A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
March 6, 2016
Jesus has had lots of questions sent his way as he’s been journeying to Jerusalem. We have discussed how some of the questions were possibly ill advised. And some were intended to make the questioner look good. And some were just wrong wrong wrong. But this one seems to come to Jesus with sincerity from a scribe. “Which commandment is first of all?”
Jesus answers his question about one commandment with two commandments. One from Deuteronomy. One from Leviticus. Jesus gives the abridged version in his answer, because he knew his audience would know the original story. I’m going to read you the original passages, because most of us don’t spend much time with Leviticus and Deuteronomy, I’m guessing.
The Leviticus passage comes from a longer list of ways to treat each other:
Lev 19:13-18 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
The Deuteronomy passage is in chapter 6:
“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long…
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Jesus connects these two passages into one commandment.
It is as if you cannot love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind without then loving your neighbor. And loving your neighbor is the practice of loving the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Jesus doesn’t say you can choose between these two different ways of being. It doesn’t work to say “I love God and we have a close personal relationship, but I don’t care about anyone but myself.”
And it is also a challenge to really love your neighbor.
I’m not saying you have to be Christian to love your neighbor. Plenty of non-religious people do a lovely job, actually, of loving their neighbors as themselves. What I’m saying is that loving your neighbor is hard.
It’s one thing to love the neighbor you like. It’s another thing altogether to love the neighbor you don’t like, or the one you don’t understand, or the one who hates you, or the one who is hard to love because of mental health problems, or addiction.
A few weeks ago, I heard Dr Tony Campolo, my favorite Baptist, and a sociology professor from Pennsylvania tell this story about loving your neighbor.
He was walking down Chestnut Street in Philadelphia when he saw a homeless man coming straight toward him. The man was wearing layers of filthy clothing, with a greasy beard, and he was yelling at someone who wasn’t there.
He staggered towards Dr. Campolo, and shouted, “Hey mister, you want some of my coffee?” He held up a styrofoam cup from McDonald’s.
Tony absolutely did not want the man’s coffee, but knew that the right thing to do was to affirm the man’s generosity. Dr. Campolo held his breath, and said, “OK.” He took a small sip and returned it to the man and said to him, “You’re feeling pretty generous today. You’re giving away your coffee to people you don’t even know. What’s gotten into you?”
The man answered, “The coffee this morning was especially delicious. I figure if God gives you something this good, you ought to share it with somebody else.”
Tony groaned. He knew he was being set up to give the man money. But he said, “You want something from me, don’t you?”
The man said, “Yeah, I do.”
As Tony was about to reach for his wallet, the man continued, “I want a hug!”
Tony put his arms around the man and the man hugged him back. Not a polite hug among strangers. But a bear hug or maybe an iron claw of love. Tony was aware of people passing by, staring, and he fought back the feeling of embarrassment that was rising in him. The bear hug continued, but little by little Tony’s embarrassment began to fade, as he sensed the words of Jesus, “I was hungry, did you feed me? I was naked, did you clothe me? I was sick, did you care for me? I was that bum you met on Chestnut Street, did you hug me? For inasmuch as you failed to do it to the least of these, you failed to do it unto me.”
Loving your neighbor is hard. And for me, in those moments where loving my neighbor seems so difficult that I stop even trying, I think it is an indication I’ve forgotten to love God with my whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.
When the scribe asks for one simple answer, Jesus tells him its complicated. And it requires a lot. A lot of trust. A lot of courage. Jesus tells him it requires a willingness to reconsider how you’ve always understood the commandments because we have to start being kind to each other and we’re running out of time.
Jesus has been headed to Jerusalem, and to the cross. He’s now in Jerusalem, at the Temple. The time he has to get his disciples to understand the kingdom of God is coming to an end.
He warns his followers to beware of people who act very pious and seek honor in the Temple and pray long prayers while at the same time they devour widow’s houses. Then we’re told:
“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
It may be hard to remember to love God with your heart, soul, strength, and mind when you’re distracted by work, or busy with soccer carpools or whatever, but when you’re at the TEMPLE, at God’s house, one might think that focusing on God should be easier.
Jesus points out that even in the Temple, people get their priorities out of order. People who give their money because they love God a little, but really love people knowing that their giving their money. People praying long prayers because they love God a little, but they really love the idea of other people seeing how religious they are.
And then there’s the widow, offering her two small coins. This passage is often preached as praising the widow for giving so generously out of her poverty, but I’m not sure that is Jesus’ point. He doesn’t criticize the rich people for their generous sums. But he doesn’t actually praise the poor widow, either.
What he observes is that her gift is larger than everyone else’s because she has just given away the money she needed to live on. The “truly I tell you” is one of Jesus’ trademark “pay attention” comments. But he isn’t talking to the widow. He’s talking to the disciples. He’s talking to us.
“Remember that thing a few verses back”, Jesus says, “when I told you to love God with your heartsoulstrenthandmind, and to love your neighbor as yourself? Well, here’s a neighbor. She’s a widow. And she only has two small coins. That’s it. All she has to live on. And she’s offering it to God, because she gets the heart, soul, strength, and mind piece. AND she’s your neighbor. If your neighbor only has two small coins, how well are you understanding the “love your neighbor” part of the commandment?”
There’s something about both parts of the commandment Jesus lifts up that requires someone to be “all in”. We aren’t called to love God for an hour on Sunday morning, when we’re in town. We aren’t called to love our neighbor just a little. We’re called to love them as if they were us. We’re to put it all in, and leave nothing in reserve.
You may have heard of the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the state, to cut costs, changed the source from where the municipal water was coming. To cut costs, they also did not test the water as they should have, and the water as it traveled through old lead pipes had a chemical reaction to those pipes, activating that lead. It is no longer an issue of testing the water differently. It is now an issue of completely replacing the lead pipes.
The people of Flint were not treated as neighbors by their government. And now they can’t brush their teeth or boil water. People across the country are sending money and bottled water to Flint, but I heard a story this week that reminded me of the widow.
“At a prison a hour and half drive west of Flint, where many men who grew up in the town are now held, inmates are organizing their own donations for the city’s residents….one young man stood up and addressed the drab prison auditorium. There were about 250 other male inmates there, dressed in their blue uniforms.
He said we all come from cities like Flint, if not from Flint, and our responsibility is to do whatever we could on our end to ensure that the mothers and children and family members left behind would have adequate water.”
“Literally everyone raised their hand to commit to give at least $3”.
That might not sound like a lot to most people, but for a prison inmate, it’s nothing to sneeze at. Many inmates make only about $10 a month at their prison jobs. Those without families supporting them have to use that to buy all of their toiletries and other supplies at the commissary.”
Are we living as if we’re ‘all in’?
I read a poem by Mary Oliver this weekend called “Moments”. (It is in her book “Felicity”, which I highly recommend).
There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money away, all of it.
Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?
There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.
Maybe this is what the widow and her two coins is supposed to remind us. Headlong might save a life, and so we love the Lord with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We love our neighbor as if they were our very own selves. Headlong might save a life. The widow seems to get that the life it saves could be someone else’s. And if we love our neighbor as ourself, the life we save could also be our own.