Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 26, 2008

2008.10.26 “Back to Basics: Love of God and Love of Neighbor”

  Central United Methodist Church

“Back to Basics: Love of God and Love of Neighbor”

Matthew 22: 34 – 40

October 26th, 2008

“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?”  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.” – Matthew 22: 34 – 40, The New Revised Standard Version)

     Some of you have heard me tell this story, but others have not; and, it’s one of my favorite stories anyway, so listen up. It’s the Story of the Sea Captain.  

      There was a sea captain who, every morning on his ship, spent 30 minutes alone in his quarters, with standing orders that he was not to be disturbed.

      The crew grew curious.  They wanted to know why this was so important to the captain.  Finally, they spied through the captain’s porthole, and what they saw was this:  the captain would open a safe in the wall, take out a piece of paper, and stare at it for 30 minutes.  Then he would put the paper back in the safe, lock it up, and the day would begin.

      Finally a day came when the sea captain did not emerge from his quarters at all.  They found him there – in his quarters – dead.  Seeing their opportunity, they broke open the safe, and took out the piece of paper to see what was so important.   What they read was this: “The left side is the port side; the right side is the starboard side.”

      To me, this is an instructive story. Because there are some things in our lives and in our jobs that are so important, we have to keep reviewing them so we don’t forget.  

      For example, when I was a paramedic I constantly reviewed the Standard Operating Procedures, because on any given shift you never knew what you were going to encounter. In the middle of a cardiac arrest is not the time to look up drug dosages or do calculations in your head. When I engineered fire engines, I constantly reviewed (and kept on a cheat sheet) essential hydraulic information (2 (Q)2 + Q) to pump water through fire hoses.  At a house fire you didn’t want your buddies in the house taking heat with water dribbling out of the nozzle because you couldn’t remember what pressure to pump it at. 

      Even as a Pastor, there are certain things I find I must constantly review, to stay focused. Jesus’ words in Matthew 22: 34 – 40 regarding the two greatest commandments are one of them.  In fact, I would go further to suggest that Jesus’ words regarding the greatest commandments are basics, not just for pastors and churches, but for all Christians. Out of all the commandments, what are the two greatest commandments? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

      Jesus’ summary of the Greatest Commandments is found in all 3 Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In Matthew, they come at the end of what Thomas Long called “Jesus’ Final Exam”. Engaged in a disputation with the religious authorities, Jesus told 3 parables and was then asked 3 questions, all 3 of which were a trap to put him in disfavor with either the people or the authorities.  But he was too smart for that.

      At issue was this: Jewish scholars had surveyed the Torah –the Jewish – and counting carefully, they found 613 commandments: 248 do’s (one for every bone in the body) and 365 don’ts (one for each day of the year). Applying all 613 at once was virtually impossible, even if they could be remembered. (After all, we have enough problems with 10). So the question they asked Jesus was, “If one were to hang all of these laws on one nail, what nail would it be?”

      Jesus hangs all the Law on not one, but two nails: love of God and love of neighbor. The formula is memorable and its simplicity appealing.  It could and perhaps should be a motto on church stationery.

      In fact, when one of Christianity’s greatest 20th century interpreters, H. Richard Niebuhr, wrote a book in 1956 entitled The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, guess what his conclusion was?  The purpose of the church and its ministry is the increase of the love of God and neighbor.  He could have written a 2nd volume, which could have been called, The Purpose of The Christian Life, which could be summed up in the same way: “The purpose of the Christian life is to love God and to love our neighbor.

      Before we move on to discuss what it means to love God and love our neighbor, let me share some observations.

      Astute observers might note that the two commandments together sum up the ten commandments:  the first five of which have to do with loving God; with the second five having to do with loving our neighbor.

      There is an inseparability between the two commandments. It’s like saying, “Which is the most important wing on the airplane; the right wing or the left?”

      Because they are inseparably tied together, if you fail to do one, you soon fail to do the other.  Because Israel at times ceased to love God, by failing to keep the commandments, they also soon ceased to love their neighbor, and thus the prophets preached their great themes of social injustice.  And in the New Testament, did not John, in his 1st Letter, remind us: “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

      Neither is either commandment dissolved into the other.  Engaging in acts of service or struggles for justice, or being the friendliest church in town, does not mean we are fulfilling the first commandment, of loving God: the first commandment is the “first” commandment. Nor does loving God remain adequate, unless we are also seeking and finding ways to reach out to our neighbors. We are obligated to seek BOTH spirituality AND community; we cannot be either a spiritual church or an activist church; we are obligated, by the first and second commandments, to do both.

      So, what does it mean to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength?

      For some of us, the notion of loving God may prove difficult, given the image of God we grew up with: of God as an angry God, dooming not only the evil, but also the ignorant and the innocent to hell, as least that’s what they told us, with the addition that if we didn’t believe that, we would go to hell too.  I don’t think it possible to love God until one understands God to be – as Jesus revealed – gracious and compassionate.

      And, in truth, because it is a living relationship, we may find our love of God to fluctuate through our lives.

      This week at a VA conference I heard Dr. Kenneth Lee, Director of the Spinal Care Unit at the Milwaukee VA Hospital, and a Colonel in the Wisconsin National Guard, speak of his experience surviving a suicide bomb attack in Iraq. He was asked specifically to describe the role of faith in his recovery, and he talked about how he struggled. How at times he prayed to God, he questioned God, he wondered where God was, he even at times, hated God, for what had happened.  Until finally, he was able to get back to a place where once again, he could love God.  So we may find it through the difficult times in our lives.

      When we can love God, how do we love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, with every aspect of our being? 

      Not many of us are as good at loving God in every way as some are in loving God in one way. Some of us love God passionately, like the saints of whom we will speak next Sunday, saints like Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross, who speak of God and to God as intimately as parent or child, spouse and lover. 

      Not all of us are great artists, able to love God with considerable creative, artistic gifts.  Thank God for those who have such gifts and offer them, whether they be Michelangelo or Mozart or Charles Wesley or Chris Tomlin or even some of you. Through such gifts we are moved to love God, even when thoughts and words fail. 

      Not all of us are great theologians; but at the very least what loving God with our minds means is that we do not have to believe the impossible. There are some churches where you have to check your brain at the door, or ignore all the science and notions of fairness we learn in school.  Surely if God created the amazing instrument that is the human mind, God expects us to use it to the best of our ability.

      Not all of us are good at loving God with our bodies; some of us are lucky if we can keep from falling down while clapping at the same time.  Let’s face it, not many of us are Olympic athletes or skilled musicians or liturgical dancers or talented artists.  Some are.  But at the very least, we can praise God with our bodies by standing in worship, bowing in prayer, raising our arms in praise, sitting or walking meditations, or even marching for justice. Frankly, we Christians could learn something from Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists about loving God with our bodies.

      And, finally, loving our neighbor. I think we know the greatest difficulty with that:  As Lucy once said in Peanuts, “Humanity I love, it’s the person next door I hate.”  Sometimes we may in fact act more loving toward the disaster victim around the world, than the person we live with or worship beside. Again, paraphrasing St. John, “If we can’t love our brother or sister whom we have seen, how can we love God whom we have not seen?” (1 John 4:20)

       Fred Craddock is a renowned preachers and a teacher of preachers.  Like Jesus, he is a wonderful storyteller.  One of his stories strikes us exactly at the point of loving our neighbor.

“A few years ago, in a church in Oklahoma where I was worshiping with my family, I had an afternoon engagement and had to leave quickly. I said goodbye to them after the benediction.  In order to get the parking lot quickly, I cut through the back, through the choir room.  I said to one of the women in the choir as she was putting away her robe, “I appreciated very much the anthem this morning.”

She said, “I hope so, because that’s it.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

She said, “That’s it. I’m hanging it up.” She was putting away her robe.

I said, “Are you retiring?” She’d been in the chair 103 or 104 years; I thought she was retiring.

She said, “No, I’m quitting.”

I said, “You’re quitting?”

She said, “I’m quitting.”

“Oh, you’re not quitting.”

“I’m quitting.”

“Well, why are you quitting?”

She said, “I sat up there in the choir loft this morning and looked around at the other choir members. I looked at the minister and looked at the worship leader. I looked at the ushers and just looked out over the congregation. I said finally to myself what has haunted me for years.”

I said, “What’s that?”

She said, “Who cares?”

Well, I was in a hurry, I had to make a speech, so I said, “Oh, you’ll be all right. Take an aspirin, you’ve got a headache, all right?” I went to the parking lot, but all the way to my engagement and all the way back I thought of that indictment. I was a member of that church at the time, and she was indicting me and all the members. In fact, if it were true, what she had said was, “This is not a church.” If her opinion after longtime membership there, as an active participant in that church, was that the sum gesture of that church was a shrug of the shoulders, then it was not a church.

When I got home that afternoon, I called that lady. I said, “I want to talk to you.”

She said, “If you want to.”

I said, “I want to.” I went over there; we talked, and brusquely we disagreed. I finally asked her, “Well, what would we have to do to show that we cared?”

And this was her definition: She said, “Take me seriously.” That was a strange way to put it, especially for her. She was a kind of comic, a sort of stick of peppermint; she was always playing practical jokes. She would pin tails of choir robes together. She would go early and put some big cartoon on the pulpit so that when the minister came out in all his sobriety, he’d look down and be blown out of the water. She was that kind of person, so I said, “You can’t be serious! Take you seriously? What are you talking about? You’re always joking, laughing.”

And she said, “You bought all that? I thought it was rather transparent, myself. I like to be taken seriously.”

When I left that lady’s house, I said to her, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong.”

She said, “I’m not.”

I said, “I get to travel to churches all over the country, and everywhere I go there are people who care for each other. They take care of each other.”

She said, “Where?”

I said, “Everywhere I go, there are people who care.”

She said, “Really?”


She said, “Name some.”

She wants names.  May I use your name?  May I give her your name?” (Craddock Stories, Fred B. Craddock, Ed. by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, Chalice Press, St. Louis, MO, 2001, p. 58.)


Jesus said, “’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.”

Like the sea captain, we need constant reminding.  Amen.


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