October 26, 2014
William G. Carter
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.”
With that, the Pharisees were silenced, just like the Sadducees before them. It is Finals Week for Jesus. The scholars have put him through a series of final exams. They wait for him to trip up but he passes every test. In terms of theology, Jesus is untouchable. Morally, he is innocent, and personally, beyond accusation. They will have to get rid of him another way. Yet for the moment, he scores a hundred on the exam.
“Which of the 613 Jewish commandments is the greatest?” That’s what they want to know. He does not answer foolishly, selecting for instance, the laws about dealing with mold on your walls (Leviticus 14:37) or touching a corpse (Lev. 22:4) or consulting a fortune-teller (Lev. 20:6). Indeed there are Jewish laws for those sorts of things. The commandments gave direction for all aspects of daily life. It declared what foods are filthy and which days are holy.
But the greatest commandment was known by everybody in Jesus’ day. You sift through bits and pieces of holy guidance and you find the governing center of them: you shall love God. Love the Lord your God. Love the Lord your God with all your human abilities: the heart at the center of your being, the soul at the center of your breath and your passion, the mind at the center of intellect and reason. Love God with everything you are.
Moses first declared it from the mountain of Deuteronomy. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One; and you shall love the Lord your God.” That has always been, and always shall be, the first and greatest commandment. Love God.
Yet it seems to be the most slippery of commandments to keep. How do you love the Lord your God whom you cannot see? It is far simpler to do all those other things that God’s Torah declares: drain the blood out of chickens before you eat them (Lev. 7:26), stone all the mediums who host séances (Lev. 20:27), and rest on the Sabbath (Lev. 2:23). Those rules are clear. But love God? How do we love God?
I think this is more awkward that religious people will acknowledge. Religious people will quickly insert a lot of obligations here. They will say things like, “If you love God, you’ll show up for committee meetings. If you love God, you will fill out a pledge card. If you love God, you will fold newsletters this Wednesday. If you love God, you will come to my Bible study.” If I might pipe in here, Bible studies, newsletters, pledge cards, and committee meetings can all be wonderful things. They make a congregation buzz with energy.
But what’s the Big Deal at the center of it all? Today let me tell you a few brief stories, and testify to what I think it’s all about.
First, the heart. Ever spend any time on the cardiac floor? Last year on my 53rd birthday, I met my friend Virginia for lunch at Five Guys for a burger and fries. It was a great day. I had cleared the afternoon of appointments. I looked forward to some family time at night. I even had a preacher lined up for the weekend, so all I had to do on Sunday was show up and smile. But there was a persistent tightness in my chest. It wasn’t the cheeseburger; it had been there for a week or two. I could hear my mother in my imagination, telling me to slow down, advice she has always given but never taken. So after lunch with my friend, I dropped by the doctor’s office, got an instant EKG, and was sent to a local hospital in a high-priced room. Happy Birthday to me.
I wasn’t very happy about it, but I’m too old to argue. I ran through a stress test and everything was fine. But my chest still ached. On Friday afternoon, the cardiologist stopped in and said, “You know, we think it’s a viral inflammation in your lungs, but we want to be sure.” That was what it was: pleurisy. But you know what that means on a Friday afternoon? It means you have a weekend to wait it out before the catheterization on Monday morning. That was annoying, especially since Monday’s test would later prove there was absolutely nothing wrong with my heart, and hospital incompetence would keep me there until Tuesday noon.
But a couple of things happened. There was an endless stream of friends: the pastor of Covenant church stopped by to deal a few hands of poker, a stack of abusive birthday cards made me chuckle, my wife who never takes a sick day for herself took two sick days to look in on me, and the guest preacher that I had booked stopped by twice to see me and pray. In the evenings, after visitors were dismissed, I stretched out in the hospital bed, listened to the fairly regular announcements of doom down the hall, and I found myself giving thanks for my life.
“Thank you, God,” I prayed out loud with my eyes open. “Thank you for this good life which I did not earn. Thank you for the many people who love me. Thank you for a good heart still ticking. Thank you for the reasonable nurse who shows me compassion. And thank you for that chicken cheese steak with extra peppers that I’m going to order the second I get out of here.”
Ever face the point of extremity? With the prospect that everything else could be scraped away? And what do you have? You have God. You have the God who created you, the Christ who gave himself to take away your sins, the Spirit who comes to fill you. In that moment, I loved God. With my heart.
Second, with my soul. “Soul” is our translation of the Hebrew “nephesh.” It is the living being, the essence of you that is alive. It is the exhilaration you feel on a roller coaster, the gasp you exhale when you see a mountain vista, the joy that seizes you when you see a brand-new baby. That’s the “nephesh,” the soul, the part of you that sings. So my second brief story is to tell you how I spent a weekend of the last two summers: I went singing with Bobby McFerrin.
Many of you have heard the story, so I’ll keep short. At a retreat center in Rhinebeck, New York, the ten-time Grammy award winner Bobby McFerrin leads an annual singing workshop. It’s pretty expensive, so I go only for a couple of days. And I’ve never known anything like it. 180 people are circled up in four part harmony, as Bobby and his colleagues give us improvised parts and we build a non-verbal symphonies on our feet. We sing spontaneous songs lasting ten or twelve minutes.
The immediacy of God’s Spirit that fills that room is palpable. I’ve been to Pentecostal prayer meetings that couldn’t hold a candle to the power of that joyful singing, led by Bobby, a quiet Episcopalian. And then, Judy Cutler and I go over to the salad bar for lunch, and Bobby slips up, sits down, and wants to talk about the Bible with us because he knows we are Presbyterians.
Now, all the glitter and adulation of stardom aside, have you ever bubbled over with joy? Has it ever happened with singing? I tell you, God is real because God has gotten into my lungs. And I can’t keep him there, I have to let him out so my voice can blend with others who are experiencing the same thing. The soul of biblical faith is the powerful experience of God. God cleanses, God heals, God can bring us completely alive – mere descriptions of the experience are empty. I’m testifying to the Real Thing: you can love a God that not only gives you life but brings you alive. That’s the soul of saving faith.
And then, the mind. The noggin, the brain. It’s a different but complimentary way to love the Lord our God. The rabbis would say, “An hour of study is an hour of prayer.” We honor God, not by yammering on with religious clichés, but by engaging the intellect, by mentally stretching to understand a God who is greater than our understanding.
When my niece was little, we went for a walk by Grandpa’s oak trees. Enormous trees, and I said, “Laura, look how big they are!” She looked up, her eyes full of wonder. I bent down to pick up an acorn and said, “The next tree is hidden inside of this.” She touched the acorn in my hand and said, “How did God put it inside?” As far as I know, she never took a kindergarten botany class but she was asking the right kind of question.
This is a wonder-filled world and we can study what the ancients called, “the book of nature.” We can get outside and marvel at the arteries and veins of maple leaves, the ripples of Appalachian hills, the persistence of dandelions. Many of the proverbs of Scripture come from observations from nature. “Go to the ant, you lazybones, consider its ways and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6).
And beyond the book of nature is the larger book of Scripture, written for people like you and me, who trust God but want to grow in our understanding. We don’t study scripture as if it is some magic book, so we can manipulate the world to meet our needs. No, we go to scripture to hear the witness of how those before us have understood the mind of God.
The Bible can teach us what we might not otherwise know. The Bible points to a tribe of escaping slaves and says, “Freedom from unjust suffering.” The Bible points to an executed man on the cross and says, “He is your life and hope.” The Bible points to the horizon beyond what we can see and says, “It’s all going to turn out well for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). We wouldn’t know any of that, except as we study and learn about God. And we find ourselves loving God with the mind.
Heart, soul, mind. Do we have some sense of what it is to love God?
This is the core of it all. This is what must come first. We love our neighbors because of God, who gave the neighbors to us. We come together to sing and pray because of God at the center of our fellowship. We extend God’s compassion to those in need, because all of us are in need, and without God everything would collapse.
So this is how I want to talk about Stewardship Sunday – by inviting us to love God. That’s the center. That’s what comes before everything else.
· If anybody ever talks to you about the church budget, ask them what that church budget is doing for God – because that’s the only thing that matters for a church of Christian people.
· If anybody ever lays a guilt trip on you and says, “You ought to be doing more,” you remind them of how the scriptures say, “God loves a cheerful giver, not under obligation or compulsion.” (2 Cor. 9:7).
· If anybody looks sad, grim, or anxious when it comes time to share what we have, speak gently to them of Jesus, who taught us to love God first, to love God completely – and then showed us sacrificially the extent of what that means. He gave his all.
So that’s what I want to say about the Christian life. Not just about stewardship, but the whole Christian life. It’s about loving God with the heart, for God gives us this gift of life. It’s about loving God with the soul, for God can transform us inside and out. It’s about loving God with the mind, as we explore and pursue the things that God cares about. Heart, soul, mind – that’s the whole person.
And if we love God that completely, then loving God with the wallet is not so much of a stretch. In fact, generosity is the expression of our joy.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.