sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 26, 2014
"Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world." Last month as students returned to Western Washington University, the members of EpiC, that is, Episcopal Campus Fellowship, superimposed this slogan over an image of a solar eclipse and had little buttons made to hand out at the school's annual Info Fair. "Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world." This is a paraphrase of Jesus’ words from today's gospel, words which came from two places in the Jewish law: Deuteronomy, and Leviticus. We gave our buttons away to students who stopped by our booth, but also to the other religious groups whose booths surrounded ours. We gave buttons to the Christians, and since Jesus was quoting the Torah here, we also gave buttons to the two Jewish groups. It was epic.
Jesus presents these two great commandments to those who are listening to him teach in Jerusalem. Over the past few Sundays, we've been hearing a number of stories that take place during this time, after his triumphal procession into the city, but before his arrest. The atmosphere is tense, with those in positions of power continually trying to knock Jesus off his high horse.
But Jesus isn't on a high horse; he prefers a humble donkey. Every time they try to trap Jesus in his own words, the leaders of the Pharisees and Sadducees find themselves exposed and vulnerable instead. With unassailable authority, Jesus has ranked tax collectors and prostitutes ahead of the holiest keepers of the law. He has taught emphatically that the kingdom of God will be taken away from those who think they have it all together and given to people who know how much mercy they need. He has sidelined the mighty Roman Empire as irrelevant to God's agenda, since God is all-powerful, even over Caesar. And now, in tying these two old commandments together in a new way, Jesus seeks to clarify the priorities of God’s chosen people. Love, he says ... just love. Do this, all the rest of those old rules will make sense to you in a new way. Pour every decision you make through the funnel of love.
Well, OK. The words are clear, but how do you and I go about them, loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves? Obviously, loving God is an important thing to do, but it seems like a rather abstract directive. Is it simply an exercise of will, or of memory -- remembering to say "I love you, God" every now and then? Loving our neighbors is the commandment that helps us, because it gives us a field in which to practice loving God. We cannot love God without loving what God loves: human beings, and the world God is creating out of love. God loves even our enemies, and when we hate them, we are failing to love those whom God loves. So if you want to start loving God right now, begin by loving your neighbor, whoever he or she may be. Encountering people in the flesh and acting towards them out of love is an undeniably concrete way to go.
Here at St. Paul's, we are always trying to engage, on some level, these two commandments to love. People come to us with all different kinds of experiences of God at work in their lives, seen through the lens of a huge variety of life experiences. People come here because the news headlines are devastating and scary. They come here to heal from deep pain and confusion. They come from other churches where they may have felt that the pieces didn't quite fit together. Many come seeking concrete answers to very big questions. If you're in this camp, allow me to confess something to you. In the Episcopal church, we're not all that big on hard and fast answers, because above all, we don't want to offer a simplistic answer. We have answers, to be sure, but more often than not they come with a footnote that leads to some other entry, or even to an opposing point of view. Sometimes, as the Indigo Girls once put it, “There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing me in a crooked line.”
Maybe you’re sitting here today thinking, “OK, I believe in God, or at least, I believe in something." Well, great—then let’s just begin with that. Where does this belief come from? Is it a gut feeling that we are not merely a temporary grouping of random molecules? Or does it run deeper? Is there emotion in it? Is there trust in it? Does it lead you towards any particular action? Could it be that love is somewhere in the mix?
Maybe despite being here today, you're saying, "I don't need a church. I'd rather follow my heart and do it my own way." Well, there's nothing wrong with having a one-on-one with God on a mountaintop--in fact, this is a great thing to do, especially around here! But when we bring our holy experiences alongside those of others, we find untold opportunities to learn even deeper wisdom, to see God in a clearer light. Individuality is very important, but individuality paired with community is far stronger. In a community, people can bring their personal, individual experiences of God, who cannot be understood in the same way by everybody, and we can have a conversation.
Perhaps your gripe is that the Bible is so full of rules, and you wonder whether joining a church means committing to the whole shebang. Well, we've just heard Jesus set all those old rules into their proper context. Rules arise out of culture and situation, and they do change over time. But the great commandments of love do not change. Christianity is an art form, not a rule book. Many people fall into the trap of thinking that being a Christian is a matter of giving intellectual assent to a list of propositions, while checking off a list of commandments not broken today ... but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Christianity is, instead, a venue for holy conversation, and it is a road we make by walking it. Christianity is a journey that seeks wisdom too grand and too elusive ever to be fully understood by the human mind, wisdom that is about being loved and loving and serving others. Those of us in the church have come to believe that this wisdom is worth pursuing just for the sheer joy of pursuing it. Many of us can't imagine living our lives any other way.
So you can't be a Christian in a vacuum, and you can't fully understand Christianity looking from the outside in. Our hope at St. Paul’s is that everyone who walks through these doors will feel welcomed and will be able to connect with us in some way. Perhaps God has led you here today through some mysterious process. Indeed, God will always meet us where we are. But God loves us too much to let us stay there. We won't to tell you what to think, because your life is your journey, and it is simply our pleasure to walk alongside you. And so we welcome you to a well of wisdom that we have been keeping here for centuries, and we invite you to drink deeply.
Furthermore, you are absolutely welcome to hover around the edges for as long as you want, but know that this is also a place where you can make a commitment for life. Baptism is that commitment: it is what makes one a Christian. We baptize infants and children because we are eager to hold out before them a specific path to wisdom. Then they make their road by walking, and we walk alongside them. We also baptize adults, and we invite adults who were baptized as children to make an adult proclamation of their faith and to take on their baptismal vows for themselves. And we do all these things in community, not in private. Christianity is for people who want a way to walk alongside others, and who have found that the way that makes the most sense includes the story of the creator joining forces with the created. Jesus walks with us on this way, having gone on ahead and come back to assure us that there is nothing to fear.
Here at St. Paul's, we've been journeying together in a very concrete way in the little community of people that has formed on Wednesday nights over the past month. We offer a Eucharist on Wednesday evenings at 5:30, followed by a community supper prepared in turns by those who come. Following supper are our classes--with simultaneous childcare! And we've just finished our first four-week series. The next set will begin this coming Wednesday night at 6:45. If you wonder what it might mean to live in the tension between doubt and faith, come join Ben Amundgaard and the Rev. Armand Larive for their four-week class on that topic. If you wonder about the Bible, what’s in it, what it’s for, and how you might approach it, I myself will be teaching that class. And Father Jonathan’s class on prayer will be a great way to engage that first commandment: “Love God.”
In January, these Wednesday night classes will flow naturally into a process we call Journey, a process by which you can come to be baptized or to make an adult affirmation of the baptismal vows that were made for you in childhood. Journey is the St. Paul's version of the process by which the earliest Christians came to be baptized: through prayer and learning, through fellowship and theological reflection. Journey will meet on Wednesdays from January through May, culminating at the Great Vigil of Easter when we will baptize new Christians. You can be a part of Journey even if you don't want to make any particular affirmation of faith. Journey is also just a great way to join this holy conversation.
And so we invite you, whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on this journey of faith, to Journey with us towards ever deeper wisdom. The church isn't here just to sustain itself, but to help God transform people's lives from fear into faith, hope, and love. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, "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." Amen.