19th Sunday after Pentecost
He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40
How can so few words be so difficult to live? It sounds pretty simple on the surface: love God with all you are and have, and love your neighbor just like yourself. Shouldn’t we all just be able to get along and spread the love of Christ?
Wouldn’t that be wonderful! Doesn’t it just make you want to start humming “All You Need is Love”? Unfortunately, we are a long way from such perfection, thanks to our dual nature as saint and sinner. Remember, even Paul did the things he wished not to do (Romans 7:14-25). So what are we to do? How are we to proclaim this tough gospel from the pulpit or in the classroom or in small group gatherings?
For one thing, this is a week where it is entirely possible, and indeed preferable, to include the Old Testament lesson in a treatment of the gospel. Jesus refers to the holiness code in Leviticus with his mention of loving neighbor. The holiness code assumes that one will consider others in every decision each and every day. It also assumes that one has a good regard for oneself from which to operate. There were no self-esteem boosting programs for the Israelites or for Matthew’s first century followers of Christ. One’s identity was not tied to personal worth but rather to participation and belonging in the family and in the community. Consideration of others was necessary for successful day to day living.
Our culture, with its “me first” emphasis and heavy marketing to the idea of self-fulfillment, makes Jesus’ words an even tougher sell. Sure, it’s a great thing to love God as long as I don’t have to give up my (fill in the blank). Sure, I’ll love God with all my heart, but do I really have to love God with all my mind, too? Oh, and just who must I consider my neighbor? Just the folks who look and think like me? Surely not (fill in the blank)!
Love may be patient and kind and all that jazz, but it is also tough. It works better as a verb than as a noun. Loving God and loving neighbor is a lifestyle not a something one can turn on and off like a water faucet. It is a process not a one-time decision. One grows into and leans into love. By engaging in a life of loving God and neighbor one chooses an alternative path, one that is counter-cultural and certainly less traveled.
The good news is that when one undergoes the process of a life of loving God and neighbor, one begins to conform to the Divine intentions for life that result in fresh sight, clearer vision, and renewed hope. Scripture lives and breathes, providing an organic pattern for one’s life. Evidence of this reality is written in Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica. In this week’s New Testament lesson, Paul writes: “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
When one loves God and neighbor, surrendering self to the greater call of discipleship, there is enough, and there is enough to share–both of God and self. It’s the kind of life one has to try to understand. Chances are, once a person embraces this life of love, all manner of surprises and possibilities will unfold. God is good that way. Forget the hollow promises of prosperity gospel; try the real thing–the gospel of love.
Blessings on your preaching and teaching and loving!
Give youth a sheet of paper with this quote printed on the top of it: “Never forget, justice is what love looks like in public.” — Dr. Cornel West
Have the youth brainstorm ways they see love acted out as justice in public. If you have time, you might consider showing the film (or clips from it) Call + Response: http://www.callandresponse.com/
There are some clips available on YouTube, or you can order a faith group DVD kit from the website. This is a tough film to watch, but it is a real eye-opener.
Teach the children this simple song:
love, love, love, love.
The gospel in one word is love
Love your neighbor as your brother,
Love, love, love.
Here’s a YouTube video of a children’s choir singing the song. You can probably find the music in an old camp songs song book.
Divide the children into two or three groups depending on the size of your congregation and have them lead it as a round. You may need a couple of youth or adult helpers to do this. After singing the song, ask them how they can show this love to others during the coming week. Challenge them to come back next week and report how they loved God and neighbor. Invite them to bring pictures or drawings for a bulletin board.