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Loving God, an Act of the Will, not Feelings: The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 31, 2021:
Mark 12:38-42

Friday I was sitting and struggling with this passage. It’s so clear and well-known on one level, but that leads me to worry about either stating the obvious, or worse, coming at it out of left field and distorting it. The challenge here for all of us is to realize that this passage, like all of them, should have some standing in our lived experience. Sometimes it takes some work to connect the Biblical world to our own. Other times it’s easy, like the exhortation to love our neighbour.

So I was sitting in front of a blank screen coming to the painful but ultimately helpful realization that I may not actually love God or my neighbour. And then I remembered that I had an quick errand across town. So I rushed out in pretty heavy Friday lunch-hour traffic, along University Avenue, busy with cars and students on foot, and I find myself stopped behind a random van that has decided to just stop, put on their flashers, and sit there. Traffic so heavy in the left lane that it took forever to be able to pass this person. I may have mentioned God (under my breath) as I blew by them, and I most definitely was not feeling or conveying feelings of love in that moment.

That incident not dissimilar to times in our old apartment — so neighbour, quite literally — when there was a knock at our door, and there was the person from below us, complaining about noise we were apparently making. And after our obligatory apology for vacuuming or for having dropped a pop can on the ground, or whatever it was, she’d open up and tell me about a loved one who had died. There I was, wishing I had one of those Acme brand trap doors, like in the Looney Toons cartoons, and there she was, looking for a listening ear and some words of comfort. And maybe there was something important in those moments, where love of God was working to open me up, if even minimally, to the neighbour before me. And love, in these cases has less to do with feelings that come and go, and more with a commitment to be in relationship, through the ebbs and flows of those transient feelings.

Jesus, here, firstly is evoking the Shema, the statement of faith of the Jewish people, freed from their time of slavery in Egypt. Similar to our creeds, it’s not so much a test to determine who belongs and who doesn’t, so much as an act or a rehearsing of their shared history, and how out of this, they came to understand something about God, namely a God who heard the cries of the people when they were in distress, and worked to bring them out of their situation of exploitation by other people and by an inhumane system. And we might ask ourselves how our voicing of our creeds are more than just a statement of historical or theological facts (facts that many find difficult to really own up to), but more than that: a reminder that we’re located in a stream of living tradition, built on a foundation of people who came to sense the movement of God in distinct, often surprising ways, in history and in their lives. And this sheds light and rubs against our lives when we consider the implications for trusting in a God who created us and everything around us: how do we respond in our lives to that? A God who chose to come to us through partnership with a young (maybe very young) woman, in a difficult and potentially perilous situation: how might that inform our lives, and clue us into how God might work in the world? Or a God who is still with us in the Christian community today, in subtle ways, speaking through people, turning us more into the people God wants us to be (through forgiveness and sanctification, to use our religious words).

Jesus starts with his community’s statement of faith, as a reminder of how his people were formed through their experiences, and of how a relationship between themselves and God was established. That relationship exists and continues, before all the other laws and rules. It’s there — perhaps neglected, but still there — even when all the rules are forgotten. And the history of the Jewish people, as we see throughout the ebbs and flows of their communal life, as we see in scripture, is this dynamic push and pull with God. Sometimes faithful, sometimes disobedient. Good times, horrible times. Think of the psalms and their poetic expressions of faith in God. Or think of all those other psalms, that don’t hold back harsh words for this same God. But all of this is love of God, as I think it was conceived in Jesus’s context; not fleeting good feelings, but a matter of the will. Our faith isn’t just the pristine moments of clarity and adherence that sometimes get interrupted by our doubt, or anger, or grief. Our faith happens in those moments of clarity, and our faith happens when we honestly work out our doubt, our anger, and our grief. It can all be faith when we locate ourselves within that tradition that grew out of liberation from (among others) the domination systems of Pharaoh, of Caesar, of the jealous religious elites, and ultimately, the intertwined domination systems of death, which, as our creeds attest to, couldn’t hold Jesus down.

So we remember and rehearse our faith (in sometimes difficult words and concepts), and in doing so, are shaped into people to be in relationship with God. And, Jesus reminds us too, that this faithful way of living then sets us in front of our neighbour. And there, too, we’re called to a love that is more than just fleeting feelings, but a commitment of the will. Jesus cites: “love your neighbour as yourself.” And to that we also add: “we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church” and “the communion of saints.” Our feelings will indeed ebb and flow with regard to these things. But with an act of will we each can choose to be a living part of this way of relating to life, the world, God, and the people around us.

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter