Mark 12: 28-34
23rd Sunday after Pentecost)
Don’t you love it when things are simple? Albert Einstein once said, “When the answer is simple then God is answering.” Love God, love your neighbour as yourself. It’s simple—in the same way that running a marathon is simply moving your legs quickly for twenty-six miles, in the same way that losing weight involves eating less and exercising more, in the same way that building a successful business means finding customers and selling a product or service. Simple right?
The formulas are simple but often implementing these formulas requires tremendous effort on our part to learn new behaviours and disciplines. Sometimes we need to identify the roadblocks or obstacles within ourselves that are getting in the way—beliefs that are self-defeating, perfectionism, assumptions that are wrong or any number of things. What do you think gets in the way of living into that simple Christian formula to love God and love neighbor? What’s your experience?
Love calls for different responses in different situations. Sometimes it’s easier, such as when our hearts are moved by a tragedy and we contribute money or when we give a grieving friend a hug, and even those can take us out of our comfort zones. But how do you love your cranky, hormonal teenager? How do you love your intolerable parent? How do you love your ex-spouse? How do you love your overbearing supervisor? How do you love someone whose values are so different from your own? How do you love someone who has betrayed you? How do you love the addicted person who steals and manipulates to support their habit?
I want to share something with you that gave me a new insight into this simple yet challenging scripture. Sometimes it’s instructive to go back to one of the original languages of scripture. I looked up the word that is translated from the Greek to the English as ‘love’. It turns out that the Greek word agapaõ includes a couple of elements in its definition and usages that are not associated with our definition and usage of the word ‘love’. Those elements are ‘to welcome and entertain’. In other words, a key element of love is hospitality. I wonder, what is missing from our notions of love that might be enhanced by a sense of hospitality? What does it mean to be hospitable to and to entertain God and neighbour in our lives?
To me what it says is that love involves making space for God and neighbor within ourselves, just like we might welcome someone into our homes. If we think of ourselves as containers full of beliefs, pre-conceived notions, biases, judgements, experiences and fears, it can get pretty crowded in there, we can get pretty full of ourselves. To be hospitable to God, to love God means to move some of those things out of the way and make a little room for Mystery, for the unknown, for possibilities that we can’t yet imagine. Making room begins with the questions ‘what is God/Love calling me to do in this situation?’ ‘What does it mean to love this person/these people in this particular situation?’ Not love in general, not some pre-conceived notion of love we struggle with applying in tough situations, love as sentiment, love as kindness without boundaries or accountability. It’s hard stuff figuring out what love looks like in any particular situation. That’s why those questions are so important, they are a call for help, they are the beginning of the process of letting go of control, of surrendering, of making our soul a hospitable place for God to dwell so that we can entertain the possibilities that God might present to us to love our neighbor.
I want to share with you a story of someone who when asked to love in a difficult situation walked the difficult road of hospitality and the healing it brought about in a very difficult situation. It also demonstrates the importance of community in these situations. In 1994 a man by the name of “Robert” was about to be released from prison. He was there for crimes our society considers to be among the most repugnant. Everyone who knew him dreaded the day of release. Harry Nigh, a Mennonite pastor in Hamilton took a call from a prison psychologist who was working with Robert leading up to his release. Robert had been to Harry’s church in Hamilton, before he was arrested and had identified Harry as a possible community support after release. Harry could scarcely remember Robert. What he did remember made him uncomfortable. Nevertheless, guided by his faith, —tempered with foreboding— Harry gathered some members of his congregation and drove for two hours to the gates of the prison and brought Robert home to Hamilton. They struggled mightily with the question of what it meant to love Robert. Guided by their faith they decided that for a minimum of one year, they would pledge to have daily contact with Robert helping with such basic needs as finding employment and housing, attending medical appointments and shopping. They also undertook to hold him accountable if he showed any signs of slipping into bad habits. The police began to witness something they had never seen before. Robert was becoming part of a small community, and he was being looked after. Indeed, his behaviour was not only being monitored more closely than any police service could achieve; he was also being held to account for himself. And for perhaps the first time in his life, he was making friends—real friends. From this one act—mirroring the “radical hospitality” of the Gospels—sprang what has since become a world-renowned project called Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA). What began in a small church basement among a group of the faithful has grown and been embraced by faith and non-faith groups within and beyond North America. Today there is a CoSA project in every major city in Canada.
It’s so simple, be hospitable to God, ask, “what does it mean to love, this person, these people in this situation?’ Love God and love neighbor, that’s the essence of the religious life. As the religious Scholar in scripture says, “this is far more important than any burnt offering or sacrifice.” It’s not about piety, doing all the right religious things; it’s about love, love lived out. It’s not about doing all the right church things—attending worship, serving on committees or whatever else we might do to establish our connection to the church are only of any value if they lead us to love more, more often, more deeply. If they lead us to welcome God and neighbour into our lives more frequently and more genuinely.
What’s the grace, the gift of living this way? You get a sense of it when Jesus responds to the Religious Scholar, “You are not far from the kingdom or kindom of God.” The promise is to be close to God’s realm, to find that while you have been making room for God, you have actually become God’s guest. In loving God and loving neighbour, you now live where God dwells, a place where love unfolds and manifests itself in ways beyond our wildest imagining. Thanks be for this grace.
Rev. Joe Gaspar