Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.
Henri Frederic Amiel
The Setting of the Gospel Reading Today
The setting for today’s Gospel reading has Jesus in Jerusalem, in the temple courts with his disciples, and he is there teaching and responding to the religious expert’s challenges and confrontations. In today’s reading a Pharisee tries to trip Jesus up, and tries to publically undermine Jesus’ popularity, to turn the people away, and to return things to the way they were. In other words, self-importance, the idols of the temple system, or maybe a desire for power and influence, became a stumbling block to the religious expert’s (the Pharisees) ability to understand and accept Jesus core message, which he was about to spell out clearly.
A Pharisee was a member of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law. These folks had power and influence in that community and in that system, and they saw Jesus as a threat that had to be eliminated. So they challenged Jesus’ teaching authority and they did so, by asked him a question about the greatest of God’s commandments.
Jesus eloquently answered the question, by boiling down the 613 laws of Torah, which the Pharisees knew by heart and could quote without hesitation, all into the two commands that God has for all of us, “Love God and love your neighbor.” 613 laws boiled down to just two. I mean, just love God and love your neighbor. It would be so simple, but often times we all fall short. Like the Pharisees other things get in the way, whether it is our own desires, or idols of leisure or possessions, or maybe our desire to be in control of our own lives, leaving God out, but Jesus calls us to another way of living. Throughout his ministry he taught us about his overwhelming and perfect love. Out of Jesus’ own mouth, we are challenged to consider how we are going to respond to the abundant, overwhelming, perfect, and a never-ending love of God. Love God/Love Neighbor.
The response to the gift of love is when we give from the heart.
When your spouse gives you an unexpected gift, how do you respond? When he/she speaks a kind word, brings you coffee, tells you he/she loves you, offers to help you with a project, do you merely say thank you, and then dismiss him/her the rest of the week? If we were to respond in that way to the love given to us, by the people in our closest relationships, I would imagine that relationship would be benign, dysfunctional, and short lived.
Loving God and loving neighbor is a concept we sure could use a good dose of in our world today. At a time when people are being drawn apart and polarized, I believe we need to get back to loving and caring for one another, without strings and without expecting something in return. Our consumer culture is infused with messages that to get something we must give something. Transactional relationships like buying a car or other commodity, means we must pay for something to get something.
The idea that we could be recipients of a love with no strings is foreign to us. Jesus turns the idea of transactional love on its heels and tells us that we need to get back to authentically loving God and loving neighbor, because authentic love is not something that can be negotiated, manipulated, or earned. Love also is not something you put away and hide, or hoard for self-gratification either. Love is something you receive, and you give away. Love in action is a heart response that comes without strings and without expectations.
Love is our heart inspired action to share with others, what God has given to us. God’s love through our relationships, our wealth, our talents, and the very breath we have been given, are gifts that we are to steward and care. The gifts from God are meant to be given away. When we share with others from God’s abundant love, we are responding with love. Remember, love has no strings attached.
What is love?
What is love? The word for love in the Greek means, “to welcome, to be fond of, and to love dearly.” In other words, the love Jesus expects us to share requires us to welcome God (and others) into our lives even the dark and broken spaces. We are to cultivate a fondness for God (and others) by spending time in the presence of others and enjoying God and friends. We are to love God (and others) dearly, which means the love we share must be authentic, profound, sincere, and true. By the way, this love command of Jesus is not about just “me and God.” Jesus command requires that we love God, and love our sisters and brothers, our neighbors, or better yet, all of creation.
Maybe you say, I’m still not sure about this abundant no strings love and giving thing Eric. Let me explain. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he provides us with a challenging definition of love. Paul wrote that love is patient, kind, it does not envy or boast nor is love prideful, nor dishonors, nor is it self-seeking. If you consider Paul’s description of what love requires, the expectations are a pretty high bar for which to strive. The greatest demonstration, the world changing love in action event was the love Jesus had for all of creation when he was reconciling us to God on the cross.
I don’t know about you, but I miss the high bar of God’s expectant love sometimes, well honestly, I miss the mark pretty often. Sometimes my own desires get in the way. Sometimes my personal priorities get in the way. Sometimes the idols of my life stand in the way of my loving the one to whom I am called to love with all my heart, strength, mind. I often miss the mark of love, and I chose things over God, and over my neighbors, the people God calls me to love. Despite our failures, God’s love abundantly continues to flow, and God’s gentle but persistent call for us to love in response to his love, remains. God continues to pour out grace, even when we fall short.
My senior year Pastoral Theology final exam in seminary was a very difficult one. The professor, Mother Julia Gatta was one of the toughest and probably the best professors I had in seminary. The topic for the exam was stewardship. I did pretty well on that exam and honestly, it was the only A I made in any of Mother Gatta’s classes. Before that exam, the best grade I could hope for from her was a B+. Now, I did not receive an “A” because I wrote a profound and insightful paper on the virtues of stewardship, a work worthy of publication and sharing with all the church. No, I received a good grade was because I wrote these words in one of the paragraphs, “The best way to encourage stewardship within a parish is to mentor people to a deeper commitment and love of Jesus Christ.” Mother Gatta knew from that one sentence that I understood that our response to God’s love comes from the sharing of our gifts of time, talent and treasure, which is directly related to our commitment and love of Jesus Christ.
I have been invited to St. Nathaniel’s today, as you enter into your annual commitment season, to speak about stewardship. I think the Gospel reading today and its theme of love is fitting for a stewardship sermon, because I believe, when we talk about sharing our gifts of time, talent, and treasure, what we really are talking about is love. Of all the things we possess (our relationships, our homes, automobiles, and retirement portfolios), we must never forget that we are mere stewards of all that God out of love has given to us.
Sometimes, other priorities and idols cloud our response, especially when we wrestle with how do we respond to God’s love. We may struggle with the question, “how do I sacrificially give back to God, and how do I share God’s gifts with others?” The question each of us must ask is this, “What does God require of me?” I believe God requires everything of us. Jesus said, “Love the Lord our God with ALL our minds, souls, strength.” God asks nothing short of a total offering of our lives, most especially our time, talent, and treasure.
The wealth and treasure God has given us is not for private hoarding, but it is to be shared for the common good, especially the mission and ministry of the community of faith, for the use of worship, education, service, and outreach. When we respond generously out of love, we begin to rely deeply on Christ, because we understand and know that God is the source of our very lives. All that we return to God brings us into a deeper relationship with Christ. Some may say, “I have what I have because I have worked my entire life.”
At a very basic level, our very lives are a gift from God. Consider for a moment that next breath you take. As it fills your lungs with essential air, it is a gift from God. Likewise, consider that the next exhale of breath, through your words of encouragement, kindness, patience and self-giving, along with the actions of our hands and feet are likewise gifts from God, which are asked to return to God and others, as a response to God’s love. As you prayerfully consider how you will respond to God’s abundant and overwhelming grace this day and in the days to come, respond to God’s love abundantly, by offering back to God and your neighbor your time, your talents, and your treasure.
Loving God and neighbor can be as easy as breathing. Please close your eyes for a moment. Now, breathe in, take in the abundant love of God, but do not hold it for long, because you cannot, it must be exhaled. Now breathe out that abundant love of God, breathe it out. Yes, breathe life into the lives of others so that they too, may come to know God’s love, grace, mercy, and peace.