One of my favorite places is a camp on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles.[i] After seminary, I was on staff for over a year. During that time there was a major wildfire on Catalina. We quickly evacuated our guests and ourselves by boat to Catalina’s town. We left the island with the eerie sight of flames in the night near our home.
To our great relief camp was saved, only singed around the edges. We returned to power and telephone down, plastic water lines melted, and ashes everywhere. Portable generators gave limited power for essentials for a few weeks. With no cell reception in camp, leaders occasionally drove a boat out to make calls.
Soon stress rose and tempers quickened. We complained about what we lost. We complained about what we had, especially what we had to eat. Days had passed before we got the generators. Lots of meat from the walk-in freezer was fine to eat if it was cooked soon. So as some staff cleaned off ashes and others laid plastic water pipe over the hill, our cook barbequed. We ate BBQ chicken and more BBQ chicken and yet more BBQ chicken. Most of us got very tired of BBQ chicken, but we kept eating it.
Matthew 7:6, 12-14
Many of you may know that for almost the entire fifty days of Easter, I was home in Tennessee visiting and caring for my ailing mother who passed away on May 8th. As you can imagine, this time with my mom was precious, bittersweet, and we shared many reminiscences of our relationship throughout the years, but especially from my youth. One such instance was when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was at my friend Patrick’s house, which had a large lot behind it consisting of hills made from the excavation of red clay dirt for the future building of new homes. We had had a lot of rain that week and at the bottom of these clay dirt hills were big puddles of water. Thinking they looked refreshing, Patrick and I stripped down to our underwear and proceeded to roll down the clay mud hills landing in the puddles with a big splash. It was a lot of fun! We did this over and over again until I heard my mom calling me to supper in the distance.
Our frolicking in the clay puddles had seemed like such a good idea at the time that I could not have predicted my mother’s dismay when I showed up in the house wearing nothing but my soaked, red clay-stained tighty-whities, which would never again be white. (Mind you, not only did I walk home that way, two streets over and through several neighbors’ yards, but we had dinner guests that evening). As I plead my case before my agitated mother I said, “Well, Patrick did it first!” And we have all heard the retort that I remember mom using that evening: “If Patrick jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?” As a young boy from the heart of Appalachia, I’m not sure I knew very much at that time about the Brooklyn Bridge, but I imagined if there was a red clay puddle at the bottom, then yes, absolutely!
Our gospel lesson from Matthew this evening is a portion of what is known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.’ Most of us will be familiar with the Beatitudes which begin this famous sermon (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who morn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc.)[i] This sermon is given in a rabbinic tradition that takes aspects of the law and expounds upon them in order to help people realize that to which they have been called. And Jesus covers a lot of ground during this time of teaching. What most caught my eye was Jesus’ admonition to ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easythat leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’
Jesus’ teaching here was about the discernment of right of wrong which would not always be clear based on popular schools of thought. Jesus used the actions of the religious leaders of his day to prove the point. In his line of fire were the Pharisees, an influential sect within Judaism who were known for their personal piety and their insistence that Jews should observe all laws of the Torah which included 248 prescriptions and 365 proscriptions—that is “you shall’s” and “you shall not’s,” respectively.[ii] The Pharisees spent their lives learning the law and enforcing it to the best of their abilities in order to keep Israel a holy nation. And Jesus certainly did not disagree with their zeal. Just two chapters earlier at the beginning of this sermon Jesus affirms his commitment to the law saying, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.’[iii]
The Matthean community from which Matthew’s gospel originates, was one of Jewish origin and identity who were following ‘the Way’ that Jesus had preached. Out of their context of Judaism, they were concerned about matters of correct procedure, the main conundrum being: were they as apostles to be conservators or liberators? Were they to be conservators of the Jewish heritage and indoctrinate new converts to Jesus Christ back into the faith of the chosen people, orwere they to be liberators, seeing their experience of Jesus Christ as an invitation into the future, the coming kingdom of God and the gift of salvation and liberation for all. Which was it?[iv]
Jesus message which he reiterated over and over was that holiness was not determined by being set apart as morally superior to others but rather by exhibiting the highest attribute of God, what was known in Hebrew as chesed, which is translated as loving-kindness or compassion.[v] The Law was important but it had to be kept in the spirit of chesed, which is why later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus responds to a Pharisee’s question this way: When he was asked which commandment in the law is greatest he responded predictably: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is a quote from Deuteronomy and is part of the Shema, the primary creed in Judaism which begins every service.[vi]
But Jesus throws in a second which he says is like the first. What could be equal to loving God with every fiber of your being? Jesus uses a line from the Holiness Code in Leviticus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The verse from Leviticus ends with the statement, “I am the Lord.”[vii] In other words, this is my essence, who I am. By keeping this law you will be set apart as my own. “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Jesus doesn’t negate any other part of the Law, but rather says on these two, love of God and love of neighbor, hang all the law and the prophets. In keeping the Law you must meld it with the spirit of Chesed: loving-kindness or compassion; you might even say ‘mercy.’
But as nice is all this sounds, Jesus’ point in the gospel we heard this evening is that the work of ‘chesed’ is not an easy walk in the park and it normally goes against the stream of popular thought. Love of God can only be accomplished by committing to the equally large task of love of neighbor as self. And I believe that this task is as big and perhaps daunting today as it was in Jesus’ day. We live in virtual society where social media that has promised to bring us together through technology and convenience is actually driving us apart. A couple of years ago I remember seeing an advertisement while waiting on the T to arrive for GrubHub, a popular food delivery service. I was so startled by its message that I took a picture of the sign that read: ‘Say hello to ordering food online, and say goodbye to saying hello into a phone.’[viii] In other words, why be inconvenienced by the complexity and difficulty of human interaction? It is this loss of personal connection that I believe has led us to a place of extreme isolation at a time where connection, understanding, compassion, kindness, and even mercy are so desperately needed. But let’s face it, chesed is not easy. This narrow way that leads to life takes the will and intention of commitment, the assent to experiencing inconvenience, the expectation of messiness, and the understanding that it will cost us all something, both individually and communally. How can we begin to actively engage in the work of chesed?
The first point Jesus makes in his summary of the Law begins with the word “You.” You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Why? Because that is why we were created. We were created in love for the sake of relationship with God, and in the image of God with the capacity to mirror the same love that is His essence, chesed. I know that one of my greatest challenges in my life is to see myself as one of God’s beloved, to see His image in myself. All too often, I’ve been my greatest critic and have done more to separate myself from God’s love than to embrace it. The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson said, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation[ix] unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”[x] This is the holiness we’re called to. If you’re having trouble seeing yourself as God’s beloved, you may want pray using the verse from Psalm 26: “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.”[xi] You are that abiding place!
Once we recognize our interconnectedness with God and His creation vertically, then I think we can the move to love of neighbor in the horizontal. This love of neighbor is of the same essence as the love of God, chesed. Our neighbors are a testimony to the vast diversity of God. To reject this diversity is to reject aspects of the living God in our midst. We cannot say, “I have no need of you.” We can only have relationship by actively and intentionally engaging our neighbors, especially the ones who challenge us. We must have the resolve to engage these neighbors not by reproving them for their wrong thought, but by actively listening to them and searching for the common ground where we can then begin to build a foundation. Sometimes the only common ground we may be able to find is that place at the altar where we all acknowledge our neediness by putting our hands together and stretching them out to receive sustenance from the one who is the essence of chesed: our kind, compassionate, merciful God who gave us Jesus his son as the shepherd leading us to the narrow gate that leads to life abundant.
I do not remember being punished by my mom for my romp in the muddy, clay-filled pools of water with Patrick, my cohort in crime. Even though I was instructed on ‘correct’ behavior, I believe my mom knew that in my incorrect decision of following Patrick’s actions (because of course her son would never lead anyone astray), I was just a young boy celebrating life and learning its lessons. She was a model of chesed, loving kindness and compassion. And I miss her! Amen
[ii]Harrington, Daniel, ed. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1991. Print.
[v]Winters, Charles L., ed. Education for Ministry, Year Two: New Testament. Sewanee: The University of the South. 1977. Print.
[ix]The doctrine of the incarnation affirms that the eternal Son of God took human flesh from His human mother and that the historical Christ is at once fully God and fully man. (From the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church).
[x]The Final Passover, Vol. 2, p. 402