Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“It’s All about Love” (Matthew 22:34-40)
October 26, 2014
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I recently came upon a fictitious but hilarious account of two churches in a small town—one Catholic and the other Presbyterian—who engaged in a theological battle via their church signs. It began with a Catholic church whose sign read, “All dogs go to heaven,” and a Presbyterian church responded on their sign, “Only human beings go to heaven. Read the Bible.” This exchange continued:
Catholic Church: “God loves all his creatures, dogs included.”
Presbyterian Church: “Dogs don’t have souls. This is not open for debate.”
Catholic Church: “Catholic dogs go to heaven. Presbyterian dogs can talk to their pastor.”
Presbyterian Church: “Converting to Catholicism does not magically grant your dog a soul.”
Catholic Church: “Free dog souls with conversion.”
Presbyterian Church: “Dogs are animals. There aren’t any rocks in heaven either.”
The Catholic Church presses the issue: “All rocks go to heaven.”
And on and on it goes.
I’m guessing that if the local Episcopal Church in that town had a church sign the message on their sign would have gone in an entirely different direction: “Join us for Oktoberfest!” Those Episcopalians like to party ☺.
It is not uncommon for the church to get sidetracked by burning theological debates that in reality are neither burning nor theological. In today’s gospel passage a lawyer asks Jesus a question that is in actuality burning and theological. “Teacher,” he asks, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Jesus’ response is well-known:
“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 22:37-40).
It’s all about love.
Several years ago my daughter Emily and I went to a concert by the country band Sugarland. One of the highlights of the show was their stirring performance of their song Love, which gave me chills (in a good way) as Jennifer Nettles sang:
Is it the face of a child?
Is it the thrill of danger?
Is it the kindness we see in the eyes of a stranger?
Is it more than faith?
Is it more than hope?
Is it waiting for us at the end of our rope?
I say it’s love.
Is it the one you call home?
Is it the Holy Land?
Is it standing right here holding your hand?
Is it just like the movies?
Is it rice and white lace?
Is it the feeling I get when I wake to your face?
I say it’s love.
Is it the first summer storm?
Is it the colors of fall?
Is it having so little and yet having it all?
Is it one in a million?
Is it a change to belong?
Is it standing right here singing this song?
I say it’s love (from their 2008 album Love on the Inside).
In essence Jesus’ response to the question about which is the greatest commandment is “I say it’s love.”
The Bible is clear, however, that our obedience to these commandments to love God and love our neighbor is a response to God’s love for us, as the Apostle John writes, “We love because he first loved us” (I John 4:19).
Last spring I spent a day in Washington D.C. with my daughter Becky and we visited the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, where we saw the famous Hope Diamond, a 45.52 carat diamond valued around a quarter of a billion dollars. It is stunningly beautiful, and it is displayed in a revolving case and as you look at it from different angles you see many different aspects of its beauty.
There are many aspects to the love of God for us. Today I am preaching on just one of those aspects: forgiveness.
Scripture is clear that forgiveness is a primary aspect of the love of God for us, and that we are to respond by forgiving others as we have been forgiven by God. The Apostle Paul put it this way: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32), and elsewhere he also wrote, “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against one another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you” (3:13).
In his book The Furious Longing of God Brennan Manning describes the forgiving aspect of love:
“Jesus said you are to love one another as I have loved you, a love that will possibly lead to the bloody, anguished gift of yourself; a love that forgives seventy times seven, that keeps no score of wrongdoing. Jesus said this love is the one criterion, the sole norm, the standard of discipleship” (86).
There is a powerful example of this kind of love in the 2013 film Philomena in which Dame Judi Dench plays an elderly Philomena Lee. As a teenager Philomena had become pregnant out of wedlock and been sent to an abbey in Ireland, where she gave birth to a baby boy and had to remain for four years, working in the laundry room seven days a week to “pay” for her stay. She was allowed to visit her son on occasion but one day she found out he was gone—he had been given to adopting parents from America, no chance to say goodbye.
She returned to the abbey periodically over the years trying to learn about the location of her son, only to be turned away again and again by the head of the abbey, Sister Hildegarde. Fifty years passed and a writer named Martin decided to write a human interest story about this. They traveled together to America to look for her son only to discover that he had died years earlier. But they also learned that toward the end of his life he had returned to the abbey where he had been born in an attempt to find his mother. Sister Hildegarde was of no help to him either. After he died he was buried, per his request, at the abbey. At the end of the film Philomena and Martin return to the abbey:
Sister Hildegarde is seething with bitterness—“Let me tell you something. I have kept my vow of chastity my whole life. Self-denial and mortification of the flesh—that’s what brings us closer to God. Those girls had nobody to blame but themselves and their own carnal incontinence….What’s done is done. What do you expect us to do about it now?”
Philomena responds softly: “Nothing. There is nothing to be done or said. I found my son, that’s what I came here for.”
Then Martin glares at Sister Hildegarde: “I tell you what you can do. Say you’re sorry, how about that? Apologize. Stop trying to cover things up. Get out there and clean off all the weeds on the graves of the mothers and children who died in childbirth.”
Hildegarde snarls, “Their suffering was atonement for their sins.”
Martin becomes furious: “One of the mothers was fourteen years old!”
Philomena interrupts, “Martin, that’s enough.”
Martin looks at Philomena, “So, are you just going to do nothing?”
“No,” Philomena replies, and looking compassionately at Sister Hildegarde she says, “Sister Hildegard, I want you to know that I forgive you.”
Martin is stunned: “Just like that?”
Philomena replies: “It’s not just like that. That’s hard. That’s hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you. Look at you.”
Martin tries to justify himself: “I’m angry.”
Philomena nods her head and replies, “That must be exhausting.”
Then, turning to another nun, Philomena asks, “Sister Claire, I wonder, would you be so kind as to take me to my son’s grave?”
In response to the forgiving love of God she had received, Philomena loved God with all her heart, mind, soul and strength by loving Sister Hildegarde as herself.
But let’s take this one step further…In his moving book Tuesdays with Morrie Mitch Albom, who at the time was a sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press, writes about how for fourteen straight Tuesday’s he flew from Detroit to Boston to visit with his dying friend, Morrie Schwartz, a sociology professor who had had a huge impact on his life. On the twelfth Tuesday Morrie said this to Mitch:
“Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others…It’s not just other people we need to forgive, Mitch, we also need to forgive ourselves.”
“Ourselves?” (Mitch asked).
“Yes. For all the things we didn’t do. All the things we should have done. You can’t get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened. That doesn’t help you when you get to where I am…I always wished I had done more with my work; I wished I had written more books. I used to beat myself up over it. Now I see that never did any good…Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don’t wait, Mitch. Not everyone gets the time I’m getting. Not everyone is as lucky” (164, 166-167).
Scripture tells us that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10), and in his death on the cross Jesus fulfilled the law as he loved you with all his heart, all his mind, all his soul, all his strength—and yes, as he loved you as himself.
In dying on the cross Jesus stretched out his arms and said in essence, “I want you to know that I forgive you. I say it’s love.”
It’s all about love—and the good news of the gospel is that the exhausting anger in our unforgiving hearts can be replaced by the inexhaustible forgiving love of God.