What if you could ask Jesus one question? What might it be?
One of the most famous passages in the Gospels is a moment in which a lawyer asks Jesus a question about what is the most important thing in life. Jesus responds from the depth of his Jewish roots, from the Shema, a prayer-mantra that was repeated every morning by faithful Jews: Love the God with your whole being, and love your neighbor. All you need is love, prompting another four, the Beatles, not just the Gospel writers, to trumpet the simple call to love.
This past Sunday, in the middle of political wrangling, the Church trotted out this famous press conference where Jesus has been confronted by a variety of questioners, attempting to trap him, to expose him. It culminates in this question about the greatest commandment, and Jesus responds with a return to first principles.
Let’s pause for a brief side trip into how the Church presents this powerful moment.
In the Episcopal Church, our readings for Sunday are prescribed in a three year cycle, not at the whim of a preacher. It’s called the lectionary, and it includes an Old Testament reading, a portion of the Psalms, a reading from the letters of Paul, and then a reading from one of the four Gospels. This prescription keeps the preacher from only riding his/her favorite pony every Sunday.
It reminds me of the wisdom of my preaching professor, Dr. Joe Roberts, of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who told me once that most ministers have one sermon that they preach over and over. It’s sort of like the practice in music of a variation on a theme. A theme is repeated but with various instrumentation, different tones, addend enhancements, but underneath it all, the theme remains.
The lectionary, with appointed texts (some texts that one would wish to God might go away) forces the preacher to deal with a panoply of subjects rather than remain on their favored topic. It is the gift of the lectionary to the congregation that ministers and priests can’t just remain in their same old message each Sunday. At least that’s the idea.
As noted, this past Sunday, we heard the pointed answer from Jesus as to the centerpiece of life: the command to love God and neighbor. The priest at my parish on the island made a valiant effort at using this moment to frame our current predicament in this country. How do we enter into this political season of red versus blue?
He creatively pointed to perhaps one of the most well-known pieces of Scripture, the “love” passage in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.. It’s one of the passages that is prescribed to be read at weddings as it touts the properties of love between two people about to enter into this time of bliss. It has been chosen by many of the couples that I have officiated their wedding ceremonies.
You remember it, right? It describes what love is and what loved is not. At a nuptial Mass for my wife and me, the Trappist monk read that 13th Chapter of Corinthians, but inserted Mary’s name, or my name, to accentuate the call to both of us to be loving to one another. It was powerful in the moment. “David is not arrogant or rude.”, the priest read. I remember distinctly my mother laughing. Damn if Mary has not learned the same laugh.
But the point was clear, love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous. That is what marriage is all about, as a crucible in which a person learns about how to love an “other”, someone other than oneself. It’s hard work, but it provides a perfect laboratory in which to press the labor of transcending one’s native self- interest and bending toward loving the other as one’s self. I’m in my fortieth year of this labor, “Forty” being the Hebrew idiom for “a long damn time.” The Hebrew tribe wandered forty years in the wilderness….. point made.
However, my priest made a powerful point. The original setting for this passage was not a wedding in the glitz of Buckhead or even in the edge of a marsh. Rather it was Paul writing to encourage a community that was wracked by division, pulled apart by divided loyalty to one leader or another.
Now, I know it’s hard for you to imagine such a thing. A community divided. Right?
A collection of humans split by loyalty to parties, to do-or-die propositions and beliefs. But, I am asking you to stretch your imagination a bit. This is actually what Paul was addressing, not some Hallmark card poem to two love-gorged humans but to an actual community of persons who were ravaged by diverse beliefs and conflicted loyalties.
So what does Paul recommend? What’s his advice?
Paul implores those in the community to treat one another with an attitude of love. He calls people in Corinth not to insist on their own way, but to take seriously the common life they share. Simply stated, he urges folks to be patient and kind. To avoid being irritable, to not boast of one’s own position, or to take advantage. To resist being irritable, or resentful. Can you imagine one of our current debate moderators offering these guidelines, rather than just a mere caution of clapping at the wrong time.
But push it further. How might these admonitions be embraced by our wider community in the middle of this polarized political landscape? Are we able to regard those who differ from us in political affiliation and loyalty without demonizing them in the process?
The answer on observation of social media is a resounding “NO”.
How did we get here? I remember growing up in spirited debates on issues of how to deal with foreign engagements, fiscal responsibility, programs for health, education, and welfare, and civil rights. And there were honest disagreements as to how to best approach these dilemmas, that is, issues we must negotiate continually, never able to finally solve. I remember opponents being able to engage one another on the floor of debate, and then embrace in friendship and collegial relationship, even have a drink together. Those days seem way gone with the hot wind of contempt.
I have no illusion in our current culture that we can all join hands, sing a few verses of Kum Ba Ya, and suddenly find a sense of community and love one another. Hell, I would take singing the chorus of the Beatles’ Come Together, and not killing one another. Unfortunately, even that seems like a stretch these days.
But I thought I might give it the old college try in this meager article to suggest that one pause as we move toward the election day, and in the aftermath of posturing and lawyering, to listen to Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians. Might we be able to become a people of love, recognizing the worth of the other, seeing value in our sister or brother, rather than reducing her/her to an opinion with which one disagrees. Or as Jon Meacham pull from history, could we attend to our better angels, rather than listen to our worst instincts.
I am going to try to take my own advice, preaching to my own damn self, as to the aspiration of love, and my pledge to follow with my heart, mind, and very soul.
I am at my desk looking at Martin King standing by a photo on his wall of Gandhi, reminding me of his image of the Beloved Community, and his tactic of non-violence. And directly in front of me is the portrait of my teacher, Howard Thurman, who taught me to dive deeply into the waters of my humanity to find connection through the modality of prayer. And finally, I am captured by the icon of Jesus, Pantocrator, the one who taught and teaches of this love. I have pledged my intention to follow him in his way of being. And what the hell does that mean in this current situation?
It occurs to me to reread that 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to re-mind me of love, a way of being that is a subversion of what our culture tells us about winning, of beating the “Other”. Dare I dive in again to this quest, or should I just take a number and get in line in this show of bravado by political pundits and putzs ?
We’ll see. Won’t we? The Daily Double….loving God and Neighbor.