s many of you may have heard I was recently in Puerto Rico to work with the response effort to hurricane Maria. My role was to assist with the restoration of communications and more specifically to help meet immediate emergency communications needs. Our team, made up of 25 volunteers from the mainland and nearly 40 from Puerto Rico, worked at sites across the island; from hospitals, to Red Cross shelters, to fire stations and even at the Guajataca Dam which was in danger of failing. All the conventional means of communications – cell phone, internet, and landline phones – were either not operational or not stable enough for critical communications. We used radio to relay resource requests, coordinate medical evacuations and assist the Army Corps of Engineers at the dam. There was one thing missing though that would have made our task so much easier, a rather simple radio device called a repeater, specifically a repeater on the summit at El Junque National Forest in the eastern part of the island. This one device would provide radio communications to nearly all of the island, as well as Viequez, Culebra, and the US and British Virgin Island (which were also hit).
While working at the FEMA Joint Field Office in San Juan one day, shortly after my arrival on October 6, our local team leader announced that he had secured a repeater and all the necessary parts, all we had to do is go to El Junque and put up a repeater….sounds simple, doesn’t it? Like so many ideas, it just wasn’t that easy.
We were instantly met with a litany of obstacles, each one we overcame and checked off – how will we get there, do we have access to the site, who will climb the tower, is there a generator, and a host of technical details all had to be worked out. And then we were informed we were missing one critical piece; the road to the site had washed out during the afternoon rain. I can tell you, it has been three weeks and the repeater has still not made it to El Junque.
In a similar way, in today’s Gospel reading, we hear Christ’s instruction to us that seems so basic, so easy, how can anything go wrong? The greatest commandment, the one that takes top billing, that one important thing we must do… “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
OK, got it, love God, love neighbor, love self…but wait….there’s a hint that this may not be as simple as it seems. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Everything seems to hinge on this one thing, love. Not just any love, not romantic love, not a selective love, not a love we can dole out as we see fit; but an all-encompassing divine love.
In our faith tradition love has been central since the ultimate act of God’s love, the incarnation of Christ. From the early practice of the Agape feast, literally love feast, to our sacrament of Eucharist we are brought together with our neighbors, differences are set aside, and bread is broken. Our language for our companions through this earthly journey is a language of love; terms like sister, brother, father and mother speak to our shared experience as the family of God. Even our language for God our creator, Jesus our Savior and the Holy Spirit that sustains us is familiar, intimate and loving. And it is in the Trinity where we find the perfection of love, as St. Augustine expressed as The Love (God), the Beloved (Jesus) and The Lover (Holy Spirit). Our faith tradition keeps us mindful of this greatest commandment!
Oh, but if love were just that simple, how different the world would be! How many fewer songs would be written, the greeting card industry would have to focus more on Groundhog and Arbor Days, and the candy and flower industry would take a hit on the perennial reminder of love Valentine’s Day. Despite reminders from our faith and our society, love just isn’t that simple. Or more to the point, God’s commandment for love just isn’t that simple. We fall short in our love of God, neighbor and self every day; and in doing so we fall short of God’s call to us.
Each one of us can think of a way we have fallen short in our love of God. Think about the last time your spouse was telling you something and suddenly said “Are you listening to me?” and you realize that question is the only thing you heard. We do that to God too! Times where our minds should be focused on God – in prayer, in a hymn, or sacrament – but our minds wonder off and away from God. When our heart takes us away from God in pursuit of love of stuff. When God doesn’t meet our expectations, we turn cold and distant. When we let anger and doubt toward God – which are natural and should be dealt with in a spiritually healthy way – overcome our heart, mind and soul severing the bond of love.
We can easily identify the times we have fallen short in love of neighbor. Each day we are faced with moments when it is easier to think of those in need, the hungry, sick or homeless as “them” not “we”. The times when we do not see Christ in the suffering of others, that is when we fall short.
Love of self is probably the most common area we fall short in. We generally have a good idea on what it means to love God and neighbor, but love of self is often mistaken for selfishness and sacrifice for others or God as false humility. We experience times when we set ourselves as judge, jury and executioner for our own wrongdoings and fail to see that God’s love surrounds us. We often relish in an unforgiven state seeking redemption without love, which just isn’t possible. And, probably the most common way we fall short is through self-deprecation which is neither a strength nor a virtue.
But how do we keep from falling into these traps?
Winston Churchill once said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to have changed often.” While I’m not sure we can perfect the commandment for Godly love, we must always be mindful of ways to adapt our behavior, our mind, our heart, and our soul to counter the ways in which worldly love will stand in the way of Godly love.
To love God with all our being requires closeness to God. We cannot love God without our personal relationship to the Creator. This is developed through prayer, but where to begin? As we study Holy Scripture we see many ways God’s people relate to the Holy. In the Old Testament reading we see God as companion to Moses “whom the Lord knew face to face”, as the promise to Israelites is delivered. The Psalmist paints the picture of God as a parent who protects, admonishes, and equips the children for prosperity and success. One of my favorite images of the Holy is Christ at the wedding feast in Cana. I find the scene of Jesus and companions in such a festive and high-spirited environment eminently relatable. When we explore God through Scripture, we find the moments where God is relatable and we begin our prayer there. It is easier to start the conversation with God in a familiar place rather than in a vacuum. The first hello is always difficult, but it is where relationship begins. And as we live in love with God we find ways in which we can share that love with our neighbor.
Several years ago, the Cursillo movement was quite popular and many made their Cursillo retreat. I did mine at Ancilla Domini in northern Indiana. One of the most memorable experiences during those few days was receiving “Palanca”. Palanca is the Spanish word for “lever”, and the Palanca received by the Cursillistas, those on retreat, were little letters and cards from those that have been through the retreat before. They contained words of encouragement, prayer, hope and inspiration; lifting up the retreatant in love to God. Palanca is the action of lifting others up to God. Every day we see how our world hurts – the family that just lost everything to a fire, the friend that lost their job, the volunteer food pantry manager that is balancing feeding the community and their family. Our Holy love for neighbor, our agape, can be the expression of Palanca. It is our note of encouragement, a small gift, a smile all part of how we regularly show love to our neighbor.
However, if we lack genuine love for self, as a person created in the image and likeness of God, we cannot genuinely love our neighbor. Godly love is interconnected – when we cannot forgive or seek forgiveness for our self, how can we forgive others? When we fail to recognize the gifts and blessings God has given us, how can we see them in others? We must see how each one of us is part of God’s blessed family. In our daily prayers, we can open our hearts to understand how God and our neighbor show us love and, with that grace, we understand how love for self is love for God’s creation and God’s work in the world through those we meet on our daily journey. As we lift to God our petitions, thanksgivings and intercessions we can ask the Holy to show us the moments of love from that day, the experiences where God’s light shined through others, through us and from God.
When our heart, mind and soul lacks love of God, despair sets in and faith wains.
When we lack love of neighbor, we harm the body of Christ.
When we lack love of self, we are blind to the precious gift from our Creator who blessed us with the gift of life and the means to be instruments of peace, love and forgiveness.
As Brother David Vryhof reminds us “When it’s all said and done, the question we will be asked on the Day of Judgment will be: Did you love? Were you a lover after Christ? Did you have room in your heart for those whom Christ values? This is what matters most.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, may this prayer from the Celtic Christian tradition be ours today –
You have taught us, O Christ, to love our neighbor as our self.
You have taught us to see our neighbor has part of our self.
Let us see ourselves in those who are hungry.
Let us see ourselves in those who are frightened.
Let us see ourselves in one another and in every creature.
For you have taught us, O Christ, that we are one body.
Preached by Mike Corey