The Reverend John Allison, Celebrant
October 25, 2020 Christ Church, Hudson
Roman Catholic priest and author Michel DeVerteuil tells the story of a radio station that ran a contest as part of its morning show. Each day as listeners woke to the sound of FM-106 the disc jockey invited listeners to call in and share the first words they spoke when they rolled out of bed. The third caller each day won $106.
The contest was quite popular. One morning it was, “Do I smell coffee burning?” Another, a sleepy voice muttered, “Oh no, I’m late for work.” As you can imagine, the responses ranged from the ordinary to the ridiculous but it seemed the radio station has tapped into something that resonated with people.
One morning, however, the third caller introduced something unusual. The station phone rang. The DJ said, “Good morning, this is FM-106 and you’re on the air. What did you say when you rolled out of bed this morning?”
A voice with a thick Brooklyn accent replied, “You want to know my first words in the morning? I’ll tell you my first words. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The man recited it in Hebrew, which made it all the more surprising to people, and, after a moment of confused silence, the DJ was at a loss for words and cut to commercial.
The words the man was reciting are known as the Shema and are from Deuteronomy (6:4-9) and are recited daily by Jews as a central confession of faith. As a Jew, Jesus would have been quite familiar with these words and himself said them twice a day. And so, in our Gospel reading today when the Pharisees again confront Jesus and seek to test him, his response would have been well within accepted teaching. Indeed, it was foundational to the practice of the faith. What was a bit more unusual, however, was his linking of the Shema to the command from Leviticus to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
According to Jewish tradition, Torah contained 613 distinct commandments, not just the familiar ten we think of, and the Pharisees' question, a trick question you might say, was meant to trip up Jesus. Remember, the events our Gospel readings have been recounting over the last few weeks take place in the days leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion, and the Pharisees and Temple leaders feel their authority and position to be challenged by Jesus. His response, however, points to the central aim of all the commandments—right relationship. All of the commandments, and we can see this even in the ten with which we’re most familiar, point to how we are to be in right relationship with God and with one another, or more generally, with God and with creation.
As I’ve reflected on this over the week, I’ve been struck by how timely this emphasis on relationship is as I find myself challenged by the tension between various factions within our society, and even within the church. Indeed, if you spend more than a few minutes with the news the tenor of conversation often turns to the heat of argument and confrontation. Not even the Church is immune to such division; indeed, within the diocese many have experienced tension and consternation on the issue of same-sex marriage. Beyond our own denomination, but certainly within as well, the Body of Christ further divides itself along the political spectrum with fierce devotion to one presidential candidate or another. I feel the weight of conflict and am exhausted by it. I suspect many of us are. I need Jesus’s reminder of what really matters.
As the gathered body of Christ we are in relation and it grows from a common acknowledgement that “the Lord our God is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This acknowledgment is the source of our love for neighbor and for one another and our relationship is built on that foundation. It's important we remind ourselves of that—maybe even more than twice day.
God is present to us in relationship—relationship to God’s self, to ourself, to our neighbor. That’s a spiritual assumption that guides my life. It means that rather than trying to get God to do something, we seek to be aware of, to awaken to, what God is already doing, how God is acting in our lives and in the world so that we can respond to it, participate in it. Take delight in it. That is how we love God. To love what God loves.
I pray that I may open my eyes to that kind of love. In our collect for today we prayed, “Almighty and Everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command.” The gifts of faith, hope, and charity, or faith, hope, and love as it is sometimes translated, are known as the theological virtues and they are unique among the virtues. Paul writes about this in his Letter to the Corinthians, and last week he mentioned them in the opening to his Letter to the Thessalonians. St. Thomas Aquinas explored it quite thoroughly in his writings, but in a nutshell, faith, hope, love are infused in us by God. They are not acquired by our efforts like the Cardinal Virtues of Greek philosophy but are purely gift. They are a part of God’s imprint on our souls and our expression of faith, hope, and love is a reflection of God’s love for creation. And while we don’t acquire them through our own efforts they are increased by our practice. They grow in us through our expression of them. Aquinas goes so far as to say that through God’s grace our willing practice of Faith, Hope, and Love empower us to action that is beyond what we might ask or imagine.
In challenging times I need to be reminded of that. God has given us what we need to be God’s hands and feet in the world. Mother Teresa who trusted and expressed this in profound action wrote in a poem:
Loving as He loves,
Helping as he helps,
Giving as He gives,
Serving as He serves,
Rescuing as He rescues,
Being with Him twenty-four hours,
Touching Him in his distressing disguise.
If we are honest with ourselves, the task of being in relationship with God, with ourselves, with one another is daunting to say the least. It’s highlighted now, for me, in all that’s happening in our world and in our church. Each of us, in our own ways, knows the pain of brokenness. Can we see Him through his distressing disguise? Can we be awake to God with us? With God’s help, yes.
I think the man who called into that radio station was on to something. I need to remind myself every day, twice a day at least: I shall love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind and love my neighbor as myself. That love will look different for each of us, but its expression is what God wants for us, that’s the Good News, the Gospel to which we are each called to participate in new and creative ways. Amen.