Date: October 30, 2016
Title: “With All of Your Heart”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Matthew 22:34-40
This morning we begin a new sermon series entitled “Loving God With Your All”, and each week we will look at a different aspect of that love: heart, mind, soul and strength. Today, the focus is on loving God with all of your heart, and there could be no better way to begin than with a short story from Norwegian novelist Johan Bojer, which he entitles “The Great Hunger”
In this story, an anti-social newcomer moves into a small, tight-knit village. The first thing he does when he moves in is to put a tall fence all around his property, and he affixes to it a large, menacing “Keep Out!” sign in the front. Then, he takes it one step further and puts a vicious dog in the yard to discourage anyone tempted to climb the fence.
One day a neighbor’s small child reaches inside the fence to pet the dog. The dog grabs her by the arm, somehow manages to drag her into the yard and attacks the girl, killing her instantly. The townspeople are enraged and begin to shun the newcomer.
Nobody will speak to him; if they happen to see him in the town square, they cross to the other side to avoid him; they won’t sell him groceries at the store, and at planting time nobody will sell him any seed for his fields. The man is ruined. He is hungry and all alone and he doesn’t know what to do.
But one day, looking out his back window, the newcomer sees another man sowing seed in his field. Astonished, he runs out to see what is going on, and finds that it is the father of the child killed by his dog who is planting seeds in his field. Weeping, the newcomer asks the father, “Why are you doing this?” And the father replies, “I am doing this to keep God alive in me.”
I am doing this to keep God alive in me. Jesus would have understood immediately what the father was talking about. Jesus knew the only way for any of us to keep God alive in us is found in our ability to love. And we are not talking here about the easy, sentimental, Hallmark card kind of love. We are not talking about loving people close to us, the ones we find most loveable and lovely. No, we are talking here about the life-ordering, life-altering, life-saving kind of love of God. Sarah Dylan Breuer puts it this way:
We Christians are particularly prone to an assumption that spirituality is primarily about interiority – about feeling a certain way about God, about other people, and about one’s self. Matthew’s text put the lie to that.
In the first-century Mediterranean world, “love” was not a vague warm feeling toward someone, but a pattern of action. “Love” was understood as attachment, backed up with behavior. It is all about treating people with respect – and enacting, rather than merely professing – compassion.
Loving God with all our heart… and loving our neighbors as ourselves
This kind of love may not be for the faint of heart. This kind of love does not depend upon the qualities or the characteristics of our neighbor. This kind of love does not come with any statute of limitations or easy to read recipes. This kind of love goes far beyond all that. Frederick Buechner suggests:
A legalistic religion like the Pharisees’ is in some ways very appealing. All you have to do in any kind of ethical dilemma is look it up in the book and act accordingly.
Jesus, on the other hand, says all you have to do is love God and your neighbors. That may seem more appealing still until, in dilemma after dilemma, you try to figure out just how to go about doing it.
The difficulty is increased when you realize that by loving God and your neighbors, Jesus doesn’t mean loving as primarily a feeling. Instead, he seems to mean that whether or not any feeling is involved, loving God means honoring and obeying and staying in constant touch with God…
And loving your neighbors means acting in their best interests no matter what, even is personally you can’t stand them.
There is no book to look up the answer in. There is only your own heart and whatever by God’s grace it has picked up in the way of insight, honesty, courage, humility, and compassion.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in South Africa during the days of apartheid, used to tell this story:
On day a drunk crossed the street in order to accost a perplexed pedestrian on the other side. He asked the pedestrian, “I say…which is the other side of the street?” Nonplussed, the pedestrian replied, “That side, of course!” “Strange”, said the drunk, “when I was on that side, they said it was this side.”
Isn’t this our problem? Isn’t the trouble for us knowing when this side is the other side? With this little story, Tutu melts the solidity of the world by interrupting the rigid definitions that so shaped South African during apartheid. And, just like Jesus, he scrambles all of our deep assumptions about “sides”, wherever we find ourselves.
In my office, I have a bronze plaque someone gave me, inscribed with these words: “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” This quote is commonly attributed to Carl Jung, because he liked it so much he had it inscribed over the doorway of his home, and also put on his tomb. But the quote did not originate with Jung. Rather, it was something Jung discovered among the Latin writings of the Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus, who claimed it had been an ancient Spartan proverb.
Whatever its origin, it serves as a good reminder to us. Bidden or not bidden – called or not called, invited or not invited, requested or not, God is with us. Philip Chircop expands on the saying in this way:
Bidden or unbidden, God is present as heartbeat, as breath, as sunrise and sunset, as sustaining and suffering love, as dear friend rejected or embraced, God is present. Bidden or unbidden, God is present as a people created from the dust who wrestle with reality and tell stories of their struggles. God is present. Bidden or unbidden, God is present as prophet, lawgiver, and guide, as smoke and fire. Bidden or unbidden, God is present as a child growing up surrounded by the beauties of nature and the cruelties of empire, God is present. Bidden or unbidden, God is present as a young rabbi washed by the waters of the Jordan and blessed by a voice in the wilderness, God is present. Bidden or unbidden, God is present in eyes that are blind or can see, in ears that can hear and do not hear, in hearts opened by love or closed by fear and wrath, God is present. Bidden or unbidden, God is present in accusing mob and fearful friends, in hardened and broken hearts, in disgraceful abandonment, death and darkness, God is present. Bidden or unbidden, God is present at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end, at our birth, in our daily lives, in tragedy and celebrations, and at our death, God is present. Bidden or unbidden, God is present.
Bidden or not bidden, God is present. God is present to us in the kind of unwavering, all-encompassing, compassionate love which changes the world by changing us. God is present in the kind of love which Jesus says is the very core and foundation of faith.
You know, most of us live a fairly surface kind of life in the ordinary every day. But Jesus interrupts that normal, everyday surface life, and in the interruption calls us to recognize God’s presence. Through the interruption Jesus asks us to acknowledge God’s claim on us, and he creates a kind of threshold space. Charles Campbell describe the space which Jesus creates in this way:
It is like the threshold space between two rooms. This space is unsettled; it is an in-between space, neither fully one room or the other, but containing an interplay of each. On the threshold one is moving, always moving in-between. The threshold is neither stable nor secure. It is the opposite of circled wagons and iron-clad theologies.
Jesus creates a threshold space in-between the old that is dying and the new that is being born and calls us to live into that unsettling space. Jesus does not call us to stability or security or certainty, but simply asks us to follow him on the way from the old into the new.
My friends, we live today as people have always lived – we live in a threshold time. It is tempting to believe that ours are the most challenging, the most dangerous, the most complex days. Yet all of human history tells the story of this in-between time. So it does us no good to circle our wagons or to forge our iron-clad theologies. For Jesus is going to keep interrupting us. Jesus is going to continue reminding us of God’s presence. Jesus is going to persist in calling us into God’s love. With all of our hearts, let us continue to be God’s in-between people, and thereby keep God alive for all the world. Thanks be to God! Amen.