We so often approach the commandment to love God and love your neighbor as labor, leading to exhaustion or despair. But it becomes easier when we remember the crucial insight of the Reformation and mystics: that it’s actually about God’s love for us!
Vicar Lauren Mildahl
Reformation Sunday, Lect. 30 A
Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, Psalm 1, Matthew 22:34-46
God’s beloved, grace to you and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We hear this morning “the greatest commandment” – the very center of Jesus’ teaching.
And it’s pretty simple. Love God and love your neighbor. That’s it.
This wasn’t some secret that Jesus revealed. The two parts of this commandment are both pulled straight from the Torah, God’s gift to the children of Israel, which we often call the law. It’s what God had been saying all along. “Love me and love each other.”
And I really do believe that it is a gift. And that if I could just do that, just really get good at loving God and loving my neighbor, my life would be better. I could be so happy, like it says in Psalm 1. I could be like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing the most beautiful fruit in due season.
And I feel like I should be able to do it.
I feel like I should be able to love the Lord my God with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my mind and to love my neighbor as myself. But then, I start to think about actually doing it and all of a sudden, my anxiety ratchets up, because that’s a lot! My brain immediately goes into problem solving mode and I think maybe if I break it up, try just one of the pieces at first. Maybe if I just focus on the easier one to start with, that might help! Okay, Well. Which one is easier?
Is it easier to love God who sometimes feels so far away? Or is it easier to love my neighbor, who, you know, a lot of the time feels way too close?
Either way, it’s not so easy.
Either way, it feels pretty hard. A labor of love with an emphasis on the labor. It feels like work.
It’s hard work to love a God whose sheer vastness I can’t hope to comprehend! Hard work to love my neighbors who are so small and petty (and so am I).
And I start to wonder, how can I possibly love God with my entire self, my heart, my emotions, my center… With my soul, my being, my identity… With my mind, my intellect, my understanding? And how can I do it when I’m afraid that if I really did love with all of that, with all of me, there wouldn’t be any left of anything else?
And how can I hope to love my neighbor as myself, when I have such a hard time loving, or even liking, myself?
It’s exhausting! And so easy to despair. And that’s the bad news.
Not the commandment itself, that is a gift, but the way I tend to approach it as a checklist. How I experience it as a burden, as labor. The way I obsess over all the ways I think it’s too hard, impossible even. The way I let the tree from the psalm be withered, instead of watered.
But here’s where the good news comes in.
It’s hiding in plain sight, in the very verse from Leviticus that Jesus quotes, although he stops before he gets there. But in the Torah, it says: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” I am the Lord.
So often, we don’t say the last few words of this verse, focusing so much on the imperative (you shall love), that we miss the declarative: “I am the Lord.” But these words ought to resound, like a bell, calling us back to the Great I Am, the source of all life and all love.
It’s about God! This is the good news! It’s not about how hard we work, how much we labor to love. It’s not about all the shoulds and should nots or our insecurities over whether we are loving enough or the right way. This little refrain (“I am the LORD”) is our reminder that it’s actually and always about what God did and does. How God has loved and will love and always loves.
The same good news that the writer of I John captured so eloquently and succinctly: “this is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us.”
And it’s the same thing Martin Luther was trying to tell everyone.
The reformers of 16th Century Germany that we celebrate today recognized how easy it is to get caught up in the fear and the anxiety of doing the labor of love. And how toxic and depleting that approach is and how often it leads to despair. Their remedy was to insist that it isn’t about us doing work, isn’t about us doing anything – it’s all about God. Because God saves, we are saved. Because God is faithful, we can have faith. Because God loves, we can love.
The crucial realization, or maybe we should say recentering, of the Lutheran Reformation wasn’t earth-shattering because it was a new insight. It was earth-shattering because God’s love is earth-shattering.
After all, many people throughout time, the medieval mystics in particular, have experienced the earth-shattering love God has for us. Often in evocative and sometimes frankly erotic terms, they have written about how God loves us with God’s whole heart, soul, and mind.
I want to stay on that image for a moment.
To take a cue from the mystic imagination, and play with the idea of how intensely and passionately God loves you. Let’s imagine God’s heart –whatever that might be – that it aches. I imagine God’s heart aches for you, composing love letters and poetry for you, sending you messages of every kind, hoping someday you’ll respond.
I imagine God’s soul – God’s very being – warming at the thought of you, itching to embrace you, leaning with longing toward you.
I imagine God’s mind – and God is head over heels in love, utterly fascinated and mesmerized by you, hanging on to every word you say.
That’s the kind of love that kindles reformation. On the scale of Christendom – and also deep in each person, deep in me, and deep in you.
Because when you accept God’s outrageous love for you, it changes the way you hear this commandment.
It’s not an order to try harder, piling up greater and greater labors of love. It’s an invitation to relax, relax into God’s love, like sinking into a warm bath. Not just around you but inside you too. The love of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit dwells in you and wells up in you, warming you from the inside and spilling over to others.
God’s love around us and within us frees us and transforms us. That’s what allows us to love as God loves, in a way that is abundant and abiding, and a tiny bit absurd. Because when we are snuggled in the warm, fuzzy blanket of God’s love, we experience the commandment like Luther did, who said that “the heart draws joy from the commandment and warms itself in God’s love to the point of melting.”1
Melted in the furnace of God’s love, suddenly it isn’t labor any more.
Suddenly it is an exquisite joy to love God back, heart for heart and soul for soul and mind for mind, a perfect dance of desire and longing. Suddenly it’s easier to love ourselves, to turn down the volume of our anxieties and fears and self-consciousness because we are too busy blushing at God’s tenderness toward us. Suddenly it’s a delight to love our neighbors – because we know God is absolutely crazy about them as well.
This is reformation. And it’s on-going and it’s happening in you. Every time you remember how utterly and completely God loves you. Every time you are reminded that this commandment isn’t a to-do list, it’s a love letter. Then your heart, and soul, and mind are re-formed, made new, every day by God’s love.
So, relax. And be loved into love.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
1. Martin Luther, “The Third Commandment,” Treatise on Good Works, 1520.