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October 25, 2020
Several years ago, I woke up one morning feeling completely overwhelmed. I forget what was on my schedule for that day, but I felt myself getting more and more worked up about it. So, before I left, I sat down, closed my eyes and took several slow, deep breaths. And as I did, I felt a voice say, “All you have to do today is love God. Whatever it looks like, all you have to do is love God.”
And I thought, “Okay.” And I went on with my day. That afternoon, I was at work at the seminary bookstore and it was getting close to closing time and a customer came in. He took his time browsing, and I felt myself growing impatient because I wanted to close the store and just get home.
When he brought his purchases to the cash register, he asked if we offered gift-wrapping as a service. And I thought, “Ugh,” because we did. And so I smiled and said, “Yes, no problem.” And as I wrapped the book he was giving as a gift, I was reminded of what I’d been told that morning. And I understood that loving God doesn’t always look the way I think it will.
When we think about the things God expects of us, we often overthink it – at least I do. We can get caught up in the details and think it involves bigger actions all the time. But when we remember who God is and who we are as God’s people, we recognize that loving God and each other are the only expectations God has of us. Jesus shows us how to do that.
In his conversations with the religious leaders throughout his life, Jesus meets every challenge they try to trap him with. Today’s conversation is no exception. It’s still Tuesday of what we call Holy Week, and for the better part of the day the religious leaders have been taking turns trying to discredit Jesus and silence him.
Instead, Jesus silences them with a question that calls attention to love being the most important thing – love of God and love of neighbor. It’s more important than holding onto political power; it’s even more important than restoring the throne of David.
Everything that Jesus lived and taught came down to those two things – loving God and loving your neighbor. As he embodied that love, people paid attention to it – and gravitated toward it, and that’s what scared the leaders. But Jesus kept showing people that love, and showing them how to have it – how to embody it – for each other.
And it’s what got him killed.
When we talk about “love” in the English language, it tends to fall into one of two categories: you love the pizza you had for dinner last night, and you love your spouse (or family or friends). But the love Jesus is talking about here is agape – the love God has for us. It’s the love that seeks the well-being of another person. It’s the basis for life as God’s people.
And it goes all the way back to the time of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. During those 40 years, they learned how to be God’s people and how that would set them apart from the cultures around them. And a significant part of that was learning about God’s love and how to embody it for each other.
Our life today, as God’s people, is still marked by that love and the commandment to love God and each other. It is still God’s expectation of God’s people in the world. On the surface, it sounds easy, and we know we’re supposed to honor those commandments. But Jesus showed us what it looks like, and we know what it cost him.
So, if we’re honest, how willing are we to embody it in our lives? If we’re honest, most of the time we probably don’t want to. It makes us vulnerable, and we want to be safe – to keep our circle small and manageable. We want to choose the people we love based on our own likes and preferences – not on Jesus’ all-inclusive commandments.
We want our social media feeds to reinforce what we think and believe. We want to be around people who are like us, who don’t challenge us to think more broadly about what it means to love our neighbor – and about who is our neighbor.
But making our hearts vulnerable and loving people outside what is familiar? That’s hard. And costly.
But that’s the call. Which means we have a God who first and foremost wants our love – not our fear or complacence or piety. And we have a God who wants every one of God’s children to also feel loved. By us. Not shamed, or punished, or chastised, or judged. But loved.
Jesus shows us how to do that.
Today is the day we commemorate the Reformation. When we remember the actions of Martin Luther and the other reformers who fought the church because they wanted it to return to being the place God intended – a place where people experienced God’s love for them and they, in turn, learned how to embody it for others.
The church then had gotten away from that, and it’s still something we work towards today. Because no matter how hard we try, we can never perfectly fulfill God’s commandment to love. But Jesus shows us how to do it and his is the example we seek to follow.
When we embody love for God and our neighbor, we demand accountability from the government and justice for the 545 children that can’t be located after they were separated from their parents at the border. We demand better precautions and cohesive leadership in the pandemic crisis. We work toward racial justice across the board – culturally, economically, and especially in terms of the climate crisis.
When we embody love for God and our neighbor, we pay attention to who’s around us – and also who isn’t – and we ask, “Why.” We ask how we can recognize who is our neighbor and how we can love them better. We look for God’s image in each other, and we become the neighbor they need instead of the one we think we ought to be.
When the religious leaders asked Jesus what matters most in a life of faith, Jesus didn’t say, “Believe the right things” or “Maintain personal purity” or “Worship in this style.” He didn’t even say, “Read your Bible” or “Pray every day.” He said, “Love.” That’s it. Love God and love your neighbor.
It doesn’t always look the way we think it will, but it’s the expectation God has for us. As people of faith, we strive toward that every day, following the example of Jesus. Because he is the one who shows us how to embody that love. Thanks be to God! Amen.