One of my favorite poems is The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. In church we think of the second coming as the time when Christ will return with shouts of acclamation, but this poem is not joyful or hopeful. It talks about something bad on the horizon, some rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. It was written about a hundred years ago, during a time of political unrest and in the wake of a global pandemic. The poem opens with these words:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? We are living in a time where the divisions between people feel intense and the lines have hardened. We are divided racially, culturally, socioeconomically, and politically. There is an election coming up, and it is a contentious one. Many of us worry that there might be an outbreak of violence in its aftermath regardless of the outcome. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. We are in an age where conservatives and liberals are increasingly unable to find common ground. Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts,” and increasingly, depending on our political persuasion, we go to different sources to find information we consider reliable. We don’t get our news from the same place and different media outlets paint very different visions of the world. The Washington Post and the New York Times does not report the same news as Breitbart and Fox News So we each are left with alternative visions of race, criminal justice, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. We are not talking to each other, not even talking past each other. We increasingly only talk to ourselves in our own echo chambers.
Jesus also lived in divisive times. Of course, the Roman empire controlled the world, but first Century Israel was divided in how they ought to relate to Rome. The two most influential parties in Jesus day were the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and these are the two groups most prevalent in our New Testament. They didn’t agree on much. The Sadducees were the religious conservatives. They were the party that the Jewish High Priest belonged to, and thus were the overseers of temple worship. They were compromising and colluding with Rome to stay in power and keep the Temple open for business. The Pharisees on the other hand were religious reformers. They didn’t like how compromised their Jewish leaders were and tried to enact a program of faithfulness to Torah so that God would renew God’s covenant relationship with Israel and free them from their oppression. The Sadducees and Pharisees had completely different theological and political visions. But both groups did feel threatened by Jesus.
In Matthew 22 where our passage is found, both groups try to trip Jesus in his words. They ask about taxes, and they ask about marriage in the resurrection. And then, an expert in the law, one of the Pharisees asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was and Jesus gave him two: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is a good summary of Jewish ethics and spirituality. In fact, in Luke’s account, it isn’t Jesus that gives this answer but the legal expert himself. It draws together two scriptures. The first is the Shema, so called because that is the first word of the passage in Hebrew: Hear O Israel that the Lord your God is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength. The second commandment mentioned comes from the latter part of Leviticus 19:18. The whole verse reads, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people, instead, love your neighbor as yourself.” This exhortation to love your neighbor like you love yourself is the Judeo-Christian version of the golden rule, and one of the things we have in common with the other world religious traditions. We know that all true spirituality boils down to just this: love. As the four evangelists—John, Paul, George, and Ringo once said, “All you need is love, love is all you need.” And on this hangs all the law and the prophets.
I will be honest, that as important and as central as the love command is, it comes across as vague and a little Pollyanna-ish to just say love is the answer. Sure there are lots of popular songs about how love is a many splendor thing, but it seems a little cliché. I mean, yes, love is the answer: Love God and love people, do that and you will be living the abundant life God has for us. It is always the Holy Spirit’s invitation to us to be people who love. But what does loving God and people really mean? And what does it mean in an age of political unrest and COVID-19?
First let me say what love isn’t. Love does not just mean tolerance. We need to be loved more than we need to be tolerated. Love does not necessary mean being nice and polite. When there is injustice happening, and people are wounding one another, real love can feel downright rude to the powers that be because it will speak up on behalf of the downtrodden, and the oppressed. Protest may be an act of love and civility and politely propping up the status quo may be an act of unlove.
So how do we love God and love our neighbor? This is an important question that followers of Jesus will return to again and again, and there is not one simple answer to it. But if I can highlight one part of loving God and loving our neighbors, it means giving to them our full attention. When Jesus says love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, he was saying turn every part of your being toward God. Cultivate an attentiveness toward God. Meditate, pray, look and see what God is doing around you and give God thanks and praise. Ask what God is doing and pay attention to what answer reveals itself. Ask what God wants you to do. It is the nature of the life of prayer that when we clutter our mind with images and activities God is crowded out, but when we call our attention to the Divine we begin to see God everywhere and we are drawn into the love of God.
Similarly, loving your neighbor as yourself starts with giving to them your earnest attention. We are living through a widening gyre where things fall apart and the center cannot hold. Loving others means not retreating to our own echo chambers but giving our attention to our neighbor, even when we don’t understand them or where they are coming from. It means listening to their words and not just for your opportunity to talk. Love means being present with them. Yes, this much harder to do in a time of pandemic with social distancing and wanting to keep one another safe. We aren’t just divided. We feel isolated and alone. Love can look like a kind word. A card sent to let someone know you are thinking of them and that you appreciate them. Loving your neighbor right now could just be a phone call or a text. To have someone reach out to you when you are drifting and feeling disconnected is so meaningful. A small gesture communicates volumes. I know because I’ve been privileged to be God’s loving presence for others, and they have been that for me. But it starts with our paying attention to who God puts in our path or calls to mind.
This contentious year and the global climate have changed a lot of things, and I feel like we will go through a lot of changes before we are done, but the constant call of Christ’s spirit to us remains: love God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Yes, these are tumultuous times but what the world needs now is love, sweet love. It is the only thing there is just too little of. Let’s find a way to love God and love one another well.