Scripture: Matthew 22:34-40
Because my dad was appointed to the Methodist church there, I lived in Milan, IN in 1986. That was a big year for that small town, because that was the year that the movie Hoosiers was released. The classic sports movie was inspired by Milan’s 1954 Cinderella run for the state championship and their David vs. Goliath victory against Muncie Central. The release of the movie brought a lot of attention, and the town was even on the national news. I was not all that old at the time, but all of the hoopla made a memorable impression on me, and of course that means I have seen Hoosiers a number of times. In preparation for this morning’s scripture, I kept thinking about the training montage. The team did not shoot, but they drilled endlessly on the most basic skills.
Coach Dale’s coaching style was considered unorthodox because he emphasized the fundamentals. Instead of working on shooting he worked on dribbling, speed, and basic team work. It is the emphasis on the fundamentals that connected on this morning’s scripture. When it comes to our Christian faith this morning’s scripture of the greatest commandments are the fundamentals. Perhaps, God loves you and Jesus saves might be the only truths more fundamental than this morning’s scripture. Here is how fundamental this scripture is. There is something called the lectionary, these are scripture readings that have been agreed upon by multiple denominations and they are divided up over three years. The idea is that churches use during the worship, and if they do they will hit all of the highlights and most important scriptural points over a three year process. We are currently in year A, and this reading from Matthew is from the year A lectionary. A similar greatest commandment passage exist in Mark, and it appears in the year B lectionary. Likewise, a similar greatest commandment story is found in Luke and it is part of the year C lectionary. This means if the lectionary is being followed, we hear these greatest commandments read from the scripture every single year.
Putting an emphasis on the fundamentals can be a key to success. An example of this can be seen with free throws in basketball. In the NBA the league free throw average is 75%. However, the NBA fan site 82games.com did the math and determined that if an individual team could raise their average just three points to 78% then that would equate to two more wins a year just from free throws. Despite what the numbers show, most coaches at the pro level do not emphasize free throw shooting to instead focus on other skills. In our faith, we can be guilty of doing the same thing. We focus on other aspects, on tangents, on actions, and ignore the fundamentals, like love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves. There is a decent chance that a lot of you have heard these commandments before, but how well do we truly understand them. Let us consider the deeper questions: Why are these the two greatest commandments and how do we keep them?
When the Pharisees asked Jesus “what is the greatest commandment”, it was a litmus test of sorts. In their mind there was only one right answer, and Jesus got that answer correct, but he did not stop there. The answer the Pharisees were looking for was love the Lord your God. This is the Shema, found in Deuteronomy, it was and is considered the greatest commandment in Judaism. To this day orthodox Jewish men will in accordance with the scripture bind this command to their arms or heads. Jesus lifted it up as the greatest commandment, and as followers of Jesus that means it is our greatest commandment, but why is it? For the Jews is the was the greatest commandment because it was the requirement for fulfilling the covenant. The Covenant between the Israelites and God was that God would be their God and they would be God’s people, God made this covenant out of love so it was only through loving God could the covenant be fully honored. As disciples of Jesus this is also our greatest commandment and the reason why is also because of God’s love. Perhaps 1 John says it best, “we love because he first loved us.” The word we use to describe God’s love is grace, and grace is always present in our lives. Before we could do anything to earn God’s approval or prove our worthiness of God’s love, it was already there. We are born surrounded by God’s previenent grace. Furthermore God proved his love for us on the cross. It was for our sake that Jesus died, it was to proclaim God’s grace that Jesus was crucified, and it was by the grace of God that the grave could not keep him. It is because of God’s grace that we are justified, that our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled with the God who love us. The best yet, friends, is that there is more to come! God loves us too much to leave us where we are. It is by grace we are perfected and transformed. It is by grace that we are sanctified, that we are molded and shaped to leave the worst parts of ourselves behind and become more like Jesus in our attitudes and actions. It is by grace that we are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the spirit. All of this is God’s gift offered to us without price. The reason why we should love God is because God’s love for us is extravagant, so unbelievable, so all-consuming that we only have two choices. We ignore it and run from it, or we accept it at which case the only appropriate response is to love God in return.
If you have experienced the grace of God in your life, then you know God’s great love first hand and the “why” to following the command to love God is fairly straight forward. The “how” can be a bit harder. After all, how do we as mere people adequately express our love to the creator of the universe in a way that makes any sense. The way that Jesus gives the command helps guide us. In this morning’s scripture Jesus stated love the Lord your God with all of your heart with all of your soul and with all of your mind. In other words, we are to love God with our entire being. One of the ways that we do this is through the act of worship. Worship can be hard to define, but it is an unmistakable experience. Worship is quite simply the word we use to define our response to who God is and what God has done. Often we use music to worship, but worship is not just music. We can sing a song and not worship. Heck, we can sing a song that is about God and still not worship. If we are simply saying the words (even if on pitch) then we are not truly worshiping. Worship is when our mind is completely focused and filled with God. Worship is when our actions, our voice even our physical movements are being used intentionally to glorify and express love to God. Worship is when our hearts, the very essence of who we are, is open to God. True worship is honest, vulnerable, and passionate. It is also an intentional action. Worship are the acts we take and the way we invest our time to express our love for God.
We often approach worship with the wrong attitude. It is not uncommon to hear people say things like “I didn’t get much out of worship today,” What an odd thing to say. Worship is our response to who God is and what God has done. Worship is the action we use to fulfill the command to love the Lord our God with all our heart with all our soul and with all of our mind. It is not about us in the first place, worship is about God. It is not supposed to be about what we get out of it in the first place, it is about what we express to God. If our biggest concern about worshiping God is what we get out of it, then what we are really worshiping is ourselves. Worship, however we worship, should be all about God.
Worship is one the primary answers to “how” we can express love to God, but another way is actually to follow Jesus’ second commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When Jesus answered the question about the greatest commandment, they were probably not expecting Jesus to mention this one as well. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is found in the Old Testament law, but it is a lot more obscure. Despite that Jesus elevated to the same status as love God and Jesus made clear that “all of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” In the Old Testament prophets one of the themes that emerges is that God did not just love his chosen people, but God loved their neighbors as well. God’s love was not and it is not reserved just for the special or elite. It is for all, and in the same way the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is available for all. One of the ways that we can best express our appreciation, devotion and love for God is to follow God’s example. We love God by loving others, which is one of the primary reasons for why we love our neighbors as ourselves.
When it comes to how we love our neighbors as ourselves, it is shockingly simple: we just do it. Of course, being simple in theory and putting it into practice are two different things. Loving others cannot just be a theoretical, it has to be practical. Our love for others has to be more than just words, it needs to be a love that is put into action. Burger King of all places recently put together a PSA on bullying that illustrates this. Due to having young children and some language concerns, I won’t show it but in this ad a hidden camera is placed inside a Burger King and a group of teenage actors enact a bullying scene. At the same time the adults are being served “bullied hamburgers” that have been smashed. When confronted the Burger King employee gives common bully excuses. This is all happening while the actors portray bullying. Of the adults in the Burger King 95% spoke up when their burger was impacted, but only 12% interceded for the bullied teen. When something impact us we are more likely to speak up and do something, but as the PSA shows we see something wrong that is not technically our problem we are a lot less likely to take action. How we love our neighbor as ourselves though, is we take a lot of the focus off ourselves and put it onto others.
There are no shortage of people who are in need, people who are disenfranchised, people who are lonely, people who are afraid, people who are lost, and people who are in need of love. There is not a shortage of ways we can practice the how of loving our neighbors. We see the needs and we meet the needs. We find those people who are hurt and we tend those hurts. We seek out those who need a hand up, and we enable those dreams. We love them. How do we love our neighbors as ourselves: We love them the way that God loves us.
These are the fundamentals of our faith. It can be so easy to get caught up in other stuff but at the end of the day we are here because God loves us, and if we have l responded to that love we love God. One of the ways that we show this love, is that we put it into practice and we love our neighbors, we love those people around us who need to be loved the most. This is what means to be a Christian. May you truly love God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your mind. May you love your neighbor as yourself. May you practice the fundamentals day in and day out. May you drill them to the core of your being. As a disciple of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the Messiah of the world, The Lord of Lords, and the king of kings may you follow the greatest commandments he has given us.