October 26, 2014, Pentecost 20 – Check the Owner’s Manual
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I drive a little silver 1993 VW Passat that I have named the Bean. And since I know absolutely nothing about cars and engines and what magic it is that makes them start up when I turn the key in the ignition and move forward when I step on the gas and all those other things that I tend to take for granted – since I don’t really understand why the things that work, work – I have an owner’s manual, and I keep it in the side pocket of the driver’s side door and I consult it on the very frequent occasions that I need information about the Bean. The manual tells me, for instance, what kind of gas the Bean likes best, and what kind of oil I should add to the engine, and how often I should rotate the tires and change the oil – all that stuff that Gary or Michael already know, but that I wouldn’t know unless I looked in the book. But with that basic information, everything that I need the Bean for: going to work, and visiting people, and running errands, and getting to meetings, would be impossible. So much of being able to do what I do depends on knowing what keeps the Bean happy and healthy.
And in a very small way, my owner’s manual functions like the commandments, because the commandments are God’s way of telling us how we human beings are designed to work best. He’s our maker, our Creator and Designer, and therefore he is the one who knows best of all – much better even than we do ourselves – what makes us tick, and what we need to care for ourselves. It’s not how people usually think of the Commandments. People tend to think of the Commandments as moral laws, rules and regulations that we need to follow so they don’t get into trouble, a checklist of good and bad deeds so they can pat themselves on the back if they keep them better than the next guy. And, of course, we can always find a ‘next guy’ who makes us look pretty good by comparison.
If morality and a strict code of behavior are the guidelines for healthy, happy human beings, the perfect example of a Christian would be someone who minded their p’s and q’s and kept their noses clean and their passions in check – something like Dudley Do-Right and Mr. Clean rolled into one. Just think about the way Christians are usually portrayed in TV shows and films – it’s all about morality: either they are inhumanly pure and impossibly good, or, more often, they are complete hypocrites, moral Jekyl-and-Hydes, professing purity but living lives of self-indulgence and greed and sensuality.
The funny thing is that when God decided to reveal to us the kind of human being he felt especially close to, it turns out he was a far cry from Dudley Do-Right. David, King of Israel, the man whom God called ‘a man after his own heart’, was a man of violence and passion, a murderer and an adulterer, whose life was more often a total mess than otherwise, what with his many wives and his treacherous children and his lack of self-control. And yet, when God looked into David’s heart he saw what he was looking for, and that is why he chose David to lead his chosen nation and to be the great-great-great-fourteen-times Grandfather of Jesus, whom he was sending into the world to rescue it and heal it.
Clearly, when he looked into the heart of the young David, God, in his infinite wisdom, was not looking for unbending morality or a strong code of ethics or a perfect report card. God looked into David’s heart and he liked what he saw – in fact, he identified David’s heart with his own. And I think what he found in David’s heart was the ability to love, to love passionately, to love with humility, to love God and others enough to put them above himself even if he was the ruler of the whole nation – which he was. No matter how David sinned – and he sinned in just about every way possible – his humanity, bearing the stamp of the Creator’s image, remained intact, because he did not stop loving. Love for God, love for his king and his friends, love for his wife, love for his children: love gave him patience to wait on God’s promises; love brought him back to God when he failed spectacularly; love brought him to his knees in repentance and made him dance in worship; love gave him the ability to act with mercy even to the undeserving.
Jesus told the lawyer, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind; and love your neighbor as you love yourself. The whole law, and all the teachings of the Prophets, everything you have learned in studying the Scriptures, it all hangs on those two commandments”. The Greek word for ‘hangs’ there is the word that means ‘hinges’: love for God and love for our neighbor, those two principles are the hinges by which everything God has told us, everything we do and say and believe, are held in place, are given meaning. Our big front doors probably weigh 150 to 200 pounds apiece; they are well-built – built back in the day when craftsmanship was maybe better than it is today – and they’re strong. But without the hinges that support them, all the combined strength of oak timbers and wrought iron hardware and expert craftsmanship is utterly useless, and the doors would fall flat on the ground. Jesus taught, you can follow every commandment and memorize the teachings of the Prophets and fast and give to the poor and recite the Psalms every single day but without love every bit of that, all your efforts at being good, will fall as flat and useless as heavy wooden doors without hinges to support them.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t make any sense at all for us to install good strong hinges on our door frames and then hang some shoddy hollow-core piece of modern fabricated stuff, or to leave the door frames empty. Hinges are there to support something, and strong hinges are there to support something substantial. And in that same way, love isn’t here just for hanging around having gooshy and friendly and heartwarming feelings. God designed us to function on love, because love is in everything he does, and because love is what drives anything we do that is worth doing. If you looked in the human being owner’s manual, every chapter would begin with love, and then it would go on to tell us some of the things that we can do that make us more human and more whole and more like our maker. But it couldn’t begin to list everything that we should do, because there is no part of our lives, there are no actions we perform, there are no words we speak, there are no thoughts we entertain, that don’t need to be informed and supported by love.
We know this in the way we raise our children. Everything we did and said, every rule we made for them, what we cooked for their dinner, manners and grades and chores and bedtimes – every aspect of our parenting hung on those hinges of love that we had for our children. A child’s life could look the same without love – she could be raised with good manners and good health, she could get good grades and help with the chores – but if she is not loved it all falls flat. Without love, no amount of correct parenting will bring her real life. Being human beings, of course, no parent loves perfectly, just as no parent is 100% perfect in providing good rules and good nutrition and good education. But love gives life even in the midst of our imperfections.
We aren’t perfect at loving our children, but most of the time it isn’t hard to love them; it comes naturally to us. But love doesn’t always come naturally, and by that I mean that sometimes it is very hard or even impossible to feel that feeling we associate with love, that same affection and tenderness that we have toward our children or our friends. But those strong hinges of love are there to support everything we do, and it is part of being whole human beings made in God’s image that we love not by feeling but by doing. Paul wrote: “the one who loves has fulfilled the whole law. All the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
The commandments were never meant to be a complete checklist for do-gooders or a list of warnings to keep our feet out of the fire. The commandments are neither more nor less than outward manifestations of a whole, lively, healthy human life, the kind of life that flows from our hearts when we are most ourselves. We love by doing and that’s what the commandments have always been about – loving God with all our heart and soul and mind, and loving our neighbor – each and every one of our fellow human beings – as we love ourselves.
We love when we peel 28 pounds of potatoes for a community supper, and we love when we call our neighbor to see how her surgery went, and we love when we smile and say how are you to someone on the street – and then stop to really listen to his reply. We are so prone to thinking that obeying the commandments is about scoring points with God, or about proving that we are good people, or about avoiding punishment. But obedience is all about love, and love isn’t rules: love is our very life. Love is health to us: we were created, designed, to run on love just as surely as the Bean runs on gasoline. Love is what powers us. Love creates us because Love himself created us. It is only love that gives meaning and strength to our words and our deeds. And when we love, everything we do, no matter how small, is as strong and as solid as those oak doors in front of the church, and as pleasing to God our Father as the most holy works of the holiest saint.