"Love & Stewardship"

Proper 25.A.2023
Matthew 22:34-46
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

Today’s Gospel is a small piece of a conversation between Jesus and the religious authorities of his own people. It’s not a nice conversation (though it sounds polite enough on the surface). Instead, think of this as a high stakes gamble of words. Consider the setting. By the time this lesson takes place, Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He has cleansed the temple and confronted the religious leaders, who then proceed to question his authority to teach on their turf. Suffice it to say—they’re not fans.

So they come up with a question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Sounds rather simple, doesn’t it. But beware, for under those seemingly still waters lurk some mighty big fish with particularly sharp teeth. Why? Well, because according to Jewish tradition the Law (the Torah) contained not just ten, but a total of 613 distinct commandments. Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s a whole lot of room for error in a simple sentence ending with a question mark. In my mind, that’s 612 opportunities to get the answer wrong. Jesus, however, approaches the Law from a different angle. Rather than elevating one law in importance above the others, what he does is distill the rules and regulations down to their essential essence. What Jesus claims, is that the whole law (all of it…every jot and tittle) is about love, not rules--Love. And he does this, in part, by referencing the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Leviticus—in the first lesson we heard this morning. What Jesus claims is that the whole law is about love, not rules—what the Law is really about is loving God and your neighbor—it’s not about how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk.

And our Savior does this by saying: “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. Jesus’ answer isn’t about picking and choosing which laws are better than others—it’s about discerning God’s purpose in establishing the law itself—and what he says is this—that the reason God did this was out of love. And Jesus, himself, is the embodiment…he is the fulfillment of that love.

I’d like for us to take a closer look at these commandments this morning. Remember the first one, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Now, that commandment might be all of one sentence—but it’s far from an easy concept. Abba Dorotheos, from the fourth century, gives a helpful illustration. What he says is this—that humankind is like the rim of a wheel. God is the hub, (right there in the center) and each person is like a spoke. If we look at a wheel, we notice that the closer the spokes come to the hub, the closer they come to one another. People, Dorotheos tells us, can come close to God and to neighbor only through love. So—if you love God, inevitably, you will love your neighbors as well.

In other words, we love best when we are in community—not isolation. In fact, from the way in which Jesus frames the commandments, it is clear that they cannot be taken in isolation. We cannot love God and at the same time exclude or hold in contempt your neighbor, though, heaven knows, many have tried. And it would be equally wrong for us to assume that it is all well and good to love our neighbors without giving a second thought about God. An African proverb exclaims: “I am a person because of other people.” It’s the concept of Ubuntu. The first thing God pronounced not good—was loneliness. We are Christians, not in isolation, but first and foremost, in community—in communion with one another and with God.

So, what is Church to you? Is St. Paul’s simply a building? Is this place just about the programs, or is it more about fellowship and educational opportunities. Is St. Paul’s primarily about outreach, music and general aesthetics? Or is what is most important to you the theological climate or the worship? I hope not. I hope that St. Paul’s for you is all of these things, and much more. The place of Church in our Christian faith is not a building, nor is it simply folks with whom we share an affinity. Church is all about love—the love of God and of neighbors. Done rightly, Church (St. Paul’s) reflects the most supreme values in our lives.

So when you think about what you will pledge or give to St. Paul’s in the coming year, give consideration to what you value most in life. How important is it that you love God and love your neighbor as well? If it’s really important—well, quite frankly, that should be reflected in the pledge you write. Why? Because money is important in our culture. It is the way in which we demonstrate worth. Money is a direct reflection of our values. Some cultures might offer a prize cow or a first born child. We Americans open our checkbook. It’s what we do.

Pledging or giving to the Church isn’t a burden—it’s a blessing. It is a reminder to us of what is truly important. It’s the practice of placing first things first, and maintaining gratitude for God and love for our neighbor at the center of our lives. In the next week you will receive pledge cards and a letter from your Stewardship Team in the mail. Please fill them out and send them in. Pledges form the basis for our budget and programs. A bit later, after our service, there will be a congregational meeting about our bell tower. It will be an expensive project. My request of you is that you not lower your pledge based on the tower project. Keep it the same, or if it is in your means, increase it. Pledging is separate from our large, but necessary project.

I believe it’s important that you know that Phil and I are dedicated pledgers to St. Paul’s and have been since we arrived. We give joyfully not simply because it is expected, but because God and this community of faith are deeply important to us. We give out of gratitude. Ultimately, the purpose of your financial giving isn’t because God somehow needs your money—the purpose of giving is because we need to give to God.

I could give you a long list of all the reasons why St. Paul’s needs your funds—creating something of a nightmare scenario. But the truth is this—as your priest, I don’t want you to give simply out of a sense of obligation, as a means of keeping the heat on and the doors open. I’d much rather you give because you have a deep sense of God’s love for you, and a corresponding deep sense as to how this community of faith can also provide love for one’s neighbors. Jesus’ words are true. God loves us—and therefore, we should love God, and this love is expressed in how we live together and the commitments we make to one another. “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.” Don’t just give these words credence in your mind—put them foremost in your heart, and then make them concrete in your life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.