Monday, October 27, 2014

Just the Essentials!

Israelites in Jesus’ day took the law very seriously, and by law I mean the Torah, God’s law.  In a commentary on the Torah known as the Mishna, Rabban Gamaliel II, who led the Sanhedrin after the fall of the Temple in 70 AD, is quoted as saying:

“The more flesh, the more worms;
the more wealth, the more worry;
the more women, the more witchcraft;
the more maids, the more lust;
the more servants, the more larceny.
But the more Torah, the more life;
the more sessions, the more wisdom;
the more counsel, the more understanding;
the more righteousness, the more peace.”

We read the great 19th Psalm on the first Sunday in October:

The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul; *
   the testimony of the Lord is sure
   and gives wisdom to the innocent.

The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart; *
   the commandment of the Lord is clear
   and gives light to the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever; *
   the judgments of the Lord are true
   and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
   sweeter far than honey,
   than honey in the comb.

By them also is your servant enlightened, *
   and in keeping them there is great reward.

Some in the Christian tradition revere studying the bible with affection similar to the Jews’ passion for Torah, but we Episcopalians don’t have anything in our practice that comes close to their devotion.  If you have ever known a baseball fanatic who has memorized all the statistics and records of every player living, retired, and dead and heard that person get into a discussion - neigh argument – with other people of similar knowledge then you have an image of the centrality of Torah in the life of the Jews.  It was everything, life itself.  And just like baseball stats, the Torah has a lot of minutia.  For every homerun record, Torah is riddled with the equivalent of what left-handed, red-headed pitchers are likely to throw in a day game on a Tuesday when the count is 3-2 in the first inning.

Throughout his public ministry, people came to Jesus and asked him to comment on different aspects of the Torah.  On two separate occasions Jesus was asked to identify the single most important commandment in all Torah.  A young seeker poses the question in the 12th chapter of Mark’s gospel.  Jesus answers him by saying,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The seeker, hoping for more elaboration, then asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responds by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan; one of the greatest teachings in the history of civilization.

Today’s assigned reading from Matthew recounts the other time Jesus is asked this question.  This time, it is not a seeker who queries him, but rather a person hoping to trap him in some form or fashion so that charges might be pressed.  Jesus’ answer is the same, but rather than follow it up with a parable, he asks a Torah question of his own.  It is obscure and technical and impossible to answer and as a result the verbal challenges come to an end.

Out of this tense encounter we have confirmed for us the core of the Christian faith: Love God and love your neighbor.  The problem for us no longer is finding the right answer.  The problem is living it.  Frederick Buechner sums it up pretty effectively:

The difficulty is increased when you realize that by loving God and your neighbors, Jesus doesn’t mean loving as primarily a feeling.  Instead, he seems to mean that whether or not any feeling is involved, loving God means honoring and obeying and staying in constant touch with God, and loving your neighbors means acting in their best interests no matter what, even if personally you can’t stand them.

Love is not primarily a feeling.  It is a disposition of the will that results in actions either directed upward toward God or outward toward others.  Think about Paul’s great treatise on love written to the Christian church in Corinth:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Note two things about this passage.  First, it never once hints that love is a feeling.  And second, remember that this was not written to a couple getting married in a romantic setting, rather it was written to a church caught up in the throes of personality conflicts.  To believers who are at each other’s throats, Paul says you must be patient, kind, not rude or boastful or irritable, nor are you to insist on getting your way.  You must endure and believe and hope and bear all things.  This is to be the way love is manifested in your conflicted community.

In reflecting on today’s reading, the theologian Marcus Borg says that being a Christian is about loving God and loving what God loves.  And what does God love, he asks?  Well, the best-known verse in the bible, John 3:16, says, “God so loved the world that he sent his only son.”  God loves the whole world and wants it to be a better place.  The problem, Borg says, is that our human inclination is to love ourselves first and foremost.  Therefore, he says, we need to be transformed from who we are naturally into who God calls us to be.

For Episcopalians, the sign of our desire for transformation is baptism.  In it, we turn from Satan, the evils of this world, and a focus on self alone in order to embrace Jesus as our savior, our Lord, and our guide.  Through it we pray to be open to God’s grace and truth, filled with the holy and life-giving Spirit, and taught to love others through the Spirit’s power.  Our old selves symbolically drown in the baptismal waters and we rise reborn in the image of Christ.  It is not a one-time experience that fixes us once and for all, but rather a sign of our on-going desire to be transformed into a person who loves God and who loves others.

It is a rigorous process, but we are sustained in it by regular participation in Eucharist.  The weekly pattern of praise and thanksgiving, of confession, pardon, and renewal, and of participating in the life of Christ through receiving his body and blood feeds and fuels our heart, soul, and mind in this transformation process. 

It has been said of the Anglican way that we are about majoring in the majors and minoring in the minors.  By this we mean that we will focus on what is absolutely essential to the practice of the faith while being quite open and tolerant regarding the manifestation (or lack there of) of the non-essentials.  This morning we hear again what is most central to the Christian faith: love God and love your neighbor.  Major in this and the rest will take of itself.