“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”Matthew 22:36, NRSV
I’ve written before about a moment in worship that touches me particularly.
When my wife offers the benediction to her congregation, she often uses the one with the phrase, “Hold on to what is good,” and as she says it, she pulls the fingers of her upraised right hand in toward her palm. My hand involuntarily clasps every time I see her do it.
This week I’m thinking about what comes next, how her hand opens again as she goes on to say, “Return no one evil for evil.” In our current situation, when doing evil is so commonplace, this feels important to highlight. It can be hard to let go of the desire to pay it back somehow.
Jesus, in Jerusalem, has been sparring with religious leaders, and one after another they have gone away speechless and dissatisfied. Regrouping, they put forward a lawyer, who asks a question they hope will lead to a misstep. Jesus gives them an answer they cannot dispute, along with its corollary. For many Christians, this pair of commandments forms the foundation of our faith and practice. Love God, love neighbor. That’s the way to please God. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Everything else grows from this.
Still we wrestle with the things the world tells us matter more. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul testifies to his priorities, formed by his faith. He brings the good news “in spite of great opposition” and with no “pretext for greed” or desire for “praise from mortals.” His love for this newly-formed church made him as gentle as “a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” We live in a time when gentleness is disparaged instead of being seen as strength. We live in a moment when threats of violence are not private or shameful but encouraged by public officials.
In our current situation, how can we, the church, love God and neighbor?
In a Sunday School conversation this past week, someone noted that our individual efforts can feel like a drop in the bucket. How can one person make a difference? There’s so much that needs to be done, and most of it not something one person can do alone. We need to reevaluate our interpretation of the great commandment. If we’re putting too much emphasis on the personal portion, on the individual portion, we’re missing the opportunity. The counterpoint to feeling like our efforts are drops in the bucket is to look at the bucket we are filling together with the drops of our effort, our faith, and our love.
I hope for the day we will find the bucket is so full and so heavy to lift that to carry it requires a wider communal effort. Our shared efforts can work to alleviate systemic racism, register people to vote, care for people on the economic margins both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, and give us strength for conversations with people who don’t agree with us. We can live into the commandments that Jesus told us were the most important. We can open our hands and let go of the urge to return evil for evil.
Please, God, help us to do this now. To love you well. To be kind in a world that is cruel. To be fierce in our work for the good. To love you with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, together.
For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you.