How Does Jesus See Love?
November 10, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
Early Thursday morning, four days ago, I was standing on the roof of a church building in downtown Havana with 15 others, clergy and lay leaders from the U.S. and Cuba. We had gathered for morning prayer, led by Alanna Simone Tyler, Westminster’s Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission. She had decided we would worship on the rooftop.
There we were, circling a clothesline and buckets, old bricks and broken antennas and bed springs, four stories up on top of the church dormitory and education wing. The morning light was beginning to spread to the buildings around us. Across the way crumbling, elegant facades of once-grand buildings looked back at us. A man was shaving with a propped-up mirror on a cluttered balcony. A couple was sitting on a couch in a big open window. An older woman was tending to thirsty plants on a window ledge.
In the streets below, uniformed children were on their way to school. Several men sat at a table sipping coffee from tiny little cups as they set up a game of dominoes. A young man pushed a cart full of fruit, while another carried a heavy bag over his shoulder, and another was sweeping the stoop of the front room of a house about to become a barber shop for the day. A patient line of hungry people stretched out the bakery door down the block. The aroma of fresh bread floated up to our rooftop.
Next to us the steeple of the church rose high above the neighborhood. The church, in the midst of the city, in all its beauty and challenge, its heartache and poverty, its promise and hope.
We were a delegation of ministers and elders from churches across the country on a brief trip to Cuba to meet with leaders of the Protestant Seminary in the regional city of Matanzas to hear their vision for establishing a campus in the capital city, in Havana. To do that they will need support from their partners in the U.S.
It’s an exciting time for the church in Cuba, full of possibility. There’s a great awakening of spiritual hunger on the island as it emerges from decades of atheism and isolation. With its unique circumstances, Cuba offers the Church a living laboratory for spreading the faith.
Younger Cubans have virtually no experience of Christianity. They were raised in a system that rejected religion. As a result, for our Presbyterian sisters and brothers and other Christians on the island, it’s if they were starting the church all over.
Differing versions of the faith are rushing in to try to fill the void. Some cling to a traditional, conservative Roman Catholicism. Others mix African-traditions with Christianity. Some proclaim an imported, privatized, prosperity gospel designed to meet individual need. And others – including our Seminary partners – pursue a gospel that seeks justice and works to transform individuals and systems.
We have our own competing versions of Christianity in this land. There’s little consensus among us in our land about what it means to be faithful. In our country today, religion is as divided as politics – and sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the two.
Whether in Cuba or here, those seeking to live as God’s people are struggling with how to do that in our time. The old ways are not working; we need a refresher course in following Jesus. What do we do?
The gospel reading from Matthew this morning offers a good response to us and to the church in Cuba. A Pharisee, who’s also a lawyer, poses a question to Jesus. We could have read the same teaching in Mark, where it’s a scribe quizzing Jesus. Or we could have read it in Luke, where another lawyer presses the same issue. Everybody wants to know: what is the greatest commandment? What’s at the heart of your message, Jesus? How will you summarize for us the greatest commandment?
We would do well in our time to listen to his response. Jesus quotes from the tradition those listening to him back then would have known well:
“’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 neighbor as yourself.’”
That’s Leviticus. (Matthew 22:37-39)
If they were wanting something politically dangerous or controversial from Jesus, they didn’t get it. Each of the three gospels makes the same point, from a slightly different angle: the single most important thing one who believes in God can do, it turns out, is, simply, to love. Love God, Jesus says, and love neighbor as yourself. Everything in the entire biblical tradition of the prophets and the law and the teaching of the rabbis and everything you have learned from your sophisticated theologians and church rules and regulations, he says, all you think you know about your faith, must flow from and be tested by this one, single commandment.
How does Jesus see love? It has more than one dimension, and it moves in multiple directions. It starts with each individual human being, created in the image of God, each one of us a living expression of the love of God – and then moves outward, in visible ways to those near us and into our communities, and in invisible ways, to God who joins us in loving the world. It’s a trinity of love: God, neighbor, self. In choosing to follow Jesus, you and I wrestle with finding the right balance among the three – and oftentimes we find ourselves tilting in the direction of self. And we get into trouble when we do that.
The group on that Havana rooftop began to sing the song heard each Sunday evening at our Gathered at Five worship service:
Open our eyes, Lord. Help us to see your face.
Open our eyes, Lord. Help us to see.
We looked out at the city and saw its many-hued people, beginning to meet the challenges of another day in a difficult time and place. Help us to see.
Open our ears, Lord. Help us to hear your voice.
Open our ears, Lord. Help us to hear.
The sounds of children and babies crying and car horns honking, laughter and shouts rose from the streets below to accompany our song. Help us to hear.
Open our hearts, Lord. Help us to love like you.
Open our hearts, Lord. Help us to love.
Our rooftop singing placed the worship of God right where worship should be: in the midst of the world. We were no longer hidden and quiet behind walls. It was love of God meets love of neighbor.
Nothing about our prayer that morning, or the Beatitudes we heard read, or our meditative silence, could be dismissed as detached speculation. There was nothing abstract or otherworldly about “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Or “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The text came alive all around us.
If the commandment is to love, then this is the world we are given to love.
But for Jesus, love is more than merely serving our neighbors in need. It’s not simply being kind or working for justice or going green. We could do all that motivated by other values, secular values, good values. Those of us who follow a justice-centered Christianity sometimes forget that there’s more to our faith than doing good in the world, than getting things right in the world.
We love neighbor because of our love of God.
Love in the way of Jesus is as much about our spiritual life, about our worship of God, about our faith and the prayer that sustains it, as it is doing social good. Our religion is love, because the one we worship first loved us.
This past June and September for our Wednesday evening bluegrass worship we went outside to sing, not on the roof, but on the sidewalk. Something similar to the Havana rooftop experience happened.
In those Wednesday bluegrass services, we welcomed anyone who wandered into the open-air “sanctuary.” Downtown workers returning home. Conventioneers from out of town. Others walking by, heads down, on their phones, who suddenly began singing along with the congregation. People living on the streets who joined us. One evening an inebriated man fell out of his chair. We helped him up, he was ok, and we kept singing.
The practice of Christianity requires a context as close to the real world as possible, and that was the real world. Love needs someone to love. A “neighbor” is not theoretical. We can’t love by staying inside these walls.
We have learned that at Westminster in recent years, whether in developing affordable housing, or advocating for more funding for housing, or speaking up when immigrants or people of color are targeted, or working to diminish gun violence, or standing for marriage equality, or hosting families experiencing homelessness in our building – which we will do next year in August and December.
Loving our neighbor requires that we encounter our neighbor.
If you’ve come today curious as to what it is we do at Westminster, let us be clear: we focus our energy, our worship, our mission, our work in the city, our involvement with partners in this community and around the world, our prayers, our singing, our proclamation of the Word – we focus all of that on trying, as best we can, to love God and to love neighbor as we love ourselves. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that
After the benediction last Thursday morning in Cuba, our group slowly scattered across the roof. No one wanted to leave. We looked out into a city teeming with life, yet impoverished materially and spiritually – not our own communities.
And as we looked, we caught a glimpse of the makings of the Beloved Community – people working together, hoping for a better future, refusing to be overwhelmed by their circumstance, wanting to love one another.
We can see the same thing in our city, if we open our eyes, and open our hears, and open our lives.
That’s how Jesus sees love – as a community of people reconciled to God and reconciled to one another, eager to worship and ready to serve.
Thanks be to God.
Let us join our hearts together for our time of pastoral prayer. Let us pray.
Breath onto us O Holy Spirit. Move among us as the Holy Wind. Swirl and gather all the worshippers this day. Remove all chaffs from our lives. Fill all the hearts in this house with your wisdom, joy, and love. Light the fire of your passion in us. For in You O God, we belong, we are secured, and we are grounded in your love. For you are our beginning and our end, and the deepest desire of our hearts.
Lord Jesus you remind us, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Comfort all who are grieving over the death of their loved ones.
For health and strength, we lift up to you all who are recovering from recent surgery, medical procedure, cancer treatment, and rehab. Strength the recently mended knees, eyes, and post-surgical pains. Bless them O God with able and caring medical staffs and uphold their family to care for them as they recover.
For all who lives with mental illness. May you remove the stigma of this illness and bring peace to their minds and spirits. Guide and protect them as they navigate daily routines.
For all our police, fire fighter, EMT personnel, and other first responders. May you bless them with protection from harm and with strength and wisdom to provide safety and security for all.
For our veterans who have served our nation in uniform. We give you thanks for their and their families’ bravery and sacrifice.
For our fragile planet and the growing impacts of climate change. Be with the vulnerable global communities affected by erratic weather patterns, the deforestation in Brazil, Cambodia, and other regions of the world, and the growing wildfires in the United States, Australia, and India.
With your love O God, shape and mold our faith to face the real challenges of our world, for we know no walls are too high to break down, no divide too far to cross, and no injustice to daunting to overcome. Open our eyes to see, open our ears to hear, and open our hearts to love as you love.
Let us now unite our hearts and minds and souls to pray the prayer you have taught us all to pray, Our Father…