“What the World Needs…”

~ Deuteronomy 6:4-9/Leviticus 19:18/Mark 12:28-34 ~

Our opening hymn, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God, is not your typical Presbyterian hymn. It sort of has a folksy feel and some funky lyrics. Such as, “one was a doctor, and one was a queen…they were saints of God, if you know what I mean. God, help me to be one, too.” Or, “there’s no earthly reason, none in the least, why I shouldn’t be one, too.” And, “you can meet them in school, on the road, or at sea, in a church, in a train, in a shop, or at tea.” And the punch line, if you will, “for the saints are folk like you and like me, and I mean to be one, too.”

On this weekend of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, we are recognizing those who have gone before, be they saints…or not. In a significant way that’s what Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is about as well. So let’s talk about that.

First, some backstory. Day of the Dead is not Halloween. Sometimes they get confused. Halloween or All Hallows Eve is a medieval European Christian observance, literally meaning the night before All Saints’ Day. So, on the church calendar there are these three days – Halloween on the 31st, All Saints’ Day on the 1st, and All Souls’ Day on the 2nd. The three days together are called “All Hallow Tide.” These observances date back to the time of Pope Gregory in the 700’s.

All Saints’ Day, observed on the 1st, was established as a day to remember the faithful “saints” of the past, known and unknown – St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Francis, the pious aunt who went to mass every day. People who exemplified the best of devotion and witness…Saints! In Catholic theology the saints represented the “church triumphant,” those already eternally living in heaven.

In practice, All Saints’ Day began at sundown the day before, hence the title All Hallows Eve, for October 31st. It was eventually shortened to Halloween. In time customs developed to help bring in the day. Many of our current Halloween customs, (costumes, trick-or-treating, etc.) have their origins in these ancient practices. I’m not going to go into how and why all that developed today. Even though this is that day, this sermon is not about Halloween.

All Souls’ Day, observed on the 2nd in Catholic tradition, is a bit different. It was a day to remember and pray for those who had died. In Catholic theology, these are souls who have died and are still in purgatory, hence the need to pray for them. Prayers were often focus on deceased loved ones because you wanted them to escape the agony of purgatory. One’s prayers could mitigate the punishment for their sins while they were alive.

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, had no direct connection with any of these European Christian traditions, at least originally. Día de los Muertos harkens back to ancient Mesoamerica (Mexico and northern Central America) amongst the indigenous Aztecs and Mayans. When the Spanish arrived, at first these celebrations of remembering deceased loved ones, were rejected by the Catholic church. But in time, the ritual was eventually intertwined with the church observances of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Today, Día de los Muertos is celebrated mostly in Mexico and some parts of Central and South America. In recent years, it has become increasingly popular in the United States. And, to a small degree, has been a part of Noe Valley Ministry’s observance of this Sunday for several decades.

Día de los Muertos is based on the idea that death is part of the journey of life. Rather than death ending life, the idea is that new life comes from death, like in the cyclical nature of agriculture, whereby crops grow from the ground where the last crop lies buried. And so, for Mexican families, it is a time to remember and celebrate the lives of departed loved ones.

And so it is for us. Indeed, it is a time to express the love we have for our families, past and present, for our community here, for ourselves and, yes, for God. For when it’s all said and done, love is what really matters. As a result it is about what it means to be truly human.

In a hostile and violent world, talk about love often seems out of place, naive, simplistic. When there are hard things to contend with love often gets short shrift. When difficult issues demand our attention, we tend to respond out of duty and obligation rather than love. A hard cruel world seems to crowd out love as a motivating factor.  What the world needs now…is love.

Thus, here they are – the two great commandments, the sum of all the law, the completion of all our duties to God and man, summed up in one simple word – love. “You shall love Jehovah your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “There is no other commandment greater than these,” Jesus says. For two thousand years, these two simple commands have served as the bedrock of all Christian ethics.

If we could just live by these two simple commands all would be well. However, as it’s been said, the devil is in the details. How does one live out these two simple commands. If you look in the Old Testament passages from where these two statements are drawn you will find literally hundreds of detailed commands on how to love God and love your neighbor. Or, as a former parishioner of mine used to say, if loving your neighbor is such a simple thing why do we need thousands of lawyers and thousands of laws to spell it out for us? Maybe more to the point, how can love be a command? Can love, true love, come out of an obligation to fulfill the law? So what looks like two simple commandments actually ends up being quite frustrating to live out. Two simple commands that are impossible to obey. Is there a practical way to live out these commandments?

I think the key is found in the Sh’ma.  Sh’ma, the Hebrew word for ‘hear’ or ‘listen’, is the name for the most famous and beloved statement of the Jewish faith: “Hear, O Israel: Jehovah is our God, Jehovah is one.” The command to love God, from Deuteronomy 6:4, is directly preceded by a statement of who God is. God is one. The oneness of God, the all-encompassing oneness of God, is the primary basis for the command to love God.

Now a Christian understanding of the oneness of God is expressed in the idea of the Trinity, traditionally, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is in this understanding of God as Trinity that I think we can grasp what it means to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. In all of eternity God lives and loves as Father (or Creator), Son, and Holy Spirit. God exists in community. In God’s being there is movement, life, personal relationship, the giving and receiving of love. Princeton Seminary professor Daniel Migliore puts it this way: the three persons of the Trinity “are united in an exquisite divine dance.” God is the divine dance of self-giving, compassionate love that is stronger than sin and death. It is a love that comes out of freedom, not obligation. As Migliore puts it: “God is self-expending, other-affirming, community-building love.” This free expression of love allows God to get involved in the world, even to the depths of mortality, deprivation, suffering, and death. This boundless love of the triune God is decisively revealed in the cross of Christ and is the eternal source and energy of human friendship, compassion, sacrificial love, and inclusive community.

There is an interesting unstated angle to this theological exchange between Jesus and this anonymous scribe. The scribe’s compliment that, yes, indeed, Jesus is right in saying these two commands are very important, belies the fact that as far as we know this is the first time in Jewish history that these two commands have been brought together in such a close link. Of course, the command to love God was paramount in Jewish religious practice. Likewise, the command to love one’s neighbor as yourself, which comes from Leviticus 19:18, was well regarded in rabbinical writings. However, before this time of Jesus there is no evidence that any Jewish theologian or rabbi ever put the two together.

I think it is out of the nature of God that Jesus puts these two commands together. Because God is a relationship of love, loving God and loving others come together as a natural and complete expression of what it means to be truly human. In his incarnation, Jesus lived a truly authentic human existence. God’s eternal self-giving love had its fullest expression in the new humanity of Jesus. His is the ultimate realization of a human being in undistorted relationship with God. Because of that Jesus could be the human being for others, living in solidarity with all people, and especially sinners, strangers, the poor, the disadvantaged and the handicapped. Therefore, to love God and to love others are two sides of the same coin. It is part and parcel of the truly authentic humanness God desires for all of us. It is the full expression of being in the image of God.

In light of all this I do not believe we should think of love as a duty we perform, despite the language of ‘commandments’ and ‘obedience’. Instead, it is the joyful practice of a new freedom we experience in relationship to God. Because God loves us, we are free to love God in return and love each other. Christian love is always preceded by God’s surprising love for us. We are people who are rooted in God’s grace and are therefore free to be with and for each other, especially with those who are called strangers and undesirables.

We are invited to participate in the divine dance of love. We do this by faith; faith that is the simple trust and confidence in the benevolence of God extended to us in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. The free act of entrusting ourselves to God is the glad response of the first commandment to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. A free response to a trustworthy and gracious God enables each one of us to gladly love each other because we know we are truly loved.

So on this Dia de los Muertos, on this All Hallow Tide weekend, may we, even as we celebrate those who have gone before, may we lean into this love May we dance with God and live out Jesus’ simple commandments to love, even if that seems impossible. In a harsh and cruel world, what the world needs now is love. Let us live out that love with each other.

As our next hymn urges, “bind us close to one another, sharing life and death and birth, welcoming as sister, brother, all your children on the earth.” Let stand in body or in spirit and sing God, We Thank You for Our People. Amen

 

 

 

 

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