Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost. 25 October 2020. Love with everything.
“Have I told you lately that I love you?”
Do you like your apples completely perfect? Do you mind a few blemishes and marks on the skin, some signs that they may be less than perfection? Tonnes and tonnes of food goes to waste each year because supermarkets project a picture of the product they sell which means that anything blemished tends to be rejected. It is a bizarre approach, particularly because it can be argued that the less than perfect looking fruit can actually be tastier!
What about people? Do you mind having people in your life who are less than perfect? I don’t just mean outward appearances. Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder. I mean other levels of imperfection. Are we happy being around people who are flawed and we know it?
In today’s gospel reading we read from Matthew 22:36-39 where Jesus was asked: “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 neighbour as yourself.””
Love is a strange thing. As a word we use that to describe our response or attention to many different people as well as things in our lives. We may say that we love a meal that we have eaten. Surely what we mean then is that we appreciate some pleasure that it has given us. The same for loving a movie or a sunset or something else which has given us positive vibes.
When it comes to people we may use love in a similar way, we may use love as a description of satisfaction for something we have received. But, particularly as a descriptor of relationships, that is rather shallow. Perhaps we should use a different word for what is going on there.
Does love require perfection? I asked first about our approach to imperfection, including having people in our lives who are imperfect. What about loving them? We may accept having people around who are imperfect but can we love them?
That steps us back to ask what we mean by love. We know that there are many words in Greek for love. In that passage from Matthew’s gospel the word used is ‘agape’, the highest, selfless, unconditional love which is focussed on wanting the one who is loved to thrive and be blessed. Love in its best form has nothing to do with the object or person being perfect. It is about a desire for the one being loved to thrive and be blessed, for light to shine.
So, applying that to the three foci of attention which Jesus draws, is it ok for any or all of those to be imperfect and for us still to love? We know that Jesus was drawing on the heart of the relationship between God and God’s people in this statement. Interestingly Jesus misses out on the first part of that declaration as it was usually stated. The statement of the heart of the connection between God and humanity usually began with ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (Deuteronomy 6:4). Then the words quoted by Jesus followed.
Jesus quoted those words from way back in the story of the connection between humanity and God with the call to love God with everything we have, every part of our being, heart, soul and mind. In our emotional engagement, in our thinking and reasoning, in our eternal essence, to love God. That is the invitation. That is the call.
The question I want to explore, though, is whether or not that love we have for God depends on us thinking God is absolutely perfect. Do we have to agree with everything that God is reported to have said and done before we love God? Do we have to understand and find reasonable everything that we are told of God before we love God? Does our loving God depend on God conforming to our view of how the world and life and relationships and existence should be?
When we look around us into the world beyond the Church it is often said that a reason for rejecting God, as found in our Scriptures and in the Church, is that God appears to be less than perfect, depicted as acting in ways which some people find offensive. God, to many people, seems unlovable because of those perceived imperfections.
We don’t have to defend God as perfect though. What offends some people may well be what others celebrate. Also, as we explore all the time, the way that the Bible has come to us is filtered through diverse situations, contexts, cultures, personalities and imperfections of many people across thousands of years. To understand what we find here requires discernment, an appreciation of literary genres and a delight in mystery.
The bit that Jesus missed out of the ancient statement from Deuteronomy is actually ‘Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one’. The ‘name’ Yahweh comes from the encounter Moses had with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3), where God essentially said to Moses ‘I AM’ – live with it.
The question, though, is, whether loving God, wanting light to shine in that connection we have with God, depends on everything we know or think or have heard or understand about God to be perfect. I hope not. Because if we demand perfection in that connection as a precondition for loving then we set ourselves up to fail in every relationship in our lives.
What we do, how we approach, the most important relationship in our lives flows into other relationships as well. Jesus had three ways in which he focussed our attention. The first was towards God. The second as towards our neighbours. In Luke’s Gospel, chapter 10, when this declaration was made, the inquirer pushed Jesus to define who the neighbour was who we are called to love. Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
We all know that parable and that connection which Jesus made. Is that what we live though? In practice it is a call we still need to hear. When we divide people according to race or gender or sexuality or language or background or age or ability or past mistakes then we are letting perceived imperfections cloud our loving. Loving is wanting the one who is loved to thrive and be blessed, to let light shine in them.
A meme which floats around Facebook in various forms has Jesus saying to the gathered crowd “Love your neighbour.” A voice from the crowd responds “But what about if they are gay, or Muslim, or …” and lots of possible excuses get added. Jesus simply says. “Let’s start that again – Love your neighbour.” Loving does not depend on the imperfections we may perceive or project onto our neighbours. We are simply called to want our neighbours to thrive and be blessed, to let light shine in them.
There was a third focus though, a third direction in which Jesus called us to pay attention with love. That is towards ourselves.
The way we treat imperfections when we look at what we see about God and what we see in our neighbours flows on also into ourselves. Some people may seem to be so full of themselves that they seem to have no doubts. There is that satirical country song “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way … I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ‘cause I get better lookin’ each day …”.
Do you love yourself? Do you love yourself warts and all, imperfections and all, not despite of but WITH everything that you see clearly about yourself? Are you able to look honestly into that mirror and love yourself, to love yourself in the way that I have been suggesting, in that ‘agape’ love, to want the self who you see to thrive and be blessed, to let light shine in you?
I hope so. Because loving yourself is an important point in letting that pattern of love ripple outwards again. If you can look at yourself and want yourself to thrive and be blessed, to let light shine, then you will be paying attention to what will build yourself up. Opening our eyes to ourselves with compassion and honesty and grace opens our eyes to our neighbours to see them with compassion and honesty and grace and opens our eyes even towards God with compassion and honesty and grace, seeking light, letting love be real.
Ponder these things. Then look in the mirror, look at each other, look out at your neighbours, look towards God, and sing … “Have I told you lately that I love you?”
Amen. Paul Mitchell.