Preached June 22, 2002, still seems worth saying
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be God’s person and to love God. I also wanted to be safe and loved and have friends and power and a lot of other things, too. I’ve spent my whole life working on the process of getting all these in order, because I know that the most important of them is loving God. Loving God wholeheartedly is a journey for me, and I believe someday it will be a resting place.
Jesus identified the two great commandments (Matthew 25): the greatest is loving God with one’s whole heart, mind, strength and the second is loving one’s neighbor. This particular sermon is about loving God. We’ll approach this through two stories: Adam and Eve and the rich young ruler, all of whom failed to love God wholeheartedly.
Genesis 2 and 3 tells the story of the Garden of Eden, a place where God put fruit trees, a river, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God told Adam that he was free to enjoy all things in the garden except one; God warned Adam that in the day he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die. God made animals as companions for Adam, and Eve as his helper and partner; when Adam saw Eve, he said, “Shazzam!” He recognized that she shared his essential characteristics. The innocence of Eden is symbolized in the fact of their unashamed nakedness before each other and God, who came to visit them in the garden.
It seems clear that from the beginning what God wanted from humans was—and is—for them to choose to love God. The Old Testament and New Testament are full of images for the relationship between God and humans that emphasize the personal loving intimacy God wants: Husband and wife, mother and infant, father and son, hen and chicks, friends. Interestingly, however, when God made humans and called them very good, giving them the earth to care for and enjoy, God also gave humans freedom. One aspect of freedom is the ability to imagine things being different from the way they are and to choose that option over the facts of the present. Another aspect of freedom is to look at all the evidence of surrounding love and choose something else.
In the New Testament, Matthew 19:16-26, we read about the encounter between a rich young man and Jesus. The young man asked the question we all have: “What good deed must I do to have eternal life.” Jesus replied to him, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Intelligently, the young man asked another question: “Which ones?” Jesus narrowed the various commandments of the Old Testament down to the following: “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t say false things; honor your parents, and, last but not least, love your neighbor as yourself.” These are all quotations from the Jewish law, the last from Leviticus 19:16. The young man said, “I’ve kept all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor; this means you know your treasure is in heaven; then come, follow me.”
This young man has a life marked by innocence and pleasant circumstances.He has done no harm and has also done active good in his world. But he feels that something is lacking. He wants to make sure he has a good life for eternity. Jesus tells him one thing he can do to be perfect (or complete), which will make sure his eternity is happy.
There are some obvious differences between these two situations. Adam and Eve were in paradise with only one prohibition; the rich young man was in an occupied country with diverse social classes and ethnic groups and had a lot of prohibitions. Adam and Eve’s test was to keep from doing something; the rich young man’s test was to do something radical.
What seems similar, however, is important. In both cases, people had so much going for them, so much to be thankful for, so many advantages. In both cases, people wanted to make sure they had everything they could possibly want. In both cases, the people were willing to risk losing their relationship with God because they wanted something else more than they wanted that relationship. Adam and Eve decided they wanted to be like God, to be the ones who separate good and evil, even if that separated them from God. The rich young man wanted to live a good life and the good life, and was willing to do one more good thing to ensure a good future life, but he wasn’t willing to focus his desire on wanting God. God has seen that for the world to be good, for love to be real, the option must exist for people to choose something else. Even though God set things up so that humans can be satisfied only by knowing God intimately, God also embedded in the nature of the universe the possibility that humans can choose against relationship. The universe has gaps, dangers, prohibitions, and so on, which make that choice real.
God challenged Adam and Eve to enjoy everything around them including God except one thing. Adam and Eve chose the knowledge of good and evil over knowing God intimately and left the Garden in sorrow. Jesus challenged the rich young man to risk everything that made him comfortable and safe on a relationship with Jesus. The young man went away in sorrow, because he was rich. In some ways the choices are opposite, but at the core all three faced the question of whether they were willing to trust in God’s love for them and love God unconditionally or whether they needed to take matters into their own hands.
What does it look like to love God wholeheartedly and unconditionally? St. Paul in I Corinthians 13 gives us a picture of love that we can try on here. If we love God, we are patient with God, kind to God (kindness meaning the sort of generosity and loyalty we feel for family in its root); we aren’t envious of God; we don’t boast to God; we don’t assume we know more than God, and we don’t treat God like an inferior with no feelings. If we love God, we don’t insist on our own way; we aren’t irritable or resentful toward God; we don’t enjoy getting away with doing wrong, but we rejoice when God tells us the truth and helps us live truly. Our love for God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. This love never ends.
All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. The world is intricate, homey, grand, and improbable—all reasons we might want to love the one who made it and put us here. However, it’s as if the story of Adam and Eve or the rich young man is reenacted in each human being.
Even though so much around us is good, we often do not love God wholeheartedly. We want something more than we want to love God. We do not trust in God’s goodness and wholehearted love for us, and we are therefore open to the temptation to trust ourselves instead. “What good deed can we do to have eternal life?”
We tend to think that if we had their chances we’d make better choices, but the evidence is against us. Think about all that we have that we would put in the category of blessings. The fact that our bodies and our cars and gravity and the general peacefulness of our state and town have allowed us to be here are things we generally take for granted. When I read in Oliver Sacks’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat about the varieties of ways the brain can malfunction, I began to sense the enormous blessing it is when so much in the brain goes right for such long periods of time. When I consider how many distracted people are driving cars, I am amazed that so few of them run into each other. When I think about how much evil humans can do and how often they choose to do good instead, I can see that we are surrounded by evidence of God’s love and can even see its traces in ourselves when we choose kindness over cruelty or forgiveness over resentment.
St. Paul said that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being, and that in him all things hold together. Why don’t we label all the things that go right as evidence of God’s love for us? When so much is good, why do we find it difficult to love God wholeheartedly? Instead, we focus on negatives—what we can’t have, what we can’t get rid of.
I’m not talking primarily to those who don’t love God because they have never wondered, considered, or believed that there is a God.
Some of us suspect or believe that there is a God, but God is above it all; God doesn’t want or need our love, and God isn’t paying attention to us. God sees us, if God is looking this way, at best from a distance. It’s hard to get interested in loving a God like that. It’s like loving a force field. I hope that if there is anyone reading this who is like either of these, he or she might be moved to say: “God, if you’re out there somewhere, let me know.”
Even those who believe in a personal God need to realize that there is a sense in which God transcends our whole experience of life, the universe, and everything. We can’t pin God to a board and examine every aspect of the nature of God so that we can predict God’s next move. God remains mysterious, even when we have the Bible and countless records of people who have experiences they attribute to God’s activity in their lives.
We may even prefer to believe that God is distant and uninvolved on a daily basis because we see that sometimes bad people live well and long while good people suffer and die young. If the universe tells us that God is all powerful, and our experience tells us that bad things happen to good people, it becomes very difficult to want a close relationship with a God who doesn’t act like a superhero, at least not predictably. It is more difficult to hold together the idea that God is all powerful with the ideas that God is all good and all loving than it is to believe only one of the options.
We may find it hard to love God wholeheartedly because we think God is expecting a lot from us but doesn’t look out for us very well. We are astonished and feel betrayed when something goes wrong, especially when we’ve tried to be good. It is little comfort to believe in a personal, involved God who doesn’t use power and love to prevent all sorrow, pain, untimely death, destruction, and evil.
Another barrier to loving God is that we know we’ve done something God won’t like and therefore God can’t or won’t love us. When we do something we know in our stomachs is wrong, we become afraid of being found out, we’re ashamed, and we hide. Sometimes we hide by creating smokescreens of self-justification; sometimes we hide in activities that distract us from thinking. There are lots of ways to hide from God, and while we’re hiding, we’re not loving God wholeheartedly.
We may find it hard to love God because God allows our own actions and the actions of others combined with the laws of nature to have consequences that are terrible. Though I think God works hard to distract people from doing wrong by attracting them to good things, when people choose to be abusive, hateful, murderous, or even when they do harm out of ignorance or carelessness, God permits horrors to occur.
I want to acknowledge all these difficulties, these barriers in the way of loving God wholeheartedly. We may see God as distant, or unfair, or untrustworthy. In fact, even when our own lives are happy, when we see others suffer, we may doubt that God is both loving and powerful. At one point in my own life, I was angry with God to the point of despair. A friend said, “You know, sometime you’ll just have to forgive God.” Despite the preposterous sound of this, I said, “I forgive you, God, for not living up to my expectations.” It was helpful.
I want to point out the ends of the stories we started with to suggest why we can trust in God’s love.
If the Bible is reliable about God, it’s clear that God wants to get personal: for instance, God’s idea of paradise is to visit Adam and Eve in person and give them everything they need, including the freedom to choose something else; Jesus wants nothing more than for that rich young man to come with him. Furthermore, after Adam and Eve choose knowledge over God, the response is not immediate death, though something dies, I think; instead, the evidence of the story is that God continues to love them: God provides clothing and food and occupation for them, promises them children, and continues to be available to them in relationship. In fact, Eve acknowledges this when she has her first child, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” God also brings them into the open and makes them tell what they’ve done. Even though they blame others for their own fall, being partly honest is better than hiding, and those who can be honest and take responsibility will find it easier to believe that God still loves them. God continues to love them, and that includes allowing them to experience the consequences of their choice to know good and evil.
Similarly, Jesus makes clear that God remains committed to the human, even when the human makes the wrong choice. The gospel of Mark includes the detail that Jesus loves the rich young man. When the rich young man hangs his head and walks away, Jesus says, “It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, in fact.” The disciples, astounded, ask, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replies, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” God still intends to work on or with the rich young man.
The greatest commandment is to love God with our whole selves—heart, strength, mind. What Jesus said about the rich young man is true for all of us: with mortals it is impossible. Our main difficulty in loving God is our own dividedness. Is loving God something we really want to do more than anything else? If we do want to love God, we can tell we are moving in the right direction when patience, kindness, contentment, humility, courtesy, honesty, and commitment are what we want to share with God. We give evidence of loving God when we act or refrain from action just because we think that’s what God wants from us. We can choose to move toward loving God, and God will take our choices and make them add up to love. As Jesus concluded, with God all things are possible.