Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
October 25, 2020
All You Need Is Love
Matthew 22: 34-46
If you look up as you walk along Bleeker Street in Manhattan, you might notice, among the tangle of cables and telephone wires and power lines, a thin filament of fishing line high above you, running parallel to the street. If you kept walking, from Houston Street all the way up to 126th, you would see that line wind its way from telephone pole to telephone pole, building to fence post and back, encircling a portion of the city completely. The fishing line, so thin you can only see it when the light catches it just so, is an eruv, and it’s there to help orthodox Jewish people keep the Sabbath. There are eruv in Baltimore, too, three of them – the oldest is in Northwest Baltimore, surrounding Mt. Washington and running up to 695 and back. As you know, a Sabbath is a day of rest, when God’s busy people are meant to rest – rest from work, dial back the frenetic pace that keeps us driving and cooking and hauling things from one place to another during the week. For some strictly observant Jewish people, sabbath also means rest from using electricity, and even rest from carrying things – small necessary things like house keys, and medicine, and children.
How does anyone accomplish this?
The prohibition from carrying things does not apply at home. So the line, the eruv, is a symbolic enclosure that extends the area where observant Jews can carry things on the Sabbath. It makes public space common private space in the eyes of the law, pushing the walls of the home out into the world. Practically, this means young families can get out for walks and to synagogue on Saturdays instead of staying cooped up in their houses or apartments. Now this line, the eruv, sounds like a recent innovation, an adaptation of the ancient law to fit our modern lifestyles, but actually it’s been in use for more than 1500 years. The arrangement for the eruv in Manhattan dates back to the 1870’s, when the city agreed to lease access to the land for just $1 annually. So for a long time, people have sought and at times struggled to interpret religious law in ways that are both faithful and lifegiving.
The legal code of ancient Israel is famously extensive. There are 613 commandments written in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), laws to cover everything from preventing criminal activity to regulating food and personal conduct. The legal code is further extended by a huge body of rabbinic interpretation and oral tradition. Together, the rabbinic tradition along with the written commandments is known as the Halakha – a word derived from the verb that means to walk. That means the collection of the law together with its interpretation, is called, essentially, the way to walk. In ancient Israel, the law did more than just explicate what people could and couldn’t do. The law formed the community and was a guide for faithfully walking through life…but it was so extensive, the commentary so unwieldy, it was hard to fully follow it unless one was a priest or rabbi and could devote significant time to study and keeping the law.
That is why the question the lawyer posed to Jesus is so tricky: which commandment is the most important? Jesus has been in the temple fielding all sorts of hard questions from the religious leaders, who are looking for a reason to kick him out or- better yet- condemn him to death. There isn’t a clear or easy answer to this one. The law isn’t written in a prioritized list, it’s a complex and interconnected way of walking – to privilege one law over all the others is problematic. Yet Jesus, this itinerant preacher from Nazareth, manages to do it. In a short answer, he distills the laws, all 613 of them, down to their core, the most essential part – what he calls the hook on which all the rest of the torah hangs: Love! Love for God, love for self, and love for neighbor.
It seems like people got so caught up in keeping the law they forgot the purpose of the law in the first place – to create just, healthy, flourishing communities filled with faithful, loving people. Jesus is trying to remind them – and us – that Love should be the plumb line, guiding everything else that they do.
Love is a powerful motivator. But this is not the love of hallmark cards. It’s not the kind of love that leads one to swipe left or right. It’s not saccharine, surface level, or fleeting. It’s bigger, deeper, and stronger than that. The love Jesus is talking about is not just a feeling, it’s an action – love that cares for and seeks the best for others. Love brings plenty of wonderful moments, but it also leads us to hard places – it means we stay by the hospital bed, we visit the memory care unit, we stand at the kitchen sink even though we’re exhausted because the dishes need to be done. We show up. These days, love may mean also doing the hard work of staying apart, so that those who are vulnerable stay healthy. Or going someplace you may not be completely jazzed about going – like a second lengthy church service in one day.
It’s easier, I think, to understand this love for our neighbors in a direct, interpersonal sense. With our actual family, and friends, and neighbors – those whose lives run parallel and occasionally intersect with ours. But this love of God and love of neighbor is an ethic of mutuality that can and must be scaled up and out, to encompass those who are farther afield – those connected to us by economic, political, or relational ties that are looser, more tenuous. These neighbors are people with whom we may feel we have little in common – those of a different culture, or language, political party, or national identity. These far-off neighbors may be the hardest of all to love. How do we do it?
After the terrible shootings at the Christchurch mosques in New Zealand, the Birmingham Islamic Society opened its doors for a community vigil in solidarity – people needed to gather, to pray and grieve and rage and show support for each other. Our whole family went. We showed up a bit late, so the room was fairly full when we arrived. We found a cubby for our shoes and slipped in the back, sitting criss cross applesauce on the plush carpeted floor with our neighbors. A young man in his early 20’s sat in front of us, a member of the masjid. He scooted over to make sure we could see, and smiled at us, and started making faces at Gillian, making her laugh and keeping her entertained as person after person stood and shared their grief and words of support. After a while, he just held her little hand, and we sat together. “I have a cousin her age,” he told me. It was such a small thing. But it was also everything.
To love our neighbors is to grieve together, when a tragedy happens. Loving God by loving neighbor looks like love shared in the public square – hands held not in romance but in solidarity, with striking workers or protesting police brutality or calling others to vote. The kind of love we’re called to says – I can’t be who I am without valuing who God created you to be, whomever you love, whatever your pronouns. This kind of love advocates for others – it says
that the children separated from their families and who cannot be located by our government – they are our children. The men behind bars are our fathers and brothers and uncles. The elderly at risk are our grandparents, our mothers, our fathers. This is the kind of love that defines us. This is the work to which we are called. Love that shapes the law is not just a feeling, it’s an action – a way of walking together.
Today, we will officially mark the beginning of our ministry together and I believe I was called here because God has great things in store for us. Imagine what might happen if, when we leave our houses in the coming days, we looked up. Imagine we saw there a thin filament, barely visible to the naked eye, stretching out in either direction, pushing the walls of our home out into the world. Expanding our definition of neighbor to include those across town, those who don’t speak or act or look or worship like we do, whom we are called to love as we love God and ourselves. What if that thin line helped us to scale our ethic of mutuality upwards and outwards to include… everyone? When we allow ourselves to be guided by this ethic of mutuality, loving God, and loving our neighbors – the compassion and compelling magic of this place will only grow, deepen, and continue to transform our lives and the lives of our neighbors and of this city in incredible ways. I can’t wait to find out.
 I learned about this symbolic enclosure from a report on NPR’s All Things Considered, “A Fishing Line Encircles Manhattan, Protecting the Sanctity of Sabbath,” by Monique Laborde, 5/13/19, https://www.npr.org/2019/05/13/721551785/a-fishing-line-encircles-manhattan-protecting-sanctity-of-sabbath