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October 23, 2011 – 19th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; I Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

To begin: a story. It took place on a July day in the summer of 1988, twenty-three years ago. In Connecticut where I was then the bishop, we had a summer camp, Camp Washington, which offered a full summer of programs for kids from grade school through high school. I was standing on the steps of the dining hall on a bright summer afternoon when he came up to me, threw his arms around me, gave me a hug and said, “You are my most favorite bishop!” I watched as his beaming smile was mirrored by the gentle care and affection with which he was surrounded by fellow campers and staff members. Danny was a young man who had Down’s Syndrome. His greeting reminded me of the day on which I had confirmed him, when he had stood in the midst of the congregation, proud with his daddy and his mother. He called out the best in those around him by his trust, his affection, and his smile. He was a gift to us.
I find absolutely compelling the vision of Jesus for his ministry on earth. He came to declare the Kingdom of God, and for him the Kingdom looked surprisingly like my young friend, Danny. “Whoever receives one such as this in my name, receives me, and he who receives me, receives not me but the one who sent me.” For that young man — he’d be in his early 30s now I suppose, and the last I heard he was living independently in an apartment and holding down a modest job — what made the difference was a loving Christian family, a caring parish church, special institutions like Camp Washington, and training programs which were safe havens, places of refuge, a foretaste of the kingdom of God.
As I think about Holy Cross Church, the first word I am led to use about us is that this is a place where children are loved. I mean first of all, the children who are in that remarkable program of Christian formation, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, led by a core of very committed people. But it also includes the other children whose lives we touch in one way or another. As we plan ahead to Christmas, for example, the children of parents in prison served by our programs. And if we look across the world, the children in programs in South and East Africa whom we have been supporting for the past eight years. And the list needs to include the ways by which parishioners advocate for good education in our schools, and how the Vestry makes our building available six days a week to scout troops, home-schooled children, and AA meetings and other activities which serve families here in Weare.
Imagine that if Jesus were to be born today, our creator God might choose to have it happen in the same place as the last time, in Bethlehem. The circumstances of his birth would be little different from what it was in that day: a place in which he would come as an outsider, poor, and around which then and now there would be the smell of violence in the air — then from King Herod, today from Israeli defense forces. I long for a world where children can inherit their birthright, a life in which even those most physically and socially challenged can know what it means to be loved. And I want to love and serve a savior whose heart and whose life is with them.
In today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees — religious leaders who are out to prove Jesus wrong — once again ask a question which they think will trick him. “Didaskolos, that is, teacher,” they ask, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” His answer is familiar to the point that we almost take it for granted:
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 the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

That was the heart of the religion of the Hebrew people. Take, for example, our first reading for today. It is from the book of Leviticus, the third of the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Together, these five are considered the Torah or Law, which contains the core or heart of the Jewish faith. To his questioners Jesus simply rehearses what his critics already know. As the Leviticus reading puts it:
You shall be holy, for I the Lord am holy. With justice you shall judge your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall not reprove your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Because God is God, because God is holy, then Israel must live in a way which strives to live by God’s example. Jesus’s answer to the Pharisees is both a reminder to them and a rebuke. You know what God has expected of God’s people from the time you first came to know and believe him.
For Christians, then, our mission is to live by the great commandment, Love God, Love your neighbor as yourself, and follow me. That is why our mission is not a set of rules for hat we must do. It is about who we are. It is not about doing good. It is about following Jesus. It is about following Jesus where he went and to whom he went and for the reason he went. It is about doing that for this simple reason, to be with Jesus. And if we want to be with Jesus, where he told us we would find him is with the poor. If we want to be with Jesus, where he told us we would find him is with the hungry. If we want to be with Jesus, where he told us we would find him is with the sick. If we want to be with Jesus, where he told us we would find him is with the oppressed, the marginalized, the outcasts, the sinners. If we want to be with Jesus, where he told us we would find him is with little children. It simply comes down to being who we are, followers of Jesus. Nothing more than that. Nothing less than that.
So what makes Holy Cross so distinctive if we are a place which loves children. As my friend Kevin Hackett puts it,
Not so long ago in American Christianity that denominational distinctions really mattered and counted for something. People used to be Roman Catholic or Methodist or Lutheran or Episcopalian or Baptist or Presbyterian or any number of other things. Each groups had its own culture, its own jokes, its own way of doing things. Outsiders could—and did—make reasonably accurate assumptions about their neighbors personal habits and politics based on the denomination with which they were affiliated.

Roman Catholics went to confession and abstained from fish on Friday. Episcopalians were suspected of being the Republican Party at prayer. Most Congregational churches were white buildings almost indistinguishable from New England town halls. But today we are less likely to use language that divides churches that way. A good percentage of those who are now members of Holy Cross started out their religious journey in some other denomination. I think you are more likely to say, “I am a follower of Jesus, who happens to worship God in this place because that is where I find a way to deepen my faith and practice it. Here it is less a matter of being part of an institution and more about being joined to a movement which is motivated by the love we have found in Jesus.
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