30th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2020a

Old Testament - Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

New Testament - Matthew 22:34-46

 

Watchwords of the Faith

 

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my Soul to keep;

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my Soul to take.”

 

Well, it’s a familiar prayer, right? Especially when it comes to children as they prepare to go to bed at night. 

 

Stretching back to 1711, the first version of the prayer seems to have been written by a man named Joseph Addison, who was a writer, poet, and son of a minister in England. Addison’s original prayer? Well, it went as follows:

 

“When I lay me down to Sleep,

I recommend myself to his Care;

when I awake,

I give myself up to his Direction.”

 

While the original version of the prayer has been adapted and altered in assorted ways, the most familiar one these days, by far, is still that children’s version. 

 

Most folks think Addison’s original prayer as well as the popular version we know today are based on the closing verse from Psalm 4. Or as the Psalmist puts it at the end of the song: “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety.” 

 

Psalm 4, as you might imagine from just the last verse, is a psalm of confidence and trust. Even amidst uncertainty and difficulties, the author of the Psalm declares faith and trust in God.     

 

And so almost 310 years later, the prayer is still with us. Even now, all around the world, there are probably little children saying the prayer as they prepare to settle into beds for the night.        

 

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my Soul to keep;

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my Soul to take.”


 

ONE: Well, in Judaism there is also a prayer that children are known to say at night as they too prepare for bed. 

 

And it is that famous Shema from chapter 6 of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” 

 

Well, no wonder, given the command to recite the words when lying down, the prayer is one Jewish parents instruct their children to say at night before going to bed. 

 

The Shema, considered the most important prayer in Judaism, is also said in the mornings, in the evenings   after dusk, and during worship services. 

 

Considered a concise summary of the Jewish faith, the Shema is intended to remind people of the basics: first, that the one true God has entered into a covenant relationship with the Jewish people; and second, that the people are wise to honor the covenant agreement by loving God and seeking to keep its commands.  

 

And so the Shema, the Hebrew word for “hear,” is called the “watchword of the faith.” So important is the prayer, Jews even today will write the Shema on a piece of paper, place it in a container, and then affix it to the door post of their homes. There is also a tradition the Shema is supposed to be the last words uttered by a Jew upon death.

 

ONE: So when Jesus, a good Jew, is asked what command in the law is the greatest, it should hardly be surprising that he begins by quoting the Shema. 

 

“Teacher, what commandment in the law is the greatest?” ask the Pharisees. ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’ says Jesus, “This is the greatest and first commandment.”  

 

But notice, Jesus then tacks on a second command from the book of Leviticus: “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 

 

Jesus, of course, is simply making explicit what is implicit in the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. To love God, in other words, is to love what God loves, and to seek after God’s purposes for the world. And what does God love? Well, God loves people, right? All people.

 

And so for Jesus, to love one’s neighbor is the same thing as loving God. To do one, is to do the other.  

 

No wonder one scholar says the commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself” is better translated as “love your neighbor as your own.” Meaning, we should love all people as if they are kinfolk.

While we live in a world where love often gets divided along ethnic, racial, and various other lines, Jesus seems to be claiming we should love as if everybody is family regardless of their ethnicity, race, or other divisions we tend to get jazzed up about.

 

“In the Shema,” says one man, “we are actively to serve God with all our will power, our life, and every ounce of strength we can muster. According to Jesus, we do so by devoting ourselves in the same way to our neighbors.”

 

Love God, love neighbor. The watchwords of our faith. 

 

TWO: And what’s really amazing about such a summary of the faith, of course, is that Jesus politely and quietly refuses to add any other stipulations or requirements. 

 

Jesus sums up the faith by saying “Love God, Love neighbor” and then he oddly and, let’s be honest, a bit disturbingly just stops right there.

 

He doesn’t provide us with a list of assorted preconditions that must be met in order to kick-start our love into action. Likewise, he also fails to entice us with the idea that loving is worth doing because it will somehow lead to some grand heavenly payoff. 

 

Jesus doesn’t say, “Love God just as long as things are going your way and your life happens to be a bed of roses.” Nor does he say, “Love your neighbor just as long as he is a decent fellow.” 

 

There isn’t a litmus test when it comes to who we are to love, nor are there basic stipulations that must be met by others. We’re not charged to love our neighbor, just as long as he or she holds the same opinions we do, or as long as they live in a way we can approve of and endorse.   

 

And when it comes to things like race, nationality, social standing? Well, forget about it. Because there are no guidelines there either. Why we don’t even get to say the command for us to love stops with other Christians. Nope. Jesus just says, “Love.” In fact, he goes all the way to the other side. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says. “Love your enemies.”   

 

When trying to describe the kind of expansive and wide love that Jesus entrusts us to display, Anthony de Mello, a famous Jesuit Priest, once had these words to offer:

 

“Take a look at a rose,” writes de Mello. “Is it possible for a rose to say, ‘I shall offer my fragrance to good people and withhold it from bad?’ 

 

Or can you imagine a lamp that withholds its rays from a wicked person who seeks to walk in its light? It could only do that by ceasing to be a lamp.

 

And observe how helplessly and indiscriminately a tree gives its shade to everyone, good and bad, young and old, high and low; to animals and humans and every living creature – even to the one who seeks to cut it down.”  

 

Well, according to de Mello, such is the nature of love. It’s indiscriminate and lavish and extravagant, and yes, even gracious – gracious just like our Lord and Savior. And so were told to simply love. 

 

THREE: Years ago, the well-known Christian writer and thinker Philip Yancey spent two weeks in the winter holed-up in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado.

 

With heavy snow falling, he decided to just settle down and for 14 days he did nothing but read the Bible from cover-to-cover. 60 inches of snow fell during his binge reading of Scripture! 

 

But now here’s the thing; at the end of his intensive reading of the Bible, Yancey claims he was struck by, well, the humanness of God. Sure, the Bible gets used to make all kinds of grand theological proclamations about the nature and quality of God, but such declarations too often overshadow God’s more pastoral side.

 

In the Bible, God clearly delights in people and experiences joy, but God also grows frustrated and forlorn over them too. Or as Yancey puts it: “[I]f you read the Bible straight through, as I did, you cannot help being overwhelmed by the joy and the anguish - in short, the passion - of the Lord of the universe.” 

 

Yancey concluded, in other words, that the Bible isn’t primarily about truths or theological decrees, as important as those things are, but rather about a God who pines to be in relationship with humans, only to have us perpetually go chasing after other, lesser gods. 

 

The Bible, to put it another way, is a love story - a love story about unreturned love. In the pages of the Bible, God is constantly chasing after humans, only to have us turn and go the other direction at the first shiny object that catches our attention.

 

Or as Yancey concluded, “After two weeks of reading the entire Bible, I came away with the strong sense that God does not care so much about being analyzed. Mainly, [God] wants to be loved.”

 

CONCLUSION: Well, we all want to love God, right?

 

After all, long before we ever knew it, or could even respond, God was already loving us. So it’s fitting that we should want to return God’s freely given love.    

 

And while there are surely all kinds of ways to do that, there is one way that rises above all others. Want to love God? Well, then let us love our neighbor as our own.       

 

Now to the Ruler of all worlds, undying, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen