Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Love with All Our Strength
The Greatest Commandment, Week 5 of 7 in a sermon series on the Greatest Commandment, preached Feb 5, 2023 at the 9:30am Worship service
For four weeks now, we have been in a sermon series called, “The Greatest Commandment.” This series looks at 7 parts in the response to the question, what is the greatest commandment?… to love the Lord, to love with all our Heart, all our Soul, all our Mind, all our Strength, to love our neighbor, and to love ourselves… 7.
Today is week 5, so we are on the fifth response, to love with all our strength. To help us with this lesson of loving with all our strength, we turn to the book of Esther, chapter 4.
If you don’t know this book, it's haunting and amazing and interesting for several reasons. One, it’s the only book in the bible that doesn’t mention God. Two, it has a woman as the hero, risking everything for God’s justice and mercy. Three, it shows our role and responsibility in holding political leaders accountable to God’s ways. And four, it’s the source document for one of the main Jewish holidays, Purim.
In Esther 1-3, the King of Persia demands queen Vashti come show off her naked beauty before the king and his guests, but she refuses. The king, with his injured ego, dethrones Vashti, passes a law that men shall be head of the household meaning women must appear if summoned and may not appear if not summoned, and he searches across the kingdom for his next queen.
He gathers lots of women to try out as next queen, including Esther, who is Jewish, but who keeps that a secret. One day, a family member of Esther, Mordecai, hears whispers of a plot to kill the king and tells the plot to Esther, who warns the king, and the king’s love and gratitude for Esther as his new queen is sealed.
Now Mordecai, also Jewish, regularly refuses to bow in worship of the king or his officials, which is the king’s law, but would break Jewish law. This made one adviser to the king, Haman, very angry, and Haman promises the king a big contribution if the king will pass a law to exterminate all Jews, because they put their laws above the king’s. And the king agrees.
Let’s pray, and listen for how to love with all our strength from…
Scripture Esther 4:1-17
4 When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes and went throughout the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; 2 he went (right) up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one may enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. 3 In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.
4 When (Queen) Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her about it (about Mordecai and other Jews in sackcloth, protesting), the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth (and enter), but he would not accept them. 5 Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. 6 Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, 7 and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. 8 Mordecai even gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that Hathach might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to petition him and to beg him for her people.
9 Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai: 11 “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that, if anyone goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law: to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone may that person live. I myself have not been called to approach the king for thirty days.”
12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews you can find in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and don’t eat or drink for three days, nights or days. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that, I will go to the king, even though it is against the (king’s) law, and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)
Sermon Love with Strength
Brobbey and Caitlan and I have been playing along with this idea of… parts of us… our heart part, our soul part, our mind part. We found English verses with those words (heart, soul, mind) from the Hebrew or Greek, and we’ve tried to affirm some of the differences we sense in ourselves that we attribute to heart, soul, or mind.
Like, in our culture, the heart has become the place of feelings and emotions. The culture and time of Moses and Jesus did not separate the heart out cleanly as we do, but we get the point of hearing them say love with all our heart. That means somehow to love so richly and deeply we are moved, emotional, the beautiful overlap of crying and smiling at the same time.
We’ve done the same with the word mind, and let it become the symbolic center of thoughts, reason, logic. We’ve even amplified the division of heart and mind so much so that we sometimes think of the mind as cold and calculating but objective, and the heart as warm and subjective, but weak. Again, the time and culture of Moses and Jesus did not separate the mind and heart like this. Both could think and feel, and both were equally strong and weak, and we needed them both to be in sync with each other to find Shalom, wholeness, peace.
Then, there’s the soul or spirit or will. Western culture was greatly influenced by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in between the Hebrew scriptures and the Greek New Testament. Those philosophers described reality as a broken fallen material world summarized under the word flesh, and a perfect, holy, eternal domain summarized under the word spirit. Christianity almost forgot all of God’s creation is good, and sometimes it is our spirit or soul or will that is the source of the evil we imagine and do, not our flesh. The early Christians called this heresy Gnosticism, where the body and world are the sinful prison our perfect immortal soul must escape. Thankfully, in Jesus, we see one who thinks, feels, and wills holiness, and then does it, even in the flesh.
That finally gets us to this week’s focus, love with all our strength. What kind of strength did it take for Esther to go before the king? Her heart grieved for her people, and burned with anger at what the king had decreed. Her mind knew the risk. She could not approach the king without his summons or deny his summons without risking her own death. And of course, her will, her spirit wanted to do what was good and right, but fear made her hesitate. Heart, spirit, mind battling and debating what to do.
We see Esther love with all her strength when she acts and speaks with love, and puts everything at risk for love. By strength, Moses and Jesus mean to put our bodies, our flesh into loving motion, in our actions and words. A mind can imagine, a heart can envision, a will can desire, but until those inward-focused concepts become outward-focused actions, they mean almost nothing. This is what I believe James meant when he warns, “Faith without works is dead.” Loving thoughts, loving feelings, loving hopes and desires, those are the seeds of love but do not grow the fruit of love until they are put into action through our bodies.
Imagine for a moment a God in Jesus that taught us how to think, that cried when others suffered, and that wanted to do something miraculous to save, but never put his own body at risk to see love happen? We would not worship that Jesus. We would not see the love of God in that Jesus. What makes Jesus God for us is that his love did not stop with heart, spirit, or mind. His love extended into risky words and actions. He risked everything for those he loved. That’s why we know him to be God in the flesh. That’s why its not enough to just understand with our minds Jesus is Lord, or accept in our hearts Jesus is Lord, or even will our Spirit to believe Jesus is Lord. Its why he taught us to follow him, to serve, to risk embodying God’s kingdom of love and justice her and now, no matter the blowback.
Hopefully, every sermon is a nudge to think a little differently. Every sermon is encouragement to feel a little differently. Every sermon is a spark to our spirit that moves us to help God's kingdom come, on earth as it is in the heavens. But those things would be nothing if we do not turn them into loving words and actions, and do so with all our strength.
Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.