Loving God – totally! – Br. David Vryhof

Matthew 22: 34-46

We brothers sometimes have occasion to listen to people who are attempting to discern God’s will for their lives.  They may have reached a certain juncture in life or they may be facing an important decision, and they want to know what it is that God wants them to be or to do in this next stage of their life.  They’re often asking, “What is that God wants from me at this moment or in this particular situation?”

I sometimes point out to them that their question could be phrased in another way.  Instead of asking what God wants from them, they might equally ask what God wants for them at this time.  I say this because I believe that what God wants from us is the same as what God wants for us.  God does not ask anything from us that is not also in our best interests and for our greatest good.  What God requires of us are those things that God knows will bring us the greatest fulfillment and deepest satisfaction in life, even when we may think otherwise.

So when God commands, we should listen, because God is not only asking something from us but is also offering to do something for us.  How might that perspective change the way we hear this first and greatest commandment?

A lawyer asked [Jesus] 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 will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.’”

If we view this commandment only as something that God wants from us – total commitment and whole-hearted love – we might be tempted to imagine a controlling and narcissistic God who demands that those whom he has made should give him their love and allegiance above all else.  How many of us would be eager to respond to someone who demanded our love?

But if we understand this commandment not only as something God wants from us, but also as something that God wants for us, we can see that in this commandment we are being invited to claim that for which we could not have dared to ask: a personal, intimate, loving relationship with God. God not only wants this from us, but for us, because it is for this relationship of loving union that we have been made and only in union with God can we find true peace and joy.  As St Augustine famously remarked, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you, O God.”

The God whose very Being is Love, whose Trinity of Persons flow together in mutual self-giving and love, invites us to participate in this Divine Love, to become one in the reciprocal self-giving, love and joy of God’s Triune Self.  What a beautiful invitation it is!  It is meant for our fulfillment, our happiness, our peace and our joy.  Why shouldn’t our response be an eager and overwhelming yes? “O my God, thank you for your boundless and steadfast love for me and for your most gracious invitation to abide with you in love. I will love you with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind!”

And yet, such enthusiasm doesn’t always characterize our response, does it.  As the evangelist John writes, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:11) How often we find our hearts lukewarm at best, and our desires focused on all sorts of lesser things that we seek after with far more urgency than we seek after God.  What stands in the way of our wholehearted ‘yes’?

Often it’s fear.

We may find ourselves holding back from God’s invitation to intimacy and connection because we fear that it might cost us our sense of separateness and autonomy.

We may intentionally maintain a distant and formal relationship with God because the thought of God as a personal, living presence in our lives frightens us.

We may erect barriers to prevent God’s love and tenderness from reaching the deepest levels of our hearts because we have been hurt and are still harboring pain, anger or resentment.

We may close off certain parts of our hearts and lives to God, hiding our personal needs and anxieties, because we cannot imagine that they matter to God.

We may be afraid of what God might ask of us if we were to abandon ourselves whole-heartedly to Divine Love.  Might we be asked to let go of something or someone whom we love and cherish even more than God?  Might we be asked to go somewhere or do something that we would rather not do?  We fear what God might ask of us.

We may be afraid to trust ourselves to God’s care because we feel that God has let us down in the past.  Perhaps our prayers went unanswered or our desires were left unfulfilled, and we are afraid to trust God now.

We may even be afraid to be totally and unconditionally loved by God.  What would it mean for us to begin to see ourselves – and to live – as beloved children of God?  What image of myself might I have to let go of in order to embrace this new identity?

We may be afraid of loving God with such thorough abandonment.  What might people think of us if we were absolutely in love with God, if God mattered to us more than anything or anyone else?

For all of these reasons and more, we hold back in fear… or we distance ourselves by assuming a posture of apathy or disinterest…. or we turn away from the offer of Divine Love to pursue lesser things that we believe will bring us meaning and fulfillment.

And yet, the consistent voice of the Scriptures, the witness of the saints throughout the ages, and the testimony of Jesus himself tell us otherwise.  They tell us that God is love, that we have been created out of love and for love, that God is continually reaching out to us in love, and that the fullness of life is to be found in knowing and receiving and responding to this love with all our being.  They tell us that in all the world there is nothing that can ever separate us from this love.  They encourage us to abandon ourselves to this love, promising that if we will risk losing the life of our own making we will find true life in knowing, loving and serving God.

“I sought the Lord and he answered me,” testifies the psalmist, “and delivered me from all my fears.”  “O taste and see that the Lord is good,” he continues, “happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:4, 8).

There is a story from the tradition of the desert fathers and mothers that goes like this:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?’  Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards  heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

Why not become all flame?  Why not make it your one aim in life to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength?  Why not abandon yourself day by day to God’s loving care, trusting in God’s goodness?  Why not lose your life in order to gain it?

When I was a boy my parents taught me to swim.  I can remember them standing waist-deep in the water, waiting for me to summon the courage to jump off the edge of the pool into their arms.  At first I held back in fear.  I wanted to believe it would be okay, but I didn’t quite dare to throw myself off the edge and into the water.  Gradually I learned to trust that I would be caught.  Once that assurance took hold, my fear receded.

At times we are like that child, holding back from God in fear, wanting to believe God will in fact be there for us but not really knowing for sure.  It feels safer to preserve our autonomy, to handle things ourselves as best we can, to maintain our sense of control over our lives, to love God cautiously and from a distance.

And yet this is the God who has promised never to leave us or forsake us.  This is the God from whose love nothing can ever separate us.  This is the God who urges us to cast all our cares on him because he cares for us.  And those who dare to leap into God’s arms will find him to be a safe refuge, a stronghold in time of trouble.  The invitation we have from Jesus in this first and greatest commandment asks for nothing less than a whole-hearted response to the God who has reached out to us in love.

Soon we will be invited to come forward to receive the Eucharist.  The bread and wine are for us the Body and Blood of Christ, the sacramental sign of God’s self-offering in love. Here is an opportunity to extend our hands to receive God’s love.  Here is a chance to confess that our discipleship has often been half-hearted and to renew our self-offering in response to God’s generous gift.  In this moment we can leap from the place of fear into the ready arms of God.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.”  This is what God wants from you.  This is what God wants for you.

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  1. Rhode on October 4, 2018 at 09:53

    In my youth I trusted my dad loved me…the first time he failed to protect me from his anger was shocking. I was a disappointment. Unworthy. My dad was a disappointment. My trust in his love fractured. Much of those old feelings can still rattle around in my relationship with God if I let them – even though my relationship with my dad has long mended with God’s grace. I had to let go of my disappointment that my dad and God would grant every wish and protect me from every hurt. Learning God deeply loves me is part of staying committed within a relationship that offers continual growth. Now I have knowledge I can be a disappointment and still remain a beloved daughter. Loving God with all my heart and mind and soul (and my neighbors as myself!!) and learning to live in trust – as opposed to fear – is a life worth getting up each morning for. Indeed – ” If God is for me, who can be against me?” Thank God. And, thank you!

  2. SusanMarie on October 4, 2018 at 06:30

    Excellent sermon; insightful comments. Thank you all for a new way of processing this passage.

  3. Harriet on October 4, 2018 at 05:38

    When I am asked or feel it necessary to do something different than my normal routine, I immediately have a moment of fear. I am learning to turn that unsettled moment to God for his grace to carry on and not be afraid. Thank you for your fine message.

  4. Verna Kosiba on June 6, 2017 at 08:32

    Thank you Brother David. Indeed, God’s awesome and great love is The Good News of the Gospel

  5. JoAnn Lancaster on June 6, 2017 at 06:38

    Thank you Brother David – you know me so well. I KNOW that my moments of greatest joy come when I act for love of God and love of my neighbor. Why wouldn’t I want everything that I do or say to bring that joy; but I hold back, clinging to what is safe, clinging to what I can control. Why? Fear? Fear of letting go of the sins of the past and embracing God’s perfect love? Why?

  6. Tinka Dawson on October 28, 2014 at 23:50

    Than you. This was very relevant for me. I am handicapped and need an aid for many things. She called me Sunday to tell me she had broken her leg. The first thing I did was pray for her to heal quickly and for me to find some help. Although the solution is still not found the reminder in your sermon was truly helpful. With God’s help a solution will be found.

  7. Gwedhen Nicholas on May 10, 2013 at 18:56

    Your message really put into words what I am thinking about and feeling now a days.
    Thank you so much

  8. irene pietsch on February 16, 2013 at 19:23

    I am a new reader and I thank you deeply for the messages.

  9. marilyn bornstein on February 16, 2013 at 16:35

    Thank you Brother David……

  10. The Rev. Janice Schuyler on February 16, 2013 at 09:29

    David, last fall I made a weekend retreat which you led, I still remember things you said and the way you were present when you came into the room. I am finishing sermon prep for tomorrow, Luke’s account of the temptation in the wilderness and this sermon of yours helped me. The Interpreter’s Bible had noted that prior to this incident the narrative focused on the question, who is Jesus. Now in the temptation narrative the question is what is Jesus to do? What is God’s Son to do. Your sermond helped because it introduces the question, What did God want for Jesus? What does he want for us, for each person who will be at worship tomorrow. What gifts is God longing to give us and have us open and enjoy?

  11. The Rev. William J. Fleener, Sr. on November 15, 2012 at 08:15

    Dear Brother David,

    Thank you for this challenging and true message. Only one word caused a negative reaction as I read it. For many years I have been carrying on a quiet campaign to remove the word “should” from the English language. For me that word only sits on the back of my neck and pushes down. God gave me the ability to make choices with the words “can” “will” “can’t” and “won’t”, but I cannot do anything with “should” except worry and struggle. I believe that God called me to priesthood 64 years ago. If I had sat there with “I should”, I never would have moved.

    Again, thank you for the message.

    Love, in Christ,
    Bill Fleener, Sr.

    • DLa Rue on February 16, 2013 at 10:58

      Your observation is so consistent with something one of my dance instructors used to point out: that your shoulders carry your “should’s” — they are, in effect, your “should-ers,” and their slope shows the weight you’re carrying at any one moment.

      That just gave me a whimsical idea: if one combines that with the old idea of “praying off ones burdens” it’s a kind of somatic index to ones prayer life….if your shoulders are stooped, get down on your knees…

  12. Susan Joy Smellie on October 13, 2011 at 08:57

    I believe this sermon is such an excellent way of clarifying the dichotomy that I think is so prevalent in our innermost thinking. Many of us have internalized a picture of a demanding God who wants us to do things–whether we like it or not–for His sake. I catch myself at this occasionally, as well as seeing hints of it in others at time. I remember being in a group with a young man who admitted that he deliberately kept himself at a distance from God because “I’m afraid if I said yes to God he’d make me go to Africa [as a missionary]–and I don’t want to go!” I am convinced that God is not co-dependent. His ego and well-being is not at the mercy of our feelings or behavior. Yet, he cares deeply what we do and don’t do, why, and how…. He cares because he knows what is in our best interest and what will be good for us. And he knows that what is always best for us is Him!!! Thank you for this wonderful invitation to substitute the joy of embracing our loving God for our fear that maybe God is a petty tyrant or a puppeteer of whom we had best be cautious.

    • DLa Rue on February 16, 2013 at 10:54

      Such a great expression, that “God is not co-dependent” which does summarize some of the horatory expectations one hears from time to time. Good focus for meditation; thanks!

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