There seems to be people out there who take naturally to learning another language, and after studying four languages to varying degrees of success, the one word that stands out to me, throughout all that study is a Hebrew word that my seminary professor told us was best kept in the original Hebrew, because there was no English word that even came close to this word used over and over again in the Hebrew Bible. Hesed, he told us can best be understood as loving-kindness. It can be translated simply as love, though that misses so much of the connotation and breadth of what is being relayed. One source defines it as “kindness or love between people, or the devotional piety of people towards God, as well as the love or mercy of God towards humanity.” It’s a small word that captures a lot, and the advice he gave us, is that if we must translate it that it ought to be translated as loving-kindness.
Since this conversation about the breadth of God’s hesed, I have paid attention anytime I have encountered the word loving-kindness. This was especially true the first time that I engaged in a Loving-Kindness Meditation This practice takes only about 15 minutes but is always incredibly powerful. Once you have settled in, placing your hands on your heart, you say silently to yourself, “May I be safe. May I be well. May I be loved. May I be at peace.” Then the circle of compassion begins to widen, and you think of someone you love and you silently say those things to that person, “May they be safe, may they be at peace…”, then it widens further to someone to whom you have a neutral feeling about, maybe the grocery store clerk from earlier in the week or someone you passed on the sidewalk. Then you make the difficult turn to someone for whom you hold negative feelings, “may they be safe. May they be well. May they be loved. May they be at peace.” Then it widens even further to all living beings. It is always a powerful experience, and perhaps the closest I may ever come to experiencing hesed. In this practice it becomes clear to me that loving God and all those created in the image of God are intricately and intimately woven together.
We see Jesus laying this out plainly in our gospel account today. After Jesus had stumped the Sadducees last week, the Pharisees feel confident in their ability to entrap Jesus by asking him what is the greatest commandment. Rather than Jesus responding in a way that calls out their attempts to trick him, he instead responds with the Shema, with the prayer that these devout Jewish people would have prayed every morning. Jesus answer isn’t scandalous, in fact Jesus’ answer is so tricky and in essence silenced them because it was so simple. The greatest command? Love God; love God fully, and next, love your neighbors as yourself. This is the last attempt to ensnare Jesus, and there will be no more questions, only a developing plot to kill him; in this narrative the thing that comes next is Jesus going to trial, even as no one dared to ask him any more questions.
We see here from Jesus, that there is a scandal in having something as powerful and simple to say as, “Love God, love people, love yourself.” Perhaps the scandal in this response is the way in which it can never be fully attained on our own. Love is the greatest command, but it is a command that makes us vulnerable. To love God with all your heart, soul, and mind means that there is nothing in your life that is not touched by this powerful, pervasive love. And to love our neighbors as ourselves, might require the prayer that Father Steve named last week, “Help me to love them.” Whomever them is for you.
This vast goal of living a life so consumed with love is not an unattainable marker, something that we will never be able to do, but it’d be nice to try. The first and greatest command and the second which is like unto it, are not hurdles that we are supposed to barely clear, but they are an insight into who we could possibly be. In Christ, we can truly love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind; in our faith, we can honest to goodness love our neighbor as ourselves. Imagine it, how might our lives be different if we walked around with a deep sense of God’s loving-kindness and our souls continually pouring out and receiving love. And because it is only God’s love that is boundless, it is with God’s help we can step into this vast world of pervasive love.
One of the commentaries I read this week posed the question, “When was a time that you felt a great sense of love from another?” This could be from your spouse or family, or it could be from a stranger or a neighbor or from someone with whom you disagree. And I’d like for us all, in your homes and the handful of us here in the Nave, for us to take a moment to actually think about this. Think about a time when you experienced this sort of compassion, grace, and love, and in this time. I’ll give you just a moment.
Thank you. Thank you for taking time to reflect on that during this sermon.
When I did this in my sermon prep this week, a time about three years ago came to me. I had only been here at Christ Church for about three months when I got very sick with what we now call Not Cancer. And I was away from the church for close to two months, and in that time, you all showed me such care and love that it was a huge part of my healing. The way in which you showed me God’s love through asking after me, sending flowers or making meals, or writing cards is something that I will never forget. In fact, I saved every single card from that scary time in my life, and I read through them all this week. It was a reminder of what Christ Church is capable of, of what we are called to do, even if we have to ask God to help us love people, this is the power of what we can do when we love fully.
This week, I want to invite you to a practice that I took up at some point during this season of life, wherein which I visualize you in you in the pews and I pray through them. Starting in the back and working my way forward, I envision the 8:00 service first then the 10:00. I pray that you may be safe, that you may be well, that you may be loved, that you may know peace. So, this week, I invite you all to remember your pew. Remember the hands that you would shake as you shared God’s peace. Remember who sat in front or you or behind or that time a visitor sat in your section. Remember those people and pray for them, pray that you may show God’s love to them. And as you do this, take time to reach out. Write a card, send a message, pick up the phone. Tell people that you love them. Not with the easy love of convenience or proximity, but with the tidal wave of God’s hesed; of the love that leans on our whole heart, soul, and mind. Of a love that extends as deep and high as it does wide. Because it is this love alone, the one that loves God deeply and loves others powerfully, that will see us through the difficult days ahead.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY via livestream on Matthew 22:34-46 for Proper 25A, October 25, 2020.