Sunday, October 26, 2008

I or We -- A Sermon

At the beginning of the month I put up on my office door the question, “What brings you closer to God?”  Several people posted their answers on it.  Someone this week in the office asked me, “So, what brings YOU closer to God?”  It stopped me short.  I had to sit and ponder.  At first, I thought about saying when I’m in the woods.  Or when I’m in my study early in the morning before anyone else is up.  And that’s good.  Being by myself helps me clear my head, put life into perspective -- but it didn’t feel right.

Then it came to me.  I feel closest to God right here.  When I preach and when I distribute communion.  When I’m with you.  When I look into each person’s eyes and maybe I know they’ve had a hard week or a hard year - or that they’ve recently fallen in love or are trying to sort out what to do with their lives.  I feel closest to God when we’re together.

Which is the point of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees in today’s gospel.  We cannot know, understand or even please God without community.  As Jesus says, the greatest commandment is to love God with your entire being, and the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.  That word “like” in the Greek doesn’t mean “similar”.  It means “made of the same material.”  They are inseparable from each other.

To put it another way, to love God is to love your neighbor.  

Let’s give this a little context.  In the past chapter or so of Matthew, we’ve been seeing this debate going on between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Remember last week how it was the Pharisees and the Herodians who got together to give Jesus a “gotcha” question about taxes?  This week the Herodians have abandoned ship and it’s just the Pharisees.

But they have a good question.  A real stumper.  What’s the greatest law?  Back then, there were 613 laws, and each one was equal in the sight of the Lord, so they taught.  It would be impossible for Jesus to answer this question.  Either he picked one and got everyone mad for saying the others were less important, or he said they were all equal and sounded wishy washy.  Instead, he summarized the ten commandments.

You shall love the Lord your God summarizes the first four commandments.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself summarizes the next six.  So, he gives them two commandments when they ask for one, and then he says, “You cannot separate them.  If you want to understand God and God’s will, you must have them both.”

That’s bad news for a lot of people.  In our world, we like rugged individualists.  We like to keep what we earn because “it’s mine.”  We don’t like sharing.  Same thing as the tax issue in last week’s Gospel.  We can’t be Christians without the community, and we can’t be the community without caring for each other.  

We like to see the world in terms of “I”.  Jesus invites us to see it in terms of “we.”  Not only invites us but commands it.  To follow Jesus means to remember that we belong together.

I am happy to report that the election campaign is almost over.  But there has been a troubling phenomenon in its waning days.  There has been the “real America” fight.  The “elite versus Joe Six-Pack” fight.  It is a splitting of the country but even more than that, it is a way of saying, “I am right, and you don’t count.”  Sadly, we see it on all sides of the campaign to one degree or another.

This egotism, this idea that I count and lesser folks do not -- this is not of Christ.  For Jesus, as he shows today, it is never “I” but always “we.”  As Americans, we would do well to remember that Joe the Plumber and the most elite Ivy League grads belong together because they are of the same community.  Not just America but the community of God’s children.  That’s why Jesus says the two commandments cannot be separated -- to love each other means to love God, and to love God means to love each other.

I could get into the whole meaning of that word “love” -- agape in today’s reading -- but I won’t.  Sometimes you just need to know in your heart what it means.  I know God’s love intimately right here (in my heart) when I stand in the midst of you and wonder how it is that I get to be here.  And especially when I put the host in your hands and say, “The Body of Christ” and look into your eyes.  My heart tells me all I need to know at that point.  We are bound together -- and it is good.  Amen.