Loving God and Your Neighbor
A Reflection for the Wilderness - by James Wall
The 24th Sunday After Pentecost • Year A
26 October 2008
Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18 • Psalm 1 • Matthew 22:34-46
A young physician in Japan named Kusuda met a college friend who had been studying Zen. The young doctor asked him what Zen was.
"I cannot tell you what it is," the friend replied, "but one thing is certain. If you understand Zen, you will not be afraid to die."
"That's fine," said Kusuda. "I will try it. Where can I find a teacher?"
"Go to the master Nan-in," the friend told him.
So Kusuda went to call on Nan-in. He carried a dagger nine and a half inches long to determine whether or not the teacher was afraid to die.
When Nan-in saw Kusuda he exclaimed: "Hello, friend. How are you? We haven't seen each other for a long time!"
This perplexed Kusuda, who replied: "We have never met before."
"That's right," answered Nan-in. "I mistook you for another physician who is receiving instruction here."
With such a beginning, Kusuda lost his chance to test the master, so reluctantly he asked if he might receive Zen instruction.
Nan-in said: "Zen is not a difficult task. If you are a physician, treat your patients with kindness. That is Zen."
Kusuda visited Nan-in three times. Each time Nan-in told him the same thing. "A physician should not waste time around here. Go home and take care of your patients."
It is said that Saint John the Evangelist, the patron saint of this cathedral taught only one sermon: “Love one another.” Of course, many priests when citing this legend on Sunday make joke of it – wouldn’t that be great every Sunday if I got up and said to the congregation: “love one another!” and then got on with the rest of the service.
But my thought is this: perhaps we might actually get it after 100, maybe 1,000 sermons. Probably not.
It’s so simple: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments the whole of the way of life known as Torah, hang.
Saint John got it – and communicated it with Zen-like simplicity every time his community met. Love one another.
But did the rest of the Jesus movement get it? Saint Paul seemed to. His great hymn to love is probably the most moving in any language: let me read it for you as most of you will not have heard outside of the context of a wedding service:
1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8Love never fails.
Do you get it now? Love one another.
But I always find that it’s the “how to” that’s the most difficult part. How the heck do we love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, let alone loving our neighbor?
Let me start off with another story from the east.
A young man came to a great yogi with a question: how do I find God. The yogi told him to sit, banish all thoughts from his mind and follow his breath. After two days of so doing the man came back to the yogi.
“Surely finding God is more interesting than my breath,” said the man. Can’t you give me a more interesting exercise?”
The yogi told the man to follow him and they walked down to the sea into the crashing waves of the Indian ocean. The yogi suddenly seized the man and held him under water holding him there for a full minute until the man was almost unconscious.
Pulling the terrified man back up out of the water, the yogi screamed: “how interesting is your breath now? If you seek for God as much as you craved your breath under the water, you will find him. If you realize that the very breath you breathe is a miracle, you will know him.”
How much do you yearn for God? How much do you appreciate that our very life is a miracle – that every step we take on this earth is a gift of God’s to be nurtured and thankful for? If we can come to a realization that life is not to be taken for granted – that every moment is infused with divine love: then we come close to loving God with all our heart, mind soul and strength.
The Buddhists call this mindfulness and it takes practice. One weakness, I think of orthodox Christianity is that we think that God is the one who takes all the initiative in the spiritual life – we pray for God to take care of this problem and that issue. But really, we have to meet Him halfway. If we take time every day to sit and be still in God’s presence, perhaps following our breath, perhaps reciting a short prayer to ourselves, we will slowly come to a realization of His presence in every moment in every day. God is, according to theologian Paul Tillich, the very ground of our being. It is in coming to realize this in our bones that we are able to begin the process of loving Him.
The late Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton insisted that we must awaken to the sacred in the ordinary. In his words: “Life is this simple: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the Divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable. It is truth.”
In our community we have a mindfulness exercise that Jesus left us. It is such a great exercise in paying attention that the early church raised this exercise to the status of a sacrament. It is of course, the Eucharist – the taking of the bread and wine to commemorate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Of course most Christians, Anglican or otherwise don’t see it this way. Every Sunday, millions in America and others around the world trapes up to the altar to receive a tiny host and a sip of wine while mulling the current status of the World Series or, perhaps, the inappropriate skirt length of the woman in front of them in the line. Is this the appropriate way to receive the Son of God?
In my last two homilies I‘ve asked you to take your shoes off and bow as you move forward to receive communion. Please feel free to do so again if this practice will enable you to become more aware as you receive the bread and the wine.
As you take the bread and wine, do not try to feel anything. Many of us, I think, try to feel holy or something similar as we eat and drink the elements. Instead, be aware and awake. When you take the bread, slowly place it in your mouth. Feel the texture and taste the taste. When you take the cup, know that you are taking the cup. Raise it to your lips slowly and appreciate the strong taste of the wine.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Jean Pierre de Caussade, a French priest of the 18th century:
“The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. The more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, the more it finds. The will of God is manifest in each moment, an immense ocean which only the heart fathoms insofar as it overflows with faith, trust and love.”