READING: Matthew 22:34-40 NRSV
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37
He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Today is our second Sunday into 100 Days of Love, and I wonder if you put any thought into your homework this week, which was:
1. look for acts of agape love in the world and
2. Spot conditions that we put on each other.
I read through all of the slips you stuffed into the jars last Sunday, and there were some fabulous observations in there. I thought you might want to read some of the data we’ve collected, so I asked Kate, our office administrator, to type them up. They’re in your bulletin if you’d like to see them—edited to keep people’s anonymity.
Speaking of which, what do you think of that idea? As long as they stay purely anonymous, are you ok with your observations being printed up? If you don’t want it printed publicly like that, you can share it with just me—if you wanted for someone to know, but not everyone to know. Or, you can keep it for yourself. Either way.
The point of this is not to embarrass anyone. It’s to help us to be more aware of our interactions in the world.
This week we’re looking a little closer in detail at Jesus’ command from last week to be people of agape love, by honing in on Matthew 22. Today we’re reading Matthew’s version of when Pharisee comes to Jesus with a trick question. This legal expert wants to know which of the 613 mitzvahs of the Torah is the most important.
Jesus, likely riffing off of something one of the most prominent Ravs of Jesus day—the Rav Hillel– had said, answers the man by saying that the Shema is the most important mitzvah, or laws.
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment, he says. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Have you ever thought about that before—about loving God. How do we do that exactly?
“How (do we) conjure up feelings for something as remote (and) mysterious…. as the concept of God? We cannot look into God’s eyes, wrap our arms around the Spirit, or even see the face of Jesus.”
The Jews have known for a long time that loving God is more than having a feeling or an emotion towards God. Loving God looks like tangible acts in the life of a human—which is exactly why there are 613 mitzvot to follow in Judaism. Obeying Torah is how observant Jews love God.
But for Christians, who do not heed the laws of the Torah, we still have to ask ourselves that head scratching question—How exactly do we love God?
Following in the footsteps of our Jewish brothers and sisters, we can see that:
“Biblical Love is something that we do… “(and that Loving God) is a choice to act in a certain way.”
Jesus, interestingly, gives us a clue about how to do this very thing though. He tells us that the “the greatest commandment”—to love God—is connected to the second, “which is like it,” he says.
Back in the 1930s and 40s, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked that most basic question—How do we love God? And always, he answered it by coming back to the concrete relationships we live in— with each other. He called these concrete relationships the “I-You relation,” and explained that how I relate to you is actually how we treat God.
When we relate to each other we are acting towards the “Divine You” he calls it, that lives within the “Human You.”
Because God’s image rests in all of us, when I reach out to the “human” you, I’m also reaching out to the “divine within you.” Because of this, loving others is loving God. These two things are inseparable, Bonhoeffer says.
Interestingly, there’s another layer in all of this, which Bonhoeffer (in his World War II context) didn’t have time to consider.
After Jesus says to “love God with all of your heart, and soul, and mind,” he quotes Leviticus 19:18—to connect that loving others is related to loving God.
But! Get this! There’s a condition built into this relationship—(Remember how last week we talked about the fact that God both has conditions, and also, lets go of conditions?)
Well, for Jesus to command that we “love our neighbors as ourselves,” he’s including a precondition within that command, and that precondition is this: to love others, we must also—firstly— love ourselves.
Over the last 7 years, I have been on a personal journey of radical self-love, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that coming into a place of agape for ourselves—letting go of the conditions that we bind to our acceptance of self—well, it’s waaaayyyyyyy harder to do this for you, than for someone else.
When you start to tinker with self-love, you realize quickly that it is absolutely terrifying to surrender yourself to loving yourself the way that God loves us.
But this terror, well, it comes from somewhere. So today we’re going to talk about that, and also, how to overcome the fear of loving ourselves.
There is a South African proverb that says, “I am because of who we all are.” It’s what the Zulu word ubuntu means. Ubuntu has a positive connotation—it means that the goodness that lives in me comes from the goodness that is lives in our community. But the idea that “I am who I am through who my people are” also rubs the other way.
Because we are social beings, social expectation—the overarching guidelines that we all live by— often tell us who we have to be, in order to be worthy of love in our community at large.
This need to be loved by the community around us often traps us into believing that we are only loveable—even to ourselves—unless we meet certain social conditions.
We unconsciously think to ourselves, “I’m only lovable if I’m beautiful, or successful, or strong, or intelligent, or I’m willing to always say yes to what others want from me. We begin to equate our lovability with these social standards.
Let me give you some examples.
We think to ourselves, “GAh! I need to loose 20 pounds before I can even stand to look at myself in the mirror and think I’m beautiful.
Or, “If only I weren’t losing all my hair, I’d be more attractive.”
Or, “I’ll finally be worth something when I go to school.”
Or, “I wish I weren’t gay—then I’d be ok.”
Or, “If only I made more money, then I would be successful.”
All of these beliefs we hold about ourselves—that we aren’t enough—well, they reveal that we hold secret conditions in our minds, for ourselves. They reveal… that we don’t think that we are worthy of love, just as we are.
This week I had an all-too-real encounter with my own secret fears of not being enough—the ones that push me into making conditions for myself, and so I thought I’d tell you about it—to give you an idea of how deep this agape love has to go to reach us when we’re talking about loving ourselves without condition.
As you know, I deal with chronic pain from a condition called Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome. Five years ago, I didn’t know that that was my underlying problem, but back then I did know what it was like to live with it.
At that point I was spending about 90% of my time in a wheelchair, because walking was excruciatingly painful; but prior to that, I had been a very active person.
I ran and I biked, and I pounded fence posts, and skied with the best of them. That version of me was super proud of my physical strength and ability. I loved hauling 50-pound bags of grain around, not just because it needed to be done to feed our chickens, but because I felt proud to be so capable and strong.
I didn’t realize it then, but at that time, my entire identity was caught up in being physically active—it defined who I was, and gave me social validation.
But then, I started experiencing this debilitating pain, and I couldn’t run anymore, or ski or bike. I couldn’t even walk out into the fields to check on fence posts, let alone pound them. My body wasn’t willing to cooperate with the identity I had built up for myself—the one I thought I had to be, in order to be acceptable and loveable to other people.
Then things started to get really bad. I had to start using a wheelchair to get around, and it was absolutely devastating to my psyche.
I didn’t realize that I had secretly come to believe what society has taught us—that being able to walk and move around on your own two feet increases your worth and value in the world. I didn’t know that I believed that, but I did.
So…. when the day came that I had to switch to using a wheelchair, I really struggled with feeling worth-less, and I carried intense shame around with me for not being able to walk like all of the other able-bodied people in the world.
I battled those shame monsters for nearly 3 years, when, all of a sudden, a physical therapist figured out a way to alleviate the pain I experienced when walking, and lo, and behold, I could ambulate on my two feet again.
That was 4 years ago. Since then, I’ve been up and down, on a yo-yo with pain, but it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve found myself sometimes needing to use a wheelchair again.
Well, the last week or so I had been doing ok-ish, but then…. last Sunday afternoon I decided to make a strawberry crisp for dinner, and the amount of standing it took to do that sent the pain in my ankles into overdrive, so that by last Sunday night…. I was a Hurtin’ Merton.
When this happened, I did all of the things I know to do when the pain sets in– I used my ice packs, I revved up my tens unit, I elevated my feet, and I took my Advil. But there was something else I knew I needed—the thing that was going to make the difference between getting better quicker, and living in excruciating pain for a least a week. I needed to use my wheelchair.
Now, at home, it’s not such a big deal. I can hide away in my house and no one will see me there— for society to question my worth and think of me differently. But what was I going to do Monday morning, when I had to go school to my tutoring job? No one there had ever seen me in a wheelchair before.
They know that I have trouble walking sometimes, and that I park in the handicap parking spot, but I have managed to keep secret how bad things can get, so that no one can see the real me.
But now, here was my dilemma—either I could appease my struggling sense of self-worth by keeping secret how bad my pain was and walk into the school like I normally do (whereby I would spike my pain levels), or I could take care of my body and face the ginormous demons of fear that live in my head—the ones that constantly scream at me that needing to use a wheelchair makes you worthless, and weird, and shame-ridden.
Now, in the past, I’ve chosen the pain-ridden secret option more times than I can count because I’m more afraid of the psychological shame than I am of the physical pain.
[For most of us who don’t know how to love ourselves well, this psychological pain can be unbearable. It drives us to drink, and overeat, to lash out at other people …and to walk around when you really can’t.]
As I worried to myself Sunday night about my dilemma for Monday morning, I knew that even though I’ve made poor choices for myself in the past, this was a chance to live into apage love for myself.
I could take care of my body’s need by letting go of the one condition that psychologically imprisoned me— that I keep my body’s non-normal-ness a secret.
It was a really tough choice to make. Keep my secret at school and sky-rocket the pain, or reveal my secret and reduce the pain? I angled every possible alternate option for myself Sunday night—trying to find some way to be able to keep my secret—to hold onto my condition.
But finally, I realized it. If I wanted to take care of myself—if I wanted to love me—I was going to have to do the hard thing.
The next morning I woke up with a lump in my guts. I was terrified, but I kept my focus on what I needed the most that day—to keep my pain levels down. When I got to school that morning, and was trying to haul my chair out of the backseat of the car, one of the mothers who was dropping her kids off asked if I needed help.
Now, this is a mother I know teaches yoga, and does all sorts of healthy things, and so for her, of all people, to see my secret– I almost couldn’t bear it.
“No, I’m fine,” I told her—lying to both her and me. Tears started to well up in my eyes from the pain of it all. She walked past me and I breathed a sigh of relief.
About a minute later, I was still struggling with my wheelchair when, this time, one of the other teacher’s aids walked past me. “Katrina, do you need any help?” she asked.
“Yes,” I cried—fearful of this woman’s help, but also recognizing that I couldn’t do this on my own– at least this time. “Can you help me up the ramp?” I asked, plopping myself into my chair. Lisa helped get me over the bumpy ground and then gave a great heave to get us started up the ramp. But there were kids, and backpacks, and lunchboxes strewn out all over the ramp, and one of the teachers had to ask them to pick everything up and move so that I could get by.
Everyone was staring at me, and it was absolutely mortifying. “What’s wrong with her?” I heard one of the kids whisper. I wanted to cry, but instead I took in another deep breath of the Holy Spirit and helped Lisa maneuver my chair across the threshold of the door, which attempted to thwart our efforts of getting me inside the building.
Next, I had 2 giant hallways to get down, before I reached the room I work in. I zoomed myself down them as fast as I could, feeling my demons hiss and moan at me the whole way. The principle was in the hallway. He stopped to say hello, and I heard one of my shame monsters say to me, “You are worthless.” It was everything I could do to bear it.
The rest of the morning continued to be hard, with my monsters doing their best to punish me for revealing our little secret, but I kept reminding myself why I was doing this. “You are taking care of your most important needs,” I kept telling myself. “By doing this, you’re not hurting yourself more today.”
By the end of the morning—when it was time for me to go home, I felt beat up, and exhausted. But ya know something? Tuesday morning, when I had to do it all over again, the voices in my head weren’t quite as loud as they were on Monday, and I hurt less Tuesday morning than I did Monday morning! And by Wednesday….. I was able to start hobbling around at home on my own two feet because the pain had died down substantially—which wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t used my wheelchair at school. Wednesday night, when I went to bed, I had a huge grin on my face.
I have been struggling for weeks with trying to keep my secret hidden, but this week I started to overcome that stipulation I had for myself, and I felt so much better for it— even though it was terrifying, and hard, and the demons in my head tried to yell at me to “turn back!”
Friends, most of you don’t struggle with the same shame monsters that I do. But that doesn’t mean that shame and fear over not measuring up don’t eat at the core of your soul in other ways. Many of you struggle with humiliation related to your bodies in other ways, or because of mental health issues, or issues related to your job, or because of the ways you’ve been treated in your life.
Today I wonder what love you’ve been withholding from yourself—what healing and wholeness of God’s great agape you’ve been denying yourself—because you, like me, you need to appease the conditions that your shame monsters imprison you with.
Thomas Merton once wrote, “We discover our true selves in love.” We discover our true selves, we discover each other, and… we discover God when we choose to live in agape love.
So may we all look to love God with all our hearts, and souls, and minds this week by learning to love ourselves… without condition.
 Clayton Schmit, Oct. 2011; https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30/commentary-on-matthew-2234-46-2
 Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, in The Bonhoeffer Reader (edited by Clifford Green and Michael DeJonge, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2013).