8-26-18 - “Spirit of Compassion”
Shema…the Hebrew word that begins Jesus’ words means listen. “Shema, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
That was part of our message last week when we looked at the Creation Story in Genesis 1 through the lens of Creation Spirituality. The Lord our God, the Lord is One. No dragon-like gods, no pantheon of gods reigning over this, that, or the other aspect of creation - no, one God. One God who created all things out of love and declared them good, very good, even supremely good!
Shema…listen. Hear, O Israel, hear, O Crossroads, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
We learned last week, as well, that the universe, all of creation, is fundamentally a blessing. Genesis 1 begins the story of God and humanity, not out of a place of original sin, but in the awe-inspiring truth of original blessing. THAT is the lesson we are to first learn, that is the message we’re to take into our hearts in the beginning - that God is good, that creation is good, that humanity is good. That the loving God has created us in God’s image, has blessed us, that we might be loving blessings to all of creation. Shema…listen…hear THAT before you consider the false narrative of guilt.
Before we get into the passage from today, I want to put some $1.50 words out there to make sure we’re all on the same page as you hear them come up, now and in the future. We often hear or read of:
- God as immanent - which means God is nearby, close at hand. In our worship we think of God as being here, in this place.
- God as transcendent - God is also beyond here, God is not just here, but God is everywhere. Our theological understanding of this is not either/or, but rather both/and. God is both immanent and transcendent - at the same time.
And then we hear these words about the nature, or even existence of God:
- Theism: God is out there somewhere, but not here. The idea here is that yes, God created everything, but then God left it behind to run on its own, and is never here anymore. This is a God who is only transcendent - out there somewhere, but not here.
- Atheism: The belief that there is no God anywhere, neither here nor there.
- Pantheism: Everything is God (think about that). God IS this pulpit. God is this book. God is this carpet. God is your shoes. And you can take it from there, but the more you go with it the stranger it sounds. Pantheism sits in comparison to a similar sounding term,
- Panentheism: which holds that God is in everything and everything is in God. God is IN this book. God is present in that tree, that bird, that sky. God is found in this mountain rather than God IS this mountain. Panentheism is traditional Christian theology, Pantheism is not.
And I share those terms with you so that you will understand that Creation Spirituality holds that God is both immanent and transcendent, and that God is present in all of creation and that all of creation is found in, made in the image of God. And that image is good - it is loving.
Those two ideas, first that the universe is fundamentally a blessing, and that in Creation, God is both immanent and transcendent and is in all things and all things are in God, are the first two principles of Creation Spirituality. As we shared last week, this was the tradition of Jesus within Judaism. We cannot fully understand Jesus without understanding this about Jesus. As we hear this story from Mark’s gospel this week, we find two more principles of Creation Spirituality that mark who and how Jesus was in his life, his faith, and in his teaching. So let’s explore the story and see if we hear what those two principles are.
To understand the context for today’s story, we have to understand that Jesus has entered Jerusalem - it is the final week of his life, Holy Week - and he is teaching at various places. Jesus is being confronted left and right by scribes, pharisees, sadducees, priests, and others - challenged about his teachings, his healings, and his miracles at every turn. They have tried to trick him into saying something that would amount to either blasphemy or treason in order to have him arrested and even killed. In his teaching, Jesus has publicly rebuked, criticized, and condemned the teachings and actions of the Temple priests and all of those who have challenged him.
So, when in our story for today, this scribe, this legal expert, approaches Jesus we look at him with a healthy dose of skepticism, thinking him just one more person of power and authority trying to bring Jesus down. And he asks Jesus a seemingly simple question: “Which commandment is most important of all?” The CEB words it, “Which commandment is first?” Let’s work with that translation, shall we?
First. Being first suggests “importance,” but isn’t exclusively about that. Alabama is ranked first in the initial pre-season college football polls, but does that make them most important? No, unless you’re from Alabama I suppose. I’m always amazed, when I watch golf on TV, that when a player hits a ball into the rough, beyond the ropes that keep the fans back, how men (and it’s almost ALWAYS men) will rush to be the first to stand right next to that ball lying in the dirt or the trampled down grass so they can be close to this golfer. Now mind you, this golfer just mishit their shot by maybe forty yards and placed themselves in the position of having to hit a pretty stressful shot out of a bad lie with no certainty of where or how it will end up, and these people have raced to be the first one there to put themselves within a couple feet of a player who just proved that on their last shot they couldn’t hit the ball straight!
New Testament scholar Amy Lindemann Allen rightly points out though,
“in the first-century Jewish context reflected in Mark’s dialogue, ‘first’ was not about these things. To be ‘first’ in this context came closer to the idea of being the first stone laid—the cornerstone, upon which all of the other stones must rest. Consequently, the greatness of the love commandment lies not in its surpassing value over and against all of the other commandments of Jewish law but, rather, in its ability to hold up all the rest. It’s less about beating out all of the other[s]… and more about helping them to do their jobs.” (politicaltheology.org, 8/21/18)
So “firstness,” here refers to importance, not to placement.
And Jesus replies to this question by saying,
Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”
Love God, with everything we have and everything we are - heart, being, mind, strength - and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. These are most important, not because they come first, but because as Jesus says in Matthew’s telling of this story, “All the law and the prophets depend on these two commands.” (Mt. 22:40, CEB). They are the foundation upon which our understanding of God and of faith are to be understood.
Later in the New Testament, as we shared in a series of messages a couple of months ago, 1 John tells us that “God IS love.” The God who created all things in God’s image, who is present in all things, and who then blessed all things as “good, very good,” and “supremely good,” is a God of love, of compassion. And created in God’s image, we too, are called to be people of love and compassion - doing that, as Jesus says, by loving God and by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
New Testament theologian Karoline Lewis reminds us that,
“According to Jesus, [the] mark of discipleship is this very act -- loving your neighbor as yourself.” As the song puts it, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Now being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not the same as being a saint, but as Lewis relates, “it is…a call to present daily saintly behavior.” And she goes on, “I make no claims to be a saint. But I think we come pretty close when we act out this commandment. To be a saint, to sanctify, to be sanctified, to have in mind sanctification is to embody God’s way of life that sets us apart -- not for the sake of proving ourselves to be better, not for the sake of one-upmanship, not for the sake of power, but for the sake of example, of model, of witness.
“Why? So that those who observe how we choose to live and be in the world will catch a glimpse of the sanctity of God’s love, the holiness of God, and that a life of sainthood does not mean perfection… So that there can be another way of being in the world besides self-service, self-aggrandizement, autonomy, and narcissism. When loving your neighbor becomes the first way to be in the world, the primary lens through which to view the world, the choice that you consciously make to live your life in your world, that is a radically different way to be than what our world lifts up.”
And we know that there is truth in that statement, don’t we. Our race to be “first” is often, ironically, a race to the bottom, because in seeking to be first, we abandon those things that Jesus tells us are the marks of being his disciple - putting others first. Look at what’s in the news right now:
- Our politics are, and mind you, always have been, a battle in the mud, the slime, and the filth, by people seeking positions of power, often by using denigration, distortion, and destruction of the opponent at any cost in order to what? Be first.
- In sports we have to, as the movie “All the President’s Men” told us, “follow the money.” Big time athletics, at all levels, is less about the games and more about the money that the games and the athletes bring in for owners or institutions. Basic decency, love of neighbor, doesn’t even get as close as taking a back seat, when there are millions, even billions of dollars at stake for those who are first.
- In religion: last week it was revealed that over 1,000 children were victimized by over 300 Catholic priests, just in Pennsylvania, and that there was an unofficial “playbook” on how to keep it hidden, how to quietly move offending priests, without holding anyone accountable for these atrocities, all in order to protect the church from scandal.
As Karoline Lewis writes,
“While our world professes and wants to confess an orientation to the other, its behavior proves otherwise. We still can’t seem to get this right, as simple as it seems to be. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a false claim when poverty still exists, when people still go hungry, when shelter or safety is only known temporarily, when discrimination remains.
“And loving your neighbor as yourself is a blatant untruth when the church continues to exclude, to rationalize selected and chosen participation, or to insist that Jesus and God didn’t really mean what they said. That neighbor refers only to those we deem worthy of God’s love. That neighbor means only those we have ascertained as acceptable. That neighbor represents a selected few who have manifested beliefs and lifestyles that match [our] ideal Christian behavior.”
So while Creation Spirituality embraces the God of love and the love of God found in and through all of creation, it is not simply a tree-hugging, flower-wearing, hippie-dippy expression of faith. No, it is Jesus’ tradition of love of God, love of neighbor, that embraces the idea that, with practice and intentionality, we CAN learn to love God for all God is and not just who we want God to be, and to love our neighbors with the same kind of love with which we love ourselves.
As the 1960s singer Jackie Deshannon sang,
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It's the only thing that there's just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
No not just for some but for everyone.
Amy Lindeman Allen points out that in Greek, the language in which the Gospels are written, there are several different words for “love.”
“The first,” she writes, “phileo, refers to ‘brotherly love,’ or a love between equals and expects reciprocity. The other, agapao, refers to a complete and selfless love and expects self-giving. Neither love reflects a solely emotional state, but rather, points to the relation in which one person lives toward another. The word for love that both Jesus and the scribe use in today’s text is agapao… On the cross, Jesus acts with this agape love.
“But,” she continues, “agape love doesn’t always have to mean death. At its heart, what it really means, is simply putting the ‘other’ first.”
And her suggestion that “this is countercultural today” is born out for us in the three areas I pointed to earlier, but also just from our every day, day-in-and-day-out experience of living in the world.
“Acting with agape love as our first commandment,” she says, “means stepping back from whatever other codes of conduct or moral laws dictate our personal ethics and asking first, What does this mean for my neighbor? Or, even more potently, Is this me giving myself to my neighbor? Is this me giving myself to my God? Because to put love of God and neighbor first means not just to act according to what we think is best for our neighbor, but rather, to act in such a way that we give our very self to our neighbor—and to let that be the foundation upon which everything else is built.”
Loving our neighbor sounds easier, though, than it often is. Or at least than how we often make it. It takes practice. Anything worth doing, the saying goes, is worth doing well. This is no different. I would bet you that Zac didn’t just whip out a music book this morning and play for us without having practiced.
We know, because it’s reported on as thoroughly as are their games, that the OSU Buckeyes practice extensively before and during the season. If we want to become better at something, if we want to become more proficient at something, we have to practice. Our faith is no different. Whether your practice is prayer, scripture reading, journaling, fasting, or is walking, running, or singing hymns, we don’t grow in our faith, we won’t get stronger in our faith, if we don’t practice our faith. We have to move past the idea that our faith consists solely of what we agree to with our minds, and that it includes what we do in our lives. Faith, in scripture, is about trust as much as if not more than belief. Love, in scripture, is about action more than it is an emotion.
As Karoline Lewis writes, considering this passage in the context of All Saints Day worship,
“The choice to love the neighbor does indeed set us apart from those who know only what it means to love their own selves and stop there. Others will know what sainthood looks like, not because we are better or holier than thou, but because we have been called to see outside of ourselves for the sake of seeing the world as God does.
“In part, that is exactly the surprise of this scribe’s response to Jesus in the reading from Mark.
We expect him to be self-righteous, self-centered. Yet, he demonstrates the capacity to choose for himself, to choose God’s way instead of the way of the establishment, the hierarchy, the status quo.”
Poet Mary Oliver says this about “love your neighbor as yourself”: “Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive -- ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ -- which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”
And there’s the rub. We’ve glamorized - needlepointing it onto our pillows without inscribing it onto our hearts - a commandment that should be exceedingly difficult. This commandment means nothing if we obey it only half-heartedly.
But God created us to do this, to be this way, when we were created in God’s image. It IS hard, yes, because we are not God, but it is not impossible. Created in the image of the God who is love, who is compassion, God created us and called us “good.” It is only our spiritual practices, though, that reveal our true “good” selves. If we make the choice NOT to love God by not loving our neighbor, it says much more about us, and who we are, than it does about those whom we choose not to love.
This passage from Mark that we shared today invites us to get outside ourselves so that we can sense what it feels like, what it means, actually to love our neighbor. And what the world needs now, more than anything else, is love, sweet love. Amen.