Congregational Church of Easton – 10/29/2023
Do you love God more than you love your family? Do you spend more time focused on God than anything else? Do you put God first? These are the challenging questions that today’s second reading poses for us.
It contains Matthews version of the “great commandment: ”thou shalt love the lord thy god with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”
How can we actually do that? Think about it. God is a mystery, a spirit a presence we can’t grasp with our minds. How can you love a mysterious spirit? And yet Jesus says this is our principal obligation in life.
In today’s reading you heard Jesus add a second commandment that you’ve heard a million times: you must love your neighbor as yourself. This helps us answer the how of loving God. We can love God by loving others.
The problem is Jesus doesn’t just suggest we love God. He’s not a self-help guru that encourages us to love God and neighbor because it’s good for us and good for other people. Jesus commands us to do this.
The question I’ll ask us to wrestle with this morning is how can we honor the command to love God and give God our full attention while other responsibilities distract us from giving God a second thought?
Let’s listen to the way Jesus commands us to love God and neighbor:
Let me give you some context. Our reading takes place in Holy Week. Jesus has made his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, which we celebrate on Palm Sunday. He’s been preaching in the temple, and he often tells parables.
Many of those parables make the religious authorities look really bad. They’re furious at Jesus and are looking for ways of trapping him into incriminating himself. There are two opposing parties, Sadducees and Pharisees, who were nowhere near as friendly as Protestants and Catholics are today. The Sadducees had taken a crack at trapping Jesus so he could be arrested. They failed.
Today we heard a Pharisee who may be trying to show he can ask a smarter question than those dim-witted Sadducees. I’ll re-read Matthew 22: 34 to 40.
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Here Jesus is, at the end of his ministry, a few days before his death, commanding us to love God and neighbor.
That sounds pretty doable, right? If other people are stamped with the image of God, we can love God by loving other people. It’s harder to love people you don’t like, but it is possible to learn enough about that person’s suffering to find some compassion for her or him.
So, we can fulfill the great commandment by following the second one –loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
And, we all know how to love God by loving God’s creation. I took a break while writing this sermon and walked around our backyard admiring the last dahlias in bloom. Lovely. Sure, it’s easy to love God by loving God’s creation.
Another way is gratitude. There is a fellow by the name of brother David Steindle-Rast, who has a Ted talk that starts out: “You want to be happy?” “Do each of you want to be happy?” Brother David then says, “Be grateful. Look around and find something to be grateful for.” The life that God gives us is so full of abundant things to be grateful for we can love God by being grateful for God’s gifts.
Finally, we can love ourselves. Part of Jesus ‘s second commandment is to love yourself. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I cringe when I hear some of you putting yourself down or being overly apologetic about yourself.
I cringe because I used to do much the same thing. I know from personal experience that it is possible to grow into more and more self-acceptance and to mature in ways that make it pretty easy to love God by loving one piece of god’s creation — our very selves.
So, it’s not hard to fulfill the great commandment, right?
What’s hard, though, is loving God with our whole heart and soul and minds. Jesus commands us to love God with our very selves. If you rank order all your responsibilities and obligations, Jesus is saying our obligation to love God must be at the very top! The commandment to love God and neighbor and self must be more important than any other obligation — even our obligation to pay taxes or to stop at stop signs and red lights while driving.
Now THAT’S hard!
How do we do this when there are so many pressing obligations that demand our attention? How do you put God first when there are family matters to attend to, or when you’re facing a deadline at work, or when you just remembered that you signed up to bring something to coffee hour and you left it at home!
When I write sermons, I often ask questions I don’t immediately know the answer to, so I wrestled with this one until I came up with one possible answer. I’m not sure it is the answer. So let me give you a minute to wrestle with the question to see if an answer occurs to you.
Let me ask you the question again: “How can loving God come first when there are all kinds of other competing obligations demanding your attention? How can you put God first when you have to pay a bill that will be overdue on Tuesday or the pipe under your sink just sprouted a leak? How can loving God always come first?
Have some ideas? I’d be curious to hear the answers you came up with when we’re getting our coffee. Here’s the answer that occurred to me: “appreciative mindfulness.”
God is in all things, and all things are in God. When I am able to really tune im and be mindful — when I really pay attention to what is occurring in the present moment, I can appreciate what God has created even when I’m carrying out other obligations.
When Susie cooks, it’s my job to wash the dishes. You and i can enjoy and appreciate the slipperiness of the soap in the dish pan. We could admire the way a clean plate reflects the light. When you are paying bills, you can be aware of the smooth flow of ink from your pen, as you write your signature. As I listen to you talk. I can appreciate your intelligence or your thoughtfulness in the way you choose your words.
It’s not one thing or the other. It’s not either focus on God or on other things that demand your attention. It can be both. If we pay attention to the way things actually are without analyzing or judging, we can see reality with God’s eyes of love and compassion.
In the gospels Jesus talks repeatedly about having eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus didn’t like everything he saw and heard. And, he could still see the world through God’s eyes of love.
I don’t particularly like picking up after my dog. And, I can find something to appreciate. The comical way Bailey paws the ground afterwards makes me laugh.
I’ll say it once again: God is in all things and all things are in God. When we’re able to really tune in and be mindful — when we really pay attention to what is occurring in each present moment, we can appreciate and love what God has created — even when we’re carrying out other obligations.
By paying attention to and loving God’s reality as we fill fulfill our obligations, we ARE loving God.
Appreciative mindfulness takes practice. It takes practice to return to the present moment when our attention wanders. Each time we catch ourselves being distracted from the task in front of us, we do receive a blessing. Jesus says in Matthew 13, verse 16: “Blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.”
Let us pray:
Thank you, God, for the gift of conscious awareness, that enables us to love you and others and ourselves in the midst of carrying out each of our responsibilities. Amen.