In the name of God. Amen.
One of the things that can be both exciting, but also sometimes a little bit maddening about Jesus is the way he can twist a question to give the answer he wants to give. Or, like unto that, the way his answers to questions are sometimes so obtuse that even those first apostles were often left scratching their heads. If there’s any one overarching personality trait about Jesus that transcends the various Gospel accounts, it’s that: the surprising ways that he answers (and sometimes refuses to answer) questions.
It can be exciting watching him thwart those who mean to oppose him. But for us - people who simply want to learn and to grow and to follow Christ - his answers can sometimes be a little bit maddening. Sometimes, we just need a clear, concise answer. Sometimes we don’t want to have to work so hard. But that’s not usually Jesus’ way. Usually, we have to work for it.
Today, however, we hear one of those rare occasions when - even though the Pharisee was trying to test him - Jesus answered plainly and directly. There could be no mistaking or misunderstanding.
“Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Perhaps it was meant to trip him up. Perhaps they were thinking that if they put him on the spot, he might say something that they could use to incriminate him.
Instead, he spoke about as directly as he ever could have. He answered clearly, and concisely - in one of those phrases that we should all have etched on our hearts and in our minds to guide us through everything that we do.
“Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
“‘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 hang all the law and the prophets.”
It couldn't be any clearer. This is what we’re about. Despite all the ways that people have talked about the faith, and written about it, and done theology, and fought and died and conquered - this is what it all comes down to.
Or at least, what it should all come down to.
Unfortunately, too often it doesn't Too often we add rules and questions and fears and anxiety. But the real crux of it all is really pretty simple. It’s about being in relationship. It’s about loving God, and loving each other.
It seems like Christianity should be the easiest thing in the world to master. But too often we fall short.
Over the weekend, I had the great opportunity to join a couple of other priests in our diocese to represent the Diocese of Long Island at an event celebrating and supporting the work of the Ali Forney Center in New York City. For those who are unfamiliar with their work, AFC is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing support for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender youth who are homeless or whose housing status is insecure. When teens and young adults come out to their parents as Lesbian, Gay, Bi, or Trans as many as a quarter of them are disowned by their families and put out of their homes - left to fend for themselves and to find their way without the support most young people can expect from their families. Because this rejection by families is so common, more than half of all homeless youth identify as a member of the LGBT community.
“'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 hang all the law and the prophets.”
The Ali Forney Center is battling this scourge with emergency shelters, education programs, drop in centers, and much more. They are living out the words of Jesus - perhaps better than most of our churches do.
Of course they are not a Christian organization. They aren’t associated with any religious community or tradition. But they are doing ministry. They are living examples of how we should love God and each other.
But, as moving as it was to learn about their work and their mission, and to hear about the great strides that they’re making in easing the effects of a real life problem that’s happening here - in our own back yards; the thing that was most surprising, and most moving to me was the fact that, from the moment we arrived, people kept coming up to us, and stopping us, and thanking us for being there. Among the thousands of people at this event, we were the only priests, and we stood out.
It should be an embarrassment for Christians everywhere, but the number one reason that young LGBT people are expelled from their homes is because of their parents’ religious beliefs.
So standing out, and being priests at that event was a powerful witness. It was important for us to be there, and to proclaim proudly that not all Christians are so filled with hate.
One of the most significant things Jesus says in his summary of the law is that little connector between the two commandments. He says, “A second is like it”.
It’s not just that we are called to love God and to love each other - as separate tasks. Jesus is saying that it’s almost the same thing. Part of how we love God is through loving each other. The best way to show your love for God is to love the people God has created, and also loves.
The Ali Forney Center started from one man’s vision for how the world could be a little bit better. He imagined what the world would be like if we could divert a little bit of love to some folks who've been among the most unloved in our society - to even the scales, just a little. In doing so, he and the organization have saved untold thousands of lives.
That’s what love can do.
We may not all start multi-million dollar non-profit organizations to address major social needs. In fact, most of us won’t. But what we can do - one of the best ways that we can live out our Christian vocations - is by loving the people whom God has put into our lives.
Sometimes the answers are really simple. Love God. Love each other. That’s the basis of all that we’re called to do. Amen.
From a sermon delivered at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Valley Stream, NY.
The Rev. Jon M. Richardson is Integrity's Vice President for National Affairs. His blog (at www.JonMRichardson.com) features his sermons and theater reviews