Picture above entitled "Radiant Light" depicts a large spot of bright light surrounded by rays and trajectories of light emulating from the center.
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
November 4, 2018
Revelation 21:1-6; Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 12:28-34
The journey began on Tuesday. Or you might say last Sunday as I flew to San Francisco, or the night before as I packed, or last July during my first week at the Academy for Spiritual Formation, or ten years ago when I first felt the urge to attend the academy, or…. Well, you get the idea. Who can say when a journey begins. There is an antecedent for every experience in life. So back to Tuesday. At the academy session I attended last week, the morning presenter every day was Rabbi David Horowitz, whose task was to enlighten us on Jewish spirituality as an antecedent of Christian spirituality…, in just five hours of class, five hours of silent reflection, and two hours of community discussion time. He figures he’s presented to over twenty-five Academies for Spiritual Formation and has it down to an art form. For most of the clergy in the room it was not new information. He reminded us that Torah does not mean “law” as it is often translated in our Christian versions of the Hebrew texts – but “teaching.” He reminded us that for Jews, eternal life means that one’s memory is a blessing to creation and community – not a place of reward or punishment.
One thing he taught us struck me in a new way. Judaism, according to the Rabbi, is not a faith. It is an indelible identity. Nothing a Jew can do can make them not a Jew. They may be a bad person, and break all 613 commandments, but that does not diminish their essential identity as a Jew. It made me think that when we get together with members of other religious traditions, we should not call it “Interfaith” if Judaism is not focused on faith. And similarly, Buddhism and Islam are focused on practices, Hinduism and Native Spiritualities are focused on cosmologies. Each of these traditions constitute journeys. That does not make them better or worse than our journey.
The Christian journey which we invite all to share is at its heart a journey of justice and love. My shorthand definition of the Gospel is the good news in Jesus Christ of God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice. There is an essential relationship between love and justice. The contemporary African American philosopher Cornel West puts it this way:
“We have to recognize that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence…. Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public. Tenderness is what love feels like in private.”[i]
In the Gospel text today, Jesus has finally revealed that his journey is taking him to Jerusalem to confront the principalities and powers. On the way, the legal scholars are nipping at his heals, challenging him to a duel of words, trying to discredit his growing influence, trying to raise the fear level of the crowds, to incite them to oppose him and divert attention from the corruption in the capitol city.
Fear, as we know, can do that, effectively.
But Jesus knows just how to step around them – to continue his journey. Ched Myers points out that “Jesus knows the orthodox answer”[ii] to their challenge to sum up the Torah – the teaching – and it’s 613 commandments. It’s a trick question, as most challenges to Jesus are. Jesus quotes to them the conditions of the covenant with YHWH from Deuteronomy with two amendments.
“Hear, O Israel, God, our God, is one. You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
Jesus adds “mind” as if to say to the scholars, “Think for yourself – God gave you a brain!” And then, Jesus “boldly attaches to it a citation from the Levitical code of Justice,” ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ “implying that to love God is to refuse to exploit one’s neighbor. According to Mark’s narrative, exploitation” or injustice “is precisely what is perpetuated by the system the scribes uphold…. The sovereignty of God demands more than orthodoxy and intellectual assent; there must be the practice of justice.”[iii] Jesus wants us to understand justice as the rule of the road – the map for our journey.
“The point Mark is trying to make by this bold conflation is consistent with his ideology: heaven must come to earth – there is no love of God except in love of neighbor. The Leviticus tradition is of particular interest, for it defines love of neighbor in terms of nonexploitation. The verse Jesus cites is the culmination to a litany of commands prohibiting the oppression and exploitation of Israel’s weak and poor, including:
- leave your field for the sojourner to glean
- do not steal, deal falsely, or profane God
- do not oppress the neighbor, exploit employees, or discriminate against the disabled
- do no injustice or show partiality in judgment, or slander or witness against the neighbor”[iv]
Well, let me get back to Tuesday. As I said, the journey began on Tuesday. Rabbi David painted a picture of time as a line. It began, as all journeys do, before anything we know. Every journey begins before we join it. Those of us who share the journey of the Hebrew scriptures know that time before as תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ – tohu va’bohu – uncertainty and emptiness. Just next to the uncertainty and emptiness is creation and then the line stretches across the expanse of time. In the middle of the line is the present. Between Creation and the present is history, upon which we look back in thanksgiving. The place of the present on the line is arbitrary, because we cannot know where we stand in time. We are simply at the present moment. And then the line continues into the future. At the far end of the line is the end. We don’t know what comes beyond the end, except that it is in God’s hands. For Jews, it is simply not a question. It may be something like the tohu va’bohu – uncertainty and emptiness. Sometime before the end begins the messianic age – the fulfillment of all of God’s promises – the tikkun olam, or healing of creation. It is to the future which holds the messianic age that Christians and Jews alike look to in hope. Our work is to pave the road on which the messiah comes – the path of the messiah’s journey. For Christians, that is the way of Jesus – the journey of justice.
One thing the Rabbi did not stress in his teaching this week is that the biblical text appears to be one long journey of many legs. Genesis recounts the journey of a family. Exodus recounts the journey of a people out of slavery into the wilderness of freedom. The rest of the Hebrew text retells in various ways the journeys of the Hebrew people into exile and home-coming. Trouble seems to come to the covenant people more often when they are settled than when they are on the move. We may overlook the travel-log nature of the Greek text when we hear it in bits and pieces, but Jesus was constantly on the move. The parts of his life that were settled simply are not told. And all we know about Paul centers on his journey from established to adventurous, from persecutor to proclaimer. God’s call will always draw us into journey – whether it is a journey measured in miles – or the longer, more arduous journey of the soul.
At the conclusion of his teaching – his “torah” – on Tuesday, Rabbi David sent us out into an hour of silence with this question:
“Where do you want your journey to take you?”
Well, I chose to follow my feet. I found myself climbing a steep, winding upward path, through dry California oaks, toward a high ridge. The path was hard – worn smooth by many before me. We had been speaking of the spiritual disciplines as garden tools that loosen and till the soil, so our spirits can take root and grow. On this path, nothing grew, except perhaps me. As the path grew steeper, I found myself out of breath, wondering if the next switchback could be the last, seriously doubting I would “arrive” at some kind of destination. Eventually I emerged into a high clearing and could see that it was still some distance to the top of the ridge. It struck me then that I was on a journey that continues indefinitely.
I took a last look out over the dry, golden hills and began my slow, careful descent. It was tempting to let gravity pull me faster down the hill. It was harder to return than it had been to climb. My journey brought me back into the communion of others seeking communion with the source of being. Spiritual formation is strenuous and filled with switchbacks and false hopes. It can be lonely – but always benefits from the experience and company of others. And it is only formation in the way of Jesus when it is undertaken ultimately for the sake of others – not for personal gain.
Beloved, the journey we are on has no beginning and no end – or at the least, they do not align with our mortal birth and death. Today, as we celebrate the lives of those who have walked this journey with us, we are certain that their memories are blessings, and that their journey and ours, does not end in tohu va’bohu – emptiness and uncertainty – but rather in justice and tenderness. The voice of Yahweh, who is being itself, rings out:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today: I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live.”
May we live with justice and tenderness so that our lives too will be a blessing to community and creation.
[i] Dr. Cornel West, speaking at a recent Askwith Forum in 2017.
[ii] Ched Myers et al., “Say No to this Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996), 164.
[iv] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988), ?.