21 Pentecost, Proper 25 – October 25, 2020
Today’s gospel should be a familiar one. When asked what commandment in the law is the greatest Jesus says, ““You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Those listening to Jesus would have been familiar with both of these commandments in their Scriptures, but in different books. What Jesus does here is to link them and make the two inseparable. We cannot truly love God and at the same time not love our neighbor. As Trish Stefanick says: “By loving we come to realize ourselves as a participant in the Great Love and see everyone and everything a part” of that Great Love.
Easier said than done, right? In fact sometimes, it seems almost impossible. How do I love someone who has done me wrong? Intentionally, done me wrong.
Before we go any further, we need to understand what Jesus means here when he uses the word love. That little four-letter word “love” is used in many contexts. We talk about loving our dog, loving strawberries and ice-cream, or loving a spouse, a partner. When we use the word love like that we are expressing our affection and have warm feelings for whatever it is that we are loving. Because we associate the word “love” with affection it’s no wonder that we have difficulty loving those people who annoy us, those who have hurt us, and those who don’t deserve to be loved.
When the Bible talks about love it primarily means a love that keeps on loving, it means commitment. We may have warm feelings of gratitude to God when we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Jesus is demanding of us. It is stubborn, unwavering commitment. It follows then that to love one another, including our enemies, doesn’t mean we must feel affection for them — it means a commitment on our part to take their needs seriously, just as God committed himself to taking our needs seriously by sending his Son into this world.
I don’t have to tell you that this kind of love doesn’t come naturally. It is true that this kind of love comes from God, but putting it into practice is something we all have to work on. Love – commitment – is a deliberate action, it’s a choice.
On one of my recent walks, I listened to the OnBeing podcast with Krista Tippett. She was interviewing Sharon Salzberg. Salzberg is one of the most esteemed teachers of meditation in the world.
I was struck by what Salzberg had to say in this interview about living in community and how it addressed the difficulties that we’re talking about with today’s gospel and it’s great commandment. How do we love our enemies? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? Do we love ourselves?
What caught my attention was this: The idea of visiting forces. And it’s because of visiting forces that we suffer.
Sharon talks of Buddha’s teaching, where he said the mind — your mind, my mind — is naturally radiant and pure. “The mind is shining.” “It’s because of visiting forces that we suffer.” And there are a couple of things to that: one is that these forces are visiting — greed, hatred, jealousy, fear. They’re not inherently, intrinsically, who we are, but they visit. And they may visit a lot; they may visit nearly incessantly, but they’re still only visiting. And then the Buddha’s statement, “It’s because of visiting forces that we suffer”: he didn’t say it’s because of visiting forces that we’re terrible people or we’re awful or we’re not good enough or anything we might say to ourselves. It’s because of visiting forces that we suffer.
The grid, so to speak, by which we evaluate ourselves and others, is not good and bad or right and wrong — it’s suffering, and the end of suffering. So, what increases suffering? What deepens it, for ourselves and for others? Certain forces, certain actions, certain habits of mind. And what leads us to the end of suffering? Well – The sense of connection, instead of isolation, or clarity instead of confusion.
Sharon shares the image – I could see myself happily sitting at home, minding my own business, and hear a knock at the door. So I get up, and I open it up, and there’s fear. There’s shame. There’s jealousy. And I either fling open the door and say, “Welcome home. It’s all yours,” totally forgetting who actually lives here, or, as we often do, I try to shut the door and desperately pretend I never heard the knock, and somehow, the force comes in the window or down the chimney. It appears.
So what do you do when you open the door? And can you remember who lives there? Can you recognize, “OK, this is what’s visiting”? “It is a visitor”? If I get lost in it or overcome by it, it will cause suffering — doesn’t make me bad; it will cause suffering. How am I gonna relate to it?
In some traditions they have a teaching where they basically say, invite that visitor in for a meal. Don’t let it have the run of the house, because that’s dangerous, but you don’t have to be so afraid. You don’t have to be so ashamed of these things that arise. You actually couldn’t stop them. And so use your energy for something you can do, which is: Deal differently.
Equanimity. Equanimity in Buddhism is a kind of love. It allows you to connect with and accept suffering without getting attached or consumed by it. It is based on the experience of acceptance and letting go. It’s being able to hold everything, the dark and the light, and having a mind and a heart big enough and spacious enough to hold it all.
A perspective that 2020 has only deepened, is that the work ahead of us — to create the world we want to live in, that we want to offer to future generations — that that’s the work of the rest of our lifetimes. It’s long. It’s transformation that’s needed.
As you know, we live in this moment where — “divided” doesn’t do it. We have chasms between us. And there’s a lot of enemy feeling and language and posturing. And Sharon said, “Loving your enemies is science.” Yes, it’s a teaching of lovingkindness, it’s a spiritual teaching, but it’s actually the most pragmatic teaching.
And she remembers her father saying something like, “You can’t let people affect you.” And she was like, really? Is that the lesson that I’m supposed to absorb? But she did absorb it. And then you get to look at those things in your own mind, and all these things that you’ve believed, like, “vengefulness is really gonna make you strong.” And you look at it and you think, well, that was a myth. Look how painful that state is, to be closed in that way and shut off to anything else. And things like, “compassion is stupid and makes you too weak.” And really? Look at that. Look at the state itself: it is not like that. It is not stupid. It is not weak.
And so we get to discover all the things that are possible for us, and we see. I don’t want to live a life that is based on “it’s a dog eat dog world.” And I don’t want to feel that alone. I don’t want to feel that frightened. And I have possibilities. There are choices, because if I can see those assumptions arise in my mind as they’re arising, not seven years later but as it’s happening, then I can say — it’s just the same thing – you open the door, and there’s the visitor, and you say, “Oh, there you are. Have a cup of tea. Sit. I’m not going there again.” And it’s the gentlest thing. It’s not angry at yourself, and it’s not full of shame and trying to avoid what’s going on. It’s just saying, I don’t need to go down there again.
It comes down, so much of the time, to equanimity, which is really peace. And so many times, we think it means indifference, but it really doesn’t. It’s such a huge capacity of our hearts, to see what we’re going through, to see what others are going through. And there is light in the darkness. And we’re not avoiding pain, because some things just hurt. That’s fundamental. But we’re holding it in a way that the awareness is stronger than the visitor — it’s like the love is stronger than the pain. And the room we create, the environment we create, where all of this can come and go — it is built of awareness. It’s built of love. And it’s built of the sense of community; that we’re not so alone. And then we can really be with things, in a very, very different way. ( https://onbeing.org/programs/sharon-salzberg-shelter-for-the-heart-and-mind/#transcript )
You realize your awareness is bigger than the visitor. So you allow her in and give her a meal. Or you give her a cup of tea?”… “How about a cup of tea to go?”
So, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that this kind of love has been in short supply in our lives. Jesus came for our lovelessness. He showed us what true love is. His love touched the dumb, the deaf, the diseased, the disabled. His love warned, wept and washed dirty feet. His love told of a shepherd searching for lost sheep, a Father rushing out to embrace and kiss his lost son as he welcomed him home. His love turned the other cheek, and willingly walked that extra mile. His love carried a cross — and died upon it! His love welcomed each of us into God’s family, forgiving our sin in the water of our Baptism. Because of Jesus, Eternal life is yours in Christ. Forgiveness of sins is yours. The perfect love of God is yours.
We no longer have to love; we actually get to love. It’s our choice.
We don’t love in order to get to heaven; we love because heaven is already ours in Christ.
We don’t love in order to win God’s favor; we love because we already have God’s favor in Christ.
We don’t love so that God will love us; we love because God has loved us in Christ with the greatest love we will ever know, the crucified love of Jesus.
You may have heard this before, but there’s actually a symbol of the Great Commandment we see around us every day. Do you know what I’m talking about?
It’s the Cross. The vertical beam points us to God and reminds us that, first and foremost, we are to love God with every fiber of our being. The horizontal beam reminds us that we live in community with each other and that the truest test of faith is our sympathy and service to others in the name of Jesus Christ.
May we all strive to love more fully and live the abundant life of grace and love our neighbor as ourself. Amen.