Homily for Pentecost 24 2008
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain — that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees — as far as Zoar. The LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended. Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses. Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands — O prosper the work of our hands!
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
Matthew 22:34-46 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘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.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”‘? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
“6’3”, 175 pound, 40-ish mature male looking for occasional partner – no strings attached.”
No strings attached! Really? It’s amazing how many claims there are that attempt to convince us that there are “no strings attached.” Yet when people relate to each other, it always seems there are attachments. What does life look like with strings attached ?
“Strings attached” looks like those people who give money for a new hospital on the condition that their name appears in letters 10 feet tall on the side of the building; strings attached is the slavery that is imposed on young men who enter gangs looking for easy money and power and protection, and then can’t escape; strings attached is the addictions they don’t tell you about when they advertize the cigarettes or the alcohol as being part of a desirable lifestyle and self-image; it’s about the friend who is our “friend” as long as they have something to gain from us.
It’s also about those gestures of devotion and prayer toward God that are really aimed at receiving specific rewards of our own choosing, rather than being open to what God gives us. Jesus spoke of the Pharisees already having their reward, because their goal was limited, and essentially selfish: they wanted to be noticed and praised for being better than others.
I think of strings in terms of attaching conditions and outcomes to any action or relationship in a way that compromises it. Strings are about manipulation – attempts to guarantee security, self-interest, and control, but make it appear otherwise. It is giving in order to get.
As we have been learning in recent weeks, God doesn’t attach strings to the divine love, nor does God attach strings to us, as though we were puppets, obliged to respond in prescribed ways. We are free to respond, in the manner we choose, to the abundant gesture of life that a loving God has bestowed upon each of us. There is a saying: “What we are is God’s gift to us – what we choose to become is our gift to God.”
In a world where relationships can be very complicated, and confusing, and self-interest seems to be the underlying motive in so many circumstances, a clear guideline would be helpful, a gold standard, as it were, about the nature of relating with integrity. What is genuine love supposed to look like? How should we respond to the unfettered love of God which is intended to redeem and liberate?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is approached with a challenge: to provide the “bottom line” of his teaching – the essence – something crystal clear and comprehensible. So he gives them a condensed/concentrated version of God’s most absolute and basic requirements of us. He summarizes the entire religious tradition by saying, “Love God with every dimension of your being – and love your neighbour as yourself.” This summary orients us in two directions: in love toward God, and in love toward others. It is as good a definition of love with “no strings attached” as you can find.
Jesus gives a very simple and direct answer, but it’s far from easy or undemanding. When I Googled the question, “What is Love?” I got 57 million responses! Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go over all of them in detail . . . .
But it’s clear that love is not something that is as easy or as simple as it seems. For instance, “If it feels good, do it” could just as easily be the motto of a serial rapist as of an overly-insistent boyfriend. We need to be mentored, guided, and informed about the nature of love, so we don’t define it in selfish or limited ways, or become controlled or manipulated in the name of love. We all know love gets expressed in a variety of ways, many of them completely inappropriate, and even destructive.
As Jesus defines it, genuine love overcomes boundaries. To love your neighbour as yourself means seeing something of your own “self” in others, to be able to identify with them – sympathize and understand — to be able to see the connections and embrace them. Genuine Christian love gets us thinking about the other, not just ourselves and what might be in it for us. Therefore the Christian way requires that, as we mature, we no longer allow our ego to dictate our attitudes and actions.
As Jesus defines it, love must be prefaced by a love of God, a love that involves our entire being, not just pieces of ourselves. The scriptures suggest that we are defined by the fact that God loves us, and that we are most truly ourselves, most truly human, when we turn toward God and live into the fullness of that relationship. It is a relationship that expresses itself in faith, reverence, accountability, worship, a universal sense of perspective and purpose, and justice and compassion toward people. Knowing and experiencing the love of God for ourselves makes all the difference. So, as Jesus defines it, it is that relationship which must be the priority, informing and shaping all other relationships which flow from it. The closer we are to God, the more genuine our love becomes, because God is love. The more genuine the love, the fewer strings there are attached, because to love is to begin to become like God, who loves without conditions. So our first priority is to make sure that people know this love – that they come to trust it – so they can begin to practise it in their relationships.
But let’s be real. Human relationships are always going to be characterized by attachments. In fact, some relationships need to have certain strings – i.e. of commitment, honesty, trust, etc – or they don’t work at all. We need to let ourselves off the hook in realizing that, since we are not God, it is impossible for us to love unconditionally. Instead, we may speak about our motivations, the degree of conditionality in our relationships and the direction and development of our capacity to love. Again, we are never going to be God, whose love is characterized by Jesus as being without conditions in our usual sense, yet we can all recall moments when we were drawn out of ourselves in love or affection or tenderness or adoration toward someone or something – perhaps toward a baby – or when we fell in love. So we may ask if we are moving in a direction of becoming more like God in that sense of letting go of attachments and conditions and allowing love to flow in a world which seems increasingly impersonal, uncaring and even sterile.
Love is not selfish. Paul, writing to the Christians in Thessalonika, insists that his preaching is not motivated by self-interest, and it obviously grieved him that the Thessalonians have put it on that level. Nevertheless, Paul doesn’t sulk and make it all about himself – he persists in trying to connect, for their sake, not just his own.
Love is an act of the heart – it is not a calculating act of the intellect acting in isolation. Anyone who has fallen in love knows that. It can bypass the ego and the intellect almost completely, because it is rooted in a deeper kind of knowing – an intuitive, discerning and instinctual kind of knowing. This is partly why, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus puts a riddle to the Pharisees – they are such head people, and so attached to the ego, they don’t really get what it means to love. His riddle proves that their intellects aren’t that great either.
Love involves choosing to make an offering of ourselves into the life of the world, in faith that such actions serve a purpose greater than we might be able to see or control. As Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive. Thus Paul persists in preaching to people who respond with put-downs and resistance. Thus Jesus goes to the Cross.
The strange mystery of the Christian Gospel is that its rewards are to be found in giving more than in receiving. The Christian way is oriented outward, taking us out of ourselves and into real relationship with God and others. In a world where people are searching for ways to finds themselves, the Christian way suggests that we may best find ourselves by looking beyond ourselves.
It’s lovely to be cared for; it’s important to know we are loved and valued. From the moment we leave the security of infancy we mourn for it and yearn for it. We all want a taste of what it would be like to be loved unconditionally, and there are many people out there hurting and empty and unloved. But if everyone becomes preoccupied with their need to be loved, then who is doing the loving part? – who will be there to offer love to people? I believe the church is meant to be a place (and must be a place) where people can experience the love of God, not just by talking about it but demonstrating it, sharing it, living it. The church is a place where people can experience the love of God through US – through those who have found that connection with the living water of God’s love.
But in order to prevent a “What’s in it for me?”, strings attached approach to the Christian life, I also think it is our vocation as the church is to mentor and mature and encourage our members to become people who are able to offer the love of God to a confused and suspicious and disillusioned world. The way we will get there is to begin responding to the essence of the Gospel as Jesus expressed it, which is the summons out of our limited, fearful and conditional approach to life, to become lovers God, and compassionate toward other people. As St. Francis de Sales said: “We learn how to love by loving.” The purpose of the Church is discipleship; it is personal and societal transformation. Otherwise we are building our own kingdom, not God’s – otherwise the church quickly becomes an inward-looking and very limited little social club.
So I wonder what the church would look like if we defined it this way: We come to St. John’s to learn how to love, as the way to come closer to God, and through the power of God’s love, to become agents of transformation in the world around us.
As with Moses, seeing the Promised Land from a distant mountain, we are always within sight of a new life. What we lack sometimes is a perspective on life that helps us see it, and the will to make that final journey to get there. We all know what life looks like with strings attached – I wonder what life might look like without them.
Prayer of St Francis:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace: where there is hatred let us sow love, where there is doubt faith, where there is despair hope, where there is darkness light, and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that we may never so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.