This Sunday’s sermon was delivered by Holy Trinity’s Youth Minister & Seminarian Ashley Lytle.
Last Wednesday at the Cathedral of St. Phillip, the Diocese of Atlanta hosted a service of Repentance and Reconciliation for our cooperation, support and justification of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination. Bishop Wright says that, “Racism is depravity and deviance from Jesus’ example and teaching about the sanctity of human dignity and the oneness of the human family.” In other words, racism is not Christian. It is inconsistent with our beliefs, inconsistent with Jesus. Racism happens when we turn our hearts from God and from love.
So with that in mind, hundreds of people from all over the diocese gathered together to confess and to ask forgiveness on behalf of ourselves, our families, and our friends who came before us. Our purpose was repentance, reconciliation and also action. In gathering together as we did on Wednesday night, the Diocese of Atlanta, as a body of Episcopalians, as a body of Christians, committed to transformation, to action. Acknowledging our fault, we remembered that we are promised God’s forgiveness and love. And so we renewed our Baptismal vows. Renewed committed to act on behalf of the love of God, to live into our call as God’s children, to act as Jesus acted, to draw the circle wider, and hold tighter to the Church as The Beloved Community.
The Beloved Community is a popular term in Christian race relation discussions, and it was no stranger at the service on Wednesday. The term, popularized by MLK Jr., is rich with meaning. The Beloved Community is a realistic, achievable goal in which God’s people share equally in the wealth and blessings of this world. In the Beloved Community, hatred, discrimination, poverty, homelessness, and violence are not an option. These issues which are prevalent realities in this community are not an option in the Beloved Community because the standards of human decency won’t allow for it. How does it work? Love. In the Beloved Community, love trumps everything.
In today’s Gospel text from Matthew, we meet Jesus in the last of 3 confrontations with public religious officials in Jerusalem. They have been grilling him, testing him, pushing him to the brink just to see when he would crumble and fall. The Pharisees grilling Jesus were learned religious officials, they knew their stuff. They questioned Jesus about taxes, about resurrection and lastly, about law. And on this the final of the 3 tests, Jesus lays down the ultimate trump card. The Pharisee asks Jesus “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” and without skipping a beat Jesus says, “`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
While this may seem obvious to us now, at the time it was somewhat shocking. You see, when the lawyer asked the question, he hoped he was setting Jesus up to fail because he believed that there was no one commandment greater than another. But Jesus shatters that notion. He makes clear that love is the foundation from which all else proceeds.
This was a radical stance to take. Jesus was speaking to a group of people whose entire religious existence was built upon the laws named in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. These laws dictated their entire lives, and they were trained to believe equally in all of them. Jesus was not saying that the laws are insignificant, but rather he insisted that one is greater, that love is greater. Jesus set a new precedent. Jesus put love in 1st place.
And from that radical idea, love took off. The New Testament full of love. Paul talks about it in Romans, when he says “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection.” And in 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” And in 1 John, “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” Love takes over. Love of God and neighbor settles in as the foundation upon which we build our Christian being.
But what really is this love? The love in this text is called agape. You’ve probably heard of agape, it’s one of the Greek words for love that’s often used in scripture. Smart people are always arguing about what it really means and if it’s different from erotic love or friendly love or familial love, but that’s not what we’ll worry about today. What we need to know today about agape, about love, is that it is a commitment to action. It is often described as a selfless love, one unconcerned with return or reward, love for the sake of love. When we are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, we are commanded to choose a life that’s points toward God, that invests our whole being in God, that puts before our every action an adoration for God. This love is a commitment. We commit to a love greater than anything else. A love that makes us whole, and it is in this commitment, from this posture of love for the Lord our God that we will love our neighbor. It is out of this love that we build the Beloved Community. From this place proceeds all the rest.
To love God is to love the neighbor, to love God makes us whole, but lest this all sound too idealistic, let me be clear that loving God, loving the neighbor, living in Beloved Community with one another is not without conflict and pain. Conflict can exist in the name of love, but it is without violence or hatred, and it ends ultimately in reconciliation and forgiveness. It is conflict in which both sides stand firmly in their beliefs, and at the end of the day outstretch an open hand as if to say “I’m sorry, I love you.” In loving God, in this wholeness, we can see that no conflict, no anger, no disagreement is enough to separate us from the love of God, and from the love of our neighbor.
Being in this line of work comes with many blessings, but among my favorites of these are conversations with strangers once they learn what it is I do for a living. This week I met someone who asked what I do to which I responded, “ I’m in seminary studying to become an Episcopal priest.” Quickly he replied, “Oh great! You can help!” I realized almost instantly that I probably would not in fact be able to help, but we pressed on. He then told me that he cannot be a Christian because God is a hypocrite, and that he cannot reconcile the fact that God wants us to love selflessly and do good works without incentive, but then demands that we praise, and love God before anything else. He asked me to explain to him how I can live as a Christian with a God like that. This stranger’s struggle struck me, not because I’ve never heard the argument before, not because I have never considered it myself, but because as soon as he said it I thought-How can I live as a Christian with a God like that? How can I not?! I love that God. I love God because God is God! God is magnificent. God created this world, God listened to Moses and promised to bless all the nations of the earth, God sent us Jesus, his only Son who died for our sins, God promised to love us unconditionally. God is a reality and mystery that I cannot reason, but that I love.
I don’t think God’s a hypocrite, I think God’s on to something when God tells us to love the Lord our God because I know that in loving God, in choosing to be a Christian, I am made whole. I am not perfect, no not at all, but at my best, when I put the love of God between myself and everything else, I love better, I act kinder, I forgive easier, I am humbled, I am stronger, I am hopeful. When I let my love for God come first, I see what it’s like to live in Beloved Community.
Our job is big. Our job is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. Our job is to love our neighbors as ourselves. And our job is to act out this love. There are so many cases of racism, hatred, injustice, violence, and poverty, but what gives me hope, what comforts me is that there are also so many Christians. So many people who choose to love the Lord our God. And I believe in that God, I believe in that love, I believe that with that love lighting our path that God’s people will share equally in the wealth and blessings of this world. So go Christians and make it so.