A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 21 ~ Matthew 22:34-40, John 13:35
Renowned theologian Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann wrote these words that have been resounding in my consciousness and inspiring me to think really deeply since I re-encountered them while on retreat last week. Brueggemann said, “The task of prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there.”
That strikes me as deeply profound and important.
I have three main roles: priest, pastor, and prophet.
As priest I preside at public worship.
As pastor I teach, and administer, and lead, and support the congregation I serve.
As prophet I take inspiration from God and call people to God’s leadings as I understand them.
Today, I’m the prophet. Nobody likes prophets – because they make us feel uncomfortable – because they call us from complacency to conviction and repentance (which literally means to have a change of heart and mind and embrace a new or renewed direction). Prophets usually get run out of town, which is why priests and pastors tend to stay in their lanes and not venture into the prophetic. No such luck today.
“The task of prophetic imagination and ministry (like this) is to bring to public expression (like now) those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there.”
So, what long denied and deeply suppressed hopes and yearnings do I believe God has called me to bring to expression today?
And more specifically, our love of God.
“Um, Larry, isn’t that what we’re always all about?”
Well, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? And I’m not saying that we’ve been horribly misguided and have fallen away or whatnot. (I’m not that kind of prophet!)
I’m saying we (and mostly I’m using the whole denominational ‘we’ here, not just this community called Faith United), we have had our priorities somewhat ‘misaligned’.
See, I told you nobody likes a prophet.
In today’s reading Jesus is challenged to say what he thought the most important teaching of all was. So he turned to scripture and quoted a beloved prayer called ‘the Shema’ from Deuteronomy 6:5.
Matthew’s version is: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
(That’s it. The love neighbour part is from Leviticus, not Deuteronomy.)
The Shema is traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the conclusion of each day and at the start of each day – when you lie down and when you rise up. That means they bookend every single day of their life with a reminder to themselves that their absolute, primary, number one job in life is to love God with their whole being.
This scripture passage is the heart of my favourite theological concept.
This isn’t my idea. I didn’t cook it up.
Sure, I gave it the catchy expression ‘love, love, love’ (and made it into our church butterfly logo) but I didn’t decide on my own that this was the most important thing for us to focus on in church.
In all of Jesus’ recorded teaching there are only 3 things that he elevated to the imperative of being a commandment: “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind,” “Love your neighbour as you love yourself,” and in John 13 he said to his intimate, close friends “love one another as I have loved you.”
We are commanded to love – love God, love people, and love one another – love, love, love.
I’m a person of faith. I’m a disciple of Jesus, and so are you. I get the love, love, love thing, but it’s pretty vague. They’re nice words and all, but I need more direction in my discipleship. How do I do all this love stuff? Where do I begin?
I need to know what the most important thing is that I’m supposed to be about.
Is it that I’m supposed to believe certain doctrines? Nope.
Is it that I’m supposed to meditate on John 3:16 or the 23rd Psalm? Nope.
Is it that I’m supposed to pray the Lord’s Prayer over and over? Nope.
Those are great things, but according to Jesus they’re not job #1.
Is it that I’m supposed to work for justice and shalom, and do good?
Nope, not even that is job #1. (Stay with me!)
You see, this is the challenge, says the prophet.
We are, our United Church of Canada denomination is, what I characterize as a ‘second commandment church’.
We emphasize ‘love your neighbour’ as our primary means of spiritual, faithful expression.
That’s awesome! And yet, clearly Jesus called that job #2.
When asked to name the greatest commandment, in Greek the mega commandment of all the known 613 laws, the first, as in the principal commandment, Jesus did NOT say ‘love your neighbour’.
He said, “Love God with all your heart, and soul, and mind.”
Yes, he immediately named neighbour love as the second commandment, like the first, but not the first.
Interconnected for sure, but somehow also different.
And he didn’t say that the first commandment was to “love God with all your heart, soul, and mind THROUGH loving your neighbour” – although that’s exactly what we heard.
(How do you like me so far?)
They can’t be separated, and yet they’re distinct.
If I only love God and don’t love neighbour then I’m an idolater – and so heavenly minded that I’m no earthly good.
If I only love neighbour and don’t love God I do good, but it’s no longer necessarily related to spirituality or Christianity, or God.
I mean, even atheists take casseroles to sick friends!
So what does it mean then, to ‘love God’ if I don’t mean by ‘loving neighbour’?
Loving God means to come into union with God.
It’s our core spirituality.
It’s our primary relationship.
It’s the spiritual foundation that everything else is built on.
It’s the spiritual root system that everything else in your life grows from.
Jesus pretty much said that ‘loving God’ is what we’re supposed to be about from our first waking moments in the morning to our last resting moments at night.
Here’s the best way to say this that I have. I wrote this next piece in 2017 in collaboration with a guy who back then was just Richard, but now is the Right Rev. Dr. Richard Bott, our Moderator. We were collaborating on a big thing called “A Charter for Discipleship for the United Church of Canada,” (which sadly was never approved) and we used Jesus’ three commandments, these three holy loves, as our foundation.
Here’s how it started.
THIS, friends, is job #1, and how to do it…
[from the draft Charter for Discipleship in the UCCan]
The commandment that Jesus gives us that he called the first and foremost – the most essential – is about our communion with God. Communion is a movement of the heart, mind, and soul – a reorientation toward the Holy Mystery – a transformation from who you are toward who and whose you could be – and it happens not once and forever, but every moment of every day.
We celebrate God’s presence through worship, both corporately and personally, in word, in music, in art, in movement, in sacrament, increasing our awareness of God’s grace and love, accepting and incarnating that love, and joyously expressing how that love transforms us.
We commune with God through learning and discovering with wide eyes and open minds. We read, contemplate, and wrestle with scripture and theology. We grow in knowledge and wisdom through discussions, books, and sermons. And we study, question, and wonder to help to grow in us a deeper understanding of God.
We immerse ourselves in regular and intentional spiritual practices, the most common being prayer in its myriad forms and styles. Like musician’s scales and athlete’s drills investing significant time in spiritual practices is absolutely essential to grow deeper as a disciple of Jesus.
And so, committed to these practices, we love God and grow deeper in communion with God
- Through worship and sacraments
- Through scripture study and learning
- Through prayer and spiritual practices
Job #1 is growing ever deeper in communion, in relationship, in oneness with God.
‘The Message’ translation says to love God with all your passion and intelligence and prayer. From daybreak to nightfall, be worshipful, be learning, and be prayerful – that’s job #1.
And now we can really hear what Jesus is saying:
And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)
[Continuing from the Charter]
Jesus’ second commandment is to broaden our compassion to others – To love people as we love ourselves. We do that by listening, by being present, by being available, by being willing, by responding to those nudges of the Spirit, by discerning our gifts. We love through serving, helping, and reaching out, and through addressing causes, advocating for change, and enacting justice. We love through inviting and nurturing others into their own journey of discipleship. Indeed, perhaps the most profoundly loving thing we can do for someone is to help them learn to know and love God more deeply, which is evangelism, because that sets everything else in motion.
And so, committed to these practices, we love our neighbour as we grow broader in compassion for others
- Through outreach and service
- Through justice-seeking and justice-making
- Through evangelism and disciple-making
That’s the stuff our Church loves to focus on, right?
But it doesn’t have to be an either/or.
It’s not a binary choice.
It’s about the 1st commandment empowering, and enlivening, and animating the 2nd.
It’s the inward journey inspiring the outward journey.
I love that language.
The inward journey inspiring the outward journey.
Black theologian Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman uses that language too.
(I owe these next reflections on Howard Thurman’s thought to my own reading and to insights from Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III.)
Howard Thurman was something like a spiritual advisor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King, and other leaders of the civil rights movement, would consult with Thurman to help them empower their cause.
Thurman was always pushing them on the inward journey, on who they are, and their encounter to find — in his words, “the sound of the genuine” in you.
That emphasis that Thurman had on the connection between interior life, inner life, and outer action, between loving God and loving neighbour, was part of what was revolutionary and part of what was so powerful.
Thurman taught that as you constantly attend to the inner journey that you can find what is truly genuine in you, and what is most important.
He said once you find that, then you come alive (and that what the world really needs is people who have ‘come alive’ like this).
That inner encounter with the Spirit, the encounter with silence, the encounter with God – the God of justice, to be sure – that inner encounter helps you discover and become passionate about your purpose.
And then you begin to work outward.
So you work inward to work outward.
The 1st commandment empowers, enlivens, and animates the 2nd.
The inward journey fuels the outward journey – not once, but in an ever-flowing cycle of inward and outward – like breathing – loving God, loving people.
In his book, The Inward Journey, Thurman referred to this inner sanctuary as a ‘trysting place’.
I’m absolutely captivated by this expression.
A trysting place.
A tryst is defined as “an agreement between lovers to meet at a certain time and place.”
A trysting place is “a private meeting place that has been agreed on by lovers.” [The Free Dictionary website]
A secret place where lovers – you and God – meet!
The trysting place – in you.
Have you ever heard a more beautiful description of that sacred inner place where only you and God can commune together in mutual, all-encompassing love?
Each of us has within us a sacred trysting place.
That’s where you and God, Love and the beloved, meet.
That’s where job #1 blossoms.
And from there job #2 explodes with incomparable and unstoppable loving energy as it exudes from every pore of your body, outward, prevailing upon the world in the ways of justice.
I began today claiming the role of prophet, poking hard at our identity as a second commandment church, and with words from Brueggemann driving me.
I believe that “the hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there” are centred in our inattention to the awareness of and intentionality toward the inner journey.
That if we spent more time in that ‘trysting place’ where Love and the beloved meet, that we would not only love God more deeply, but we would also love our neighbour more fully, and more justly.
A sacred trysting place is nestled deep within each and every one of us.
I pray that you will be inspired to give more attention to the inward journey.