If I were to ask you to describe what a progressive, socially active church looks like, I suspect most people would eventually get around to describing something along the lines of a church with contemporary worship, praise music, perhaps even some slide shows to jazz up the sermon. Yet, in my experience, the churches most actively engaged with God’s work, the churches pushing the forefront of social issues, have been very orthodox in their worship.
For example, St. James’ Anglican Church in the Downtown East Side has a very traditional Anglican liturgy, with services led by no fewer than three ministers of the service, regular weekday worship, and monthly rosary services. It is also home to the Street Outreach ministry, which is staffed by a paid clergy person and volunteers to provide pastoral care and counseling, hospital visits, room blessings, Bible studies, funerals and memorials, and any number of other care ministries to support the homeless population in their neighbourhood.
Or consider Christ Church, New Haven, in the middle of the Yale campus. It’s gothic stone construction fits right in among the university buildings, and they use so much incense in their worship that the scent is permanently embedded in the stone walls and wooden pews. No matter when you walk into Christ Church, it always smells like a service has just ended, and you can walk into their sanctuary almost any time of the week, as they open their doors to care for students, young adults, and homeless people in their city alike.
Or consider St. Paul’s on the Green in southwestern Connecticut, 45 minutes from New York City on the train, the first church that I served after ordination. They chant the high mass every week on Sunday mornings, accompanied by a full choir, sing compline every Sunday evening at 8pm, and operate a chorist program to train children and youth in the Anglican choral tradition. For many years now they have been a sanctuary to the LGBTQ community and are passionate advocates for equal rights and protections, and labour to support LGBTQ children and youth in the community.
Now, this is not a universal reality. Not every Anglo-Catholic church is progressive or socially active, and not every progressive and socially active church is Anglo-Catholic in their liturgy. But there does seem to be a strong correlation between the two. Nor do I think that this correlation is a mere accident. Rather, I suspect that it exists because they take the work of faith and the work of discipleship as seriously as they take the work of worship.
We Christians often fall into the trap of thinking of Jesus as a radical who came to start a new religion and overthrow what had come before. It is the same mindset that views Christianity as the successor to Judaism, as though our faith were the newer, upgraded model. But, in fact, Jesus is extremely orthodox. As he says elsewhere in the gospels, he came not to destroy or overthrow, but to fulfill all the law and the prophets. He comes not to start something new, but to call God’s people back into right relationship with their God. He comes to call us back into the covenant that God forged with us since the beginning.
Immediately prior to our reading this morning, Jesus confounds the Sadducees, a group within the Jewish community that was advocating for assimilation and adaptation of the Jewish faith into Greek culture—a somewhat radical idea at the time. Now Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees, a group dedicated to the orthodox adherence to the faith and the law. And in his interaction with them, he shows himself to be just as orthodox as they are.
What is the greatest commandment? It is seemingly a good question, after all, scripture is filled with commandments. You have the famous Ten Commandments that God gives to Moses on stone tablets. You have the one-off commandments, like when God tells Abraham that he and his household and all his descendants must be circumcised as a sign of the covenant God has made with him. And then you have entire books of the Bible dedicated to expounding upon the laws and the rules of the faith. So, which is the greatest.
The answer he gives comes from the Book of Deuteronomy. It is not the first commandment that God gives, but rather comes after Moses has delivered the Ten Commandments to God’s people. Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Importantly, it is the correct answer. Jesus does not respond with something novel or radical, but with the orthodox answer, by reciting the Shema. He knew it and so did the Pharisees. For both the questioners and the one who answered, it was an easy question.
And then he adds another command to his answer, this time from Leviticus. You shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. Now, Jesus was also not the first to link these two commands together as the most important commandments God gives us, it is the orthodox answer. But he is reminding the Pharisees, and he is reminding us, that the second is the key to the first.
You cannot love God without loving what God loves. Jesus is reminding the Pharisees, just as he is reminding each of us, that we must take the work of loving what God loves just as seriously as we take the work of loving God.
I use the word, “work,” intentionally. Jesus understood what we often forget in our society, that loving others is not a feeling that is in our hearts. Loving others is not an emotional state. It is work.
It is one act, repeated over and over again, in a variety of ways and expressions. And if we are not doing these actions, if we are not caring for the hungry and the immigrant, if we are stealing and dealing falsely, if we are defrauding and withholding wages, if we are not making room so that all people can seek God, if we are rendering unjust judgements and profiting by the suffering of our neighbour, then we are not loving our neighbour. And if we are not loving our neighbour, then it doesn’t matter how much we are striving love God, it doesn’t matter how stridently we seek to be disciples of Jesus, because we are already failing.
As we conclude our stewardship season this year, we have heard personal stories from several of our members about the welcoming community they found here at St. Faith’s. And yes, some of that means being friendly to visitors and new faces in our midst, and some of that means reaching out and caring for our fellow members. And mostly, it means being about the hard work of loving our neighbour, with the emphasis on loving.
If we are to be a welcoming community, then what will we do to ensure care for the poor and alien, and not just care, but their thriving? What will we do to seek just judgement for those who have suffered injustice? How will we speak truth and compassion to a world that puts more value in deceit and defamation?
Because ultimately, the work of being a welcoming community is the work of being a community that recognizes and honours the dignity of every human being. It is the work of truly loving our neighbour, just as God loves them, because God loves them. And may that love not end with the closing notes of the postlude or be constrained to these four walls, but flow out of our open doors and into every action we take and every acquaintance we make so that St. Faith’s is known far and wide as a community that loves God.