October 23, 2011 Aimee Bruno Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46 Psalm 1
1st Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
I almost wish it was Valentine’s Day, today, because we have here in the readings a series of love letters. We’ve got Paul’s love letter to the Thessalonians. Even though we didn’t read it, we’ve got in Leviticus God’s love letter to the Israelites showing them how to love each other. And in the Gospel, we have an invitation to pour out our heart to God and to our neighbor and to ourselves in love.
I remember being a kid at Valentine’s Day and having to fill out a valentine for every kid in class. Sometimes it was a stretch to think of something nice to say about every single person, but a good exercise to remember that each person had their good qualities. Of course my best friends always got the cuter valentines—there was a Valentine hierarchy, but everyone was included.
Paul is giving the best Valentine to the Thessalonians. He even complains a little about the Philippians there, although you wouldn’t know from reading his letter to the Philippians that there was a problem. It probably is not a good idea in your love letters to each other and loving interactions with each other to drag in some complaint about someone else. We call that triangulation. Nowadays we know that if someone comes to us like this, the proper thing to say is “Paul, maybe you want to talk to the Philippians about that.” Otherwise we end up participating in gossip and it never gets resolved.
Paul is speaking so tenderly to the Thessalonians. He cares so much for them that he wants to continue to share the Gospel with them and encourage them and feels they will be receptive. He is confident in their relationship. He urges them to share what they’ve learned with others and take that love to another level. He has given to them of his own self, just as Christ gave of himself, and expects them also to give of themselves to others.
He uses images of a wet nurse, a strikingly feminine image to show how deep his feelings go just like the deep bond between a mother and child, including the giving of one’s very body, a physical connection and sharing life. Maybe preaching about breast feeding might make some people squirm, but I sure have been reading a lot about it lately trying to prepare myself. It is the most amazing process in that the mother makes the exact nutrition that the baby needs from the early nutrient rich colostrum that gives an immunity boost, to a transitional milk, and then the more watery milk that is the right mixture of sugars and vitamins and fats to nourish the baby as it grows bigger. As the baby’s needs change, the mother’s milk production changes. Then there is the physical connection, the eye contact, the getting to know and trust each other, the mother being available when she’s needed and the baby having that security. All this creates such a strong bond and a good, healthy beginning to life until the baby can get its nutritional and physical needs met in a different way. Maybe we could look at that mother’s milk as a love letter to her child. Paul uses this image to show how he and the Thessalonians have a mutual relationship in which he provides what they need to start out in their ministry and how they will grow and develop and maybe even someday provide that healthy start for another new life that will grow and thrive and share the good news of God’s love.
Then we come to the Gospel. We are still in the section of Matthew after he’s cleared out the temple and made everyone really mad and they are still trying to catch him in a trap. He confronts their malice with a picture of love. They are being less than loving. They are trying to trick God. Their whole lives are based on selfishness and greed rather than loving their neighbor. Jesus is reminding them about love being at the center of it all. He says to love God with every part of their being. Jesus says we should love God with the entirety of the heart, without holding anything back, giving all attention and feeling to God. Jesus says we should love God spiritually, with all our soul, not holding anything back, giving all our spiritual life to God’s purpose. And he says we should love God with the entirety of our mind. Loving God and using our brains are not mutually exclusive.
But it can’t just be about loving God—it has to come through and be shown in the love of our neighbor, too, and in our love of ourselves. Love should be reflected in every area of our lives. It can be a feeling we have toward another, although we are to be loving regardless of how we feel. Love ought to be reflected in our actions toward ourselves and others. Love ought to be a key part of our spiritual lives, our physical lives, our work and our play. It is at the root of everything we do.
Sometimes the hardest thing can be to love ourselves. We are taught to give of ourselves, make sacrifices, disregard our own needs. But look how Jesus loved himself. He loved himself so that he never compromised who he was for others. He was self-assured and centered in love. He used his brain and his gifts and he didn’t hide any of that. He took breaks when he needed it, going to pray by himself and to rest. He took care of himself and even took time to go and be with family and go to parties and weddings. Those of us who would rather give, give, give and never care for ourselves, can’t find any backing in scripture to do that. I would encourage you to find that love to take care of your own needs and don’t put them off. When we’ve cared for ourselves, that equips us better to care for others. Who can know what it means to love a neighbor without knowing what it means to love ourselves, too?
So now to loving our neighbor: This can also have its own difficulties and pitfalls. It isn’t always clear what is the loving thing to do. In order to love someone, do you have to like them? What about tough love? Where do you draw the line with helping a friend or family member? Should you let people walk all over you and take advantage of you because of this commandment to love? We didn’t read from Leviticus this morning, but I’d like to encourage you to take it home and read it. It gives some hints about what is the loving thing to do. It talks about being fair and impartial. It reminds us not to speak ill of our neighbor or to lie or kill. It reminds us not to harbor hatred for others. It advises us to warn our neighbor in a loving way when they are causing problems. It reminds us to forgive and not to judge.
We miss part of the context here because we don’t live in that day and time, but I get to look this stuff up and tell you about it. Not being partial to the poor or deferring to the great means that we put everyone on equal ground. Justice means that we all start out the same with all the same resources, so it does mean feeding the poor and providing housing for the homeless and sheltering the widow and the orphan. It means equalizing us. It was a little like socialism.
The main thing Leviticus reminds us of is that we are not in charge, but that God is our LORD. God at the center means that love is at the center. We’re going to have to decide for ourselves how we live out this love. What love looks like from one day to the next may not be exactly the same thing. We learn through trial and error what loving really is. We never write the perfect love letter, but are always in the process of composing it and decorating it with glitter and lipstick kisses. But we don’t hold that letter back because it is imperfect. We keep on giving it and receiving them in return until God enfolds us in God’s most perfect love.