"The Person I Love the Least" Pentecost 19
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18 (Charley)
God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Holy One your God am holy. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the Holy One. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am God.”
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’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 a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Will you pray with me? God of all times and places and nations, open our hearts and minds to your truth today; give us understanding and wisdom, not to be merely hearers of your truth, but to be doers of your will. In all your names, amen.
Love. What is love? That’s a question humans have been trying to answer ever since humans were able to ask questions. Another question—how do we love our neighbours, and who, exactly, is our neighbour? And the biggest question if all, perhaps: what does it mean to love God?
I can’t promise to answer all of these to your satisfaction, or to mine, for that matter. But maybe we can start thinking about what the answers might be, begin groping towards some kind of idea of what it is like to love God and our neighbour—whoever they might be.
Love is often seen as a fuzzy, sweet, cuddly emotion. Tell that to the parent protecting her or his child—love can be fierce. Love is not just about roses and chocolates and forever after—anyone who has had rough spots in their relationships can tell you that. Love can be complicated—sometimes you love a person but cannot stand to be near them; or what they are going through is more than you can deal with—serious illness or addiction or a family situation or a spiritual crisis. Love is not simple, it is not all sweetness and light.
We can quote 1 Corinthians 13:4-13—the famous “love chapter,” often used at weddings and Holy Unions: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” But ideally, these verses apply to any love, not only romantic or partnership love. Think of parental love, or between siblings, or friends. And even that sometimes abstract love of neighbours—ideally, this is true of how we love our neighbours as well, isn’t it? We are patient, we believe in each other, we hope for each other.
And, of course, the key word there is “ideally.” Many parents, siblings, lovers, neighbours do not live up to this ideal—we don’t either, if we are honest with ourselves.
Dorothy Day was an amazing woman who worked with the economically-disadvantaged in New York in the middle years of the last century. She was Catholic, an anarchist, and a social activist—a heady combination! She once said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least."
The person I love the least. It can be difficult to like some people; to enjoy them, to want to be with them, to understand them, maybe; to accept everything they do. But that does not mean we cannot love them. Love isn’t a feeling as much as it is an action—you may not like someone, but you can show your love for them by forgiving them, serving them, healing them. It can be easy to say, “I love you,” but love is shown in action—in the daily acts of caring that reinforce that love. It’s shown in mutual support by a couple, by a parent insisting that a child learn to be self-sufficient, by siblings sharing grief, by friends celebrating good news together. As the saying goes, “talk is cheap.” Doing is harder. I personally put more credence in the actions of someone than in what they say—don’t you?
The how of that love is described in the reading from Leviticus—justice, impartiality, honesty, forgiveness. Now, there’s also a mention of “reproving your neighbour or you will incur guilt.” This verse has been so misused, along with one from Paul, which mentions “speaking the truth in love.” It has been used to say hurtful and even hateful things to people, under the self-righteous pretence of “speaking the truth in love.” It has even been used to condemn the marginalized, the infamous “hate the sin, love the sinner.” It can be abused and twisted to excuse judgemental comments of all sorts. But the rest of the reading, all those verses around it, indicate that this is exactly what is not permitted—judgemental faultfinding by the self-righteous.
But the commandment is to love God and each other—to love, not judge or condemn or elevate yourself. We are to love others as we love ourselves. And the reverse is true—we cannot love others until we love ourselves. We cannot accept others until we accept ourselves. We cannot forgive others until we forgive ourselves.
But it is more than that. When we become angry or unforgiving of others, then we are giving them power—we are allowing them to dictate how we feel about them and ourselves. Instead, by no becoming angry, we make the choice to love—remember, you don’t have to like someone to love them—and thus to forgive.
I am not saying to accept the judgement of others—I don’t mean that we have to accept what other people think of us as truth. There is a difference between strong feeling, passion, on the one hand, and anger on the other. Passion is acceptable—stating your position, your feelings. Anger, judgement of the other person as being stupid, wrong, crazy—that is not acceptable.
So I’m not arguing for being a doormat. I am insisting that we have a choice in how we deal with this sort of judgement, of statement. The choice we make can be for love or it can be for judgement. It is up to us. God has told us what is good—to love God with all our power and our neighbours as ourselves.
It is not always easy; but then, the right path, the right choice, is often the most difficult. Sometimes that is how we know it is the right path—because it is more difficult. It’s harder to accept and reach out in Christian love to someone who thinks that because of your gender, age, race, nationality, you are less than they are; or that you are wrong in the eyes of God because of actions you felt called by God to take. Many churches still will not ordain women; some will attempt to exorcise gay men, as if they were possessed by a devil; there are others whose services are rigidly segregated by race or class; and so on. But who are we to deny what God has called someone to do?
The difference, I think, is not insisting that everyone believe in the same way, and acknowledging that others may have different beliefs, ways of living, and viewpoints. If Person A believes that women should not be ordained, and belongs to a church that does not ordain women, then I am not going to tell them they are foolish and wrong—they have their belief. But—and this is the not being a doormat part—I believe—obviously—that women can and should be ordained—that I am not to stand in the way of a person who is called by God, and therefore I must insist that Person A’s beliefs cannot be used to decide how my church, the church I attend and whose beliefs I hold, will operate. Person A has a belief, I have a differing belief. I respect that belief—but mine must also be respected. I am not going to judge them—I will love my neighbour as myself—and I will look for a reciprocal respect.
That is how we love our neighbours—by respecting their beliefs, seeing them as our sisters and brothers who may have different ideas or beliefs, but who nonetheless are made in the image of God, as we are, and who therefore is to be loved as we love ourselves.
So here’s a challenge for you for this week. Remember that quote from Dorothy Day? “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least." Who is it in your life, your daily everyday life, that you love the least? I’m not talking about world leaders or politicians, or historical figures. I mean someone you interact with, or used to interact with, who you find it hard to love as you love yourself. You don’t have to like them, remember—but you do have to love them. Maybe it’s a former partner, or a parent or sibling; maybe it’s a boss or co-worker or neighbour or even a friend. Whoever that person is, focus on loving them—seeing God in them, praying for them, loving them as you love yourself. I’m not saying it will be easy or simple—even thinking of them may bring back painful memories , or revive the frustration of the relationship. But if you continue to try, to pray for them, to love them as you love yourself—you will find, eventually, a change in how you see them. It probably will not happen in a few days, and maybe not in a few weeks or months. But keep at it—keep seeing God in them, keep loving them as you love yourself.
For this is the greatest commandment—to love one another as we love ourselves and as we ourselves are loved by God.
In all God’s many names, amen.