Matthew 22: 34 – 40
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 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.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Earlier this year, it was named the readers’ choice best new attraction nationwide by USA Today. In a recent travel feature, National Geographic featured it as one of 12 ‘mind-bending playgrounds’ around the world. But for Tulsans, the Gathering Place is one of our new favorite places to hang out. For a preacher, it’s a great place to wander around and collect some thoughts, sit and people-watch, and maybe even curl up and write.
(Now, this preacher learned from another preacher that it’s probably wise to, you know, avoid the Slide Vale. So the Boathouse rocking chairs, a short walk, and the big soft seats on the dock of Peggy’s Pond, made for a great Friday afternoon.)
In just a couple of hours, I heard at least four languages spoken, saw humanity of countless colors of ‘flesh tone’, and several varieties of national and religious dress. From pretty brand new infants to octogenarians and more. Some folks were clearly there for the first time, including one woman who was walking around showing the park to someone else, and both of them exclaiming at its wideness and beauty – all via FaceTime call.
There was a group of kids who were very obviously not first-timers, nor did they care to wait for the parents who had the nerve to stroll, and to have conversations. Strollers, wheelchairs, running, walking, holding hands, weaving through crowds.
I watched the watercraft for a while. It was right in the sightline, and part of why I chose that corner perch. But there were people everywhere: at the boathouse and the bridge, in the lodge and the loungechairs, waiting for coffee and ice cream, unloading blankets and bags to stay for a while, and showing up in business clothes to meet a colleague or take a walk after work. There were folks like me, hanging out solo, and there was what appeared to be one family of about a dozen or so, divvied up into kayaks and canoes and paddleboats.
As I was heading up the stairs, this group, all obviously together, were heading down. I heard a girl’s voice say ‘Um. I don’t think this is a good idea, really. I don’t think I should be in a boat.’ Next thing I know, I see them! I assume dad with daughters, probably 8 and 10 or so, both with bright red hair. Dad at the back, paddle in hand; daughter at the front, also ready to paddle. Daughter in the middle? She had made it her job to wave and shout to the rest of the family who gathered on the bridge to wave and shout back as they passed … and then ran to the other side of the bridge to see them emerge. So, maybe she should be in a boat after all.
Just behind them, three boys – brothers? cousins? friends? – set out at a good clip. Apparently you can train for a race on this little stretch of enclosed channel. Or so it seemed. What you evidently cannot prepare for is getting that sucker back into the slip when you return … watching them heading back for the dock, not drifting in so as to control the turn, but comin’ in hot like they were being pursued by the Coast Guard, bang straight into the side, and then have to shimmy and scoot to get the thing angled and into the return channel was absolutely as hilarious as you’d think. They, however, weren’t laughing. I mean, they weren’t mad or anything. They were sort of … unphased. Apparently when you’re 14, that’s … how you park a canoe. What do I know.
Later, from a seat nearer the water, at the other end of the canoe/kayak/paddleboat zone, I watched two boys figure out that it works better if you’re both getting your paddle into the water at the same time. There was some clacking of crossed oars, and then some counting (1 … 2 … ) and then some progress! Another couple had either worked out a deal in advance or just had a natural rhythm in their division of labor … as they first passed, he was in back, keeping a nice steady row while she took pictures from the front of the boat. By the time they’d circled back around, she was rowing at the front, and he was, I kid you not, lounged all the way down, hands behind his head, a man of leisure.
And all the while, in the background are conversations. And laughter. And people walking by. And sounds of Mist Mountain water cannons pumping, and the percussion garden ringing out.
So why all this waxing idyllic about a multi-million-dollar, hundred-acre city park? It’s caused its share of grousing in the community, to be sure. And there are things to keep in mind about the land it’s built on – as there is for all of Tulsa, if we’re honest. I’m aware of all of that, and not so naïve as to ignore it.
At the same time, here’s what I’ve seen, the half-dozen or so times that I’ve been there in the last year: The best thing about the Gathering Place, the thing I love the most, is that it IS what it SAYS it is: it IS a gathering place.
And since part of the preacher’s task is to name the sacred in the ordinary, to point up the places where what we say we believe becomes what we’re actually called to do, here’s my question
What does it look like when the church … no, not when the church looks like The Gathering Place … but when the CHURCH is what it says it is. And if WE are the church, together … Well then:
Church, right here, on this first stop in this inBEtween sermon series, what would it look like if we said that when you come here, to Harvard Avenue, where we say our first core value is Be Loved … what does it look like when that really is the case? That the first thing that happens here is that you. are. loved.
What does it look like to be who we say we are?
In these few short verses we’ve heard today – included in various forms in Matthew, Mark, AND Luke – we get Jesus, answering what’s set out as a trick question, with the least tricky response he could give: He gives them an answer they already knew.
Here’s something that is entirely obvious when you look at it, but which I couldn’t have tied up this neatly until I saw it in my reading this week:
Earlier in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus’s words are recorded in a series of teachings and instructions … the audience is the disciples, the crowds, those who’ve gathered.
Here, in these later chapters though, in this last week in Jerusalem, Jesus is teaching and instructing in answer to questions and challenges from those who would test him, to try to trip him up and bring him down.
So here they are, crafting what could be a real mind-bender. Knowing that all 613 points of ‘the law’ are held sacred, as a whole, in Jewish understanding, the question came: Which commandment in the law is the greatest? Do you answer, ‘Well, all of them!’ and leave the faithful without a priority, a place to begin measuring faithfulness? Or do you say, ‘This one is most important.’, and leave it wide open to ignore the other ‘less important’ ones? A-ha! Gotcha Jesus!
But, you’ll not be surprised to know, Jesus is no fool.
He recites the Shema. Found in Deuteronomy, one of the books of law, of Torah, the word shema means ‘hear’ or ‘listen’. It is the verse from the Torah that every Jew would have known first, and best: Shema, Yisrael. / Hear O Israel. The Lord Your God is one. Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Recited by every faithful Jew of every age, to begin and to close every day, this is the verse, the commandment, that Jesus names as the greatest.
And then he says another is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
And then he says that every other law, every other word from any prophet, is rooted there.
So, after that nice story about a day at the Gathering Place, and this clear instruction from Jesus about what’s most important: Why isn’t that the end of the sermon? Why is there more?
Well, Church … for that is who and what we are, right? … it would seem there’s something we’re missing. We are to love God, love our neighbors, love ourselves. Everything else flows from there.
How do we love God? We come to church, you say. We are the church, the preacher says. As a nine-year-old in my life has recently started to thoughtfully intone, with just the right tilt of her head: “True.”
Jesus says the greatest commandment is that we are to love God, in all the ways we can, to the absolute core of who we are. In the shema, this is with heart, soul, and strength. In Matthew’s telling, Jesus changes it to heart, soul, and mind. (In other versions, all four words are in there at once.) Whatever three, or four, words are there, the meaning is the same: All that we are comes from God, and all we are should be turned to God, turned into love.
Maybe what we’re missing is attention. Paying attention. When we come to worship, we may think we’re sitting and absorbing, but think about this … In various combinations, depending on the elements of worship and the capacities of the individual, all of who you are is eventually involved:
You come in and go out. You stand up and sit down. You talk and listen. You sing and hear others sing and play. You read and are read to. We pray together and you are prayed for. You see images, art, architecture, surroundings, other people. You come forward to take – to taste – bread and cup, or hold a tray to serve someone else. You add to a collection of prayers, tithes, and offerings.
And none of that even includes holding a door open, saying hello, pouring coffee, shaking a hand, studying a scripture, listening to a Sunday School teacher, asking a question, teaching a child, making a phone call, visiting a hospital, preparing a meal. Loving God with all we are. Maybe what we’ve let slide is that when we say at Harvard Avenue, when we say you will Be Loved, we mean that we will be here to do it. We will come to worship. We will be here. Not just in the room, but in the moment. We will not just attend worship, but attend to it.
Then Jesus immediately turns to say the 2nd is ‘like’ the first: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. ‘LIKE’ means that it is of equal importance and inseparable from the first. … One cannot first love God and then, as a second task, love one’s neighbor. To love God is to love one’s neighbor, and vice versa.
It is, as one of my colleagues pointed out this week in our bible study, really rude how scripture we know so well comes back around to get us at the most inconvenient times.
Here we are, in the midst of a ridiculously aggressive and divisive moment in social history, studying a text that says clearly and unequivocally that we are to love our neighbor. It does not say that we are to love those we like. Who agree with us politically. Who practice our religion, or practice it our way. Who express themselves in wardrobe or in sexuality or in relationship only in ways we’re comfortable with. Jesus does not say that we are to love those who have been fully vetted and screened and checked and approved and social media tested.
No. The second commandment, which is like the first – the second commandment, which is inseparable from the first one – is to just love our neighbor. That is soooo harrrd. It gets every single one of us, doesn’t it? Every one of us.
As writer, professor, and speaker Sarah Dylan Breuer has said,
In the first-century Mediterranean world, “love” was not a vague warm feeling toward someone, but a pattern of action — attachment to a person backed up with behavior. …
Despite the frequency with which people turn to Jesus to find out to whom they’re NOT obligated, which people under which circumstances are out of the reach of God’s love and therefore are beyond the call of God’s people to ministry, Jesus’ call will compel each one of his followers to take the fullest extent of God’s love to the furthest reach of that love, to every person whom God made.
Though she’s been on the music scene for nearly a decade, in the last couple of years, the singer, rapper, classically trained flute player, and actress Lizzo has become a force to be reckoned with. As a plus-sized black woman in a society, and an industry, that is often incredibly hard on someone in any of those three groups, Lizzo sees her art, and her message of self-acceptance, body positivity, and empowerment deeply intertwined. (Preacher’s Note: Not all of her lyrics are family- or work-safe.)
I recently saw a quote from Lizzo that speaks right into the third part that we’re sometimes missing: what it means to love yourself.
I don’t think that loving yourself is a choice. I think that it’s a decision that has to be made for survival; it was in my case. Loving myself was the result of answering two things: Do you want to live? ‘cause this is who you’re gonna be for the rest of your life. Or are you gonna just have a life of emptiness, self-hatred and self-loathing? And I chose to live, so I had to accept myself.
For Jesus to say Love your neighbor as you love yourself is to assume that we love ourselves. That we would not say things to or about ourselves that we would not allow another to say to or about someone we love. That we understand that when we say ‘For God so loved the world…’ that not only means everyone else – which it does mean, every. one. else. – but it also means US. And not that God us loves us MORE, but that God loves us ALL. And so we love ourselves.
We love God. We love our neighbor. As we love ourselves.
And, as Jesus says, everything else flows from there.
It is probably both the easiest and the hardest of the commandments, and of our Harvard Avenue core values: Be Loved.
Without knowing she was doing so, my Buddhist friend Kellie, an educator and writer who has been my teacher every day of the decades that she’s been my friend, wrote my entire sermon in two sentences the other day. (Two sentences?! Why didn’t we just skip to this part earlier?! Well, here you go: )
I work with words, so I think what we say matters. Still, it’s how we live, who we include, and what we do that tells the truth.
Well. Be loved, Church. Amen.
 Leander Keck, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Matthew (1995), p425.
 Sarah Dylan Breuer, 10-19-2015, https://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/10/proper_25_year_.html
 Lizzo, ‘Self Care Has to be rooted in self preservation’