Loving Your Friends

       Nine times.  Jesus uses the word love nine times in this morning’s Gospel lesson.  Nine times is a lot of times.  If I were a biblical numerology guy, I’d tell you that nine is three times three, and three is a symbol of completeness, but I’m not a biblical numerology guy, so I won’t tell you that.[1]  What is clear is that love is important to Jesus.  It is so important that, in his final hours with his disciples on the night before he died, Jesus spent most of his time reminding them that love was the most important thing.  After he had washed their feet, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, that they love one another.  After he shared with them the promise of the Holy Spirit as their advocate and guide, Jesus told his disciples that love would be hallmark of their faithfulness.  In this morning’s lesson, we hear Jesus yet again reminding his disciples to abide in his love while also commanding them to love one another as he has loved them.

       Love is so important to Jesus that he raises the stakes as high as possible when he tells them that the greatest illustration of love is laying down one’s life for one’s friends.  This is, of course, foreshadowing what would happen the next day, as Jesus would hang from a cross and die as the fullest expression of God’s love for all of humanity, but it doesn’t seem as though Jesus means to suggest that only he would be able to offer that kind of love.  It seems like Jesus thinks that any disciple should, and perhaps could, one day be called upon to lay down their lives for their friends.  As such, what constitutes laying down one’s life and who or what we might consider friends seem to be questions worth considering.

       One of the gifts of the past fifteen months is how it has opened our eyes to what it means to lay down our lives for our friends and neighbors in a less than literal sense.  As American Christians, it is extremely unlikely that we will be called upon to lay down our lives as martyrs for the Gospel, and since none of us knows how we would respond in a situation where the decision to sacrifice our life for someone else became necessary, I find great solace in the realization that maybe the call here isn’t just to a literal laying down of my life, but to a figurative one as well.  Over the last 15 months, we’ve been asked to lay down parts of our life in the name of public health and the greater good.  Some sacrifices have been difficult: not seeing family members, not attending in-person worship, and working and schooling from home were all significant parts of our lives that we had to give up in order to keep others safe.  Other sacrifices were merely to lay down some of the conveniences of modern life: stop dining out, wear a mask, and keep your distance; but even these were a means by which we could live into Jesus’ invitation to self-sacrificial love.  For all of its inconveniences, COVID-19 has been an opportunity to lay down parts of our lives out of love for our friends and neighbors.

When a young lawyer asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.  For that young lawyer, and really, just about everyone who would have been within earshot of Jesus, that story would have been scandalous.  Neighbor might mean the people in your sphere of influence.  It might even mean the people in your neighborhood, so long as they were considered faithful and clean.  At the extreme outside, loving your neighbor might mean everyone you encounter in the marketplace, but the idea that the commandment to love your neighbor might include a Samaritan, or that a Samaritan would love more fully than a priest or a Levite was beyond the pale.  Yet, Jesus stretched the boundaries of what it means to love your neighbor to include even your enemies and those who would do you harm.

As I prayed about what it means to lay down our lives for our friends, I found myself wondering just how far that commandment might stretch.  Friend seems like much more exclusive term than neighbor.  I can more easily define who is in and who is out when it comes to my friend group.  So, I might lay down my life for y’all, but probably not for someone in Des Moines, Iowa who I’ve never met before.  Then, as I continued to pray and study for this sermon, I ran across a story that pushed the boundaries on who or what we should consider friends.  It is the story of Homero Gómez González.  A man none of you have probably even heard of before, but who was, in some small way, a friend to all of us here at Christ Church.  Mr. González was born into a family of loggers in El Rosario, a small, unincorporated area in the mountains of central Mexico.  He joined the family business and was a skeptic of growing efforts to limit deforestation in Mexico, fearful that it would lead to the end of the industry his family had known for generations.  As he grew older, he studied Agricultural Engineering at a state-run agricultural university.  There, he began to understand the negative effects that rampant deforestation was having on the climate, on people and plants, and especially on the hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies who call the mountains of central Mexico home every winter.  Eventually, González dedicated his life to environmental and anti-logging activism.  He became the mayor of El Rosario and worked to outlaw logging in the region.  Later, he was named manager and spokesperson for the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Preserve, one of several preserves that make up the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where 70% of the world’s monarch butterflies, including those that pass through our weigh station, spend their winters.[2]

Gómez González worked tirelessly to change the culture in his area of Mexico, and, as you might guess, he faced all kinds of push back.  In December 2019, he told the Washington Post, “it’s been a fight to maintain [the preserve], and it hasn’t been easy.”[3]  A month later, on January 13, 2020, González disappeared.  Two weeks later, he was found murdered in a well near the preserve.[4]  No one has been charged with his death, but his family and friends continue to fear that it was related to his efforts to end the lucrative logging industry in El Rosario.  It can be said, I believe, that Homero Gómez González laid down his life, both metaphorically before his death, and literally in it, for his friends, the monarch butterfly.  As a monarch butterfly weigh station, Christ Church should count Mr. González as a friend, and give thanks for the loved that he shared.

As we slowly emerge from our pandemic cocoons (I couldn’t help myself), new forms of self-sacrificial love will be called for.  As Mother Becca is quick to remind me, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed us all.  How will these changes continue to impact the ways in which we are called to love our friends, neighbors, siblings in Christ, and even our enemies and the wider world in 2021 and beyond?  Jesus used the word love nine times in our Gospel lesson today.  Eight of those times, he used it as a verb, and once, he promised that self-sacrificial love isn’t just the key to joy, but it unlocks fullness of joy.  In the days, weeks, and months to come, my hope is that we will each find ways to live out the commandment to love that Jesus offers us this morning, laying down pieces of ourselves for our friends and neighbors. May God give us the strength to love – friends, enemies, and strangers – as Christ commands so that we might come to experience the fullest form of joy.  Amen.


[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/3-use-three-bible

[2] https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1290/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/homero-gomez-gonzalez-mexicos-monarch-butterfly-defender-found-dead/2020/01/29/697d7c94-42ed-11ea-99c7-1dfd4241a2fe_story.html

[4] https://www.npr.org/2020/02/03/802359415/sadness-and-worry-after-2-men-connected-to-butterfly-sanctuary-are-found-dead

Choosing Peace

In her sermon last Sunday, Mother Becca reminded us that through baptism, all of us are made beloved children of God.  In our very best moments, we are beloved children of God.  In our mundane, daily routines, we are beloved children of God.  In our very worst moments, we are still beloved children of God.  That can be hard to remember when we are experiencing shame, guilt, and regret.  It can be hard to look in the mirror and say, “I am a beloved child of God.”  No matter how we might feel about ourselves, the truth remains, through our baptism in Christ, our worst moments are washed clean, our quotidian lives are made holy, and our greatest achievements bring honor and glory to God.

As hard as it might be at times to see ourselves as beloved children, often, it is even more challenging to look at our neighbors and say the same thing.  It is so much easier to define the other by their worst behavior, or what we perceive to be their worst qualities, and then to label and dismiss them, as if any of us is as bad as our worst moments.  As I see it, the hardest challenge of our baptismal calling is to live into the Covenant we have made with God and with each other to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Relationships are hard because sin is real. Human beings are constantly finding new ways to hurt one another.  Seeking Christ in our neighbor is easy when they act how we think they should and uphold the social contract, but when they fall short, as we all do, it can be pretty darn hard to love them, let alone believe that God loves them too.  Still, that is the job we signed up for in our baptism.  It is the choice that we are called to make, again and again, to seek the belovedness in all of God’s children.

I thought about how hard this all is on Wednesday afternoon as, like many of you, I tuned in to watch the impeachment debate in the House of Representatives.  To a person, every member of the House was willing to declare that what happened at the US Capitol last Wednesday was wrong, but there did seem to be a whole bunch of Nathanael’s coming to the microphone that day.  “Can anything good come out of California or New York?”  “Can anything good come out of Alabama or Kentucky?”  “Can anything good come from the left or from the right?”  The Democrats saw their colleagues as beloved.  The Republicans saw their colleagues as beloved.  Few were too keen to name belovedness on the other side of aisle.  Thankfully, the members of the US House of Representatives are not where we need to look for examples of Christian virtue.  Our focus should instead be on the one from whom our identity as Christians is drawn.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, we hear an early example of Jesus choosing love over anger, fear, or hatred.  John’s Gospel is by far the most cosmic.  Jesus, while a living breathing human being in John’s Gospel, is often in tune with what is happening in places he can’t see.  He knows the hearts of those around him.  He performs great signs and miracles.  And in today’s lesson, it seems he can see through time and space.  After being invited to follow Jesus, Philip immediately ran away to find his friend, Nathanael.  I see a lot of myself in Nathanael.  He was a natural skeptic and a bit sarcastic.  I like that about him, but I’m also keenly aware that not every responds positivity to sarcastic skepticism.

Anyway, a breathless Philip, red in the face from running and excited at the news he had to share, found Nathanael under a fig tree, and exclaimed “We have found him!  The one about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote!  It’s Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth!”  “Psssh!” Nathanael responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Sarcasm aside, this is something of a valid question.  Philip invoked Moses and the Prophets, and any self-respecting Jew would know that the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth.  Nazareth was a back-water village of maybe 500 people located some 300 miles north of Jerusalem, and 50 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee.  Nathanael’s skepticism is understandable, even if his tone is not.  Philip simply responds, “Come and see.”

As Philip and Nathanael approached Jesus, it seems as though Jesus already knew what Nathanael was thinking.  Jesus knew that Nathanael was a man in whom there was no deceit.  Jesus knew that his skepticism would mean he’d always say what was on his mind.  Even though Jesus had good reason to doubt Nathanael’s faithfulness and to have his feeling hurt, Jesus didn’t respond with harsh words, anger, or frustration, but rather, he saw Nathanael as a beloved child of God.  He invited Nathanael into a relationship, and invited him to experience the freedom that comes from God’s love, grace, and forgiveness.  While I might imagine, after turning water into wine, Jesus looking at Nathanael through a wry smile and asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, the truth is that in the eyes of Jesus, Nathanael and, indeed, each of us, is a beloved child.

Discord, assumption making, and bigotry are nothing new in this world, but we all know from hard earned experience that nothing good comes hate. Nothing good comes from othering. Nothing good comes from ignoring the beam in our own eye while pointing out the speck in another. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to a ministry of reconciliation precisely because every person we meet is a beloved child of God. We don’t get to choose whom we love, we’re simply called to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This does not mean we’re all going to sit together and sing Kumbaya. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be held accountable for the consequences of their actions. It doesn’t mean becoming a doormat, letting folks do whatever they want, or even that we have to stay in relationship with everyone.  What it does mean is that we cannot assume that there is no good in one another. No one is beyond restoration. No one is outside the bounds of God’s love. When Jesus finally meets Nathanael, Jesus doesn’t assume him to be evil, but instead welcomes him into community, and to begin to work toward reconciliation. We are invited to do the same.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?  Can anything good come out of Bethsaida?  Can anything good come out of California or New York?  Can anything good come out of Alabama or Kentucky?  Can anything good come from the left or from the right?  It isn’t all good, none of us are, but in Christ, the answer is an emphatic YES, all are beloved, all are made in God’s image, and all have good within them.  Amen.

Whose Image?

       Growing up, my sister was the queen of arguments.  In fact, she was so good at arguing that we all assumed she’d grow up to be a lawyer.  Instead, she has spent her career advocating for the needs of children with developmental delays and disabilities, which is probably a better use of her skills.  Anyway, one argument that has gone down in family lore occurred on a long road trip from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Little Rock, Arkansas, and on around to Chicago, Illinois.  At some point along some long stretch of Interstate, in the backseat of our Chevy Caprice, my sister turned to me and said, “Say the sky is green.”  Unsuspectingly, I turned to her and said, “The sky in green.”  “No, it is NOT!  The sky is blue!” she barked back, and we were off to the races.  I have no idea how long the argument lasted, but I know that she won because, well the sky is actually blue, and she had successfully goaded me into a truly stupid debate.

       Young Lisa would have made the Pharisees and Herodians proud.  They too down for an argument.  Our Gospel lesson this morning is set in the midst of Holy Week in Matthew’s Gospel.  After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his interactions with the powers-that-be grew more and more contentious.  He threw out the money changers in the Temple, argued with the chief priests and elders over his authority, told pointed parables like the wicked tenants and the wedding banquet that we’ve heard the past couple of weeks, and by now his adversaries were totally fed up.  They say that politics makes strange bedfellows, and this team was about as strange as they come.  The Herodians were loyal to the Roman Empire.  They carried the name of the late Herod the Great, Rome’s appointed “King of Israel,” and his son, Herod Antipas, who is perhaps best known for serving the head of John the Baptist to his step-daughter-slash-niece on a plate.  The Pharisees, on other hand, were a religious party that sought to reclaim the purity of Judaism.  They spent their considerable energy and power digging down to the nitty gritty of the Torah, and calling people to be faithful to the various acts of penance for their sins.  Of the 613 ritual laws, number two on their list was that one that says, “you shall have no graven images,” but more on that in a minute.

       The one thing that the Herodians and the Pharisees had in common was their desire to rid themselves of the itinerant Rabbi named Jesus.  His teaching, preaching, and miracles were equal opportunity offenders.  Rome was increasingly anxious about rebellion among the Jewish people, and Jesus was now routinely being called the Son of God, which was a title reserved for only Caesar.  The Pharisees saw Jesus healing people on the Sabbath, eating tax collectors, and hanging out with sinners as an affront to true religion. They were also more than a little scared that Rome would respond to Jesus by clamping down on all of Israel with power and might.  So, they joined forces to get rid of him, and they did so brilliantly, or so they thought, with a Gordian knot of a question from which they were convinced no one could escape.

       “Is it lawful to pay taxes?”

       The tax that they hoped to use to trick Jesus was essentially a census tax.  It had to be paid by every non-Roman citizen for the pleasure of being occupied by Rome.  It wasn’t just that it had to be paid annually, but it had to be paid with a very specific coin – a Roman Denarius – that featured an inscription of Tiberias Caesar’s face, with some variation of the phrase “Son of God” surrounding the image.  The powers-that-be believed that they had Jesus dead to rights.  If he said yes, the Pharisees had him.  He would be a traitor to his people, a sympathizer with Rome, and a hypocrite against his God.  If Jesus said no, the Herodians had him.  He could be brought up on charges of sedition and cast as a revolutionary who called on his followers to not pay their taxes as a sign of protest.  The Pharisees sought to wreck his reputation.  The Herodians sought to send Jesus to jail.

Jesus, it seems, wasn’t fooled by either.  He noticed right away their thinly veiled attempts at flattery.  In a quick, and now familiar, pivot, Jesus asked to see the coin used to pay the tax.  That they could produce the coin with its graven image so quickly, presumably either inside, or within the shadow, of the Temple is an indictment in and of itself.  Pointing to it, Jesus then asked them, “Whose image is that?  Who bears that title?”  Without realizing that the tables had been turned, they answered, “the Emperor.”  “Render therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  The scene ends with both the Pharisees and the Herodians walking away, shaking their heads, amazed at what had just happened.

In a world dead set on arguing, fighting tooth and nail for some false sense of ideological purity, and screaming into the echo-chamber of one’s well curated social media feed, this question, “Whose image is this?” should give us all pause.  When you look in the mirror, whose image do you see?  Do you see someone made in the image of God?  When you look at the friends on your Facebook feed, or that neighbor with different yard signs than you, whose image do you see?  Do you see someone made in the image of God?  When you watch the news, whose image do you see?  Do you see someone made in the image of God?  As disciples of Jesus, we are called to give the government what belongs to it, but nothing more.  To God, then, we give our heart, soul, mind, and strength. To God we give our whole lives, for it is God’s image and inscription that is carved upon our hearts.  To God, we give our neighbors, our friends, and especially our enemies, for God’s image and inscription are carved upon their souls as well.

I’ve given a lot of thought lately about what it means to give our family, friends, and even our enemies over to God.  I’ve wondered, what does that look like in real life, bitterly divided, 21st century America, and I’ve settled on this as a starting place.  Pray for them by name.  I don’t mean the kind of prayer that says, “God, make so-and-so think more like me,” but rather a prayer that says, “God, let me see so-and-so with your eyes.  Help me to see your image imprinted upon them.  Help me to forgive them the wrongs they have done.  Help them to forgive me for the wrongs I have done.  Help me to love them.”  Depending on whose name you insert in that prayer, this might be really hard to muster, but if we are going to be true to Jesus’ call to give to God everything that belongs to God and bears God’s image, it is a prayer worth trying.  It is a practice which I firmly believe will help to bring healing to our bitterly divided world.

The Herodians and Pharisees were sure that they had Jesus trapped.  It isn’t hard to imagine that many of you are feeling trapped in a world that you don’t recognize these days.  Often, we find ourselves seemingly trapped in arguments we didn’t even know were starting, fighting bitterly over things that we might not really care that much about.  In a very real sense, it feels like the Tempter is actively prowling around, seeking to divide, to dehumanize, and to blind us to the image of God that is stamped on the heart of every human being.  Remember when you feel trapped by anger, fear, or frustration to offer yourself back to God, for you are made in God’s image and you a loved.  Offer your neighbors, your friends, and your adversaries back to God, for they too are made in God’s image and loved by God.  Despite strong evidence to the contrary, we are not trapped in the bitterness of this world with no way out. God is here among us, continuing to offer to every human being, through Christ, the ability to be set free.  The world can have its pittance, its graven images of all sorts, but let’s not forget to offer back to God everything that bears God’s image: our friends, our families, and even our enemies, for no matter what, they too are God’s beloved children.  Amen.

See, Seek, Love

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” That’s the penultimate question in the Baptismal Covenant, and the one that I think tends to get short shrift.  We like the Acts 2 feel of the first question.  We’re grateful to have an ongoing chance for repentance in the second.  For the third, we’ll happily proclaim by example, if maybe not by word, the Good News of God in Christ.  And don’t get me started on how many platitude-filled sermons I’ve heard (and occasionally preached) on respecting the dignity of every human being.  Tucked in there, next to last, is this question that really gets to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus in everyday life.  “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  It is, most obviously, the second of Christ’s Great Commandments, but more than that, it requires us to actively seek out Christ in the other.  In order to seek Christ in my neighbor, I first have to see my neighbor, and if we’re honest with ourselves, there are probably lots of neighbors we wish we didn’t have to see.  Worse yet, there are lots of neighbors that we might actively choose to forget, but in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells the Pharisees the perfect story to illustrate that fully living into the Dream of God means choosing to see what we would prefer to ignore.

It all starts with a rich man.  A super rich man.  A one percent of the one percent rich man.  Jesus says that this rich man was dressed in purple linen every day.  That might not mean much to us today, since we can buy purple linen at Fabrics by the Pound, but in Jesus’ day, dressing in purple linen was an extravagant ordeal.  Prior to industrialization, linen was extremely difficult to produce.  To dye it purple, the right snail had to be found and harvested for its goop.  Purple dye cost about as much as pure silver to procure.  Just by his clothes, we know that this dude was rich beyond our wildest imaginations, but Jesus didn’t stop there.  Not only did he dress in the finest fabrics dyed the most expensive color, but Jesus tells us that he “feasted sumptuously” every day as well.  The Greek here suggests that he “made merry brilliantly.”  Every time that word is used in the New Testament, it is in reference to a massive celebration.  This guy made KISS’s “rock and roll all night and party every day” his actual lifestyle.

As he went back and forth from his palatial mansion, the rich man passed through a large gateway that protected his lavishness from the general unpleasantness of the outside world.  Plopped down at the mouth of that large gate was a man who was as exceedingly poor and the rich man was ridiculously rich.  While we don’t know the name of the rich man, Jesus tells us that this poor man’s name was Lazarus.  Lazarus is the only person to get a name in any of Jesus’ parables.  It means, ironically, “God has helped,” but it’s obvious that God hadn’t helped Lazarus much at all.  While the rich man wore purple linen, Lazarus was covered only in sores.  While the rich man feasted sumptuously, Lazarus coveted the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  While the rich man’s life was full of relationships with friends, business partners, servants, and dinner party guests, Lazarus’ only companions were the dogs who licked his sores.  It wasn’t that the rich man didn’t know Lazarus was there, but that he actively chose to ignore him.  Back and forth the rich man would go.  At the very least, he would have noticed the stench of Lazarus.  Occasionally, he’d have to shoo the dogs away.  On particularly frustrating days, the rich man might even have to lift up his topcoat to make sure it didn’t brush against Lazarus’ unclean wounds as he stepped right over the poor man.

The rich man spent his whole life building as large a chasm as possible between himself and the wretched Lazarus, until one day they both died, and the chasm was suddenly fixed.  The rich man was stuck in Hades while Lazarus was carried to heaven to rest at the bosom of Abraham.  Immediately, with flames licking his heels, the rich man calls out to Abraham and asks him to send Lazarus with a drop of cool water to soothe his suffering.  I wonder how Lazarus heard that request.  Could it have been the first time that the rich man ever uttered his name?  The first time that Lazarus ever felt seen.  The first time that the rich man had ever treated Lazarus as anything other than smelly, disgusting, nuisance?  Note that the only reason the man utters Lazarus’ name now is because Lazarus could do something for him.  Even in death, the rich man didn’t see Lazarus as neighbor worthy of love, but rather as a less than, at most, a servant who should do the bidding of upstanding men like himself and Abraham.

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  Jesus challenges the Pharisees, his disciples, and us to really see the world around us.  He invites us to see our neighbors, to know their names, to understand their needs, not in order that we might fix them, or to exploit them to help us feel better about ourselves, but to enter into relationship with them so that together we all might take part in the renewing of the world.  That’s what the law of Moses and the call of the Prophets has all been about, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  It’s a theme we just can’t escape from these days.  Whether it is our Neighborhood Prayer Walks or Reimagine Charity or Racial Reconciliation or our Cloister Community, God seems to be calling Christ Episcopal Church to see the world around us in fresh ways; embracing what it means to be a downtown church in order to seek and serve Christ in all people, and love our neighbors – all of them – as ourselves.

Over the next six weeks, we will celebrate three baptisms.  Bennett Moore, Henry Gilbert, and Mila Velentanlic are three young children to whom we will promise to do all in our power to support in their lives in Christ.  In making that promise, we commit to living our lives following the example of Jesus who saw people, who knew them deeply, and who cared about their needs.  He didn’t do it to make himself feel good, he didn’t take their agency away, he didn’t swoop in and try to fix problems.  Jesus was a savior without a savior complex. Rather, Jesus invited others into relationship and through that relationship both he and they were made whole.  As we live our lives as examples for these three young people, for one another, and for the wider community, we too are called to see our neighbors, to hear their stories, to love them, and to work alongside them toward the restoration of the whole world.  It isn’t easy work.  It won’t bring swift results.  It’ll be probably be painful, refilling chasms built over generations always is, but that’s the gift and the power and the risk of building relationships.  It means admitting faults, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, and fostering cooperation toward a hope-filled future.  And, as I am often swift to remind us during sermons like these, it isn’t all up to us.  As with every one of the baptismal promises we make, this one, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” gets answered with five, very important and powerful words, “I will, with God’s help.”  With God’s help, alongside our neighbors, and serving as an example for Bennett, Henry, and Mila, we have the chance to build the Kingdom of God here in Bowling Green, Kentucky by seeing, loving, and seeking Christ in our neighbors, especially the ones we would rather ignore.  Amen.

Just do it

For as frustratingly enigmatic as Jesus can be most of the time, there are moments in his ministry when he is abundantly, albeit challengingly, clear.  Take, for example, the story of Jesus and the lawyer from Luke 10 that is appointed for this Sunday.  In this familiar story that leads into the Parable of the Good Samaritan (more on that later this week), we see Jesus being challenged by a lawyer over just what is required to enter this Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus has been proclaiming.  As usual, Jesus answers the question with one of his own; turning the revelatory work back on the one who is seeking.  “You’re the expert in the Law, how do you read its requirements.”  In Luke’s account, the Great Commandments don’t come directly from Jesus, but are given by the lawyer in response to Jesus’ prompting.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus, in perhaps his most transparent moment in all the Gospels, simply replies, “Do this, and you will live.”

nike-just-do-it-swoosh-neon-5-

Would that it were so easy just to love God, love our neighbor, and, as our Presiding Bishop is quick to remind us, love yourself.  The Law of Christ is so very straightforward and yet, is impossibly simple.  Loving God seems like the easiest option, so we’ll start there.  The expert in the Law notes that loving God is not just something we that we feel, but it requires our whole humanity to do properly.  We are called to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind, and with all of our strength.  Loving God in this way means putting God first on the priority list in our lives.  It means giving God thanks in all things.  It means offering God praise in all circumstances.  It means showing God our admiration and respect no matter what is happening around us.  Since our primary sin as humans is pride, we have a tendency to put ourselves in the place of God, especially when we fall short of that second commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  When we make judgments of our neighbors, we put ourselves in the place of God, thereby failing on both counts.

“Just do it” has been a pretty good slogan for Nike over the years, and it would behoove us as Christians to follow it in our daily walk to love God and love our neighbor, but for us, the ability to “just do it” requires one other piece.  For Episcopalians, that piece, which offers the added benefit of keeping everything in the right order, can be found in the Baptismal Covenant, a series of eight questions that, for us, define the basics of the Christian faith.  Each of the five questions that deal directly with how we will live as followers of Jesus is answered in the same way, “I will with God’s help.”  Living into the Great Commandments is not something any of us can do on our own.  In fact, the first step toward loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength is admitting that very fact.  So, if I might be so bold as to add something to the words of Jesus, we might be better off hearing him tell the lawyer not simply, “just do it,” but “do it, with God’s help.”

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.

the-greatest-commandment

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.