Posts Tagged ‘Great Command’


January 7, 2009

“Taken” is a loaded word that is used by some to indicate approval, acceptance, and delight in a romantic sense.  As in “I was taken by her beauty” or the response of a woman to a man who is being hit on, “I’m taken.”  I have often wished I was “taken.”  But alas, I rarely have been in this romantic sense.  In order to cope with this lack, which I perceived as a HUGE lack, I tried to think about being “taken” by God.  I even participated in the True Love Waits campaign.  But honestly, it didn’t work.  I have come to think that the reason for this is two fold.

  1. What does it mean to be a sexual being?  Unfortunately I think our society has largely convinced us that being a sexual being means having sex.  I can’t remember where I first read it so I can’t give credit where it’s due, but I distinctly remember the first time I came across the idea that I can love people as a sexual being without being physically sexual with anyone.  I have thought about that for a long time.  The idea is perplexing to me having been brought up after the sexual revolution and within a society that is pretty sex crazy.  But I admit, I have not yet resolved this idea mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.  That said, I am starting to see it is true.  So if by using the word “taken” to communicate something about who God is to me and, more importantly, who I am to God but had a largely physical ideology of being a sexual being, it was destined for failure before I began.  God works in and through the physical world, but God is not a physical being.  God is Spirit.  Not ‘a‘ spirit, just God is Spirit.  Maybe being a sexual being means loving the Lord with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving my neighbor as myself.  Simple, but not easy.  And this leads me to my next point.
  2. How can I be taken if I am not beloved?  If I am to love my neighbor as myself, but I don’t love myself, how can I love my neighbor?  Not very well at best.  The word beloved is used quite a few times in the Bible to refer to God as well as to refer to lovers many associate as a metaphorical description of the church catholic (as in the church as the universal body of Christ, not the Roman Catholic Church).  My favorite verse that uses this word is found in Song of Songs.  “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (S of S 6.3).  I love this verse so much and it speaks to me so deeply that I purchased a ring that has these very words on it in Hebrew.  And yet, I don’t think I have ever really believed this either.  I have wanted it to be true.  I have hoped that it was true.  And yet I have been riven to despair because deep down I knew, or thought I knew, that there was no way it could be true.  So if I was not beloved by God, I was not really taken either.  But I surely didn’t understand that then and I am only on the precipice of understanding that now.

In Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved, he speaks to this idea of being “taken” as a being “chosen.”  Stepping into the Presbyterian tradition, this is a loaded word for sure.  I have much to learn in that regard so I am  unsure if Nouwen’s use of the word will compliment the reform tradition or cross it, but I am not concerned with that here.  As Nouwen goes through his thoughts on being “chosen,” he says, “In this world, to be chosen simply means to be set apart in contrast to others.”  I agree with this statement.  He goes on to say,

To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different.  Instead of excluding others, it includes others.  Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness.  It is not a competitive choice, but a compassionate choice.

I have struggled with this idea without even knowing it.  Firstly, I have a hard time accepting the fact that God accepts me.  Secondly, I have a hard time excluding others.  But Nouwen begs us to “not surrender the word “chosen” to the world.”  And I must admit, I believe we have.  And so I will pick these things up again, taken, chosen, Beloved, and attempt to chose “to celebrate my chosenness constantly.”  I will try not to reject myself because to do that means rejecting what God has done.  And hopefully, in doing so, I will be able to love God and love people more completely.  After all, “the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 22.40)


Audio: My First Sermon

November 3, 2008

My first sermon was just made available in mp3 format.  Comments and critiques are welcome especially from from those who practice this craft!

MP3 –>  How am I not Myself <– MP3

To see the picures I reference, click here.

To see the text, click here.

How Am I Not Myself?

October 18, 2008

This is the sermon I have prepared for Sunday.  It’s my first one!  And I really had a lot of fun creating it.  Now if I can only get over my nervousness!

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. (Matt. 22:37-38a)

For those of you who have been around the church for a while, you have all probably heard this verse dozens of times.  These words are some of the most famous uttered by Jesus.  The Pharisees got together and one of them who was an expert in the law (a lawyer [NRSV]) asks Jesus,

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matt. 22:36)

It’s a trap.  They asked him this question, to test him.  And I found it interesting to learn that only the devil and the Pharisees are the subject of this verb in Matthew’s writings.  As one commentator stated it, “In Matthew’s understanding, this is more than a religious debate; once again, the two kingdoms confront each other.”[1]  More than likely when the Pharisee said, “in the law” he was not just referring to the 10 Commandments.  More than likely he was referring to the over 600 commands that included “moral law” and “ceremonial law.”  It is probable that they were trying to get Jesus to say something that could then be used against him in a court of law.  Maybe the Pharisee had a slight smirk on his face as he asked his question.  I am sure if he did smirk, it fell once Jesus answered. 

“Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”(Deut 6:4-5)

This, my friends, is the Shema.  It is quite significant to the children of Israel.  And they would be VERY familiar with it.  In the verses that follow, God tells them,

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  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.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut 6:6-9)

(Show picture of Jewish man with phylacteries)

(Show picture of the mezuzah)

All this to say, that these words, which are said a lot in modern Christianity, were taken very serious by the Jews.  It is true that the text in Deuteronomy is slightly different than ours in Matthew, but this is probably due to the fact that Matthew wrote down Jesus’ word to correspond with the Septuagint, or the Greek version of the Jewish bible, what we would call the Old Testament, in order to help his readers understand.

The next part of the great command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:39) also has old testament roots.  These same words can be found in Leviticus 19:18.  So while many Christians think Jesus was doing something new, in reality he was only restoring that which was intended from the beginning.  Remember when Jesus said,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)

So when Jesus says at the end of the great command “On these two commandments hang the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40) It’s quite a big deal.  He didn’t just make this up on the spot.  He pulled from the very beginning of the covenantal Israel.

Recently a friend of mine read this verse out loud at a Bible Study and I heard it differently.  While the emphasis is usually on the extent to which you should love God (i.e., with your entire being) something new jumped out at me.  Have you ever noticed how many times the word “your” appears in this short segment of scripture?  It’s (count ‘em) FOUR times!  In the Gospel of Mark, he adds “and with all your strength” for a grand total of FIVE.  Repetition in the Bible is of utmost importance.  In Greek and Hebrew they did not have punctuation to draw attention to things (i.e., the exclamation point!) so they would repeat things.

So let’s think about how this might apply this important passage to our past as well as our present everyday life:

Imagine yourself in Sunday School as a young child.  And for those of you who maybe didn’t go to church as a child try to think of what that might have been like.  Imagine yourself in a classroom decorated with primary colors and there’s a chalk board or a flannel board. Maybe you’re sitting in a circle on the floor.  The unmistakable notes of “Jesus loves me” reverberate through your head.  And the Sunday School teacher is talking about Paul and how he traveled the known world bringing the gospel to Jews and gentiles alike. And you find yourself thinking, “I wanna be like Paul!  I want to make a difference in the Kingdom of God like he did!” 

Or maybe you read the scriptures one morning at home and you read in Luke about how Mary responded to the angel of God when she was told she would give birth to the Son of God.

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38)

And you think, “Wow…if only I could be like Mary and respond as she did to God’s design for my life.”

How about when you read the newspaper.  Maybe you remember learning of Mother Teresa’s death in 1997 and thought, “Mother Teresa is someone I want to imitate.  Her love for humanity is inspiring!”

All of these responses are legitimate and wonderful.  Indeed, Paul himself said “be imitators of me.” (1 Co 4:16-17) when he wrote to the Corinthians.

But now we must go back to the word “your.” 

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. (Matt. 22:37-38a)

Isn’t this a bit too much emphasis on humanity?  Isn’t humanity depraved and fallen?  It might be helpful to understand that although this passage speaks of an individual in three different parts, what it is really saying is that we should love God with our entire being.  All of our self.  So if we are divided against our own self in that we don’t understand who God made us to be, how can we love God with our whole self?  It is impossible.

So where do we draw the line of being like others and yet, being ourselves?

In a book titled Wide Awake by Erwin McManus, he writes:

     “the world desperately needs you to live up to your greatness.”

Whoa.  Wait a minute.  Did he just say the world needs me to live up to my greatness?  MY greatness?  And I say to myself, “Self, this is craziness.  I am not great.”  But then something inside me starts to move.

Maybe Akeelah and the Bee can help us a little here… (Play Clip)

The quote Akeelah reads in this clip was written by Marianne Williamson.  You may have heard it before as Nelson Mandela quoted it in his inaugural address and it has recently been in the media again in the movie Coach Carter.

I love her response to it.  Did you hear what she said?   “Then I’m not supposed to be afraid?  Afraid of me?”

Does some of the storm that rages within settle down a bit because of the hope embedded in this quote?

Do you find yourself asking, “Could it be true?”  And to that I say,


So what does that look like? 

To answer that let’s look at the dark side of “wanting to be like (St. Augustine, Peter, Paul, Mary, fill in the blank here).”

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Ex 20:17)

Usually when this verse is quoted, it is within the context of coveting material possessions.  Their “stuff.”  And that is indeed the overall context of the verse.  But it is not an over extension of this idea to say coveting a person’s God given personality or strengths is also not something that is beneficial to the body of Christ.  After all, in remembering that as believers we are the body of Christ, if we all desire to be mouths, would there be a face to put it on and a head to carry it around?

It is one thing to be challenged by our sister’s ability to pray for 3 hours straight.  If this motivates us to be in prayer more frequently and be more purposeful about making petitions to God and spending time connecting with God, it is a positive thing.  But if I find myself saying, “I wish I was more like her.” or “If I could be more like her I would be a better Christian.” It is possible the line has been crossed.

As I am learning in life, most things are not quite as black and white as we would sometimes like them to be.  If we have a set of rules to follow that means we don’t have to think.  It means no discernment is required.  It means we don’t have to rely on the Holy Spirit.

It is true that praying more would enrich a person’s relationship with Christ.  It is not true that “being more like _______” will somehow magically transform us into a great person who can now somehow lift heavy objects and transform water into wine.

Maybe this story will help us capture this gray area…

Why Weren’t You Zusya?

Once, the great Hassidic leader, Zusya, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.

“Zusya, what’s the matter? You look frightened!”

“The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusya turned his gaze to heaven. “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’”

His followers persisted. “So, what will they ask you?”

“And I have learned,” Zusya sighed, “that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’”

One of his followers approached Zusya and placed his hands on Zusya’s shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, “But what will they ask you?”

“They will say to me, ‘Zusya, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They will say, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”

If you are like me at all, you might be starting to realize that over the years you have listened to the well intended voices of Sunday School teachers and parents and relatives and friends who have been trying to help you figure out who you are but instead of making things clearer, they may have made things more confusing.  For over a decade I tried to cram myself in a box I didn’t belong.  A natural born leader, in the faith tradition which I came to accept Christ I was told my leadership had no place in the church.  So the message in this sermon is in fact something God has been teaching me over the past year or so.  It is a work-in-progress, and so am I.  And what I have learned thus far is why I am standing in front of you today.  J  

Each and every one of us bears the image of God in a unique and wonderful way.  Marianne Williamson said it so well when she said, “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.  When you allow yourself to be what God intended you to be, the person sitting next to you is more able to be what God intended them to be.  God did not intend for you to be anyone else.  God intended for you to be you.  In doing so, you allow God to refine the gifts given to you instead of trying to grow new ones never intended to come from your branches.  Won’t you let the world see your beauty as you?  Won’t you let the body of Christ have you as you were meant to be?  Won’t you seek to find out who God made you to be so you can quit pretending to be someone you aren’t?  The world is waiting in great anticipation for what you were meant to be.

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible, 1995, Abingdon Press, vol 8, p. 424