In todays lessons we look at the tension between law and love, in our hebrew heritage, our churches tradition, there is always the ongoing conversation on how seriously we are to take all the commandments, the customs, the way we always do things, in our community, and that way God calls us to live in a world that is always renewed, reformed, recalled in love. How do we balance between commandments and compassion. How do we balance between law and love?
A story: the worst dinner party I ever attended happened around 25 years ago. I was invited by a couple I knew through church to a posh private club for dinner. It was all quite grand: we drove up to the main door where their Cadillac was whisked away by the parking attendant, we were led through marble halls and seated in the main dining room with great ceremony, the menus were huge and handed over with suitable flourishes, there was lots of very french-sounding food: but the conversation was forced, and at one point after a long pause, the wife said, “Aren’t we having fun?” And we weren’t! It was what kids used to call play-acting, The conversation and the company neither reached the ground nor came to life. And we lost touch not long after that.
Now in terms of the law, all the proper actions were there, the liturgy was well laid out but the celebration didn’t go anywhere, it was just dead, there was no life, no love, no enlightening spirit connecting it all together.
Now this is not to disparage good food, good entertainment, a dinner with friends at anytime is a joy forever, but where’s the center of our gathering, what’s the focus of meeting friends, meeting the world, meeting God in daily life, what’s the most important part? In a world moved increasingly by the proper image, the right sound bite, the good appearance, Jesus says just looking good, just doing the right thing, is not enough.
Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock
So it’s not something - anything, you do - it has to be deeper than doing, it has to do with who you are.
Deuteronomy says it is “Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13and to keep the commandments”
Jesus follows that and says, you are to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. On this hang all the laws and commandments. So that’s where we build our house, our hope, our daily lives; but it needs to be buttressed up with other daily habitual moral attitudes and actions, and needs to be enlivened by a hopeful heart and a living faith that is founded and grounded in Christ, the rock of our lives.
So how do we get there from here? How do we get to a place where we can better build the house of faith, the grace of action, the discipline of daily duty and discipleship as we follow and serve Christ in our daily lives? Can we do this in a way that enlivens us, in our ongoing rituals and relationships? How do we keep our hearts and pity fresh, so that our prayers, our pieties, our dinner parties and our Eucharists don’t turn into empty rituals and joyless feasts? How do we help to keep our lives as followers of Jesus moving with forgiveness, renewal and love? Where do we find fresh air, fresh beginnings, in our ongoing pilgrimage within God’s world of law and love?
Let me give three examples;
First, the 14th century devotional book called the Cloud of Unknowing recommends a good but somewhat complex way to pray, I see it as a kind of swimming stroke: we push down on all that keeps us from God, all our past foibles and failures and put them behind us in a “cloud of forgetting”, then we strive forward towards a God who is so much more than we can ever know in an a “cloud of unknowing,” That can be a very powerful way of approaching God, and we can make progress in this way, but there are some days when it is just too complex, and then the author says you can always just say “Help!”
“Help” can be one of the best prayers: the man who comes to Jesus with a sick son says, “I believe, help my unbelief... I have faith, help me where faith falls short.” There’s faith and power there in all that undressed honesty. You can just say help, then be prepared to listen, be prepared to be surprised and renewed.
Another story. A woman recently told me that while her husband was dying of a fast-growing cancer they had a quiet moment together. She said, “Do you forgive me?” and he said, “Yes,” then he said, “do you forgive me?” and she said “Yes.” and she said the room was so full of God that she will never forget it, and it changed everything.
Forgiveness opens space, gives room for God to grow in us anew; even a half-held motion in that direction, a prayer that is a “I am not quite there yet but I am willing to try to let go of an old grudge, an old pain or scar:” even that beginning, moving towards a larger forgiveness, opens room for new hope, new healing, new awareness of God’s grace in our daily lives and ministries: get us down to the rock of right action, good faith, good living ground in Christ’s love.
We don’t need to give complex dinner parties, we aren’t called to always know what is right, we know that we’ll make mistakes, cause trouble, take wrong turns, get caught in complex situations; and there are so many customs and commandments, expectation and demands in the world around us that if is only following commandments we’re going to muck up sometimes, and it is not surprising that we sometimes lose hope. But we don’t need to lose our relationship with God.
I was priested just over a year ago, after over 25 years of a ministry spent mainly in university chaplaincy and teaching in parishes and schools, and it’s been wonderful and complex year. But sometimes there are questions of etiquette, proper conduct, custom: should I be called Father or Rob, should I wear a black shirt with collar, a white shirt with crosses, should I swear less, pray more, follow new rules, give up old ways, lose weight, gain gravity? Sometimes it feels quite complex.
Now I tend to wake up before dawn. Where I am now living the living room looks east over lawn and a stand of Eucalyptus, and a few weeks ago, after a rainy night with some thunder and lightning, I was sitting in the dark with a cup of good coffee in my hand, wondering and praying as the light of day slowly came up in the sky front of met. And I considered where I’ve been and where I might be going and how I am doing, and finally I just said, “God, do you love me?” and it was as if God said “Yes,” and I took a breath and a sip of good hot coffee with a bit more light behind the trees to the east and it was as if God said, “Do you love me?” and I said, “Yes.” and nothing really heavy happened, except for two kookaburras began laughing as the light got stronger and the rain started again, and that was enough for me to begin again.
T.S. Eliot writes: “These are only hints and guesses/Hints followed by guesses; and the rest/Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.” But very simple actions can help us in so many ways to keep our daily focus open enough for listening for responding, repentance, renewal; so that our souls can be refreshed by the love of God, the breath of the Spirit, the life of Christ in our daily ministries, and that must be our hope.