Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lenten Devotion: Ash Wednesday, Feb. 18

Ash Wednesday, February 18
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church

Scripture: Philippians 2:5-11
Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming

This scripture, the Christ hymn, is an incredibly powerful passage for me. It is a call for us to be to one another as Christ has been to us, which is humble, kind, and filled with compassion.

Paul writes this letter to the Philippians, as an encouragement in their mission to share the Gospel. This text is equalizing, and removes the possibility of pride or judgment.

The person whom we are to embody is Christ, and Christ alone. The person of Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” How challenging is this message for us? When we need our Christ to be vindictive and overpowering, he is humble and servant-like. When we need our Christ to be particular and attuned to our individual needs, he beckons us to listen to the cries of those who are in the most need. Because he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.

So, too, are we called to “die to self,” that we might put the needs of our sisters and brothers ahead of our own. In this, we receive the kingdom, for the kingdom is not filled with gold or treasures, but with powerful and loving relationships which provide us all that we need.

We share, as brothers and sisters in Christ, the ability to claim Jesus as our savior, but this does not give us the right to doubt the faith or needs of others. Rather, it calls us to sing this hymn in a unified voice, so that “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Prayer: Gracious God, Let us humble ourselves that we might become more like you. Let us die to self that we might find abundant life in you. Free us, that we may serve you fully. Amen. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Sermon for Ephiphany: A Light Shines in the Darkness?

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, 'Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.' 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
            6"And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
                        are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
            for from you shall come a ruler
                        who is to shepherd my people Israel." '
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, 'Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.' 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

            Here it is, the week after Christmas. Our sanctuary is still adorned, the last chord of "Silent Night" is still hanging in the air, and we come to celebrate the arrival of the Magi. "Arise, Shine; for your light has come!" But, what accompanies the light is bad news. The good news, spoken to Mary by the angel, shared with Elizabeth, whispered to Joseph, came out of the desperate need for something good to happen. This text from Isaiah that begs to be preached with unspeakable joy is paralleled with a Matthean text that is extracted from unspeakable grief.
            Mary, who delivered her baby in a foreign town, barely having been able to catch her breath from a long journey, has welcomed strangers to the manger where she laid her tiny baby boy. I can imagine that there was little surprise over the visitors that came during their stay in Bethlehem. I'm sure when one is told by an angel that she is bearing a child, conceived by the Holy Spirit, few things can come as a total shock. But, the arrival of the Wise Men from Persia might have caused a raised eyebrow or two. They brought expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They followed a star at its rising, and rejoiced when it came to rest. The lowly shepherds had the same experience as Mary and Joseph, and it seemed to make sense for these humble men to come and see the baby born in such desperate conditions. After all, isn't it always the poor who are most ready to receive the Gospel? But for the Wise Men to come, bearing gifts of such an elaborate nature … this was something big. It wasn't just the destitute who were seeking out this special child anymore. Now, he was starting to attract the attention of the kings – real kings, kings with power and money and whims, kings who held the power of life or death over their subjects.
            And, as we know, Herod did exactly that. In the middle of all that joy and celebration over the birth of Jesus, there was a dark and sinister plot formulating in the quiet rooms of Herod's palace. The scribes and chief priests hunkered down and thought about the visit they'd just received from these men from the East. What business did they have coming to Jerusalem? The business of seeking out a new king? Their question struck fear into Herod's heart, and "all of Jerusalem with him," as he struggled to figure out how he's missed the news of the King of the Jews being born.
            There's something inherently scary about a prophecy being fulfilled. The news that a ruler was born, who would shepherd the people of Israel, didn't bring the calm and peace that could be expected. After all, shepherds are meant to bring order to rambling beasts. Rather, it incited the kings and leaders to actions based on their fear. Sitting on a throne in Jerusalem, hearing about a king born in pitiful Bethlehem from Persian astronomers was enough to incite Herod to violence and judgment. After all, Herod knew that it was Jerusalem that would receive God's promise of prosperity. That's what Isaiah 60 says, right?  "Arise, shine; your light has come! And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." And, here they are! The kings! The nations! Bearing gifts and seeking to pay homage… but to the wrong king, in the wrong city.
            Well, maybe we have the wrong text, too. After all, the chief priests and scribes didn't point to the prophecy found in Isaiah. Instead, they told Herod about Micah 5:2:
"But you, O Bethlehem of Eph-ra-thah, who are one of the little clans of  Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel." 
Biblical prophecies are always a mixed bag, aren't they? Ask any Prophet, and you'll see that being the messenger of such news doesn't present the most positive job landscape one might imagine. You'd think working as one chosen by God to speak to the people on God's behalf might come with some perks, but the business of God is never blithe.
            The same is true for the prophecies themselves. Though we desperately want to hear about the light shining in mighty Jerusalem, what we hear is a glimmer of hope illuminating a little clan of Judah. And here we are on Epiphany, celebrating the manifestation of God's promise in Christ, and we've got it all wrong. It's country-bumpkin Micah, not the poet Isaiah. It's lowly Bethlehem, not metropolitan Jerusalem. It's kings following a star, not the brightness of the dawn.
            And, it doesn't seem to get much better after Christ has finally made his big arrival in the world. The events that unfold after the visit by the Magi are terrible and heart wrenching. After the wise men head home by a different road, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee the country. He takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, thus fulfilling another awful prophecy.  It doesn't take Herod long to realize that the Wise Men aren't coming back with a detailed map for him to follow, and in his rage, he orders a decree that all children under the age of two must be killed.
            I awoke yesterday to some terrible news. A dear friend, a clergy colleague, who is married to one of the most talented pastors I’ve ever known, ended his own life on Friday. His battle with depression ended when the darkness overtook him. No light could shine in. In his death, he leaves a broken-hearted and frightened spouse and two beautiful, confused daughters. I held the news of his death in my head and heart as we barreled home from our trip, and shared my sorrow with my friend, Sam, who offered me this: Herod is a wicked man, still slaughtering our innocents. And, it’s true, isn’t it. That Herod’s power manifests in many ways, even still. And we lose innocent people to the deepest, darkest horrors.
            The Kings bearing gifts have gone home, the Messiah has fled the country, the infants have been massacred, and it seems that these prophecies are leaving Judea with a lot of empty promises and overwhelming grief. When Joseph and his family are finally called out of Egypt to return to Israel, he was, understandably, afraid. If he returned with his family to Bethlehem, Jesus would be the only boy his age still alive. So, he followed the warning given in a dream, and headed to Galilee where he made a home in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled another prophecy, which declared that, "He will be called a Nazorean." Danger! At this point, it doesn't seem like Israel can handle any more fulfilled prophecies. If the light is coming, then it's got an awful lot of darkness to overwhelm.
            From his birth, Jesus seemed to be simultaneously revealing and confounding the scriptures. Who would have thought that the birth of the Messiah would have brought such bloodshed to the children of Bethlehem? This Christ that we honor never seems to fit our expectations. We try, as we re-create the Nativity story each Christmas, to capture the God's in-breaking into the world in the quiet beauty of the manger. A lovely Mary, with a doting Joseph at her side, rocks the porcelain Jesus while sheep, donkeys, shepherds and wise men come and bow down. But the story we tell is larger than the details we try to remember at Christmas each year. There are other voices in scripture, other prophecies that have a darker edge.
            Wasn't the point of the Incarnation that God was coming to save the people of Israel? Lest we forget, there were more prophecies to fulfill as Jeremiah's words came true: "A voice was heard in Ra'mah, wailing and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." It seems that the presence of the light necessitates shadow.
            Once God is here, though, it seems that death is perpetually at his heels. Christ is born, honored, and sent away to Egypt as the rest of his peers are put to death. Once back in Galilee, Jesus is baptized by a crazy man who is eventually beheaded. Jesus is tempted by Satan himself, and then gathers together a bevy of misfit apprentices, who never seem to fully understand what job it is they're being trained to do. Jesus heals strangers, outsiders, lepers, and widows, but he fails to show up when his best friend is dying. He fulfills prophecies, but not always the right ones. He references scripture, but doesn't elaborate. He claims to be the Son of God, but won't allow his Father to come to his rescue as the Roman soldiers are nailing him to the cross. And just when it can't get any worse, he goes off and dies a pathetic death. The nerve of our Messiah!
            The blood that has followed him throughout his life finally overcomes him on the cross. That porcelain babe has been shattered and broken. But, Jesus wasn't done fulfilling prophecies, was he? This unexpected, unpredictable Messiah, who didn't do anything we envisioned, found a way to beat death. And then it all becomes clear: those who tried to overwhelm this man with their power suddenly were rendered powerless. Herod and the chief priests, the Scribes and Pharisees, Judas and Pilate… they all had a shot at it, but it was Christ who came in final victory to save his people at last. "Let our hearts thrill and rejoice," for Christ has turned everything on its head, even death itself!
            There will always be a shadow side – we live in a world that is still filled with poverty, disease, sin and greed. But these things do not have the final say. The light cannot be overcome by the darkness, no matter how profound. Once the light came into the world, the darkness lost its power. Death lost its power.

            Sisters and Brothers, Arise, Shine, for your light has come. Praise be to God! Amen.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sermon: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, All Saints Day 2014

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 2, 2014
All Saints Day

Stewardship Sermon Series, Part 3: Gifts
“Blessed Are Those Who Mourn”

Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV
            When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
            4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
            5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
            6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
            8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
            9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
            10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
            11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
            12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Here we are on week 3 of our Stewardship Sermon series. Our focus this week is on “Gifts.” On a day like this, when our entire worship service is structured around our invitation to the communion table, as we remember and celebrate the Saints who have gone before us, it is easy to consider the gifts we have received. In this very congregation, we have lifted up to God eight of our own members, who we have loved and cared for in their lives of faith. Edythe Handy, John Slover, Evelin Alleman, Anne Price, Dee Jensen, Don Beaver, Darrin Reed and Pam Conroy were beloved friends. They were parents and grandparents. They were the people who shared with us in our study, who sat by us in worship, who made things happen, who welcomed the newcomers and who poured us drinks without even asking. These eight members are more than we could ever capture in a single moment, because they were, for us, the body of Christ. And today, we give thanks to God for these people who have gone before us, in life and in death. They are saints, they are witnesses, they are beloved children of God, who have been welcomed home.
As we approach our scripture today, we do so as people who are desperate to hear good news. We do not come to the table today without the burden of grief or longing; this is not a normal invitation. Because, like so many other occasions we have had, we are accepting an invitation to a supper that feels as though it is missing a guest. Our grief comes, not just in death, or in the memory of a loss, but in the fading away of dreams and hopes. Perhaps you have lost a career, perhaps a diagnosis has sent your family spinning into chaos, perhaps you long for restoration in a relationship that can never be made whole. It is with all of these losses and griefs that we come to our Gospel reading with the hope that it will provide us with some sort of guide as we cope with the empty feeling we have in the wake of these absences.
            Shortly after Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, he also invites 12 men to come and be his disciples. “Follow me,” Jesus tells them as they are raising their nets, “and I will make you fish for people.”  The news of Jesus’ fame spread throughout the land, as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and healed the sick. Great numbers of people flocked to hear him, and when Jesus saw that the crowds had gathered, he went up on the mountain and begins to preach.
What Jesus preaches to them is the sort of sermon all preachers hope to give. Jesus knows his audience intuitively, and speaks directly to each of their concerns, because he knows that “loss comes in leave-takings, in slowly losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s or cancer. It comes in the loss of employment or dignity. It comes from struggles with illness both of body and mind. It comes from the exhaustion of caring for those with special needs. It comes from disappointment at home or work or school, of dreams deferred or hopes dashed.” “Blessed are the broken in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says to all who can hear. These are his first words to the assembled congregation.  
No one has ever called the broken in spirit “Blessed.” Rather they are typically asked who it was that sinned, their mother or their father. No, this is not the crowd that is blessed. This is the crowd that has no other hope than to listen to an off-beat rabbi teach something altogether new about their scriptures, as he heals demoniacs, epileptics and paralytics. They are not blessed because they are broken-spirited, but they also haven’t given up hope, and hope points to a place in the future where our prayers are answered.
Now, consider the crowd that might be gathered. Nadia Boltz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor in Denver, CO, who founded a Lutheran Church called House forAll Sinners and Saints (HFASS, which is a fantastically subversive acronym for a church). She was a woman who came to her faith after living through addiction and illness, but realized that the often sordid company she kept always sought her out as the one to share pastoral care. She answered a call to ministry and now she serves a congregation that is filled with the least of these. It is packed with former and current drug addicts, drag queens, artists, musicians and every faithful person in Denver who’d ever thought there wouldn’t be a true church home for them. Nadia writes that she was very comfortable with this, until she was asked to preach at Red Rocks on Easter Sunday. The next week, the congregation started morphing into a crazy hybrid of her own people and the folks who looked a lot more like their straight-laced parents. She sat back and looked at the congregation and thought, “Who are these people? Why are they here? This is not a church for them.” Until she witnessed the folks who had been long-time members gravitating to the new visitors. They became, in fact, the straight-laced foster parents of the children who had been abandoned by their own families of origin. She watched as the people she never expected to arrive, showed up and started sharing their love.
            This sort of congregation must have been what Jesus was observing as he looked out over the masses. Here, were not the crowds of fisherman or dutiful women. Rather, there were the aged and withering, the cynics and skeptics, the outcasts and the lonely, the tax-collectors to keep an eye on things, the curious and the desperate, the Pharisees and scribes. “You can see them looking back at him. They're not what you'd call a high-class crowd—It doesn't look as if there's a hero among them. They have their jaws set. Their brows are furrowed with concentration. … It is not his hard times to come but theirs he is concerned with, speaking out of his own meekness and mercy, the purity of his own heart.”[1] With this bizarre collection of people from all over Galilee, Jesus begins to speak, starting with a message that will fall on the ears who are most desperate to hear it, “Blessed are the broken in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
            If we’re being honest, Jesus could have stopped right there and gone home. There is enough wisdom and hope in the opening lines of this sermon that we don’t need much more than that. But, Jesus is kind. So he continues, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
            In each of these statements from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers promises that are unconditional. This means that these are not future-looking promises. They are already true. So, when Jesus says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” there is no condition under which our mourning isn’t blessed, and no condition under which we shall not be comforted when we grieve. It seems impossible to imagine, in the thick of our grief, that there will ever be a time when the loss before us doesn’t define our lives or ways of living. It seems impossible, even selfish, to move forward in the wake of such grief. It is important to remember that our futures are never determined by the realities of our past. Jesus reminds the hearers in that sermon, just as Jesus reminds us today, that we shall be comforted when we mourn, because when we struggle, we are not being faithless. “Struggle, doubt, feeling overwhelmed, wondering if God is out there – these aren’t signs of failure or lack of faith, but are actually a testament to profound faith as we wrestle with such deep questions and thereby take God seriously. And so when we feel at our most low, and wonder if we have lost our faith, God names us among the most faithful. Blessed are those who struggle[2] because “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).
            Jesus continues his sermon to include the blessing of the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake and for the Jesus’ sake. Again, these are not the citizens that society rewards or blesses. These are the people who are outcast or forgotten, scorned and mocked. Jesus speaks directly to those of us who are struggling, who seek to be the Gospel, to live as people transformed by our faith. But, it is so challenging when the world speaks back to us. Why be generous when we could save our resources and build up our own empires? The world calls us to be self-serving, but the world does not bless us as Christ does. Christ says, “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
            In one of the stewardship resources I’ve been reading, author urges us to “move from being a consumer of church to being a contributor.” On a day like this one, when we celebrate and lift up the gifts we have been given, it is a blessing to consider how we can give back to the church (which is never just a building) that has shaped and formed us. Consider the ways in which our Saints were contributors to our life of faith, and to our shared ministry of transforming the world for the sake of the Gospel.
            Yesterday, I was talking with Sloan about what happens when we die; at least to the extent that I know everyone does so. She asked astonishingly pointed questions upon the revelation that we both age and will come to a mortal end. “Will someone bring us all back together again?” Yes, Sloan. It is God who will bring us back together again. “Will someone make us not old? And alive again?” I’ve never before had a grounded understanding of the resurrection that is promised to all of us, but when my beloved daughter asked this question, I had no trouble answering her with an assurance that came from beyond my own understanding, “Yes, Sloan. Jesus will restore us to the people we were, in the company of all who we know and love.” What an incredible gift to be the recipients of this promise of eternal life. Let us celebrate that promise, here at the table, where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness shall be filled. Rejoice and be glad, sisters and brothers, for your reward shall be great in heaven.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Stewardship Sermon Series, Part 2: PRESENCE - God With Us | We Are With God

Stewardship Sermon Series, Part 2: Presence
God With Us | We Are With God

Matthew 22:34-46

34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

They said to him, “The son of David.”

43He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

            This week we are beginning our second week of our Stewardship Sermon Series, which will focus on “Presence.” This is tricky, because as a membership vow (and a part of our vision statement), “presence” is the intention we have to share ourselves with God and others. Quite simply, it means we will show up. Here we are, ready to hear, learn, sing, pray and worship together. We do this because on Sunday mornings together because worship is the core of our Christian experience as the body of Christ. Certainly we can experience God in a variety of ways, for God is found in many places and in good company or solidarity. But, the church is called to worship God and to support one another as we grow in faith, particularly through the sacraments, which are a unique part of our life together. We can only share in this when we do it together, because we need God, and we need one another.
            The core message of our text today highlights this basic point, as Jesus responds to the last of the scribes and Pharisees pointed questions in this particular chapter. One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Listen to this. The lawyer, the attorney, asks Jesus a question about his specialty. He doesn’t ask it that he might be a better lawyer; he does it to test Jesus. He does it to argue, to stir up conflict. He asks this question with an answer in mind, and so Jesus answers him clearly, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
            This, my friends, should come as no surprise to the Pharisee. As an attorney, an expert in the law, these should be words which he has bound to his forehead and written on his doorposts: Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  This man, this Pharisee, can almost be heard exhaling in exasperation through the millennia. If I read carefully between the red lines of Jesus’ words, I can hear the Pharisee’s eyes rolling. Of COURSE Jesus said this is the greatest commandment. It is the Shema (which means “hear”). It is something the faithful are instructed to recite twice daily. These words were taught to him, and shared with his children. They rest in the מְזוּזָה‫‎ mezuzah, which means "doorpost.” But, does the Pharisee understand how to demonstrate this love, this loyalty to YHWH? When Jesus echoes the Lord’s command in Deuteronomy, he reminds him that he is to love with his heart (the core of human intellect and will), the soul (the vitality of one’s own self), and might (which appears only twice in the Hebrew Bible, in reference to “capacity”). These words are to be both internalized and made external – worn on the body and posted in the home. There should be no secret about the Israelites’ devotion to God; it should be as evident as his family, as public as his name. This love for God should transcend communication because everything, verbal and non-verbal, communicates it.
            To the end that Jesus has to tell the Pharisee that this is the greatest commandment underscores that the Pharisee may have done the external things, the rote activity of binding the scriptures to his arm, but they are not written on his heart.
            The Pharisee is not alone in his failing. Sitting with him is the scribe, whose duty it is to pen the words in indelible ink onto parchment, which is placed inside the mezuzah. Upon the parchment are inscribed specified Hebrew verses from the Torah, namely the ones which Jesus has just quoted to them from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The parchment is prepared by a qualified scribe, who has undergone years of meticulous training. His work, his focus, his training is upon the letters and the script, but not upon the transformation of his heart. The Pharisee and the scribe, Jesus is subtly saying to the disciples, have not become transformed by the words they have studied.
            So, the greatest commandment, Jesus says, is to love the Lord your God, with every fiber of your being and every post in your home. This transformative love is beyond our capacity to love in an erotic way. This sort of love is overwhelming and life-changing. This sort of love is something we do not open ourselves up to very often, because the sort of love we share for each other comes with such great risk. God would only ask such a love from us if it was a love worth trusting. We can love the Lord our God because God has first loved us.
            It is the second part of the commandment that is more complicated, because it requires us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus quotes directly from Leviticus 19:18. The surrounding text in Leviticus underscores the basics of human relationships, in which God tells Moses that the Israelites not to hate in their hearts anyone of their kin, nor take vengeance upon or bear a grudge against their neighbors. Love, then, is not an “emotion,” or something simply to be felt. Rather, it is command to reach out to and befriend the neighbor. And, what, then, is a neighbor? It would seem as though God was telling Moses that the Israelites were only to care for each other, but in Leviticus 19:34, God says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, they shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” This means that God is telling the Israelites that all who come to their land, to live in peace and build up their families, shall be treated as neighbors, with the same rights as citizens and the same dignity as family.
            When Jesus answers this simple question for the Pharisees and scribes, he is not simply summarizing all 613 Hebrew laws in two simple mandates. The Torah cannot be condensed so easily. Rather, Jesus is subverting the entire structure upon which the power of the Pharisees was built. Matthew’s Gospel is highly political, and this is the peak of the conflict between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus, when he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” he is demonstrating both utter orthodoxy and offering a profound threat. The most curious thing is that Jesus declares early in the Gospel of Matthew (5:17) that his purpose is “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law. How, then, is this to happen?
            It happens in how we are taught to love. Love, for Jesus, is not a withering feeling that comes and goes. Agape love is not the love I feel for the first sip of coffee in the morning or the sunset in the evening. Agape love ἀγάπη which describes “the love of God for humanity and of humanity’s for God."
            It’s likely we would all rather see a sermon than hear one, but “Jesus is more theocentric in his preaching. A sermon is a sermon when it’s about God. We learn implications for human behavior only after we learn who God is and what God is up to.”[1] And what God is up to is overthrowing the bounds of our understanding of God’s presence – no longer in burning bushes or in the mouths of prophets. Rather, God breaks the bounds of heaven and earth by becoming one of us – Immanuel, God With Us, is the most radical and distinctive part of our Christian identity. What it means to love God with all our heart, all our soul and all of our might (capacity) has been demonstrated to us by a God who knows no bounds, who loves beyond intention and history. We love a God who loves with all of God’s capacity, so that we might learn how to do so, as well.
            But, typically, “our definition of ‘love’ is often suspiciously easy on and for us. But this is not the definition of love that Jesus is working with in Matthew. The Jesus we see in these stories thinks that to love God with the whole self, with ‘all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind’ (verse 37) is demanding and risky. Following the path of love leads him to jump into debates and conflicts with his whole self. Love leads Jesus into all kinds of situations that are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous. Eventually, love gets him killed.”[2]
            The Shema Yisrael is the prayer we bind to our hearts, to our minds, to our might, to our foreheads and arms and to our homes is the prayer that binds us to God and to one another. It is the way in which we demonstrate not only God’s presence in our lives, but our presence with God. So, when we are called to “love God as Jesus commands, we must point to the world around us at the concrete, tangible ways where this vision of love can be expressed. We must show them what the love of God looks like."[3] 

[1] William H. Willimon,
[3] Prince Raney Rivers,