Mind and Hope

The Rev. Mary Lee Wile

Oct. 25, 2020


“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

These words I am commanding you today are to be upon your hearts.  And you shall teach them diligently to your children and speak of them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up…Write them on the doorposts of your houses….”

Jesus, and all the Jews of his time, would have recited these words from Moses– the Shema – first thing in the morning and at the close of day, beginning in childhood. Those words were to be on their hearts, part of daily conversation, and inscribed on the doorposts of their homes. While in our time, people might be more likely to post them on the refrigerator or have them as a screensaver on their computer, many Jews still do keep those words from Deuteronomy on a parchment rolled inside a mezuzah, attached to their doorposts. This one was given to me years ago; it continues to serve as a constant reminder to love God with my whole self. When I taught AP Language and Composition at Mt. Ararat, I would sometimes take this in to show students how words themselves could be considered sacred. These sacred words of the Shema were and remain for our Jewish siblings the most familiar words in Scripture.

So when the lawyer challenges Jesus to name the greatest commandment, Jesus chooses this verse that every child would know by heart. It’s rather like when the great Christian theologian Karl Barth was asked, “What is the most profound theological truth?” and he responded with the opening verse of a children’s hymn, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Both Jesus and Karl Barth go straight to the heart of the matter, to love, to words even a child would understand.

When Jesus answers his would-be accuser, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” he does, by the way, make one subtle change in the wording of the Shema. He substitutes “mind” for “strength.” We are, Jesus says, to love God not only with heart and soul, but also with our minds. It seems to me that in our current reality, this is a really important distinction. I knew a young priest in Colorado – not so young any more, since this was 35 years ago – who, whenever he was confronted with the local brand of lock-step fundamentalism, insisted, “Jesus died to take away your sins, not your mind!”

We are made in God’s image, not God’s physical likeness, but with the attributes of heart, soul, and mind. And with all of these we are to love the God who first loved us.

But Jesus extends his answer beyond the Shema and adds: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Every other commandment (and in the Torah there are 603 additional commandments besides the familiar 10) – every other commandment has something to do with God or with neighbor.  Love God, love each other. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

This love, by the way, need not be a friendly warm fuzzy feeling. There may be days when God seems as remote as one of the farthest stars (which is ok, because God is there, too), and days when we feel deep anger or frustration at injustices perpetrated by our neighbors. But remember that just two days before this encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus confronted the money changers in the Temple. Anger at mistreatment of others is an appropriate response, and these people were overcharging the common folk who had traveled long distances to worship and sacrifice in the Temple. For Jesus, there was no contradiction between righteous anger and the commandment to love. As one Biblical commentator said, “You can love — and resist. But don’t hate, don’t harbor a grudge, love all of God’s people as you stand for justice, even the jerks.”

And that takes us in a roundabout way to the Old Testament reading, where Moses has spent 40 years in the wilderness with his fellow-Israelites, many of whom behaved like jerks during those long years of wandering, angry at God for rescuing them from slavery because they missed the Egyptian cuisine (“oh, the fish we used to eat in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks…”), upset enough later on to build a golden calf to worship instead of the living God. Even Moses sometimes behaved badly, but through all the long years, he continued to love those stubborn folk, and together he and God finally brought them to the Promised Land.

But we hear today that Moses doesn’t get to enter. Moses gets to see the promised homeland, but he does not live to see the promise fulfilled.

As Christians, we, too, live and die between times, not between Egypt and the Promised Land, but between Christ’s first and second coming. Our charge as Christians is to bring God’s kingdom here among us, even knowing that we are not likely to see its fulfillment in our lifetime. It matters to remember this, especially now when so many lives are torn by the pandemic, by racial violence, verbal violence, deliberate chaos and cruelty, when we teeter on the brink of losing much that we hold dear as citizens of this country. It’s important to see also the unflagging courage and determination of those on the frontlines of the pandemic, and the hard and holy work going on to heal ingrained patterns of racial injustice – there is goodness in the midst of this disorder, this “evil that that is [being] done on our behalf.” Never forget that as Christians, we are called to hope. I want to quote here from the speech given by Martin Luther King the night before he was murdered:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead… And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.

Whatever happens on Nov. 3rd – or the 10th or the 20th or whenever the last vote is counted –Jesus’ call to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, and to love our neighbors – the good the bad and the jerks [been one myself often enough] – will keep us on the right road toward that promised land of freedom and justice, peace and equity. It’s been a long journey, and we’re still a long way off, but God goes with us. God is with us.