Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mutual Obedience: Listening to Love


Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost:  Matthew 22:34-46

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

            I’ve never been sure just what the test was.  There was only one answer Jesus could have given, only one thing he would have said.  He said what, as a Jewish man, was on his lips at least twice a day.  Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (JPS translation).

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.

            It was and is called the Shema, from the first word in Hebrew translated “hear” or “listen.”  Over the centuries it became the beating heart of Judaism.  It is what is written on a tiny scroll inside the mezuzah on Jewish doorways and in the tefillin, boxes held in the hand and worn on the forehead during morning and evening prayers.  If Jews have anything like a creed, this is it.

            There is nothing else Jesus could have said.  It was as natural to him as breathing.  Perhaps the lawyer was testing to see how far Jesus would stray from the tradition.  He did not stray an inch, well, maybe an inch, because he did two things to the Shema.

            First of all he changed a word.  Deuteronomy 6:5 says that you shall love God with all your heart, soul, and might.  Jesus says

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.

            Scholars do not seem to make a big deal about this change.  I think it’s huge.  Love God with your mind!  What a concept. God does not want me to turn off my brain in order to love him, God wants me to turn it on.

            And then Jesus does another thing.  He couples the Shema with something that had never (so far as we know) been coupled with it before.  He said,

And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

            That is Leviticus 19:18.  Jesus equates the two, and in doing so, turns the worship of the One God on its head.  You cannot be said to love God without loving your neighbor.  Justice and spirituality are inseparably linked by Jesus here.  Many of his followers, right up to this day, have sought to tear them back apart.

            But Jesus said, “Be devoted to God and be devoted to your neighbor.”  Everything else has to be understood in the light of this double love.

            But what does it mean?  What does it mean to love God? What does it mean to love neighbor?  The Benedictine monastic tradition has an answer that reaches back to the beginning of the Shema.  Shema!” “Hear!” “Listen!”

            The Rule of St. Benedict in fact begins with this word.

Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them the ear of your heart.[1]

That’s a lovely metaphor, “the ear of your heart.”  Benedict goes on

This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to God…

            Obedience is not our favorite word, but it is, perhaps, the fundamental vow of monastics.  For us, “obedience” tends to mean doing what you are told, and we do not always like to be told what to do.  I include myself in that we, ask any bishop I have served with.

            But to monastics, “obedience” means something different.  Obedience is fundamentally the commitment to listen.  And that is literally what the word means.  The root Latin word of the English word “obey” is “audire,” to hear, or to listen.

            For monastics this obedience is due not only to whomever is in authority over them, it is also due one another.  Benedict writes in chapter 71 of his rule:

Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the prioress or the abbot, but also to one another, since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God.[2]

Benedict entitles this chapter “mutual obedience.”

            I have found over twenty-one years of preparing couples for marriage that the most important skill I need to check on and help with is listening.  Virtually all of these couples thought as they were preparing for “the big day” that their love would last for ever.  It will not, I tell them, if you do not very intentionally listen to each other.

            Listening, as Benedict and Jesus have shown us, is a fundamental building block of love, which is what I think Benedict would say mutual obedience is.  Mutual obedience is love.

            We are entering a few weeks of listening, and I hope that in doing so, our love for one another will increase.  Members of the Vestry are visiting members of the parish.  Their primary purpose is to listen. They will have questions, but ultimately even they are not all that important.  They are there to listen.

            Now all of us have trouble listening, especially in this day and age when we are surrounded by noise and stimulation and hurrying.  To listen you have to be quiet, you have to be focused, and you have to be patient.  All these Vestry members will not get listening right all the time.  Feel free gently to coax them back on the path.

            We are also entering a conversation about worship. There will be sessions next weekend and again on November 13.  We are going to exercise the discipline of listening in those sessions.  We are going to practice what Benedict calls mutual obedience.

            It may very well be that both in the Vestry visits and our Worship Conversations, that some hard things will need to be said.  That’s perfectly fine.  We cannot claim that we have re-established Eden here at 17 South Fitzhugh Street.  But as there is an obedience in listening there is also an obedience in telling.  We must remember that we are speaking to the ear of someone’s heart.  I can disagree with something that is going on. I can even be downright unhappy about.  But I need to voice that disagreement in a way that can be heard, which means I don’t get to set aside compassion just because I am unhappy.

            Here's the starting point:  We all love God. We have different ways of expressing it, although our common way is this Eucharist.  I believe we all love this community as well, and want what is best for it.  Let us over the next month listen to one another, let us be mutually obedient to one another, let us love one another, as we are loved by our good God.


[1] From the translation of Sister Joan Chittester, O.S.B. in The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages (Crossroad, 1992), p. 19.
[2] Ibid., p. 176.

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