Love. Love God, love neighbor. This is the message this Reformation Sunday; the day we celebrate the founding of our
Protestant faith; the day we remember when religious dogma was challenged and changed.
Love, God. Love your neighbor. All the law and prophets depend on these two intertwined and entangled commandments.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. It is called the Shema. It builds on the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:3).
In addition, Jews are instructed to bind this on their hands and to make it a symbol between their eyes. This is why Jewish people wear them in phylacteries on their foreheads or post them in mezuzahs on their doorposts and repeat them as part their daily worship. Both the Shema and Jesus ask us to love God without qualification---with all that we have and all that we are.
The Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, in his wonderful poem, Last Night As I Was Sleeping, however, experiences God within the heart.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt---marvelous error!--
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.
Last night as I slept,
I dreamt---marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.
I don’t know about you but it is easier to love God with my heart and soul than my mind. How does one do this? For this I turn to Galileo, that much maligned and persecuted scientist for this reminder, “I do not feel that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” God has given us reason and intellect to be used in both our sacred and profane lives. God wants us to know God’s self with a all that we are.
Islam, like Judaism, and later Christianity, also talks about the importance of intellect in loving God. Listen to a piece of the story about prophet Mohammad’s flight to heaven:
One night the archangel Gabriel awakened Mohammad from his sleep and took him to Jerusalem whereupon they both ascended into heaven. They rose through the layers of paradise to the threshold of divine presence.
Gabriel lowered his wings and stopped because “From this point on the intensity of God’s love is too strong. If I could take a step as big as the width of a single feather, God’s love will burn me.”
Gabriel’s wings represent the intellect and spirit. One elevates us to God’s presence and the other gets us to enter God’s heart. Our being is like this angel or bird with its two wings. We need both intellect and faith.
To love with all our heart, soul, and mind allows us to not only ascend to God’s divine presence but to feel the warmth of God’s fiery love inside our own hearts.
The Sufi 8th century mystic poet, St. Rabia from Iraq, who spent her last years living on the Mount of Olives in a cave said also to have been the home of the Jewish prophetess Hulda and the Christian harlot turned hermit St. Pelagia, talked about her love of God this way:
O my Lord
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I adore you
out of desire for paradise
lock me out of paradise.
But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.
St. Rabia reminds us that worship and adoration must be based on love alone and not for external purposes like being saved from hell or assuring a place in heaven.
St. Theresa of Avila puts emphasis on love this way, “The important thing is not to think much, but to love much, and so to do whatever best awakens you to love.”
Jesus, like his Jewish ancestors, asks us to love God with all that we have but it appears that we must also dream this into being or allow ourselves to be awakened to the reality that already is.
The second commandment is like the first; love your neighbor as yourself. How do we love ourselves? Love of neighbor is not only about loving God but loving oneself. The poet Derek Walcott’s poem Love after Love, says we must love the stranger who was our self.”
The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,
And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you
All your life, whom you have ignored
For another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
The photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Loving oneself, then, requires the ability to give back your heart to itself. It requires being able to sit down and feast on one’s on life.
Love of neighbor is not a Christian concept. It comes from Leviticus 19:18 and is quoted three times in the Gospel.
For Jesus, love of God naturally leads to love of neighbor, and love of neighbor is part of loving God.
The sign on Gustavas Adophus Lutheran Church in the US reminds also that what we do to each other we do to Him. Combing the current focus on sexual violence with love of Christ, the sign reads:
Jesus said As you have done it to them you have done it to MeToo.
Leviticus 19:9-18 tells us what is involved in loving one’s neighbor. The person who loves his or her neighbor:
Will not steal, lie, defraud or deal falsely with one’s neighbor. Will not keep a laborer’s wages overnight, will not hate or take vengeance and finally will judge the neighbor with justice.
This is a good beginning but it needs updating, don’t you think? Let’s add:
Will not turn away refugees seeking asylum; will not discriminate against another based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual preference; will not support unjust policies or laws that support these kinds of discrimination.
Jesus does not hang all the law and prophets on ending gay marriage or abortions. He wants us to love God and our neighbor as ourself. Period.
Jesus’ ethic of love is radical and transformational because it places God at the top and asks us to love all--even our neighbors who may also be our enemies. Thus, his call to love is an alternative or the abusive systems of power. It is also an alternative to the violence of the sword. Love of enemy makes him a traitor both to nationalism and imperialism. He is a threat then both to those who have power based on their loyalty to these false idols or who believe one must work within the system to hold onto temporal power. He is a threat to the Sadducees and Pharisees who have carved out a safe place for themselves under Roman occupation.
Finally, Jesus is a threat because like Dr. King, he believes in the power of love to support the demands of justice.
Now we’ve got to get things right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Yes, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
Correct everything that stands against love of God, self, and neighbor. All the law and prophets hang in the balance on this. The good news is that God is knowable in our hearts, souls, and minds, already nestled inside of us waiting for us to awaken, already providing fire and light, already shining in our neighbor’s lives.
So, go out boldly today in recognition of these truths. Go out and correct everything that stands against love.