Will you pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Last Sunday, I referenced some teaching by Karen Armstrong, a renowned, world religions scholar. Armstrong says that when she began seriously studying other traditions, she realized “that belief is a very recent religious enthusiasm that surfaced only in the West in about the 17th century.” For most of human history, she says, religion was not about believing in a certain way, but instead religion was about behaving in a certain way. “Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something.” 
We hear this call to behaving in a certain way in our Scripture passages for today. The passage from Deuteronomy states quite clearly that God has laid down a way that leads to life and following in this way means obeying the commandments of the Lord [y]our God, by loving the Lord [y]our God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances. The passage speaks of the need to conform our behavior to God’s will.
And similarly, the Gospel passage also emphasizes right action. It shows us what God’s commandment of loving our neighbor looks like in the story we have come to know as the “Good Samaritan.”
It is helpful to be reminded by Karen Armstrong and by our Scripture passages today that faith is as much about the way we act as it is about any set doctrine or belief. It is helpful to know that our hands are as much as a doorway to faith as our head, and that even as we may struggle with what the Trinity actually is, or how it is that Jesus saves, that does not preclude us from going out and loving our neighbor now.
But as people who are used to questioning, I think it is hard for us to sustain our actions without some understanding of why we do what we do. As rationalists, I think we tend to need a context for or conceptual understanding of why we act. Why are we to love our neighbor? Why is that important? If we don’t have some pretty compelling sense of why we should do something, chances are we won’t be able to sustain even the best intended action for long.
For loving our neighbor is not easy. It can actually be pretty hard. Loving our neighbor can take time and energy, and we may be running low on both. Loving our neighbor can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. And then there is the possibility that we may wonder if our neighbors are really deserving of our love, time and attention. So, if we are really going to love our neighbors, we better have a pretty good sense of why we are being asked to do so.
One way to answer the question “why are we to love our neighbor” is because clearly, according to Scripture at least, God tells us to. When my children were young, and I’d asked them to do something, even if it was the most mundane of things, something they were often expected to do like hang up their coats or clear their dishes, they would often look up at me with a quizzical look on their little faces and ask “Why?” “Why do we have to?”
And who knew but, “Because I told you to!” turns out not to be a particularly satisfying answer. My kids needed a deeper understanding of why I was asking them to behave in a certain way in order for their actions to have meaning or staying power for them. “Why are we to love our neighbor?” For some of us, an answer of “Because God tells us to” is just not enough. We too need more understanding about why we are to do this so that our actions too will have meaning and staying power.
A second way of answering the question “Why are we to love our neighbor?” is so that we can increase in God’s favor — so that we can earn God’s love.
A while back, in our Sunday morning Bible study, I cannot remember exactly how it got started, but we began joking around about “God points.” Do something good for the church and you got God points and get enough God points and you would be assured a prize. When we’d catch one another of us doing something helpful or kind, or loving our neighbor or our God in some way, we would say “well that’s worth at least 5, or maybe 6 God points.”
We were joking, of course, but it did strike a chord somewhere in us. We were remembering that at some point in our lives we were told that by doing good, we will be able to earn God’s approval. By doing good, we were going to get a non-stop ticket to heaven. Do lots of good stuff and you can even get God to love you! Now underlying this thinking of course is the operating assumption that at baseline we do not yet have God’s approval or love right? or at least not enough of it! Thinking that we do good works in the world so that God will notice us and love us, means that God is not noticing or loving us right now.
And this underlying assumption that at baseline we are lacking God’s love, creates in us a deep ache in our heart and a deep wound in our psyche. We may carry the shame of feeling we are not enough, and the burden of needing to prove ourselves. We may find ourselves hungering for love that seems unattainable.
And such feelings are not only deeply exhausting, but they can also breed a kind of competitiveness among us. For as we strive to remedy the deficits we feel in ourselves, as we strive to earn God’s love, we may wonder how we know if we are doing enough? Well one way is to compare ourselves to others. We think “Well, I am doing more than he is so that’s good, but she is doing more than I am, so that is worrisome! Pretty soon it is all confusing and complicated, and just too much – and we begin to wonder if it would not be better to just stay home on Sunday morning and read the paper when all we really wanted was a bit of love and rest.
But there is a third way of answering the question “Why?” “Why are we to love our neighbor.” This answer comes out of our reformed tradition and that I think is absolutely essential for us to remember and reclaim.
Serene Jones, a theologian and President of Union Theological Seminary gives what is for me one of the best understanding to the question “Why” that I have come across.
She writes “the love of God for creation is a gift; it originates in God’s divine, loving freedom and hence cannot be earned by those to whom it comes. This grace simply is. It comes to us freely as the very condition of our existence. As covenant people we are called to accept this grace and to be formed by its reality.”
Jones continues “Comprehending the full force of the radically unmerited quality of this love is difficult for us because we live in a world that consistently assesses our worth based on calculated evaluations of what we do and who we are. When one, however, comprehends the force of this unconditional love, one is empowered to develop a certain detachment from worldly evaluations of the self. One begins to see that what one does and who one becomes in the messy unfolding of our daily lives are not finally determinative of who we are in the eyes of God. Ultimately and finally, God has chosen us as beloved and our salvation rests in that decision and not in the penultimate decisions that constitute the texture of our day by day existence.”
And what is the effect of realizing, totally taking in and accepting the staggering truth that we are loved? What is the effect of finally accepting that we are acceptable?
We are set free! We are set free from the heaviness of feeling burdened. We are set free from the “shoulds” and “oughts” and “really need to’s” that we may pile on ourselves especially perhaps when it comes to church. When we can get out from under all this, when we catch a glimpse that the starting place of our lives, the foundation of who we are is that we are loved – Well there is just such joy and freedom in that!
Serene Jones puts it beautifully. When we accept the grace of being loved by God, we become “Adorned in Freedom.” And what she means by that is that we see ourselves and the many practices of service and caring as expressions of the love that was first given to us. Our good works are not strivings, but celebrations. They are not works at all really, but gifts expressing and extending the goodness and blessing that is already the wellspring of our being. When one recognizes the Power of God’s justifying love, one cannot help but celebrate that reality by forming one’s life in the image of the One who has so freely loved. So that suddenly what we do and who are, says Jones “both matters not at all and matters enormously.”
They matter not at all because we are already resting in God’s love. And they matter enormously because knowing such a love, we cannot help but extend it joyfully into the world.
Can you feel the good news of knowing that the commandment to love God and love our neighbor comes not out of a place of deficit but out of a place of overflowing grace and abundance? Can you feel the good news of knowing that the commandment to love relies not on our own moral fiber, grit or will to do so? Loving our neighbor is to flow out of a freedom and an abundance of love that we just cannot help but share.
So let us go ahead and love our neighbor and let us do so “adorned with freedom.” Let us cross that road like that Samaratan from long ago and attend our neighbors in need not because we should, or have to our ought to but because, filled with the love of God, we cannot help but do anything else. And let us trust that with the love of God flowing through us nothing, absolutely nothing is impossible. This is what Jesus came to teach us and this is what we now are to engage.
So thanks be to God’s steadfast and unconditional love that frees us to love with a courageous, powerful, passionate love that knows no end. Thanks be to God and this love that forever abides. Amen.
 2:34 – 4:15 Filmed February 2008 at TED2008. Karen Armstrong: My wish – A Charter for Compassion. TED http://www.ted.com/talks/karen_armstrong_makes_her_ted_prize_wish_the_charter_for_compassion/transcript?language=en
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