Throughout the summer, we have been exploring the theme “Called In.” We have been hearing about lots of different ways that God calls all of us to be responsive and responsible to the world around us, to speak Good News in places of despair, and to bring healing and hope to all the places that need them, which, if we really think about it, is everywhere. Our exploration of the theme has been focused on the idea of “calling” and listening for the voice of God calling us in to join this work of creating and recreating a new kind of world.
And to give a little more structure to this theme, we’ve been focusing on these concentric circles that started with our call in to the world, then the city, the congregation, and finally, now, to the self. As we’ve gone on throughout the summer, we’ve described these different sub-themes in many different ways. I’ve heard them described as concentric circles, as phases, chapters, or stages. Somewhere along the way I started leaning toward calling them movements to help remind us of their connection to each other and the ways they overlap and are always leading us toward one another.
But at various points throughout the summer, I’ve wondered: Did we start in the wrong direction? We started wide, called in to the world, and now we’ve arrived at the narrow, called in to the self. But every once in awhile I’d think to myself, “Did we get this wrong? Should we have laid a foundation of inner transformation and calling before we started to explore our missional outward calling?”
But then again, I think there’s also some wisdom to the idea that when discerning this call of God to love, we start with the widest net, listening for the voice of the divine writ large across the universe in order to figure out our own place in the grand scope of things. Maybe it’s better to make sure we hear the call of God outside ourselves first so that we don’t become too inwardly focused and insular.
So which is it? Or did it even matter where we started?
It’s not quite the same question that the scribe comes to Jesus with in our passage for this morning, but there are some echoes of similarity there. We want to know what’s the most important thing, where we should start, which direction we should focus our energy as we figure out how we are to live.
“Which commandment is first of all?”
“Where should we start as we discern God’s call?”
But I think that Jesus’ response to the scribe is an attempt to shake us out of dichotomy thinking, to help us have a both/and kind of mentality that is able to hold things together that can sometimes seem so far apart. The temptation is to treat the call of God as an either/or situation where if we get just the right things nailed down we can ignore the rest because they’ll just fall in line. Or it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this call only moves us in one direction, either constantly inward toward the transformation of the self or perpetually outward toward the transformation of the world.
The scribe asks which commandment is first of all, and Jesus gives him an answer that refuses to play by the rules. Instead, he mashes together love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self in one big swirling mess of love. To be more specific, Jesus pulls together two passages from the Torah. The first, comes from Deuteronomy 6 and is what is known as the Shema, a well known passage that was regularly recited by the Jewish people. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second passage Jesus brings in is from Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Then, just to make sure we get it, Jesus even pulls off a bit of a linguistic trick at the end. After he lays out his answer to the question of which commandment is the first of all, which is really two answers rolled into one, he adds, “There is no other commandment (singular) greater than these (plural).”
It feels a little bit like when you ask someone what their favorite color is and they reply, “rainbow.”
But I think Jesus is doing a little more than trying to cram two commandments into one. Instead, I think that in pulling these things together and naming them as the (singular) greatest or first commandment, he is saying something about the overarching nature of love. There is no either/or when it comes to love because not only is love an inexhaustible resource it is the very essence of God. The way we love God is by loving our neighbor and ourselves. And in loving our neighbors and ourselves we experience the divine. When we listen and respond to the call of love, whether it’s shouted across the width of creation or whispered in the depths of our own souls, wherever we know love we know God, and wherever we practice that love, we become one with Christ.
So what is the greatest commandment? Where should we spend our energy or how should we begin?
The answer is love.
It matters less about where we’ve started or which direction the call of God happens to be nudging us. What matters is that we are grounded in love, in everything we do and all that we are, and all that we aspire to be, we are called to love. And the deeper we sink into love, the more we see it connecting us, always moving us toward transformation both inner and outer.
These commandments that happen to be the greatest commandment don’t give us much help in the way of figuring out how we are supposed to go about all this love. What it does tell us is that we are to love with all of us: all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And once again it can be easy to slip into a kind of fragmented way of thinking where we treat the heart, soul, mind, and strength as discrete categories, as boxes to check off, or tasks to accomplish rather than recognizing that these lists are just the long-form way of saying all of you. We think to ourselves, “I’ve got my heart in order, now I can move on to my strength, and I’ll schedule my understanding for next week when I have a little more time. And maybe I’ll get around to my soul once I can get someone to give me a solid definition for it.”
When I first started to study this passage I got sucked down a rabbit hole trying to figure out what the different words meant. To be honest, does anyone really have a good definition for “soul”? I found myself swimming through the different gospel accounts of this story that each give a slightly different take, some using heart, soul, and strength; others adding mind. I spent time trying to figure out why the scribe here in Mark’s gospel would alter what Jesus said and turn heart, soul, mind, and strength into heart, understanding, and strength. And those rabbit trails led down different rabbit trails about how the original passage that is being referenced, the Shema, would have been written in Hebrew where there would be a very different understanding of words like heart, soul, and strength than the Greek understanding of them, which is what the Gospel accounts would have been using.
But this swimming in the semantics of a passage like this can quickly turn to drowning if we allow ourselves to lose sight of the fact that these are not exhaustive lists of completely separate categories of the self with which we are to love. We are called to love with heart, soul, mind, strength, and any other part of who we are that we can come up with, but I think the first part of the Shema should be instructive for us as well. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
Just as God is one, we are also called to be one, wholly committed in our love for God, for neighbor, and for self. Any attempt to divide our lives up, giving our strength but not our heart or offering our minds but neglecting to act out our love with all our strength, this is to begin to serve two masters, to live fragmented lives.
So how do we love God, neighbors, and ourselves with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths?
The hard answer is that each and every one of us must do our own work of listening for the call of God and discerning how God is calling us to love. No one can get up here and tell you exactly what you need to do. This requires listening, praying (which in truth should actually include a lot of listening), journaling, fasting, fellowshiping, meditation, simplicity, study, contemplation, solitude, service, confession, or any other discipline that opens you up to the voice of the Divine.
And the especially hard part is that there’s not one discipline or activity that will connect well with every person, and I would fathom to guess that even when you do find one that opens you up to God’s call, its effectiveness may wane over time.
Instead of giving you a too easy answer about how we are to love God, neighbors, and self with all of our being, I want to offer you three vignettes about people who have, over the years, inspired me by the way they have practiced love with their hands, their heads, and their hearts. Between each one we will be singing two verses from #389 in the blue hymn book. As we hear the stories of these people, listen to their words, and then sing together the words of the hymn “Take my life”, I invite you to reflect on how you are being called to love with all you are.
First, let us consider our call to love with all of our strength. I want to tell you about Brother Lawrence, someone who I think of when I think of what it means to love with all of the things we do, the power and strength of our bodies, the things we do with our hands, our feet, and all the activities that occupy our time.
Brother Lawrence was a monk who lived at a monastery in Paris in the 17th century. He gained some notoriety because it was clear to those who interacted with him that he was able to have a sense of the divine presence with him no matter what he was doing. His main job at the monastery was working in the kitchen, and whether he was washing dishes or scrubbing floors he made it a habit to practice the presence of God. A series of interviews with him was compiled along with a few of his writings, and these were collected into a small book that was titled “The Practice of the Presence of God.”
I read this book a long time ago, and Brother Lawrence’s ability to attune himself to the awareness of God at all times, no matter what he was doing, is something that has always stuck with me. The thing is, there is no magic secret to it, but it is simply a habit, a discipline, and a practice that anyone can undertake wherever they are, whatever they find themselves doing. I will let Brother Lawrence speak in his own words:
“The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees before the Blessed Sacrament.”
“Men invent means and methods of coming at God's love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God's presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?”
My hope for us, my friends, is that like Brother Lawrence, we will learn what it means to love with all of our strength, to know God in the midst of all our moments and our days and all the works of our hands.
[HWB #389 v. 1-2]
Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee
Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of they love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for thee,
swift and beautiful for thee.
Second, let us consider what it means to be called to love with all of our understanding. As I was preparing this sermon, I was reminded of someone who has inspired me to think about how we love with all of our minds, our heads, and all our understanding because I saw news of her recent death. Katie Geneva Cannon was the first woman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church and the first woman to receive a PhD from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She was a pioneer, and some would say the pioneer, in the field of womanist theology, which is a way of approaching theology that seeks to empower the voices of black women and place their lives and experiences at the center of meaning making.
I was first introduced to her writing in seminary where we read her book, Black Womanist Ethics. In this work, Cannon helped us students see how dominant ways of doing theology and ethics relied on white-male biases that too often, at best, ignored the embodied knowledge and values of black women or, at worst, sought to openly delegitimize their contributions to the field. In opposition to this, Cannon wrote, ““The focus of this dissertation is to show how Black women live out a moral wisdom in their real-lived context that does not appeal to the fixed rules or absolute principles of the white-oriented, male structured society.”
For me, Cannon’s work helped break open the possibility of appreciating the knowledge and wisdom not just of black women but of any group that had been pushed to the margins. Through this decolonization of the mind, I came to appreciate the divine goodness that can be found in pursuing wisdom wherever it can be found.
My hope for us, my friends, is that with Katie Geneva Cannon, we can learn to love God with all of our minds and appreciate the wisdom and intellect of those whose messages of truth have been pushed to the margins.
[HWB #389 vs. 3-4]
Take my voice, and let me sing, always only for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from thee,
Filled with messages from thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use ev’ry pow’r as thou shalt choose
Ev’ry pow’r as thou shalt choose
Finally, let us consider what it means to be called to love God with all of our hearts. If you’ve ever been in Joel’s office, you may have noticed a series of pictures hanging on his back wall in the style of religious icons depicting various people. One of those pictures is of Julian of Norwich and shows a simple woman in religious garb petting a cat. She is often depicted with a cat, so you can probably see why I’m inspired by her.
Julian lived in the late 14th century and was what was known as an anchorite, which was a kind of religious hermit who committed to living in a tiny walled off enclosure attached to a church building. Anchorites committed themselves to a life of prayer and often, as in Julian’s case, their cell had a window out to the community where people could come and request prayers or spiritual advice.
While living out her life of prayer as an anchorite, Julian had a series of visions, which she wrote down. Known by the title, Revelations of Divine Love, this work is thought to be the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman. It is a thick text, and my personality is not one to really enjoy reading 14th century Christian mystic literature. But I took an entire class devoted to Julian’s writings in seminary, and over time I grew to appreciate the richness of her devotion to God and the way she was able to find comfort in her faith despite the hardships she faced and saw around her.
Hear her words about a particular vision she had and the voice of God speaking to her:
“These words: ‘You will not be overcome,’ were said very insistently and strongly, for certainty and strength against every tribulation which may come. He did not say: ‘You will not be troubled, you will not be belaboured, you will not be disquieted’; but he said: ‘You will not be overcome.’ God wants us to pay attention to these words, and always to be strong in faithful trust, in well-being and in woe, for God loves us and delights in us, and so wishes us to love him and delight in him and trust greatly in him, and all will be well.”
My hope for us, my friends, is that like Julian of Norwich, we will know what it means to love God with all of our hearts, to trust God through the joys and the sorrows, and to find comfort in our souls, believing that all will be well.
And finally, my hope for us is that we would be one, undivided, wholly committed people in our love of God, neighbor, and self, through all that we are.
[HWB #389 vs. 5-6]
Take my will, and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is thine own, it shall be thy royal throne,
It shall be thy royal throne.
Take my love; my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee,
Ever, only, all for thee.