Rev. Stacy Swain
Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Mark 12:28-34
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer, Amen.”
Have you ever known what it is to love someone wholly and completely, with every ounce of your being? Have you ever loved someone so much that there was no place that you would rather be than simply in the presence of the one you cherish?
Well if you haven’t, now is your chance.
For the Scripture teaching from Deuteronomy and from the Book of Mark asks, no stronger than that – commands — us to love God wholly and completely, with every ounce of our being. To get to that point where there is no place we would rather be than in the presence of the God we cherish.
Listen again to these words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
For more than two thousand years this resounding and powerful commandment to love has stood at the heart of the Jewish faith. It is recited two times a day by observant Jews. It is one of the passages encased in the small boxes on the doorposts of Jewish homes. And it is the commandment Jesus speaks when asked by one of the Scribes who came near and asked him “which commandment is first of all.”
To love God with our entire being may be the most important thing we are to do, the number one commandment, above and beyond all other, but unfortunately, at least for me it is also the hardest one to keep. I and perhaps many of you too, find it terribly challenging to love God in this whole and complete way. It is much easier for me to tinker around the edges by trying to conform my living to the Ten Commandments for example, much easier for me to “not take the name of the Lord in vain” and to not steal, than it is to turn my whole self over to God in love.
For one cannot just decide one day to love. I can tell myself OK today you are going to keep Sabbath, that means no email, and then try to keep to it. But this kind of all encompassing, whole being love is not something that you just decide to do one day. Instead it is born out of and nurtured by relationship – of really getting to know the other in an open hearted embrace of give and take. And the complication for most of us is that we don’t really know who God is anyway. I mean how can we love God if we don’t really know God?
I am not going to ask you to raise your hand but I bet for a lot of us it can feel like God is rather distant, unavailable, off doing whatever it is that God does. Maybe there are some who are off walking with God in the land flowing with milk and honey, loving God with their whole selves; but the rest of us I think are trudging along east of Eden, trying to clean up the debris of the latest storm in our lives, stumbling along without power – groping along without light.
And when we look out over that distance between where we are and where ever it is that we think God may have wandered off to, as we try to make sense between this distance and this disparity between the reality around us and the promise milk and honey living that was spoken of in the passage from Deuteronomy, well I think we cannot help but try to come up with an explanation for it all. Why is life so hard? Why are we sick, struggling, afraid? Why is there so much destruction and violence and loss? Where in the world is God and what in the world is God doing? Where’s the milk and honey?
Well there are a few ways that people have answered those questions over the millennia. Here are three that we hear a lot.
One explanation is that we live in a fallen world. Sin entered the world in that apple biting moment in the Garden of Eden and we have been living with suffering ever sense. It is just the way things are. The good news, according to this line of thinking, is that despite the fact that we live in a fallen world and are a fallen people, through Jesus we are reconciled to God and will upon our death be delivered into the joy of eternal life. Milk and honey one day will indeed be ours but it will be milk and honey of another world not of this one.
Another explanation for that I have not heard in the wake of Sandy, but that I did hear quite vociferously in the wake of the Tsunami that hit Japan was that the destruction and strife around us well that actually is evidence of the active hand of God. God uses disaster and hardship as punishment for our transgressions. We are “sinner in the hands of an angry God,” to borrow a famous sermon title from one of our Puritan forefathers, Jonathan Edwards, “sinners in the hands of an angry God” who is using weather and whatever else may come along to test us or to teach us a lesson. Milk and honey will come when we are good enough to deserve it.
And then there is always this explanation: that there really isn’t a God, and promise of milk and honey living, well it’s nothing more than a good story. After all if there really were an all powerful and all loving God out there, the world would not look this way. Isn’t the presence suffering evidence of the absence of God? Perhaps you have even heard the whisper of it in your own heart?
These are some explanations, some theological constructions that are out there as we try to make sense of the distance between our reality and the promise of God: is life merely a stepping stone to the true reward which is heaven; or the hardship we face is deserved and good things will come when we are good enough to merit them, or actually there is no God the state of the world is proof positive of that.
There are many more ways of thinking about all this, and it would be interesting to take this up in our time together at Starbucks on Wednesday morning for “Conversations along the way.” I don’t know about you but for me, all of these explanations leave me cold. Honestly how can I give myself in love to a God who is up in heaven seemingly indifferent to how hard it is for us down here? And how can I give myself in love to a God who would use suffering as a teaching tool? And somehow I cannot bring myself to think that there is no God, that all those who have witnessed to the existence of God throughout the ages including Jesus himself were wrong.
Fortunately, there is a current in contemporary Christian theology that is finding another way to think about all of this. In fact this current in Christian theology, the emerging church as it is sometimes referred to ,turns out to be not something new. It’s new only in the sense that we somehow drifted away from it and are rediscovering it again. Returning as it were to our roots. For this way of thinking about where God is and what God is doing has everything to do with returning to the example of Jesus. If we want to know where God is and what God is doing, if we want to try to understand God’s promise of milk and honey living in light of the reality around us, perhaps all we have to do is look at Jesus, the one we call Emanuel, God with us. Through Jesus, something of God is revealed.
And where is Jesus? What is he doing? Well, Jesus is not distant and indifferent. Jesus is not harsh and punishing. Instead Jesus looks out over the lives of the people around him and is moved with compassion. He does not wait for people to come to him or wait until people are worthy of being in his presence. Instead he straps on his sandels and picks up his staff and goes out into the lives of the people. Into the alleys, fields, shore lines and great cities. He goes smack dab into the places of pain and suffering to touch and heal, preach and teach. He feeds and comforts. He stills the raging storm and calls forth life in places that have gone dead. Why? So that the people can know of the God who sent him.
So as we face the storm of our days where is God? What in the world could God be doing? Maybe God is a work in and through the lives of those who love God. Maybe God is at work in the rabbi who opened the temple in Stamford, CT when the surrounding community had no power but the temple did. Maybe God was at work in that congregation as they baked good hearty food for those that came in to recharge their phones, computers, came in to be recharged at bit themselves, to partake of some milk and honey healing.
And maybe God is at work in and through Malala as she said no to oppression and yes to fullness of life for girls in Pakistan. And maybe God is at work in and through those physicians who now labor to help her recover from that hate filled gun-shot wound to her head.
And maybe when the storms of our lives shake us to the core and we are stumbling in the dark, feeling powerless, God is right there with us through it all.
I cannot know a God that is far away. And I am not sure I want to know a God that is indifferent or angry. But God that out of love for the world took on flesh and walked among us so that we would know fullness of living even in the midst of, perhaps especially in the midst of the hardship we face.
Well — that’s a God I’m interested in. That’s a God I’d like to know. That’s a God I could even love with my whole being. What about you?