I once heard a wry but rather telling joke about the difficulties of attending church. ‘Oh, I love God alright’, an occasional church-goer told me. ‘It’s just God’s people I’m not so sure about’.
It’s hard to get along with people at the best of times, and sadly it can also be hard in faith communities and churches. Perhaps especially in faith communities - after all, even though we listen for what God might be saying to us, we don’t always hear very well and we don’t always agree on what we think we hear God saying.
Well, today we conclude our reflections on stewardship. We heard firstly, the week I wasn’t here, that stewardship is about turning up. About accepting God’s invitation to party, about doing our bit to keep the party going and to encourage one another. The stewardship of our time and priorities. And then we heard that it’s about giving to God the wealth that comes to us from God. About putting our money where our mouth is. The stewardship of our money and resources. And this week the lectionary tells us it is about love, the stewardship of reorienting our hearts.
So Jesus is asked: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" In Matthew’s timeline we are still in the final week of Jesus’ life - it is the last of the tricky trap questions posed to Jesus before his arrest. And Jesus’ response is utterly orthodox. He begins his response in a rather predictable way: "‘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." Here, Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 5 - this verse is called the Shema after the Hebrew word that begins the verse, and it is still recited every single day by Orthodox Jews. No surprises, and nothing to get into trouble for here.
But then Jesus links the Shema with another verse that would have been equally well known to his interrogators. ‘And this one is like it’, he tells them, ‘you shall love your neighbour as you love yourself’. Here Jesus is paraphrasing a verse from Leviticus 19: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: for I am the Lord."
And he claims that the whole lot - the whole of the Law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets is summed up in these two verses taken together.
Jesus is not unique in making this claim, throughout history many rabbis have agreed with him and in fact the very same double commandment can be read in the Testament of Issachar, a Jewish writing of the first century. And we too, every week repeat Jesus’ teaching on the two great commandments and we understand it to mean that you can’t love God without loving those round you who like you are made in God’s image. And at the same time, the only way you are able to really love the most difficult and challenging of your neighbours is by opening yourself to the God who we know as the source of all love.
Actually we don’t know our Bibles as well as the temple lawyers and teachers trying to trap Jesus in the week before his death. When they hear Jesus say, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ - well, these are people who could recite the whole of Leviticus chapter 19 off by heart. They know that the verse that comes immediately before it is: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people." Jesus’ teaching on prayer echoes this: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
Thinking about the command to love, which goes hand in hand with the challenge to forgive reminded me of St Benedict of Nursia, the great 5th century pioneer of monasticism. At the heart of Benedict’s Rule for his community was the expectation that the monastery you entered would be the monastery in which you died, and he writes that we should always keep our own death at the forefront of our mind as a solemn reminder of the importance of practising forgiveness and reconciliation. Benedict knew that living in community is hard – disagreements are bound to happen, other people will annoy you and you will also annoy other people.
Benedict knew our human tendency to "solve" the problem of disagreements or arguments by leaving - but also that if you left the monastery without having resolved your issues with your fellow monks or nuns, then - actually you take your issues with you. Eventually you turn up at another monastery and – lo and behold! – project those issues onto another sister or brother there. And so history repeats itself, patterns of behavior get entrenched and there is no reconciliation or opportunity for spiritual growth. This is what we call passive-aggressive behaviour – it keeps us spiritually stunted and immature. No matter how holy we look on the outside, unless we are doing the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation, then our faith is a sham.
It’s easy to say we love our neighbours in the abstract – but harder to put it into practice. Actually, Jesus’ command to love our enemies is often easier. We don’t have to live with them! It’s easy to love in the abstract, at arm’s length. It is much harder to love up close where things get messy.
And to be honest, what makes it hard is our own natural and God-given self-centredness - our inability to really see things from one another’s point of view. Psychologists have a name for it - attributional bias. Which means that I do the things that I do for good and well thought-out reasons - you on the other hand do the things that you do because of the sort of person you are. Our egos are there for a purpose - they keep us alive and functioning - but they do make it hard for us to fully understand one another, let alone seek for one another’s good. Letting go of the ego is the way of the cross.
As Anglicans, we have a historical affinity with the Benedictine way of being in community. We are committed to one another, and deep down we know that our spiritual journey can only be undertaken in company with one another. That the people we are in community with - whether by choice or by accident - are the ones God means us to be with. And that means a constant struggle to let go of point-scoring and inner criticism, and to look at one another instead as the people who can reveal to us most truly what God is like. It means being open to points of view that challenge our own, to ideas and opinions that stretch us and challenge us - and to recognise that the otherness and the different-ness of God’s other people is part of what helps us to grow into our own truest self. This is a way of spiritual transformation that calls us into becoming more Christ-like – into becoming spiritual adults.
Living together in the community of faith is hard work. It’s hard work, also, for leaders - and in this morning’s reading from 1 Thessalonians Paul with his disarming mix of defensiveness and insight reminds us of the cost of being authentic. ‘But I came among you’, he tells his community, ‘not in order to meet my own needs but to serve God by faithfully preaching the Gospel.’ He recalls his own hurt feelings over the bruising experience he had with another congregation and it seems he is thankful to the church at Thessalonika for accepting him. He reminds them that as a leader he makes himself vulnerable. But he also knows how leadership can become abusive, and he is aware of the temptation for leaders to buy popularity by flattery and cheap tricks. And he uses a feminine metaphor to remind the people that leadership must be both uncompromising and gentle. This is sober teaching about Christian ministry, it cautions us to think carefully about our own motivations and reminds us that we are accountable to and for one another.
In the context of our reflection on stewardship both these readings remind us of the responsibility we have to one another in the household of faith. Stewardship is grown-up spiritual responsibility, the understanding that everything we have and everything we are is held on trust. We need, first and foremost, to turn up to the party. We are accountable for the use of our resources and are challenged to give back to God the first and the best of what God has entrusted to us. And today’s readings tell us that the accountability of stewardship can only be exercised in community, that we are bound together in love and forgiveness and that we can only follow God’s leading in our lives if we do it together.