Proper 26 / Year B
Did you know there are 613 commandments in the Torah, the Law of Moses? According to Hebrew tradition dating back at least to the 3rd Century, 365 of the commandments are cast in the negative (“thou shalt not…”), which is one for every day of the year. The other 248 are stated in the positive (“thou shalt...), which is one commandment for every bone and organ in the human body.
The stipulations and prohibitions cover a wide swath of topics:
s The worship of Yahweh
s The Temple and the Priests
s Ritual Purity
s Tithes and Offerings
s The Sabbatical (or 7th) Year
s Animals Fit for Consumption and Offerings
s Dietary Laws
s Feasts and Sabbaths
s The Duty of the Community
s The Worship of False Gods
s Tribulation and Persecution
s Our Duty to Fellow Human Beings
s Family Relationships
s Judgements and the Conduct of Judges
s Making Treaties with Other Nations
s Loans and Business Practices
s Improper Relationships
s The Behavior of the King
Of course, not all commandments carry the same weight. “Thou shalt do no murder” seems more consequential than the commandment found in Deuteronomy 22:11: “Do not wear holy garments made of both wool and linen.” As you might imagine, there has always been a desire to prioritize this lengthy list. Is there a single command from which all others derive their authority?
As forty years of wandering in the wilderness nears its end, Moses wants to prepare God’s people for their new life in the Promised Land. Foremost on his mind is making sure this new generation does not repeat the sins of their parents, who crafted a golden cow and worshiped it. He gives to the people a teaching which becomes known as “The Shema”, Hebrew for hear or listen: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Observant Jews repeated this as a prayer mantra twice a day, much in the same way we say the Lord’s Prayer throughout our waking hours. The most important commandment of all is derived from the Shema’s foundational theological truth: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Over the years additions and subtractions are made to Shema. The changes are not intended to change the command, but to freshen it by presenting it in a new way. Jesus adds two insights. First, in addition to loving God with all you heart, soul, and strength, you must also love God with “all your mind.” The word translated here as “mind” refers to will power. No half-hearted effort will suffice.
His second addition is even more substantial: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Our duty to God is both vertical and horizontal. When we worship we look up. When we serve, as God calls us to serve, we look around. Being deeply spiritual, but having no regard for human need, will not cut it. Being devoted to humanitarian efforts without being grounded in God is not adequate either. Our love of God leads us to our neighbors. Our love of our neighbors leads us to God.
For most of us, St. Paul’s has been an absolutely indispensable part of how we live out the greatest commandment. This is where we connect most deeply with God through prayer, through music, through Scripture, and through the sacraments. And it is here where we express our care for others through listening, laughter, compassion, self-sacrifice, and so many other manifestations.
We were not able to gather in person in this place for fourteen months. And now that we are back we are not able to be back in the same ways we once were. The traditions and patterns that fostered our love of God and neighbor – so familiar and comforting – are now not entirely possible. What do you miss the most? Pot-Luck dinners? Passing the Peace? The Food Pantry ministry? The common Cup? While we have lost much, what remains is our desire to love God and to love one another. Some of our previous expressions may not return. New manifestations will emerge (and are emerging even now!).
Last Thursday evening St. Paul’s hosted a community reception to wish Skip and Chris Irby Godspeed as they move to Charlottesville. The Irbys have been fixtures in our community for over 40 years, touching the lives of countless people through their ministries. Scores of folks, including at least a dozen local clergy, stopped by to honor Skip and Chris. Cindy, Jan, and Susan tastefully decorated the Parish Hall and provided cupcakes and beverages. I positioned myself near the door to welcome folks in and to thank them as they left. Somewhere throughout the 90 minutes we were open I felt a wonderful, old, familiar feeling – something I haven’t felt for some time. It was the feeling of using this place to express our love for our neighbors. It was not an overwhelming effort to be sure, but it just felt good to be able to do something for a couple of folks who deserve to be honored and thanked.
Our speaker at last week’s clergy retreat encouraged us to initiate conversations in the parishes we serve around this question: What does it now look like for us to be a loving community? Not what did we use to do and now can’t, what does it look like now! We still love God and we still love one another and we still love our neighbors near and far. New patterns and new traditions are emerging. While we grieve what has been lost, let us with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind embrace what God is now doing in our midst. And let us find new ways (or maybe even better ‘now’ ways) to love one another.