Proper 10, Year C, 2007

What is the answer to the meaning of life? 

Throughout the centuries, philosophers have debated this question.  Perhaps Douglas Adams says it best, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when he tells us the answer is. . . 42.  In this comedic, satirical piece of science fiction, a group of travelers go on a long adventure after the earth is destroyed. Along the way, after a fearsome journey, the travelers ask a sage what the answer to life, the universe and everything is.  The sage tells them, “42” and when they complain he says what they really should have asked is what the question is.  The never do find a satisfying answer.

Adams reminds us that the meaning of life is not something that can be condensed into a sentence or even a paragraph, though many have tried.

One of the many who has tried to pin down an answer to the meaning of life is a young lawyer in Jesus’ time.  This particular lawyer wanted to see how Jesus would respond to another phrasing of the meaning of life question.  That is, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  For that’s really it, isn’t it?  When we ask about the meaning of life, we’re asking about our own mortality.  We’re asking what is the point of giving of ourselves, if we’re all just going to die anyway?  We’re wondering if there is anything after this?

Jesus must have interacted with lawyers before this one, because he simply deflects the question back to the man and asks him, “What is written in the law?”  The lawyer replies with the Schema from the Hebrew Scriptures which is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus then affirms that this is the way to live.

But what doesn’t Jesus say?  Jesus does not say, “This is what you do to get into heaven.”  Jesus does not say, “This is what you do so that God won’t get mad at you.”  Jesus tells the man that loving God and loving neighbor is the way to live. 

What a profound statement.  Jesus answers the man, but in doing so, demonstrates that the man’s motivations are all wrong.  God does not want us worrying about what might happen, but what is happening right now.  Loving God and loving our neighbor will lead us to glimpses of understanding the meaning of life.  When we are in relationship with God and reach out to our neighbors, we get a glimpse of eternal life.  Wow. Deep. 

And Jesus wasn’t kidding.  According to this week’s Christian Century, Bruce Greyson, a psychiatrist right here at UVA has done loads of research with those who have had near death experiences.  In his research he has found nearly every person who has survived these experiences comes back, and changes their life to suit the “Golden Rule”, because through their experience they have come to understand that the Golden Rule is like gravity-it’s just how the universe works.

The Shema is not just a set of instructions, like, “Be nice to your brother!” The Shema is a description about the state of humanity, and our relationship with God and each other.  We become our deepest, best selves when we are in relationship with the divine.  We become our most compassionate and wise when we connect with the people around us.  When we follow the schema we truly live

So, does the lawyer run home and journal about this profound insight? 

Nah, instead he asks, “So, um, who exactly is my neighbor?”

The lawyer just doesn’t quite get it, does he?  Perhaps not all of his neighbors were the borrowing-a-cup-of-sugar, having-cookouts-on-the-fourth-of-July kind of neighbors.  Maybe some of his neighbors drove their sports cars too quickly through the neighborhood while their music blared.  Maybe these same neighbors let their kids set off firecrackers every night the week of July 4th.  Maybe these neighbors let their dog run around and poop anywhere it pleased.  (These are just hypothetical neighbors, of course.  They don’t live in my neighborhood.)

In any case, the lawyer wants Jesus to define the word neighbor.  And Jesus, being Jesus does not say, “Well, lawyer, a neighbor is anyone living in a half mile radius of you.  However, if one stretches the definition of a neighbor to include people with whom you engage on a daily basis, neighbors also include parents of your children’s friends, members of the country club, co-workers, and those of the same political party.”

I think this definition would have greatly pleased the lawyer.  However, Jesus much prefers telling a story than telling you an answer straight. So, he tells the lawyer the story of the Good Samaritan. 

We all know the story.  A guy was traveling from Richmond to Charlottesville and got beat up by those guys in white t-shirts we’ve been reading about in the newspaper.  They beat him up really badly and leave him for dead.  Three people pass the poor guy. The first person is me, a priest, but I’m on my way to a really important pastoral call and just don’t have time to deal with it, so keep walking.  Secondly, one of Jerry Falwell’s assistants sees the guy, but he’s busy going to make a speech about how great Falwell was, so he keeps going, too.  Finally, Paris Hilton is in town for some reason.  Instead of ignoring the poor guy, she actually stops, takes him to the Omni, calls Martha Jefferson Hospital to get a doctor to come over, and makes sure the Omni will let him stay as long as he needs to recover. 

Seriously?  Paris Hilton?  She of the DUI, suspended license, jail time, all night partying, “special” videotapes, and boyfriend stealing?  Yep, it was Paris who ultimately had more compassion and more guts to help the poor guy than any of the religious figures that walked by and ignored him.  In this story, Paris is the true neighbor, defying all expectations and social norms. 

When he hears this story, the lawyer realizes that this whole question of “Who is my neighbor?” is far broader than he realized-the idea of neighbor is not just the people in your circle-but everyone from the most down and out beat up guy on the sidewalk, to the person who runs around in circles for whom you have nothing but derision and disrespect.

This is inconvenient for the lawyer. This truth is inconvenient for us!  To truly live the Schema, to truly have the depth of human and divine experience, to live as we are meant to live, we are intended to be in relationship with all kinds of people, all kinds of neighbors-even if we would never choose to live next door to them.

For in the end, we are all beings created in the image of God, no matter our station in life.  In the end, the invitation to love God with our totality, with our whole being, is open to all of us. 

For to live, to really live, is not living for the future or regretting the past, but living in the fullness of God’s love here and now.


Proper 25, Year A, 2005

Have you ever been in love?

I don’t mean the kind of sensible love of matched personalities and long marriages. I mean the can’t-catch-your-breath adolescent love of terrible poetry and teenage heartbreak.  When you’re in this be-still-my-beating-heart kind of love, your mind can think of nothing else.  It doesn’t matter if the object of your love is entirely inappropriate or unattainable, your devotion is complete. 

When I was in early high school, back when a text message was the newspaper, my girlfriends and I would write long notes to each other in intricate code describing every detail of the interaction we had with the boy we had code named “Samoa” or “River”.  Passing these notes was risky, but there was always the thrilling potential for the object of our love to actually intercept a note, decipher our code even the NSA couldn’t crack, and admit he returned our passion. 

Now, some were slightly more developed romantically than I was at fifteen, and actually had relationships in which both parties felt this love.  These lucky couples expressed their love through scrawling their initials on desks, or writing graffiti in the bathroom, or the most romantic of all, carving their initials in a tree in a local park.

When you’re in love, you want the world to know. 

When the Pharisees asked Jesus his opinion of the greatest commandment, they were hoping to paint him into a legal corner.  You see, if he chose ONE of the 619 religious laws on the books, it would mean he was degrading the rest of the laws.  Well, instead of choosing one of these laws, Jesus sings the Pharisees a love song.

Well, not exactly a love song.  You see, what Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” he is quoting part of the Schema, a sung Hebrew prayer.  Waaaaay back in Jewish history, when God and Moses spent a lot of time talking, Moses told the Jewish people that God told him to tell the Israelites, “The Lord your God is one God.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.”  Moses went on to tell the Israelites they should keep this commandment on their doorposts.  He might have been using a metaphor, but we religious folks can be pretty literal, and so even today in many Jewish homes, you find a Mezuzah on the door frame, a small box or tube that contains the text of the Schema–this prayer.  Think of it as a form of carving initials in a tree trunk—Lord God hearts human kind.

The relationship between the Israelites and God may seem like a strange love affair since God tells the Israelites they should love him with all their heart.  In my experience, I find it rarely works to tell someone, “Love me!  Choose me!”  However, when God passes on this commandment, he does it during a special time in Israel’s history.

The Israelites have recently been liberated from Egypt and are wandering around in the wilderness, waiting to get to the Promised Land.  For most of the trip, they’ve been pretty grumpy, not at all sure they really wanted to be liberated in the first place.  They are fairly disorganized and not sure how to behave.

God will soon give them a LONG list of rules to help them organize themselves, but first he wants to remind them of who he is and what their relationship will be like.  Just like a new lover, eager to be known, God self-discloses, describes to the Israelites what he is like.

Our Lord is ONE God, not a confusing mass of petty Gods.  He is a God who reaches out to us.  He does not make us guess which of his manifestations he will be today.  We take this for granted, after four thousand years of worshiping one God, but imagine what it must have been like to worship a pantheon of smaller gods who fought with each other for power, for pride.  You would never be safe, never comfortable.  In that kind of system, you have to offer gods constant sacrifice, constant manipulation.  By declaring himself one God, our Lord let us know he was straightforward, trustworthy.

When God tells the Israelites that they should love the Lord their God, he is not being a bully.  God is telling the Israelites good news—the relationship between God and people is based on love, not on what humans can do to appease the gods.  All the other commandments and laws are really a subset of this one.

Jesus takes this a step further and adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  The Love between God and people leads naturally to love between people. 

Let me give you an illustration of this phenomenon.  Next weekend, I have the honor of performing the marriage ceremony for two people whose lives completely exemplify this principle. 

They love God and have this very sweet, holistic, supportive love for each other, but their love does not stop there.  Because of this amazing energy and goodness that flows between them, they have ended up as the emotional center of their group of friends.  They bring chicken and biscuits to friends who are sick, take late night phone calls from friends in distress, and their dining room table is the center for many an abundant celebration of love and friendship.

This couple understands that love, even romantic love, is not something to be hoarded and parceled out carefully.  Love is designed to push ourselves beyond our natural borders, to reach out to those around us—to hear their stories, celebrate life’s joys and mourn life’s tragedies with them. 

As Christians, we don’t have the tradition of the Mezuzah to proclaim our love for God.  Instead Jesus asks us to show our love for God, by loving our neighbor.  Loving one another is our way of carving our initials in a tree.  People of Emmanuel heart God.