February 2, 2014 Deut. 6:4-9; Mark 12:28-33; Romans 13:8-10
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
“Love”, it’s a word that carries a lot of emotional impact. One word for love wasn’t enough for the Greeks. They have three: “eros” or romantic love; “philia” or friendship; and “agape” - the divine, selfless love which will go to any length to attain the well being of another. It’s an action word more than a feeling word.
“Agape” - that’s what the writer of Deuteronomy is talking about. It’s the kind of love Jesus is asking of his followers. He must have gotten his message through because Paul repeats those same instructions, not only to the Romans, but in many of his letters.
I’ve sat with a lot of people at the end of their lives. And they have told me over and over again that “all that really mattered as they looked back over their lives, was the love of family and friends. The house, the job, the money and material possessions, the fame - they were insignificant compared to the love they had shared with others.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, whose life work was devoted to people who were dying, wrote: “Look forward to your transition. It’s the first time you will experience unconditional love. There will be all peace and love, and all the nightmares and the turmoil you went through in your life will be like nothing. When you make your transition you are asked two things basically: How much love you have been able to give and receive, and how much service you have rendered...you will also see how a nice act of kindness has touched hundreds of lives that you’re totally unaware of.”
I certainly hope she’s right. Not that any of us look forward to that transition.
Eliot is a caring church. In these past couple of weeks I’ve witnessed multiple acts of kindness by members of this congregation towards Larry Schafer and his family. Your reaching out to members in need has played out over and over again during my eight months here. You know who you are and what you’ve done.
Liz Aguilar and I spent Wednesday evening talking to the confirmands about loss and grief. We go through so many kinds of loss in our lives: jobs, health, pets, friends and family. How we cope and are ultimately healed (we hope) so often depends on the love and support of those around us.
Sometime last year my sister sent me a copy of a speech a woman she had met gave to the members of her synagogue. Her name is Mary Schwartzberg, She’s a 43 year old wife, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, and mother of a 6 and 8 year old, living with treatable, but incurable breast cancer.
I was so moved by what she had to say, I asked her if I could share some of her story with you. She was thrilled that I asked. She has since written a book which I’m getting a copy of. Her mission is to help people to understand how to be there for others going through times of fear and loss and grief.
She told her congregation that she was sharing her story with three goals: “First, to convey how enormous and powerful our acts of tikkun olam, or healing of the world are”. Second, to give “some practical information on what may be helpful to someone going through a situation similar to” hers. And third, to thank them for “helping to hold me and my family up over these past many years.”
Jane was diagnosed with curable breast cancer about 12 weeks after she was married. It was only years later, after having children and being told that she “was cured” that she learned it had spread to Stage IV metastasis. With that diagnosis her heart broke irreparably, or so she thought.
Her words are helpful, I think, to both those going through the dark times of their lives, and those trying to reach out to them. She learned her way around the medical establishment, but more important she says, she learned how to let herself “fall”.
In her own words: ‘What exactly does “falling” mean? To me, it means letting go of my desire or need to control things and accepting my medical and physical reality. It also means surrendering to the part of my life and health over which I am helpless. It is not “giving up”. Rather, it is collapsing into the humbling reality that so much is out of my hands. There is a peace that comes along with this.
I mention this because only when I really let myself fall could I accept help and then start to try to get up again. By opening myself up, I have learned to stop apologizing for needing so much help and graciously accept it.
...For many years you were helping prepare me for my life after feeling completely broken. You did this simply by being present in your own life, with all its many challenges. You too have had much grief and feelings of hopelessness, in many different forms...
You lost parents, partners, brothers and sisters, best friends and even children... Like me, you felt broken, either from heart break or disappointment, or simply from life not being what you had wished or imagined.... You grieved heavily for as long as you needed to, and then you soldiered on. In letting me see you do that, you helped me. You showed me that it could be done; and you made me understand that no matter how long I will be here, whether for days or decades more, that my loved ones always will figure out how to go on, just as many of you have. This is a tremendous comfort to me.
... Over these past months, you have fed us, literally and spiritually. ... You told us and showed us that no matter what happened, my family and I would not be alone. You included me in meditations and prayers of all different faiths and with people across the globe. ... And when you prayed for me, you called me by my name and held in your mind an image of me strong and healthy...
When I was certain I would not have a career after this severe of an illness, you said loudly and clearly, “We still value you and we will welcome your contribution when you’re ready to give one.” You helped me fight to regain my self-esteem and post-illness place for myself.
And after the fridge was filled with food and the kids were dropped off; after we were back from medical appointments ... you sat with us, quietly. You let the silence speak for itself. You understood that one of the most powerful things you could do to support me was to do absolutely nothing but exist with me in my utter fear and uncertainty, the place I call the “darkness.”
For some of us, this quiet place is too much...But I also want to encourage you to think of just “being” with someone like me as “doing” too. It means not needing to fill the air with words or the time with actions simply because my situation is one we all fear and which may make us uncomfortable. You don’t have to fill a void where quiet suffices. Please know that just being in a sick person’s world is one of the most powerful acts of kindness you can perform. (I would add that this applies to one in grief over a loss also.)
I’m often asked ‘What can I do to help you?” I can only speak for myself: ... Be in my life at my pace, let me take the lead, make your presence, availability and support known but do it without any expectations or requirements for response. Don’t sugar-coat or put a good spin on what’s going on - in fact, it comforts me when you acknowledge that my situation stinks ... PLEASE don’t tell me “I know it’s all going to be ok,” “There is a reason for everything” or “my favorite, “This is in God’s plan.” ... Those things are the last things I want to hear from anyone. What I want is some company in my complex reality.”
And then she shared one of the many outrageous acts of kindness from these past years: “It was July of the past year and for several months, I had been in the “darkness.” I was barely functioning. My family and I had another appointment to go to, another waiting room to sit in and more anticipation and fear of what we were going to learn.
I was in a haze when we arrived at Sloan Kettering... We got off the elevators and I wanted to run. My stomach hurt terribly when I heard the receptionist ask, “Your name, please.” “Jane Schwartzberg,” I said confidently and in a very friendly voice, secretly wondering if maybe, just maybe, they would tell me that I’m not really sick if I said the right thing, smiled a certain way... Of course, that fantasy only lasted a second. In fact, I had come to believe this illness would permanently define and contain me, my spirit and my potential as a human being.
With dread my parents, husband and I approached the waiting area of the floor. As I looked up to find a seat, there I saw four of my dearest friends quietly sitting, chatting and flipping through magazines. The sight of them took by breath away. They had crazy, full lives and already had come to so many appointments with us. None of them said they would be there.
Seeing them sitting there changed something in my brain. I could not remember who I was outside of sickness, but I sure knew very well who they were. And if I could connect with the love and remarkable presence they each had, then certainly I would be able to find my way back. And on that day, because they showed up to sit with us, I slowly started to emerge from the darkness.”
She ends her talk by telling her congregation that as she and her family go from scans to medical appointments, they carry in their hearts every single act of love and kindness they’ve been shown. It’s dramatically and positively impacted their lives, and in turn affected every person they come in contact with. “It’s one of the most powerful tools we have to change the course of the world”, Jane says. Then she adds, “All that really matters is the love we give and receive.”