Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Essential Thing is Love

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen Jersey City NJ
October 26, 2014

Year A, Proper 25: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

The Essential Thing is Love
            As most of you know, before I got into the priest business I was a teacher. It was a job I loved very much and, in some ways, I still miss teaching a lot.
            Lately I’ve been thinking about my teaching days more than usual because of my role in A Legend of Communipaw where I play me – or the old me: “Mr. Murphy” who in the play tries to teach his mixed-grade class about the history of the Dutch in New Jersey.
            I may be out of the teaching biz but because I have a bunch of teachers in my family and among my friends, and because it’s an important issue for all of us, I try to keep up on issues in education.
            I’ve been looking at who’s running in our Board of Education election next week. And I’ve also been following a little the debates and controversies around the Common Core standards – the controversial attempt to set national standards for what our kids are able to do – standards for what they should know.
            Whatever you might think of Common Core, it’s an attempt to answer one of the oldest and most vexing questions in education: what is essential?
            I thought about that question a lot as a history teacher – especially after a few years when I realized that although we covered a whole lot of material in class, kids seemed to usually only remember my goofy jokes.
            So, in later years I focused on a few key themes, looking at various events as examples of those themes at work rather than as just isolated events.
            To be honest, I’m not sure if that approach worked any better.
            What is essential?
            Of course, it’s not only in school that we ask that question.
            I bet many of us ask that question all the time when we’re at work. What is essential for me to get done today? And what can wait for tomorrow or next week?
            And I’m sure we ask that question at home, too.
            What is essential for me to get done in the house before I go to sleep tonight?
            Parents have to always ask what is essential for their children: dinner, homework, bath, brushed teeth, a good night’s sleep, and on and on.
            What is essential?
            We ask that question here at church, too, as we make decisions about how we spend our limited resources – your pledges and the gifts of people who have come before us - to build God’s kingdom in this place.
            What is essential?
            And, of course, we ask that question when it comes to our faith. And, I’d guess, it’s a question asked by people of every faith.
            What is essential?
            Over the centuries, lots of Christians have taken a crack at figuring out what is essential for us Christians.
            In just a little while we will stand and say the Nicene Creed, developed by bishops back in the 4th Century after a messy, rather political process, to answer the question: what is essential for Christians?
            The answer they came up with was that it is essential to believe certain statements about God and the church.
            For the past few weeks some of us have been reading Being Christian by Rowan Williams. What is essential? In his book Williams says that the essentials are Baptism, the Bible, Eucharist and prayer. It’s a fine book and a pretty good list.
            What is essential?
            Well, in today’s gospel passage, we get to hear Jesus’ answer to this question.
            Jesus is in Jerusalem being challenged by the religious leaders of the day.
            This time, we’re told, that the Pharisees send one of their own, a lawyer, to test Jesus, asking, “…which commandment in the law is greatest?”
            This was a potentially tough question because then and now the Torah, the Jewish Law, contains 613 commandments. That’s a lot, which, naturally, led to the question: what is essential?
            Other Jewish leaders answered that question, maybe most famously the great sage Hillel (who lived just a little earlier than Jesus) who said: “What is hateful to you do not to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary on it; go and learn it.”
            What is essential?
            Jesus says:
            “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)
            And, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
            Jesus says the essentials are love of God and love of neighbor, which are really two sides of the same coin, aren’t they?
            Jesus says the essential thing is love.
            Now, maybe in school one of the essentials we learned in English class were the parts of speech, you know, being able to identify a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and so forth.
            So how about love? Which part of speech?
            Well, for Jesus it’s pretty clear that love is a verb.
            The essential thing is love.
            And, love doesn’t mean just sitting around thinking loving thoughts about God and our neighbors.
            The essential thing is love – and love is a verb.
            So, loving God and loving our neighbor means doing – means taking action to express that love.
            Love is praying for the suffering people all around us, praying for people we know and don’t know, especially those who have no one to pray for them.
            Love is forgiving those who hurt us.
            Love is caring about and actually helping the people we don’t like, especially - hate to tell you - the people who drive us absolutely nuts.
            Love is calling up or visiting someone who is in trouble or suffering.
            Love is digging deep and sharing what we have with those in need – maybe by making financial contributions or remembering – finally remembering - to bring items for the food pantry.
            Love is taking a chance on a different, better future for ourselves and the people we cherish.
            Love is the essential thing – and love is a verb.
            Throughout our lives – in school, at work, at home, at church – it is so easy to lose sight of what’s most important – to forget what is essential.
            So today, Jesus gives us a reminder.
            The essential thing is love of God and love of neighbor.
            The essential thing is love.
            And love… love is a verb.