May the words of my mouth and the reflections of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight O God our light and way.
In today’s Gospel we see the Pharisees trying to get Jesus to go on record about the commandments. Unlike the Sadducees who were the aristocratic majority in the Sanhedrin (the governing council of Israel) who lived by the book/the written word, the Pharisees reserved a special place for oral teaching and in a sense wanted to get Jesus on record about the commandments – specifically, which was the greatest.
Jesus’ response identifies love as the animating force grounding and directing all who desire to engage any aspect of the realm of God. Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” …and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments, Jesus says, hang everything.
But this presumes that those of us hearing these commandments know what it means to love, and to love in such a way that involves every aspect of our being. This afternoon I’d like to invite us to reflect on how we love. What do we mean when we say we love someone or something? If we think we know how to love others, do we know how to love ourselves? Especially when the very commandment offered by Jesus confirms the wisdom of the ages that we can only love anything outside of us to the extent that we learn to love ourself.
These words can be challenging to hear, especially those of us living in an environment that stands at the ready to point out all the many ways in which we can be more, better, faster, smarter, richer, free-er etc. – as if these are the paths to deeper love of self, when the very invitation suggests we are less than we should be.
The first thing I notice when I think about love is that love requires something, and maybe even a whole lot, of me. When I think about the word love and what I intend to communicate when I use that word, three other words come up. They are the words honor, obedience, and abiding.
One of the definitions of honor is “to show a courteous regard for.” When I think about how I honor my grandfather and others who influenced my life profoundly, I realize that the very way I live my life is impacted. To honor someone is to live in a way that makes evident one’s experience of the other. It also becomes clear that it is quite difficult to honor what we do not know. Said differently, honor is rooted in and flows out of relationship. Head knowledge, as I like to call it, can only take us so far. So, when love is understood through the lens of honor, we seek to have our thought (mind and heart), word (speech), and action (body), be reflective of the nature of our relationship with that which we seek to honor. So, how do we honor the divine within us? Is the presence of the divine within us, honored in our ways of being in the world?
While the idea of obedience as an aspect of love may grate heavily on the ears of post-enlightenment North Americans who seize upon the idea of freedom as paramount, it might be helpful to be reminded that obedience can only truly exist where knowledge has been integrated to a degree that it results in transformation that becomes evident in action. We may want to think of commandments as items on a checklist for which we accrue demerits from God every time we avoid them. However, we might also dare to fully engage them and in so doing find ourselves transformed, free and in deeper relationship with our beloved. Any of you who have crate trained a puppy know that knowledge integration takes patience and practice. We often learn best from failing miserably and needing to try again, and again. And like the Prodigal son, we can return home when we realize the nature of the relationship that the Lord of Love calls us in to. Love viewed through the lens of obedience is the commitment to keep trying and refusing to give up on ourselves, remembering that it is obedience as an expression of love and path to freedom we’re talking about here, not perfection.
Finally, abiding in love is to be aware that there is no place we can go that is apart from God. In any moment we can explore where the core of our being is relative to our sense of God. A practice of periodically asking ourselves how we are abiding can be very instructive. In this moment, am I in a state of angst? Worry? Doubt? Despair? Or, is it, as the old hymn says, “well with my soul?” To abide in love is to commit to being present to love’s gifts and demands. Abiding, like obedience, can also be particularly challenging in the presence of incessant Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, incoming e-mail, and headline pushes from any number of media outlets inviting us to move on to the next new feeling state – fear, outrage, or kittens. Conversely, to abide in God is to accept an invitation to go deeper; to linger; to notice the stillness and to hear the quiet voices in our midst. To abide in love is to notice how the fabric of our interior life is being shaped and how it in turn creates the world we experience and the nature of how we engage others.
And so I’d like to invite your reflections on how you inhabit and enliven these commandments in your life. How do you love God and all that is beloved of God, including yourself?
Part IX in the poem Duality by Wendell Berry:
We come, unsighted, in the dark,
To the great feast of lovers
Where nothing is withheld.
That we are there we know
by touch, by inner sight.
They all are here, who by
their giving take, by taking
Give, who by their living
Love, and by loving live.