Many of us gathered last Saturday afternoon for the official opening of our beautiful St. Stephen’s labyrinth. And as Gary Sullivan recently posted on Face book, already it is being recognized as a spiritually-enriching gift to our community. Laurel Mathewson, a curate at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Diego tells a labyrinth story that came back to me as I read today’s scripture lessons.
Laurel tells of a time in her life when she was facing a crisis. Looking at her life and facing a vocational decision, she whined, “what to do, how are we to live, it’s so hard, it’s so complicated!”
She says she was lucky enough to be in a book group with some wise elders and a Catholic sister lovingly told her. “We have been given a simple code,” she said. “Love God, love your neighbor. When things get overwhelming for me, I repeat again and again: Love God, love your neighbor. Love God, love your neighbor. This is all that’s really asked of us.”
A few days later, Laurel says, I was taking a winter walk on the beach and came across the unlikely gift of a big and beautiful labyrinth a stranger had left in the sand. Still feeling pretty confused and tormented, I began to walk the labyrinth, repeating those words like a mantra: Love God, love your neighbor. Tellingly, says Laurel, I don’t remember what next step emerged for me, but I do remember that as I prayed and walked, those simple words seemed to unlock a door. I left the beach with clarity and relief, the simplicity of the commandment releasing the weighty pressures of countless social codes and expectations.
An authority of the Law of Moses gives Jesus a pop quiz: name the greatest commandment. The request is not to name the top commandment of the Ten Commandments. Specifically, Jesus is to consider the 613 commandments found in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, or The Teaching, and to select the corner stone. These commandments include 365 “negative commandments,” sometimes described a one for every day of the year, where you are ordered not to do something, like, not commit murder.” Then there are 248 “positive commandments” which describe what one is to do to faithfully follow the Torah, the teaching given to Moses.
Why did the Pharisees want to know? Did they want to test Jesus? That’s what our text says. Did they want to trip up Jesus, to show him to have inadequate scriptural knowledge? Or, did they really, truly want to know which of the 613 rules listed in the Holiness Code of Leviticus was primacy? Because, if that Pharisee was sincerely seeking an answer, his question gets very close to what really matters in life.
Jesus gives a disturbing answer. Jesus gives an answer that actually gets him executed.
Scholars place this conversation chronologically on the Monday of Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. His answer, although technically correct, confirms him as a politically dangerous enemy of the Roman government and a threat to the Jewish authorities.
Jesus’ words and deeds are as relevant and as painfully challenging to us today as they were to the scribes and Pharisees in first century Palestine.
You lawyers out there tell me, isn’t it true that you never ask a question in court to which you don’t already know the answer?
But here’s the cleverness in Jesus’ answer: you can keep every jot and tittle of the Mosaic code and still fall far short of obeying the Shema, the standard prayer that all pious Jews are to recite daily (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”) If you neglect your neighbor’s welfare, if you take care of your own needs and wants while ignoring your neighbor’s needs, you are not loving God.
Do we live in safe, comfortable places and not care about affordable housing for those who teach our children or clean our homes or serve in the restaurants we patronize?
Do we send our children to excellent, well-funded schools without making sure others in less prosperous neighborhoods get new textbooks, adequate technology, and a safe and comfortable learning environment?
Do we enjoy our health care coverage while not caring that every American is covered similarly?
Love God. Love your neighbor. They go together. Jesus teaches they are indivisible.
This coming Tuesday, October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, inaugurated by Martin Luther when he nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of a little university in an obscure town in Saxony, Germany. Much could and has been said and written about that world-changing action by a sixteenth-century Augustinian monk who was disheartened and had problems with God. But, if we boil it all down to the “so what?” the answer is one word – repent. Repent. Turn around, change your direction, change your heart. And what does it mean today, 500 years later? It means the same in 2017 as it did in 1517. It means repent, change your heart: Love God, love your neighbor. Amen.