On How We Are Held
October 29, 2023
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
Matthew 22: 34-40
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.”
Today’s sermon is titled, On How We Are Held.
We just heard, in the last line of scripture, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Those two commandments hold up all the laws and the teachings of the prophets, so I invite us to hold that idea during our time together today and to consider along the way the question of what holds us through all the seasons of our lives.
Most of our studies on Sunday consider the life and teachings of Jesus. Today I begin with a story about one of Jesus’s teachers. His name is Hillel. Hillel was not born in the land of his ancestors; he was born in Egypt where some of the Hebrews had been forcibly relocated, exiled. Hillel dreamed of returning to Judaiah but he and his family barely had enough money to eat. Hillel’s dream was a strong one, though, and he did not waver. He eventually fulfilled his dream and traveled back to Judaiah. Hillel was older then and he had a voracious appetite for learning, and especially for studying the Hebrew scriptures, the Torah; that is all he wanted to do. Again, he found he did not have the money required to enter into school, so he climbed up onto the roof of the school and pressed his ear against the ceiling so as to hear the Rabbis, the teachers, discussing the scriptures and teaching their students. One night while he was on the roof it began to snow. Hillel did not leave the roof. It snowed and snowed and in the morning, someone found Hillel, barely alive. It was the Sabbath and even though building fires was usually not permitted, the Rabbis and students kindled a fire to save Hillel’s life. He lived. He was admitted to study the Torah and Hillel grew in knowledge and in wisdom, so much so that he became the lead teacher of the school.
When Jesus was eight years old, Hillel was over one hundred years old and he died. The school prospered, though, and Jesus was drawn to Hillel’s interpretations of the scriptures. Hillel was different from other teachers in that he instructed students to live true to the “spirit of the law.” Hillel would have said, “Don’t be so distracted by trying to follow every law to the letter that you forget why you are doing it. The goal is to grow closer to God and closer to one another. Don’t let observance of the law come between you. Remember the lives and teachings of the prophets. Remember that, as Jeremiah prophesied, God said, ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’”
Here’s the catch, though. What do you think is easier, observing very specific rules and practices, taking great care to fulfill what is required in the law, or centering a life devoted to God in thought, word and action, every day and all the time? I would want a checklist, for certain. I am big on lists. Lists orient me, they help me to focus, and I can track my progress. Many Jewish people also preferred following the letter of the law. I believe many of our Christian brothers and sisters prefer it, too. By maintaining a focus on a literal translation of the scriptures, the teachings can be defined and redefined, narrowed to the ultimate extent, until Christianity is more like a club than a religion. I think fellow Christians are drawn to the absolute. With the absolute comes a false sense of control and a false sense of righteousness and, most dangerously, a false sense of power over “the other” who may walk a different spiritual path, or the same path in a different manner. To me, it seems inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus to use his teachings as a framework to protect some and exclude others.
We have no such framework in the United Church of Christ and that is intentional. We must, each of us, take responsibility to develop a relationship with the teachings of Jesus and other truth wherever we may find it, and practice living out those truths as best we can, with a church community to help us along the way. This practice has no checklist. We have the ten commandments and a handful of Jesus’s teachings to guide us. We study these stories together and even though we probably never think consciously about it, we know we are not alone in our practice. We have a church community full of others who are also practicing. Why do we do this? Because we are drawn to what is good, what is right, what is kind, and what is just. I suspect this has been the case since time before mind.
In the reading from the Psalms today, Psalm 1, the psalmist could not be more clear that there are two choices, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. If only it were that easy. If only we could choose a path and then stay the course surrounded with others of like mind and spirit. That is not my experience of the world in which we live. Our world does not offer either/or options; our world is built on a paradigm of both/and. I can be very loving and patient with my Friends, all of you, who surround me with positivity and I can be very cross and impatient with others who are challenging me, criticizing me, questioning my motives and my beliefs.
I do not live in an either/or reality. I live in a both/and. I do not live in a world where the kind are rewarded and the selfish are punished. I live in a world where devastating tragedy befalls the very best among us while liars and cheaters rise in rank and appear to profit. We do not live in an either/or; we live in a both/and. That is why this passage is so vitally important to us. That is why Jesus reached back into the Hebrew scriptures and, with each hand, brought forth these two teachings.
The first is so central, it has a name, the Shema. Found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” In other words, “Repeat, Recite, Remember, all the time, forever and ever. Amen.”
In Jesus’s other hand is the instruction from Leviticus 19, a chapter titled “Ritual and Moral Holiness.” Verse 18 reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said “On these two commands hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus’s words echo the teachings of Hillel who wrote, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is its commentary. Now go and learn.” Hillel also wrote, “Do not judge your friend until you have stood in [their] place.”
Why is it so difficult for us to live by this ancient wisdom that calls us to love God and love one another? It is a difficult practice, to be sure. It is difficult, in part, because each of us is wounded to some extent. We all carry remnants of painful experiences, disappointments and even trauma. I feel sure that we will learn more and more about the life of that shooter in Maine who killed and injured so many people this past week. I imagine it is a sad story. There is never an excuse for violence, and yet it is undeniable that violence is rooted in pain and desperation.
Many of us have been the victims of unkindness, violence, and slander. We have been overpowered and left to feel powerless. We have seen the landmarks of a successful life and we have been unable to meet them all. Some experiences have crippled us, literally and figuratively. We are scarred and sometimes scared. We remember times we trusted, trusted in love and in goodness and we were crushed, perhaps abused, even violated. We still suffer the pain of loss of those we cherished and the loss does not leave us. We look out at the world and what the news tells us is that humanity is a mess. This is why Jesus reminds us to focus on that which is perfect. Perfection is only found in God.
God is so perfect that, as Jesus said in his sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:45), “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” We are all wounded to some degree and our love for others is limited by our own woundedness unless we draw on the limitless love that is God. We must draw on the love that is God if we have any chance of truly loving, of truly forgiving, of truly treating others as we would want to be treated.
In closing, I will leave you with the very best part of this message. It is learned only through experience and I am sure that you will know what I mean when I say that it is in learning to love that we are healed. It is in learning to love that we are made whole once more. As we practice, we heal ourselves, we heal one another, and we heal the world. Humanity is not a mess. Love is messy because there is no checklist, no rules, often no rhyme and very little reason in love. We still have a lot to learn. It’s a good thing we have a fabulous teacher, from a long line of teachers, in Jesus Christ. And it’s a good thing we have one another.
Pastoral Prayer: God of our hearts and minds, we pray your blessings over all of humanity this morning. We have so much to learn about living together in peace. Speak to us and guide us in Your divine ways, that we may in some way become agents of positive change. Remind us, Lord, to start from within, to nurture ourselves without guilt and to make choices that foster health and strength. In the places we are hurting, shine your light of healing. In the places we hold fear, shine your light of assurance. Help us to make room for the Holy Spirit to work in and through us so that in our giving, we give love; in our sharing, we share peace; in our talking, we offer encouragement, and in aspects of our being, we testify to a God who is the source of all goodness. When we pray, may it be with all the sincerity of Jesus Christ, when he gave this prayer to his disciples…. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Benediction: I leave you with these words from the book of Ephesians, chapter 3:
May you “be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge, in order that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God…Amen.