So take that, and then I had two experiences yesterday: We had the chance yesterday morning to do something we had never done before – to go to Torrey Pines State Park, where we hiked from the visitor center at the top all the way down to the beach, a steady decline. Also, there was this moment yesterday afternoon where I got to see Micah run. He was running full speed around our cul-de-sac over to his friend’s house – concrete sidewalk where the driveways make the surface go up and down, full stride Micah, with big growing feet. I was so scared he was going to “eat it” again and rip open his knees and bust open his chin. But everything was fine. Until last night when I had that dream.
I had the falling dream, except instead of me falling, it was Micah falling down this declining trail down which, of course, he was running…
Running downhill is an image I’d like you to carry into our reflecting on today’s Gospel text…where Jesus gives those, who were trying to trap him again, “the Bible’s greatest sound bite.” Like last week’s text the Pharisees were looking to trick, not looking to learn; and still Jesus gives them (and us) a great summation of all the law and the prophets with this answer: “Love your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
I am particularly interested with what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”. Loving God with all your heart, soul and mind actually—in Matthew’s world—the equivalent as loving your neighbor as yourself. So it really is all about loving your neighbor as yourself. What else could “Loving God” ultimately mean? Love of God is intrinsically tied to love of neighbor.
And so if we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, then how are we doing at taking care of ourselves? How are you doing at caring about yourself? This might be a difficult thing to think about…for generally well-meaning, self-sacrificing hard-working types, such as yourselves. How are you doing at caring about yourself? But I think it’s good and honest to consider. To use a common—but I think helpful—airline analogy: how are you doing at putting the oxygen mask on yourself first before you help someone else?
Jesus offers us that freedom today, friends. Do something for yourself this week. Treat yourself, guilt free.
Now when I say “treat yourself”, how many of us think of food? Thank you, popular culture, commercials... I couldn’t even write those words without seeing this huge ice cream cone on my computer screen. Satisfying a particular craving—which only meets a short-term urge—is not really what I mean, by “do something for yourself this week.” I’m wondering more about giving some time to yourself this week…to reflect, to pray, to breathe. Even if that means waking up in the middle of the night to journal. Taking a hike in Torrey Pines. Having a cup of coffee of a glass of wine (or a little ice cream) with no one but your thoughts. Jesus offers us that freedom today. Because if we can’t take care of ourselves, then we can never fully love our neighbor. If we can’t breathe…then we can’t serve. Get some breathing space, friends in Christ, for heaven’s sake…and for this world’s sake.
Back to this image of running downhill: this idea of caring for ourselves can certainly get out of control, like the little boy flying recklessly down the trail in my dream last night. He had fun for a moment, but soon went crashing. How self-time, “me time” can get out of control too…I think it has as we watch our world before us: so much about ME…whether it’s political discourse (MY rights), or sports (MY time), or even churches can make it all about ourselves…completely missing others in need (and in that, even our own greatest needs). Having fun for a moment, but soon and ultimately crashing…
But God’s people are called to walk. Downhill. Together.
God’s grace might be imagined as taking our paths in life…and tilting them downward to make them easier. That’s what grace is. Works-righteousness – this idea that we have to earn our salvation, our place in heaven with God, which many of our Christian brothers and sisters still affirm – that’s like a steep hike uphill. If you do A, B, and C, then God will reward you. For non-believers or just non-involved church people, on the other hand, the hike is just kind of flat – no steep inclines, no real commitments, no great joy or sorrow or anger at the One who Christians name as Jesus – just kind of a flat, level, this life is – with no final hope.
But for us who stake it all on God’s grace. That’s like God taking the path, and tilting it downward, so that we can walk easily…but are tempted to run. Tempted to think that it’s just for us. (There were people running downhill yesterday at Torrey Pines. Not only did they almost crash into me and my family and everyone else on the trail. I just thought: that must do a number on your knees over time.) God’s people weren’t meant to run down hills. God’s earth-bending grace and love isn’t meant to be hoarded or gorged upon or spent wildly. Me. Me. Me. Me. God’s grace and love isn’t meant to be consumed like that.
It’s meant to be savored and shared, like a gentle walk down to the beach…like a long talk with a dear friend…like a 5 course meal with everyone singing after dessert.
Loving God with everything, and loving your neighbor as yourself is an invitation to slow down on the trail of grace. To savor and share it. And I’m struck that this dream, this image, is of a way that goes down. Down is where God’s people go, together. Down to savor grace, down to share God’s unconditional welcome. Down to the poor, the lonely, the lost, the confused, the outcast. We “con-descend,” let’s reclaim that word. I was reading about it: and it wasn’t used negatively until the 18th century – condescend. Literally means “to go down together”. One etymological meaning of the word is to “willingly sink to equal terms with inferiors”. Let’s just be honest about how we see others – the poor, the immigrant, the stranger, the outcast, the non-believer, the confused – they’re all inferior to us and our faith. But not if God bends the earth and leads us down together to be with them. Then we’re all together, helping, encouraging, sharing, worshipping – and in that whole steady process, we ourselves are being cared for too!
Not to drag out this word con-descend much more, but I was intrigued to find that con-descend was first used around the 17th c. to refer to what God does: “to willingly sink to equal terms with inferiors”.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, walking downhill calmly and together, seeing and serving the world around us as we move – this is deeply rooted Christian activity! This is Jesus-following activity…isn’t it? This is what it means to love both neighbor as self and to love God – who is present and moving as we walk, pointing us to those in need (and to the beauty of the earth), comforting us when we are in pain, shepherding us down into the valleys of this troubled world; down to the shorelines of good and evil to offer ourselves to both friend and stranger alike; and promising never to leave us…in fact to meet ever more at the bottom, at the end of the day, in our darkest, most broken moments, even in our death. Our God promises to meet us ever more at the bottom…and finally, finally to raise us up in joy and peace. We depend solely on God…to raise us up in joy and peace at the last.
This is God’s grace in which and by which we dwell, now and always! AMEN.