Loving God (a sermon from Matthew 22:34-40)
These two commands on which hang all the law and the prophets are inseparably connected. In fact, to love one’s neighbor as one’s self is to love God, because God is in the neighbor. We are all God’s offspring. We all bear God’s image, no matter how imperfect or marred that image in us is, and we all are alive because God’s Spirit gives us life. Imagine how it grieves God when God suffers God’s children hating and devouring one another. The writer of 1 John puts it this way, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” So we cannot sever these two commands. They go hand-in-hand.
The power of love is the power of God. It is the power of the Holy Spirit. And there is no greater transforming power in the universe. I love that scene in the movie, The Hurricane, between Rubin and Lesra. The Hurricane is the story of professional boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who, at the height of his boxing career in the 1960’s was falsely accused of murder by a racist police force and sentenced to life in prison. While Carter is in prison, Lesra, a young black boy who has read Carter’s autobiography befriends him. As the friendship deepens, the boy introduces Carter to some of his adult friends who become convinced of Carter’s innocence and commit to helping him as his amateur lawyers and detectives.
After twenty years in prison Carter is granted a new trial. As they await the verdict, Carter and Lesra share a special moment. Carter says, “We’ve come a long way, huh, little brother?” Lesra nods and says, “Rubin, I just want you to know that if this doesn’t work, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” “You are?” says Carter. Lesra retorts, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” After a moment of silence Carter suggests that they were not brought together by chance. He then says, “Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna bust me out.” Lesra responds, “Just in case love doesn’t, I’m gonna bust you outta here.” Carter laughs. He reaches out to touch Lesra’s face and wipe away a tear. Clenching his hand he says, “You already have, Lesra.”
You see, even if the verdict doesn’t bring about justice, even if Carter has to continue to suffer the injustice of an unjust system, Carter has been set free – healed and liberated from his bitterness and resentment and need for revenge. Love is the power of God, the power of Spirit that liberates us from our grievance stories, from our hate and bitterness, and from all the destructive isms that entrap us, like sexism, racism, materialism, nationalism, exceptionalism, egotism, and the like.
According to the writer of 1 John wherever love is God is. To love others, to love our neighbor as ourselves is to be led by the Spirit of God even if we do not realize that we are being led, even if we are not aware or acknowledge that it is God who is at work in our lives.
But here in our Gospel text today the command to love God is a command and charge to intentionally and deliberately nurture a love for the ultimate source of life in the universe. The one we Christians know as “Abba” – as loving Father and Mother.
Now, to love God with all our heart and soul and mind is to love God totally, that is, with our total being – mentally, physically, emotionally, and volitionally. The command here is to love God with the totality of our being. So the question is: Do you believe in and trust in a God you can love? Many Christians and religious people don’t really love God. Richard Rohr likes to say that true religion is about falling in love with God. One could say that one who has a relationship with God born out of love is one who has truly been born again.
You know sisters and brothers, you can worship God without loving God. You can observe holy days and attend holy services, you can practice rituals and participate in litanies, you can say prayers and sing hymns without really loving God.
You can to a degree obey God without loving God. Obviously, if you don’t really love God you are not obeying the first and great commandment according to Jesus, but you can abide by and keep certain teachings, instructions, and commandments without really loving God.
It’s interesting how Jesus redefined holiness in the Gospels. The passage in Leviticus which we read earlier begins with the saying, “Be holy, because God is holy.” That saying does not appear in the Gospels. Jesus, in fact, changes it up. Instead of be holy because God is holy, Jesus says, “Be compassionate, because God is compassionate,” or “Be merciful because God is merciful,” or (in Matthew’s version) “Be complete, because God is complete.” The main reason Jesus fell into so much trouble with the Jewish leaders is because he confronted and challenged their holiness laws which they used primarily as a means of control and condemnation. Jesus challenged all systems of meritocracy and degrees of worthiness. Jesus embodied a holiness of love and compassion. We call the divine Spirit the Holy Spirit, and the primary fruit of the Spirit is love. There are many Christians and religious people today who worship God and to a degree obey God, but do not really love God.
You cannot make yourself love God. You cannot manufacture love for God. And the reason some religious people cannot love God is because they don’t have a God – they don’t believe in and trust in a God – who inspires and compels love.
Imagine a tight-knit community where people share their lives together. An outsider to this community listening in on their conversations would pick up rather quickly on their references and allusions to “Uncle George,” who seems to bind the community together. Uncle George appears to be lurking behind all their interactions. A beautiful sunset prompts one community member to exclaim, “Isn’t Uncle George awesome?” Good news and celebrative events inspire feelings of gratitude toward Uncle George. Even in tragedy, the community turns toward Uncle George for help.
At the beginning of each week the community assembles at the Community Center. There is animated conversation and fellowship as they discuss the past week’s events and upcoming plans. When a bell sounds, the conversation ceases. Everyone descends down a stairway into the basement where a giant man in dark clothes stands with his back turned toward them, facing an enormous furnace. When all are assembled he turns around. His look is stern and somber. His voice deep. He says, “Am I good?” They all respond in unison, “Yes, Uncle George, you are good.” He then asks, “Am I worthy of praise?” “Yes,” they all proclaim. “Do you love me more than anyone or anything else?” “We love you and you alone,” they reply.
His face is contorted and in a frightening voice he thunders, “You better love me or I’m going to put you in here!” Just then he opens the furnace door to a blaze of heat and darkness. Out of the darkness can be heard cries of anguish and misery. Then he closes the door as they sit in silence. After a time of reflection on what they just heard they leave and return to their life together in community. They talk about the wonders of Uncle George and they speak of his love for them as they live their lives the best they can. But while they mention Uncle George’s love, there is beneath all the talk and interaction an underlying fear and confusion—sometimes conscious, sometimes repressed—but always present. This inner fear limits their relationships, preventing them from talking about their doubts and questions, and keeping them from expressing to one another their inner anguish and uncertainties. It diminishes their lives in myriads of ways.
No matter how hard you try, sisters and brothers, you cannot love a God like Uncle George. You can worship him. You can fear him. You can, to a degree, obey him. But you can’t love him. And hence, you cannot actually obey the one central and great commandment to love God with the totality of your being. You might pretend so well you even convince yourself you love God, but you cannot really love a God like Uncle George.
We are told by Jesus to love our enemies, but if we believe that God tortures his enemies, how then can we possibly love our enemies? How then can we possibly love God? Richard Rohr puts it this way (I have included this quote in your worship bulletin), “Under the message that most of us have heard, we end up being more loving than God, and then not taking God very seriously. Even my less-than-saintly friends, the ordinary Joes on the block, would usually give a guy a break, overlook some mistakes, and even on their worst days would not imagine torturing people who do not like them, worship them, or believe in them. ‘God’ ends up looking rather petty, needy, narcissistic, and easily offended. God’s offended justice is clearly much stronger than God’s mercy, it seems. Why would anyone trust or love such a God, or want to be alone with Him or Her? Much less spend eternity with such a Being? I wouldn’t. We must come to recognize that this perspective conscious or unconscious, is at the basis of much agnosticism and atheism in the West today.” Rohr goes on to say that we need to be honest about what we call “good news,” because what some Christians call good news is really bad news for many sincere human beings. Rohr says, often these are people of real inner integrity and spiritual intelligence, who simply refuse to deny, repress, or pretend, who refuse to call “good news” what they clearly see as “bad news.” Jesus turns this all around. Jesus says, “If you who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, then how much more God.” God’s love is always greater than our love.
Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn have written an excellent little book that aims to help people heal their hurtful images of God. Dennis Linn was at one time a priest. One day a woman named Hilda came to him because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told Dennis that he was involved in prostitution, drug dealing, and even murder. She ended the list by saying that her son wants nothing to do with God. She wanted to know what would happen to her son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God. At the time Dennis’ theology couldn’t offer Hilda much hope for her son, but he knew better than to say so. So he said, “What do you think?” She said, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” And then she concluded in despair, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”
Dennis then said to her, “Close your eyes. Imagine that you are setting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son has died with all these serious sins and without repenting. He has just arrived at the judgment seat of God.” He then asked her to squeeze his when she could imagine that. After a minute or two she squeezed his hand. He asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” She said, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” Dennis then asked her what she wanted to do. She said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined holding her son tightly. Finally, when she stopped crying Dennis asked her to look into God’s eyes and imagine what God wanted to do. She imagined God stepping down from his throne, and embracing her son just as Hilda did. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.
Dennis says, “I was stunned. What Hilda taught me in those few minutes is the bottom line of healthy Christian spirituality . . . God loves us at least as much as Hilda loves her son . . . God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.”
God’s love is absolutely unconditional. The healing works of Jesus in the Gospels are signs of God’s kingdom, they are representative of the way God works in the world. Those who are healed or restored or made whole or “saved” by Jesus (it’s the same word in the Greek) are saved or healed unconditionally. Jesus never puts a single condition or prerequisite on any of his healings: no affiliation with the right group, no doctrines you must believe, no purity codes to keep, no attendance at the right synagogue or temple. Grace is given unconditionally. Sometimes faith is mentioned in the context of Jesus’ healings, but it’s never required.
God’s love is unconditional. Of course, we have to open the door of our hearts to receive God’s love and allow God’s love to flow through us. That’s our part – to open our hearts and receive it. It’s love that changes us. And it helps if we have had a least one person in our lives – a parent maybe – who has loved us unconditionally. As I said last week, we get to know God through human relationships and experiences. So it’s a big plus if we at some point have experienced unconditional love from someone in our lives. But even if we haven’t, even if no one in our lives has loved us unconditionally, even if we have no human experience to compare it too, if we open our hearts, we can experience God’s unconditional love.
Our good God, try as we may some of us cannot love you because for whatever reason, maybe it’s what was embedded in us as children, maybe it was the kind of religious instruction we received, or just maybe we have been stuck so long in one place, that we cannot imagine a God who loves all his or her children unconditionally. Help us to see what a great lover you are. And may we then allow your love to enter our lives so that you can turn us into lovers like you.