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Cultivating Faith and Love
October 25, 2020, Proper 25
by Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson
I suspect Jesus would have held his own if he were a political candidate taking part in a presidential debate. For more than two thousand years his two-line summary of the greatest commandments is how many of us would sum up the essence of our spiritual practice as people of faith. Jesus was engaged in some verbal sparring with the Pharisees, the most prominent sect in the Judaism of his day. Jesus had gained incredible renown at this point in his ministry. He had entered Jerusalem to the cheer and roar of crowds that would rival any political rally or protest. A striking image, deliberately planned, he had entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, leading behind him the colt of a donkey; a humble leader, the polar opposite of any imperial procession of Rome. Still, he was greeted as a king, as the most powerful emperor. The crowds spread their cloaks out on the road and others cut branches from the trees and spread them along the route of his parade, shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The whole city was in turmoil, and all the local leaders were apprehensive about Jesus’ influence; they plotted to have him arrested, to thwart his power, and as he’s teaching in the Temple – the center (at the time) of Jewish religious and civic life – various groups try to get him to say something incriminating. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” someone pipes up. Come on, Jesus! Take the bait! “Teacher,” says another, “Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children. Now there were seven brothers,” he says, who all end up marrying the same woman, “in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?” And finally, there is the question we heard in our reading: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
It was a trick question. There are 613 commandments in Jewish law and you could say that each one is key, in that each helps a person to orient their life and their living toward the Divine. And Jesus is clear on the end goal of religious practice, it’s Deuteronomy 6:5: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind – the verse that makes up the first part of the Shema, the central prayer in Judaism, recited morning and evening. He could have dropped the mic but he goes on; there is not only the first great commandment, but a second is like, the flip side to the first – Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” In listing the greatest commandments he showed how that lawyer questioning him, bearing a grudge, was actively breaking them. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus said. Here is the practice of our faith in a nutshell – love God and love your neighbour as yourself – there is nothing more to say and no one dares to ask him any more questions.
Two simple commandments for people of faith – love God, and love your neighbour as yourself – simple, but exceptionally hard to do. These are the most important commandments! But I have found that just because a thing is commanded doesn’t mean I’m capable of carrying it out. “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.” “Okay,” I say to myself, “I’ll do just that.” But a whole month will go by and the thought of God barely enters my mind. “Well aren’t I on vacation?” I say to myself. I’m just taking a break. I don’t open my Bible. I worry about all kinds of things, but I forget to pray. A commandment could the greatest, Jesus himself could say it’s imperative, and still, just because it’s commanded of me, doesn’t mean I can always live it out. “Love others as well as yourself,” scripture says. “Well, of course!” I say. I know this is what we’re called to do, that here is the essence of true religion, but I can’t seem to do it, even though it’s commanded of me. I find it easier to love people who see the world the same way I do. And I hate being nagged and I don’t react well to criticism but what do you hear coming out of my mouth all the time, every day at my teenagers: nagging and criticism. We know we’re commanded to love our neighbours and our children and our partners and our parents and our colleagues and our competition and our enemies as we love ourselves. We know Jesus’ commandments by heart. But just because a thing is commanded doesn’t mean we’re always able to put it into practice. Faith and love are commandments, but how impossible it is, at times, to command them of our hearts.
On Wednesday mornings a group of us has been meeting and working through a book called The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom. It’s a book about how to find more inspiration and creativity within yourself by incorporating into your daily life the ancient monastic practices of St. Benedict, known as the father of Western monasticism. As a young man Benedict study in Rome but left because he became so disillusioned – everyone was faithless, nobody seemed to be able to command any control or practice in their lives. Benedict threw his hands up and left the city. One day he met a monk who changed the direction of his life. The conversation isn’t recorded, but I like to imagine it went something like this, with Benedict saying, “There are only two important commandments on which all the law and the prophets hang – love God and love your neighbour as yourself – but nobody can seem to command faith and love within themselves. What’s the point of even trying!” The monk apparently gave Benedict a monk’s habit and led him to a cave. “You’re welcome to stay here until you figure it out,” the monk said, and regularly supplies Benedict with food and supplies. Benedict stayed in the cave for three years – you can visit it still, now the site of a shrine. And through his conversations with that monk and his own maturing and reflection he started to see things differently. Faith and love are commandments impossible to command, but (Benedict discovered) they can be cultivated. Benedict became renowned for the advice he’d give passersby. People started to seek him out for his wisdom. When the Abbott of the local monastery died, Benedict was asked to take his place. He went on to found other monasteries and eventually to write a book known as “The Rule of St. Benedict” all about how to cultivate what is commanded of us as people of faith. This past week in our little group we looked at three of his practices: obedience, stability, and conversion.
I know that all of these words have negative connotations. When we hear “obedience” we might think of ourselves as children and having to follow rules we didn’t like, and stability feels like the opposite of excitement and change, and conversion we might associate with people who want to turn us into something we’re not. But for Benedict the practices of obedience and stability and conversion were tools to help cultivate faith and love – everything that is difficult to command.
How do you cultivate a love of God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence? Benedict would say you practice obedience! Christine Valters Paintner writes that “the word ‘obedience’ comes from the root word audire, meaning ‘to hear.’ Obedience is about listening deeply to the ways God calls [us] in everyday life and how [we] respond,” she writes. What if that first commandment – to love God – can be cultivated, slowly, by practicing obedience – to taking time to hear, to listen for the Divine? What if love of God is cultivated by making space to listen, our on a walk with only our thoughts, or sitting in silence on a bench, or cycling, or swimming, or reading poetry or a passage of scripture? We can’t command faith, but we can cultivate it. This is the wisdom of ancient Benedictine practices.
Christine Valters Paintner writes about the Benedictine practice of stability: “Monks in the Benedictine tradition make a commitment to live their entire lives in the monastery they join. The idea is that they do not run away from challenges and difficulties,” she writes. She goes on: “It is similar to the commitment we make when we get married or begin other significant friendships – ‘for better or worse’ means we stay and work to improve the relationship even when we want to run in the other direction,” she says. We hear the commandment to love our neighbour and we think it’s about having affections for every single person we encounter, and then despair when this feeling isn’t something we can just command in ourselves. But Benedictine practice cultivates love through commitment – stability – commitment to showing up for a person, for a place. Of course, we won’t always get it right. And here’s where the Benedictine practice of conversion comes in. Conversion is an openness to being okay with “stumbling and getting up agin,” Christine Valters Paintner puts it. Benedict knew that membership in a spiritual community and living a life of faith didn’t mean one could simply conjure virtue, but admitting when we’ve messed up, and then figuring out how to change and do better is what the practice of conversion if all about. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and that a second is like it: “love your neighbour as yourself.” Commandments impossible to command but possible to cultivate listening for the Divine voice, committing to the people and places that surround us, trying and trying and trying again.
We call this growing in the likeness of Christ. In Christian tradition this process is called sanctification, which means to be made holy. It’s not something that happens to us because we are perfectly command, but because we are cultivating faith and love, coaxed along by the power of the one whom even King David called “Lord,” coaxed and guided by the One who sits at God’s right hand, who will vanquish all the forces that oppose us, who liberates us for new life and growth – Jesus Christ, the One whom we call the Son of God. Even the lawyer, the moment Jesus had finished speaking, could feel it in his heart, the seed that had been planted, faith and love.