23 Pentecost B: Swallowing it Whole

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“Ahava” – Hebrew version of Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture

In ancient Israel, and reportedly still today,
careful distinctions were made between people
who belonged and did not belong,
including between a “foreigner” and “sojourner.”
Both were aliens, most likely immigrants such as
Canaanites and Moabites.
But a sojourner referred
to someone from the outside
who settled down and made their home
among the Israelites.
Even though they were still not considered
an Israelite, sojourners
were treated as what we might call
“Green Card” holders or “DACA” kids.
“Foreigners” on the other hand,
were met with less graciousness.

It is amazing that Ruth became a book of the Bibl
because it is about a foreigner,
one held up as an icon of faithfulness, and who
became the great-grandmother of King David.
It is a story from a time after the Exodus
and before the monarchy,
but actually written centuries later.
It comes to us from after the Exile
and seems to have been written to argue with
the books of Ezra and Nehemiah
that opposed marriage to foreigners.

It is a great and fascinating story for sure,
with a woman as the hero — also uncharacteristic —
but it does nothing to hide how marginalized
and vulnerable
women were within a misogynistic
social caste system.
Nor does it advocate for something different.

The whole book
is like a page and a half or something,
so I suggest you go home and read it
and then tell people you just read
a whole book of the bible today.

Let’s turn the page to Mark and Mary —
Mary Oliver, that is.

Like you, I have many neighbors.
Some of them are people with whom
I share core political and economic values.

Some of them are people with whom
I share…some important values.

Some of them, I suspect, are people with whom
I hold little in common except cordialness
and shared geography.
Jesus wants me to love each of them.

Heck, I want to love each one of them…theoretically.
Actually, to the extent that I know them,
I do love them, at least intellectually.

But Jesus wants me to love each of them.

I want to begin with Mary Oliver
talking about Jesus and love:
“Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.”

This so-called “Great Commandment”
is one we like to argue and quibble about.
We like to smooth the corners
and see if we can make it fit reality —
to change its roundness
to fit into our squareness.
Unlike so much of Jesus —
which is often way too radical for us —
we can almost make it fit…almost.
But let’s not.

Let’s try treating this like Communion.
Let’s try not ‘thinking’ about
but experiencing it.
Let’s try swallowing it whole
and imagining how life would be different
were we able to do it —
or as Mary Oliver wrote,

“If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.”

Let’s receive the Great Commandment like the bread
and allow it to dissolve on our tongue
and not think about
whether it is the Body of Christ
or not.
Let’s just do it,
swallow it whole
and know we are better for it.

Okay, I know. I can’t do it either.

There is an interesting difference
between Matthew, Mark, and Luke
in how they frame this teaching.
In each of them,
it is generally surrounded by conflict —
the Pharisees and temple clergy
arguing with Jesus
or trying to trap him
into saying something that will get him arrested.
The lawyers nitpick
and push and prod.
The clergy sniff around
and act passive-aggressively.
The people wait to see what will happen.

But in Mark, with this particular teaching,
a scribe seems to ask about it sincerely,
and at the end,
is so authentic and open to it,
Jesus praises him.
”Yeah, you get it,” Jesus says with a smile.
”You are very close.”

But I am guessing,
you and I are not so close.
I don’t want to put words in your mouth
or thoughts in your brain,
but I think we get tripped up
on three things here.
We read them and hedge our bets
with a “Yes…But.”

First, we want “neighbor” defined
a little more narrowly.

Secondly, and ironically,
we want to keep the focus on loving our neighbor
rather than loving ourselves, because…
well, we don’t really want to go into that, because…
well, because our difficulty with loving ourselves
is personal.

And third, love God
with ALL our heart,
with ALL our soul,
with ALL our mind?
That seems a little extreme —
how will we love God like that and make money,
or more importantly, spend money?

I guess when we break it down like that
into its constituent parts,
we might have trouble with the whole thing.
We better go back to swallowing it whole
with mindless acceptance.

I know that there are people
you do not love.

I know that, because
I believe you and I are not too different
and for sure, there are
people I do not love.
There are some people
who do things
and espouse things
and contribute to things
I find repugnant.
I would have to cheat on the test
in order to say I love them.

Maybe you are different than me,
but I am guessing not many of you are.

What do we do with this hard core
of resistance to Jesus
that hides inside of us?

Here is what: we keep swallowing his teachings —
crazy and absurd as they are —
keep swallowing them whole
right along with the Communion bread.

Look, let’s be real.
What do we have inside
if our religion is political ideology?
What do we have inside
if our religion is patriotism and nationalism?
What do we have inside
if our religion is racial and ethnic identity?
What do we have inside
if our religion is fidelity to an economic system?

What do we have inside
if our religion is the Self?
In every one of those religions,
love has boundaries;
love is transactional;
love is a zero-sum game.

Jesus is talking about love —
real love, as in loving God.

Jesus doesn’t prescribe niceness.
Jesus does not tell us we have to like people
who act like jerks.
Jesus does not tell us we have to allow ourselves
to be victimized by people who do not love us.

Jesus does tell us
we need to be about loving our neighbor
as ourselves —
and by the way, for all practical purposes,
that is also how we love God with our whole heart.

Loving our neighbor
means resisting the urge to hate.
Loving ourselves
means extending ourselves mercy
when we feel ashamed.
Loving our neighbor
means sharing what we have in abundance
with those who are in need, and no matter how they got in that need.
Loving ourselves
means accepting what we wish was different
with a heart of generosity.
Loving our neighbor
means accepting our differences
and celebrating them where we can.

Because love is a verb
what Jesus is poking us to do
is act in particular kinds of ways
that may or may not be reflective of how we feel.

We may feel repulsed and angry and offended
by someone’s political viewpoint,
but we can act in such a way
that respects their dignity
and embraces their humanity.

When we swallow Jesus whole — in the bread
or in his teachings — then we have him inside
agitating us
guiding us
and poking us
to resist our resistance
and act in love.
When we have Jesus’ Great Commandment
as our religion inside,
our neighbors might not be better
but we will be.

It is about how we act not how we feel;
it’s about how we treat ourselves and one another
not what we believe.