22nd Sunday after Pentecost Sermon

October 29, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Gail Wheatley

We humans really like superlatives. Anything that ends in –est. Best, biggest, greatest, longest, strongest, smallest. We are a society that like to be best at something and best at everything would even be better.

There is no better source for all the –ests than the Guinness Book of World Records. All over the world people attempt to demonstrate that they are the greatest at something. The website is pretty interesting! Because I have just gotten my first ever tattoo, which you can see at coffee hour if you’re interested, I thought I’d look up the “most” tattooed person. Turns out that is “Lucky Diamond Rich: the most inked man on earth.” Yep, every square inch, including parts you don’t even want to think about. It is estimated that he’s spent 1000 hours being needled, now claiming layers upon layers, having to use white ink to show over all the black. Ha. I have no such aspirations!

You can scroll around and see video clips of a man sitting in a bathtub with the most snakes, the longest time suspended by your stomach muscles, the fastest time to pull a double decker bus with your ears, the loudest burp and the furthest eyeball popper. It’s fascinating to see what people will imagine and do to be the best at something and have their names in the book. The longest fingernails are a combined length of 42 feet and the longest time held in a plank position by a male is 9 hours and 38 minutes! Well, those are the rabbit holes you can fall into…. In today’s lesson from Matthew, a Pharisee once again tries to get Jesus to stumble into blasphemy with a similar kind of question: Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

This Pharisee/lawyer is demanding that Jesus choose from the 613 laws in Torah which regulated everything from worship, the dimensions of the altar, clothing, food and hygiene, to property and behavior. They thought at the time that each law was as important as the other; none took precedence since all were equally given by God and therefore equally binding. If Jesus chooses one over the other –snap– they’ve got him.

But Jesus has an answer that is much more relevant to the life of the world than anything the Guinness Book of World Records can offer up; his answer IS the best: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. Jesus may be the first non-literal interpreter of scripture!

Simple literalism, even of the biblical laws in Torah, leads to legalism and a blind eye to God’s intention for us. So Jesus answers the Pharisee’s question of What is the greatest commandment? in two ways: by re-interpreting scripture, and by giving the answer of love.

In a commentary on this passage from Matthew, biblical scholar of blessed memory, Marcus Borg, says that loving God is the central point in this gospel reading and that being Christian is first of all about loving God and loving what God loves.

And what is it that God loves? For God so loved the world… Perhaps that is our greatest call to ministry along with the most difficult challenge. Not just ourselves, not just Christians, not just “good” people, not just humans, but all of creation and caring for what God loves.

Borg’s second premise is that being Christian is about becoming the kind of person who can love God and love what God loves. I read a story this week about an exchange between two rabbis who lived and taught a few decades before Jesus did.

Shammai, asked to recite the whole Torah while standing on one foot, chases his challenger away with a stick! Hillel, when given the same challenge, simply lifts one foot and says, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”

Borg contends that in order to become a person who can love God and what God loves we need transformation. Our growing up process tends to be more concerned about ourselves and that is the natural starting point for being transformed. Christianity is a path of continuing transformation and conversion, every year, every week, every day. Every person who has ever worked the 12 Steps knows transformative work is ongoing; sometimes hour by hour, never “completed.” Being Christian may not come naturally because transformation takes attention and it takes practice, just like everything else in our lives.

All relationships, including our relationship with God and each other deepen and grow when we pay attention to them. Our practices of devotion, be they prayer or worship or giving, are not because God needs them, but because they are about our own transformation and we need them. Borg’s third statement about Christianity is that being Christian is about being a part of a community of transformation. That’s us, you, St. John’s. Communities of formation and reformation and transformation that we all need. We are immersed in a culture whose superlatives are not very central to the Bible; best neighborhood, most “friends” on Facebook, fastest car, smallest dress size, longest running television drama. Our transformation is in the process, bit by bit, of becoming the person that can love what God loves: God, self, neighbor, the world.

There is a story of St. Francis de Sales (France – 16th c) asking the Bishop of Geneva what one must do to attain perfection. The bishop answered, “Love God and neighbor with all your heart.” St. Francis said, yes, but how do I attain that? “Love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbor as oneself.” He asked a third time and got the same reply. The bishop would give no other answer. But did say, “Love is attained by loving, in the same way that you learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and neighbor by loving.”

We actually DO know that. We practice riding the bike, fall off, try again, watch others, fall, try again, and soon enough we’re doing it. Would loving a stranger be so different? Our world is a mess right now. 18 dead in Maine from yet another mass shooting. Thousands upon thousands dead in the Middle East. A non-functional Congress. At least 66 more species went extinct last year. How do we love God and neighbor? By taking one step in that direction. And then another. We practice loving until we learn it. The work of a lifetime….

Borg may be right in claiming that Christianity may not be all that much about believing, because believing in and of itself has very little transformative power. We can believe all the “right” things and remain unchanged. We can be best at believing the right things and still be mean and thoughtless and uncompassionate and ungiving.

As we allow ourselves to be changed, practice loving God and one another, we are transformed into one who not only loves WHAT God loves, but loves HOW God loves. We then incarnate those beliefs into lives which strive for justice and peace in all that we are and with all that we have.

Love and God and neighbor are what all 613 laws in Torah boil down to, even standing on one leg. St. Paul knows it when he writes to the Corinthians that faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.

In the letter to the Thessalonians, Paul describes love further: We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

This sort of love has nothing sentimental about it. This kind of love is transformative, because it is not about emotion but about will. What is required of us is not that we feel things more strongly, but that we do something about them.

If we are looking for simplicity in our Christian theology, we can find it in the ways we teach our children. In Godly Play, one curriculum for youth, there is a story called The Ten Best Ways which is an introduction to the Ten Commandments, whose summary of the Law is: Love God, love other people, and God loves you. It’s simple but not simple-minded. This love is neither mindless nor blind. The Episcopal Church uses it as a slogan and you can find it on bumper stickers: “Love God. Love Your Neighbor. Change the World.”

Jesus was not a fundamentalist, not a legalist, and not a shallow thinker. According to Samuel Candler, he gives the answer to rigid and simplistic interpreters of scripture: “Find your heart, find your soul, find your mind. Then use them to love God and neighbor.”

We come together today to do something transformational; not to contribute to the largest ball of dryer lint on record. But to receive the Holy Eucharist. To take Christ into our very bodies.

Together. As a community of people learning to love by loving. As we allow ourselves to be changed, to be transformed into one which loves what God loves, and how God loves, we will incarnate those beliefs into lives which strive for justice and peace in all that we are and with all that we have. That will be the greatest.