We have a fun combination of readings for Sunday. The gospel from Matthew is the one in which Jesus gives us the first and great commandment. The epistle from Thessalonians is loving and tender. The psalm reminds us that God is always there for us, when we need refuge and respite. The closing of Deuteronomy tells us about the last days of Moses, how he died in Moab, having seen the Land of Promise, but not been able to go down into it. Here, the great exodus story ends, and Joshua picks up where Moses left off in leading the Israelites into their new home, where they must conquer and kill in order to win this promised land. But before the killing and conquest starts, we have a gentle farewell and tribute to Moses. And the Collect for Sunday in the Episcopal Church weaves together those two threads of command from the gospel and promise from the death of Moses.
Almighty and everlasting God,
increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity;
and, that we may obtain what you promise,
make us love what you command;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
It intrigues me that in this prayer, we ask God to make us love. In most of the collects, we pray for an increase or a growth or guidance, but not for God to make us do something. I know I don’t tend to react well to anyone who tries to make me do something. If you ask me, I’ll do almost anything, but if I’m forced? Forget about it! Being forced to love seems almost abhorrent… and yet, what we’re asking in this prayer is to be made to love what God commands us to love. Surely that can’t be so bad, right?
Well, what does God command us to love? The gospel for Sunday tells us:
Jesus 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.”
So God commands us to love (1) God, and (2) everybody else. That seems pretty clear-cut and simple, doesn’t it? Of course, we know it’s not easy to love everybody – heck, I have trouble loving my own family sometimes, much less the upstairs apartment neighbor with his rowdy sons or the guy at the shopping mall who badgers me to take a lotion sample or the strange, smelly lady who perpetually wanders the shopping center with a cart full of garbage. But Jesus doesn’t ask us to love these people, and Jesus doesn’t recommend that we love these people. No, Jesus commands us to love these people. These two commandments are the absolute minimum: love God, and love everybody else. Sheesh.
Of course, there’s a subtlety to that second one. It says love your neighbor as yourself. Now I’ll admit, as terrible as I am at loving other people, I may be even worse at loving myself. And yet, right here, in front of the Pharisees, Jesus commands us to love ourselves. I’ll say that again: I have been commanded by God to love myself. And so have you, my friend. God commands us to treat ourselves with gentleness and tenderness, as Paul describes, with the graciousness and loving-kindness of the psalm. And then, being filled with those gifts of faith and hope and love, we will overflow with that love onto everyone around us.
That is the commandment, simple enough to express in one word, one verb:
So what is the promise? Well, it’s pretty simple, too. It’s simple enough to express in one word, one noun:
We will all die, here on earth, just like Moses. We will die and be buried and turn into dust. We are indeed like the grass in the psalm, green one day and brittle and withered the next. Before we leave this world, we may not have the gift that Moses received, to see the Promised Land with our own eyes. But the Christian faith and hope tell us that we will see the Promised Land of God. Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us – promised us that he will bring us into God’s Kingdom when we die. And in that kingdom, we will be surrounded and infused with God’s light and love and majesty. In order to obtain this promise, to be carried into heaven, we’ve been given a commandment to love.
There’s an upside to this commandment, though. See, God doesn’t want to make it impossible for us. God cherishes each of us perfectly, each unique image of Godself for the precious individual we are, and God yearns for us to join God in heaven. So God gives us help, and that is what we pray for in the Collect. There is a strange mathematics to God’s love, one which follows no rule or logic that we can observe in the physical world, and it goes like this: whenever you give away love, God fills you back up with even more than you gave away. So the more love you give away, the more you are filled to overflowing with God’s blessings. All we have to do is to start.
Simple, right? Just: go out and love somebody! Riiiiiiight.
Of course, to love means taking risks, making ourselves vulnerable. It is not love when we never reveal anything of ourselves, when we never risk anything. Just as there are risks in faith (what if my belief is wrong?) and hope (what if it doesn’t turn out this way?), there are risks in love as well (what if I’m rejected?). In these commandments, though, Jesus calls us to step through these risks, to walk through this fear, into the light of a loving God.
Christianity is about relationship, and these commandments are about relationship as well – relationship with God, relationship with self, relationship with everyone around us. We do not worship a God of laws and legality, of praise and punishment. No, Jesus teaches us that our God is the God of relationship, of love, of give-and-take, of the great dance. We are not students in a detention hall or prisoners in a jail – every one of us is God’s dance partner, invited to a sumptuous feast and ball where we will whirl and leap and spin with the God who created us and delights in us. The thing is, when God asks us to join God on the dance floor, we have to take that risk. We could hide behind the others, the ones we think are more worthy to dance with God, more lovely, more suitable. Or we can take the risk to trust in the God who loves us beyond our wildest imagination, to trust that God does not want to see us hurt or abandoned, to believe that we are lovely and lovable and loved, and to love in return.
So when the music ends, and God releases your hand, will you return to your seat, in the back? Or will you stand, shining and delighted, turn to another person, and ask him or her to join you in the dance?