Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
22 March 2020, NL2-29, Lent 4 (letting go: fasting from being recognised)
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’
‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’
‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, ‘Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:
‘“The Lord said to my Lord:
‘Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.’”
David himself calls him “Lord”. How then can he be his son?’
The large crowd listened to him with delight.
As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the market-places, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.’
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few pence.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.’
It was a few months ago now that I first looked at the readings for the Narrative Lectionary for the season of Lent, and about a month since I started planning just how this would fit with the Boys Brigade Battalion service we were meant to have today. The first part of this story, where Jesus gives us the most important commandments to love God and love our neighbour, are the verses I have been using each time I visit the various sections of the BB throughout the year. We have been working on Strengthening Our Core — both our physical and our spiritual core muscles. So in every section, no matter their age, we have had some exercise challenges, trying to see how long we can hold a plank position or a v-sit position. I will admit that when I started the session I was feeling pretty strong, but the first night I visited the Company Section, two boys held the plank for 4 minutes when I had fallen before the stopwatch got to the 2 minute mark — though to be fair, someone kicked my feet as we were all crammed up on the chancel! Each month we start the timer and see who can hold the position the longest, and we talk about why it matters that we have strong core muscles: because they hold our body together and make all movement possible. Without a strong core, we would have trouble with balance, with walking, turning, sitting down and standing up, picking things up, and of course all the more strenuous activities children do!
Once we have our physical core exercises done, we talk about our spiritual core, and this verse is it. Jesus says that our spiritual core, the muscles that allow us to do everything else, are this: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. If we strengthen these muscles, then we’ll be able to do everything else life throws at us. So each month we have talked about how we love God with our heart, or our mind, or how we love our neighbour.
So this seemed perfect for the service when all the local BB companies would be here.
Little did we know how much things would change, and how important this story would be for completely different reasons.
Over the past two weeks we have seen incredible kindness all around us. Groups of people wanting to help, offers to drop off shopping or to help set up technology. There seems to be a rebirth of community spirit and pulling together.
And we have also seen an incredible lack of kindness, too. We have seen people buying far more than they can use, and leaving others with nothing. We have seen people continuing to congregate in ways that seem to imply they’re willing to sacrifice other people’s lives in order to maintain their own convenience or fun. We have seen racist attacks against Asian people, because the virus is thought to have originated in China.
Yesterday during the government briefings we were begged repeatedly to “think of others”....when we’re shopping, when we’re planning to go out with friends, when we’re on public transport. Nearly every sentence, it felt like, asked us to consider the needs of someone else, whether it was NHS workers, elderly family and friends and neighbours, or supermarket clerks.
They stopped just short of saying “love your neighbour as yourself” but I wondered if it might not be the best way to get the point across. The golden rule seems to apply more than ever: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you would want there to still be supplies on the shelf at Tesco when you get off a long shift at work, then take only what you need right now and leave the rest for others. If you would want someone to respect a safe distance from your parents, your grandparents, your neighbours, or yourself...then do that to others. If you would want there to be a nurse and a doctor available when you become ill or get injured, then do what you can to keep them safe. And in the same way, if you would want someone to check in just to chat when you’re feeling lonely, then go ahead and make a phone call to someone else who might be wishing someone would phone them! If you would want someone to offer to deliver your medicine or a pint of milk if you were poorly, then offer that help to your neighbours.
Loving God and loving our neighbour are inextricably linked, like all our core muscles are. If one muscle is weakened or sprained or torn, the others struggle to keep you going...and that’s true for our spiritual core too.
Jesus and the teacher discuss what commandment is the most important, and Jesus offers two, and each of them has sub-threads as well.
Love God: not just the feeling of love, but love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. So with every aspect of your being — your feelings, your intellect, your body, and your spirit. Nothing is excluded from God’s love, and nothing is excluded from the command to love. Using our spirits and our emotions to love God seem relatively easy and familiar, but using our bodies and our minds to love God might seem more unusual. But nonetheless they are important. God gave us brains, and expects us to use them for the building up of the kingdom, for discovering more about God’s world, for finding ways to encourage and teach and heal. God gave us bodies, and expects us to use them, to take care of them and to use them to take care of others. There is no aspect of our lives that God doesn’t care about — God made it all, gave us it all, loves it all.
And then we’re taught to love our neighbour as ourselves....which also means loving ourselves well. No one can fill another’s cup from their own empty jug. Before you say something to yourself, ask yourself if you’d say it to someone else. And, as we’ve already said, think about how even in everyday actions like buying just enough, or washing your hands, or offering some help, you can love your neighbour the way you have experienced being loved by God.
I think it is so fascinating that the conversation between Jesus and the teacher expands into conversations with the crowds. Jesus was teaching in the Temple courts, surrounded by pious people who had come from all over the country to worship at this holiest of places, plus local people popping in to see what was happening in the courtyard today, plus religious leaders and scribes, and probably political spies as well. In the midst of that place, surrounded by that particular crowd of people, he took the opportunity to say that we should watch out for the people who make a show of their love for God. Not only are they likely failing at loving their neighbour, they may actually be harming their neighbours—not leaving them anything on the shelves, as it were. Their preoccupation with being noticed, with gaining recognition for their greatness or their preparedness or their piety, meant they had no energy or attention left to do justice or love kindness, and they had missed the point of “walk humbly with God.”
And our core muscles are inextricably linked: If we aren’t loving our neighbours, we aren’t loving God....indeed, we cannot love God if we are not also showing love to our neighbours. And vice versa.
Right on cue, a parade of people putting their offerings in came by. The Temple treasury was meant to be used to support people in need, especially immigrants, orphans, and widows. Giving was — and still is — an important spiritual discipline, a part of the way we show our gratitude for all God has given us, and participate in the ministry God calls us all to do together. (I would be remiss if I didn’t say that this is still true even when we cannot worship together in person...as Peter said before, if you don’t already give by standing order, please consider it! But in the meantime, you can hold on to your envelopes until we are together again! And, of course, it is never a bad time to think about a legacy, to enable ministry to continue long into the future!)
But that day, people who had plenty to spare were ostentatiously giving out of their plenty, so everyone would know they had plenty more, not because they wished to help people in poverty, and not out of gratitude for God’s providing. They wanted people to know how generous they were, and how well-off they were.
Then came a widow, the very person the treasury was meant to serve. She didn’t have much, and obviously all those people with more than enough hadn’t seen her or thought to help, but she did have a lot of gratitude for God’s grace. She gave her offering, and it was an act of worship. Not an act desiring recognition, but instead an act recognising the Giver of every good gift.
Jesus saw her, when no one else did. We know he made a habit of seeing people that no one else saw. But this time, she didn’t want to be seen. She didn’t make her offering hoping someone would notice her. And thankfully, Jesus didn’t call her over and make a big deal about it. Instead, he called his disciples, his small group, to come into a private conversation, and he taught them to see as he saw — a woman who gave everything, who loved God with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength, and showed it by giving to help her neighbour even though she was the one who ought to have been given help.
That woman had a strong core. She didn’t need to show off her spiritual six pack, but it helped her live according to God’s way, even in difficult circumstances.
Each week of Lent we have been considering different things we might “give up” not just for Lent, but forever. We’ve talked about how often we are over full and owned by our possessions. We’ve talked about fasting from being first, and fasting from being right. This story, I think, leads us to try the practice of fasting from being recognised. What if we loved God and loved our neighbour, NOT so that people would see us and thank us for our service, but because it’s the core of who we are? What if we fasted from recognition, and just put love into action, every day, in whatever small or large ways we can, and let go of the need to be thanked or seen or noticed?
Now...I’m not saying we should give up thanking people, or recognising people’s contributions. Gratitude is a practice we should NEVER fast from. I am saying that perhaps we could try out fasting from our own personal need or desire for recognition, and simply show love because it’s what God asked us to do, it’s what God equips us to do, it’s what God created us to do.
Remember: God is love. And we are made in the image of God, which means we are made for love. Not only the feeling, but the action: love with heart, yes, but also soul, and mind, and strength. Love for our neighbour that is equal to our love for ourselves. Love that remembers that if one member of the Body suffers, all suffer together with it...our health and wholeness is bound up in the health and wholeness of our neighbours. Love that plays out in action — in the supermarket, and the doctor’s office, and the park. Though we have a lot of physical barriers right now (barriers that are currently another way of showing our love for our neighbour, because we value their safety and health!), love can reach across them, through phone calls and prayers and cards, bread and milk and paper goods, even as we keep our hands to ourselves.
Love God and love your neighbour. These are the core muscles we’re meant to strengthen so that everything else is possible — not so we can be seen as strong or good or pious, but so that everyone might know the truth: that God’s love is stronger than our fear, and even stronger than death. And it’s through us that people will know God’s love, so let us love one another, in word and in deed.
May it be so. Amen.