A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
To Love God Is to Lose
October 23, 2005
Ordinary Sunday 30 Matt 22:34-46
It's as simple, and as difficult as that.
Oh, we try to make love much more expansive and attractive. Love, from our experience we say, is losing and winning. It is heartache and pleasure. Love is sleepless nights and shattered dreams, yet also commitment and deep contentment. There are huge rewards in love. This is indeed the experience of many.
Yet when the Bible says out of all the 613 commandments there are only two upon which everything hangs, and those two both use the word 'love', we need to ask what is being talked about. To “Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and to love your neighbour as yourself,” begs the question: what is the love being talked about?
The second part about loving your neighbour is spelt out in practical detail in Leviticus 19. Don't render unjust judgements. Don't be partial to the poor or defer to the great. Don't slander or hate him or her. Don't take revenge or bear a grudge. It's a potage of prohibitions. Winning isn't mentioned.
The Christian Scriptures in answer to the loving neighbour question relate the saga of the Good Samaritan. Loving neighbour means going out of your way, at considerable cost, to look after his/her needs. Apart from incurring God's favour, and what that might practically be is anyone's guess; the helpful Samaritan doesn't win anything. There is no payback.
As for loving God, the dividends are even more elusive. Think of the heroes and heroines of the Bible. Did Abraham and Sarah lead happy, contented, love-filled lives? Did Moses or the prophets? Did Mary, Jesus, and the disciples? Does loving God mean you'll be happy, or happier? Does it mean you'll be rich, or richer? Does it mean you'll be powerful or more powerful? Does it mean you'll be one of life's winners? I doubt it. Loving God has more to do with losing.
There's a line of J.K. Baxter's from the Jerusalem Daybook that reads: 'The God they imagine, and pray to very often in churches, is a God of sugar compared to the terrible One who grips our living entrails, who drives both good and evil from our souls, as if both were enemies…' [i] There is a truth in Baxter's prose: the cost of engaging with God is not easy, or pleasant, or repaid. If you commit yourself to following God in order to win in life you will be disappointed. To love God is to lose.
Using the word 'love' in relation to God is a little weird. What does it mean to love God? Is this a friendship; or a love affair? Yet reciprocity and mutuality are not part of the God-human relationship. If loving God means unswerving allegiance and devotion, we need to ask is this love or just infatuation?
No, the word 'love' in relation to God needs a whole different way of being understood. Although there are many false prophets around who will tell you about all the marvellous benefits that can be accrued if you sign up to God Corp., my experience, and the experience of the Biblical authors, is that more often loving God is about losing. It is about letting go of pride, possessions, hopes, fears, and dreams.
At this point I want to tell you a story. I'm not going to explain it. When the story is finished so is the sermon. It encapsulates for me what love in relation to God might mean, and where the neighbour fits into that. Primarily it is about losing.
Once upon a time there was a great man who had many followers. They came from all over to listen and to learn wisdom, leadership, and service. At the end of their training with him the great man would send them out into the world to share their knowledge and learning. Just before they left, he would give each of them a gift - some secret, special words of tremendous power.
The great man told his followers that these special words would bring blessing into their lives. The powerful words would give them insight and clarity. The powerful words would keep them from despair and give them hope - even in the midst of hopelessness. The powerful words would strengthen their faith in God and give them everlasting life.
The followers were grateful and humbled by the gift. But then the great man always warned them never to share these powerful words with anyone else - they were for them alone, those who had completed the training. And so for years and years followers completed their training, were given the special words, and went out into the world to share their wisdom.
One day a young woman came to the great man, ready to go into the world. She, too, was taught the special words and was humbled by the enormity of the gift that she was given. When the great man warned her to share the powerful words with no one, however, she asked why.
The great man looked long and hard at her. “If you share these words with others, then what it was to do for you will be handed over to them. And you will live in darkness even when light is all around you. You will know only despair and misery of body and soul. You will stumble over the truth and be confused endlessly. Worst of all you will lose your faith in God. You will be damned forever.”
The young woman turned white and shook visibly and nodded, then left the great man's presence. But she was troubled in spirit. Finally she decided what she had to do. She went to the nearest large city and gathered a multitude of people about her, teaching and enthralling them with her stories and wisdom. Then she taught them the special, powerful words. There was a hush, and people left whispering the words to themselves.
A number of the great man's followers were in the crowd, and they were horrified at the woman's actions. She had disobeyed the great man. She had betrayed the training institution and all it stood for. She had given away the powerful gift to the ignorant and uneducated. They immediately went back to the great man and told him what had happened. They asked him: “Are you going to punish her for what she has done?”
The great man looked at them sadly and said: “I do not have to. She will be punished terribly. She knew what her fate would be if she shared the special words with those outside of our institution. She will live in darkness and despair, without hope or knowledge of the truth. She will live isolate, alone, without comfort or faith in God. How could I possibly punish her? She knew what she was choosing.”
And with those words, the old man rose and gathered some belongings and began to walk away. “Where are you going?” one follower asked. And the great one looked at all of them sadly and spoke, “I am going to that young woman who gave away my gift of power.” “Why?” they chorused. “Because,” he said, “out of all my followers, she alone learned true wisdom and compassion. Now I go to follow her.”
And he left to follow the woman who walked now in darkness and despair, who had chosen wisdom and compassion over power. [ii]