The Rector’s sermon for October 29, 2017     



Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matt. 22:34-46


After the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in June 2016, the Broadway community came together to record the Hal David and Burt Bacharach classic “What the World Needs Now Is Love” to honor the victims and those wounded in the shooting and to aid the surrounding community.  They donated the proceeds to many nonprofit organizations in the area.  It was wonderful to see a community of so many people come together to share the message that our world truly needs love because, as the song says, “it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”


Isn’t that true, though?  Our world lacks the kind of love the songwriter speaks about:  love that is for everyone; love that lasts until the end of time;  “love, sweet love.”  Love is a funny thing, though, because sometimes that one word isn’t enough to describe the feeling we are trying to express.


Some other languages understand the need for expression in multiple ways.  Did you know that the Eskimo has 52 names for ‘snow’?  Why?  Well, it is said that snow is so important to the Eskimo that he needs 52 names.  The Eskimo needs to know everything there is to know about snow.  Now, if the Eskimo thinks so much about snow that he needs 52 different names for it, what does that say about those of us in the English-speaking world who have only one word for something that we claim is so important to us.  One word.  And we use that same word to mean so much—and so little.  We use it to describe our attachment to food, clothes, cars, music and—oh, yes—our attachment to another person. 


The Greeks were on the right track when it came to the word ‘love’.  They were able to separate their idea of love into four different words, and we’ve talked about this before: storge, eros, phileo, and agape. 


The first two, storge and eros, don’t appear at all in the New Testament.  Storge was used in the early first century to describe a more formal type of love, perhaps that love which was the formal relationship between a parent and a child where feelings were not expressed openly; they were simply understood.  Eros , on the other hand, is a self-serving, self-gratifying love, which is probably why it doesn’t show up in the New Testament.   Our English word “erotic” comes from the Greek.


The other two Greek words, phileo and agape, are used over and over again in the New Testament.  The Greeks used the word phileo to describe a reciprocal love, a "two-way street" kind of love.   Philadelphia—the city of brotherly love—comes from this word.   Phileo is a love that endeavors to communicate, each with the other, a sharing kind of love, perhaps the kind of love that is the beginning of a life-long marital relationship.   And last Greek word, but not least is agape.  Agape love is the ultimate of all love.  It is unselfish and unconditional and it only takes one person to exercise this kind of love   Agape love is a giving of oneself, a doing to meet the needs of another, with no expectation in return.


In our language, we don’t have the words to distinguish the different types of love, so it’s important that we orient our love toward things that help us grow as people of faith. Then we can go deeper and reflect on what loving someone or something actually means.  In the Gospel, a Pharisee asks Jesus a deep question regarding the most important commandment, a question that helps us sort out the types of love. Rather than focusing on a commandment that is about us as individuals, Jesus answers by quoting one of the most famous verses from the Hebrew Scriptures, Deuteronomy 6:5, or what is commonly known in Judaism as the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus then lifts up a second commandment, quoting from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  These commandments are deeply connected to Jesus’ identity.  These two commandments were his mission on earth, and they give us a deeper glimpse into his heart—to know who he was and what he was about.  Both these commandments are meant to orient our lives into becoming God-centered.   If we don’t love God, we can’t love what God loves.  If we don’t love God, we won’t find our true identity in Christ.   If we don’t love God, we aren’t going to love our neighbor in the way that God loves them.  And conversely, if you don’t love your neighbor with the heart of God, you will be unable to love God in the manner expected of you!


These two commandments are different and distinct; yet, we must strive for both.  Some say in our churches and our world, we know how to love our neighbor. We care for those who are sick. We feed the hungry. We welcome the stranger. We visit those in prison. These are tangible actions that we can do in our world, and Jesus absolutely calls us to do those things.  But those tangible acts toward a needy person aren’t always easy for others.  Some people have to work hard to show the love of God to a needy individual in the true Spirit of that commandment…to love another as we love ourselves.


Yet, even as I say that, it’s sometimes even harder to show our love of God. The love we have for God is more mysterious because God is not tangible.  God speaks to us in different ways, so it’s hard to have concrete actions to show our love of God.  It’s hard to understand, and sometimes even harder to explain!  We don’t necessarily have words in our language for the kind of love that we experience for the Divine Being we called Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  In a culture highly dependent on words, we expect to be able to explain everything.  But we don’t have 52 words for ‘snow’, and we don’t even have four words for ‘love’, so we have to rely on mystery.  The love of God is beyond our words; we can’t possibly comprehend a love that is so great and so unselfish that a pure and defiled God in the form of a man gave up his life in order that we might live in heaven.  Such a love is beyond our simple minds to understand that we are that important to God and that we must spend a lifetime striving to replicate it.  


Theologian Frederick Buechner tells a story in his book Secrets in the Dark about a time when someone close to him was dying and he felt like he was walking in the wilderness. The hospital trips were grueling as he saw the woman he once knew fade away. He compared his life at this time to the Israelites wandering in the desert. They seemed to have nothing to keep them going; the Promised Land sounded so remote.  Such is what ‘wilderness’ feels… a place without God.  We’ve all been there for one reason or another…a terrible illness, a family crisis, a divorce, a death; loving God in the wilderness seems so contradictory.  But in those moments in the wilderness, Buechner discovered what it is to truly love God. In the wilderness, where we feel farthest away from God and when all hope seems lost, we learn to truly love God. How?  Well, Buechner says it like this: “I loved [God] because there was nothing else left. I loved him because he seemed to have made himself as helpless in his might as I was in my helplessness. ... For the first time in my life, there in that wilderness, I caught a glimpse of what it must be like to love God truly ... to love him no matter what.  If I love him with less than all my heart, soul, mind, strength, I love him with at least as much of them as I had left for loving anything.”


When we are wandering in the wilderness with nothing else to hold onto, we learn what it means to love God with our entire being, and that is the key to loving others. The wilderness looks different for each one of us.  It might be when we empty ourselves.  It might be when we feel uncertain.  It might be when we lose a loved one.  It might even be when we spend time in prayer and meditation.  In those moments, when we aren’t so focused on ourselves, we become more open and available to showing God’s love, and then love for our neighbors will be a natural addition.  We can then find lots of words for that love, and we will recognize how close it is.  It’s often right in front of us, and when we realize it, it changes us, just like it changed Frederick Buechner in those final days of his loved one’s life.


These two commandments are separate and distinct, but we are commanded to follow both if we are to become Christ-like.  When we are able to love God in those critical moments, the Spirit of God is oh, so close. We will be empowered to spread that love.  The words won’t matter.  Giving ourselves over as a vessel of love to the God who created us, is what it’s all about.  Love Him completely with our whole being and he will empower us to love others as he did…as he does!  It may not be easy, but it’s what it means to be a true Christian.

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