[Kara Slade] A Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
There were several sermons contributed to the festschrift for Dr. Hall, one of which was by me (Kara Slade). It was preached at Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC, and at Durham Resurrection Community on October 23, 2011.
When the Pharisees heard that he 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 neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
O Thou far off and here, whole and broken,
Who in necessity and in bounty wait,
Whose truth is light and dark, mute though spoken,
By thy wide grace show me thy narrow gate. Amen.
I’d like to begin this morning by letting you in on a secret. There is a lot of unhelpful scholarship that goes on at the intersection of faith and science. I say this as someone trying to get funding to do my own unhelpful scholarship on faith and science, so a little suspicion may be in order. A prime example of the current unhelpful trend is the scientific study of love, which is a hot topic right now. I’ll let one of the key researchers describe his love project: “Individuals who express loving actions consistently develop the kind of virtues that characterize what we call saints, sages, or mentors. We should imitate these individuals. Communities and societies that in varying ways support this love should be supported and replicated. In many and diverse ways, we must study how we might express love.”
And that right there is a helpful summary of everything wrong with the trends in my field. It is also a reminder of why we need to tread with caution with today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel.
There is a story about love that says the story doesn’t matter. We can define “love” as a merely human emotion, study it, and replicate it in the name of progress and social improvement. And there is a story about Christianity that says we can distill it down into a useful moral concept, one that fits on a bumper sticker and won’t frighten anyone off. Love your neighbor as yourself. Where ‘love’ is probably something like altruism plus a reluctance to do harm. But this is what one of the characters in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood called the Church of Christ Without Christ. And in the Church of Christ Without Christ, “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.”
Meanwhile, in our church, the second half of today’s text points us to the source of authority for the first half, and it starts us in the direction of Christian love in all its particularity and all its complications. At first, these verses seem like a riddle. The messiah is the son of David. But David calls him Lord, because the spirit tells him to. So whose son is he? And why on earth does the text launch into all that right after Jesus talks about love?
Matthew’s gospel begins with the genealogy showing Jesus as part of the house of David, tied to the history of Israel. But Jesus is the son of God, the Word made flesh. He is not a teacher of the Law, he is the fulfilling of the Law. He does not explain love. He is Love. And that is a shock and an offense – then and now. Jesus is an offense in his loftiness, an offense in his lowliness, and an offense to reason in his existence. The Sadducees and the Pharisees fall silent – from that day no one dared to ask him any more questions. And I do not dare ask any either. I am the one who is questioned, not the one who questions.
Have I loved my neighbor? I am tempted to say yes! I gave people rides to the airport, donated to Episcopal Relief and Development. I helped run a conference against torture. I’m usually nice. But the question comes again. Have I loved my neighbor? Have I loved the beloved ones closest to me? And . . . I remember. The casual cruelties and the petty betrayals, the little daily jealousies, the evaluations and comparisons of neighbors I said I loved. The Sadducees and the Pharisees are silenced, offended by this man who looks like any other man, but speaks as God. I am silenced, because I am known by him.
What is Christian love? Well, Soren Kierkegaard answers this question with “Love is the fulfilling of the Law.” Christ himself, in his person, is the particular standard for love. The definition of love won’t fit on a bumper sticker; the definition of Love hangs on a cross. In Christ we see God’s infinite love for us, and we see God’s longing for relationship with us. In the perfection of his work on the cross we see the imperfection of our fumbling attempts to love either our neighbor or God. And in his faithfulness, we see that Christian love and Christian life can never be reduced to a collection of good deeds. It all depends on God’s grace, on God’s mercy, on God’s promise. It all depends on trust, on loving God with all our heart and soul and mind.
But that can be tricky. It might be easy to believe an argument that God is all mighty and has the power to do everything. We might assent to the proposition that God is all wisdom and knows how to do everything. But to trust that God is all love and willing to do everything – there we stop. And we find that the more we try to think our way into faith or work our way into love, the more we just confuse ourselves. I know – I’ve tried it.
In my extensive experience as a nominal Episcopalian, I went to church, usually to critique the liturgy. I had two modes of prayer: perfunctory or terrified. I assented to the idea of God. I never could figure out the love part. Thankfully, I’m not the only one to have had this problem.
We find this story of Abba Lot in the writings of the Desert Fathers: “Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’”
One of our fellow Anglicans had a similar experience, in a way. As a student, he tried to will himself into holiness through relentless self-discipline. As a young priest, he struggled with his faith, got himself in trouble overseas, and returned to England without much sense of direction. But when it seemed he was destined for mediocrity, through the work of the Spirit, John Wesley became all flame.
Later on, he would say this in a sermon: “We must love God, before we can be holy at all. Now we cannot love God, till we know he loves us. And we cannot know his pardoning love to us, till his Spirit witnesses it to our spirit.” It may disappoint the love researchers, but no amount of study or rational analysis can explain a heart transformed by God. And no laboratory can produce and package a saint who is all flame.
God loves and forgives you and me in an implausible abundance of grace, in “streams of mercy never ceasing.” As fallen and fragile creatures, we are all liable to stray from our creator and doubt that love. But I can’t reason anyone into assurance of God’s love, and I can’t talk anyone into holiness. Neither can you. It is an intimate and mostly indescribable act of God that transforms us one by one, in our inward selves, in our hearts. It is this same act of God that sends us out on fire with a love that looks irresponsible, reckless, and naive to the world.
Do we dare invite the Holy Spirit to light us aflame ? Do we dare ask to be drawn ever closer to the Triune God who takes everything in order to give everything, who makes us as nothing? It is an intimidating prospect at any time; it’s terrifying in a culture of cynicism and uncertainty. But this isn’t the Church of Christ Without Christ, it’s just the church. And here, the lame do walk, the blind do see, and the dead do rise . . . even if it offends reason to hear of it. Even if we are the ones who are lame, blind, and dead. Do you dare? Do I?
 Wendell Berry, “To the Holy Spirit,” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, http://friartucksfleetingthoughts.blogspot.com/2009/02/to-holy-spirit-poem-by-wendell-berry.html.
 Randy Maddox, “A Change of Affections: The Development, Dynamics, and Dethronement of John Wesley’s ‘Heart Religion.’” http://divinity.duke.edu/sites/default/files/documents/faculty-maddox/03_Change_of_Affections.pdf