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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


You are not far from the Kingdom of God

You are not far from the Kingdom of God

Integrity Central Ohio

The Feast of St. Aelred of Rievaulx

January 12, 2007

 

By Bruce Garner

 

Philippians 2: 1-4

Mark 12: 28-34a (or John 15: 9-17)

 

“You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

 

“You are not far from the kingdom of God” is Jesus’ response to the scribe who said to Jesus that loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself was more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.  The scribe had, earlier in the conversation, asked Jesus which commandment is first of all.  Jesus’ response is likely to be burnt into the brains of any of us who have been Episcopalians most of our lives – we heard it regularly in worship:  “Hear o Israel:  the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no other commandment greater than these.

As I read over this lesson in preparation to speak to you tonight, I could not get the phrase “you are not far from the kingdom of God” out of my head.  What is it that makes us to be “not far from the kingdom of God?”  It is the very same realization of the scribe who made it clear that burnt offerings and sacrifices were not important, nor were they the issue.

Loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is what is important…as Jesus clearly notes….and it is in those acts that we find our selves not far from the kingdom of God. 

There is an incredible simplicity to these two commandments.  But we don’t seem to want things simple….do we?  We want to complicate it all.  Some want to put conditions on who it is that we are to love.  Some conveniently forget that we are to love God with our MINDS as well as with all the rest of our being.  We just can’t deal with the utter simplicity of what is asked of us.  And then there are some who don’t love themselves very well and have no frame of reference for loving others.  Can we relate to all of this?  I’m guessing we relate to it more than we might be willing to admit.

Loving God is probably the easiest portion of the commandment for us to fathom and embrace.  We’ve probably been taught to love God all of our lives. 

We are called upon to put our faith and trust in God and in the belief that all will be well….at least within the time frame God allots….which may not always our own time frame.   I also suspect we can wrap our heads around loving God with our hearts and beings….it may be second nature to us based on what we have been taught since youth.   And we may still be able to love God despite the negative images of a patriarchal white male God figure that is sometimes less than comforting to us.

Now comes along the part about loving God with our minds.  It was the very fact that I was told to love God with my mind that brought me into the Episcopal Church over 41 years ago. 

And loving God with my mind means what?  How does one love God with one’s mind?  Isn’t all of this love business supposed to be from the heart rather than the head?  Aren’t we to engage our emotions when we love God?  Loving with our minds might imply reasoned thought and analytical processes rather than emotions. 

My college degree is in biology and my college career was firmly rooted in the sciences.  Perhaps in some ways, that makes it easier for me to embrace the concept of loving God with my mind.  I’m accustomed to reasoned thought and asking questions, seeking out the why’s and the wherefore’s.  For me even Bible study is an exercise in scientific method…although firmly grounded in prayer as well. 

I am a strong believer in the concept that God gave us brains for a reason:  to use them in the worship of God and to use them in the restoration of all creation to right relationship with God…however that might play out. 

It also seems quite reasonable that God endowed us with brains for the purpose of using them.  Otherwise, why not stop creation with the lower primates?  I feel absolutely certain that the chimps and monkeys give God far fewer headaches than those standing on the human rung of the primate ladder. 

Creation is a miracle to me.  So what would be miraculous about providing minds that would not be used?  If all decisions were made for us, wouldn’t we be little more than puppets under the control of a master puppeteer?  Where is the miracle in that?  I do not see one in such a scenario.

I look around at some of the issues with which we are dealing in the Episcopal Church  - not unlike the issues of other faith communities – and have to wonder about the numbers of folks who never engage their minds at all in the worship or love of God. 

The flip side of that is the concern I have for those in leadership roles who use their minds to manipulate others not to think for themselves at all.  Perhaps that appeals to those who want their lives and the world laid out in neat and tidy patterns where someone makes it clear what is right and what is wrong and provides nice pat answers that are intended to satisfy those whose minds are not engaged much beyond parroting back that which they hear.

I don’t seem to have a life that fits into neat and tidy patterns.  I don’t seem to ever have issues or questions for which pat answers are sufficient.  I suspect that few of us have lives so simple.  Part of the miracle for me is struggling through prayer and study to engage God and each other in search of answers to questions and solutions to problems. 

None of us has all the answers.  But together we discern as much of the truth as we are likely to know this side of paradise.

Love God with your mind.  Maintain your faith.  Ground things in the emotions of love.  But love God with your mind….honor God through the gift God has given in the human mind.

 The second of these two commandments is vexing to many because it sets no boundaries….it offers no conditions…it doesn’t give any exceptions…it doesn’t give any of us an “out” to qualify who our neighbor might be.  We are not given any room for excuses.  We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves…period…end of discussion…just do it and don’t argue.  But argue we do!

Well now I’m not sure that person is really my neighbor and I’m not sure I really have to love them because……and you fill in the blank with any and all exceptions that might crowd into your mind.  Just remember that the exceptions are of our own creation…they are not in the commandment.  As lesbians and gays and bisexuals and transgendereds and as simply those who are just seeking – despite the fact that we might want to NOT love certain folks – we don’t get that option. 

It matters not how nasty and mean someone is to us or how discriminatory their behaviour is towards us or how much pain they cause us…we don’t get to exempt them from either our love or the love of God. 

I will be the first to admit to you that there are those whose necks I would cheerfully grasp with my hands and squeeze until they turned blue…given such an opportunity.  But that is wrong thinking on my part and I do not have the power to not love them as I love myself…like it or not they are my neighbor. 

Instead of strangling them or calling them some less than charitable name, I have adopted the habit of referring to them as “that precious child of God” instead of referring to them in what may actually be a much more accurately descriptive term of how I feel.  You know, I’ve found that my little tactic begins to work.  I begin to see those I might despise the most as the neighbor I am commanded to love.  And it is in that transformation that I can begin to glimpse some of the kingdom of God from which I should strive not to stray too far. 

I will not stand here and lie to you and say that I don’t have uncharitable thoughts about the archbishop of Nigeria or about some prominent national politicians or some well known misguided evangelists. 

But I will stand here and tell you that by remembering that I must love them as my neighbor in the way I love myself, I can begin to build bridges of reconciliation and understanding between us.  It would be so much easier to just dismiss them….have I been granted the right to dismiss any child of God?  No….even when they seek to dismiss me!

Remember that Jesus was also asked to define neighbor.  That request was not made in innocence.  The intent behind it was to find a way to exclude some from the definition of neighbor.  And why do that?  Well it gives an excuse for not loving someone because of some humanly inspired exception.  We all know the story Jesus used to define neighbor.  It was the outcast, the foreigner, the lowlife Samaritan who understood what neighbor really meant.  The learned teachers and practitioners of the Torah missed the point and ignored the man in need.  The Samaritan lived out the commandment when others failed. 

The last line of our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians follows the same course when it admonishes us to look not to our own interests but to the interests of others.  In doing so, we love our neighbor.  Even Paul doesn’t put any qualifiers or exceptions in his instructions.  Please understand that I’m talking about love here.  I’m not saying we have like our neighbors!  I haven’t read much about that in Scripture.  I suspect that some of us have blood kin we don’t like….but we still love them.

Having spent all of this time emphasizing the lack of qualifications on who is defined as our neighbor, I must now admit to the existence of one very important qualifier, namely the qualification that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. 

Do we have any experience in loving ourselves?  Do we indeed really love ourselves?  For some that probably comes easily. 

But for those who have been told time and time again that they are flawed or broken or incomplete or unworthy or an abomination or unrepentant sinners, that is not always an easy task.  When we hear negative messages about ourselves for so long, we often start to take them into our psyche and begin to believe them.  All of the junk we are told begins to take a toll on our self image, on who we actually think we are, on our ability to even find ourselves worthy of love.

If we indeed do love ourselves, should we not also love ourselves the way God created us?  Should we not love the self we find regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or even sexual orientation? 

There is an old gospel hymn that I first encountered attending Southern Baptist churches until my early teen years.  It’s actually in the Episcopal Hymnal as well…number 693.  This hymn may be familiar to some of you…its popular title is “Just as I am.” 

For years after I escaped the theological tyranny of the Southern Baptist Convention I despised that hymn.  It was so often used as a battering ram to coerce worshipers to accept an altar call and make a public profession of faith.  And if not enough people came down the aisle, the pastor had everyone keep singing until he was satisfied.  There were times when it seemed interminable!

Then one day I actually read the words and discovered how very profoundly moving they are.  “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.  And that thou biddst me come to thee…O lamb of God, I come, I come.  “Just as I am thou wilt receive; wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve, because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.  Just as I am thy love unknown has broken every barrier down; now to be thine, yea thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”  I invite you to spend some time with this hymn and its words and seek comfort in the message it brings. 

There are some who think we can only come to God if we repent of who we are.  Yet I am convinced that we can not repent of the way we were created. 

Some will also raise issues about behavior versus orientation, and to that I would note that left handed people were once considered flawed and attempts were made to force them to be right handed, to change them, to convert them.

We are indeed called to repentance…but no more so for our sexual orientation than for our hair, eye or skin color, or any other innate aspect of who we are. 

The repentance to which we are called is aimed at whatever becomes a barrier between us and God and/or between us as children of God.  That which interferes with or impedes right relationship is the sin, not our sexual orientation.  That which interferes with us loving God and loving our neighbor is the sin…not our sexual orientation.

I frequently refer to the vows of our baptismal covenant when I want to illustrate right relationships.  Respecting the dignity of every human being is an aspect of right relationship.  Seeking and serving Christ in all persons is another aspect.  And of course, loving your neighbor as yourself is yet another aspect.  These are worthy attributes of any relationship, whether it be that of friendship or that of a covenanted relationship between two people in love. 

Sin enters the picture whenever we allow those relationships to become exploitive or abusive…whenever we use other people, we violate our vows and exhibit sinful behavior. 

So it seems we have come full circle:  We began with the commandment that we love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  And we arrive at loving ourselves through the eyes of a loving God and letting that reflect our love of that God and our love of neighbor.

The person whose feast we observe tonight, Aelred of Rievaulx, lived and taught the commandments of love.  The other Gospel reading for the Feast of St. Aelred – we were given a choice from two - contains yet another familiar commandment, but one that is infrequently quoted and apparently somewhat conveniently often forgotten.   It comes from the 15th chapter of John’s Gospel:  “This is my commandment:  that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Note again….no exceptions, no qualifications. 

May we strive to live out these commandments.  And may we lovingly challenge those who would try to impose qualifications or conditions on the love we have been commanded to show.   There is no basis for qualifications or conditions.  In a paraphrase of the words of Rabbi Hillel:  Love God, love your neighbor.  This is the Torah.  All else is commentary.   Love God.   Love your neighbor!  Love one another.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love one another.  No exceptions!  

 

Amen

 

 


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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