Categories
Uncategorized

BFFs

Best friends–forever! What does that look like? Teens throw out the moniker with abandon, flattering their bestie with the rank of Top of the Social Ladder. Until… Until there’s an argument over a boyfriend. Or a dropped fly ball in the outfield that cost your team the game. Or your hormones rage and you shift your undying allegiance to another friend who suits your present needs better.

Best friends forever. Is that even possible in today’s world of cryptic texting, career relocation and polarizing politics? I assure you that it is! You might have to stretch back a couple of generations to find it but when you do–what a treasure!

So much so that I hopped a plane to get a taste of it. Several years ago I received a Facebook message from a woman who identified herself as the daughter of my mother’s childhood friend. Her mom hoped to reconnect with her best friend’s family. Would I accept a friend request from her mother? I was delighted and promptly answered “Yes!” The next day Jean’s name showed up in my Facebook account and we became…friends!

mom's hs pic

My mother, Katie, died from cancer more than 20 years ago at the age of 66. She had much more living to do but cancer is indiscriminate. Her memorial service overflowed with a rich variety of people for whom she had cared over the years. She was a beloved pastor’s wife who ministered faithfully alongside of my dad. She was a devoted wife of 42 years to my father. She was an outstanding mother who raised six children in eight different locations (including three different countries) over 32 years of active parenting. She taught us to work out differences and laugh together such that we are able to amicably manage a cherished family cottage LLC. We attained advanced degrees because of her strong valuation of education. My siblings and I lost our mom too early so I rejoice when I find traces of her more than two decades after her death.

mom and pals 1

1500 miles away from my Michigan home my mom’s BFF was bemoaning to her daughter the lost connection to Katie’s family. This daughter knew that there are ways to find people in our digitally connected world. So she took her mom`s phone and began to plug in our names. She and her two siblings grew up knowing the names of all six of us–in order! Since my hyphenated name ends with my maiden name she found me first. We Chapman kids knew the names of Jean’s three kids so I recognized Lori’s name when it appeared in my FB Messenger page. Her mother’s outreach was well-timed, I told her, because our family was planning a reunion on the lakefront that Christmas. Through our FB posts she would be able to catch up with Katie’s sizable family. That was the beginning of a new connection between my mom’s lifelong BFF and us. Not just the six of us. Jean has enjoyed connecting even with our children, her dear friend’s grandchildren, many of whom have only scant memories of their Grandma Katie.

God has a way of expanding our understanding of family when we open our hearts. Shortly after we became FB friends, I received a package from Jean. It arrived on a day when I had keenly felt the absence of my own mom. A breast MRI revealed a suspicious area so I had a biopsy done. I stayed still while technicians poked around for the right spot dictated by an x-ray image. As I lay there facedown, I thought of my mom whose breast cancer ultimately claimed her. It reappeared 14 years after the initial diagnosis as Stage 4 esophageal cancer. In nine months’ time my mother declined from an active, healthy lifestyle to dying. As I lay there immobilized, I imagined the worst. What would these tests reveal? Fortunately I was able to leave the hospital that day with a good report but not before I had revisited my mother’s final days when her life was measured by medical instruments. Deposited by my front door as I arrived home was a package from Arizona. It was from my mom’s BFF. “Thank you, God”, I prayed as I teared up. Jean didn’t know it but her box of fresh lemons from her tree served as a conduit to my mom. The support she couldn’t offer came instead from her trusted pal of more than 50 years.

So I spent my Memorial Day weekend with Jean and her husband, Art. They shared with me their lovely home near Phoenix and their charming cottage in Prescott. I hiked with her son and daughter-in-law. I helped to pull off a party alongside of her enthusiastic grandson who connected me to another of Jean’s daughters through Facetime. Her third child guided our tour through the stunning Desert Botanical Garden and Phoenix Art Museum. We reminisced about being together on the Lake Michigan shoreline more than 50 years earlier. I learned that this daughter–Lori Jean–shared my name because Jean liked it when she heard my mom share it at my birth (Laurel Jean). Jean asked to use it with changed spelling for her own daughter. Jean and I walked into downtown Prescott where Memorial Day weekend festivities were in full swing. I learned that Jean is an artist who shares my mother’s love for local art. She is a gracious hostess who still bustles around to feed her family and cooks for homeless families who find safe lodging at her church. She bakes with butter (the only way to bake!). She’s an avid reader and still uses her skills as a teacher to help migrant children. I couldn’t help but wonder what my mother would be doing if she had been given 20 more years to live. As I spent four days in the good company of Jean and Art, I knew that I was able to experience in some small way what it might have felt like to come home to my parents as an adult child.

mom and dad wedding

More than anything we talked during my visit. We had a lot of catching up to do. My siblings sent me their questions about my mother’s early years that we suspected Jean would be able to answer. She attended the same elementary and high schools as my mother and spent summers working alongside her. They stood up in each other’s weddings. She knew my mom’s family, including her younger brother who was severely disabled from Cerebral Palsy. Jean remembers the first time the two pals were heading to my mom’s home. They were slurping down a Green River, a soda unique to Chicago. My mom knew she needed to prepare her friend for what she would encounter when she met her family. She explained how her brother was not like most brothers: he couldn’t walk or talk. His name was Johnny. After meeting him Jean wanted assurance from Katie that her brother would get better. Children assume that there’s a Band aid for every ailment. But Katie told her there would be no changes. Both my mother and her sister became social workers perhaps because of the demands placed on them as older sisters to a “crippled boy”. Mom learned early on to translate handicapping conditions into something understandable so that folks could respond with compassion, not fear.

mom and sibs

I learned that Jean and my mom started working at age 13! This may have been motivated by her parents’ desire that she get a break in the summer from the challenges they faced caring for Johnny. I understood better why we were driven out of the home at age 15 to find jobs, work hard and save almost every penny we made for college. Jean told me that mom ranked fifth in her sizable class at Morgan Park High School. This earned her a scholarship into Miami U of Ohio and ultimately a degree in Social Work from Oberlin College.

mom and pals 2

I learned of an adventuresome side of my mom that she carefully curated for us. The summer she and Jean worked at a camp with a team of other young girls, my mom thought it would be fun to get up at 5AM and run naked through the woods before any supervising adults were awake. My mother’s leadership skills convinced the girls that it was a good plan so they streaked along a path mapped out by my mom—and they didn’t get caught. She never remembered to tell us that story, seeking to raise six well-mannered, trouble-free children! We turned out just fine with few moral indiscretions along the way but are glad to hear that my mother sowed her wild oats like the best of us in our teenage years!

Jean asked questions about the last chapter of my mother’s life. Death by cancer is a hard story to hear but she wanted to know how her dear friend had endured this final trial in her life. She pulled out a letter my mother had written to her four months before her death. Mom thanked Jean for the kindness she had shown her through letters and phone calls, small gifts and a lifetime of laughter. She didn’t say a word about her own battle as she squarely faced her mortality. My mom’s motto as she fought terminal cancer was “Each day is a gift” and she made sure to express her gratitude to people like Jean who walked alongside of her in the ups and downs of life.

So what’s it like to have an honest-to-goodness BFF? Having lived the transient life of a military brat I don’t have the luxury of a friendship that traces from childhood into middle age. But I know it doesn’t derive from constant texting or tweeting messages of fewer than 280 characters. It’s not fueled by funny comments on snapchat or the most inspiring stories on YouTube. It happens over long conversations, face-to-face, looking each other in the eyes and sharing stories that bring both tears and laughter. It’s recalling memories and creating new ones. It’s lived out through shared family moments that turn childhood pals we seldom saw into names we could recite in their proper birth order because we knew they were important. This weekend, in the gracious hospitality of my mom’s lifelong friend, I was privileged to get a deeper understanding of what a treasure it is to have a best friend forever! For that I am immensely blessed.

Categories
Uncategorized

RACE

Remembering MLK, Jr.       April 4, 2019

Rev. Laurie TenHave-Chapman

For the healing of the nations, harmony between the races;
No one up pushing others down; no more grasping for a crown.

White supremacy growing strong. Black lives matter addressing wrong.
Weapons loaded; words exploded! “You’re not human,” Hatred goaded.

“I have a dream,” the preacher said. “I’ll live this truth until I’m dead.”
Black folk marched in peaceful protest; the world observed this equal rights quest.

The Civil War raged on it seems with images of children facing angry cop teams.
Rosa fought by taking a seat. As black churches burned it turned up the heat.

A bullet silenced the voice of the Pastor which advanced the movement even faster.
“A martyr’s death”, the world proclaimed. The scourge of racism our nation shamed.

The world aghast, laws were passed, equal rights promised at long last.
Schools and restaurants integrated. Mistrust kept churches separated.

In St. Landry Parish 50 years later three churches torched by a racist hater.
The Deputy’s son arrested and jailed. Has all of King’s effort miserably failed?

The color of skin still sets us apart but progress is measured by the love in our heart.

“Free Hugs” offered Devonte on Portland streets. So a cop, for a moment, left his beat
to heal our nation with a viral embrace. Black boy, white man overlook race.

It’s in these moments God sends our way that tears mark the path to a hope-filled day.
Revolutions start small, one smile at a time. Up the mountain with Martin we continue to climb.

The way is long. The ascent is steep but the martyrs summon from our slumber deep.
The night is o’er. The day has dawned. Let’s put on our armor and move along.

grayscale photo of man woman and child
Photo by Kristin De Soto on Pexels.com

 

Categories
Uncategorized

Sore Spots

Genesis 21:8-21

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.[a] 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

The birth announcements have long since gone out. The thank you notes for the shower gifts have been delivered. The child can now toddle around and wins over complete strangers with his crooked smile. The day arrives to celebrate his independence from his mother—he is weaned and the community joins with his elderly parents to mark this moment.

In verse 8 there is a shift in mood. In the first seven verses of chapter 21 we learn that this boy is fulfillment of a promise God made to his father: “Out of you I will create a great nation.” That was ten chapters ago in the story! Abraham was old when God made this promise and now he is impossibly old to be a new dad. The son is named Isaac, which means “laughter.” Sarah laughed when she heard the prophecy that she would have a baby and she laughs now as she parades her son through the village. Most women in their 90’s break their hips but she carries her youngster on hips made strong with joy.

As the tables are being set and the food prepared for the celebration of his weaning, something changes. Marking the maturation of this tiny boy must have triggered a thought for his mother: There is only one inheritance and two sons. When the promise for the two of them to have a family failed to come true, Sarah had suggested that her elderly husband get together with her servant girl, Hagar. (This was customary in their culture at that time.) A child born to Hagar would technically belong to her. Hagar had a son and he was named Ishmael. It became clear very quickly that Hagar loved her son and Sarah would never feel like he was her own. Abraham loved Ishmael deeply—as a father would—and that became a problem when Isaac arrived.

Two brothers play together. Ishmael is a doting older brother to a smiling, drooling toddler. Sarah looks in on this scene, one she has seen countless times before, but this time she sees competition. Ishmael is a threat to her plan for her boy, the one promised to her over a decade ago. The dialogue is sparse but painful: “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son, Isaac.” Abraham is distressed but does as his wife requests, packing off this precious pair with a crust of bread and a supply of water. God assures Abraham that He will do for the boy what Abraham will no longer be able to do: care for him and raise him to be the patriarch of his own great nation. Imagine elderly Abraham, whose sight could well have been dim by then, seeing the outline of his son moving away from him into the wilderness. Meanwhile, Sarah smugly folds decorative napkins for the family party.

Ouch.

Brothers. Many of us have raised boys. I discovered it’s quite different from raising girls. In my birth family there were five girls and then a boy. My brother is 12 years younger than I so I only overlapped with him for 6 years before leaving home. I understand sisters but I didn’t understand brothers. Then I had two boys, 13 months apart. We bought identical plastic boats for bath time. Each needed their own police hat so we provided duplicates of everything. That was the best formula for peace. Brothers are best buds as children, tumbling around like puppies with non-stop physical contact. But puberty does a number on all siblings. Two brothers often see each other as competition, especially if they’re close in age. The teenage years are marked by self-differentiation. So brothers tend to focus on the ways that they differ from the other. Jealousy can result in distance. Boys who played in the sandbox together and tossed a ball in the backyard stop speaking. This wilderness time for brothers that can be bridged when they’ve made their way into adulthood with their own unique identity more clearly defined.

The Bible is full of stories about brothers. Some are parables that Jesus told, most memorably the story of the Prodigal son, which has been often renamed The Parable of Two Lost Sons! Isaac, the son of Abraham who won the inheritance coin toss, had twin sons. The younger twin duped Isaac into granting favored birth rights to him which led to a rift that forced Jacob-the-Schemer to run for his life. Another father’s heart was broken. Jacob carried on with God’s promise of making of Abraham a great nation by having 12 sons. We remember Joseph of technicolor dream-coat fame. Jacob made the mistake of spoiling him so his older brothers sold him into slavery and lied about it to their dad. Jealous, murderous plots keep up the legacy of fathers broken-hearted because of competitive sons. Too often in the scriptures we find that the relationship between brothers produces sore spots rather than tender reunions. Even if we buy two of everything when they’re young, we can’t control the way their relationship develops in their adult years.

God’s promise to Abraham, as he sent his oldest son away, was that Ishmael would become, by God’s grace, a great nation. Our reading today shows how, in their time of desperate need, God provided lifesaving water for the boy and his mother. He grew up, married an Egyptian woman and started a family of his own. Muslims points back to this son of Abraham as their ancestor in the faith. Jews trace their religious roots back to Isaac, the boy of promise. Both are beloved sons of the great Patriarch, Abraham. We Christians came along a bit later and were birthed out of the Jewish nation so we, too, claim our heritage as children of Abraham.

Muslims. Christians. Jews. All point back to Abraham at the family reunion. How’s that working out now? This past weekend tensions mounted between Jews and Muslims in Gaza. Netenyahu pledged a massive strike to control the Palestinians. We witness the dysfunction of the family by looking in on tragic scenes in New Zealand, Sri Lanka and California. As descendants of Abraham met to worship in their mosque, church and synagogue, they were attacked with hateful rhetoric and deadly bullets. The majority of  homicides are committed by people who know their victim. Known as expressive violence, the aim is to make a statement. It’s a power ploy and murders that happen between people who know each other are more apt to involve physical brutality. When a crime is committed within a family, it’s all the more heartbreaking. In Escondido, California, two congregations grieved: The Chabad of Poway where a woman was killed and three others, including the rabbi, were wounded; and the Poway Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where the family of the alleged killer raised their son with Christian values. The pastor and rabbi stand together in a sign of solidarity amidst the horror at this family reunion.

We learn in this sad story from Genesis that God’s got enough love to go around. God loves both of these boys and provides a rich future for each of them. God doesn’t cause the division. Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands when God’s timing didn’t match up with their own. The couple played God and introduced heartache into their own lives and generations enacted the same tragedy. Tension between Jews, Christians and Muslims has plagued our world. Some have lost their lives while kneeling in prayer. Have we forgotten that we worship the same God of Abraham? Do we fail to notice that God has a special commitment to Ishmael, giving him a future when his earthly father could no longer do that? In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches His apostles about God’s mercy: “…and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” As Hagar fears that she and her son will die of thirst, God provides for their most basic need: water. Not only will they live but Ishmael will thrive.

It’s easier to act hatefully toward others when we don’t know them. In the passage from Genesis 21 notice that Isaac is referred to by name four times but Ishmael is never named. Sarah spitefully refers to her son’s half-brother as “the son of this slave woman”. God responds to the cries of Hagar, calling her by name. But Ishmael, an innocent pawn in an adult world, is simply the son of a slave woman. Though cast out from family, God never loses sight of this beloved boy.

Rev. Cain Felder tells the story of his name. He is the eldest of nine children, born in Giddy Swamp, South Carolina. When he was 13, the age traditionally considered a “coming of age”, his mother told him about his name. His other siblings had Biblical names but he couldn’t understand why he would be given the name of a murderer and wanderer. He learned that his biological father had mental struggles which led to him being hospitalized. When Cain’s mother was at the facility, the man raped her and she became pregnant. Thirteen years later his mother explained to him, “I named you ‘Cain’ because of how you were born.  You were born in utter sin.  You were born in an assault.  You were born in all of the ugliness attached to it:  a brother murders a brother.  When I opened up the bible, there it was, so I gave you that name.” But she went on to tell this son that his first name was not his sole destiny. Cain tells of this conversation in an interview with Rufus Mayfield:

She said, “But remember, that’s not your full name.”  I asked, “What do you mean?”  She said “You’re so different from all of your other brothers – you don’t have a full brother, or a full sister, so you’re really unique.  I started weeping and she said, “Now I see that you’re weeping.  I want you to understand your whole name.  What does your grandmother call you?”  I said, “Grandmother calls me ‘Cain Hope.’”  She said, “I do, too!  You’re not named just ‘Cain’  it’s ‘Cain Hope,’” and I say that may have been, Brother Mayfield, my call to ministry, being empowered by my mother who stopped going to school in the sixth grade, to my becoming a “Latin School Negro”, there learning Latin, with four years of French, three years of German – all before I came to Howard [University]!  No one from either side of my family had ever graduated from high school, and here, a sixth-grade woman who in the south used to pick cotton in South Carolina was empowering and choosing this “bastard” child to understand that, though you began in sin, there’s no telling what the Lord will do with you!  So you have here the basis of a profile that I myself didn’t know what was going to come of all of this.  All I knew was that I was being led by a certain spirit to move forward.  destiny-pride.org/spotlight/july-2011

The story in Genesis 21 between two half-brothers who never reconcile paints a poignant picture of our human condition. We all claim the same loving Parent who assures us that there’s enough love to go around. But we bicker and fight and distance ourselves from each other out of jealousy. We inflict wounds on each other and point to the sore spots in the family history rather than the blessings. This plays out over generations and the sin into which we were born alienates us from each other and from God. Perhaps we all bear the name Cain Hope at our very core. We are this seemingly irreconcilable mix of sin and hope, of being both fallen and grace-filled. If we can confess that we hold hateful attitudes deep within us, we have a chance at seeing another not just as the interloper to our own claims—but as a brother or a sister with a name.

I take great encouragement from a story a few chapters down in Genesis that tells of a reunion between Isaac’s twin sons. Jacob robbed Esau of his inheritance then fled. As the two approach each other, years later with unresolved baggage, Jacob is afraid for his life. As they come within sight of one another, Jacob begins to bow low to the ground in a showing of humility. Bracing for the worst, he is surprised by the reaction of his brother. In Genesis 33 we peek in on this emotional scene: “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids…He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

Too often we focus on the sore spots that mark our family history. We refuse to let the resurrection bring new life and forgiveness into our relationships. We forget that God has a unique destiny for each of us as beloved children. Though born in sin, God holds out hope. At the reunion there can be tears of reconciliation for us, our nation and our world!

May it ever be so! Amen.

Categories
Uncategorized

Dialogue

Mark 12:28-34      The Greatest Commandment
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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 is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

At the end of the early service on Easter Sunday I greeted people as they headed out the door to their family gatherings. One parishioner leaned in to me as he left and asked, “Did you hear about the bombings in Sri Lanka?” I hardly understood his question because it was whispered with a line of people behind him. It didn’t compute since my heart was full with the joy of Easter morning. Bombing? Sri Lanka? Where is that? Was anyone hurt? The morning moved on at a fast pace with brunch, the excitement of an egg hunt and the sounds of our choir practicing for the 10:30 service. My mind moved on from this man’s question. I hadn’t yet heard of the bombing—and really didn’t want to!
Across the world the Christian Church anguished over this intentional desecration of our highest holy day. We hugged our children a little closer. We noticed our surroundings more intentionally. We prayed for people in another part of the world that many of us had to look up on our phones or computers. Where does Sri Lanka sit on our globe? What are these peoples’ customs? Who would do this to them?
We learned that it is a Muslim extremist group who claims that the Easter massacre was to avenge the slaughter of the Muslim devotees in New Zealand. Unbelievable, I thought. It seems painfully clear that two wrongs do not make a right! I thought of the outpouring of the world to those impacted by the loss of life in New Zealand. People of different nationalities, races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds decried the act of violence. Folks offered prayerful and financial support to people we acknowledged to be our brothers and sisters. Did the Sri Lanka sleeper cell notice the global outpouring of support? Sadly, we know that they did not. Their “us versus them” take on the world did not allow for “the enemy” to be seen in a positive light. Their minds were closed to new perspectives and revenge was their only thought.
In Mark’s gospel we see in Jesus a remarkably different model for communal living. We have to pull back from our specific story to understand the setting for this conversation. The Jewish leaders were dogging Jesus’ every step, threatened by His fame. He arrives in Jerusalem at the peak of His popularity, having won people over by His miracles, teaching and compassion. He interpreted the scriptures with authority and throngs of people hung on His every word. He blasted the power-hungry rulers who cared only about their own clout and paycheck rather than the congregation of lowly folks entrusted to their care. When Jesus called them out on their wrong priorities they set to work with a goal of destroying Him.
So the passages that precede this one depict His engagement with priests, scribes, and Sadducees. They throw one challenge of the faith after another at Jesus. Jews loved to debate religious minutiae so this arguing would not have seemed out of the ordinary. But Jesus knew that their motive was to trip Him up. We’ve all been drawn into debates that we know are un-winable. Undoubtedly you know what topics NOT to bring up around your Easter dinner table, even with those who are closest to you! Politics and religion are famously areas to avoid conversationally if you wish to preserve healthy relationships! But these Jewish big-wigs are hell-bent on exposing Jesus’ apostasy so that the crowds would abandon Him. But Jesus answers with such wisdom that their plot fails and they are left speechless. They re-dedicate themselves to the cause of killing Him off but it would have to be out of view of the adoring crowd.
In Mark 12: 28 a teacher of the law (which means “Pharisee”) has been taking in this debate. He asks a difficult question of Jesus but his motive seems different from the other rulers. The Jews lived according to the 10 Commandments given to Moses. We completed a Bible Study this winter on these ten rules for living and discovered that they are not as cut and dry as we might think. In His teaching, Jesus expanded the traditional understanding about these rules. Don’t pat yourself on the back just because you didn’t murder someone today. If you harbor hatred in your heart toward someone, you have already sinned. Even if you never do murder them, the fact that you have wished them ill, is a spiritual death. How about adultery? I know of one marriage that nearly ended because the husband developed an on-line relationship with a woman. He’d never met her but regularly exchanged intimate messages with her. He argued that it wasn’t adultery when his wife discovered this “other woman.” He had to come to terms with the fact that he had been untrue to his wife in his heart. So he either had to repent and end the on-line tryst or sacrifice his marriage. What appears to be ten black and white rules need interpretation and the Jews of Jesus’ day had 613 laws they needed to obey.
So, when the Pharisee asks what law is most important of all the commandments, Jesus is stepping into a minefield. As we read through this conversation we understand that this man is genuinely interested in Jesus’ answer. He is impressed with Jesus’ spiritual intellect and wants to learn from Him. His colleagues are satisfied with check-mark religion. This allows you to give yourself a good report card at the end of each day if you manage to follow the letter of the law. But this Pharisee understands the intent behind the rules God delivered through Moses.
Jesus’ answer has to do with love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. To the Old Testament wording, Jesus added the “mind.” We are, whether we think of it or not, theologians. We are students of God. Whatever we believe about who God is, what it means to follow Jesus, how we discern the will and presence of the Holy Spirit, this is part of our theology. Jesus affirms that we use our mind with just as much importance as our heart, strength and even our soul! We need to be good theologians which means we must know in whom we believe.
We must also love our neighbor. We start with a love for God and then turn to our responsibility to deeply care for our neighbor. In Luke’s gospel Jesus makes it clear WHO the neighbor is by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. It had the same shock value for His contemporaries as if I extolled the virtues of a good Islamist Iraqi in my preaching. Jesus’ parable would have felt like a punch in the gut because He changed the rules on who was an outcast. An admirable Samaritan?? Never! So Jesus sums up all the laws that weighed down His people with a directive to love God with our whole being. Paul wrote about this in his letter to the Corinthians: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is love.”
The Pharisee understands how beautifully Jesus has answered and commends Him for His wisdom. The Pharisee is a Jerusalem insider but is open to God’s leading. His theology is not buttoned down and closed off. He is teachable! He knows that a simple checklist at the end of the day doesn’t add up to our spiritual report card. When this leader acknowledges that love for God and neighbor is more important than any other religious act, Jesus commends him with a high compliment: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Amidst jealous and murderous plotting, one man is willing to learn from Jesus. They have an open conversation in which there is a give-and-take of deeply-held beliefs. They affirm the Jewish traditions which urge the community to care for the most vulnerable members of society. Their conversation underscores that the Good News Jesus preached doesn’t coerce or mandate love. It evokes worship of God and a willing obedience to a holy way of life. Love covers all the other obligations we accept as followers of Jesus Christ.
What comes with that love is sacrifice. Any of us who have children understand that love calls forth sacrifice. Anyone who has stood at the altar and made vows of faithfulness to a spouse understands that this commitment to love for a lifetime requires sacrifice. Holy Week includes the cross and resurrection. The cross completes the story about love. A love that is not willing to sacrifice for another is not love. Some of us understand, because of who lives next door to us, that loving our neighbor does not necessarily come naturally. We may be irritated that the guy next door only mows his lawn once a month. I know people who were reprimanded by neighbors in their condo association for leaving the trash can on the curb for more than 24 hours. So if little things like this can set us off and dominate our dinner table conversation, how do we negotiate differences in religious convictions or political persuasion?
On Easter Sunday the life of Christian discipleship was clearly defined by the bombing of joyful churches celebrating the resurrection. It was the cross the Sri Lanka Christians encountered instead. Rather than a willingness to engage in open dialogue about differences, the Islamic terrorists defiantly sought revenge. It feels like our world has ramped up such a violent game of hatred as if someone can keep track of the score. In a conversation with a Pharisee, Jesus sets up a safe space for the two men to talk about their most cherished beliefs. They come to a shared perspective, reminding us that the maturity of any congregation is measured by their ability to embrace diversity and talk openly about differences. This is continually a difficult lesson for us but it’s crucial for us—for our world—that we re-dedicate ourselves to getting it right!