Wednesday, October 29, 2014

20th Sunday after Pentecost

This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it.

All of the lessons this morning relate to love for God. I suspect to many that love for God seems like a vague subject. How can one love a being that is not visible? Furthermore, how can one love a being that does not seem to need love, being wholly self-sufficient? Our society does us no favors in the way it conceptualizes love: love is thought of as an emotion, a magnetic force impelling two people together, the chemistry of two souls. Such love can strike like lightening in the first flame and dissipate like fog in the morning sun of adversity. With so many divorces today, the cause is often said to be I just don't love him or her anymore. In most of these cases, by all evidence, they seem to mean that they do not have that jittery, butterflies in the stomach, romantic feeling.

One of the pieces of good news in our faith is that God, as the 39 Articles state, is without body, part, or passions. That God is without passions means that his love is a decision of his will while his anger is an act of his justice. God does not ever loose his temper nor is the basis of his love fleeting emotion. It would be foreign to his character to say to one of us, his children, I just don't love you anymore. Why? Again, because his love is a decision of his will. Before we were born, before we had done anything good or bad, before we had any desire for the things of God, he loved and chose us to be in his image. He sent his son to be our representative and head that we might be his ambassadors in the world. God's love, therefore, is unshakable and unchanging. It is based on a decision not on emotion.

In a similar way, when we speak of love for God, and the command to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, we are talking about a decision, a reasoned commitment, that should not be based on how we are feeling at any given time—because we know that to be human is to have emotions that fluctuate and change.  In other words, loving God is about actions not about feelings. One way to describe this active love for God is to think about the Ten Commandments. Traditionally the commandments have been divided into our duty to God—the first four—and our duty to our neighbor—the last six. Commandments one and two tell us to honor and worship God. We have to acknowledge his unity, while at the same time disavowing all other gods. While this might seem like a merely formal statement, to reject other gods has profound practical implications. It means that everything in the world that would claim absolute authority, or to which we would give undivided allegiance, has to be set aside. There are so many things in the world that try to convince us that things will make us happy: whether it is material goods, a good reputation, or simply money and financial security. Anytime we think these alone can make us happy, we are treating them as gods, giving to them the loyalty and worship that the one true God alone deserves. So the first thing that we do to love God is to forsake the myriad idols of the heart that seem to promise so much but give so little.

The third commandment prohibits taking the name of the Lord in vain. While this prohibition includes not swearing, it also prohibits empty and idle religious talk.  It is easy for religious people, you see, to do a lot of talk about God and not really to be converted. Remember our Lord quotes the prophet Isaiah, these people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. So, secondly, a way to love God is to speak sincerely and reverently about him. This is precisely what Paul is describing in the Epistle lesson. He did not come to the Thessalonians with flattering words or with elegant words that were in fact a cloak for greed. Rather, he came to preach the Gospel, something that was more than just a set of beliefs, but a proclamation of God's power to save and transform. Paul writes, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves. In a sense, we see Paul's love for God in this honesty and sincerity with the Thessalonians.

It is my intention and pledge to speak to you from Sunday to Sunday with such sincerity. In good faith, I want to point you to God. I will not offer you empty religious talk in the form of devout platitudes. Nor will I stand here and give you my insights on the issues of the day, missing the point that what we all need to hear is not my opinions about politics or society but the word of God.

But, I digress, the fourth commandment is to honor the Sabbath. This commandment  speaks to our duty to God in regular religious observance, including corporate worship on Sundays, but also private devotions throughout the week. Sunday worship should not be about our being entertained or even about “getting something out of the service.” It is about recognizing that God has given us life and all things, and offering back to him our devotion and prayers. This is yet a third aspect of love for God by setting aside time consistently and regularly to honor and worship him.

A final aspect for the love of God is, in fact, to love our neighbor. You see, the love of God and the love of our neighbor are connected. In his first epistle, the Apostle John asks the question, if you do not love your brother whom you have seen, how can you love God whom you have not seen? You see, to love God is to do good to our neighbor. Jesus tells the Pharisees the great commandment is to love God, but then he goes on to say that the love of neighbor is like unto it. The reading from Leviticus gives us some ideas on what love for neighbor looks like: it means not favoring people based on their outward circumstances like for example that they have a lot of money. It means not slandering our brothers or sisters or being the vehicle for malicious gossip. It means not hating our brother in our heart. When we do such things, we are showing our love for God.
It is worth asking yourself today, do I love God? Of course, we often must fail, if this love for God is principally about our actions. There is grace on hand, of course, for us when we fail in this great commandment, but we are called to renew our commitment to love him. In eternity, we are promised the enjoyment of a communion of love in the Trinity. Now is our time to train in this activity and fellowship of love for which we have been created.

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