Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Love, Sweet Love” (Matthew 22:34-40)
October 29, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In 1965 Hal David and Burt Bacharach wrote a beautiful song in the middle of one of the most turbulent decades in American history, a song recorded by Jackie DeShannon, a song about the most important thing in the world:

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
Not just for some but for everyone

Lord, we don’t need another mountain
There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb
There are oceans and rivers enough to cross
Enough to last till the end of time…

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
Not just for some but for everyone
(From “What the World Needs Now is Love”)

That song still speaks today in this turbulent decade, a decade rife with anxiety about possible nuclear war, angry racism, rampant opioid addiction, tragic mass shootings, online identity theft, on and on it goes.  Now as much as ever, what the world needs now is love, sweet love.

That is exactly the point Jesus makes in today’s gospel lesson.  Throughout his earthly ministry there were two groups of religious leaders who relentlessly sought to undermine Jesus’ ministry: the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  The Sadducees did not believe in angels or the resurrection (which as a professor told me many years ago was exactly why they were “sad…you see”).  The Pharisees stressed one thing above else, keeping the law of the Old Testament, completely, to the letter.

The Sadducees, who did not even believe in the resurrection, had just questioned Jesus about it anyway, only to have Jesus gently respond by emphasizing that God “is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:32).  So the Pharisees then took their turn and questioned Jesus about the one thing they regarded above all, as Matthew tells us:

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 (Matthew 22:34-40).

This famous passage is known as “the summary of the law.”  Jesus says that the entire Old Testament—“the law and the prophets”—hangs on these commandments to love God and to love our neighbor.  The Apostle Paul similarly wrote to the Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8 and 10).

Jesus’ point regarding the law is what John Lennon would later phrase this way: “all you need is love.”  Or if you prefer Paul McCartney, as he wrote in late 1963:

I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend, if it makes you feel alright
I’ll get you anything, my friend, if it makes you feel alright
‘Cause I don’t care too much for money
Money can’t buy me love

I’ll give you all I got to give if you say you’ll love me too
I may not have a lot to give but what I got I’ll give to you
I don’t care too much for money
Money can’t buy me love
Can’t buy me love, everybody tells me so
Can’t buy me love, no, no, no, no…
(From their 1964 album A Hard Day’s Night)

Lest you think this song is a shallow pop hit, the reality is that people try to buy love all the time, and it never works.  People may literally try to buy love with money, or by attaining a certain social status, or by being a really nice person or a dutiful child or consummate overachiever—but it never works because love cannot be bought.  Love is a gift.  And love, Jesus says, fulfills the law.

This past week CNN published an online story that demonstrates what this kind of love looks like.  At a high school track meet a runner named Blake Lewis became seriously injured near the end of his race—as he said afterwards, “At 300 it started really hurting,” he said, “and then at 200 I just felt my bone snap.  It was like no other pain I’d ever felt.”  Blake was laying there on the track in agony.  His mother, Brooke, said, “I had actually never heard him scream like that before.”  But as you watch the footage something beautiful occurs.

Running up behind Blake was his teammate Sean.  Do you know what Sean did?  As he drew near Blake, knowing he would be disqualified from the race, Sean stopped running, picked Blake up, and carried him on his back toward the finish line, everyone in the bleachers standing and cheering as he did so.  Sean later said, “I put him on my shoulders and he was screaming the whole way but I kept telling him we’re a family, we’re a team, and we’re all in this together.”  Brooke added, “You hope that your son would be that kind of kid, that your son would pick that person up and carry him in.”  And at the end of the footage you see that about one foot before the finish line, Sean stops again, and gently helps Blake off his back, and then holds Blake up so that Blake can literally hop across the finish line.

Metaphorically there are many Blake Lewis’s out there, people who get hurt in the middle of the race, broken people on the race track who need a Sean to come alongside and pick them up with love.

In his 1956 novel, Seize the Day, the late Saul Bellow describes the fall of a middle aged man named Wilhelm.  Wilhelm’s marriage had collapsed.  He was hated by his wife, resented by his children.  Career-wise he had long ago given up on his dream to be an actor, and had settled for a job that would pay the bills but fired.  To top it off, he entrusted his last savings to a crooked and misleading investor who lost all his remaining money.  As Wilhelm ponders how bad his life has become he utters one of the most honest prayers you could imagine:

“Oh, God,” Wilhelm prayed.  “Let me out of my trouble.  Let me out of my thoughts, and let me do something better with myself.  For all the time I have wasted I am very sorry.  Let me out of this clutch and into a different life.  For I am all balled up.  Have mercy” (Penguin Classics edition 22).

Out of desperation Wilhelm did the only thing he knew to do at that point, he humbly asked his wealthy father for help, only to be refused in no uncertain terms.  Wilhelm has hit rock bottom, and as he wanders around Manhattan afterwards he stumbles into a large funeral for someone he has never met.  He takes his place in line to see the body in the casket.  After viewing the man in the casket, as Bellow poignantly describes, Wilhelm cannot keep his pain and stress inside anymore:

Standing a little apart, Wilhelm began to cry.  He cried at first softly and from sentiment, but soon from deeper feeling.  He sobbed loudly and his face grew distorted and hot, and the tears stung his skin…He could not stop.  The source of all tears had suddenly sprung open within him, black, deep, and hot, and they were pouring out and convulsed his body, bending his stubborn head, bowing his shoulders, twisting his face, crippling the very hands with which he held the handkerchief.  His efforts to collect himself were useless.  The great knot of ill and grief in his throat swelled upward and he gave in utterly and held his face and wept.  He cried with all his heart (114).

Saul Bellow then concludes the novel this way:

The flowers and lights fused ecstatically in Wilhelm’s blind, wet eyes; the heavy sea-like music came up to his ears.  It poured into him where he had hidden himself in the center of a crowd by the great and happy oblivion of tears.  He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need (114).

And what was “the consummation of (Wilhelm’s) heart’s ultimate need”?  What was the one thing Wilhelm needed and was not given?  The law?  No.  Love.  Wilhelm needed love, but as the novel Seize the Day ends, he has yet to receive it, and remains alone in agony on the race track.

At the end of today’s gospel passage Matthew tells us that Jesus had successfully refuted the attempts of the Sadducees and Pharisees to trick him with their questions, that from that day no one “dare to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:46).  But that did not stop the Sadducees and Pharisees from trying to undermine Jesus’ ministry.  For them love was not enough, and they persisted until they won their race to destroy Jesus.

At the Last Supper Jesus—knowing his impending suffering—emphasized the most important thing in the world: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

After the Last Supper, as they walked through a vineyard on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus reiterated: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).  And in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed similarly to Wilhelm, “Let me out of my trouble”—“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39).

But out of love for you, God’s plan was for Jesus to drink that cup to its dregs.  And the next afternoon on the cross Jesus endured pain like no other pain he’d ever felt, on the cross Jesus’ “face grew distorted and hot, and the tears stung his skin,” and on the cross Jesus “sank deeper than sorrow” all the way to death.  Jesus’ mother Mary was there and had “never heard him scream like that before.”

On the cross Jesus demonstrated once for all the good news of the gospel—that God loves you with all his heart, loves you with all his soul, loves you with all his mind—and that God loves you as himself.  God’s love is something money cannot buy; it is a gift God freely gives you.  God’s love is enough, more than enough, to fulfill all the law and the prophets.  The consummation of your “heart’s ultimate need” is what the world needs now, what you need now: God’s love, sweet love.

And this “love, sweet love” is personified in Jesus Christ, who will carry you to the finish line, hold you up as you hop across, and welcome you to your eternal home.