Text: Matthew 10:40-42
Liturgist Texts: Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23
Purpose: the purpose of this message is to embrace social responsibility in our love for God and neighbor.
“What is the greatest commandment?” a seeker once asked Jesus.
“Love God with all your heart, soul and strength,” Jesus replied, “and the second is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two hang all the laws and commandments.”
Loving God, loving people—that’s the essence of a purpose-driven church and a God-given life. But what does that look like in the day to day? And how do we reconcile the two when they seem to compete with one another?
We might question how ‘loving God and loving people’ could ever be in competition, but more often than we admit, that is a source of conflict. “Is it lawful to heal someone on the Sabbath?” religious gate-keepers quiz, and Jesus repeatedly answers by healing the person in need. “Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath,” Jesus counters. But their question to Jesus runs deeper than the obvious. It isn’t simply a question of mercy; it is a question of allegiance. We love God by honoring Sabbath and keeping it holy—isn’t it more important to love God first and neighbor second?
Jesus himself acknowledges this in his teaching. In Mathew 10:37, he said, “The one who loves his father or mother more than me isn’t worthy of me, and the one who loves a son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me.” (NET) One of the most dramatic illustrations of this in the Bible is the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Born to him when he was a century old, the boy is more than a son; he is the fulfillment of God’s promise that Abraham’s descendents would be as many as the stars of the heavens. Regardless, in Genesis 22 Abraham is told to offer his son as a sacrifice in the land of Moriah.
Abraham, heart-broken yet determined in faith, does exactly as he is told, even to the point of binding his son upon the wood of the altar. As he raises his knife against the boy, a messenger from God intervenes, providing an alternative sacrifice, saying “I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” I suspect the writer of Genesis expects us to emerge from the story impressed with Abraham’s profound, unquestioning faith in God, but I cannot help but wonder about the trauma this experience must have caused Isaac. Is it any wonder that we speak of the ‘faith of Abraham,’ but the ‘fear of Isaac?’ This event had ripple repercussions for Isaac and his family which are rather difficult to square with ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’
The quandary exists in our world today, too. Which is more important—to obey those with authority over us, presumably sanctioned by God, or to speak words of challenge to power in our advocacy of the marginalized? We are immersed in a responsibility-averse culture. “It’s not my fault,” we protest, pointing to someone above us who sanctioned or ordered us to do what we did. Yet if you follow the responsibility ladder to the top, the leader protests, “I take no responsibility for it at all. Others should have intervened.”
When I was pastor of Centenary UMC in Skowhegan, Maine, we operated a diner for the state fair for two weeks in August. The funds raised supplied our connectional mission share responsibility with the New England Conference of the UMC. It took about 120 volunteers to make this happen each year, and certainly there were interpersonal conflicts. One volunteer, who worked almost every shift, wore a badge which said, “It’s all my fault.” Whenever there was a conflict among volunteers, Bruce would tap them on the shoulder and point to his badge. Nine times out of ten, the ensuing humor would disarm the exchange.
Mature disciples of Jesus accept responsibility for their relationships with God and others. They learn how to balance “the one who loves brother or sister more than me isn’t worthy of me’ with the words from First John 4: “Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” Though the world repeatedly tries to frame loving God and neighbor as an ‘either/or,’ it is almost always a ‘both/and’ matter of heart and conduct.
Just before Jesus speaks the gospel words which introduce our message today, he says, “Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.” The counsel he gives is the counsel he is struggling to fulfill. He wants to walk the walk, even as he talks the talk. He knows the day is coming when he will voluntarily and simultaneously release his life to God’s purpose and lay down his life for his friends (neighbors). He will assume responsibility for their sins, whether done deliberately or with complicity. In this incredible act of generosity, he will harmonize love of God and neighbor in a single act of self-giving, reconciling God with the human heart.
This gift of love, as I’ve said before, is not content with giving someone what they want, but rather what they need, to realize their inner potential. It expects and demands growth in maturity. Paul speaks to this in Romans 6 when he asks, “So what? Should we sin because we aren’t under the Law but under grace? Absolutely not!” Paul insists that the love and grace Jesus offers gives the freedom to live responsibly, free of a self-centered or self-indulgent life. It is a life of social and moral responsibility which advocates for the least, last, and lost of God’s family. It is the voice of a Peter who counters the admonition of the high priest to stop teaching about Jesus with the words, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” In my view, it is also the voice of reformers who look at the protocols of law making and enforcement and ask, “Is this truly just to all, regardless of race?”
This brings us to Matthew 10:40-42 where Jesus reminds his followers, “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me. Those who receive a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and those who receive a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.” In effect, he is saying, “If the claim and love of God take hold of your life, then they will flow through you into the lives of others. Your love for God will compel your love for neighbor, and vice versa. And then every act of compassion, even the simple gesture of offering a cup of refreshing water to another, will awaken the smile of heaven.” How about it then? Before the day is out, let’s do something for someone that will make heaven smile…