Loving God and loving self...

NOTE: These are this Sunday's sermon notes/reflections on Matthew 22: 34-46 re: loving God and loving neighbor and self with a hint of I Thessalonians 2: 6-8.
It is often helpful and humbling for me to review what some of the great preachers of eras past have written about the same words of scripture that I am going to wrestle with for our consideration on any given Sunday. I say helpful, humbling and more often than not clarifying because their words help illuminate how deeper wisdom can emerge from these texts over the generations.

+ The great Protestant reformer of Geneva, John Calvin, for example wrote in his introduction to today’s text: Not all of the whole company of those that are called by the voice of the gospel are the true Church before God: for the most part of them would rather follow the conveniences of this life and some persecute very cruelly those that call them; but they are the true Church who obey when they are called… (And) for the most part they are also those whom the world despises.

+ Charles Wesley, who gave us the hymns “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” during the late 1700s, builds on Calvin saying: Many are called; few chosen; many hear; few believe. Yea, many are members of the visible, but few the invisible Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

+ And one of the father’s of our tradition, the Puritan Richard Baxter, taught: That the true meaning of this text – you shall love your neighbor as yourself – is that you must love him according to his true worth, without the diversion and hindrance of selfishness and partiality. As you must love yourself according to that degree of goodness which is in you, and no more; so must you as impartially love your neighbor according to that degree of goodness which is in him so that it truly extendeth into the reality…

Do you discern a theme from our reforming Protestant forbearers? It seems to me that their primary emphasis when considering these words of Jesus has more to do with judgment than grace – making clear that many within the church have not been faithful, only a few could be called righteous and that there have been more failures rather celebrations in the cause of Christ. To call them dour and harsh would be an understatement.

But to be fair, we have to remember their context: they were trying to renew, purify and reform an institution that had become corrupt and morally decadent over a thousand years of practice. They were challenging a spiritual tradition that had exchanged the simplicity and compassion of Jesus for the trappings of the Roman Empire and, quite frankly, the church had lost its soul to wealth, unchecked power, fear and spiritual ignorance.

+ Now please don’t misunderstand this critique for this is NOT an anti-Catholic rant. Ronald Reagan’s old speech writer, Peggy Noonan, once observed in her autobiography that anti-Catholic bias and bigotry had become for North American intellectual’s the anti-Semitism of the 20th century – and I think she is right. Much of what has been said about our Roman sisters and brothers is both stupid and mean-spirited and needs to be named and challenged.

+ Rather, in describing the context that informed our Protestant Reformers, I am pointing to a tragic reality that happens throughout time to all institutions – sacred and secular – when there are not clear and accountable checks and balances in place to mitigate against corruption all of us, by nature, become selfish and self- absorbed.

And lest you think I exaggerate, think Abu Grhaib – My Lai – the Salem witch hunts – the Jewish Holocaust – the Armenian holocaust by Turkey…

The poet, James Lowell, put it like this in 1845 in a hymn we have come to know as “Once to Every Man and Nation.” New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient truth uncouth. Born the son of a Congregational minister in Boston who served West Congregational Church for 55 years, Lowell’s original poem was a protest against a decadent and corrupt US government that was hell-bent on waging war against Mexico to acquire the state of Texas. It has now become an ode of confession that calls us to both consider what the signs of the times demand from us and how to live into them with humility and hope.

And the reason for this long wind up before the pitch of my message today is this: both time and context must always inform our study and interpretation of scripture. Taken at face value, you see, the words of our Reformers sound ugly, unhelpful and unholy. They seem to evoke the witness of the very people Jesus opposed. What’s more, when they are shared in our context as if they form the true center and spirit of the Christian message, they are alienating and dangerous because new occasions clearly teach new duties and time does make ancient truth uncouth!

As long as I endure I will never forget a young Latina mother who started to worship with our little urban congregation back in Cleveland, Ohio. She would sit in our cavernous sanctuary – towards the back – and mostly weep. She never stayed long enough for me to speak with her so it was months before I even knew her name. Over time she grew more comfortable with us – attending Bible study and bringing her son to Vacation Bible School – and over time there were fewer tears in worship – sometimes even a shy smile.

After almost a year of being a part of our struggling faith community, Elsa asked to speak with me after worship. And what she wanted was this: she wondered if we might conduct a memorial service for a child of hers that had been still born two years ago. As she told me her story – one I might add that still happens way too often throughout the so-called Body of Christ – I could hardly breathe for sorrow and anger.

She said that she had been a member of a vibrant but small fundamentalist congregation that loved her and offered deep fellowship: when she was hungry, they brought her food; when she was alone, they offered her company; when she needed help learning English, they were able to find a tutor. In so many good and healing ways they lived into Christ’s call that “wherever you find one of the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you will find me.”

When she got pregnant out of wedlock, however, things changed. She was shunned to some degree by her old friends, she was warned that she needed to get right with God for sinning; and when the baby in her womb was born dead, she was told that this was God’s punishment for her wicked and selfish lifestyle.

I wish to Christ that I was making this up – but it is true. And when she asked if her congregation – her pastor – would help her out by holding a memorial service for her dead baby, she was told in no uncertain terms that this was impossible: “We do not honor the fruit of human sin in this congregation.” So, my old friend tried to get right with God by going back to worship there, but she only lasted a few months. Her soul had been poisoned by their judgment and cold hearts and she felt alone, forgotten and unclean.

Somehow, and I never learned how, she wandered into our church two years later: we weren’t Spanish speaking, we weren’t Pentecostal and God knows we weren’t fundamentalist. But there she was – asking for a way to own her brokenness and lay her guilt and shame to rest – to say nothing of offering her dead child a sense of God’s amazing grace.

So we did – we held a memorial service for her still-born baby – we gathered up a few women of the church – young and old – and afterwards we had a little reception in the parlor. It was very small, very quiet, certainly not revolutionary or earth shattering and yet… it brought her a sense of healing and hope.

Jesus said, "'Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.' This is the most important commandment, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: 'Love others as well as you love yourself.' These two commands are pegs; everything else in God's Law and the Prophets hangs from them."

It once may have made sense to speak to the church as corrupt and in need of cleansing. During the time of the Protestant Reformation it may even have been necessary to bring words of judgment so that the Body of Christ could be healed. But, Christian friends, to my way of thinking: those days are over. Time has made that truth uncouth because what we need now more than ever is a sense of the Lord’s unfailing and unconditional grace and forgiveness.

St. Paul understood this – sometimes – and his words to the church so long ago still ring true today: as Christ's apostles, we never threw our weight around or tried to come across as important, with you or anyone else. We weren't aloof with you. We embraced you just as you were. We were never patronizing or condescending, but we cared for you the way a mother cares for her children. We loved you dearly. For we were not content to just pass on the Message, we wanted to give you our hearts – and so we did.

Lord, may that be so among us, too.
(I think this incredible tune from the late Eva Cassidy gets the heart of Christ's gospel - and Paul's preaching - just right: for you... without judgment or qualification. Blessings.)


delaferriere said…
wondering two things after reading this:

what bible translation do you read from? I'm not sure I recognize it so I'm curious!

and do you actually play the youtube song at church when your done speaking...cause that would be pretty cool!
RJ said…
Hi there: yes I play the song that I reference -- or our little band plays the songs -- as we're working at breaking down all the sacred/secular barriers. And this is such a GREAT song. And the translation I love to play with is Eugene Peterson's THE MESSAGE which is a lively translation and then paraphrase into contemporary English. Thanks for checking in...

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