Ruth 1:1-18; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Yesterday Terri and I took a day trip to the “Most magical place on earth.” We spent the day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando. When I am there in that kingdom, the kid in me awakens and I experience joy and a childlike wonderment that overshadows the stresses, challenges, and difficulties of everyday life. In that kingdom, the guests are giddy with excitement. The food and treats are abundant, the rides and attractions are wonderful, and the people all seem happy. Yet, despite the wonderment of this magical place when we enter the gates, when we step up to a food vendor, when we consider all the wonderful trinkets, gifts, and souvenirs, we are struck by the reality that all this comes at a cost. The Disney experience is not free. There are no free passes to the Magic Kingdom. As I walked around this place of wonderment, happiness, and yes, self-indulgence the other day, I reflected on how we wrestle in this life, with the tension between our pursuit of personal satisfaction, and accepting God’s invitation into a mutual reciprocity of affection shared between God, self, and the other.
Transactional happiness, self-fulfillment, and very little concern for the “other” seems to abound in our culture, and yet there are moments we see the light of Christ shining through. As we were walking around the pristine walkways and vistas of Adventureland with all its vendors and attractions, suddenly out of nowhere three young adults emerged and were creating a bottleneck in the moving crowd. As we got closer, we saw what all the commotion was about, and we knew why traffic was slowing down. These three “radicals” were carrying signs on which were written the words, “Free hugs.” Almost everyone near these three kids were stopping and hugging them. The closer Terri and I got, the more the spirit of love with no strings, no expectations, and no inhibitions began to overtake the crowd. Yes, Terri and I joined in and yes, we joined the brief “hug-fest.” We participated in an impromptu Disney attraction that although there were no fast passes available, we could have used them, because the wait line was growing. With “Free Hugs”, there was no transaction of goods and services, just a brief glimpse into the reality of self-giving, self-less, love. In a crowded area of Disney, in the middle of the “most magical place on earth,” we got a little peek at the kind of love into which, God invites us to participate.
In the Gospel according to Mark, the writer records a dialogue Jesus had with the Sadducees in which, he teaches us what love really is, who we should love, and how we should love. The Greek word for “love” found in today’s gospel is ’. The English word we use for love barely captures the depth of meaning found its Greek origins. ’ means to “give value, display esteem, demonstrate generous concern, be faithful towards, show delight in, and offer devotedness for.” The loving of God and neighbor Jesus speaks about is more than just a nice feeling, it certainly involves some action: giving, displaying, demonstrating, being, showing, and offering.” It is important to note that the tense of “love” in the context of today’s gospel, is not merely a command for the present, “you love God and love neighbor,” it has a futuristic expectation embedded in its usage. The future tense of ’ is “You will love God, and you will love your neighbor.” In other words, the Kingdom of God in which we love God fully, and love our neighbors as ourselves, is supposed to be a present reality and at the same time, it is a future hope. There will be a time when perfect love, love with no strings, will be manifested and that love, will be made real by actions. Love is something that happens now. Love is something that will happen in the Kingdom, which is to come.
“You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” You may think this loving God thing seems so complicated, so out there somewhere beyond, so detached from real life. Maybe we need some help to reconnect with the experience of loving God right here and right now. Maybe loving God is simpler than we think. A young woman and man fell in love, and in the first few years of their shared adoration not a moment passed, not a day went by that every thought they had hearkened back to the other. For the woman, she would recall how he spoke to her in a gentle voice, how he gave her, a single rose each time they met, how he said and meant, “I love you.” For the man, he recalled how her soft touch, funny laugh, deep hazel eyes, and her loving voice made him feel complete and accepted. These two loved each other with their whole person. They loved with their sensibilities, affections, emotions, desires, essence, understanding, and thoughts. They were on each other’s minds all the time. These two shared their troubles and celebrations with each other, and more importantly, there were no strings attached to their love.
Loving God is not at all complicated. Let me give you a hint at just how easy it is to love God. How often do we look at the beauty of creation and recognize it as God’s handiwork, and then out of awe give God thanks for that gift? How often do we see in the circumstances of life, God’s whispers of hope and promise drifting through moments of distress or contentment? When you awake in the morning, how often do you simply pray, “Thank you God for this day and the opportunity for your love to work in and through me?” When you consider your life and what in the work, recreation, and relationships you desire, do you recognize God’s place in all that? Do you see life through the lens of God’s reconciliation, love, peace, mercy, and justice? Do you pray and have a conversation with God each day, sharing the troubles, difficulties, celebrations, and joys in your life? If you can answer yes to some or any of these questions, you are well on your way to ’ for God. You are loving God and you are ready to let that love flow through you. The Kingdom of God in which love abounds, begins with God and in order for us to reciprocate that love, we must recognize and accept that God loves us.
The capability to love another, requires that we be able to accept love. Accepting love requires us to recognize our own lovability, our own acceptability, and our own worthiness. Loving God and loving others means that we must love the very essence of who we are. Self-love requires some caution though, because it can become distorted and misguided. When we love ourselves because of our vocational identity, our successes, our wealth, or any other self-obtained accolade, this is misconstrued self-love can become the means for power wielding. Healthy self-love is one in which, we recognize that God loves us, that we are truly good, that even in our failures there is forgiveness, and our worthiness and acceptability comes from being children of God ransomed by grace.
When we love the spark of divine grace in us we love ourselves, and then, we are enabled to reciprocate that love to God and others. We must ask God to help us recognize our own failures and weaknesses. We must bring those to God and offer them up for sanctification. In dying to our old selves, we are raised to new life in Christ. When we are able to recognize our own weakness, to accept our own failures, to recognize God’s forgiveness of our own sin, we can accept and forgive the sin and failures of others and thus, love our neighbors, just as we love ourselves.
Maria Palmer in a recent Christian Century magazine article wrote, “If (Christ) had stopped at “Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart,” we could be satisfied with building glorious churches, creating amazing worship services and giving extravagant offerings.”1 Christ commands us to go beyond offering love to God, and to love neighbor. We sometimes use the term “neighbor” as a filter for determining for whom we should offer this kind of love. For some folks, “neighbor” means close relatives, close friends, or those whom we gather socially. the Greek word for neighbor literally means someone nearby. (neighbor) is not a word of exclusion, but it infers vastness and inclusiveness. “Love those “nearby” as you all love yourself.”
Loving neighbor means participating in a love that is selfless and self-giving. The application of the love we receive from God, the love we have for God, the healthy love of self is real now, and will be made real in the Kingdom to come, when we give that love to others without strings, without qualification, and without discrimination.
In a culture that devalues those folks who are on the margins, we Christians who are commissioned to love neighbor as self, are now, more than ever challenged to follow Christ’s commandments. The Apostle Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthian church, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on, we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” (NRSV 2Cor 5:11-16) The world sometimes confuses love with an exercise of power, one over another, but that is not why Christ died. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Love is the thwarting of entitlement, force, and influence, and thus becomes an embrace of mutual humility, dependence, and equality. Love is not a transaction or exchange involving goods and services, it is giving with no expectations. Loving neighbor means wanting for others that which we have ourselves: peace, joy, reconciliation, and grace. Loving neighbor goes beyond merely desiring good, it means loving Christ in them: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (NRSV Matt. 31:35-36) Loving neighbor means taking action to insure the other has what we desire for ourselves. I think that what the world needs now, is a few more people willing to take a risk and offer up a few more “Free Hugs.”
In the midst of a world of magical, childlike dreams come true, comingled with an exchange of monetary symbols for self-indulgent pursuits, God’s love broke in with three folks offering a simple free embrace. God’s Kingdom is like that simple and pure. We will know we have arrived fully in that Kingdom, when we begin to live with arms wide open, drawing others in close, embracing and sharing ourselves, and then, standing back and seeing the other in a new light.
Love is a free offering of oneself, a risk-taking venture, a willingness to open one-self to be filled by grace, so that grace can be poured out of us unto others. God’s gift is so abundant that we merely need to receive it, and then, with gratitude and joy we give that love away, with no strings, no qualifications, no power play, and no expectations. My friends, when we live like that, when we love like that “(we) are not far from the kingdom of God.”
1 Palmer, Maria Teresa. “Another Commandment.” Christian Century 123.22 (2006): 18-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.