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Sermon: God, Neighbor, Self

This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on October 25, 2020

Matthew 22:34-46

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.”

I read a story this week in the Wall Street Journal about two neighbors in the suburbs of Pittsburg, the Mitchell family and the Gates family. The Mitchells, lifelong Democrats, staked a Joe Biden sign in the front yard of their house and the Gateses, lifelong Republicans, put a Donald Trump sign in their front yard. Side-by-side these signs stood. This might not sound that unusual to us here in Cobleskill/Warnerville gauging some of the one upmanship I’ve seen in campaign sign battles between neighboring houses. But what the Mitchells and the Gates did next was, unfortunately, pretty unusual. You see, the Mitchells and the Gates, in spite of their political differences had children the same ages and they had spent 14 years living next door to one another sharing carpools, swimming parties and outdoor movies. They were so close that they considered themselves a pod during the pandemic and had weekly dinners together. That’s why they needed to do something else in their front lawns, something unusual in these days of poisonous polarization. Each family made another sign that had a big arrow on it that said “we love them” and they each put the sign pointing at the other family’s house. Side by side sat the political sign that threatened to divide and the homemade sign that indicated that love was stronger than that kind of division.

This same news article reported that 9 out 10 Americans feel like incivility is a major problem in our country. Such a poll demonstrates that 90% of people feel like civility should be the norm, buy somehow it isn’t. Thank goodness we can at least agree about that.

I don’t have to stand up here and tell you that we are living through one of the most divided times of our lives. You know it because you’re living it. You see the fault lines in your own family, in your circles of friends, and even in the church pews. The truth is, America is bitterly divided right now.

I was driving across the county this week and one campaign sign in particular caught my eye because it was different from all the rest. It said “JESUS 2020” and underneath in smaller print it said, “love thy neighbor.” My first reaction, was admittedly more snarky than hopeful. As if, I thought. As if we could skip the step of having earthly rulers and just defer straight to our heavenly one. As if Jesus were running for some office of power in our lives this year and we could choose him to make the rules for our daily life. As if Jesus’ campaign platform would be simple and to the point. As these “as ifs” sunk in a little, the irony of the Jesus’ sign against all the others seemed to be making its point. We are indeed called to a higher loyalty and how that plays out in this season is up to us.

Well, as it happens, the lectionary has pitched us another poignantly timed scripture reading this week, hasn’t it? Jesus, under pressure from his opponents, is asked to choose between the commandments and name which is the greatest. It’s like in a debate when one candidate tries to trick the other into slipping up and saying the wrong thing.

But Jesus doesn’t even hesitate. It’s like this is the moment he’s been waiting for. An opportunity to hone his message and make a clear and concise closing statement. This all happens, after all, in the week leading up to his crucifixion. The greatest commandment, he says, is to Love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind. And love your neighbor as love yourself. Everything else in the Bible – the laws and the prophets, they all depend upon Love. They all rest on the main thing and the main thing is Love. Love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self.

Yes, we are in an age of unprecedented polarization in this country, but I think deep down none of us are happy about that. When we stake out ground to put up our campaign signs, we want to be the kind of people who would also put up a “we love them” sign along with it, like those neighbors in Pittsburgh did. Many of us have relationships with people who will still be in our lives after the election is said and done. So how do we rise above the division and take Jesus’ stump speech to heart.

For starters, we must not take on the responsibility for changing other people’s minds. You know why? Because you can’t. And feeling like you can or that it’s your responsibility to do so will only lead you to the point of bitterness toward each other every single time. Everyone is different. People who worship in the same church have different opinions. People in the same family have different opinions. People in the same marriage have different opinions. We do not all have to think alike to still love alike. The sooner we realize that we don’t’ have the power to change people, the stronger our relationships will be.

Secondly, accept that what makes us different, whether it’s our worldview or our life experience, is a gift. If we limit our relationships to only those neighbors whose campaign signs match our own, I guarantee you we’ll be missing out on knowing some good people. People that will give you the shirt off their back if you needed it. People that celebrate your joys with you and grieve your sorrows with you. People who will make you a better person by making you more tolerant and understanding. There are people behind these signs. And strangers become neighbors really quick with a little bit of love. You know this. We all know this. We just need to be reminded.

And lastly this. Neighbors you know and love will disappoint you by making decisions and forging loyalties that are different than you. It’s just part of the relationship. It’s just life. But the remedy to this disappointment is to focus on what you love about them, what you would miss about them if they completely disappeared from your life, and what you have in common with them. Remind yourself why this person is in your life. Why you care about them. Love isn’t always the same thing as like. It’s about what lies under the surface…what goes deeper than earthly loyalties and connects you at a spiritual level.

The bottom line is this: it comes down to showing grace through a kind of love that lets everything else hang off of it. Keep the main thing, the main thing. Love is all we need.

I want to close with a final thought from my grandfather who was a prophetic preacher in Kentucky for the second half of the 20th century, decades that I’m sure presented many divisive moments to which he felt called to speak.

In 1986 my grandfather preached a sermon called “Is Decency Dead?” in which he said this: “Decency is not dead as long as the church speaks out against long as we who call ourselves Christians take seriously the word that Jesus used when He called us "the salt of the earth and the light of the world." Decency will not die if we Christian people understand that our behavior is our belief...that truth is not something that can be held in isolation. Our lives are our convictions. Decency will live on if we live out the law of God and the love of God...” And in a subsequent sermon he said this: “Isn’t it true that love is the only force strong enough to break walls that divide persons. It is the goodwill whereby things can change.”

Things can change and they will change. Love your God with everything you’ve got, love your neighbor even when it’s hard, and be gentle with yourself. These are hard times and a lot is being asked of you in the name of decency.

Let us pray.

(A prayer by Steve Garnaas-Holmes, adapted)

Loving One, may all that we do today be love. May our faith be this simple, this urgent, beyond all doctrine, beneath all righteousness. Every act, seen and unseen an act of love. Every thought and judgment considered through the lens of love. All my doubt and anger held in the hands of love. All our fears and desires held in the hands of love. Loving One, enact your love through us. Held in the hands of your love, may we love in all we do. Amen

A note about Stewardship

Today is the Sunday in the church year when we fill out and return pledge cards. It’s when we make a commitment of what we can and want to give to the ministry of God through this church in the coming year. Often times the preacher will preach about money on this Sunday. Today I chose not to. You’re welcome. This is not to say conversations about money and our stewardship aren’t important. But today I’m going to trust that you can make a decision about your own commitments to this church without a stump speech. Because really all you need to know is the greatest commandment. When your love for God and your love for your neighbor is the priority in your life, all your other commitments will fall in line.

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