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The Cream of All Our Hearts

What does it mean to be commanded to love? Can such a framing truly open a space for genuine love to flourish? We just heard the Shema, the “Hear, O Israel,” foundation text in Deuteronomy. On the cusp of their entry to the Promised Land, Moses exhorts the Israelites to love God with all their heart, soul, and might. Moses says this commandment – the statues and the ordinances – are being given by God “so that your days may be long…so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey.” 

The responsorial Psalm we just chanted offers another clue in answer to this question probing the relationship between God’s commandments and love’s thriving. “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts!” 

Friends, this is beatitude language. God’s law and decrees are a formula for happiness, not simply a set of rules restricting behavior. For the people of Israel, the law, or torah, was the binding agent that grounded their identity, culture, and story. It sustained the promise of a well-ordered life marked by an obedient and responsive relationship with God. God’s commandments exist to open a way to meaningful and connected life. 

I am intrigued that the recipe for flourishing embedded in the Shema is given in a transitional space. Not only are the Israelites at the threshold of new life on the borders of Canaan, they’re also invited into sacred praxis. They adopt embodied actions that serve as touchstones and reminders of their ongoing transformation as beloved community in relationship with God. “Bind them as a sign on your hand,” says Moses, “fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” 

Many of our observant Jewish siblings continue these ancient threshold practices, binding small boxes, called tefillin, containing verses from the Torah to their arms and foreheads with leather straps. To create moments of sacred pause and remembrance every time a literal threshold is crossed, many Rabbinic Jews also mount the mezuzah, decorative vessels containing the Shema, to the doorposts of their homes.

Echoing down the centuries, the Shema is reaffirmed by Jesus in his encounter with the scribe at the temple in Jerusalem. This brings me to my second question about the greatest commandment. Is it really possible to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength? 

That sounds exhausting, impossible! Who can honestly burn with that level of intensity 24/7? And as if to underscore the whole-person investment the command requires, Jesus adds “and with all your mind” to the mix. He also pluralizes the greatest commandment by adding “love your neighbor as yourself,” to the total equation. We’ll come back to that.   

What does it mean to love God so completely that it summons all we have to give from our heart, soul, mind, and strength? The Welsh-born poet and 16th century Anglican priest George Herbert paints a holistic love poem to God that draws from the mystical, creative depths of his being:  

“King of Glory, King of Peace, I will love thee; and that love may never cease, I will move thee…. Wherefore with my utmost art, I will sing thee; and the cream of all my heart, I will bring thee.” 

You may recognize that excerpt from hymn 382, one of my favorites by the way — both the tune and Herbert’s text fit each other like a expertly tailored glove. If you’re peeking ahead in the order of service you’ll see we get to sing it as today’s Offertory hymn. Thank you, Gary!

I deeply desire to love God with the cream of all my heart (such a beautiful image!), but I know that level of perfection in love is not something I can muster under my own steam. This is where Jesus’ pairing of the “love your neighbor as yourself” command from Leviticus 19 with the Shema illuminates a way forward. I’m not sure if love of God begins with love of neighbor, or if love of neighbor begins with love of God, but they are inexorably linked.

Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said, “We accomplish what is the love of God in Christ when we allow the love of our neighbor to attain its own nature and perfection. The…love of neighbor is the primary act of the love of God.” In other words, not only does our love of God equip us, motivate us, to love our neighbor, our love of neighbor is itself an expression of our love of God. 

Perhaps this is some of what George Herbert was getting at with his line, “and that love may never cease, I will move thee.” The dynamic motion of God’s love is made manifest when we carry that love to our neighbor. 

One more piece is needed to complete this holistic picture of divine love in action: love yourself. I know that I am a more open participant in the flow of God’s love when I am compassionate with myself and practicing self-care. While I believe that nothing I can do or not do weakens my eternal tether to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, my discipleship demands I pattern my life according every facet of the greatest commandment. 

So, if loving our neighbor as ourselves is the cornerstone of what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, I wonder how the practicing threshold spirituality might serve us in fulfilling our vocation. Like the people of Israel, where do we encounter liminal spaces that tap the wellspring of God’s boundless love for us? What touchstones can we cultivate to remind us of our belovedness, and equip us to be generous conduits of divine love? For us to bring the cream of all our hearts to God means that we, like George Herbert, must be deeply attuned to the cream of all God’s heart fully alive in us. 

I’d like to offer an embodied prayer that I use with the Seattle Service Corps as one such touchstone. Corps members and I have found its simplicity and repetition help us better recognize the divine spark of God’s love flowing through us. Many of you are already familiar with The Sarum Prayer, which is part of the heritage of the Sarum Rite developed in the late Middle Ages at Salisbury Cathedral in England. 

I’m going to introduce it to you now with simple body movement, and we’ll have a chance to try it again together in a moment. 

God, be in my head, and in my understanding

God, be in my eyes, and in my looking

God, be in my mouth, and in my speaking

God, be in my heart, and in my thinking

God, be at my end, and at my departing

What I love about this prayer is that it takes us on a tour of several of our body’s sense and knowledge centers, or chakras. It carries us in a literal deepening motion as we travel from head to heart. At first, I was confused by the line, “God be in my heart, and in my thinking.” I’ve come to recognize that this pre-modern prayer fully grasps the importance of inviting God into our mind’s understanding, but we can’t stay there. Moving to heart-centered knowing is crucial to our soul’s journey with God. It all works together, and perhaps this is why Jesus invites us to love God with every center of our being – heart, soul, mind, and strength.  

In a final gesture of release, the Sarum Prayer teaches us to let go, not only at the end of life, but in every moment of every day. It seems to say, don’t cling too hard, but hold life loosely, palms open, ready to both receive and surrender. Love will find a way. 

Join me. 

God, be in my head, and in my understanding

God, be in my eyes, and in my looking

God, be in my mouth, and in my speaking

God, be in my heart, and in my thinking

God, be at my end, and at my departing

Amen. 

 

 1 Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations 6, trans. Karl-H. and Boniface Kruger,(New York: Crossroad, 1982), 247.