Sunday, October 23, 2005

In Your Heart You Know He's Right

House of Prayer Episcopal Church, Newark NJ
October 23, 2005

Year A: Proper 25 BCP
Exodus 22: 21-27
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
Matthew 22: 34-46

“In Your Heart You Know He’s Right”

Breathe on us, Breath of God, fill us with life anew,
that we may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.

The twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost does not exactly sound like a particularly special day – let’s face it we’re not talking Easter, or Christmas, or even Epiphany here. And yet, in this Sunday’s Gospel passage, in this little exchange between Jesus and one of his opponents, we find ourselves very close to the heart of the Christian message, the heart of our lives in Christ. When an unnamed Pharisee challenges Jesus to name the greatest commandment, Jesus quotes from the Bible, the Book of Deuteronomy, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Creatively then Jesus links that commandment with a verse from another Bible book, Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells the Pharisee that these commandments are the heart of the matter, the way to understand everything, what it’s all about: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Reflecting on this passage for the last few days, waiting patiently for inspiration to strike, I’ve heard one name over and over in my head…Barry Goldwater. Now, some of you are old enough to remember Barry Goldwater, but you won’t be put on the spot – although that would probably be a lot of fun. For those who don’t or won’t admit that you remember him, Goldwater was a longtime Republican senator from Arizona and the unsuccessful Republican candidate for president in 1964. But, you’re probably asking, why in the world think of Barry Goldwater today? Well, I think, I hope, the reason is that in 1964 Goldwater used one of my all-time favorite political campaign slogans – “In your heart you know he’s right.” “In your heart you know he’s right.” This arrogant political slogan might actually help us in reflecting on today’s gospel.

Of course we don’t know much about the Pharisee who questions Jesus, but he’s still an interesting character. Most translations describe him as a lawyer, but maybe scholar of the law would be better. Any Pharisee, or scholar of the law, worthy of the name would have been familiar with the scripture Jesus quotes.

Yet, what did this scholar feel or think when Jesus creatively linked these two concepts together – love of God and love of neighbor? And it’s amazing how Jesus seems takes this leap like it’s no big deal, no sweat. What was the reaction of this scholar of the law to Jesus’ deep but almost casual answer? Well, it’s too bad that Matthew does not record the Pharisee’s response to Jesus’ answer, instead moving on to Jesus’ own questions for the Pharisees. Maybe this scholar was surprised, or shocked, or unsatisfied, or disturbed, or impressed. We don’t know, but I’m going to guess that this Pharisee felt what I sometimes feel and maybe you feel when we read the Bible and hear Jesus speak this way, when we hear Jesus teach with authority – in our hearts, we know he’s right. Love of God, love of neighbor. Of course, that’s what it’s all about. This truth is what we need to remember when we read all the Scriptures. Of course, of course. In our hearts, we know he’s right.

If that’s true, if in our hearts we know Jesus is right, then what’s really terrible is how often we choose to ignore the truth that Jesus taught the Pharisee and is teaching us today. We know it in our hearts, we’ve heard it repeated a million times, and yet we choose to live in ways very different from love of God and love of neighbor.

What makes our actions really upsetting is that if we miss this central commandment, which we know in our hearts is right, we’ve really missed it all. We can’t hope to understand the God revealed in the Scriptures, we can’t hope to know Jesus, we can’t hope to understand ourselves, we can’t really be Christians, if we miss or forget this teaching.

So if this is so important, so crucial, why today do we, maybe even nice church-going folk like us, miss this great commandment so often - forgetting it, ignoring it, tucking it away behind some old clothes in our dresser drawer? I think we can agree that there are many reasons – reasons that might be dumped into a big crate and labeled “sin.” I’m sure by now you’ve all figured out you’re your own ways to sin, but today I offer one sin from my own collection – the destructive sin of self-centeredness.

I’m sorry to say that unfortunately, I have found it very easy to forget this simple, profound truth that Jesus is teaching us today. Especially during my first year over at the seminary, I found it very easy to forget this greatest commandment.

As some of you know, in my previous life for fifteen years I was a history teacher. It was a job I really liked – I liked history, I liked kids, and I liked sharing history with them – watching them struggle, think and grow. I especially loved the opportunity to build a little community in each of my classes. And, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I liked the attention I received as a teacher too. (The summers off weren’t bad either.) My last year as a teacher was really good and I left feeling positive about the past and excited about the future.

So after a relaxing summer, seminary began. Almost immediately I felt shaky – had I made the right decision leaving the sure thing, leaving my little school community? I had to deal with anxieties that reminded me a lot of when I was in high school - Would I fit in? Would I make friends? Do well academically? Maybe most scary of all, would I be able to learn how to sing, or even just chant? (At least the music professor eventually determined that I wasn’t tone deaf – now that was some welcome good news!) But, what if I had made a big mistake? Whose idea was this anyway?! Well, I thought, with sickening turns of my stomach, there was no turning back – I doubted my Roman Catholic high school would welcome me back, even if my old job were available. As my confidence dropped I just did not feel like myself – I lost my sense of humor, felt tired, weird, and scared.

But by the grace of God, and the support of people who care about me, I got through it and did OK. I have to say, though, it was a big relief to finish the last day of classes and head for home.

Then, of course, after a couple of weeks it was on to what’s called CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education, where I worked as a chaplain in a hospital and hopefully learned some pastoral skills. One of our first things we did was to create a “Verbatim with God” – we had to write down a little conversation between God and us. It shocked and hurt me how frustrating and difficult I found this exercise. I tried talking to God, but nothing – I could not imagine what God and I might have to say to each other. In the end my dialogue turned out to be more like a monologue – me trying to talk with God but seemingly getting no divine response.

When we read our “Verbatims with God” in our CPE group I had a sinking feeling, a kind of panic, as I realized that my classmates all seemed to be a lot closer to God than I was. Even if they had problems, at least they were actually had some kind of relationship with God! Concerned, one of the CPE supervisors said that my conversation with God, my relationship with God, seemed lifeless. I can still feel how hard that word hit me. Lifeless.

Looking back on all of this now, I realize that I was an example of what happens when we forget what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel. Under the stress of a big change, I had turned in on myself. I had lost sight of the central truth that we are born to love and born to be loved. Instead, in my fear and insecurity, I had become self-absorbed, self-centered, closed to the love coming to me from God through the people in my life. And since I was so focused on myself I was certainly not very able crack open my heart and offer love to the people I encountered in my life.

This love of God and love of neighbor that Jesus is teaching us about, in Greek it’s called agape, this love is action. This love that Jesus is teaching us about is a commitment, a doing. It’s a total life of love – since we can’t separate our love of God from our love of neighbor, even if we wanted to. But, we can’t do this love; we can’t even really accept this love, if we can’t stop thinking about ourselves.

The fact is if we’re self-centered we’re not going to be able to love the way Jesus calls us to love. It reminds me of another one of Jesus’ best-known and most difficult sayings, which Matthew places in Chapter 10. Jesus tells his followers, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Here, and in the Great Commandment, in the Beatitudes, throughout the Gospels – and truly throughout Jesus’ life, we are called over and over again to a life of love. And if we sometimes feel unloved, as a friend of mine says, all we need to do is look at the Cross to remember just how much we are loved. The entire message of the Bible it seems to me can be summed up in that beautiful name, Emmanuel – God with us. So if we feel lifeless and lost we know that God is with us and God doesn’t give up. God is tirelessly, constantly at work in our lives, providing us with new opportunities to love and be loved.

Back to my CPE story. After my lifeless “Verbatim with God”, I realized with a shock just how far I had drifted from God during that first difficult seminary year. God and I put all this to good use. That sadness drove me to work harder at figuring out just what I believed about God in my life. Somehow that lifelessness helped my prayer as I cried out in a way I hadn’t in a long time, “Where are you, God?” and “Help!” And somehow facing my own little fears and insecurities helped make me much more sensitive to the fears and needs of the patients I visited each day. My own crying out to God helped me to really pray with people facing illness and loss who were also crying out to God – People asking in their own ways “where are you?” and “help!”

Being present in the confusion and anxiety of patients and their families was certainly not easy, but it served as a reminder. Being present for love and reconciliation among patients and their families served as a reminder too. It was a reminder of what Jesus is teaching us today, a reminder of the truth of God, the truth that lies at the heart of our lives – that we are born to love and be loved – this is who we really are – this who God calls us to be – this is who God dreams we will be. And in our hearts we know Jesus is right.

A couple of weeks ago when I was walking through downtown on my way to the vestry meeting here at House of Prayer, I stopped in front of a beautiful church on Washington Park. Doug tells me it had been home to a Presbyterian congregation, a group that hung in there as long as it could, but finally closed its large, beautiful church not long ago. Maybe some of you know it. I felt sad looking at this building, wondering what would happen to it now. Then I looked up above the doorway and carved into the masonry were the words: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Whoever they were, these departed Newark Presbyterians got it – they understood what is most important. And in a small way they continue to share this good news through the building they have left behind.

So on this plain, old 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, we are reminded of the simple, beautiful truth of our life in Christ – all that we are commanded to do and be. To love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind. And to love our neighbor as ourselves. Today let us go forth from this house of prayer remembering what Jesus teaches us - that we are born to love and be loved. In our hearts we know he’s right.