Sunday, October 26, 2008

looking for love...--a sermon for Ordinary 30A

Rev. Teri Peterson
looking for love…
Matthew 22.34-40
October 26 2008, Ordinary 30A/Reformation Sunday

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ‘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 neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

I can practically hear y’all groaning: “another love sermon? Doesn’t Jesus ever talk about anything else?” These are familiar words for many of us, and some of us may even remember that in Luke’s version of this story, the lawyer asks a follow up question: “who is my neighbor?” that prompts Jesus to tell a story about a victim of violence, two religious professionals, and a Samaritan. Some of us have used this summary of the law—love God, love your neighbor—as a summary of the Christian life: our call as Christians is to love, love, and love some more—love God, love our neighbors, love our enemies. There’s a reason love comes up a lot—because Jesus both did it and talked about it, because God calls us to love with our words and actions, because the Holy Spirit is the love that binds us all together. The rule of love is the plumb line we use for interpreting scripture and determining our action. There’s a lot of love to go around!

But for many of us, these words of Jesus probably evoke a vague feeling of unease, centered around the perpetual question: how? How do we love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind? How do we love our neighbor? Couldn’t Jesus have been just a little more specific? Especially translated into English, this word “love” is sort of hazy. Is it a feeling? Is it more than a feeling? Can love be summed up the way Jesus sums up the law? We sometimes turn to Matthew 25, where Jesus says to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, give water to the thirsty, and we’ll be showing our love for Christ. Especially around here, where we tend to be do-ers—we want to make the world a better place, we want to help, we want to solve problems and make life better for everyone. Here at RCLPC we seem to really resonate with the idea that, as Teresa of Avila said, Christ has no hands on earth now but ours. We take very seriously that responsibility to be the body of Christ in the world, and it shows: when I asked the latest Inquirer’s Class why they came here, nearly all said that they felt this was a congregation that lives our faith out in the world. That’s a pretty good measure of who we are as a community—a community of people who live as the body of Christ in the world.

But I have to wonder if this is the whole of what Jesus was talking about, the full extent of the law to love God and love our neighbor.

It seems sometimes that we are missing a crucial part of Jesus’ commandment: that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Which implies at least a little bit that we love ourselves…and also tells us something about what our community might look like on the inside. We’re pretty good at the going-out part of loving our neighbors, but what about the inner workings of our community? I suspect this is the harder part for many of us. First, to love ourselves seems selfish somehow, seems the opposite of what God calls us to do. And second, to love people here in our own church community also means allowing them to love us, which gets back to the first problem. I suspect I’m not alone in keeping some of the hardest parts of life to myself because I’m either worried about how it will sound or look, or worse: I’m worried about people paying attention to me rather than the much bigger problems other people have. None of us want to focus attention on ourselves when there’s so much need in the world or even in our own church. But if we’re not willing to share our lives, even the hard parts, even the parts that show that we don’t have it all together, even the parts that make us feel vulnerable, then are we really loving ourselves? And are we really allowing others to love us? It’s hard to love if we can’t be loved, and it’s hard to be a community gathered around these commandments if we’re not willing to let others love us.

Even as I was writing this sermon yesterday, I could feel adrenaline coursing through my body, I could feel my heart beat faster and my hands begin to tremble. This can be a scary proposition: to let people in to the things that frighten us, to be vulnerable in community, to let people show God’s love to us. And it’s scary for me, as a preacher, to preach a sermon like this in a week that holds two important anniversaries for me: three years ago this Halloween my mother died from cancer, and two years ago this Wednesday I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I purposely planned my ordination to coincide with the 1st anniversary of my mom’s death but I also know that between that awesome loss and that awesome privilege is an emotional and spiritual minefield. And I wonder what it might mean for us together to claim it’s important to be loved as well as to love, to weep together and laugh together. But I also believe that if we’re not willing to share ourselves, we are missing out on true community. As Carrie Newcomer wrote in our anthem today: “I am a voice calling out across the great divide / I am only one person that feels they have to try / The questions fall like trees or dust, rise like prayers above / but the only word is courage and the only answer love.”

Many of you have probably heard the proverb about looking for love: “I sought myself, but myself I could not see; I sought my God, my God eluded me; I sought my neighbor, and I found all three.” We often talk about loving God and loving our neighbor as two sides of the same coin: that to love one is to love the other—they’re not separable. I think the same goes for being loved: if we won’t allow ourselves to be loved by our brothers and sisters in Christ, will we allow ourselves to be loved by God? And if we won’t allow ourselves to be loved, can we truly love?
These are hard questions, but questions I think we need to ask ourselves. As a community of God’s people, a covenant community bound together by the promise of God’s presence with us, what are we afraid of? Are we afraid of appearing weak or foolish or imperfect? Are we afraid of the power of love to heal? Or are we like Lily, the little girl in the Secret Life of Bees, or like Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, afraid that, deep down, we’re unlovable?

There is challenge in this story, but deeper even than the challenge is this good news: no one is unlovable. We are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves, which means each person must be worthy of love, no matter how broken, no matter how sinful, no matter how weak or imperfect. When we share that brokenness, that weakness, that imperfection, we not only allow others to love us, we give others permission to be vulnerable too, and we give each other the space to live in the mystery rather than always trying to pin down the answer. When we seek our neighbor, and when we allow our neighbor to seek us, we all find together that God is in our midst, pouring out love like a mighty river of baptism, sharing a feast of grace tastier than bread and wine. And, one love at a time, one voice at a time, one hope at a time, the world will be transformed into the kingdom of God.

May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.


  1. Yes - prayers and hugs. It could be a tough one to preach, but it IS sharing yourself. You beautifully brought together that piece of 1 Thess (the part I'm trying to bring in, too!!!) with the Matthew questions. Beautiful. I'm praying for strength for you, that you will be able to preach what the Spirit has given you to preach.

  2. you've done a beautiful job of weaving vulnerability in with purpose and strength: when we love self then we can truly love others. But also, when we love others we can learn to love self...prayers for you as you preach this.

  3. Oh, you did set yourself a tough one here! Where are you on it now, think you'll go with this version? My advice on preaching things that have the potential to make me weep: read it aloud a few times tonight. It takes the edge off. I'll be thinking of you in the morning.

  4. thanks friends! I have read it aloud several times tonight and will probably do a couple more before going to bed. I'm hoping by tomorrow it'll be practiced enough that it won't feel as raw. I cried the first few times tonight, but this last time I was dry eyed even if I was talking fast and barely breathing...

    I think this is the version I'm going with. But who knows--I may change my mind before 830am!

  5. (but not too practiced, obv, as that will feel fake..)

  6. Think of you this morning. Your vulnerabilitly will be touching for your people...and hopefully move them to more open vulnerability with each other...those kinds of places where the presence of God dwells.

    On another note--I see you read the Shack. When you have time, I would love to hear your take on it.
    Peace to you, preacherwoman!

  7. Great sermon! May it be received by those with ears to hear.

    (More info: I'm the head of staff at the Pres.Church of Western Springs in Chicago Presbytery.)

  8. Teri - I didn't go to to church today b/c was seeing my sons at Ft. Benning (Peter was in an ROTC competition, Adam leaving for his duty station Ft. Campbell on Wednesday) so I wanted a sermon for Sunday and went to your blog when I got home. I don't like thinking about both boys in the Army but on weekends like this it is right in my face - and my mother's heart pounds with pride in their accomplishments, ability to live their own lives/make choices, and pounds with the fear that goes with knowing that one day I will be dealing with news of deployment(s). It's a very vulnerable place.

    This rocks the house - in so many ways. Knowing of these upcoming anniversaries, I wondered how they would show up for you this week. And I read them, and your words, and see into your heart. The last sentences ( When we seek our neighbor, and when we allow our neighbor to seek us, we all find together that God is in our midst, pouring out love like a mighty river of baptism, sharing a feast of grace tastier than bread and wine. And, one love at a time, one voice at a time, one hope at a time, the world will be transformed into the kingdom of God) will stay with me. Thanks for preaching to me today, friend.

  9. The word that comes to mind after reading this was...real.

    Thinking of you post-preaching.

  10. Teri:
    Yup. I'm the head of staff and Tom's our amazing associate.
    We'll be ok. It's just a nervours, anxious time.

  11. Thank you for visiting my blog - I went back and read your beautiful entries about your mother's death and scattering her ashes. I know this week is a difficult one and I am so very sorry.