Simply Impossible

Yesterday, I suggested that Jesus’ Summary of the Law – love God and love neighbor – was impossibly simple.  Today, as I read the Levitical foundation for the second Great Commandment, I’m realizing that it might go even deeper than that.  Forget impossibly simple, these words from God to Moses really seem simply impossible.

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Be holy?  Are you kidding me, God?  Have you ever actually met people?  If you’ll pardon the modestly NSFW language in the following meme, this pretty much summarizes the human experience.

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So, what are we to do with this simply impossible commandment from God?  I think the first thing we need to do is come to grips with the reality that our vision of holiness is probably a bit far fetched.  The Hebrew word translated at holy literally means to be set apart.  This is the goal of the Levitical Law, a way to set apart the Hebrew people as chosen by God.  By living to a higher standard of purity, hospitality, and religious observance than their neighbors, the Hebrews could show themselves as closer to the ideal of humanity.  When we take this ideal too far, we come up with the image of holiness as poverty-avowing Franciscan life that is in conflict with nothing and no one.

What is more real, however, is the understanding that the Law is impossible for humans to live up to.  Noting Dr. Cox above, human beings will often choose to be inhospitable, lazy, snarky, or whatever, not because of some malice, but simply because we have the ability to choose and the decisions we make are often self-centered.  Once we come to grips with God’ simply impossible demands, we can move to the next step, which is the realization that the only way holiness – set-apartness – is possible, is with God’s help.  We cannot choose to be more loving, but God can change our hearts.  We cannot choose to be more generous, but God can change our hearts.  We cannot choose to to be more active in our faith, but God can change our hearts.

The gift of the impossibly simple and the simply impossible is God’s grace in the midst of the impossibility.  Be open to the Spirit.  Be ready to be surprised by grace.  Be holy, not because you are capable of it, in and of yourself, but because God is.

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Impossibly Simple

Every Sunday at about 8:01am, I stand before a faithful crowd of about 70 and say these words:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Mt. 22:37-40 quoted in the BCP, p. 324)

After almost a decade of serving a congregation that didn’t have a Rite I service, I confess that I don’t have all of the Rite I service committed to memory.  For some reason, I can’t get the absolution to stick, and Eucharistic Prayer I is way too long, but the one thing that I’m sure is in there and will never go away are this Summary of the Law.  In Rite I, it is beautiful and the “thous” and “thys” flow effortlessly off my lips.  After the Gloria and the Collect of the Day, I find my way to the Celebrant’s chair and I often think to myself, “if only it were that simple.”

If ever there was a perfect example of the idiom, “easier said than done,” it would the Summary of the Law that we will hear Jesus give to the Pharisaical Canon Lawyer at the height of his ongoing conflict with the Temple leadership.  Think for a moment about the world the way it is.  Think of the partisanship, the vitriol, and the hoarding of resources.  Think of the growing number of natural disasters, the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day, and the millions of children who go to be hungry.  Think of all the ways that we fall short of the glory of God, and then think about how different this world would be if every one of us were to take seriously the commandments of our Lord to love God and love neighbor.

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This side of the Second Coming, it will never be that simple. Perhaps better said, it will be impossibly simple to live into these commandments.  Simple, because we were created to be in perfect relationship with God.  Impossible, because sin is infectious, the tempter is everywhere, and we are not able to do it on our own.  Still, every Sunday, I will stand and affirm before God and the faithful at 8am that on these two impossibly simple commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

Love is easy? #AGAPE

In 1st Corinthians 13, Paul writes that love is patient and kind; that love is not arrogant or rude; that love endures all things.  One thing he very much does not say, no matter how catchy this McFly song might be, is that love is easy.

The word that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape (pronounced agape’ not a reference to Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel).

It is the same Greek word used by Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson and according the Holli and Brendan on this week’s Collect Call, it serves as the basis for the word which the collect translates as “charity.”  Over on that theological treasure trove called Wikipedia, Thomas J. Oord, a modern day Nazarene Theologian, defines Agape as “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.”  Love really isn’t easy.

But why do we make it so hard?  Why is agape so impossible for human beings to pull off when we were created in the image of a God whose very definition, whose full character is love?  We’re pretty good at eros (romantic) love, storge (familial) love tends to come pretty naturally for most people, and philial (brotherly/friendship) love seems fairly doable, but it is agape love, the love that God shows us in Jesus Christ, love that seeks the good of another ahead of one’s self, that is so very hard.  Maybe it is because above all, we’re good at loving ourselves and so turning that love outward is difficult.  Maybe it is because we’ve been burned in other aspects of love and so we withhold the most intimate form of love from the cruelties of this world.  Whatever the reason, it comes down to the fact that love isn’t easy, that’s why we pray for help loving, that’s why God commands us to love, that’s why Jesus sums up the Torah as love, that’s why John tells us that God is love.  Agape love is a bar impossible to reach, but it is the goal of every human heart.

Your Holiness

According to the greatest source of theological and ecclesiastical wisdom in the history of the world, Wikipedia, the proper way to address the Bishop of Rome (aka the Pope), should you meet him, is “Your Holiness.”  Some might argue that given the history of the pontificate, this title is, at best, ironic.  Some might argue that.  Heck, I might argue that, but then again, I’m not 100% sure that many of us who are ordained are worthy of the title “The Reverend” either.  The truth of the matter is that many of the men who have held the highest office in Roman Catholicism have, in fact, been men worthy of the title “Your Holiness.”  Of course, many millions of the women and men who have, over the past 2,000 years, sought to follow Jesus are also worthy of that title as well.

This week’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson gives us a portion of the Law of Moses from Leviticus 19.  First on this list of Torah is “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Way to set the bar nice and low to start with, God.  Thanks a lot.

Be holy!?!?

That’s not easy.  As I wrote about yesterday, loving God and neighbor is hard enough, but how am I supposed to be holy? I’ve got a beard, but there’s no way I’ll ever be like these guys.

My vocation means wearing funny clothes, but I’ll never live up to the standard of women like these:

Do we even know what the word holy means?  I looked in up in my handy-dandy-now-woefully-outdated copy of Bibleworks and found that the Hebrew word translated as holy means, basically, “to be set apart.”  Monks and nuns do this well, their lives are fully devoted to “being set apart,” but what about us normal, run of the mill, Christians?  How do we become holy?

The key, I think, comes in the second half of the verse.  “Be holy, for I, the LORD your God am holy.”  In the life and ministry of Jesus, we have a glimpse of what it means like to live a life of holiness, a life set apart for God.  As my friend and colleague, Evan Garner, noted last week, this isn’t about asking “What Would Jesus Do?”  But rather, “What would make Jesus smile?”  What is it about our lives that when God looks upon us, makes God glad?  This, more than any other question, will help us steer away from our sinful and selfish desires, setting us apart from the prevailing narrative of this world, and aiming us toward holiness and the Kingdom of God.

So maybe this week, I’ll try to remember that according to Leviticus 19:2, my title should be “Your Holiness.”  We’ll see if that makes this Kingdom living thing any easier.

Love – Commandment – Love

I’m bad a podcasts.  There are several really great podcasts that I really wish I could get behind, but I’m just bad at it.  I’m good at reading articles.  I’m great at watching TV.  I’m awful at listening to podcasts.  Everytime I start one, within 9 seconds, I’m off somewhere else reading about things that annoy type a personalities or finding some other unnecessary distraction.

This annoys type a people. Believe me.

I tell you this to confess that though I love Holli and Brendan and the work they do with Acts 8 and The Collect Call, I don’t listen to it every week because I’m just bad at podcasts.  I will, however, tune in this week because I love, love, love the Collect for Proper 25.

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Make us love what you command.  I can’t wait to hear what they Collect Call has to say about that.  See, the coolest part about that prayer is that, in the end, we’re asking God to make us love the commandment to love: to love love; how awesome is that?  Matthew says that the Pharisees ask Jesus this final question to “test” him, but I think that’s just because Matthew is ticked off at the Pharisees.  I think that they ask Jesus about the greatest commandment because over the past few days of conflict, they’ve come to respect him in the same way Troy Polomalu might respect Peyton Manning.  Rather than testing Jesus, I like to think that they are genuinely interested in what this Rabbi from the sticks has to say about the greatest commandment.

Jesus does not disappoint.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  The greatest commandment is quite simply, love.

And so, when we, two thousand years later, pray that God might help us love what God commands, we’re not asking to love the regulations against eating shellfish or the wearing of cotton-poly blends; we’re not asking to love laws about sexual purity and the place of women in society; we’re not asking to love not eating bacon or swearing oaths.  Instead, we’re asking God to help us love love, and we need God’s help because the stark reality is that love isn’t easy.  It can be hard to love God when things don’t go your way.  It can be even harder to love God when everything is coming up Milhouse.

And don’t get me started on how hard it is to love other people: liars, cheaters, close talkers, over sharers, bad drivers, even meeting extenders.  Maybe I don’t like this Collect so much after all.  I mean, asking God to help me love loving these people is asking for the hard work of cleaning out the sinfulness and selfishness in my own life to make room for others.  That seems pretty dangerous.  Of course, it all seems like exactly what God has in mind for us.

No More Questions

As October draws to a close, so too does our brief stop over in conflict land.  The ongoing and ever heightening debate between Jesus and the various religious powers-that-be in the Temple has had us dealing with difficult parables, theological nuance, and socio-political background.  At every turn, Jesus has silenced his interrogators with wisdom and conviction.  Finally, in the Gospel lesson for Proper 25A, he brings the conversation to an end.  The problem is, I can’t tell if it ends with a bang or with a whimper.

By now Jesus has silenced the Chief Priests, the Elders, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees: just about everybody who was anybody in First Century Israel. Not to be undone, and most likely because they were stuck in Matthew’s craw, the Pharisees come back for one more tête-à-tête.  Their final question, regarding the greatest commandment, we’ll deal with later in the week.  Suffice it to say for now that they seem to have given up on tricking Jesus by now.

In response, Jesus asks them one, final question.  “What do you think of the Messiah?  Whose son is he?”  Everybody knows the answer to that question.  Clearly the Messiah is the Son of David.  Jesus then quotes from Psalm 110:1 and finishes with these words, “If David thus calls him Lord, how can be be his son?”  Boom!?!  Fizz!?! Pflmpt…

Did Jesus do a Mic Drop?

Matthew tells us that no one was able to answer his question and that from then on, no one dared ask him anything else.  Why?  Were they as confused as I am about the whole interaction?  Were they amazed like they had been after the whole paying taxes encounter?  Did they finally realize there was no beating Jesus at his own game?  I honestly don’t know the answer here, so if any of my wise readers wants to weigh in, I’m glad to hear your thoughts.