September 8, 2019

Deuteronomy 6:1-8

Some colleges permit a student to take a course “pass or fail.” Normally college students receive grades at the end of a course showing how well one performed in a class. Students who perform exceptionally receive an A or a grade worth four points. Students who perform moderately well receive a B worth three points. Those who perform adequately receive a C or two points, and those who perform poorly receive a D or one point. Students who fail to complete the course requirements receive an F or no points.

Some colleges allow a student to take a course for a pass or fail grade. In such a class, there is not a scale measuring four or five levels of success. There are only two: either pass or fail. There is no disadvantage in taking pass/fail classes, for as long as one passes the course, the grade does not affect the student’s cumulative grade point average. One reason for in enrolling for a pass/fail class is to allow students to take classes from a department outside their major, a class that interests them but for which they have not completed all the prerequisites.  Sometimes the student may take a pass/fail class as a way to lighten the workload in a very demanding semester. For those reasons, while I was in graduate school, I took some pass/fail classes because I wanted to take a course where I did not have to bear the burden of worrying about how well I might or might not achieve. I had a lot of leeway in how well I performed without fearing that I might lower my grade point average.

When I hear that the two greatest requirements God places upon us are first to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and second to love our neighbors as ourselves, I am distressed in part because I sense no leeway. My instinct is to picture God as a stern teacher who passes out pass or fail grades on an impossibly demanding scale. I sense that on God’s scale a passing grade is 100% and anything less is failing. For the requirement states that I am expected to love God with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength, that is with 100% of me and I can never achieve that. A 99% may be enough for an A grade in most college courses, but according to the assessments for God’s requirements, loving God with as high as 99% is still a failing grade.

I feel like a failure for having simply one shortcoming, which results in an outlook that pushes me away from God and reduces my loving God even more, which lowers my grade and accentuates my failing again. Feeling more guilty over not passing the grade only thwarts my (and maybe your) trying to love God more.

I am trapped in this revolving door of guilt and shame. For as long as I imagine that God is a stern teacher objectively hands out failing grades, I have no way out. Even if God grades on the curve, some learners still fail the class. If one needs a perfect score to pass, most fail the course. I feel trapped whether I enroll for a grade or for a pass/fail option. The times I escape from the trap are when I recall that God is less like my high school science teacher and more like Jesus. Less intent on handing out grades and more intent on handing out grace.

On the occasions when Jesus met people who viewed themselves as failures, he was quick to welcome them, not reprimand them. He embraced them even when they had failed both commandments, because they could not imagine loving themselves after what they had experienced and they could not imagine that God loved them after they had failed on the standardized moral test. The way Jesus welcomed them gave them a different way to picture God so that they could get out of the revolving door of guilt and shame, which had left them feeling unworthy. In simple terms, they realized that some things are loved because they are worthy, and some things are worthy because they are loved.

There are lots of things and people we love because they are worthy. We love teams that win the World Series or the Super Bowl. We love horses that win the Triple Crown. We love singers that astound us on America’s Got Talent. These folks earn our love because they perform superbly. By their achievements they become worthy of our devotion.

But there are some objects that have no obvious talent whom we love regardless. Our grandson Colton has a stuffed bear doll, whom he calls Teddy. The bear’s fur is worn thin, his stuffing sags in a few places, his eyes have lost their luster, yet he is Colton’s prized possession. When he sleeps, he wants Teddy in the bed. When he travels, he packs Teddy.

Some months ago when Cameron, Anna, Colton and Apollo came to visit, Teddy naturally came in Colton’s suitcase. One afternoon our families took a trip to New Canaan on the train, and naturally Teddy came along for the ride. When we returned home and settled in for naptime, Teddy was nowhere to be found. Colton was distraught, and so were the rest of us.

Anna hailed the conductor on the next train and asked him to look for the little bear. That very night we all traveled to the Build A Bear store in White Plains to purchase a new Teddy. Lisa wrote to the Metro North Railroad, who surprisingly called us a few weeks later to inform us that Teddy was resting in the Lost-and-Found office in Grand Central. Found at last, we went to the city that day to retrieve Teddy and mail him back to Colton. The stuffed bear was worth little in itself, much less than a new stuffed bear, much less than round trip train tickets to Grand Central, much less than even postage for mailing. But in Colton’s eyes the bear was worth all that and more.

Some things are loved because they are worthy, such as great athletes and performers. Some things are worthy because they are loved, such as a child’s doll. God loves us not because we have proved to be worthy, but we sense that we have worth because God loves us.

This is the gospel truth, but it is often hard to believe. Hard to believe that when we fail the course requirements, God still gives us a passing grade. Some days the persuasion sinks in and other days it eludes us. Some days it is a battle to believe that God loves us, especially on days when we fail to live up to our own standards, not to mention that we fail to live up to God’s standard that we love God with all we have and our neighbors as much as ourselves. It is hard to love our neighbors as ourselves when on some days we don’t even like ourselves. It is hard to conjure up love for God when we feel so bad about ourselves.

Maybe on some days the test for us is who to believe. Do we believe what we think and what others say about us or do we believe what God thinks and says about us? If we start from what God says, namely that God loves us whether or not we feel worthy, then loving God may be less of a tedious command imposed on us to entrap us and more of nurturing a natural response to free us. For don’t we naturally love those who love us? Rather than giving us a command to love as a way to berate us for loving below the passing grade level, God may be coaxing, teaching, challenging us to let love take root and grow.

I realize that I sound as if I am backpedaling by implying that God is coaxing, teaching, and challenging us to love, for God did not make a suggestion that we love, rather God commanded that we love. It may strike you as odd, as it did me, that God commands anyone to love. For who can command people to love one another? As we understand it, love can sometimes be spontaneous, as when on some enchanted evening two strangers “fall in love,” or love can be entirely voluntarily, as when a bride and groom state their consent to wed one another. But love cannot be forced. We certainly cannot demand that a person love us in return, which is why many hearts are broken when a person rejects an invitation to be more than just friends. Giving and receiving love entails consent.

Which is why we are hard pressed to see situations where anyone can command you to love a stranger or a spouse, or, in the case of the Bible, to love your neighbor or God.

       Yet I can think of an exception, actually a common situation where folks coax, indeed actually command, persons to love one another. When our children were young, Lisa and I taught our daughter and son not to hurt one another because “we love one another in this family.” I suspect that all of you who have or who are raising siblings make that same assertion. As responsible parents, we order our children to love one another.

We do not order them to “like your sister,” but we repeatedly charge them to “love your brother.” We don’t wait for them to decide for themselves at a later age if they will get along with their siblings, we impress on them from day one that within this family members love one another. We cannot guarantee how they will treat one another for years to come, but that does not hinder parents from ordering children to love one another as long as they are under our roof.

Therefore, we can and we do command people to love. Surely God has the same prerogative. Surely God can and does command people to love: especially to love God, because that is the natural response to being loved and also to love our neighbors as ourselves, because God assumes the responsibility to teach siblings how to get along.

We are all enrolled as life long learners in a course that God teaches on how to get along with God and others. This is a not for a credit course, since no one earns credits with God for doing well. God is a master teacher, for how God treats the learners is the main content. How the class gets along is the homework. The objective is for all the students by the end to love the teacher as much as the teacher loved them.