Proper 25A: Matthew 22:34-46. St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Lake Jackson.
There’s a colorful stained-glass window in the chancel of Christ Church Cathedral, Houston which served as a focal point for me in worship services during the 5 years I served there as Canon for Welcome & Evangelism.
The window includes images symbolizing the four gospels: the man, the lion, the oxen, and the eagle. Other decorative motifs appear throughout. But the primary element of this particular window is scripture. It is from today’s gospel.
Dazzling, as if it were on fire, it reads: Love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
This teaching is foundational to Christianity and to Judaism before that! Here in Matthew, Jesus is teaching ancient and undisputed commitments of this faith tradition.
Indeed, all the law boils down to these two things. All the preaching of the all the prophets boils down to these two things.
Yet, across the ages, loving God and loving neighbor has been difficult for humanity to get right. It’s only two things — why is it so hard? Why can’t we get this two-part teaching right?
Well, to quote a matriarch of the church who paused under that stained-glass window at our Cathedral one day during her altar guild duties:
“The problem is: people don’t want to do that … and that’s why they hang all the prophets.”
(Oh, how my faith has been enriched by serving alongside such faithful characters!)
She was a regular attendee at Bible study, so I imagine she knew her words were of paraphrase of Christ’s own: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”
And she likely knew the next verse: How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Matthew 23:37).
A mother hen gathering her brood — what a tender, pastoral image. Thinking of God in relationship with us in that way has a calming effect. It informs the words from the service of Compline in the Book of Common Prayer: hide us under the shadow of your wings (p. 132).
It calms our fear.
Because, at bottom, fear is our problem. Fear is why we struggle to get this two-part foundational teaching of our faith right. Fear invites us into all kinds of sin.
When fear takes hold, human beings view neighbors as a enemies.
When fear takes hold, scarcity is all the mind can imagine.
There are many voices presently stoking fear.
And the challenge for us as followers of Jesus is: when fear of others and fear of scarcity takes hold in us, then it becomes very difficult to live into this two-part teaching of Christ.
Remember, he spent much of his ministry teaching that our neighbors are everyone and that there is enough, plus left overs!
So, recall from 1 John, “perfect love casts out fear” (4:18).
By God’s grace, our hearts, souls, and minds are turned toward God, who is Perfect Love. Who broods over us like a mother hen, who is the source of light and life, whose most named attribute in scripture is stead-fast love.
When, by grace, we turn our hearts, souls and minds to God, we arrive at that truth, articulated so well by Augustine of Hippo: Our hearts are restless, O God, until they rest in you.
When we come to know this rest in God who is perfect love, it is like striking a match in a dark room: illumination!
Union with God; love of God: this is the source from which all else flows. This is the first part.
Which leads to the second part: love of neighbor. The longer we walk the road of discipleship, the better we come to know the next truth:
There are many ways to love your neighbor, but only one way to love God … and that is to love your neighbor.
When we realize that loving our neighbor is also loving God … the lit match now lights candles … and the room fills with light!
When I review this calendar year at St. Timothy’s, the impression that emerges is that you all have stayed focused on Christ’s teachings: to love God and love neighbor. That is what you have done. It is what we will continue to do.
Will it be easy? Will we always get it right? No. But God is at work in the midst of us. The source of perfect love — casting out all fear — inspiring, correcting, and empowering us in our vocation as bearers of the gospel in this time and in this place.
Our lives and our parish life are like that stained-glass window. Loving God and loving neighbor is the primary design, set ablaze with the light of Christ— casting color and beauty all around, proclaiming the glory of God.
This is who we are. This is who we will continue to be.
Recommit to the God of love and our ministry together today. +++
Working Preacher Brainwave podcast #748: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost. Luther Seminary.