Homily for October 29, 2023
Nancy Enderle – Sunday Assembly at Holy Wisdom Monastery
Text: Matthew 22:34-46
I would like to begin this homily with a confession of sorts. As one who has been preaching for nearly 40 years, it is fairly easy to encounter familiar texts and travel on deeply worn neural paths carved out from writing previous sermons.
To further confess, my well-traveled path for these verses in Matthew, in which Jesus responds to the Pharisee’s question about the greatest commandment, typically features a bit of a bi-pass around the Love of God, straight to the love of neighbor. I come by this emphasis naturally as a result of being raised and formed within a tradition, PC USA, that was more than a little suspicious of personal spiritual experience. My mentors were Biblical scholars and social justice activists who taught us to speak out against injustice from a Biblical perspective. So yes, the path to loving the neighbor is well traveled, as I suspect in the case for many of you. And don’t get me wrong – I value that heritage and honor that handling of this text.
Another aspect that influences this bi-pass is the plain and simple fact that the love of neighbor as self, while tremendously counter cultural and challenging to do, is easier to describe. There is no easy “how to” that comes quickly to mind following the commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. I find myself asking with great curiosity, ‘just what does this whole-life love of God entail?’
The teaching Jesus draws his answer to the Pharisees from is the Shema, the central passage that opens each temple service in Jewish worship to this day. It is found in the book of Deuteronomy Chapter 6 and says:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.[a] 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem[b] on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Wow. Loving God fully is hardly a trifling afterthought in our Judeo-Christian tradition. Rather, this sacred text reveals a thoroughly examined and detailed portrait of expectations associated with the commandment to love God. Indeed, loving God this way is at the very heart of our faith and flows through Jesus’ life and teaching.
So it makes sense that throughout the story of our tradition and most religious traditions, there have been believers, mystics and poets, who have traveled an interior path of experiencing and devoting their lives to loving God with heart, mind, and soul.
These writers and guides are often called mystics, which I recently heard defined as “someone who knows God for real”, which mostly likely means that they are individuals who move beyond an intellectual understanding of God. In our Christian tradition, their language about devotion to loving God often describes a transforming union with a constant sense of Divine presence.
It was in this spirit that Julian of Norwich wrote, “We are so preciously loved by God that we cannot even comprehend it. No created being can ever know how much and how sweetly and tenderly God loves them. It is only with the help of God’s grace that we are able to persevere in spiritual contemplation with endless wonder at God’s high, surpassing, immeasurable love which our Lord in goodness has for us.”
The teaching and guidance we find from mystics’ experiences reveals an inviting, Biblical, whole-hearted, whole bodied, and soul-filled love. The path they demonstrate is decidedly contemplative, drawing on silence and spiritual practices that create in us a loving response to God’s love for us that moves beyond an intellectual concept, or a rigid set of rules, toward
a relationship – an adoring, delighting, exuberant “yes” to the God of all.
How fortunate we are to be gathering today around this text – in person or virtually – in a monastery. Here where the Sisters and Oblates follow an ancient rule that begins with the invitation to “listen with the ear of the heart.” Here where silence and mystery is honored in a noisy age full of answers. Here where the prairie reminds us of the balance and beauty of God’s blessings of creation.
Many of you know I work at Holy Wisdom’s Center for Clergy Renewal. Each year, for the past 5 years, we have welcomed a cohort of 18 pastors from all over the country and many different denominations, for two week-long residential immersions into Holy Wisdom Monastery. And each year I am astounded when the pastors tell us that one of the most important things about their experiences is that they remembered again that they are God’s beloved child. This astonishes me, because I see their beautiful spirits and wonder, how could they have forgotten that?
Steven Charleston a retired Episcopal Bishop and citizen of the Choctaw Nation expresses this forgetting well, he writes: “The holy is within us. The imprint of the sacred is stamped into our being. We can have amnesia about this, but we can never erase the sign of our origin. We come from love and to love we will return, not through some exclusive gate of our own design, but up the broad avenue of creation that forever returns to its source.”
In the silence, in the rhythm of prayer, in contemplative practices, in the deep listening within the community, and the gifts of the prairie, the amnesia lifts and these pastors remember. The contemplative rhythms of the monastery create an experience where God can sing the song of love back to them when they have forgotten the words. And they return home to do the the challenging work of serving Christ in their communities, remembering that song – ‘My dear Child, you are beloved.’
And this is where the genius of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Matthew invites us to go even deeper. In addition to the familiar law in Deuteronomy 6, Jesus offers the teaching about loving our neighbor from Leviticus 19 and holds them together, separate but alike. In doing so he highlights the important dynamic that loving God with all our being leads us into loving relationships with others. Grounded in the deep love of God, we are better able to convey compassion to ourselves and love to our neighbor.
It is, to use sports vernacular, a game-changer to love God with our heart, mind, and soul. When we encounter God this way, we encounter all of life with increased affection and responsibility. In the spirit of that path of love, I would like to close with Pope Francis’ description of this journey of relationship with God and all of God’s creation:
The creatures of this world no longer appear to us under merely natural guise, because the risen One is mysteriously holding them to himself and directing them towards fullness as their end.The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence. If the universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely….there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The world sings of an infinite Love: how can we fail to care for it? — Pope Francis