Light and Heavy, a Sermon by Jay Phelan
A Sermon by Jay Phelan, Intern for Holy Orders on October 31st, 2021 for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN.
According to the rabbis there are 613 commandments in Torah. Now that is quite a bit to remember and raises a number of questions. Given how many there are, what are the most important ones, the critical ones? Surely some violations are more serious than others? To address this concern the rabbis divided the commandments into “light” and “heavy” commandments.Jews were supposed to obey them all but some were critical to the identity of their community. But the rabbis also wondered about the Torah’s organizing principles. Which commandments were foundational? Which explained the existence of the other? Which commandments were, in effect, the poles that kept the tent of the Torah upright? So when the scribe in Mark 12 came to Jesus with his question about the most important commandment, it would not have been surprising. He was in effect asking Jesus about his legal philosophy. What tied the 613 together? What commandment or commandments put all the others in context?
Jesus was not the only teacher to face such a question. About a generation before the birth of Jesus two famous rabbis had to deal with a similar question. Shammai and Hillel were founders of competing schools. Typically Shammai was more severe and aloof and Hillel more tolerant and approachable. Modern Judaism considers itself the child of Hillel. A Gentile, we are told, once approached Shammai and asked him to teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot. In a rage, Shammai drove him away with a stick. He then went to Hillel with the same question. Hillel told him, “What is hateful to you don’t do to someone else. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” In the Sermon on the Mount, of course, Jesus said something very similar. This is the so-called “Golden Rule”. There was certainly more to it than that and the Gentile had a great deal to learn, but Hillel was sharing what he considered the Torah’s central plank.
Jesus’ response to the scribe is drawn from Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe is actually quite happy with this answer. This is one of the few passages in the gospels where Jesus and a scribe appear to get along. This is what one of my friends calls “the Jesus creed” and on the surface it sounds pretty simple, pretty straight forward. It reduces all 613 to two commandments: love God, love your neighbor. And our temptation might be to say, “OK got it. Love God, love my neighbor. That’s easy enough. I can do that. Piece of cake.” But is it, really?
Have you seen some of us? We are, if we are being honest, not all that lovable and some of us, I am naming no names, are downright obnoxious. Consider that one of the foundational rules of social media is “never read the comments.” If you read the comments to even the most bland statements on Facebook or Twitter you will be tempted to curl up in a fetal position and opt out of the human race. When it comes to rage, cruelty, ignorance, belligerence, bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, and general unpleasantness you can’t beat people. As Linus of Peanuts fame once declared, “I love humankind, it’s people I can’t stand.” And it’s not only the “bad” people that are unlovable. Sometimes the “good” among us are also a pain in the neck. Mark Twain once said of one of his critics, “She was a good woman in the worst sense of the term.” And we all know such people. We are some of them. Trying to do good and making a mess of things, Yep. We humans are hard to love sometimes. It turns out that loving your neighbor isn’t all that easy and Jesus made it even worse by telling us to love our enemies. Well, I ask you!
Now, having said all that I would also have to say that loving God is not really any easier. The God of the Bible is actually quite a handful. For the last few weeks we have been reading from the book of Job. Job you will remember loses everything—family, home, livestock, everything. And then he has three friends who come and try to convince him that surely all this is his own fault. Perhaps Job’s comforters are the source of the observation that with friends like these who needs enemies. Be that as it may, Job protests. He refuses to take the blame for his own misery. In fact, he wants to get God in the witness chair with a cutthroat defense counsel to make his case. But when God does respond to Job’s invitation Job is subjected to four chapters of rhetorical questions and rather wishes he had left well enough alone.
The thing is, we never love in the abstract, we love in any meaningful sense in the particular. We never love humankind, we love people, with all their quirks and liabilities and peculiarities. And we love with all our own quirks, liabilities and peculiarities. And, when it comes to God, we do not love Aristotle’s unmoved mover, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And we have to learn in loving both individuals and God, that however we try, we cannot control the relationship as much as we would like to. Actually, “humankind” or the unmoved mover would be more convenient. An inchoate mass is less messy than a very present spouse, or child, or friend, or boss, or politician. A God who pretty much ignores us is perhaps easier to deal with than a God who loves us and wants our love, our wholeness, our peace.
In the first book of C. S. Lewis’ famed Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the children are spirited into Narnia where they meet fauns and witches and a variety of talking animals. One of the animals is a beaver. And he tells them about the lord of Narnia, the great lion Aslan. Lucy asks, “is he safe?” “Safe? No, Aslan isn’t safe, but he is good.” Later we will be told “Aslan is not a tame lion.” And the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah isn’t safe either—but like Aslan, God is good and wills our good. There is a great deal of both risk and reward in loving this God.
And it is risky to love. It is risky to love people. It is risky to love God. Love always brings pain along with its many joys. To cite Lewis again, this time from The Four Loves, he suggests that to love anything, even an animal, is to inevitably suffer pain, grief, and loss. He suggests it may be tempting to avoid such pain by trying to avoid love altogether. If love is going to hurt me, why should I love anything? And Lewis suggests, you can actually do that. You can keep your heart safe, wrapped in hobbies and luxuries and protected in an emotional strongbox. But in that box, he suggests, your heart will change. It will not be broken, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable. The only place outside of heaven, he argues, that is safe from the dangers and perturbations of love is hell. Refusing to love means refusing to live. Refusing to love means refusing to be human.
The alternative to loving our neighbors and loving God is grim. And we are quite familiar with its outcome. Our current cultural and political crises are rooted in the failure to love, in the failure to seek the good of the other. Our society appears to be skilled at producing outrage and rather incompetent at loving. We are experts at division, rage, violence, fear, and hate but struggle with compassion, generosity, justice, peace, and hope. We live with the apocalypse always before us. And we are confident we know who to blame for it. And, of course, it is not us!
And so here we are. The church of Jesus Christ. Called to love the Lord with all we have and our neighbors as ourselves. That is our mission.
What does it all mean for us both individually and corporately? It means first off that the church is to be a school of love. We come here to learn to love—to love God, to love each other. And sadly, if we can’t figure out how to love each other, to will each other’s good, we are not likely to have any significant impact on a world torn by hate and fear. As 1 John reminds us, “those who cannot love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (5:20b) We gather here to learn to love each other so we can love and serve God’s good creation and all that God loves.
We also come to worship, I would suggest, to learn to love God, this wild, unpredictable passionate God who loves his world desperately; this particular God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of our Lord Jesus Christ. Worship makes this God present, worship pulls back the veil and takes us to the holy of holies. Worship draws us into the love of that center of the universe, the love that is God—the love made clear to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Worship is primary, foundational. As we learn in worship to love God, the God the New Testament says is love, we grasp God’s very burden, God’s very passion to love, the creation, the people, in concrete and particular ways. The God who cries out for justice for the oppressed, healing for the sick, food for the hungry, and clothes for the naked. God calls us to this table to experience the love and presence of God in bread and wine. Like those two on the road to Emmaus, we know Jesus in the breaking of the bread and through Jesus we learn to love what God loves.
When he died in 1662 the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal had the following on a fragment of paper sewn into his coat:
FIRE. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not on the
Philosophers and scholars. Certainty, Feeling, Joy, Peace.
To love this God is to love God’s creation, to love each other, the world in all its particularity and confusion. Thanks be to God. Amen.