22 Pentecost, Proper 25 – October 29, 2023
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing was a large group of English Quakers that would come to be called Shakers. They were called Shakers because of their distinctive movement during worship. And the Shakers are also known for their style of furniture. The minimalist style of Shaker furniture is governed by the guiding principles of honesty, utility, and simplicity. Every item was designed to work well for its intended use without the distraction of unnecessary ornamentation.
So, for the Shakers, creating furniture that reflected their values was of the utmost importance. June Sprigg, the author of Shaker Design, writes:
The Shakers were not conscious of themselves as “designers” or “artists,” as those terms are understood in modern times. But they clearly worked to create a visible world in harmony with their inner life: simple, excellent, stripped of vanity and excess. Work and worship were not separate in the Shaker world. The line between heaven and earth flickered and danced. “A Man can Show his religion as much in measureing onions as he can in singing glory hal[le]lu[jah],” observed one Believer. Thomas Merton attributed the “peculiar grace” of a Shaker chair to the maker’s belief that “an angel might come and sit on it.”
There is an elegant simplicity that the Shakers brought to the work of their hands. The lines of Shaker design seem to emerge directly from their sense of what is most essential; follow the simple curve of a bowl, the uncluttered planes of a cupboard or dresser or table, the weave of a basket, and you can see how it has been created by someone who managed to strip away all that wasn’t necessary, who found the heart of the piece.
“Teacher,” a lawyer from the religious establishment asks Jesus, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Designed to test him, the question prompts Jesus to lay out the lines that lie at the core of his life and teaching: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’” Jesus says to the lawyer and to the others within earshot. ‘And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Firmly rooted in his Jewish heritage, Jesus gathers up the wisdom of his forebears and distills it into these two commandments that stand at the center of his history and of our own. He has found the heart of the matter, bringing to light what is most important, what is most crucial and essential in our life together.
Jesus knows that arriving at and living into what is essential is rarely easy. With these two commandments, Jesus extends a call that is compelling in its utter directness and seeming simplicity, yet the work of love—loving God and one another and ourselves, with all the artfulness and creativity this asks of us—can be wildly complicated. You know…arriving at something that appears simple and basic can be one of the hardest things to do.
How do you do this in your own life? Where is Christ’s call to love—this call that draws us into the deepest places in our own hearts, the heart of the world, the heart of God—taking you? How do you sort through all that competes for your attention, so that you can find what is most crucial? What are the challenges along the way, and where do you find the presence of beauty and delight in the lines of your emerging life?
And then there is the second part of Jesus message today. “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”…..”If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” Today’s message offers a commentary on the relationship between humans and God. The first part seems straightforward, if sometimes gut-wrenchingly difficult. But, in this second part, there is a deft subtlety in Jesus’ confounding question. In challenging his hearers to ponder how the Messiah can be both David’s ancestor and heir, Jesus underscores the manner in which he stands both within time and beyond it. He is Love embodied, entering into the fullness of what it means to wear flesh in this world. Yet he reminds us that Love is not bound by time, is not confined to chronology, can take us in seeming circles as we enter deeper and deeper into its mysteries.
Let’s go back to Shaker furniture. The Shakers were firm believers in community. The Shaker faith hinged on the belief that they should be free from desire. Free. Freedom.
Loving God and loving your neighbor could very well be the freedom we desperately need — a freedom from our own self-love. This is not to say that you should not love yourself — that is part of the commandment. I’m talking about the kind of self-love that is unable to look outside of the self toward the other, for the sake of the other. A kind of self-love that only looks out for the self. A kind of self-love that is always turned in on itself. A kind of self-love that makes you your own beneficiary, in all places and circumstances.
Being set free is the kind of freedom that is known only in relationship — with God and with your neighbor. A freedom from loneliness and disconnection. A freedom from self-sufficiency and self-reliance. A freedom from the pain of not belonging and not being known.
Like the Pharisees, we need to be reminded of the basics — and frequently. Loving God or neighbor is rarely at the forefront of what we do and what we say. It is so very easy to lapse into a self-centered existence where loving God becomes an obligation rather than liberty from vanity and egotism.
Becca Stevens has this to say: Feel the joy of letting go of old baggage and traveling lighter through this short and beautiful journey we have been offered. An old adage says that if you want to travel fast, travel alone, but if you want to travel far, travel in community. But even beyond that, if you want to travel with depth, learn the names of the flowers along the way, fall in love a thousand times, believe that you can meet the demands of the suffering along the way, speak your truth to power, and live into the mission of your life. We need to travel together. It is community that truly allows us to travel light.
There are reasons to fear traveling light. We may fear that in traveling light there will not be enough—maybe there is only bread for 4,999. We can fear traveling with others and worry about what they think of us. Am I too Christian, or perhaps not Christian enough? What are they judging me on? My age? My weight? My politics? What if someone uncovers a shameful secret or my resentments or even my broken relationships? All of those fears we carry around like huge packages preventing us from being able to travel well together.
When we lay aside our fears, we travel more lightly. We discover there is room enough for us when we travel together, that people want to hope with us, and that we can laugh easier and more often when we are together on the journey.
We need to travel together because we won’t make it traveling alone in this world. In community, we can be both extravagant and economic. We can be extravagant and light! We can be a light movement that bears the burden of another. We can remember that a church without beggars is just a museum—maybe unburdened, but lost to its mission.
So let us keep traveling together, learning all the flowers along the way, healing as we go. In some ways, it is about the destination. Our destination is that all our journeys begin and end in God.
Love transcends time and God is love. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Amen.