Jesus replied, “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.

-Matthew 22:37-38

(Preached on Sunday, October 29, 2017)

Jesus was hooked on love!  He was hooked on that gracious mercy to which the high points of the Hebrew scripture bore witness.  Love lay behind the Ten Commandments – given so that we might better love God and those around us.  Love was also behind the grief and anger, and the glorious visionary hopes, of the greatest prophets.  If you like, you can call Jesus an arch conservative: He was intent on conserving the very core of Biblical religion.  Or if you prefer, you can call Jesus a radical: He was intent on driving back to the very roots of Biblical faith and practice.

Either way, he was hooked on love!  But not on the sentimental stuff, like being “nice” people.  No, his understanding of love was the costly, self-giving activity which flows from the heart of God.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Everything in the Law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments.

Jesus was not delivering a new insight.  He was reclaiming a truth from all the complex legalism, and avoidance games, that religion had become so infatuated with.  Many rabbis had taught the foundational and core nature of these two commandments.  The idea seems simple: “Love God, love neighbor.”  The difficulties arise in the execution.  Everyone I know who has made a serious, lifelong effort to live out these simple precepts has struggled with one or both of them.  Who is God, and who is my neighbor?  What does it mean to love them?  Wrestling with these questions is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and in a faithful relationship with God.

What does it really mean to love God?  We have some idea of what it means to love one’s husband or wife, to love one’s children or one’s parents, to love one’s sisters and brothers.  We learn love from those who love us – through their nurture and respect, their kisses and their hugs, their sacrifice and their belief in us.  From this we can love in return.

The roots of our Christian love for God resides in God’s self revelation in the human being Jesus, who was “the very image of the invisible God.”  The God of this Jesus awakens love within us.  A holy passion is created which is like no other passion.  To love this most loving God means to put God first in all things.  This is what Jesus means by loving God “with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.”  In the ancient world, heart, soul, and mind do not constitute three separate categories within the self.  Bringing them together in the same context is a way of speaking about the totality of the self.  The combination of these three things – heart, soul, and mind – was an ancient way of saying, “with everything you’ve got,” “total commitment.”

Whoa!  That is a huge ask!  Jesus says the first and greatest commandment of all is to put God #1 in my life!  Nothing can ever be permitted to come between us and God.  Not family nor ambition, not political party nor sport, neither money nor popularity.  That is not an easy challenge.  To love God so totally and completely is like the diver plunging into the sea, trusting the waves to bear him up.  It is like the bird in flight trusting the wind to bear it up and sustain its wings.  It is like the plant turning to the sunlight for complete nourishment.  It is like the fish living in the sea, totally surrounded and totally dependent on that surrounding reality for its existence.  How often do you think about your love affair with God in such total, absorbing and pervasive terms?  Yet that is what we are called to when we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

What would it mean for you, as an individual, to love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind?  What changes would you have to make?  How would you benefit from those changes?  How would the world beyond benefit from those changes?  What would you have to adjust in your lives in response to the changes?

And what does it mean to love our neighbor?  Jesus is expanding the greatest commandment with the words “And a second is like it.”  Those words do not mean another commandment that is second in priority.  They mean that this expression is another way of saying something similar, much as we would say, “to say the same thing in other words ….”  To love God is to love the neighbors that God has made.  To love the neighbor is to express love for God.  When we love neighbors we express love for God.  These two statements do not depict two kinds of love or even to arenas of love.  They are not even as separate as two sides of the same coin.  They are more like an ellipse – a closed arc with two focal points.  They are two aspects of the same reality.

To love others does not mean we have to like them all.  Love is not liking.  It means seeking their best welfare just as we seek it for ourselves.  A school teacher may not actually like certain children in her class, but as a conscientious teacher she will try and do her very best for those less likeable students.  The love Jesus calls us to embrace and live out is similar.  It reaches out to the hard-to-like characters.  That was the fundamental orientation of Jesus.  From the very center of his being, Jesus loved everyone he met.

Again, this sounds nice.  But it is so difficult.  To truly love like this, as Jesus calls us to do, does not “come cheap.”  It is not a cozy way to live.  Loving one’s neighbors can be costly.  It often involves those two old words we struggle with and really don’t like: self-sacrifice.

Sometimes we can love other people and at the same time please ourselves.  But often we can only love them by putting our own pleasure to one side.  Make no bones about it: love can demand a price.  There may be occasions when loving others can be an impulsive thing – a quick, almost reflex response to human need.  That is okay.

More often loving will require re-arranging our priorities and programs, taking a reasoned approach.  Some of the best loving is not undertaken in an emotional flush, but in a calm, prayerful, calculated reflection.  Efficiency and loving are far from being incompatible partners.  They work well together in the ways of Jesus.

The famous author and monk Thomas Merton describes this love in terms of the mystery and hidden nature of God: Love is my true identity.  Selflessness if my true self.  Love is my true character.  Love is my name.  If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfillment, or joy.  To find love I must enter into the sanctuary where it is hidden, which is the mystery of God.

Today is Commitment Sunday, the climax of our stewardship campaign.  Stewardship is much more than what we do with our money.  It is how we respond to God’s love for us and for the world with our whole selves – time, talent, money (yes), and other resources.  Indeed, at its best, stewardship is partnering with God and with one another through this church in using our resources to help individual lives, households, the congregation, and the world become more the people and communities of love that god seeks among all.

What is stewardship?  Loving God and loving neighbor.  What is Commitment Sunday?  An opportunity to make commitments – both material and symbolic – to help this congregation love God and love neighbor in the days, weeks, months, and year ahead.