Love that reaches up and out

A sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 4, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Psalm 119:1-8, Hebrews 9:11-14, and Mark 12:28-34.

When I was little, I learned in Sunday school that it was important to remember the two dimensions of the cross. A cross has an upward axis and that reminds us of our relationship with God. But the cross also has a horizontal axis, which reminds us of our relationships with each other. Both need to be in order for us to be right with God.

I learned that incredibly simple (if not simplistic) understanding of the cross maybe 40 years ago. But I’m not sure if I’m any closer at all to reflecting that kind of balance as I try to live my own life in the way of the cross.

The first great commandment: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength;” and the second, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” are at the center of what it means to walk in the way of the cross. Those two great commandments are at the center of the scripture readings today.

We hear the summary of that first commandment at every Mass at All Souls.  We hear it also today in the reading from Deuteronomy. Moses tells his people that God has promised to watch over them and to love them and to keep them safe. They will pass over from slavery into freedom, from bondage into liberty. They will be free. They will live. And so, he says, give thanks to the God who saves. The Lord is one. Love him with your heart, and your soul and all your might. Moses urges people to love God with their soul, but that word he uses for “soul” is a rich one.

It means to love God with your whole self, with your life, with the creature that you are, with your whole person, with your appetite, with your mind, with your desire, and with your passion.

The Second Commandment, “to love your neighbor as yourself” is sometimes thought by Christians to have originated with Jesus. But it is older. Rabbis long before Jesus had joined the commandment of loving God, with the command of loving neighbor. It’s found in the Book of Leviticus (19:18) and elsewhere. When Jesus links the love of God with the love of neighbor, he is simply following the great prophets of Israel, continuing the witness of Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Amos.

In today’s Gospel Jesus has a conversation with a man who is called a scribe, a man who is educated in the laws of God and in their interpretation. As the conversation plays out, the scribe and Jesus agree about the commandments. They agree that the mark of faith is to “love God and love neighbor,” and for that agreement, Jesus says to the man, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

This scribe agrees with the teachings of Jesus, in his head. He can assent to the essential doctrine and can even affirm the interpretations of Jesus. And according to Our Lord, this man is “not far from the kingdom.” But it is that distance, that space between apprehending the kingdom of God and actually reaching the kingdom of God that makes all the difference.

“Almost” doesn’t count, except in a couple of things, and neither of them are Biblical.

The Gospel of Mark has a momentum to it, and this momentum is moving toward the cross. The scribe is lacking something. Like the rich man in an earlier story, the scribe here is lacking the follow-through. It’s not enough just to agree with Jesus. It’s not enough simply to be familiar with his teaching. Faithfulness is shown in one’s willingness to follow the cross—and this means the whole cross, including the love of God and the love of neighbor.

At All Souls we spend a lot of time on the love of God. We worship deeply and lovingly. We love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength. We love God “from the gut,” here. But do we do as well with the second commandment?

There’s a church I know in Houston, Texas, that since 1954 has matched, dollar for dollar, the money spent in the operation of the church and its programs with money given to those in need in the community and the world. Can you imagine such a thing for All Souls, or any church? We should imagine it and we should pray for such a day. We’re known all over the district and beyond for our worship and for our openness and hospitality. Those are great things. But let’s say out loud what we all know: The quality of our prayer does not feed a hungry person. It does not put clothes on the back of the poor. Our prayers do not build houses, or provide water, or send children to school.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and we shall love the Lord our God . . . [and] our neighbor as ourself.”

Our prayers can provoke us. They can encourage us, and they can help us to look upward and outward and beyond ourselves. Our prayers can take us into the midst of the other.

There are lots of places to start.  Melissa Barrett is the organizational head of our outreach, but the real outreach happens with individuals, with pairs, with small groups.  Some have done a lot over the years, but they need help.  Our Christ House volunteers need help.  We need someone to take gathered food to the food bank.  Listed in our weekly insert are notices from Transitional Housing, Samaritan Ministries, and many other organizations.  I celebrate a monthly eucharist at St. Mary’s Court, a residence for older adults over in Foggy Bottom.  You could attend and visit with some of our older friends. There are transitional houses of various kinds in our neighborhood, and there are various opportunities to become involved in Adams Morgan and beyond.

There is much that can be done toward loving our neighbor. Loving our neighbor flows into our worship, and flows out of our worship.  I don’t want to worship less, but to explore new ways of moving out of our worship into the world. 
Some of you are familiar with the term, “Anglo-catholic.”  It has to do with a particular movement and a continuing spirit of reminding Anglicans of our Catholic roots, of what we have in common with the whole Christian Church.  An Anglo-catholic perspective takes seriously the sacraments, is careful about worship, doesn’t feel that we have to invent prayer and ritual on the spot according to what may feel relevant in the moment, and a true Anglo-catholic perspective seeks to honor the body of Christ in other people just as much as in the Sacrament. 
Some consider the 1920’s to have been a heyday of the Anglo-Catholic movement. There were strong churches, wise priests and active parishes. At a meeting of the Anglo-Catholic conference of 1923, The Right Reverend Frank Weston, the Bishop of Zanzibar, gave the closing address. He preached that day,

If you say that the Anglo-Catholic has a right to hold his peace while his fellow citizens are living in hovels below the levels of the streets, this I say to you, that you do not yet know the Lord Jesus in his Sacrament . . . Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.

That dimensional aspect of the Cross still cuts both ways, doesn’t it? It takes us upward and outward. May God show us mercy, and may our Lord Jesus give us the strength to be faithful, that we might walk in the way of the Cross. May we continue to love God with extraordinary beauty, extravagance and unapologetic grandeur, but may we also be motivated to move beyond these walls and participate in the transformation of the world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s