Blessed Are Those Who Make Space – Lent 1 – 2/17/13 – Deut 26, Luke 4

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Around the year 270 AD an Egyptian by the name of Antony unexpectedly lost both of his parents.  He was about 18 years old, and his parents had been wealthy landowners.  He was left with the estate, living in a city where most of the population was quite poor.  Antony was a Christian and the economic disparity troubled him.  He was convicted by Jesus’ command to “sell what you have and give to the poor,” so he actually did it.  He gave away some of the land to his neighbors, and sold the rest of his parents’ land and possessions, distributing the money to the poor.

At that time in Egypt there would be the occasional hermit who would live at the outskirts of a city and devote themselves to fasting and prayer.  Antony sought guidance from these hermits and admired their commitment to seeking God.  Antony became quite devout.  But after a little while he lost his resolve and had an experience of being tempted by the devil, who was enticing him with the ease of his former life.  After rebuking this devil Antony made the connection between this personal struggle and life in the third-century world.  He believed that the church was giving in to the temptations of receiving favors and growing power within the Roman Empire.

So he went out into the desert, which there’s plenty of in Egypt.  He lived a very simply life, dedicated to prayer, and word spread that this holy man had gone out into the desert to fight with the devil.  He would get visitors regularly seeking counsel.  After about 20 years of this way of life, some of his friends set out to find him and when they did, tore down the door of his hermitage and asked him to come back to the city.  Antony agreed.  Antony’s biographer, Athanasius of Alexandria, writing a few years after Antony’s death, wrote that when Antony came back to the city he healed many, purged others of demons and “consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone to prefer nothing in the world above the love of Christ.”

A great spiritual revival broke out among the Egyptian church, and thousands committed themselves to the way of Christ.  Athanasius writes, “And so, from then on, there were monasteries in the mountains, and the desert was made a city by the monks.”

Antony was not the first to seek God in the desert, but he is remembered in church history as the founder of Christian monasticism.  (Info and quotes taken from New Monasticism by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, pp. 44-46)

It is no coincidence that the monastic movement began at a time when the Christian church was rising in prestige and wealth and power within the Roman Empire.  Only a few generations later the emperor Constantine would convert to Christianity, further identifying Christian faith with state power.

Theologian Walter Capps has referred to monasticism as the West’s “most powerful and enduring instance of counter-culture.” (The Monastic Impulse, p. 7)  The hippies got their start in the 1960’s, but the monastics have been going strong since the 270’s!  Others have made the connection between the monastic impulse and the Anabaptist impulse of the 16th century.  Seeking an alternative form of life from the dominant culture, more in tune with the Way of Jesus.

It is, once again, the season of Lent.  For those of us not living out any monastic vows; for those of us firmly embedded within our culture of vast economic disparity, violence, spiritual hunger, overwhelming noise, clutter, and busyness, the desert calls.   Not necessarily a geographical desert, although there’s no reason to rule that out.

Lent is a pre-scheduled, regularly occurring event in the life of the church.  Our annual appointment with the desert.  An opportunity to declutter, un-busy, and quiet our minds, and our lives, to make space, in order to be better attentive to the voice of God.  A voice which will no doubt have a few things to say about our economic and political and spiritual practices.

Throughout Lent we’re going to be focusing on a series of Beatitudes which speak to different aspects of our Lenten journey.  Each Sunday a single image will illustrate that beatitude.  This Sunday we have a bowl, being poured out.  The Beattitude is “Blessed are those who make space.”

Lent 1 Poured out

When you make space, you’re blessed.

Results may vary.  Hearing the voice of God is not guaranteed.

When Jesus went into the desert, it wasn’t the voice of God he heard, but the voice of the devil.  Not exactly a spiritual high.  Strength depleted after forty days of fasting, all of the usual stuff of life cleared out of the way, Jesus’ trip to the desert involved him facing down the most deep seated temptations residing in his soul.

The devil is tricky, even quoting scripture at one point, which is something to ponder in and of itself.

The devil’s opening line for the temptations is “If you are the Son of God,” which, commentators have noted, is better translated “Since you are the Son of God.”  At issue isn’t whether or not Jesus is the Son of God – even the devil is willing to concede that point – but rather what this identity will mean for Jesus.

1. “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

2. “I run things around here.  If you bow down to my kind of power, it can all be yours.”

3. “Since you are the Son of God, publicly throw yourself down from the height of the temple, because your Bible says that God will protect you from all harm.  Psalm 91.”

The formula the devil offers Jesus, roughly speaking, goes something like this: 1. Fill people’s bellies 2. Seize power 3. Achieve immortality.  It’s a formula that’s been tried by numerous messiahs throughout history.

For this temptation story to have integrity, we have to accept that these were actual temptations Jesus wrestled with.  We don’t have to believe that there was a personal devilish being sitting on his shoulder saying these things, but that he actually pondered these possibilities and found them enticing.  They were real options, even expectations, for how he would use his authority and power.

But he rejects each one, and, as Luke says, the devil departed from him until an opportune time.

1. Rather than set himself up as the provider of everyone’s physical needs, he taught his followers to pray for their own daily bread, and to share their bread with each other.

2. Rather than exercise power after the manner of Rome, he played the role of a servant, and taught his followers to do likewise.  Following Jesus was and is completely voluntary, with no compulsion.

3. Rather than seek immortality and consider himself somehow exempt from the sufferings of the world because he was special in God’s sight, he gave himself over to an early brutal death.

This is not much of a formula for saving the world.

Warning: time in the desert could leave one seriously out of step with the norms and expectations of the rest of society.

A major point of the temptations is that Jesus was not locked into playing out a role that others had set for him.  The desert provides space to consciously choose, rather than be unconsciously driven by the general flow of things.  In some cases, “Go with the flow” might be the devil’s trickiest temptation out there.

Jesus’ 40 days in the desert mirror the 40 years in the desert of the Israelite people.  Lent has been very intentionally designed to also be a set of 40 – 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday before Easter, not including the Sundays in between, which are always meant to be little Easters year round.

The Old Testament passage that gets assigned to today is not one of the Israelites in the desert, but a passage that speaks to what they are to do once they have left the desert.  Once you have been through the desert and entered a land of abundance, and have everything you need – as much bread as there are stones, how should you live in the promised land?  Antony sold all his possessions and made the desert his home, Jesus wandered the countryside and villages dependent on the hospitality of friends and strangers, but what about those who have homes and live and work and serve God in the land of plenty?

To these folks, Deuteronomy commanded that when they had come out of the desert, and settled in the land, and planted seed, and harvested their crops, that they were to take the first pickings of the harvest, the firstfruits, and put them in a basket and take them to the priest, and lay them down before the altar.  And then, they were to recite the story about where they had come from so that they would always remember.  And this is what they would say:

Deuteronomy 26:5-10: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”

And after reciting this, the person or family would bow down to God, and then they would have a party, right there with the priest, with the food in the basket serving as the meal.  So it was really a picnic basket that they had packed.  And they were to eat the meal with the priest, who had no land to produce a meal of his own, and also with the immigrants, who had no land to produce a meal of their own.

And then every three years they were all to take ten percent of that year’s harvest, a tithe, and bring it to their town square, and all of the groups of people who had no means of production of their own – the priests, the immigrants, the orphans, the widows (this was a patriarchal society so orphans and widows were without a provider) – all these groups would come and eat their fill and take what they needed.  And, because the Israelites keep this memory of being a desert people, of being a formerly enslaved people, an immigrant people, they were to make space among themselves, open up their lives in this way.

The modern day equivalent here might be every three years everybody in Cincinnati taking 10% of the furniture in their house, 10% of the food in their freezers and refrigerators, and 10% of their bank account, and we stack all of it up down at Fountain Square, and anyone who needs a bed, or a meal, or cash to pay off debt, would have access.  Every three years.

This is a case in which biblical literalism would produce a fairly liberal social policy.  It was a way of making space in their economic lives to re-level the playing field in some ways, and to remember that none of this stuff was theirs in the first place, but is all a gift from God.

So, on this first Sunday of Lent, when we look for practical ways to make space in our lives for the voice of the Spirit, I have given you three completely impractical examples of how this has been done in the past.

1. Sell all you have and move to the desert like Antony

2. Face down the devil and defeat it with a perfect comeback line like Jesus

3. Flood Fountain Square with 10% of your wealth like the ancient Israelites

Maybe the feeling that you have to do something extreme in order to do anything of worth is a another one of those devilish temptations.  Paralyzing us from clearing out any space at all.

So, in closing, rather than getting stuck in the all or nothing mentality, here are three things that Antony, Jesus, and the children of Israel might have to say to us.

1.  Antony might say – Be counter-cultural.  Get in touch in with your inner monk.  You know it’s in there, and you know it wants to come out.  Try silence, try a walk, try yoga.  You might be surprised how natural and freeing it is for you to enter the desert.

2.  Jesus might say (how’s this for being completely pretentious)  - “Jesus says…” – Lent can be a time to step out of the norms and expectations of the rest of society and test the voices inside your head directing your life.  Where, exactly, are those voices coming from?

3.  The children of Israel might say – For starters, try this for a tithe – if you work 40 hours a week, then let the first four hours of the week, the firstfruits of your work, be an offering.  And if you’re giving away 10% of your income, then the wages earned during those first hours aren’t for you at all.  Be mindful of this while you work.  A side benefit is that this could even provide a little extra motivation to get out of bed on a Monday morning.

Lent is here:  Blessed are those who make space.

The Ten Commandments: The countours of freedom – 6/17/12

Several years ago comedian Stephen Colbert was interviewing a US congressman in what Colbert said was the 24th in his 434 part series of looking at each of the congressional districts, and representatives, in the country.  At the end of this conversation Colbert noted that the congressman had co-sponsored a bill to have the Ten Commandments displayed in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  After the congressman described why he thought the Ten Commandments are an important, essential, moral compass for the nation, Colbert asked him: “What are the Ten Commandments?”  Congressman: “What are all of them?  You want me to name them all?”  Colbert, nodding: “Yes, please,” holding up all ten of his fingers to start checking them off.  Congressman, turning slightly red: “Mmmm.  Don’t murder.  Don’t lie.  Don’t steal.  Ummmm.  I can’t name them all.”  Colbert, after several seconds of pausing for effect, then reaching out to shake his hand: “Congressman, thanks for taking time away from keeping the Sabbath day holy to talk to me.”  Apparently the interview was happening on a Sunday.

It is funny and painful to watch, a combination that very few do better than Stephen Colbert.  It also illustrates something about general attitudes toward the Ten Commandments.  We have a broad sense that these are an important set of moral statements, but much less clarity on what they actually mean, or, perhaps, what they actually are.  Even something as straightforward as one of the statements the congressman could remember is less than perfectly clear.  “Don’t murder.”  The King James Version has classically translated this “Thou shalt not kill.”  As much as peace minded folks would like to use this as an injunction against all killing, including capital punishment and warfare, the Hebrews had a number of words for killing, and this one seems to refer just to the shedding of innocent blood, with a different word being used for the killing of warfare.  One could always argue that we must expand “innocent blood” to include everyone created in the image of God, in all circumstances, but that only emphasizes that the command itself needs further interpretation.

To complicate matters, surprisingly, there is not even agreement on what the Ten Commandments are.  Jews, Roman Catholics, and those of the Reformed traditions each have their own different ways of numbering the commandments.  For example, the Reformed count “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol” as two separate commandments, while Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews count them as one.  To make up for this, Catholics and Lutherans split up the commandment to not covet into two separate commandments about different things not to covet.  Jews keep the “Do not covet” statements as a single commandment, but include another to get ten, a point that we’ll get back to in a bit and helps shape what this is all about.

What is agreed upon is that there are ten of these things.  After the incident with the golden calf in which Moses becomes the first person to literally break the law, by throwing down and shattering the stone tablets in disgust, Deuteronomy 10:4 states:  “Then God wrote on the tablets the same words as before, the ten commandments that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the assembly.”  So there you go.  There’s ten.  But, to add one more twist in our perception of what these things are, the three times this phrase is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, “the ten commandments,” the actual word used is not “commandments,” but “words” The Ten Words that the Lord has spoken.  This points back to that Hebrew understanding of the word of God that was at the forefront last week in Genesis 1, the Divine creative utterance which forms reality.  Each of the Ten Words is itself a series of words that does just this.  By voicing these Ten Words to the people of Israel, God is creating a new human community, speaking it into being.

When Keith compiled and gave me this list of the CMF 12 Scriptures that were discerned during the Sunday school hour I was curious about some of the discussion that happened and why certain scriptures were chosen.  One of Keith’s observations was that the choice of the Ten Commandments was a popular one among the children who participated.  It does not necessarily represent an adult choice of a scripture that falls into the top 12, but, if we include children, it qualifies as one of the finalists.  Keith also commented, and I had to agree, that he thought this was kind of cool, that the younger ones among us have their voices register in the outcome of the process.  And, they do have a point on this one.  The Ten Commandments are one of the few passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that appear twice, once in Exodus, chapter 20, and again in Deuteronomy, chapter five.  Apparently the younger people learned something from their parents and their teachers, that when something gets repeated, it means you’re supposed to pay attention.

This choice by young people also brings up another point.  We tend of think of this as legal material, embedded in the Torah with its various laws and regulations, commandments, decrees, and sets of social guidelines for the people of Israel.  Biblical scholar Dennis Olson puts a different spin on this.  In a book about Deuteronomy, he suggests that the Ten Commandments, introduced toward the beginning, in chapter five, provide an outline for the following chapters 6-28.  In other words, the following chapters of Deuteronomy serve as commentary and expansions of each of the Ten Commandments, in the order they are given, such that the Ten Commandments serve somewhat as chapter titles for the material that follows.  And Olson makes this observation: “These expansions and interpretations…suggest that Deuteronomy understands the law and commandments primarily in the context not of a courtroom but of a classroom…Deuteronomy is more a catechetical book than a law book.  Elders, teachers, and parents are to use the book more than lawyers and judges.  Deuteronomy is primarily aimed at a new generation in need of growth and maturity.”  (Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses, p. 44)

I find this to be a refreshing way of thinking about the Ten Commandments and it seems to say that our kids get this intuitively, and that a few of our congressman don’t quite get it.  It is How to Be Human 101. Like other lists and collections in the Bible – the Beattitudes of Jesus in Matthew, the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, the armor of God in Ephesians – these are meant to be basic teaching tools for spiritual and character formation about what it means to be a human being.

Abbie and I have just come back from a week at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where the monks have committed to a life of stability, work, and contemplation.  This is the same place where I began my Sabbatical last summer and I remember sharing with you after returning from there that my first few days that I was there I found myself feeling sorry for these monks.  Here I was, able to read and sleep – and leave – at my leisure, choosing to join or not join the monks during any of their seven daily prayer times.  But they were trapped.  They had surrendered their freedoms through their monastic vows.  It took me a couple days to accept the potential freedom of their calling that they could experience at Gethsemani, perfectly captured in those words of the young Thomas Merton as he was first entering the order, calling the place “the four walls of my new freedom.”

This brings us back to the Jewish understanding of these Ten Words, that elusive tenth commandment, which for them is the first on the list.  Exodus 20 begins this way: “God spoke all these words, saying: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods before me.”  In the Jewish mind, two of the ten words have already been given at this point.  The first Word, which we typically don’t include, because it’s not a commandment at all is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”

The first Word is a statement of freedom and grace.  Of deliverance from bondage.  Recalling an act of God which brought an enslaved people out of slavery, to form a completely new community, based not on Pharoah’s economy of domination, but based on an economy of generosity, abundance, and the gift of enough.  Framed in this way, the other nine words offer graceful insights into how to be free.

What the ten commandments offer, as an invitation and as a warning, is a way to remain free from the slaveries of our own choosing.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  The whole point, is radical freedom.  And yet, there is an awareness here, that after having been delivered from Egypt, from whatever bondage we have been a part of, we easily enter back into voluntary bondage.  We can become enslaved by allowing something like money or status to control our lives – you shall have no other gods, but God.  We can become enslaved to busyness and productivity and quantifiable measurable results.  Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Cease from work and allow all those around you even your animals, to cease from work.  Because in Egypt, you had no rest, but you’re not in Egypt anymore.

Do not commit adultery.  This is a bit of an aside, but connected with the temptations of status – not the evils of status, but the temptations of status.  Something I just learned recently is that when your status goes up in society – you get a promotion, you get elected to office, you get placed in a position that is seen as having a higher status than the one you were in before – the testosterone level in your body literally increases.  This is a hormone connected with sex drive for men and for women.  And tests are showing that status promotion elevates testosterone levels, apparently pretty much across the board for men, and for about 50% of women.  This is a biological fact that we are inheriting from the evolutionary past and, whatever good it may have served us back in the day, it can be a cause of struggle now.  This is not something they tell you when they shake your hand for the promotion.  Well done, and by the way, for a while you’re going to be thinking about sex more often and you may find it more challenging to stay within your commitments to your spouse.  Congratulations.

With the first commandment, the first Word, as an invitation to freedom, the following nine commandments are illustrations of the contours of that freedom, reminders that freedom always occurs within the bonds of community, within a network of relationships.  And so these obligations and commandments teach us how to be free within these relationships.  Freedom that only serves the small self, the personal ego, rather than the larger self – the community and the planetary network of life – can end up being a return to slavery: The taking of innocent life – do not murder.  Taking what does not belong to us: Do not steal.  Even being overly consumed with desire for what does not belong to us: Do not covet.

It’s been said that you can’t break the commandments.  You can only be broken over them.  To break a commandment is to become less free.  The commandments have no punishments listed after them and in a sense carry their own natural consequences.  Because we are relational beings, the path to freedom goes through the commandments, which have to do with right relationship.  And, if we become broken over one of the commandments, the process of reconciliation and forgiveness is what helps restore us back to right relationship, which becomes such a major theme of the biblical story and the teachings of Jesus.  They are bookended with grace – at the beginning, and what comes after.

As most parents discover rather quickly, a list of “Thou shalt nots” is not all that effective or inspiring for children.  Rather than giving our children a moral code with strict punishments, we seek to help guide them on a path that will enable them to obtain the fullness of their unique personhood.  We want them to be free.  And we ourselves, beloved children of God every one, are learning what it means to be free, to come into the fullness of our humanity, to be in loving relationship with others in a way that allows all of us to flourish.  Because we have been delivered from Egypt, we have tasted the sweetness of the promised land, and it is good.

 

The Poor Will Always Have You With Them – 10/12/08 – Deut. 8:7-18, Mark 14:3-9

Consider for a moment all the ways that your life intersects with poverty.  If you’re a social worker or a school teacher, chances are that your work regularly brings you into contact with those who are poor.  Perhaps you know of families in your neighborhood who have lost their job, or who have difficulties paying the bills, despite the parents working multiple low-paying jobs.  It could be that now or sometime in your life you have developed a friendship with a person living in poverty and have walked with them through different struggles.    Maybe you volunteer at Community Meal or with People Working Cooperatively or with the Interfaith Hospitality Network.  Maybe you bring food items here to church to be given to the Oakley Food Pantry. Maybe you have decided to give a certain percentage of your income to an organization like Mennonite Central Committee or to shop regularly at a place like Ten Thousand Villages.  Perhaps you yourself have experienced periods of poverty in your own life or remember stories that your parents or grandparents told about being in poverty.  Some of you have traveled to parts of the world where you’ve encountered poverty on a massive scale.

Any of these cases connects you in some way to poverty.  As close as your own family or neighborhood, or as distant as a developing nation.  Remember these relationships as we talk about poverty and the poor.  Keep these stories and experiences in front of you.  A temptation when talking about poverty is to depersonalize it into one big abstract overwhelming issue, something that happens out there with those people.  One way to avoid this temptation is to remember the people and situations that we are connected with where poverty exists.  If it has to do with connection and relationship then we ourselves are on the inside of the issue, and we find that it is anything but impersonal.  Poverty has to do with us – the big “us.”

Our concern for the poor is rooted deeply in the scriptures.

Jesus defined his own mission by using the words of the prophet Isaiah – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)  Matthew and Luke each record slightly different versions of Jesus’ most important sermon, but they each start out having to do with poverty.  In Luke, Jesus begins the sermon on the plain by saying “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20).  In Matthew, Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus’ idea of the poor being blessed included a health care plan that did not discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions.  In fact, it seemed to favor those with pre-existing conditions and send them to the front of the line.  When a paralytic was having a difficult time with health care access, due to the crowds pressing around Jesus, his friends decided to try another approach and come down through the roof of the house where Jesus was staying.  Rather than send the paralytic and his friends away with nothing but a bill for the cost of the roof repair, Jesus admired their great faith, and healed heart and body by offering forgiveness of sins and re-energized legs that enabled the paralytic to walk out on his own, much to the amazement of the people.     

Jesus’ idea of the poor being blessed also involved food security for families.  All four gospels tell of a time when a large crowd had gathered in a deserted region to hear Jesus preach.  People had come on foot from all the surrounding towns, and it says that Jesus had compassion on them “because they were like sheep without a shepherd,” so he began to teach them (Mark 6:34).  As it got later in the day, the disciples suggested sending them all back to the surrounding villages to find their own food.  But Jesus tells them to bring whatever food they have to him.  He takes the loaves and fishes, blesses them, and breaks them, and tells the disciples to pass them out.  And somehow, everyone has enough, with plenty left over.

There are many examples of Jesus acting out this teaching, “Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God,” but what about “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  What does it mean to be poor in spirit and what relationship do the poor in spirit have with the poor? 

If Jesus’ mission could be called “good news to the poor” it could also be called “difficult news to the rich.”  Some of Jesus’ hardest sayings were directed at those who were wealthy and who made no connection between having wealth and having a responsibility to the poor.  For Jesus, it was a dangerous combination for a person to be both wealthy and proud in spirit, rather than poor in spirit.   

Will Willimon is a former professor and dean of the chapel at Duke University and he starts out one of his sermons by saying “The gospel is so hard to live, I don’t know why you all keep coming here every Sunday to hear me preach about it.”  He talks about the extra challenge of living the Christian life in a culture of affluence and that as much as he tries to live the gospel in his own life he is always challenged to go deeper. 

He tells this story about an encounter with a student: “On the first Sunday of the school year, we had a group of students over to our home after the university chapel service. We had a picnic for them, then some lingered to play basketball or to talk. I sat on our patio with one student. He said, “Dr. Willimon, thanks for having us over to your home. This is the first time I’ve ever been in a faculty home.”  “That’s a disgrace,” I said. “I think that we faculty ought to have students in our homes as often as possible.”  “Well, few faculty think that way, I can tell you,” said the student. “And you have a beautiful home,” he said. “Let me ask you, do you feel at all guilty being a Christian and living in such a nice house? How have you thought about that?”  And I responded, “Now I’m remembering why it was not such a great idea to invite you people over to my house.” (Sojourners’ Poverty Sunday Organizers Toolkit)  He doesn’t resolve the tension, but goes on to say, “Such are the challenges of attempting to be Christian in the midst of affluence.”

To the wealthy, Jesus called for a recognition of their own poverty of spirit.  His teachings were rooted in the ancient story of the Jews as a people who God delivered out of the poverty of slavery and who were to never forget their experience of poverty and God’s love for the poor.  The reading from Deuteronomy is a great example of the relationship between the poor and the poor in Spirit.  In Deuteronomy the people were looking ahead to a time when their days of poverty would be behind them.  They would enter a new land where there would be streams and wells of water, where wheat and barley and vines and fig trees grew in abundance, and where they would eat their fill.  They would go from being poor slaves to wealthy caretakers of the land.  But rather than an all-out celebration of their new fortunes, they receive a word of caution.  Never forget.  It says, “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your gold and silver is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Deut. 8:12-14)  The Israelites are being presented with the challenge of how to be poor in spirit without being poor.  In your Spirit you must remain as one who is poor so that you still consider the poor your brother and sister.  You will treat the poor with fairness and generosity because you have a memory of being poor.  The reality of poverty resides somewhere within you and you are always connected to the poor in this way.

The call to be poor in spirit doesn’t let us off the hook – as if we can just get by with being poor in spirit and not really poor.  In becoming poor in spirit we are placed on the hook in being challenged to make our resources of time, money, possessions and power, always available to the One who delivers the poor from their bondage to slavery.      

Call to mind again all the ways that your life intersects with poverty.  I believe that the Spirit calls us to continually go deeper in the ways that we share our life with the poor and that every small action we do or relationship that we have matters.  There is a model that presents a continuum for the ways that our lives are engaged with the poor and I want to pass that along here.  It involves different steps that build on each other and draw us toward the vision of Jesus.       

The entry level could be called a Holy Nudge.  This is the beginning of a calling to live for more than oneself.  It is the gift of unrest or uneasiness with the way things are.  This Holy Nudge could come through prayer, study, or encountering poverty in a new way.  It can be experienced as a new awareness of the reality of poverty and a sense that one can no longer live completely separated from the poor.  We could call this getting a hand delivered invitation by Christ to become poor in spirit.  We get a glimpse of our own inward poverty and we’re drawn toward the riches of opening our lives up to being good news for the poor.  One of the things that struck me when I was doing the research for the Day Laborer sermon a couple weeks ago was how easy it is to just not know about what all goes on in the lives of the poor.  The privilege of the middle and upper class is that we don’t have to pay attention to poverty if we don’t want to.  So we need these holy nudges often that call us out of our secure world, into the risks of gospel living.

The next step is charity.  We know that we must give something.  Not all of our possessions are for us only, and we free up some of what we have to be given for the benefit of people and programs that serve the poor.  One generous act of charity that you all have done this year is giving out of the government rebate checks that we received this summer.  The portion of the money that goes toward local mission will have a direct impact on our Oakley neighborhood.  The board of the Oakley Food Pantry met recently and was discussing how we would like to have Thanksgiving meal vouchers for people to use at Krogers this year – vouchers specifically for a full meal package.  There was some discussion about where the money would come from for this, and I was able to mention that CMF had collected money this summer that would be able to cover all the expenses.  This money given in charity will enable between 30 and 40 Oakley families to have a full Thanksgiving meal this season.         

The next step of involvement and engagement with the poor after charity is service – where we give our time and work alongside the poor.  With service there is a growing sense of camaraderie and trust that is built as we put ourselves on the ground where there are needs.  I was encouraged to see recently that numbers for Mennonite Voluntary Service were up this past year, well above previous years.  Setting aside a year or two for the purpose of service is something that we value as a church and something to be talking about with our youth.  Service changes us because it is the step where we start to realize that we are receiving so much more than we are giving.

A step that builds on charity and service is advocacy.  There is only so long one can be in service before one recognizes that there are systemic issues at work that keep generations of people in poverty.  Sojourners is fond of saying that it’s one thing to pull drowning people out of a river who keep floating by, but it’s another thing to go upstream to see who keeps throwing the people in the river in the first place.  Advocacy is very much connected with how we vote.  The Vote Out Poverty pledge cards are one attempt to get elected officials’ attention that there are people who consider poverty to be a core issue in how they cast their ballot.  It’s as if a large group were coming together and saying that our own interests aren’t the only things that matter this election.  We voting for what is best for the poor.  Advocacy is where we start to put our own lot on the line and take risks for the well-being of the poor.

Each step becomes harder and requires more commitment and conversion.  Beyond advocacy is friendship.  In friendship with the poor there is a line that is crossed from this being an issue or a cause to being a relationship.  It is no longer by us, for them, but it is “us together” and we are changing each other.  To be truly friends is to be equals and to seek understanding.  This is hard work – to befriend the poor.  We start to see the world as they may see it.

Beyond friendship is something that we just get little glimpses of – what could be call co-liberation.  These are the times when we get slivers of experiences where the kingdom of God is present among us.  We are liberated from our fears and our clinging to what we have.  We see that we are wrapped up in each other’s past and in each other’s future.      

It’s unfortunate that one of the best remembered lines from Jesus about the poor is one that gets used to justify poverty.  After Jesus is anointed with expensive oil during the week of his death and his disciples complain about the extravagance he tells them that the poor they will always have with them.  This has been interpreted to mean that no matter what you do, poverty is always going to exist.  But maybe this is a charge that Jesus is giving his disciples right before he dies.  As my followers, you will always to have the poor with you.  You are never to separate yourselves from the poor but to be with them.  So you will always have the poor with you, and the poor will always have you with them.  As followers of Christ this is also our charge.  As middle class North Americans it comes as news that nudges us out of contentment and toward engagement.  As soon as we take one step we are nudged to take another.  As we walk, we learn more and more of what Jesus may have meant by these words: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

 

 

Exploring Sabbath as a Cathedral in Time – 8/24/08 – Ex. 20:8-11, Deut. 5:12-15

During Eat we passed around plates of food and shared in communion together.  During Work different people brought up objects from their places of work for display on the communion table.  For Play there was a children’s story that involved different toys and games.  Last Sunday with Pray we walked through the process of centering prayer and spent time in silence.  So what happens during Rest?  Are you supposed to bring a pillow to church?  Should it be my goal to make the sermon as boring as possible so you can get in a little nap before lunch?  Now that the Olympics are over should we make it a goal to get back to a more reasonable sleeping pattern? 

Rest, of course, is about much more than sleeping, although certainly involves this.  For us rest is connected to the richness and depth of what the Scriptures speak of as Sabbath.  It’s a word that means to cease or rest, and is an experience deemed so important in the Hebrew tradition that it gets its own day.  An entire 24 hour period, beginning with sundown Friday evening and continuing through sundown Saturday evening, the seventh and final day of the week, is dedicated to nothing other than Sabbath – a time of ceasing from work, enjoying relationships, healing wounds, and celebrating life.  In the Christian tradition, what we think of as the Sabbath day has shifted to being Sunday, ever since those early Christians gathered on the first day of the week, after the Sabbath day, to celebrate the resurrection and share in communion.  Sunday gradually came to take on more significance than Saturday and become our day of worship and rest. 

It would be an exercise in stating the obvious if I were to begin naming the many challenges we face in having an entire day set aside for Sabbath.  Dairy farmers have always known that you can’t have a day when you completely cease from work, but our generation has seen an incredible shift in overall norms in our society around this day.  There is much activity that goes on, and many demands on our time.  

Rather than focus on what’s new in the challenges of Sabbath keeping, I’m offering now that we shift our gaze toward something very ancient.  And rather than assuming that I or we even know what we’re talking about when we refer to Sabbath, I have found it helpful to think of Sabbath as something quite unfamiliar.  Something strange and unknown, like a large building that we see from a distance but have yet to explore inside.  Maybe it’s a building that we’ve been in once or twice, but the memory is foggy enough in our minds that we forget the layout, don’t recognize the architecture, and don’t know our way around.   So let’s approach this strange, ancient structure with a sense of curiosity and exploration and see what there is we may discover.

The entrance to this building happens in the opening scene of Genesis.  Sabbath has the unique characteristic of being the first thing in Scripture that is referred to as holy.  We may like the think of the creation of humanity as being the climax of creation — everything points to us and is made to support us — but in the imagination of the Hebrew creation myth, this is not the case.  Humanity is created on the sixth day and declared to be very good, but there are seven days of creation.  And Genesis 2:3 says “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done.”  The Sabbath is the pinnacle of creation, God’s greatest wonder.  The cycle of seven days lays out how we have come to experience time.   As we move through each week, we create for six days, and then enter into the blessing and holiness of Sabbath rest.        

Maybe the part of this odd building that we know we’ve seen before is the reality of Sabbath as commandment.  We know that the Sabbath commandment is there as one of the big ten for shaping life.  The ten commandments show up in Exodus, in the middle of the narrative of the Israelites gathered at Sinai with Moses receiving the gift of the law.  And show up again in the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses is giving a recap of what the Israelites need to remember as they approach the promised land.  I’m going to refer briefly to both the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts, so you’re welcome to open your bibles to Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 if you’d like to do some flipping back and forth.  The page numbers are printed in the bulletin. 

The first several of the ten commandments are those having to do with our relationship to God – no other gods, don’t create an image for god, don’t misuse god’s name.  The second grouping has to do with our relationship with each other – honor your parents, don’t murder, commit adultery,  steal, give false testimony, covet.  The hinge between these two groupings, the one that links them together and has to do with both, the vertical and the horizontal, is the command to keep the Sabbath.  In this way it is a holistic commandment.  There are some interesting differences between the Exodus account and the Deuteronomy account.  A minor difference is the first word.  Exodus says to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” and Deuteronomy says, “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”  I love some of the creativity that comes with Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures.  There is a teaching in Judaism that says that what takes God one word to say can take humanity two words.  So the Sabbath is to be remembered and observed, with the fullness that both of those words bring.  They both go on to say that you shall labor for six days and the seventh is a Sabbath of the Lord.  Not only is this a rest for people – free or slaves, but also for animals.  Later parts of the law give a Sabbath rest also for the land.  Sabbath is for all of creation.  The most notable difference in the accounts comes in the reason given for Sabbath.  Exodus refers back to the creation account and the holiness of the day, the climax of creation.  We observe Sabbath as creators because God observes Sabbath as a creator.  In Deuteronomy the reason for Sabbath is different.  The reason that you observe Sabbath, and cease from your labor, and allow your servants and animals to rest is because you remember that you were slaves in Egypt and God delivered you out of slavery.  There’s no reference to creation here.  The definition of slavery is that you are forced to work against your own will for an extended amount of time.  There’s no Sabbath for slaves, just a continuous undifferentiated stream of labor.  So why, now that one is free, would one keep living as if one is a slave?  Sabbath is an expression of freedom and a celebration of salvation.  It’s a gift.          

One of the people I’ve found to be a trustworthy and insightful tour guide for the Sabbath is Abraham Joshua Heschel. (All quotes are taken from his book, The Sabbath.)  Like any guide, he does well at pointing out things that one may not know were there otherwise.  Rabbi Heschel talks about how throughout the ancient world different cultures treated various objects as holy.  Certain mountains or forests or trees or stones were seen as being the place where the deity resides.  Sometimes special poles and altars were made and treated as sacred objects.  The gods were seen as inhabiting a certain land, a certain temple of worship. 

The first thing God declares holy in the Hebrew tradition is not space, but time.  “God blessed the seventh day, and declared it holy.”  The entire thrust of the Jewish tradition is the calling of experiencing God in time and making time holy.  Certain impulses have led people to give reverence toward some thing or some things, but the story of the Jews, and hopefully Christians also, is one of refusing to give worship to any object or image or place.  God is encountered in history, in time, in story, in the calling of Abraham and Sara, in the giving of the Torah, in the Exodus when slaves were delivered from Egypt.  Jews remember the event of the Exodus, and each generation is taught to claim it as their own experience.  We were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.    The keeping of Sabbath and the experience of Exodus are directly linked in the commandments as a way of remembering the sacredness of moments in time. 

Heschel doesn’t see anything wrong with objects and things, but sees modern technical society as continuing to elevate the important of objects over the holiness of time.  Heschel has some strong words here:  “In our daily lives we attend primarily to that which the senses are spelling out for us: to what the eyes perceive, to what the fingers touch.  Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space.  Even God is conceived by most of us as a thing…Indeed, we know what to do with space, but do not know what to do about time, except make it subservient to space.  Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space.  As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face. ..Shrinking therefore, from facing time, we escape for shelter to things of space.” (p. 5)

I give this metaphor of exploring Sabbath as if it’s a building that we’re unfamiliar with because Heschel calls the Sabbath a sanctuary in time.  “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn.” (p.8)  So what we’re walking around in here is this sheltering cathedral that draws us up into holiness, kind of like the way the inside of St. Cecelia just across Madison Rd. does the same thing in a physical way.

So the challenge of the spiritual life is the challenge of learning how to occupy time as a sacred cathedral.  I’m not sure what this means but I find it to ring true, or at least to spark my curiousity.  I think of these different areas of focus we’ve had this summer and how this is a way that everyone occupies time.  We all eat and work and play and pray in some way.  They’re all basic to what it means to be a human being.  But just because we do them doesn’t mean we experience them as holy.  Any one of these can become an addiction that gets out of control, or, maybe just as bad, can become just plain boring and meaningless.  Food loses its flavor, work loses its joy, play loses the ability to be an act of re-creation and prayer loses any sense of connection to something beyond ourselves.  So if I would be offered a gift that has the ability to make all these things holy and meaningful, my ears are perked up. 

What I think I hear scripture and Rabbi Heschel saying is that Sabbath is this very gift.  Through Sabbath God makes not only Sabbath holy, but all things, or, all moments.  Recovering Sabbath is recovering our place in creation.

When Jesus says that “the Sabbath is created for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath,” he is being a good rabbi and interpreting the purpose of the law.    The commandment is a gift to serve our well-being, not a rigid set of regulations meant to restrict our experience of life.  This is a place where certain Christian interpretation of the Old Testament has not served us all that well – or interpretation of the New Testament, for that matter.  We sometimes have a sense that the law has nothing to say to us since Jesus showed us a different way.  We see Jesus breaking Sabbath code by performing healings and gathering food to feed his hungry disciples and we may think that Sabbath becomes minimized since Jesus sets us free from the burden of strict observance.  It’s true that we have tremendous freedom in Christ, but the message of Jesus was one of recovering the true meaning of Sabbath, not discarding it altogether.  This is something that Heschel was also working at and he quotes a rabbi who said nearly the exact same words as Jesus – that “the Sabbath is given unto you, not you unto the Sabbath.” (p. 17)  This is an area where we can learn much from our Jewish brothers and sisters who have developed the keeping of Sabbath over the centuries.        

Learning Sabbath is learning to celebrate time rather than things in space.  It involves the non-action of ceasing from our work, and also the positive action of rejoicing in life.  There will be no physical objects placed on the table during these two weeks of focus on Sabbath because what we are exploring is not a thing, but time.  Next week will be the last week of this summer series and we’ll end with a couple of you sharing about your experiences with, your struggles with, your thoughts on Sabbath.  How do we work at making room for Sabbath?  What are the challenges?  How have you experienced Sabbath differently at different points in your life?  What have been some of the blessings of your Sabbath keeping?

I don’t feel the need to outline any sharp rules about Sabbath keeping here because I’m confident that the keeping of Sabbath carries with it its own rewards.  I’m asking that we be willing to crack open a small space, at any point in any day, to begin to enter into this great cathedral in time.  I’m guessing that the experience of beauty and spaciousness and holiness that we find could be so appealing, that it will keep us coming back often.

Led into the Wilderness – 2,25,07

If you’ve ever sought to be led by the Spirit, today’s gospel passage might give you second thoughts.  We’re used to the idea of seeking the Spirit’s leading for decisions about our life path, for how to relate to our neighbors, for gaining a sense of inner peace.  But the Spirit isn’t always as tame or predictable as we would like it to be.  In the opening lines of the fourth chapter of Luke: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan river (where he was baptized) and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil (and) he ate nothing at all during those days.”  When I seek the Spirit’s leading I usually don’t have in mind hanging out in the desert for several weeks without any food having an extended conversation with the devil.  But on this first Sunday of Lent, this is exactly the scenario where we find Jesus, thanks to the leading of the Spirit.

 

On Thursday of this week I was up near Lima meeting with some other pastors of the Central District Conference.  Over the course of conversation we talked some about this being the beginning of Lent and one pastor commented that he really didn’t like Lent because it was such a downer, with all this focus on fasting, confession, repentance, thinking about Jesus’ death.  There are enough discouraging things going on in the world.  Why do we have to set aside a period of time to emphasize our own brokenness?  

 

I shared some in this past Musing about when Lent took on a heightened meaning for me personally.  Several years ago was the first time I had participated in an Ash Wednesday service and it was a bit of a wake up call.  When someone looks you in the eyes, puts ashes on your forehead, calls you by name, and says “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” it has a way of messing with your normal every day outlook, and reminding you of your own mortality. 

There’s something enriching about recognizing that life is fragile.  There’s something freeing about meditating on the idea that however important our lives may feel, it is true that we are made from the very same stuff as the rest of the earth, and eventually our bodies will be returning to the earth.  The writer of Ecclesiastes famously notes that there is a time and a season for all things.  Much of life is a time for feasting, but Lent traditionally has been a time for fasting, a time for listening, a time for coming to terms with our own limitations and honoring a God who delivers us in our weakness.  In short, a time for being led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  And it is at this place of weakness and vulnerability where we meet Jesus in the gospel text — 40 days without food, extremely physically weakened, facing down the darkest voices seeking to guide his life. 

 

In our Scriptures the number 40 is an archetype for a period of time spent searching, wondering, listening, receiving new revelations.  The Israelites wondered in the wilderness 40 years after being freed from slavery in Egypt and before entering the land promised to their ancestors.  Moses spent 40 days on top of Mt. Sinai, speaking with God in the midst of the thunder and the fire, receiving the Torah, the divine teachings for the people to follow.  Generations later, Elijah underwent a period of 40 days where he ended up on the same mountain, this time discovering that God is not necessarily present in the thunder and the fire, but speaks in a barely audible still small voice.  Within all these periods of 40, there is something new being formed.  Perhaps it’s not too far of a stretch to say the experiences in all of these bear a resemblance to the 40 weeks of formation that all humans experienced in our mother’s wombs.  To evoke the number 40 for this event in Jesus’ life, accompanied with the setting of the wilderness, already gives us a  significant picture of what is happening here.

 

The idea of being in the wilderness by yourself for a number of days without any food might sound strange to us, but this is actually a common practice of several of the cultures native to America.  The Lakota people call this the Vision Quest and consider it to be a standard rite of passage for young boys and girls.  When a child reaches their early teens they spend several days alone in the wilderness, fasting, and listening for guidance from the Spirit.  It is a time of beginning to gain a sense of personal identity, a time of separation for the purpose of listening.  Who is the Spirit calling me to become?  Who am I in relation to this people and this land?  A time to be formed as the person faces down their own fears and limitations and allows the Spirit to carry them through to the other side.

 

Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness is a type of Vision Quest and carries similar themes with other formative periods of time associated with the number 40 throughout Scripture.  And the Spirit led him there.  The same Spirit that had just filled Jesus in his baptism, led him into the wilderness. 

 

So what exactly did Jesus face when he was in the wilderness?  We are told of three different temptations.  In the first, the devil tries to lure him into making a stone become a loaf of bread.  For a guy who hadn’t eaten for 40 days, this is a pretty believable temptation.  But this extends well beyond Jesus’ personal fulfillment.  At stake here is something much larger.  All of these temptations are geared toward the nature of Jesus’ ministry, which he is about to begin.  How will Jesus be an agent of God’s salvation?  The stone into bread impulse would have Jesus be a bread-Messiah, offering the people all their physical needs, and winning over people’s hearts by filling their stomachs.  Full stomachs are, of course, a good thing, and Jesus is quite generous with bread in his ministry, but he is not a bread-Messiah.  He knows God’s work is much bigger than just the stomach.  So he answers with the line from Scripture “One does not live by bread alone.” 

            For us, this relates to the ever present temptation of materialism.  Our bread-Messiah has come in the form of the industrial and green revolutions that have essentially provided all of our physical needs.  We rarely have to worry about having full stomachs.  But it is quite clear that we remain hungry for another type of food.  The temptation is to fill the voids in our life with stuff and things so readily available.  But one does not live by stuff and things alone, but by healthy relationships, by generosity, and by spiritual connectedness to God.

Next Jesus is led up to a high place and shown all the kingdoms of the world.   The temptation here is the grasping for power and glory.  Will Jesus bow down to the means of domination and violence that have always been the guiding principle for the kingdoms of the world?  If Jesus can be the most successful conquerer, the strongest strong man, all this could be his.

One of my favorite illustrations of this temptation is in the movie “Jesus of Montreal.”  In this film, a well-known actor is hired by a large parish to help revive interest in the annual passion play which has been sparsely attended the last number of years.  As this character begins writing the play adapted to a modern context and gathering actors around him to play the parts, the lives of these actors begin to mirror the story about Jesus and the disciples.  This new passion play begins to attract large crowds of people.  At one point the main character is approached by an agent who wants to get him under contract and begin marketing the play to a wide audience, charging higher admission, and promoting the actor for other high profile works.  The catch is that the actor would have to give up much of his freedom to say the things he wants to say through his work.  In one scene they are walking through the agent’s office in a high rise building downtown, with the agent sweet talking the actor to sign the contract.  They stop next to a window overlooking the entire city, and the agent motions and says, “Don’t you understand, all this could be yours?” 

Jesus refuses to give up his script of nonviolent forgiving love to adopt the  violent, conquering script of the devil and his agents.  He doesn’t idolize domination and he doesn’t worship power.  He says, again from Scripture: “worship only God.”   

 

On the final temptation the devil challenges Jesus to throw himself off the top of the Temple.  This is a temptation that comes with an endorsement from Scripture, “God will protect you.”  It is interesting that Scripture, read a certain way, can present itself as a temptation.  No one is indestructible, or super-human, or exempt from tragedy.  It’s simply not the way things are.  This is what the Ash Wednesday phrase taken from Genesis 3:19 addresses:  “Remember, O mortal, that you are from the dust, and to the dust you will return.”  The temptation is to make God subservient to our demands – our demands for absolute security and protection from all harm.  God cannot be so manipulated.  Jesus has no desire to put God to a test.  Jesus’ ministry goes the opposite direction, away from self-preservation.  For him, trusting God did not mean believing God would keep you from all harm.  Trusting God meant that when we are harmed, and when we face our mortality, God is present, bringing life from death.  

            Luke’s gospel reports that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.  Mark’s gospel uses even stronger language.  Mark says that they Spirit “drove him out” into the wilderness, the same words used throughout the gospels for Jesus driving out evil spirits from people.  And this gets us to the heart of the matter….The Spirit acts to drive us out of the dominant culture in order that the dominant culture can be driven out of us.  It is a part of us.  We live inside it, and it lives inside of us.  Materialism and militarism and the quest for self-preservation at all costs are not only problems out there.  They have made their home inside us, possessing us, tempting us to compromise our humanity.

During these 40 days of Lent, leading up to Easter, I suggest that the Spirit is leading us out into the wilderness.  Not as any sort of punishment, but as an opportunity for blessing.  An opportunity to listen to the voices that guide our lives.  An opportunity to root ourselves deeper in the guidance of Scripture.  An opportunity to gain a renewed sense of God’s saving action in our lives.  Just as God delivered the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt, and brought them through 40 years in the wilderness, into a good land of abundance; God will deliver us from all evil and bring us through all of our temptations, and bring us into a place of abundant life.  The surprise ending is that the work of the Spirit doesn’t end in death, but leads us into resurrection.  And Jesus has prepared the way for our journey.

These are the Greatest Commandment – 11,05,06

This was one of those weeks when the sermon evolved quite a bit after the title was already printed in the bulletins, so just to let you know there won’t be a whole lot of talk about economy.  Maybe when the lectionary cycles around in three years that sermon will be ready to go. 

 

Chances are each of us have some kind of central principle that we organize our lives around.  Or, if we don’t have one, we may be looking for one. 

I remember many late night conversations during high school and college, sitting around with friends discussing the meaning of life.  What is it all about?  Is it possible to sum up the meaning of life in a sentence or two?  We certainly gave it a good effort.

 

Businesses and other organizations often find it important to come up with a statement that summarizes their mission.  This gives a focus and a clear sense of purpose.

 

What we hold as centrally important effects our whole lives.  It affects how we relate to others, how we vote, what we think of ourselves, how we relate with God.    

 

In today’s passage, a scribe comes up to Jesus and essentially asks him what it’s all about.  “What is the greatest commandment?”

 

 The question is straightforward, and a common one for rabbis of the time to be discussing.  It was calculated that there were 613 commandments in the Torah, the first five books of our Bible, and determining which commandment was the greatest made for lively ongoing debate.

 

Jesus begins by responding in a way that many others of his time would have affirmed. 

His first statement is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:4&5, a passage commonly known as the Shema.  “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  We tend to focus on the second part of this, the part about loving God with everything we have, but the first line here was and is of crucial importance for the Jewish people.  If there is anything equivalent to a Jewish confession of faith, it is this.  “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  In a time when emperors were claiming the title of Lord and there were many, many different gods, it was an essential thing for Jews to claim ‘the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’  The unity of God and the oneness of God undergird the entire Jewish outlook on life.  It is still common practice for Jews to repeat this prayer morning and evening of every day.  In Hebrew it sounds like this:  Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad.

Perhaps the most important word for us is the first one, Shema, which can mean hear or listen.  Listening is difficult.  It’s hard to hear God when there are so many other things distracting us.  Listening requires us to quiet ourselves, to find some kind of stillness, and then openness to God’s moving within us.  If we can learn to hear, we will discover that God is a unity, and that we can be at rest within this unity.

After this opening line, the commandment goes that we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  In other words, we should love God with our whole being.  Just as God is a unity, so we are a unity, and all of these aspects of our life are connected and integrated.  We are most alive when we are loving God with our entire self.

            I note here that it includes we should love God with all our mind.  There is a feeling among some that faith and intellectual pursuits are at odds with each other.  That if you ask too many questions or if you think too hard about things or if you study the wrong subject that you will stray from God.  That thinking has no warrant here.  In fact, this passage invites us, even commands us, to love God with all our minds.  Think, explore, discover.  There is no place you can explore where God is not present.  There is no discipline in the university you can pursue that does not further reveal the wonder and awe of the Divine Spirit.  Love God with all your mind, and strength, and heart and soul. 

That’s what’s central, the greatest commandment.

Love is to encompass every aspect of our lives, even as we find ourselves encompassed in love.

 

Jesus could have stopped there.  After all, he seems to have answered the question.  But he goes on, this time citing from the 19th chapter of Leviticus, another book of the Torah.  “The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Somebody has observed that the key to being able to love your neighbor is to choose the right neighborhood to live in.  I believe it was Robert Frost who said “good fences make good neighbors.”  These statements no doubt have some truth in them.  But I think what Jesus had in mind was closer to something Dorothy Day said: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”  When the gospel of Luke records this episode, it describes someone then asking Jesus “and who is my neighbor?”  Jesus goes on to tell what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Well, Samaritans were hated, dirty, half-breed outsiders, but in Jesus’ story the Samaritan ends up being the one who acts exemplary, like a neighbor.  So when Jesus is speaking of neighbor, he is essentially talking about the whole human family.    

 

There is an assumption here that we know how to love ourselves.  That since we know how to love ourselves we will in turn know how to love our neighbor.  Sometimes I wonder if this is true.  It often seems like the self is the hardest to love, the hardest to extend grace toward.  I am in the long process of learning to be gracious toward myself.  I hold high standards for myself and often get frustrated with small set-backs.  This is not a very peaceful way to live.  It’s hard to love ourselves because we know a lot about ourselves.  We know we are not always loveable.  Sometimes I really get on my nerves. 

A little over a year ago I was completing a pastoral internship at my home church in Bellefontaine.  It is a regular practice of the pastor to visit the juvenile detention center in town once a month and offer a Bible lesson and have some time to interact with the youth.  The pastor was out of town for one of the visitation times and I went in his place.  I spoke with the youth some about Jesus’ baptism and about how he heard the voice that he was God’s beloved child.  Knowing that he was God’s beloved child empowered him to share God’s unconditional love with others.  At one point one of the girls spoke up and said, “Yeah, it’s hard to love others when you don’t love yourself.”  Everyone else seemed to agree.  This girl who had had a difficult life knew that her healing needed to start within herself.  We must learn to be at peace with ourselves before we can make peace with others. 

 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”, and, I would add, love yourself as God loves you, as a Beloved, forgiven, beautiful child.

            Jesus cites both of these passages from the Torah and then he says.  “There is no other commandment greater than these.”  Now, for you English majors out there, you may notice that that sentence has a problem.  I’m pretty sure I was taught that when speaking of something singular, such as commandment, I should use a singular modifier.  So what Jesus should be saying is that “there is no commandment greater than this”, this commandment is the greatest.  But instead he says, against good English, and against good Greek and Aramaic, “there is no commandment greater than these.”  OK, so dock Jesus a few percentage points on his grammar test. 

Jesus has been asked to name to greatest commandment, and instead of naming one, he has named two.  And then he says these are the greatest commandment.  In Jesus’ mind, these two separate commandments are inseparable and form a single commandment.  It’s a move that scholars believe would have been an innovation, placing these two commandments together to form a single thought.  What Jesus is teaching, in other words, is that it is impossible to separate loving God and loving others.  It is impossible to separate our personal relationship with God with our personal relationships with those around us.  We cannot separate spirituality from daily living, or faith from politics and social involvement.  When you work to pass just laws, this is a spiritual act.  When you pray and meditate on the graciousness of God, this is a political act.  When you make decisions about the kind of lifestyle you want to live and what types of businesses you want to support with your money, this is an act of worship.  When we gather to sing and acknowledge God as Lord of our lives, this is an act of pledging allegiance to a power other than the ruling powers of our country.  These have often been called the vertical and horizontal aspects of our life.  Our vertical connection to God and our horizontal connection with the world.  Two things that don’t normally fit together are found out to need to be together to form what is most important.  For Jesus, it simply is not possible to think of the two as separate.  They form a single commandment.  These are the greatest commandment.    

That’s what Jesus said. 

The scribe answers, “You are right, Teacher.”  Well, that’s a change of tone from all the arguing that’s been going on in Mark’s gospel.  For once someone actually seems to be agreeing with Jesus.  “You have truly said that he is one, and besides him there is no other’ and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’

 

Then Mark says this, “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  After that no one dared to ask him any question.  

 

At least temporarily, Jesus has silenced his opponents.

 

           

If we can listen and truly hear this teaching of Jesus, we are not far from the kingdom of God.  This is what it’s all about, Jesus’ mission statement for humanity.  God is not interested in a worship that detaches itself from this world, but one that engages it with all-encompassing love. 

            On this Peace Sunday, let’s resolve to be lovers of God, neighbor, and self this upcoming week.  Let’s take time for stillness so that we are able hear and listen to the God who is one.  As we use our minds and our bodies in our places of work and our homes, let us use them in a way that is directed toward God.  Let us love all those who we interact with.  Let our voting on Tuesday be a loving act of worship, as we participate in helping shape society.  Let us look for ways to love ourself as we take care of our bodies through exercise, and rest and as we are gracious and forgiving toward ourselves.

All of these are the greatest commandment.

  

RESPONDINGCall to Confession                                                                                                                                      Joel MillerOurs is a world of either/or, black and white, polarizations and dichotomies. We have separated love for God from love for neighbor. Let us confess this painful divorce and remember that what God has joined together no one should separate. Prayer of Confession (unison)Merciful God,      forgive us for disconnecting our love for you      from our love for our neighbor,      the vertical from the horizontal.How can we walk humbly with God      without doing justice and lovingkindness       toward our neighbor?Bring together the works of our hearts      and of our hands.Heal our division between soul and society,      spirituality and justice,      prayer and politics,      mystical and prophetic.Renew in us the vision of an

      undivided heaven and earth. Amen.