Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 25 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

“We must love one another or die.“

That’s a line from a poem by W.H. Auden. It’s a poem he almost immediately repudiated, for reasons I’ll talk about later, but that line retains a powerful grip on the imagination, the ring of a kind of fearful truth, that same fearful truth we see in the great commandment in today’s Gospel.

The first and great commandment is absolute; we are to love God with everything in us, heart and mind, our breath and the root of our being. All other loyalties are emptied out; no other allegiance may hold us, all this world’s powers and authorities, all the idols, all the golden calves, must fall. And then — “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,“ says Jesus. And this too is a command with no exemptions, no qualifications. This is the shape our absolute loyalty must take in this world. And it is stringent.

Jesus does not say that we must love our neighbours as long as they also love us. He does not say that we must love our neighbours as long as they maintain some kind of basic standard of human decency. He doesn’t even say that we must love our neighbours as long as they are not trying to kill us – and by this time in the gospel narrative, some of his neighbours are quite actively trying to kill him. We must love. We must love among the hate and the injustice, among the ruins, we must love those who do nothing to earn love. In pain, in fear, in grief, in terror and illness, we are called to reject the dark responses of the instinctual brain, and make that unnatural, essential turn towards love. Somehow, we must love them all. All the ideologues, all the terrorists, all the CEOs demanding the sacrifice of lives for economics, all the politicians taking advantage of tragedy, all the people on the internet spewing nonsense and hatred. We must love them all. We must desire their healing. We must pray for them too.

One of the ways in which we go wrong, in thinking about love, is the conflation of love with warm and affectionate feelings. It’s true of some kinds of love; but not the kind of love Jesus is talking about here. Loving God is not about being generally well-disposed towards God, or having a nice fuzzy feeling when you think about God. It is about dedicating your life to the work of God, becoming part of the life of God, which may not feel good much of the time at all. And loving your neighbour doesn’t mean liking your neighbour, or agreeing with your neighbour, or letting your neighbour go on oppressing others. Love does not allow us to dodge any of the hard questions about how to deal with hate – and they are hard questions, to which, sometimes, there are no good answers, and we can only choose between bad and slightly less bad. But it means that we must choose based on a desire for the good of all our neighbours, for healing, the possibility of life, for everyone involved, to the very greatest extent that we can – and accepting the vulnerability that comes with this. It means refusing to let ourselves act out of irrational fear or wounded honour, seeking the mirage of perfect safety or buying into the distorting wish for revenge.

To do this, to live this way, to base our choices upon this stringent love, is not easy, and it is not without cost. It is not a solution, it will not make violence go away. The primary reason that Auden refused to let that line of poetry be published for years is that it is, in a strict sense, untrue. We must love one another, yes – but we will all die anyway. Love is not a cure for mortality. Love is not a magic trick. And yet that line continues to grip us with a sense that it is true, truer than the simple sense of the words. We will all die, there is no doubt of that. But there is more than one way to die. When we do die, soon or late, our faith tells us that it makes a difference if we are able to die into love.

Love of God and love of neighbour are not only about moments of crisis. They are daily; they are built into every choice we make in our small days, about food and money and speech and gesture. The great commandent is about loving the unlikeable person at work or on the street, loving the mean, the greedy, the boring and demanding – for we are all of these.

And sometimes hardest of all, about loving those we love. It is not easy to love accurately those who are closest to us, to love them as the fragile creatures they really are, rather than our own projections of who they might be or should be; to do the precise work of discerning what it means, in a given moment, to address what the person next to us truly requires, rather than getting lost in what we want from them, in what we want them to want from us. There is a terrifying vulnerability in all this, a requirement to be open to the other person, to put ourselves at risk, to be made by and bound to the other, to that which is not the self; it is a kind of death, sometimes, but a death into a richer, more complex, interdependent life.

It doesn’t mean, to address an accusation sometimes made against inclusive Christianity, that everything everyone does is okay all the time. Part of loving God and loving our neighbour is calling out those actions which offend against love, love accurately understood, calling out those actions which cause harm, actions which diminish life, and putting ourselves wherever we need to be to stop those actions. It means doing so, where possible, before situations reach the point where there are no good answers left, pre-empting harm when we can. And it is about recognizing those impulses in ourselves, too, about detaching ourselves from the competitive, grasping, survival-oriented reptile brain; about a careful self-examination which separates that facade of love which causes harm from the real love to which we are called. Love is demanding, and not always nice, and hardly ever easy. And to take these two commandments as the single overriding guideline means a lot of discernment, a lot of thinking and a lot of prayer, for what it means to love God and love your neighbour in a particular moment is not always obvious, and we are responsible ourselves for working those choices out.

But we are not responsible all on our own. We are not capable, all on our own. We are not asked to be.

The story of the death of Moses, in today’s first reading, has a number of odd features. Among them is the fact that Moses is described as dying alone in an unknown location; but also as being buried. Out of this contradition arose the rather touching rabbinical story that, in fact, God buried the body of Moses personally. It is an expression of the same kind of intimacy we see in the incarnation. God, the unspeakable I AM, loves the world enough to have hands and to dig in the dirt, loves us enough to be with us in care and humility, now and at the hour of our death. And so we are cared for, in the work of God. Many of us have lost people in recent weeks. Some of us have lost people who died isolated and alone; and yet, they were not alone, never truly alone. It is still a frightening world and frightened world, but our safety is absolute in this. We must love one another, and die in any case, and we may die without entering our promised land, but we never die alone.

So go, as William Blake says, and love without the help of anything on earth. Love in the dark times and the dangers. But go always with the presence, the life, the loving hands of God.