negative scattered throughout Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the two books of the law. To discuss which commandments were important was a very common argument especially if two different commandments seemed to be in conflict or require different actions.  

 There is a famous story about rabbis Hillel and Shammai. A gentile said, “You can make me a proselyte if you can teach me the whole of the Torah while I stand on one foot.” Rabbi Shammai just drove him away with a stick. He came to Rabbi Hillel with the same question. Hillel answered, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” This is a variation on Jesus’ Golden rule, but it is essentially the same. So the stage is already set for this question to Jesus. 

 The first commandment is the Shema from Deuteronomy  6:4. This is the prayer that to this day, every faithfully Jew says upon waking up in the morning and going to sleep in the evening. What is interesting here is that this is one of the few places in scripture where we are told to love God. Mostly we are told to honor, obey, or worship, but for us to love God this is not that common in scripture. With all our heart, soul, mind, and strength tells us that we owe this love with our entire being. Now stop and think of how unique a commandment this is. For in the ancient world gods were to be feared, appeased, and worshiped. A god who desired love was a very strange idea in the ancient world. This would have been true for the Roman occupiers as well as most of the Greeks in Jerusalem. However here we are told to love God with our entire being.  

 The second commandment is from Leviticus 19:18. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Now one commentary mentioned that this carries the presumption that we love and care for ourselves and would therefore do the same to our neighbor. Now I will circle back around to that in a moment. It is important to remember that in another parable Jesus radically expands who our neighbor is. In the OT times the Jews and most people for that matter had a narrow view of who our neighbor is. Just those from our “tribe” or people or faith group. Jesus overturns that notion in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  

 No other commandment greater than these. Notice how Jesus takes these two and refers to them as one overarching commandment. In the summary of the law that can be read at the start of our Eucharist it says, “On these hang all the law and the prophets.” So every other commandment is to be judged in light of this statement of love of God and love of neighbor.  

 Now I said I was going to circle back to loving our neighbors as ourselves. I am in the midst of a rather intensive series of classes over the next two weeks on Brene Brown’s Daring Leadership training based on her Dare to Lead book. She spends a lot of time talking about how our self-talk, what we think and say about ourselves can really undermine our ability to function and especially to lead in the world. I have dealt with many people, myself included who because of their family of origin or things that have happened to them in their life have trouble loving themselves. Brene speaks of how common a problem this is in our world. So if we don’t love ourselves we cannot love others, but instead tend to treat them in the same hurtful manner as we were treated ourselves. You cannot give to another what you do not have in yourself.  

 This week Richard Rohr has spent considerable time on this concept and on Friday his entire email was a direct quote from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry1. I want to share a rather extended piece of this because, well it’s Michael Curry and he writes so darn well about love. This is from his book “Love is the way, holding on to hope in a troubled world. 

“The ability to love yourself is intimately related to your capacity to love others. The challenge is creating a life that allows you to fulfill both needs. I often speak of the loving, liberating, life-giving God. Sharing godly love liberates the true self, so that we can more fully live and discover that place where “your deep gladness and the world’s great hunger meet,” as Frederick Buechner put it in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. 

I don’t know exactly why it works that way, other than to channel my grandma: “We’ve got a good God and a good Gospel.” . . . 

All I know is that I have seen the wonderful personal transformations that happen when people start navigating with God’s GPS. I’ve experienced it myself. . . . 

My job is to plant seeds of love, and to keep on planting, even—or especially—when bad weather comes. It’s folly to think I can know the grand plan, how my small action fits into the larger whole. All I can do is check myself, again and again: Do my actions look like love? 

If they are truly loving, then they are part of the grand movement of love in the world, which is the movement of God in the world. . . . 

It is impossible to know, in the moment, how a small act of goodness will reverberate through time. The notion is empowering and it is frightening—because it means that we’re all capable of changing the world, and responsible for finding those opportunities to protect, feed, grow, and guide love. 

This is a powerful call to what Michael calls the Way of Love. We will get back to a program in Lent on this that we started before the pandemic. We need this now even more than before. We are a country and a world of people who are more worried about their tribe, their people than that state of the entire country or the world. But we are learning whether it is the environment, the pandemic or any of the major challenges that we face, that things will only improve when we treat each other with the love and respect with which we want to be treated.  That is where this all starts. We also need to remember that everyone is a beloved child of God even when they make us crazy.  

As Michael said in the last bit of the quote, “Do my actions look like love… If they are truly loving, then they are part of the grand movement of love in the world, which is the movement of God in the world.” That is the great hope that we can all have as we move forward to spread the love of God to a fractured world.