A scribe comes to Jesus wanting to know which of the 613 laws is the most important. Love for God, others, and ourselves we hear Jesus say.
Are we surprised? No. Do we need to hear this as often as possible? Yes. Love is the needle on the compass. It’s the compass itself. Love is everything, in other words. It’s the destination and the journey both.
Jesus’ response has me thinking about something Robin Meyers says repeatedly in The Underground Church, a book some of us read recently.
Prompted by his concern about the deep divisions within the American church, divisions that prevent us from being the people Jesus calls us to be, Meyers says Jesus’ followers face a profound choice: we can make it our primary aim to be right or we can focus on being loving. With Jesus, Meyers is rooting we will choose the latter.
As part of my sabbatical, I took a break from Facebook. I didn’t miss it. Or rather, what I didn’t miss was bearing witness to people, often Christians, who go to great lengths to prove they are right about something but who aren’t terribly concerned about being loving. If you’re not on Facebook, you may feel this way when you read the newspaper’s Letters to the Editor.
When my sabbatical ended and I hopped back on Facebook earlier this week, I braced myself. The very first post I saw—yes, the very first post—was that of a colleague engaged in nasty battle of wits with someone from his religious past whose opinion on something controversial differed greatly from his.
A gifted writer, keen-minded and well-schooled, this man pilloried the woman for her opinion and then when she unfriended and blocked him—something he had taunted her to do—he went on to mock her for believing she was right when clearly she was not.
It’s easy, some might even say it’s our default setting, to believe we are right. But placing a higher value on being loving? Well, that’s another thing altogether, something that was regularly lost on the religious experts of Jesus’ day.
These men regularly sought Jesus out to challenge and discredit him because he was, in their eyes, so obviously wrong. When in love Jesus kept going, when he kept saying and doing what they regarded as errant and heretical, they colluded with Rome to permanently silence him.
Shortly before I arrived in Oregon for my internship twenty-five years ago, my mentor Charles took a very public stand on a ballot measure aimed at advancing LGBTQ rights.
Soon he was visited by conservative colleagues. Bibles in hand, scriptural passages at the ready, they implored Charles to retract his endorsement. “Repent of your error, Brother Charles,” one of them said. “It’s not too late.” But it was too late. As far as Charles was concerned, love had already won out.
Thankfully I’ve been spared the kind of confrontation Charles—and many others—have endured. But this hasn’t stopped me from reflecting on my ministry and my take on what it means to be Christian.
What if—as well meaning as I am, as well intentioned as I might be—what if I AM wrong? What if I’ve been bamboozled by the likes of Marcus Borg and Nadia Bolz-Weber?
What will God do with me if I’ve been wrong all this time? What will God do with any of us who for one reason or another happen to have gotten it wrong?
With Jesus’ words today in mind, and Robin Meyer’s too, my deep and abiding conviction is this: God does not need us to be right. God needs us to love. And to be as devoted to and fierce in our loving as some are in asserting they are correct.
God knows our hearts. God understands when we are earnest and are genuinely motivated by love. When we are indeed wrong, God’s love will cover us, not exclude us. When we are wrong, God’s love will heal, not harm. When we are wrong, God will work to perfect us, not punish us.
You might find this perspective helpful but believe me, there are many who find it wildly unsettling and even heretical. Folks like this imagine that what God expects, first and foremost, is that we get it right—beliefs and behaviors. That comes first. Being loving is secondary.
Now please don’t read something into what I’m saying that I am not meaning. I am not pointing a finger at those with different theologies and traditions than ours. Even the most well-intentioned, most “woke” among us are guilty of wanting to be right rather than loving.
My colleague’s example on Facebook the other day was not the first time I’ve come across progressive Christians, people I agree with and respect, who because they maintain they are right become judgmental, superior, and intolerant. Unloving, in other words.
Whenever this happens, whenever we prefer being right and let loving take a back seat, we become living examples of what Paul writes in his letter to the church in Corinth: without love as our primary aim, we are little more than clanging, noisy gongs.
Years ago I stumbled upon an assertion attributed to the Spanish Carmelite priest St. John of the Cross. St. John served during an especially harsh, even cruel period in the life of the church. Instead of parroting the religious thinking of his day, John insisted that when we pass from this life into the next, we will be asked one thing and one thing only: “How well did you love? How well did you love?”
Of course love is no easy road. As I frequently say, it’s easy to love the loveable. But often love requires some heavy lifting, a lift that can feel as heavy as a cross on the shoulder on the way to Golgotha.
There are Methodists gathered in worship in Cedaredge this morning who could tell us about the heavy lifting that love for God and neighbor can requires.
I’ll let Joe Agne, the pastor of the Cedaredge Community United Methodist Church do the speaking. I’m quoting now from something Joe shared on Monday with his congregation, one that Walt and Mari-Emilie Anderson are active in.
The title of Joe’s recent column is “Loving our neighbors who came to picket us.” Joe begins: “Last Sunday, some of our neighbors came to picket our worship service. I conversed with them and heard negative things about our congregation, me, and our Bishop, Karen Oliveto. (Editorial comment: Bishop Oliveto is an out, married lesbian.)”
“Their words were ugly and hateful in polite tones. I asked if they wanted to come in and join us for worship. They didn’t. I told them about our Bible Studies and asked if they would be interested in coming. They wouldn’t.”
“Some people from neighboring churches often express disapproval of our congregation and our Welcoming Message which says in part, ‘All of God’s people are welcome. Wherever you come from, whatever language you speak, your heritage, race, financial situation, political affiliation, ideology, education, physical and mental abilities, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or whomever you love, all are welcome to our church.’”
“Also, we recently welcomed Xavi Saenz as our Coordinator of Ministries/Young People’s Minister. Xavi is president of our county’s ‘Delta Pride.’ We’ve heard the picketers came last Sunday because they thought a Pride Parade would be leaving from our worship. It wasn’t true—but what a good idea. Absent a parade to protest, they left.”
Joe continues. “We believe these picketers are created in the image of God. We see the light of Christ in them. We believe Jesus when he says we are to love God, our neighbors, ourselves and our enemies. The picketers are both our neighbors and our enemies. Our love for them will not lessen our calling to love all people, people especially, like LGBTQ+ people who are hated, vilified, marginalized, injured, killed, or condemned. We try to live as Jesus lived.”
“Join us Sunday (edit: today) as we thank and praise God that the Spirit is shaping us into a safe harbor for LGBTQ+ people and allies.”
Joe closed his column with this quote from the English poet William Blake: “I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see; I sought my God, but my God eluded me; I sought my neighbor, and I found all three.”
Which commandment is the first of all, the inquisitive, open-hearted scribe asked Jesus one day. Love, Jesus replied. Love God with all that is in you and love every neighbor as yourself.
It’s just that simple—and just that hard.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, you fashioned us out of love. You created us to be love. Show us how far this love will go. How sturdy and enduring it is. How it builds bridges rather than creates divides. How it is quick to forgive. How it keeps trying, even when the going proves challenging.
We pray for our kindred in Cedaredge. Strengthen their capacity to love beyond limits and be at work in the hearts of those who are not yet there.
Free us from all fear—of others, of being wrong, of you even—so that your love might flow through each of us and all of us unhindered. So that this world more closely resembles your heavenly realm.
All this we pray in the name of Jesus, the one whose love compels, corrects, and companions us.