Sunday, October 25, 2020

Love God, Love Neighbor, Love Yourself

'When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him 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 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.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand, 
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.'
--Matthew 22: 34-46

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith:  ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

If those words sound familiar to you then odds are you’re a Rite I or 1928 Prayer Book Episcopalian.  In the Before Time, pre-COVID, our Sunday morning 8:00 service, which uses older, more traditional language, always read those words from Jesus. Collectively, they are often called the Summary of the Law.  When our Prayer Book was updated in 1979 the Summary of the Law was no longer a mandatory part of our worship, which is why, if you've tuned in for any of our recent online Spiritual Communion services, we don't say it. 

Our Gospel text from Matthew doesn’t use the Elizabethan language of our Rite I 8:00 service, but the point is still made.  Jesus is asked—or rather, tested—by a lawyer to offer what he thinks is the greatest commandment, which was not actually unusual for the time; rabbis were often asked their opinion on all 613 commandments of the Torah—and yeah, there are way, way more than just 10!  This may at first seem like a loaded question—like ‘What’s the greatest amendment to the Constitution?’ (I’m sure you’d get a lot of answers to that one!), but it was normal for rabbis to be asked such a question, and Jesus’ response was a standard one, he quotes the Shema, the great declaration of Deuteronomy 6:5, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  Every child of Israel knows this verse.  

It not only declares God’s oneness but it remains to this day a declaration that our Jewish siblings put in containers called mezuzahs by their doorposts and wear on their heads and wrists little boxes called tefillin or phylacteries.  This first commandment is pretty standard, no surprises from Jesus here. 

That would have likely satisfied this lawyer’s test, but Jesus does him one better.  He adds another; in fact, Jesus says the second commandment is like the first, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  If you know your 10 Commandments—and I’m sure you do—you’ll remember that this isn’t actually the second commandment, which is actually "thou shalt not to make or worship any graven image."  

Here Jesus is quoting Leviticus 19: 18; that is, a completely different book of the Hebrew Bible from the first commandment!  In its original context, this commandment comes at the end of a long list of prohibitions to keep Israel from exploiting the weak and the poor.  All of those ‘thou shalt nots’ get summed up in the full statement of that verse:  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  

It is clear that, for Jesus, these two verses from different sacred texts are inextricably linked. If we look at the 10 Commandments alone we even see that the first four show us how to be in relationship with God, while the latter six show us how to be in relationship to one another. But Jesus was far from the first teacher to make such a connection. 

Rabbi Hillel, who died six years before Jesus was born, was said to have been challenged by a Gentile to recite the whole of Torah while standing on one foot.  Rabbi Hillel lifted his leg and said, ‘What is hurtful to you do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole of Torah, the rest is the explanation; go and learn.’  There is clearly no love of God without there being love of neighbor; the two are one in the same, and as the First Letter of John reminds us, anyone who proclaims the former but doesn’t show the latter is a liar.

Rabbi Hillel's encounter with the Gentile.

Love God, love your neighbor.  It sounds so simple and is so familiar to us that it’s become something of a Christian cliché.  However, it’s anything but simple.  Consider what it really means to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  To do so means to give all of our allegiance to God and God alone, not the powers and principalities of this world that entice us and beg us for their devotion on a daily basis, especially right now.  To love God also means recognizing the presence of God, the Creator of all things, in the very creation around us and in us.  

Throughout the Bible we are told that human beings are not just a collection of chemicals and bones and dust, but we are made in the very image of God.  Again, this may seem like something of a cliché but we are.  All of us!  It is for that reason that we are, in fact, lovable.  Take away that reality, make people think they are not lovable, not made in God's image, and that’s when the worst of humanity shines through; that’s when it becomes impossible to love our neighbor, and by extension, God.  

One of my favorite modern theologians is the Franciscan friar and teacher Richard Rohr, who, taking after the late Trappist Thomas Merton, often speaks about the false self and the true self.  The false self is constantly trying to win the favor of God because it has been fed the lie that it is not, in fact, lovable, while the true self rests in the knowledge of one’s own belovedness, understanding that being in relationship with God doesn’t mean always being perfect, but it does mean not having to be stuck in the false self.  

Many of us get trapped in that false self, believing we could not possibly be lovable, and so we throw all our love toward our neighbor, and yes, even toward God, but we fail to love ourselves.  This may, at first, feel like we are doing something admirable, sacrificing our own needs for the sake of others, but the more we reject our belovedness, the more easily we succumb to shame—which uses every mistake we’ve ever made to “prove” to us that we are unlovable—and the more we stay in the false self, separated from our true self and the knowledge of God’s love for us.  

We cannot actually love God until we love our neighbor, and we cannot love our neighbor until we love ourselves. This is why when you get on an airplane they tell you, in the event of an emergency, to secure your own oxygen mask before someone else’s.  We have to take care of ourselves before we can begin to care for anyone else. The Gospel of Jesus Christ liberates us from all that keeps us locked in our false selves.  

Secure your own mask.

The rigid legalism showcased by the religious authorities is all about the false self, convincing people that if they don’t follow every letter of the law they will be unworthy of God’s love.  Jesus understands how absurd and harmful this approach is, which is why he turns their own rigidity against them and asks them how the Messiah can be both David’s son and Lord.  They don’t have an answer for him because they can’t think of God in any way beyond their own legalistic power structures or their rudimentary understanding of the relationship between a father and son, and so from that moment they never ask him another question.  

I imagine there was never a person on earth who understood what it meant to dwell in the true self better than Jesus Christ, and for good reason.  As Fr. Rohr again puts it, Jesus didn’t so much come to show us what God looked like—although he certain does do that—but he came to show us what being fully human looks like!  

It looks like being in relationship with God, with one another, and with ourselves.  To be fully human is to be grounded in love of God, which begins in our own hearts and extends to each person we meet, whom we can look at and see the beloved image of God.  Often the ones who cause the most pain towards others are those who do not believe their own belovedness.  

Today Jesus not only gives us good news for a deeply polarized culture, calling us to see the imago dei—the image of God—in our neighbor, but he gives us the free gift of grace, of God’s love for us that is not earned and cannot ever be taken away.

Monday, October 12, 2020

When the Lord Is Our Shepherd

' The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.'
--Psalm 23 (BCP translation)

Throughout this COVID-tide, I, like many of you, I suspect, have been searching for strength and hope.  The place where I tend most often to find those things is in the words of Scripture.  Perhaps there is no greater piece of Scripture for this unusual and often frightening season of our lives, than the 23rd Psalm.

An Orthodox icon of Jesus as the Good Shepherd

This is actually the third time we have read Psalm 23 this year, the first was back on March 22 on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and the second was on May 3 on the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  I didn’t talk about Psalm 23 on those days, but as we enter our 8th month of COVID-tide it seems like an appropriate Scripture to unpack.  Maybe, once again, it will give us the strength and hope we need right now.

I remember back in my days as a hospice chaplain that no matter what mental or spiritual state folks were in, they always managed to remember one prayer—the Lord’s Prayer—one song—Amazing Grace—and one Scripture—Psalm 23.  There really seems to be power in this Psalm. It is believed to have been composed around 1000 years before the time of Jesus by King David, who wrote it as a hymn of praise to the God who never seemed to abandon him, even when made some pretty terrible decisions or when people were literally trying to kill him.  It is a song of trust on the part of David—or whoever wrote it—and assurance on the part of God.  

It happens in the very first line: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  This has some radical implications when we consider that we live in a culture that teaches us to want everything.  Power, prestige, possessions.  Everywhere we look we are bombarded with messages that tell us what we want, and what we want is just about anything but God. It is particularly revolutionary for us to proclaim that because the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want; that is, by making this statement we claim that God is the only real necessity of life.  In this time when we have an awful lot of wants—I want to go to a movie theatre, I want to see this church full again, I want to hug my father and sister the next time I see them—it takes a lot of trust to say that the Lord fulfills all my wants. The rest of the Psalm, then, expands upon this statement of trust.

That trust is itself revolutionary when we consider that rulers in the ancient world were known as the shepherds of their people.  Their job was to use the power and resources they had to protect and provide for their subjects, but they very often failed to do so.  For the Psalmist to declare God to be their shepherd also means that “Fill in the blank corrupt ruler in power this moment” isn’t.  For folks in Jesus’ day who prayed this Psalm, it meant Caesar wasn’t their shepherd.  For us, even now, as we pray this Psalm our declaration is the same, that no president, governor, monarch, or ruler of any kind is our shepherd except God.  In this time of partisanship that is so incredibly volatile, this is Good News, which we especially need to hear at a time when public health and basic human need are increasingly politicized.  In contrast to the failure of earthly rulers, God is the one the Psalm declares who will be what a shepherd and ruler should be.  As shepherds convey strength and give courage to their flock, so does our God, and the rest of the Psalm tells us how.  

Verses 2 and 3 show how God provides all that we need.  For sheep, green pastures mean food, and still waters mean drink, and to be in right paths for sheep means that danger is averted and proper shelter is attained; thus, God is the shepherd who provides food, drink, and shelter, the basic necessities of life, to all of God’s flock.  Nobody goes lacking for any of these in a world where the Lord is the Shepherd. 

Verse 4 is both the structural and theological center of the Psalm.  At the moment of greatest threat, and peril, God still provides, even if all God provides is a presence through the valley of the shadow of death.  I suspect this is the verse that tugs most at our hearts, especially now.  Honestly, brothers and sisters, it sure feels like a deep, dark, long valley that we are in right now. Sickness and death lie all around us, and there seems to be little consolation or guidance from those in authority. It is in times like these that we need to be reminded of God’s promise to us reflected in this Psalm.  It isn’t a promise to magically fix our problems, but it is a promise of an abiding, everlasting presence that tells us that, even when we are in the deepest valley, God is there with us. This is absolutely true right now!

Then the Psalmist addresses God directly, reinforcing the closeness and familiarity of God:  YOU are with me, says the Psalmist. The word we translate often as rod also means scepter, connoting God’s majesty and power, again reminding us that where human frailty is lacking, God’s strength abides. Yet even in that strength we find care, as the Psalmist declares “your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” which is odd to say about two objects of authority sometimes used as weapons. We come with our fears and anxiety before God and find them quietened because in God’s strength we find rest. God’s provision is reliable because God is the sovereign we can depend on when all others fail, and not even the darkest, most deadly threat can separate us from God’s presence.  

In the 5th and 6th verses the metaphor shifts from shepherd to a host that brings the Psalmist to a meal in the ever-welcoming house of the Lord.  Perhaps this line tugs at our heartstrings right now because it foreshadows not only Jesus’ ministry around various tables but our own sacred meal of the Holy Eucharist, which many of us have been unable to physically partake in during COVID-tide. Nevertheless, we are still invited, even if it is simply through the meditations of our hearts, to come to the table of the Lord, where we are still fed by God in our hearts by faith.  The earliest followers of Jesus remembered his table ministry and believed that whenever they shared a meal—literally, ANY meal, not just the Eucharist—Jesus was there, that ANY table could, in fact, be the Lord’s table.  Right now you may not be able to gather at your favorite restaurant with your closest friends, but even if you are with your family who are quarantining with you, or even if it is a table for one, the same banquet is still laid out for you, and God still fills you with the very bread of heaven.  And you may not be able to go to your church and get the Eucharist, but that’s why we celebrate Spiritual Communion, even when we can’t share in this meal physically together. What’s more, this Psalm offers us the greatest of hopes, that through the reconciling and transformative power of the love of God, even our enemies will sit with us and share in that holy table fellowship.  In a time of such divisiveness, we need to be reminded of that.

The Psalm concludes with the image of anointing. As David was anointed with oil on his head, we are anointed, physically at our baptism and spiritually each day, with the Holy Spirit.  That anointing gives us power to know the goodness and mercy of God—which the Psalmist says follow us, though a better translation is that they pursue us.  When we pause long enough to take a deep breath from and rest from the insanity of the world, that goodness and mercy catch up to us and remind us of our place in God’s family, of our dwelling forever in the house of the Lord. 

We need this Psalm right now, brothers and sisters.  I pray that, as you face your own valleys, as you look at the state of our country and our world, you will remember who the real shepherd is, who will always provide, always comfort, always give you the gift of an everlasting presence. May this Psalm strengthen your trust in God and provide God’s assurance for you during your most vulnerable times.