The Choice to Love

Today we hear Jesus proclaim the two greatest commandments.  After weeks of parables and intricate explanations, we finally get a simple, straightforward answer from Jesus, or so we think.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Upon these two commandments hang all the law and prophets.”  Now, I must confess when I first found out that this was my text, I was immediately intimidated.  Not only is this one of the most famous passages in the New Testament, but this parish prominently features part of it on the front of the building, “Love your neighbor, practice here.”   

When we think of love, the associations are endless.  Songs, poems, movies, books, the list goes on.  It seems that our world is obsessed with documenting and proclaiming love.  And yet, we know, despite the overwhelming cultural declarations that we love, love, this is not what our world exhibits.  I don’t have to tell you all the ways we have stolen, oppressed, killed, lied, been selfish, or even just quietly ignored our neighbors.  I don’t have to tell you we have failed to love our neighbors because it is, sadly, ever too visible.  Week after week, we enter into this sanctuary and offer prayers for peace, the end of gun violence and war, justice within this community and the world, and healing for those who may be experiencing all too closely the lack of love.  I am sure that each and every one of us has prayed a prayer for the world to be a more loving place within the walls of this building.  It’s not so simple anymore.  The straightforward answer has led us into the complex dynamics of love.  We are faced with the fact that loving our neighbors and God is hard sometimes.  So, how, then, do we follow these commandments?

Well, I think the St. Mark’s slogan has it right.  “Love your neighbor, practice here.”  Practice.  For many of us, this word, practice, gets associated with a particular skill.  To musicians, anyone who has ever played a sport or participated in a play, hearing this word might immediately provoke a sigh of frustration.  Practice is hard, and often we practice so much only to realize that our practice was not enough and we must go back and start over again.  But in this case, it is not loving perfectly that Jesus calls us to practice; Jesus calls us to practice the choice we make when we are put to the test.  We may not always love perfectly, but we can choose to love in the best way that we can with the assurance that the One who does love perfectly is working through us.  

In the beginning, God chose to love this world into being.  God chose not to destroy it with any more floods.  God chose to love people out of persecution.  God chose to love the Son into being so that God might experience deeper relationship with the children God so loves.  God chose to love us so much to sacrifice this Son for our sins and send the Holy Spirit among us as a promise of presence always.  Over and over again, God chooses love.  And just as God chooses love, so we have a choice to love, but it takes practice.  

Two weeks ago, Michele spoke about agency when it comes to baptism.  We actively choose to enter into relationship with God through our baptism.  Whether baptism happens as children or later in life, at some point, we ourselves have to choose to enter this covenant.  In doing this, we choose to enter a community of others who have also made this choice.  Similarly, the community chooses to uphold us and support us in our life in Christ.  Already, we have chosen love.  We have already chosen a love that unifies us, and we become expressions of this love.  But then things get complicated.  Life in community is messy, relationships are messy, we make poor choices, and lash out at one another.  Even in this text about love, Jesus is being tested.  And after the series of tests he’s been through in the last few readings, I don’t think anyone would blame him for lashing out at this lawyer.  But even here, Jesus practices making a choice to love. 

Thankfully, our life in community also calls us to practice this choice to love.  Our agency doesn’t stop with our choice to become members of the Body of Christ.  Each week we call each other together to practice our agency to choose love.  Together, we choose to come around this table and participate in a remembrance of Jesus’ life and death, reminding us of the love that we have been given and that to which we have committed through our baptism.  We hold each other accountable, confessing that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves; we repent and choose to promise to do better in the week to come.  We even call each other, through stewardship, to examine how and where we use our financial resources to practice this love and maintain a place to practice.  We practice choosing to recognize the presence of Christ in every person who enters these doors.  Finally, we are sent into the world to continue our practice.  To love and serve with the assurance of a community that sustains us and a God who loves us even when we fail to choose love. 

What we practice here in this place, around this table, with the people we invite into this space, matters.  This practice of choosing love informs the choices we make out in the world.  We don’t just get to stay in this place.  When we are dismissed, we are called to bring the peace and love found here back into the world.  We have an effect, whether through outreach programs, fellowship opportunities, or in our own personal lives.  We can proclaim this love.  And the most amazing thing is that when we choose love in real-time, we stand in communion with the prophets, upon whom these commandments hang.  We stand in communion with those who have proclaimed, “I believe there is another way.”  “I believe there is another way than violence, than hunger, than pain, than oppression.”  We stand in this communion of saints who are participating in creating God’s Kingdom here on earth.  Each week we pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” and when we really mean it and love our way into the rest of the world, we claim a place in this story.  The old adage says, “Practice makes perfect.”  Perhaps we reframe this: making the choice to practice loving over and over again makes a more perfect world.  A more exemplary vision of God’s love here on earth.  

We all know well enough that loving our neighbors and our God is hard.  Right now, we are literally loving our neighbors in the face of war and the news of another mass shooting.  And so, when we grow weary, when we fail, when we need refreshment, let us remember that this is where we find our source of solace, strength, pardon, and renewal.  Let us remember that this community upholds us on our baptismal journey.  And let us remember that this is where we can practice our part in loving a new world into being.