Paul Knitter’s Homily from October 31, 2021

Holy Wisdom Monastery Homilies 2 Comments

October 31, 2021

Deut. 6:1-9; Heb. 9:11-14; Mark 12: 28-34

“You Can Love Because You Are Loved”

  1. This morning I’m going to do something that I resolved never to do.  I’m going to deliver a canned sermon – or at least a partially canned sermon.
  • The reason for doing so has to do with this morning’s second reading.  As I wrestled with the complex, problematic content of the Letter to the Hebrews, I had a sense of déjà vu:  I felt that I had wrestled with this text before, in a previous sermon. Sure enough, when I searched the can – or the folder – of my previous sermons, I discovered I had done so on August 25, 2019.
  1. The Danger and yet the Challenge of the Letter to the Hebrews
  1. The readings from Hebrews for that Sunday repeated the same message of today’s: that the blood of Christ’s sacrifice is far superior to, and therefore meant to replace, the blood of the Jewish sacrifices of goats and bulls and heifers – and that therefore the Christian community is “the greater and perfect tent” where people can abandon the “dead works” of Judaism and finally truly “worship the living God.”
  • This is dangerous stuff.  Here, let me lift from my Aug 2019 text:
  • Some New Testament scholars suggest that “this Letter should more fittingly be called not the letter “to the Hebrews” but “against the Hebrews” for it announces that the new covenant through Christ is to take the place of the old covenant through Moses.
  • So we Christians have to recognize that books such as the Letter to the Hebrews, found in our holy Bible,  contains the seeds of what would become the poisonous weed of Anti-Semitism that has crept through so much of the history of Europe and America,  a poison that was echoed in the chant of the White Supremacists of Charlottesville two (now four)  years ago: “Jews will not replace us” – because God wills us to replace them.  – There’s a connection, I suggest, between White Supremacy and Christian Supremacy.”
  • But if the Letter to the Hebrews is dangerous, does it contain any useful, important message for Christians?  Yes, it does. I’m not at all suggesting that we discard this part of the New Testament. Again, from my 2019 sermon:
  • The author of this letter, together with his community, were trying to explain, for themselves and for others, what this Jesus of Nazareth meant to them, how he had transformed their lives, and how he can transform the world.
  • But because of their historical circumstances, because of the tensions that developed between the early Jewish Jesus-followers and the historic Jewish communities, these early Christians felt that in order to extol Jesus they had to make him better than, and meant to take the place of, Moses and God’s covenant with the Jews
  • We know today that such a denigrating or replacing of Judaism was totally foreign to Jesus himself.  Like so many of his predecessor Jewish prophets, he wanted to reform Judaism, not replace it.
  • So what is the positive message of today’s reading from Hebrews?
  • I think it is summed up beautifully by the NT scholar and Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl. 
  • We Jesus followers today, he urges us, need to find ways to sing our song about Jesus so that others can hear it, but we have to sing our song in a way that does not put down or seek to replace the songs that others sing about Moses, or Buddha, or Krishna or Mohammad.
  • I suggest that the Gospel reading for today teaches us how we can sing our song about Jesus without denigrating the song Jews sing about their covenant.
  1. Today’s Gospel reading from Mark announces the heart of Jesus’ message – and the heart of our song about him:  Jesus taught and Jesus embodied a God who loves and holds us all.
  1. And he did this not by replacing, but by reaffirming the heart of the Jewish Torah – what the Jews call the  “Shma.”  “Hear, O Israel, God is our one God. (: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד) You shall love this God with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • But I want to ask – and this is really the focus of today’s homily:  Just how do we do that? How do we love God and our neighbor with all our heart, mind, and strength?  
  • To answer that, I invite you to notice that in both readings, from Deuteronomy and Mark, there is a commandment, an imperative, that precedes the commandment to love God and neighbor.
  • It’s the imperative Hebrew verb: Shmah  –  “Hear, o Israel.”
  • In other words, in order to be able to obey this First Commandment to love God, we first must really hear, we must believe and trust a previous message.
  • What is this previous message? 
  • That Jahweh, the Almighty,  is “ אֱלֹהֵינוּ”   “our God”;  “Our God” means a God who is with us, for us, who loves for us.
  • This is the message that is at the heart of the Jewish Torah and of the Gospel of Jesus: that God – the Holy Mystery that Jews hesitated to name,   the Holy Mystery that Jesus called Abba – this Holy Mystery is an abiding presence of Love – a Love that has given us existence and that continues to hold us in existence.
  • Or as my Buddhist Tibetan teachers put it: we are constantly held in a grounding/nurturing Love that pervades and constitutes all of the universe.
  • Only if we first trust, really trust,  that we are loved by the Holy Mystery we call God, can we love this holy mystery, and our neighbor, in return.  So the First Commandment to love God with all our heart, mind and strength can be fulfilled only if we first let ourselves be loved with all our heart, mind and strength. The passive verb precedes the active verb.
  1. We know this from experience and from what contemporary psychology tells us: We can love only if we are loved, only if we can trust that we are loved.
  2. This is why, as Richard Rohr put it in his meditation for this past Thursday, “…a parent’s primary job is to communicate to their children that they are a beloved, eternally-existing child of God.”
  • Christian mystics fill in the picture of what it means to trust Divine Love and what happens to us when we do so.
  • Trusting is inherently a letting go, a recognizing that we can’t figure it all out by ourselves. Trusting is a kind of self-emptying where we let ourselves free-fall into a Love that is as incomprehensible as it is real.
  • And by so trusting and letting go, we find, mysteriously, that we are held, we are secure no matter what.  Christians call this grace – when we let go in order to let God.
  • And once we begin to trust and then to feel that we are held in Love, we gradually sense that this Love is holding everything.  This Love then flows through us to everyone we meet. In a sense, in a true sense, we become God’s love.  Living becomes a matter of loving.
  • Through first hearing and trusting, we find ourselves naturally obeying this first commandment to love God and all neighbors, even those we disagree with, with our whole souls, our minds, our strength.
  • This commandment is no longer something we obey; rather, it’s what we naturally do. To be held in love, to be loved so totally, is to be enabled to love.
  • What I’m trying to describe here is something that one of my Jesuit teachers back in the early 60s told us:  He described religious experience or the experience of God as a matter of “falling in love unrestrictedly” even when we can’t describe what we are in love with.  We trust and so we know that we are loved and this enables us, compels us to give of ourselves in love.
  • Is this really possible?   To know it’s possible, we have to trust that it’s possible.  And we are helped, helped tremendously, to trust  by the image and example of this Jesus of Nazareth who not only taught but embodied this Love. 
  • In this Eucharistic liturgy, in this breaking of the bread and telling of the story, we are invited to experience the real presence of this Christ who continues to live in us and to enable us to trust this Love that holds us all —  and to be this Love for each other and for our world.
  • Together now we move to the table in order to feel and to be this Love.

Paul Knitter

Comments 2

  1. Just to let you know, you can use this homily as often as you want. I appreciate and love the reminder of who we are! Thanks, Marcia Krater

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