“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Matthew 22:34-40 (July 14, 2014)

From the beginning of time humanity has been trying to figure out

Who is my neighbor?
Who is my neighbor?

what it is that God wants. What is the exact right combination of
words and actions to curry God’s favor.

In the earliest expressions of faith human beings prayed
to many different gods.
If someone was preparing to go on a hunt they prayed
to the god of the hunt or to the spirit of the animal seeking success.

As we began to work the land and make our first fledgling steps into
becoming an agricultural society human beings
prayed to the sun god and the rain god.
If the rain didn’t come it was assumed that you
had angered the rain god and so more extreme rituals were used.

There were household gods to protect our dwelling places
and there were gods that governed the seasons and the weather.

These beliefs were passed on through stories
from generation to generation.
They were used to explain why things happened the way they did
and where we came from.

As patterns emerged and were perceived
and as people began to claim certain gods and rituals
as the personal protectors of their clans and tribes
those rituals spread and the perceived domain of the
gods grew larger.

When the clans and tribes went to war against each other
they sought the blessing of their gods to bring them victory
and of course victory proved which deity was the stronger and
which rituals were required.

God’s changed by region or season.
Using one ritual to please the sun god may anger the earth god and
and bring a curse upon the land.
So the pantheon of deities and rituals became vast and confusing.

Eventually groups of people began to think that perhaps there was
one God that is ruler over all other gods and if that is the case
then perhaps people need only to gain the one God’s favor and
all the rest would fall into line under the one Gods authority.

The ancient Hebrews were such a people.
In the beginning their system of beliefs about the one God were
passed on through stories.
The rituals and prayers of the Hebrews also varied by region.
They worshiped in fields and on mountain tops. In places where the one God had shown favor, or power, they would build altars and offer prayers and sacrifices.

Between the tribes of the ancient Hebrews there was
disagreement over some of the types of sacrifices made.
For instance in one region it was normal to worship by making
raisin cakes. The cakes were eaten and offered to the one God.
In another region the ancient Hebrew clans warred with clans
who worshiped one of the lesser gods. In their worship of that
lesser god they too used raisin cakes.
So the Hebrews at war with the raisin cake eaters of the lesser god
got angry when they saw their fellow Hebrews worshiping
the one God with raisin cakes. It was a mess!

As time progressed their stories got written down.
The Hebrew tribes became a Hebrew nation with a King
and a Capitol.
That Capitol became the center of commerce and of worship for
the nation and making your own altars in the wilderness
was outlawed.
Instead you had to come to the temple in Jerusalem to worship.

The codified law taken from their ancient stories of their
experience with the one God took the form of 613 commandments. By the time of Jesus however the religious elite had
created a legal buffer zone around those commandments with
even more commandments so that you would have to break
several lesser commandments before
you could even get close to breaking a real commandment.
It was an even bigger mess.
Finding peace with and pleasing God had become
a back breaking burden

Then Jesus comes on the scene and starts cleaning house.
The passage we read this morning is part of a larger
section in Matthew that we call the Temple Discourse.
This is really just a fancy phrase for saying Jesus talked a lot
in the temple.
Matthew chapter 21 begins with the triumphal entry of Jesus
into Jerusalem followed by a spirited wiping of the
money changers in the temple.
In verse 23 Jesus enters the temple to teach and here
we get some of the great teachings and parables in Matthew. Interspersed among those teachings are questions from the pharisees
who were hoping Jesus would say something they could use
against him.

They ask him about the tax code of the Roman Empire as applied to
the Mosaic Law.
They ask him about marriage in the after life.
And they ask him what the greatest of the 613 commandments is.

In Jesus two pronged answer to the pharisees he gives us the answer to the question that humanity has been seeking
for thousands of years.
How can we please God?
The answer is love.
Its funny how many times the answer in life is always love.
Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength
and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Millennia of trial and error and bloodshed and tears and
all God wants is our love.

But that is easier said than done.

If I told my family every day that I love them.
If I stood out on the front porch every evening and
shouted at the top of my lungs that I love my family.
If I wore a t-shirt every day that said “I love my Family”
If I tattooed “I love my family” across my forehead
but then, when I went back into the house I ignored them,
or abused them.
They would not believe what I was saying or shouting.
The rest of the neighborhood may think
“wow, that guy really loves his family”
but that would not be the reality.

My family knows that I love them not because of the words I speak
but because of my actions towards them.
Michaela knows I love her because I take the time to do battle
with the monsters under her bed and in her closet.
She knows I love her because I will set down the book
I am reading or pause the show I am watching so that she can tell
me about her day or show me that she can sing my favorite song for the thousandth time.

My mom knows I love her because I take the time to listen to her and
ask her about her day.

Bri knows that I love her because I try take the time to be
interested in her and what she is doing and ask her opinion
and listen to her answer.
And lets face it one of the big expressions of my love for her is that
every once in a while I actually replace the toilet paper roll when it is

It is the same way with God.
We can shout, and sing, and have all the Christian bumper stickers
we want but those words mean nothing
if action does not back them up.

Acts of love toward God take on a different form.
The way that God receives our love and our service is
different than what we might think.

I remember once,
after moving on from one church as their youth pastor,
I received a heart breaking letter from a couple of my former
The new youth pastor had a different way of doing things and
had removed game time from the schedule and made
youth group all about bible study and prayer.
The students got together and politely asked the new youth pastor to
consider bringing back some of the games because they enjoyed
that part of youth so much.
The new youth pastor got angry, and told the youth
“I am here to serve God, not you.”
My heart breaks for those students still today.
And it breaks for that youth pastor because
that youth pastor has it backwards.

Jesus tells us that we need to love God and to love others.
To serve God and to serve others.
How we go about that makes all the difference.

The very last story of Jesus’ temple talks is
about the end of time when all of humanity is judged.
They are separated into the sheep and the goats.
The sheep get to go to heaven
while the goats get to go to, well, lets just say NOT HEAVEN.

The sheep are told they get to go to heaven
because when they saw Jesus hungry, or thirsty, or sick, or in prison
they took care of him.
The goats get to go elsewhere because
when they saw Jesus hungry, or thirsty, or sick, or in prison
they did not take care of him.
Both groups ask “When was that Lord?
When did you see you like that because we don’t recall it?”
Jesus tells them that whenever you took care of
one of the least of these you did it to me.
And likewise when ever you neglected to care for
one of these you neglected me.

Do you see it?
We love God and we serve God by
loving and serving our neighbor.
And our neighbor is anyone that we meet.
Things like skin color, sexual orientation, or economic status
do not even come into the equation here.
Anyone we meet is our neighbor and an opportunity to fulfill both the
greatest and second greatest commandments.
And if we love God, like we say we do,
with our bumper stickers and Facebook posts
and t-shirts then we really need to make sure
that we are showing God our love by truly loving our neighbors.

Friends, in these few lines from the gospel of Matthew
we have our answer to that age old question of what God
is seeking from us. It is a relationship of mutual love.
God’s love for us is evident all around us if we take the time to look.
God’s love for us is proven in God’s sending of Jesus.
Let us prove our love to God by loving our neighbors.
By finding ways to pour grace and joy into their lives.
That is how we fulfill the great commandment.
That my friends is how we love God. Amen? Amen.

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