Matthew 22:34-40: When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
(sermon begins after the congregation sings “Jesus Loves Me” hymn)
Jesus loves me this I know. For the bible tells me so. How many of you have known that hymn since you were a little child? I hope and pray that as you sung those words, I hope that you were transformed back into a time when nothing got in the way of your love for Jesus Christ. This song, for me conjures up memories of vacation bible school, the one time that I had a church community growing up. The lyrics bring back for me images of children singing in front of the congregation back at my home church. Can you hear their innocent voices; see their precious smiles; and feel their contagious spirit singing to you right now?
The hymn, “Jesus Loves Me” takes us back to a time when life was simpler. We are
transformed back in time to a place when we remember that the words, “love” and “Jesus” go hand in hand. Those words were the foundation of life when we were taught to simply love God, to love one another, and to love ourselves, because Jesus loved every one of us.
What happened to those days? What happened to the time when the basic necessity of life was to love one another?
We live in a world where we want everything to be perfect, where we want the law to be black and white, with no grey in-between, when standing up for the least of these and following God’s will takes a back seat to everything else that is happening in our lives, our priorities, our fears, our wanting to make everyone happy, including ourselves, by staying in our comfort zones…we need to go Back to Basics.
We live in a world where tomorrow brings uncertainty, where we are struggling to hold onto enough faith to see the light as we are crawling through the darkest of holes, whether everyone knows it or not, or we are doing what we can to keep it private – we are trying to find something or someone to get us through the pain and suffering – we can go BACK TO BASICS and follow the Greatest Commandment as told to us by the very person who loves us so.
Jesus tells us in the book of Matthew that we are to love God with our heart, soul, and mind AND we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. I don’t know about you, but for a long time, I used to take this scripture for granted. I would come up with my own way of loving God, my very own definition of who my neighbor is, and I would come to my own conclusion of what Jesus meant by loving myself, arrogance and all.
This scripture in many ways, is so far in the back of our minds, it’s like one of those files that we put in the back of the drawer and it falls down into the cabinet, and we forget all about it. This scripture is so deep down in our psyche that forget to put these commandments into our hearts and into our lives, and the Pharisees did the same thing.
The Pharisees tended to rely too much on the law, the minute details of what the law said, and what should be done. The Pharisees had their own definition for “neighbor”. They wanted to exclude other people: people who did not see eye to eye with them, people who did not look the same or acted the same. The Pharisees wanted to exclude those who were not….Pharisees.
In their question to Jesus, the Pharisees had another motive. They were looking to entrap Jesus, to catch him in a lie, to try and make Jesus express the importance of the law and they knew they could do so with this question about the law. Don’t get me wrong. I know we have lawyers in the congregation. I like the law. Laws are important. They keep people safe and provide some control in situations where they are needed. But sometimes, they get in the way of something greater.
And Jesus DID believe in the law, he said so himself. He said that he was not here to dispute the Old Testament law, but to fulfill it, and so He went back to it. He went Back to Basics when he referenced Deuteronomy 6:5 – “to LOVE your Lord, with your heart, soul, and might.” Jesus went back to basics in Leviticus19:18 – “do not seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people. Love your neighbor as yourself.” (The Message)
The Pharisees were ready to seek revenge against Jesus, and to give Jesus the test, however Jesus was ready for the Pharisees. “You shall love the Lord your God,” He said. Plain and simple right? Not so sure about that…because Jesus said we are to love the Lord with our heart, soul, and mind…with every part of our being, the physical, the spiritual, and the intellect.
To be honest though, I believe that before we can really focus on the first commandment, and TRULY love God in the way we are called to, we need to look at the second commandment. I know, it sounds backwards, but Jesus SAID that the second commandment is like the first. If we follow the first commandment, then the second should be easy, but I am not so sure about that either. It’s easy to love God, and we can work on the heart, soul, and mind, but we have to love our neighbor, and not only love our neighbor, but love our neighbor in the same way we love ourselves. And I am not so sure that’s as easy as it sounds, not even for those who love themselves just a little bit too much.
I had to write a paper about this greatest commandment in 2002. I thought it was easy to love our neighbor, to love ourselves, and to love God with our entire being. I was so naïve back then. I was a wet behind the ear seminary student. I wrote this paper about a year after the 9/11 attacks. We were still one country, very proud to stand together and stand taller than the buildings that came down, ready to do whatever it takes to protect one another. Other countries supported us and stood with us in our honor. I thought it would be easy to continue the trend of loving one another, loving God who got us through it all, and loving the neighbors – near and far.
A lot has changed since then. There seems to be an anger, an anger that has shifted priorities, feelings, and attitudes. There seems to be a sense of entitlement in people who hurt others for no other reason than they are different. They dress differently. They live in a different part of town, from a different part of the country, they have different friends, different jobs, a different social status, a different nationality, and even a different party affiliation. They look different. They speak differently. They love differently.
It was a year ago that I did a wedding for one of my former youth. I’ve known her since she was 8 years old. When she was in high school, she was called names, teased, and chastised because she loved in a different way, an unacceptable way, according to the standards of that community…and according to the standards of her church. Through word of mouth, church members found out and the pastor asked her not to volunteer in the children’s programs anymore. Her “pastor” of all people, asked her stop helping the children. This girl reached out and nobody helped, in fact, they pushed her away. Thankfully though, she tried one more time, and reached out to me – and I reached back. Seven years later, she asked me to officiate at her wedding and I was honored to do so. It was a blessing to see that after all she went through growing up, it was a joy to see the person she has become today. In the wedding, her partner chose 1 Corinthians 13 as the scripture reading. Here are a few lines from that scripture:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” And then the last verse….”And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
It amazes me to know that after all that they went through to get to this wedding, they still believed in these words.
I need to be honest with you. With everything that has gone on lately, I have to ask the question: IS love the greatest of these anymore? It doesn’t seem to be, as we have forgotten the basics again. We have forgotten who our neighbor is. We have done what the Pharisees did so long ago, and came up with our own definitions of who our neighbor ought to be. It seems we have forgotten the basics, when over the last two months seven individuals gave up on life because they were bullied, harassed, and judged.
They gave up on life, but can we really blame them? They reached out in so many ways. They reached out to teachers, friends, principals, school boards and nobody reached back; nobody stood with them when they were ignored, when no one else would help. Can you blame them for giving up, when everyone gave up on them? Remember Phoebe Prince from Springfield, Massachusetts? A new girl in town, in the country, whose family, emigrated from Ireland in 2009. Disputes with other girls got out of hand and turned into harassment and hate. She gave up in January.
IS Love the greatest of these anymore?
- When preachers stand in the pulpit and condemn people to hell and invite their congregations to do the same;
- When a pastor tells this beautiful soul that she can’t volunteer with the children anymore because she’s different;
- When church groups picket in front of funerals, churches, and schools who love and support people who are different.
And doing all of this —-in the name of God?
Is there still hope in the greatest of these??? I like to think there is, but we HAVE to go back to basics. We have to dig deep into our souls to love ourselves in the way that God loves us; to love the neighbors that Jesus says we are to love; and to love and get closer to God, with our heart, soul, and mind. I haven’t given up hope. I can’t. There has to be a way that love can conquer over the hate and the pain.
Through all of it though, I can still see the love. I see it here:
- I see the love that Heather has for her husband Philip.
- I see the love that Karen has for her dad Jack.
- I see the love that Heather has for her son, Keith.
- I see the love that Damaso has for his big brother, Omar.
- I see the love in the youth, as they took a stand this month for their friends at school, when we made t-shirts the other week that said “First Baptist Youth Stands Up to Bullying”.
- I see it in a colleague, Lynn Litchfield, a former women’s correctional center chaplain, who stood for inmate Teresa Lewis when she was wrongly executed on September 23rd. Lynn is using her voice to speak up because Teresa wasn’t allowed.
- I see it in my friend Lindsay Comstock who works for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and is an advocate for women and children in Southeast Asia. She is helping a special woman to get back on her feet by providing a small demand for her fabric supplier and tailor work. This stole was made by one of the women in a village in Indonesia. You can see butterflies on the Pentecost Sunday red, as a symbol of spirit and transformation.
- Then just this past week, we ALL saw the love of an entire country who worked effortlessly for 24 hours a day for three months, to rescue 33 Chilean miners, from death to resurrection.
The love is there. So, IS it possible for us to get Back to Basics and live by the Greatest Commandment?
We have to and it starts with how we love ourselves in a way that doesn’t display arrogance and pride, or even a sense of entitlement, but instead, a humbled and caring love.
We can look to Jesus who taught us well. He surrounded himself with disciples who helped him. He forgave those who ridiculed him. He was intentional about spending time with God and by taking sabbath; so that He can rest and be able to do God’s will.
We have to do the same. We have to take care of ourselves and love ourselves, in a humbled way:
- We have to get rid of the anger, the bitterness and the pain, of whatever is holding us down from being compassionate and caring. And most importantly, begin healing whatever is deeply hurting in our soul.
- We have to forgive those who hurt us; and apologize to those we have wronged; those we have bullied, as youth or as adults.
- We have to look in the mirror and find out who is the person that God made us to be. Can we see him? Can we see her? Look for that person in you. See what you can become – because, NONE of us are yet complete.
Then we can learn to love our neighbors again. Jesus modeled the love of a neighbor by accepting ALL people as neighbors and loved them equally – the poor, the sick, the shamed, the ostracized. He gave us an example in who our neighbor is, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, when the neighbor was the one who showed mercy.
We can love our neighbor in how we can stand for those who can’t stand for themselves; to be their voice in time of need, to reach out with a giving hand and a healing heart. We need to take a stand in welcoming and affirming of ALL people no matter how different we think they are; to give them a place where they can come to; a place where they can see that there are Christians who stand WITH them and NOT against them.
We can love our neighbor by expanding our personal definitions of who are neighbor ought to be. We just might be surprised as to how much we have in common with them, including the ones we may have bullied, teased, and ridiculed.
And, when we are able to do all of this, when we are able to love ourselves and to love our neighbors, we can show God how we can truly love with our heart, with our soul, and with our mind….and with a willingness to grow, and to go – wherever God wants to take us. But – there is one more thing. Jesus wants us to go all the way back to basics.
Jesus said four chapters earlier in Matthew, Matthew 18,
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest among the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.”
Remember the image of the children singing. Can you hear their innocence? See their smile? Feel their spirit? Listen to their angelic voices. Find a child and look into their eyes. Do you see him? Do you see her? Now, I want you to put your face into the face of that child. Put your heart into the heart of that child, put your voice into the song….and become humble like the child you see before you. What is Jesus telling you?
You will remember that I taught elementary school. The best part of my job was teaching the children how to read. Before they could read, they had to learn the basics. They had to learn the alphabet, the letters and the sounds. Then the alphabet turned into words. Then the words turned into sentences. My greatest joy as a teacher was to watch them when it finally clicked…to watch their faces and feel their spirit when in their own hearts, souls, and minds, they FINALLY realized that they were reading. All the time they spent on the basics and now, it all made sense.
We have a teacher who is trying to teach a lesson to the Pharisees and to all of us as well….that it’s time….it’s time to get BACK TO BASICS, to the Greatest Commandment that hangs above all else. We have a neighbor that wants to be loved. They are sitting beside you, across the street, in your classroom, and around the world. And there is a child within you, singing out, singing to the God who wants to be loved, with your heart, mind, and soul; working so hard to say the letters, forms the words, and read the sentences.
Can you imagine how Jesus Christ will feel when all that He has taught us, all that He has done, finally clicks – in our hearts, in our souls, and in our minds.
It’s time…..it’s time to get Back to Basics.
(c) Linda C. Moore, 2010