A sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries
Pentecost 21 Christ Church St Laurence – 29 October 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
From the 22nd Chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew:
‘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 neighbour as yourself.’
This ‘Summary of the Law’ is not original to the teachings of Christ. Rather, it is a combination of verses from Deuteronomy Chapter 6 and Leviticus Chapter 19. However, by putting these two statements side by side, Christ makes it clear that it is not possible to love God without loving our neighbour… that concept was fairly radical. In Matthew Chapter 22 Christ is undergoing the latest in a series of confrontations with the religious authorities of his own faith tradition. The Scribes; the Pharisees; the Sadducees—these were the religious and legal experts. They were certainly qualified to test the orthodoxy of this young and unqualified rabbi. Despite an unquestionable attempt at intimidation, Christ shows that he knows the Law, and because he doesn’t ridicule them or the Law, they are left speechless. No doubt they would prefer for him to respond with aggression and hatred. In response to their hatred and intimidation, Christ simply presents the Law of Love, and because this is so foreign to their dogma and legalistic traditions, they have no idea how to react. Quoting the Law seems to put an end to this conflict. The reader might think, ‘end of story’, although as Matthew’s Gospel moves towards its conclusion, we know that the real conflict is yet to come.
There could not be a more relevant Gospel reading for this time in our nation’s history. We have also seen in recent months that talk about love in its many forms can generate enormous division and conflict. Talking about love has indeed resulted in acts of hatred and aggression. This coming Tuesday the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey will close. We’d like to think that the result will bring an end to conflict and division in our society, but we all know that, regardless of the outcome, this is highly unlikely. Love should be the greatest experience of life on this planet, although—as we look at the figure of a broken man hanging on a cross—we know that love is also very costly, and often results in unimaginable pain.
In the book The Four Loves, C S Lewis bravely reflects on the danger of loving as he writes:
‘To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.’
As Christ shows that divine love cannot be measured out and controlled by laws, he also teaches that disciples are not able to lock their hearts in a casket. To be a disciple of Christ means loving God, and loving our neighbour without limit—end of story.
I know that even within this inclusive and diverse parish community, there are a range of views and opinions about the conflict that we see within our wider society at this time. Although some clergy and religious authorities would disagree with me, I don’t believe it was my place to try to guide your thoughts and actions in what has been an incredibly complex issue. However, how we respond to others who do not share our views; that is a different matter entirely. The past few months have brought pain and division. Many of us feel let down by others, and even by our church. Sadly, as love and grace struggle to survive, we are all in danger of being consumed by hatred. Martin Luther King Jr famously said:
Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.
Given that he said this ten years before his assassination, Martin Luther King came to discover how costly love, and talk of love, can be. In much more recent times, Pope Francis has also encountered great criticism by calling members of his own church to look upon the world with greater love, tolerance and compassion. When asked by a reporter about his views on homosexuality, Pope Francis simply responded by saying ‘Who am I to judge?’ When the pope expressed supposedly liberal views about divorced Roman Catholics receiving Holy Communion, he was formally approached by conservative Cardinals and Bishops, who have charged him with allowing the spreading of heresy. One religious commentator suggested that the question ‘Is the Pope Catholic?’ is not so funny after all. As we try to be more wasteful and extravagant in our loving, the Pope’s phrase ‘Who am I to judge?’ is not a bad starting point, but it is a rather safe approach. The ‘Summary of the Law’ calls us to go beyond simply refraining from judgement. Christ dares to suggest to the to the Pharisees that we are called to love those who are close to us; and we are called those who hold different beliefs from our own; we are even called to love our enemies. Many political and religious leaders make grand statements, especially as they vie for supporters. Unlike so many of our leaders, Christ holds fast to everything he says to his would-be followers. As he pays the ultimate price for loving wastefully, his words ‘Father, forgive them…’ show that the Law of Love was not some catchy slogan uttered on the campaign trail.
Although there are plenty of opportunities in our world today to mock and belittle others—particularly those who encourage hatred and division—we cannot do this and continue to call ourselves Christians. Speaking out against injustice is completely different. But allowing hatred to take over our thoughts and our words will always cut us off from God. Limiting love, mercy and compassion has been a great tradition for religious leaders since well before the time of Christ—but it is not of God. We can allow this behaviour to also limit how we love, but we cannot do this without relinquishing God’s love for us. Even more succinct than the Summary of the Law in Matthew Chapter 22 is the sentence from the first Letter of John that begins the Order of Marriage in A Prayer Book for Australia. It’s really the only sentence we need in a prayer book:
God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.
…End of story!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.