Heart and Soul, Mind and Strength, Neighbor and Self

October 29, 2017
I Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Last week, at the congregational retreat, we did activities that invited us to use our bodies, minds and spirits. We will soon get a few pictures on the website and FaceBook so you can see what it looks like when groups of people try to make images of God with their whole selves.

We also heard the texts from Leviticus and Deuteronomy that Jesus quotes in the gospel of Matthew. And, if you were there, you will remember the unforgettable way that Michelle taught the children to get the great commandment into their bodies, minds and spirits.  “Love God with all your heart” (thump, thump, thump thump on chest) “Love God with all your soul – or spirit.” (deep inhale and exhale) and “Love God with all your strength.” (make a muscle and say ‘huh.’) We did not get motions for how to remember to love our neighbors as ourselves. I trust that by the end of the sermon this morning, one of you will have that figured out and will share it during the response time.

Reading this passage from Matthew, in isolation from the rest of the chapter, it might seem like Jesus is answering a simple question posed by curious Pharisees. Judaism is all about the rabbis discussing questions. However, if we know how Jesus engages (and struggles) with the religious leaders, we might describe the scene as Jesus being asked a trick question by hostile Pharisees.

Commentator Dale Bruner says there is more. Remember how in Matthew, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he faces three temptations? Here at the end of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus faces three questions from the religious leaders that are threatened by this rabbi who expands boundaries and challenges their power.

First, the Pharisees ask about paying taxes to Caesar; of course Jesus does not fall into that trap. (Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.)

Next the Sadducees take a turn, formulating a convoluted question about resurrection and marriage in heaven; Jesus also sidesteps this conundrum. (There is no marriage in heaven, God is a God of the living.)

Then the Pharisees come back again with this question about the greatest commandment. How will Jesus choose the most important law out of the 613 laws that are taught? Jesus only cheats a little by choosing two. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.” It’s a variation on Deuteronomy 6. Jesus substitutes “mind” for “strength.” Is he making a subtle dig at the pharisees to use their minds in more loving ways? The second, from Leviticus 19 about loving neighbors, Jesus says is a partner to the first. How else do we love God but through loving our neighbors?

All this talk about loving God and neighbor when this sermon is really supposed to be another crack at “the sermon on the amount,” a way to help us think about what we have to give to this congregation. (My last try at this, I preached on “there is enough.” It was not quite what the trustees were expecting or hoping for.)

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;” and I couldn’t reason how the money we gave in the church offering basket got to God. “When I became an adult…” Now I understand what Teresa of Avila meant when she said “We are the hands and feet of Christ in the world.” Your pledges, your monetary gifts, are part of the way that we in this congregation become the hands and feet, the eyes and ears of Christ in the world. Part of loving God with our whole heart, and soul, and strength is sharing our money, sharing from our financial strength.

You all commit your heart (thump)and soul (breathe) and strength (huh) in many ways here at church. You make mac and cheese for community cafe, bake pies for the Ten Thousand Villages bake sale, lead adult ed sessions, teach children’s Sunday School, relate to the refugee and sanctuary groups, create worship arts. You are ushers, serve in the nursery, pray for each other and the world, sing in the requiem choir. The list goes on and on; it seems like there are more ways than ever to give of yourself in this congregation. And this month, culminating today, we are particularly interested in how you can give in the coming year of your financial strength. So get your pledges in.

While we are here, on financial strength, let’s remember that this building with its heat and kitchen and lights and piano, is also part of the way we are present as Christ in the world. When we rebuilt this building almost 5 years ago, we decided we wanted it to be used more by the community. That is happening.

We are now hosting a class of 12 women who are learning English – and how to bake – in our church basement twice a week. If you have been in the building on Thursday night or even on Friday, amazing smells linger in the air. When it comes time for the eating, Thursdays at noon, people from the community come to sample the breads, muffins, cookie bars. Representatives from the Hyattsville City offices, from a local Aging in Place group, and even some police officers were here for zucchini bread. You too are most welcome to come Thursdays at noon to share conversation and goodies from the student ovens.

One of the other ways the building is being used these days is as the practice site for the Washington Women’s Chorale. They (we – Mardi, Penny and I) will give a concert here tonight at 5pm. Come for the music, stay for the cookies.

If Jesus, in Matthew, encourages us to love with heart, (thump) soul (breathe) and strength (huh), today’s passage from I Thessalonians is an illustration of what it looks like to love your neighbor as yourself. We don’t exactly know what the situation was in Thessalonica; we are after all reading someone else’s mail. We only get one side of the story: Paul, Silvanus and Timothy’s heartfelt letter to the congregation in Thessalonica.

It sounds like Paul and his cohort had a very rough time in Philippi. They were “shamefully mistreated” and yet they want to come to Thessalonica, to share good news with the community there. Paul, Silvanus and Timothy treat the church at Thessalonica as they would want to be treated, taking a risk to reach out even after painful, dangerous, experiences elsewhere. They love their neighbors as themselves.

This coming Saturday is one day short of 12 years since Allegheny Conference voted to discipline our congregation for having LGBTQ members. On this near anniversary date, we will host the delegate body in our building, with good food, and warm fellowship. It should be noted that it is a very different gathering of delegates from 12 years ago. Of the nearly 30 congregations in 2005, there will probably be representatives from 9 or 10 churches next weekend.

Since we are to give thanks in everything, I will say that I am grateful for this text as a concrete reminder of what it means to love a group of people that reminds you of another group of people that treated you badly. As much as we often struggle with Paul, (or those who write under Paul’s name) it seems pretty clear here that he is trying hard to love the neighbor as he wants to be loved. He is giving of himself, even when it feels risky. He is calling the Thessalonians siblings in Christ, and he is, as he says, “as gentle as a nursing mother” with them. And Paul does not taking this risk alone. He walks and works and worships with Silvanus and Timothy; the salutation at the beginning of the letter says it is from all of them. Together they strive to love these neighbors as themselves.

This week I got in touch with some (residual) anger and pain surrounding our history with Allegheny Conference. It threw me for a loop, because the Allegheny Conference we relate to now is so friendly, so welcoming, so congenial and caring. At pastor gatherings we laugh and cry together, we pray with and for each other, we trust each other, we are genuinely concerned for each other and our congregations.

And yet, there is this hesitation in my soul. I wonder if it is like what Paul struggles with, trying so hard, in flowery language, to say how wonderful the Thessalonians are and he carries the woundedness of what happened in Philippi. And hard as it is, he remains committed to loving neighbors.

We often treat Paul as, or blame Paul for being, a lone ranger missionary but here it is clear that he has gathered companions for company and accountability. He doesn’t try to do this hard, risky work of loving neighbors alone. Brave heroes of the faith don’t just come out of nowhere. They almost always have a community behind them. Rosa Parks emerged out of an organized community action group. Mother Teresa was part of a religious community. Jesus, a Jewish rabbi from Nazareth, has his disciples.

Though some of the names have changed from twelve years ago, I am grateful that this community continues to be committed to loving God and neighbor, together. The church at Thessalonica has Paul, Timothy and Silvanus. The church at Hyattsville has Karrie, LeAnne, Keith, Larry, Brian, Anne, Meryt, Michelle, and me – we are delegates to Allegheny Conference where together we practice loving our conference neighbors. Since the delegates are coming here, even more of you have a chance to witness to the love we live out here in the congregation and help to share that with the delegates. Feel free to come to worship at 9:30 Saturday morning or come for lunch at noon.

Loving God and loving neighbor – it is honorable, gratifying, risky, good, hard work. (thump), (breathe), (huh). Let’s love God and love our neighbors – together.