A bowl of goat’s milk

02
Nov

A sermon preached on November 1, 2009 based upon Mark 12:28 – 34.

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

On one level, this passage seems to express an exquisite simplicity. We human beings have this compulsive tendency to make life overly complicated, which is one way to see the confrontation that took place between Jesus and the religious authorities.   The passage we read describes the final argument that took place between Jesus and the teachers of the law.   What is the most important commandment, Jesus was asked.  In reply he said that it was to live out a two- dimensional love:  love of God and love of neighbor.  We don’t need 614 laws and the complicated religious system human beings had concocted with the elaborate temple sacrifices. The truth in the end is simple.

It is a truth that I think we know in our hearts to be true. It is a truth that the teacher of the law who challenged Jesus that day couldn’t help but acknowledge, and one that all great religious traditions, at their best, lead us to: Love of the holy that is beyond everything, and love of the mortal, flesh and blood that is close at hand.

And yet, when I begin to ponder what it means to love God and love neighbor, my mind gets all tied up in knots. The love of neighbor part is hard enough. Who is my neighbor? What exactly must I do? How far do I need to go? When have I done enough? There are enough questions here for a whole lifetime of sermons.

But it’s actually the other dimension that leaves my brain most baffled: Love God with all you soul, and heart and mind and strength. What, pray tell, does that mean? God is invisible, wholly other. The ten commandments begins by prohibiting any “graven images” of God, because as soon as you try to conjure up an image of God, you end up reducing the mystery of God and creating an idol. God is not a “being” next to other “beings”; God is the ground of all being, the source.

Tell me to love my wife, my child, a member of the church or even a stranger I meet out in the world, and I have my senses to draw upon. I can see, hear, touch and smell them. I can carry the memories derived from my senses around with me and ponder the possibilities of how I can express love to them. Not so with God.

There’s a dilemma here, and one way we can try to solve this dilemma is to work it through in our heads this way: well, the way to show our love to God is to keep ourselves busy doing the work in this world that God wants done, which, of course, is to sing various renditions of the same old song “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And there is something to that.

But there is a problem with this solution, and it is the fact that this one-dimensional focus on the love of neighbor has an inevitable frustration built into it. What happens when we try to love people and our best efforts seem to bring about, as far as we can tell, nothing enduring, or in fact seems to make things worse? And what about the fact that human life exists in a state of perpetual decay, and so sooner or later every neighbor we seek to love is taken from us by death?

And then there’s the undeniable fact that sometimes the people we try to love can seem downright unlovable. Remember what Charlie Brown said? “I love humanity; it’s human beings I can’t stand.” And what about those times when we ourselves seem rather unlovable, which pretty well screws up the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” equation?

Pour ourselves out in loving our neighbors as ourselves, and it can seem we destine ourselves to become bitter and burn out. So the love of neighbor needs to be rooted deeper — in eternity, in that mystery for which we have the inadequate word “God.”

I believe that deep down within all of us, the love of God resides, waiting to find expression. It is there within us as children, but as we grow up, our words, our ideas, our minds get in the way, and the love gets blocked.

There is a story I read long ago that has stayed with me over the years. It involves a poor shepherd and an early “desert father.” In the centuries following Constantine’s embrace of the Church, there was a tradition of people retreating from the world to devote themselves to prayer and contemplation of God, known as the “desert fathers”, and in some instances, “desert mothers.” Often they were deep thinkers – theologians – from which much spiritual wisdom was passed on.

In the story I heard a desert father is in the company of a simple shepherd as a day comes to a close. The desert father notices that the shepherd takes a wooden bowl filled with goat’s milk, and carefully places it on the ground in a location that is raised up higher that the surroundings. He inquires of the poor shepherd why he has done this. “I am so grateful to God,” says the shepherd. “In my love for God I set out this bowl of the richest cream for God to enjoy.”

The desert father feels compelled to correct the shortcomings of the shepherd’s conceptions of God. “My friend,” he says, “don’t your realize that God is pure spirit, and as such, has no need for your bowl of cream?” The shepherd replies, “Well, I don’t know about the pure spirit business, but what I do know is that every night God comes down from heaven and drinks the milk, for in the morning the bowl is always empty.” The desert father answers smugly, “There will be moonlight tonight. We will watch together to discern the truth regarding what happens to your bowl of milk.”

They sit together where they can observe the bowl, and sure enough, shortly after nightfall, a little fox comes trotting along very intently, laps up the milk, and disappears into the wilderness. The shepherd is crestfallen. “How foolish I have been! You were right. God has no need for my little bowl of milk.”

That night, the desert father had a restless night sleep. God appeared to him in a dream – in a blaze of light, perhaps? “What you did to my child the poor shepherd was cruel,” said God. “I always appreciated his offering of a bowl of his goat’s milk. You are right. I am spirit, and since I had no need for the milk myself, I shared the milk each night with my little friend the fox.”

There is this deeper love within us – this sense of awe and wonder at the miracle of being alive — of simple, pure gratitude, and it needs to find expression. The shepherd’s nightly offering gave him a means by which to express that love. We must find such means as well, or else we will wither in our attempts at loving our neighbor.

I read an article recently about a woman who experiences the gift of tongues in her prayer life. I have never received such a gift, and like many “sophisticated” Christians, have tended to look askance at such strange practices. I was struck, however, by what the woman said. She has no idea how, without the gift of the tongues that pour out of her, how she would express the innate gratitude and love for God that is within her. Without it, she says, her mind perpetually gets in the way, worrying about having the right words, the right concepts. She’s right. Like the desert father, we can get trapped in our intellects, unable to access the depths of our hearts.

Vladimir Lenin, the father of 20th century communism, once said something to the effect that he had stopped listening to great music, or contemplating masterful works of visual art, because he found that doing so led to a distracting softness of his heart in which he wanted to go around and pat people on the head. Lenin’s ideology involved a militant atheism, but he had his own god in the doctrine of communism. In his mind any thing that distracted him from devotion to his inflexible ideals was to be avoided. Lenin would have done well to listen to the love hidden in his heart that arose within him when he came into contact with beauty.

Eight years ago our congregation broke ground to build a new sanctuary. In a way, our sanctuary is like the shepherd’s bowl of milk. God is everywhere, so on one level there is no need to put all this money and energy into building a beautiful sanctuary. You can worship God anywhere; in your living room, for instance, or out in the woods.

But the fact of the matter is that we are creatures who depend upon the gift of our five senses to open ourselves up to God. We rely on things like a well-designed worship space in which much consideration has been given to light and color and sound, and inspired, well-rehearsed music, and words hopefully well-crafted, and the taste of bread and wine. In the perception of our senses these things help transport us to that place where our hearts are opened up and the love that resides deep within, rooted in heaven rather than earth, may find expression.

Later in our service we will once more take bread and wine and evoke the memory of a time two thousand years ago when Jesus did the same with his friends in an upper room in Jerusalem. In the eyes of the world, the love he had come to share for all his neighbors would soon seem woefully unsuccessful. Rejected, he died like a common criminal upon the cross. We reenact this last supper with a desire to find with Jesus the love that is rooted not in time but in eternity – that love which alone can sustain us for the journey.

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