Our Calling: Love God and Neighbor

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19th Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2011
Matthew 22:34-46
Peder Stenslie

As my 6th grade students learned about the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia last week, they read a 5000 year old story about a Sumerian King named Gilgamesh. This ancient story was preserved on fragments of clay tablets, written in cuneiform, which were found buried in sand and rubble in the ruins of ancient cities.

Gilgamesh was a ferocious king who was loved by his people because as long as he ruled they never needed to fear their enemies.

Gilgamesh had no equal on earth until he met a wild man of the forest named Enkido. The two became like brothers. They did everything together, faced great dangers and accomplished impossible tasks together. According to the story, however, the gods became angry with Gilgamesh and felt he needed to be taught a lesson. They sent a sickness to afflict his friend Enkido. As a result, Enkido wasted slowly away and died in his bed.

Gilgamesh was overwhelmed with grief at the loss of his friend. In time, his grief turned to fear as he realized that the same fate… death… awaited him. So he embarked on a long and perilous journey to find a legendary man who was made immortal by the gods. Gilgamesh wanted immortality for himself and was determined to find out how to get it.

Ut-napishtim “the Faraway” was the name of the man he sought. He lived far beyond the known world. Gilgamesh set out on this impossibly long journey and faced many terrible dangers and obstacles. He was told to turn back repeatedly. Nobody wanted to help him because his task seems so foolhardy.

At last he reached Ut-napishtim; but sadly, he discovered that to live forever was simply beyond his reach. Even though he was strong and mighty, he was still a mortal man. He could not change the fact that death would one day claim him, just as it did his friend. He was encouraged to simply enjoy the time he had and to make good use of it.

It’s a fascinating story. In spite of the fact that the tale of Gilgamesh comes from a time and place and culture that is far, far removed from us, we can easily relate to its central theme. We too must accept that our time in this world is limited. The shadow of death hangs over all of us. Everything must die.

The fact of our mortality… that fact that we all get such a short time here… and then we die. That forces us to ask ourselves: “Does it matter how we live? How should we use the little time we have? What should we do with our lives?”

These seem to be perplexing questions for human beings. Gilgamesh (and people of Mesopotamia) struggled with these questions some 5000 years ago. And we still struggle with them today. Many people answer them by striving to gain great wealth or fame, or by wielding power over resources and people. Others respond to these questions by endless indulging of selfish desires. Some respond by simply not caring about anything.

What should we do with the time we have? Because our lives are so short, that’s an important and pressing question. And for our benefit, God has answered that question very clearly and decisively.

We hear it in today’s Gospel lesson: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus tells his listeners. In other words, Jesus explains here that “Everything God has ever commanded his people can be summed up in these words… love God and love your neighbor.”

The essential truth here… that God wants us to know and live… is that God created us for love. In our short time here, it is God’s will that we be nurtured and shaped by love. It is God’s will that love live and grow in us. It is God’s will that love open us and connect us to the lives of others.

Our span of life in this world is indeed short, but the love that comes to us from God is eternal… and that love is meant to take root in us during our time here and weave our mortal lives into the fabric of God’s eternal kingdom.

Gaining riches, wielding power, selfish living…these are the pursuits and obsessions that many are tempted to. But they lead nowhere. These pursuits and obsessions are all ways of turning inward and feeding ourselves as we shut out the lives and needs of those around us. It is empty and cowardly living that weakens everything it touches.

God’s word to us is to do the opposite… to turn outward… to connect in compassionate and life-giving ways and to share our gifts with those around us. It is powerful and courageous living that strengthens everything it touches.

This command to turn outward and love our neighbor is expressed many places in the bible, one beautiful example comes from the prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Another instance comes from the 1st letter of John: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7)

And then there are these words of Jesus from the Gospel of John: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

It is through love that the Kingdom of God and the power of creation break into our mortal lives. It is through love that God comes to live and work in us. Nothing in our short lives can be greater than that. God commands us to love so that his blessing can fill our lives and the lives of those near to us.

Stewardship has been the theme of worship this month. Stewardship is simply what happens in our lives when we follow God’s command to love.

Today members of our congregation have talked a bit about stewardship in daily life… how they use the gifts God has given them in ways that strengthen life in our community and world. They have talked about how the love of God is active in their lives. Hopefully all of us have been reminded this month to think about the gifts we are called to share with others.

There is no greater power in this world… no greater gift… than the love that comes from God. It creates, nurtures, strengthens, unites… weaves the eternal into the mortal. It is God’s will that the foundation of our short earthly lives be his love. In that way our mortal lives are transformed by spirit of God and come to bear the mark of God’s eternal kingdom.

In the ancient Mesopotamian story of King Gilgamesh we hear about a man who traveled over mountains and through deserts and faced terrible monsters and life-threatening dangers in order to find and lay his hand on the secret of immortality.

The truth of the Gospel is that this journey is unnecessary; for out of the mysterious and hidden realm of the eternal, God comes to us in Christ and in the Holy Spirit. He breaks into this world and into our hearts in order to give us what Gilgamesh sought so long for… life that cannot be swallowed by death.

And that gift comes in the form of love. It begins as God’s love for us. It transforms into our love for others. And it produces fruit that feeds the world with God’s saving grace. Amen.