What Can Love Do?

Holy Eucharist for Sunday, Proper 25, Year A
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI

Matthew 22:34-46

The culture of Jesus’ time and place, much like our own, was no stranger to the perils of partisan conflict. Today’s gospel opens in the middle of an argument between two established schools of Jewish thought: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

These two communities offer alternative interpretations of Judaism, in much the same way that different denominations offer alternative interpretations of Christianity today. Additionally, because there was no “separation of church and state” in the ancient world, the Pharisees and Sadducees also functioned as something like political parties in Judea. Imagine, if you will, a messy situation where The Episcopal Church functions as the primary meeting of the Democrats, while the Southern Baptists set the platform for the Republicans.

The Sadducees were a smaller group of wealthy elites who centered their worship on the sacrificial rituals of the Jerusalem Temple. Theologically, they accepted only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, as divinely inspired and authoritative. They did not believe in destiny, angels, or an afterlife. Politically, they sought friendly and peaceful relations with the occupying Roman government.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a somewhat larger group of the lower classes. Their worship emphasized the study of the Torah in synagogues under the tutelage of learned rabbis. In addition to the five books of the Pentateuch, Pharisees also accepted the oracles of the prophets, collections of wisdom literature, and the oral interpretations of rabbinical scholars. They believed that moral purity would reform their national life and convince God to send the Messiah, an anointed king who would liberate their people from foreign occupation and influence. The Pharisees went on to form the foundation of Judaism, as it is practiced today.

Together, the Pharisees and Sadducees were both thoroughly Jewish movements. As joint religious denominations and political parties, they advocated competing agendas for “God and country” in Judea during the time of Jesus.

Our gospel reading for today begins as Jesus is ending a debate with one member of the Sadducee party. A nearby Pharisee, a legal scholar, listens with great interest to this argument. “If Jesus is obviously opposed to the Sadducees,” he thinks, “then maybe he is a member of our party?” With this question in mind, he decides to put Jesus to a little theological test about the Jewish Scriptures.

“Rabbi,” he says, “which mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah is the greatest?”

Jesus responds by ushering his interlocutor into the heart of their shared tradition by referencing the Shema.

The Shema, in Judaism, is the foundational faith statement of monotheism:

“Shema Yisrael:” (Listen, O Israel:)

“Adonai Eloheinu,” (The Lord is our God,)

“Adonai Echad.” (The Lord is ONE.)

This declaration of oneness represents not only the heart of Jewish tradition, but the heart of reality itself, as Jesus and his fellow Jews understand it: That, beneath the unfathomable diversity of beings and events in the universe, is Sacred Oneness.

Mystics, from many different religious traditions, affirm this Oneness in ways that are remarkably similar to one another. Lao-Tzu, the Buddha, Rumi, and Meister Eckhart all describe a state of Non-Duality that includes and transcends all separations: self and other, left and right, light and dark, spiritual and secular. Spirituality, it seems, is the art of unifying opposites in transcendent wonder.

Neurologists have identified those parts of the human brain that allow us to lump together separate objects as parts of a unified whole. Their studies of dedicated monks and nuns have demonstrated that those parts of the brain are particularly active during periods of intense meditation, thus explaining those experiences of peace and unity that mystics have tried to express for millennia.

Physicists, in their study of the beginning of time, have likewise affirmed that the universe seems to have had its beginning in a Singularity of time, space, matter, and energy that exploded some 13.8 billion years ago in a cataclysmic event to which we now refer as the Big Bang.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisee in today’s gospel makes reference to this same Sacred Oneness at the heart of reality itself. The only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness, Jesus declares in the words of the Torah, is Love.

The greatest commandment in the Torah, according to Jesus, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” These words, adapted from Deuteronomy 6:5, appear in the Torah immediately after the verse which lays out the Shema for the first time. “The Lord is one,” Jesus says in effect, “and the only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness is love.”

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. For Jesus, love is not just the sappy feeling sensationalized in pop songs and rom-coms. For Jesus, love is not something you feel, but something you do. Love is action. Love is a verb.

This creates a problem: How does one show love to Love Itself? What could mere mortals possibly offer to a God who, by definition, already has and holds everything in the tender embrace of the Divine Self? The answer, according to Jesus, is simple: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This commandment comes from the Torah as well, from Leviticus 19:18. It comes on the heels of Moses’ teaching about vengeance: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This commandment to love one’s neighbor speaks directly to the problem of partisan conflict, which was as active in Jesus’ day as it is in our own. Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.” Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa (who has worshiped in this very church), said similarly, “There is no future without forgiveness.”

The commandment to love receives its most explicit and biting explication later in the New Testament, in the first epistle of St. John, chapter 4:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Brothers and sisters, I put it to you today that the commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor are not separate, but a single commandment from our Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Way of Love moves at heart of everything Jesus said and did in his life on Earth. In the venerable words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, “If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.”

Notice that neither Jesus nor John, neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Archbishop Tutu, neither the Torah nor the Presiding Bishop puts any provisos or exceptions on their joint commandment to love.

I am as aware as each and every one of you that we have the misfortune of living in a moment when love seems more powerless and the people of this country seem more divided than ever.

What can love do when our elderly and most vulnerable neighbors are being stalked by an invisible predator that steals the air from their lungs while their families watch in horror from the other side of a reinforced glass window?

What can love do when the beautiful bodies of our black brothers and sisters are left bleeding in their beds and on the streets, full of bullet holes?

What can love do when temperatures rise and songs of praise to the Author of Life are silenced at the rate of a species every single day? What can love do?

Brothers and sisters, this is the very question that I put before this morning: What can love do?

The answer we give to this burning question is the only response that God is interested in hearing from us. It is the only offering we can make that is worthy of the name Worship.

Love, in all its living and active forms, is the embodied reality that has the power to overcome all the partisan divisions of Jesus’ day and our own. Love is the only appropriate response to the Sacred Oneness that gave birth to the universe.

Let us return to the biblical exhortations of St. John the Beloved, in chapter 3, verse 18 of his first epistle: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we go out into the world this week, let us honor that Sacred Oneness. In the words of St. John, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we catch ourselves in the mirror while shaving or brushing our teeth, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we relate to family and friends, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we interact with coworkers and classmates, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we converse with neighbors and enemies alike, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we read the news headlines and prepare to head to the polls next week, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

I close, once again, with these memorable words from Presiding Bishop Curry, which he borrowed from Jesus, who borrowed them from the Torah of his ancestors: “Brothers and sisters: love God, love your neighbor, and while you’re at it… love yourself!”

A Trunk of Old Letters

Reading the Bible is complicated.

Imagine finding a trunk in an attic that’s full of letters between multiple generations of great grandparents:

It will take years to get through them all and fully understand them. You will have to study history to appreciate why the letters written during the Civil War are different from the letters written during the Great Depression.

Over time, you will get to know the people writing the letters, what they cared about, and what their issues were. You might be disturbed with them on some issues (e.g. “OMG, our great great grandparents owned SLAVES?!”).

But you will still treasure them because they tell the story of your family and how you got to where you are today, hence they give you insight into who you are. The Bible is no different.

Christians love and treasure the Bible. It can inform, inspire, and guide us, even though we don’t necessarily agree with our ancestors in all things.

The Bible is not simple black and white. It has multiple views on abortion, marriage, slavery, the afterlife, God, Satan, etc, because the Bible is not a book, but a trunk of letters.

Processional

Meditation on Matthew 21:1-11.

In scattered fragments, lying close at hand,
May I be open to what life requires:
To rearrange the patterns of the past
And make anew what I will need today.

While blessing all these days that come to pass,
May I hold lightly all that I create,
And listen to the deeper question asked
That all my answers cannot satisfy.

To Err is Divine

Matthew 9:9-17

Karl E. Peters writes: “To err is divine.”

This phrase feels uncomfortable to most religious practitioners in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We have been conditioned to think of the Divine as an all-powerful being who has established unchanging standards of truth and righteousness in the world. Peters, on the other hand, identifies “God” as “the creative process working in our midst.”

Biological evolution happens by mistake. Mutations are copy errors in an organism’s genetic code. Most genetic mutations have a neutral or adverse effect on an organism’s chances for survival, but some of them turn out to be beneficial. When a mutation gives an organism a survival advantage, that error gets incorporated into the genetic code and is more likely to shape future generations.

Cultural evolution happens in much the same way. When Jesus invited outcasts into his grassroots movement and challenged established moral and theological standards of his culture, the leaders of his culture regarded his actions as mistakes. The appointed guardians of tradition branded Jesus as a dangerous heretic because he did not practice his spirituality in the “right” way or with the “right” people.

The early followers of Jesus incorporated his tendencies toward inclusion and innovation into the cultural DNA of their movement. These cultural mutations gave that community the independence it needed to survive and thrive after the Roman Empire razed the second Jewish temple in 70CE. Other religious movements survived because they centered their faith and practice in the study of the Torah, rather than the rituals of the temple. These two movements evolved into the religious traditions we now recognize as Judaism and Christianity.

The following questions arise: What creative mistakes are we making in our lives today? How might today’s heretics become tomorrow’s leaders? How might “the creative process working in our midst” be adapting our communities to include new voices and invent new ways of doing things?

Peters asks:

“Are these mistakes mutations in religious thought that ought to be destroyed or might they be something else, a new and helpful way of portraying the sacred? That will be determined not by what I am saying. It will be determined only by how you and others respond, by whether these ideas help you make sense of your own experience in living.”

Karl E. Peters. Dancing with the sacred: evolution, ecology, and God (Trinity Press International: 2002).

Now
is the space between
what is known and
what is new.

It is a constant
coming into existence.

No respecter
of who belongs
or how it’s done.

Some mistakes
turn out to be correct
and vice versa.

Some heretics
turn out to be prophets
and vice versa.

Stardust: A Meditation on Grief

One of the many remarkable truths about nature is that death is often a gateway to new forms of life. My favorite illustration of this process is the most powerful incident of death in the known universe: a supernova.

A supernova is how a star dies. Stars are born as hydrogen atoms are drawn to each other in the cold depths of outer space. These atoms huddle together in the dark until their bodies fuse into one. This fusion gives off a burst of energy that can be felt as heat and light. The end product is a new atom called helium. As more and more hydrogen atoms join the group, they start a chain reaction that results in a giant ball of gas that we call a star. Stars burn for billions of years, constantly making new kinds of atoms. You can look out the window on a clear day and see this process happening right before your eyes.

Eventually, these atoms become too big and heavy for this process to continue. When this happens, the inward pressure of gravity overwhelms the outward pressure caused by fusion and the star implodes. Because every action in physics causes an equal and opposite reaction, the star’s implosion results in a dramatic explosion. In that brief moment of tremendous destruction, the light of a single star outshines the entire galaxy.

I imagine that for you, the loved ones of those who have recently died, the pain of grief feels overwhelming in the same way. The felt absence of the one who died seems to outshine every other concern in life. This feeling is very normal and natural. You might wonder: Can my universe ever be the same again? Can any good possibly come from a loss so great? These questions are also very normal and natural.

Here’s how nature answers those questions:

Can the universe ever be the same again? No. A great star has been lost, just as the unique light of your loved one’s presence has faded from this world. We grieve this incalculable loss with you.

Can any good possibly come from a loss so great? Yes! The new atoms forged in the heart of that star get launched into space, where gravity draws them back together over billions of years. They form new bodies like other stars, comets, and planets. On our planet Earth, these atoms came together in just the right way to allow life to form and grow. Today, in the ground beneath your feet, in the air you breathe, and even in the atoms of your own body, you carry the remnants of these deceased stars. Quite literally, you are made of stardust!

The spiritual traditions of the world have observed this process and expressed it in various ways. Some believe in reincarnation while others believe in resurrection. Some believe that our physical life ends while our spirits live on in some mysterious way. What all of these beliefs have in common is the hunch that death is not just an end, but also a gateway to new life, just like a supernova.

I know that your world will never be the same again after the loss of this precious loved one. I invite you, in this time of overwhelming grief, to be patient and caring with yourselves and each other. May the gravitational forces of love draw you closer together and help you pick up the scattered pieces. May the blinding light of loss plant seeds of new life as it fades. And may you remember always the unchanging truth that fires your life with dignity: You are stardust!

Evening Prayer for Sunday of Easter 2

The Invitatory and Psalter

O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as
it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
Alleluia.

Phos hilaron

O gracious light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed! 

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of Life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.

The Psalm or Psalms Appointed

111    Confitebor tibi

1              Hallelujah!
I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

2              Great are the deeds of the LORD! *
they are studied by all who delight in them.

3              His work is full of majesty and splendor, *
and his righteousness endures for ever.

4              He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; *
the LORD is gracious and full of compassion.

5              He gives food to those who fear him; *
he is ever mindful of his covenant.

6              He has shown his people the power of his works *
in giving them the lands of the nations.

7              The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; *
all his commandments are sure.

8              They stand fast for ever and ever, *
because they are done in truth and equity.

9              He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *
holy and awesome is his Name.

10           The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.

112    Beatus vir

1              Hallelujah!
Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!

2              Their descendants will be mighty in the land; *
the generation of the upright will be blessed.

3              Wealth and riches will be in their house, *
and their righteousness will last for ever.

4              Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

5              It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.

6              For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.

7              They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; *
their heart is right;
they put their trust in the Lord.

8              Their heart is established and will not shrink, *
until they see their desire upon their enemies.

9              They have given freely to the poor, *
and their righteousness stands fast for ever;
they will hold up their head with honor.

10           The wicked will see it and be angry;
they will gnash their teeth and pine away; *
the desires of the wicked will perish.

113    Laudate, pueri

1              Hallelujah!
Give praise, you servants of the LORD; *
praise the Name of the LORD.

2              Let the Name of the LORD be blessed, *
from this time forth for evermore.

3              From the rising of the sun to its going down *
let the Name of the LORD be praised.

4              The LORD is high above all nations, *
and his glory above the heavens.

5              Who is like the LORD our God, who sits enthroned on high, *
but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth?

6              He takes up the weak out of the dust *
and lifts up the poor from the ashes.

7              He sets them with the princes, *
with the princes of his people.

8              He makes the woman of a childless house *
to be a joyful mother of children.

At the end of the Psalms is sung or said

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

The Lessons

One or two lessons, as appointed, are read, the Reader first saying

A Reading (Lesson) from ________________.

After each Lesson the Reader may say

Here ends the Reading.

Magnificat

Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
    for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
    the Almighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *
    in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
    he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
    and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
    and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
    for he has remembered his promise of mercy,

The promise he made to our fathers, *
    to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
    as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
    creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord.
    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
      and born of the Virgin Mary.
    He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried.
    He descended to the dead.
    On the third day he rose again.
    He ascended into heaven,
      and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins,
    the resurrection of the body,
    and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Prayers

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us pray.

Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your Name,
    your kingdom come,
    your will be done,
        on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
    as we forgive those
        who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial,
    and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
    and the glory are yours,
    now and for ever. Amen.

Suffrages B

That this evening may be holy, good, and peaceful,
We entreat you, O Lord.

That your holy angels may lead us in paths of peace and
goodwill,
We entreat you, O Lord.

That we may be pardoned and forgiven for our sins
and offenses,
We entreat you, O Lord.

That there may be peace to your Church and to the whole
world,
We entreat you, O Lord.

That we may depart this life in your faith and fear,
and not be condemned before the great judgment seat
of Christ,
We entreat you, O Lord.

That we may be bound together by your Holy Spirit in
the communion of [________ and] all your saints,
entrusting one another and all our life to Christ,
We entreat you, O Lord.

A Collect for the Presence of Christ

Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day
is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and
awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in
Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake
of your love. Amen.

A Collect for Mission

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who
sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

From Easter Day through the Day of Pentecost “Alleluia, alleluia” may
be added to the preceding versicle and response.

Listening to One Woman’s Voice

The subject of abortion is once again topping headlines, with the recent passage of restrictive legislation in several states. Much is now being written and said about this, by voices in all sides.

One of my current spiritual heroines, The Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson (Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the PCUSA), wrote on Facebook: “FWIW, I’m super okay with men not talking right now, just for a little while.”

To honor Pastor Denise, I would like to shut up and welcome this guest post on the subject by another one of my spiritual heroines: The Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee (Co-Moderator of the Schmidt-Lee household from 2004-present… my partner).

The following words are Sarah’s, slightly edited for continuity and shared with her permission, from a private online conversation we had with an evangelical seminary classmate.

SARAH: I grew up pro-life and I’m still inclined toward treating conception as the beginning of life, mostly because I want to affirm to women who have experienced miscarriages and still births that their loss is real and their motherhood counts. So all the debate over when life begins and how we read passages of the Bible about breath=life or being known in the womb, etc, are not particularly interesting to me.

Where I come down is that no human life trumps the bodily autonomy of another person.

Now, I know that some people turn this around and say a pregnant woman’s life shouldn’t trump the bodily autonomy of a fetus growing in her body, and that because of their vulnerability/voicelessness, the woman should not have the right to cause them harm.

But that fetus does not yet have the ability to exist independently of the woman.

And there is no other situation in which we would force a person to make huge donations of their time, energy, health, future, and risk their own lives to save the life of someone who was unconscious, unable to communicate, and medically dependent upon their organ donation, blood or plasma donation or other donation.

As a Christian pastor, I would counsel a person asked to donate blood marrow or a kidney to a dying family member in the hopes they would make the choice to donate and save another human life, but I would still consider it a choice.

And I would never support legislation that would make such a donation required, or the refusal to donate a crime punishable by incarceration.

In a similar way, I would (and do) work with pregnant women to find ways for them to continue their pregnancy and bring a human being into the world who can live independently from their bodies. But I consider it the woman’s choice whether to offer her body in that way.

Now, my father, for instance, makes the case that a pregnant woman is responsible for the existence of this completely dependent life in a way that the organ donation illustration does not parallel.

Because, presumably, she chose to have sex, knowing that conceiving life was a possible outcome.

But, 1) that’s presuming a lot. It doesn’t take into account rape, lack of sufficient sex education, inadequate education in how to effectively use contraception, or those cases when the contraception fails.

2) There is also a man who is, presumably, equally responsible for the creation of this new life, but who cannot share in the donation of his own body and risk of his own health in the nine months necessary to nurture that life to independent existence. It is absolutely unjust for the woman to be legally required to bear sole responsibility for that shared decision.

I think the only piece I have to add is that criminalizing abortion is not (and has never been) effective at curtailing abortion rates. It does, however have a profound impact on mortality rates among women seeking abortion. And poverty of women and children. I found out a couple years ago that in the decades before Roe v Wade, there was a national network of safe, vetted abortion providers, and the network was led by mainline clergy. It was called the Clergy Consultation Service, and was formed by clergy in urban settings who were tired of finding out that poor women in their outreach ministries and congregations were dying from sepsis and other complications from backalley abortions. They were hearing horror stories of doctors who would charge women huge sums of money and perform illegal abortions, but then rape the women at the same time and the women could not report the assaults because they would get in trouble for seeking an abortion. These clergy ended up working with women in their churches to visit known abortion providers, going undercover to test their safety, sanitation, and ethics. And they would help women travel across the whole country to get to providers they could ensure were safe. You can learn more about this network through this book, among other resources: https://offercompassion.com/author/offercompassion/

I posted a couple days ago about shifts in state laws and federal law about fetal personhood that mean that the overturning of Roe v Wade (or “chipping away” at it, as some politicians suggest) would leave already vulnerable women in our society far worse off than they were prior to Roe v Wade.

And concerned clergy across the country are already beginning to organize in case something like the Clergy Consultation Service becomes necessary again.

Do I believe life begins at conception? Yes. Do I value unborn life as fully human? Yes. But legislation that prioritizes the rights of unborn lives over the bodily autonomy of women only causes harm to women and children, and I believe, our society as a whole.