Can My Love Have An Impact?
This sermon was delivered from Cobleskill United Methodist Church on March 7, 2021
Third Sunday of Lent
The Greatest Commandment
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
My dad was recently telling me about a book he’s been reading called The Overstory. From what I gather, it’s about trees and the stories they tell and the humans whose lives intertwine. I’ve made a mental note to add this book to my Audible list. But I was pleasantly surprised when I opened Bishop Curry’s 6th chapter to find him repeating a line from the book, The Overstory. The line goes:
What’s the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.
What’s the second-best time to plant a tree? Right now.
That is to say, we all love to reap the harvest of a plant, whether it’s the tree’s shade, apples, or sap. But none of that can be reaped if the seed of the tree is not planted many years before. If we’re lucky, those who’ve gone before us did some seed planting. If we’re wise, we continue to plant seeds for those who come after us. And the mysterious, faith-filled part to this whole cycle, is that those who plant tree seeds, rarely get to sit under that seed’s shade.
Why I am talking about tree seeds?
As much as I encourage you plant tree seeds as often as possible, I’m using tree seeds as a metaphor for small actions and ways of being and living that we can start to do right now that will grow and grow and grow into something much bigger. What are these seeds that I speak of?
For this we turn to Jesus. It just so happens that in the week leading up to his crucifixion, Jesus distilled his teachings into some very pointed lessons; short but sweet morsels that have a big impact. Kind of like seeds. Jesus was asked which is the greatest commandment in the law (which, by the way, “the law” referred to the Torah, which was the Hebrew name for what we sometimes call the entire Old Testament). Jesus, what is the most important thing in all of these things? (flip through first two-thirds of the Bible). Now for some that might have been a question that really stumped them. But for Jesus, the answer was clear and he didn’t hesitate at all. The Greatest Commandment, is, put very simply, to love. More specifically, Jesus said, to love the Lord your God, with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind. AND, to love your neighbor as yourself.
These pages are filled with any number of seeds. Seeds of all kinds. Seeds that will grow and grow into all sorts of different practices and beliefs. And out of all these seeds, Jesus picks out two. Love for God, and love for neighbor. And he goes on to say that all the rest of the laws and commands in these pages, hang on this Greatest Commandment of love.
I like to think of The Greatest Commandment in this way: a giant colander. Love is like the metal that holds the good stuff: the pasta, the berries; all the good stuff you actually want to eat. And into it is put all of the laws and rules and prophesies and commandments that we read about in the Old Testament (and trust me there are a lot… like 613). And Jesus says, that if it isn’t about the love of God or the love of neighbor, then it passes right through like the sand and dirt that we wash off our food. If it is about love of God or love of neighbor, then it remains. And these are the seeds we are left to plant.
Seeds of agape. A love that represents the good and well-being of others. A love that builds strong and healthy communities. A love that builds bridges across what divides us. A love that mends tears in the fabric of our collective spirit. Not love that stands solely in opposition to hate. But a love that stands in opposition to selfishness, of which hate is just a symptom.
While there are many commandments in the Bible that have agape love as their foundation, I want to give you two ideas for how to plant the seeds Jesus is offering you.
The first part of The Greatest Commandment- love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind comes from the Shema “Listen” (Deut 6:5) This was and is a very well-known and major commandment in the Torah. It’s memorized by children and written onto little slips of paper and put inside Mezzuzahs. This passage speaks of a daily anchoring in your life to the transcendent power that is beyond you. This kind of God-love, is about removing yourself from the center of your world, and putting God in the role instead. This is quintessential Lent stuff. There are lots of oldies but goodies when it comes to practices that help us de-center ourselves. Prayer, fasting, simplicity, Bible study. All of these seeds planted are actions meant to give parts of yourself to God: heart, mind, and soul. These small actions done with regularity are the seeds we plant to grow a love for God that is greater than our love of self.
While the first seed of the Greatest Commandment was very well known by Jesus’ audience, the second part that he lifted up -- “to love our neighbors as ourselves” was a relatively minor commandment that came from the book of Leviticus 19:18. In the verses immediately preceding 19:18 we hear more about what this love of neighbor looks like when God commands Israel to leave food around the edges of the field for those without enough to eat (we call this gleaning); in particular, Leviticus species those who are impoverished and those who are immigrants. Also in this passage, “loving your neighbor” is played out by refraining from dishonesty, stealing, mistreating the disabled, corruption, slander, hatred and, finally, vengeance. All of these things, symptoms of a self-centered life. When we love our neighbor, we tell them the truth; we take care of them (whether we know them personally or not), we do not pre-judge them, we do not repeat mean things we hear about them, and we do not hold past wrongs. We extend grace. Next week we’re going into more detail about neighborly love, but this week suffice it to say that each of these actions done alone may seem like a small thing, but they are the seeds we plant to grow a love for our neighbor that is as strong as our love for our self.
We reap, what we plant. All of the little things you do with your life each day are seeds. You have to decide: are they the kind of seeds that grow love, or are they a different kind of seed that passes through. Do your daily actions put barriers between you and other people? Do they dig their heals in and make demands? Do they spread gossip and things you don’t know to be true? Do they make pre-judgements about the character of a person without any actual knowledge? Do they build you up at the expense of any other living thing? Do they hoard resources when others are in need? These may seem like hard actions to avoid in practicality.
Yet Jesus understood the gravity of his words when he said everything we do must be done in love.
I have one final thought to leave you with today.
There’s a poem by Wendell Berry that has a line in it that goes like this:
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
We don’t plant seeds of love so that our lives are better. We plant seeds of love in faith that the children’s lives will be better. We plant seeds of love so that our children and our grandchildren inherit a less divided, a less isolated, a less self-absorbed world. We plant seeds of love so that in a ripple-effect of kindness, something we did in love makes the world better for someone across the world. We may never sit under the shade of a great sequoia, but it’s still our job to plant the seed.
Our love can have an impact. The choices we make sow seeds of division or they sow seeds of wholeness and restoration. We may never see a completely healed and redeemed world, but we aren’t doing this for ourselves. And in God’s time and in God’s own way, the seeds of love we all plant will become a forest of justice, freedom and flourishing for all.
Grace and Peace,