Sunday, November 4, 2012

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

When in our Gospel reading a scribe comes to Jesus
and asks him which of the commandments is the greatest
Jesus’s answer is in one sense not surprising:
he replies by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy
a passage that is to the Jewish people
perhaps the most familiar passage in all of Scripture:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
But Jesus does not stop there.
This first and greatest commandment
seems to immediately imply a second commandment,
this one taken from the book of Leviticus:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

What is notable about Jesus’s answer to the scribe’s question
is not so much the two passages of Scripture that he cites
but rather the way in which he joins them together:
love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand.
Indeed, we might say that love of God and love of neighbor
are but a single love.
The great 17th-century saint, Francis de Sales,
said that love is like the ladder that Jacob saw in his dream,
stretching between heaven and earth,
upon which the angels ascended and descended:
love is a ladder,
“raising us even to spiritual union with God,
and bringing us back to loving companionship
with our neighbors” (Treatise on Perfection Bk. 10 ch. 11).

On this weekend, when we celebrate our relationship
with our Sister Parish of St. John the Baptist 
in Sepalau, Guatemala,
it is good to remind ourselves of this single love
upon which we are raised up to God
and journey back to our neighbor.
We have had a relationship with the people of Sepalau,
a remote mountain village of about 800 people, 
for twenty years;
we have helped finance a school building, a church,
and most recently a community chicken coop.
We have sent delegations from our parish down 
every couple of years 
and, as many of you remember, 
a delegation from Sepalau
came to visit us here in Baltimore in 2008.

Maintaining this relationship has required much effort,
not only because of the physical distance of some 3000 miles,
but also because of the distance 
of language and culture and experience.
Those of us who have not been there 
cannot really imagine
the daily lives of the people of Sepalau:
the great beauty of the land and culture of Guatemala,
but also the every-day struggles of this particular village.
For example, I am sorry to say that the chicken coop project
has gotten off to a rocky start
due in part to the logistical difficulties 
of setting up a community bank account
but also due to disagreements within the village itself,
community dynamics that are themselves 
difficult for us to understand:
why can't they do things the way that we do them?

The people of Sepalau are good people, 
but they are not perfect people.
And maybe it is in this that they are most like us.
We too seek to be good – 
to love God and love our neighbor –
but we too are imperfect in that love.
While we as a parish want to show our love 
to the people of Sepalau,
the distances of time and culture 
make maintaining this relationship a challenge
and all too easy to put out of our minds
or to leave to someone else.

Perhaps this is the way 
in which love of God and love of neighbor
most resemble each other:
if it is difficult to love the neighbor whom we can see
how much more difficult is it 
to love the God whom we cannot see?
If our love of neighbor is imperfect,
how much more do we fail 
in our attempts to love God 
with all our heart,
all our soul, 
all our strength?

So while love is the ladder 
upon which we rise up to God
and which brings us back to our neighbor,
it all proves to be a pretty complicated and difficult affair.
Our faltering human love 
can seem like a pretty shaky ladder.
But thanks be to God 
that the twofold commandment
to love God and neighbor
is enfolded within the promise of God’s love for us.
In the love we show to our neighbors –
whether distant neighbors in Sepalau,
or near neighbors in Baltimore,
or the nearest neighbors of all: our friends and family –
we are simply handing on 
the love that God has shown to us:
in the end it is God’s love that is the ladder
that brings us close to God’s kingdom;
it is God’s love along which we journey 
to our neighbors near and far,
and it is God’s love that unites us together with them
to the God who is love.