Jesus commands us: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.’ It is the last of that, it is the ‘with all your mind’ part of that, which we at Old South are good at, are really good at. I grew up singing those short, repetitive choruses in worship; a praise band with a 90s-soft-rock sound, with very ‘radio-Delilah’ vibes played them, and their lyrics were projected onto a big screen in the sanctuary. But they were – the lyrics were – simple and sung over and over and over again, almost mantra-like, so that you could close your eyes to them and lift your hands and sing out and lose yourself in heartfelt praise. I loved it. I grew up with church music like that, but I grew out of church music like that. What I believed about God and about the Christian life became too complex to find expression in songs so simple; I wanted music and language rich enough to encompass my own kind-of-complicated experience of faith – music and language not only of heartfelt praise, but also of protest and of lament and of struggle and of wonderment. Church music as we do it at Old South, for me, fits this bill. And even though I know that singing hymns (to sometimes dissonant tunes, with dense texts, and while trying to keep the verses straight and get the old-fashioned-y rhythms right!) is – for lack of a better word – harder than doing the sort of pop-style crowd-pleasers plenty of other churches have opted for, I love that the theology we sing is every bit as thoughtful and nuanced and challenging as the theology we study. It makes me so proud. And you know, this is a big weekend for music at Old South Church, and I know Mitchell is only going to make me and make each of us all the prouder.
In good fun, we joke about our buttoned-up, awkward stiffness – about our being ‘the frozen chosen’ and all of that. And true: generally speaking, clapping on beat is not a great strength of this congregation, and you will not hear much hollering out or shouting or unselfconscious hallelujah-ing from us. In some churches, yes, the louder and louder the praise, the more spiritually intense the worship. But in this church, it is almost as if the reverse is true: that the best measure of the holiness of the moment is the quality of the silence.1 You can feel it when it happens, in times of ardent prayer, maybe, or during a provocative sermon, or in the emptiness-that-is-really-a-fullness which comes after some choral anthems, when it is as if everyone is holding their breath – when the quiet deepens and deepens, when the silence opens to a purer silence, and the stillness has a charge of transcendence to it. Of course, somebody will cough or a baby will cry or a siren will blare; so it goes – and who cares? The point is: however joyful and dramatic and just fun church here often is, on the whole, our practices of worship call for serious concentration, and this is hard. Our practices of worship – singing hymns and holding silence – call for mental work, for leaning into the moment with everything you are, for a focused attentiveness, for a disciplined application of the intellect that is, that is what ‘loving God with all our minds’ looks like.
And ‘loving God with all our minds’ is an ideal we aspire to in our reading of scripture, too. We ask questions of the scriptures – hard questions of the scriptures. We read critically, which is to say, we bring the insights of reason, of history and of science and so on – we bring these to bear upon our readings of the bible; and we persist in this (which takes a kind of religious courage) even when we find ourselves reading against the grain of our own beliefs and our own theological commitments and so perhaps needing to rethink them. Pushing at the bible, pulling at it, poking and prodding: this is not impiety, as some would say; this is love, this is what love looks like, what ‘loving God with all our minds’ looks like. Let’s try a ‘for instance’. The scripture passage you heard read, Mark’s story of Jesus in the temple, agitating there is one that is perhaps familiar to you. Many of us appreciate what appears to be Jesus’ righteous anger and rage for change. We see him, we see Jesus speaking and acting in such a way as to suggest he sets himself against the temple, or at least, against the transaction of certain commerce in the temple. He turns over the tables of the moneychangers and seems to free the sacrificial animals. All hell breaks loose: everybody crawls, scrambles after the jangling coins, and the turtledoves and pigeons are flapping and cooing wildly. And then Jesus fixes himself imposingly in the entranceway and forbids anyone from entering. He demonstrates himself to be a disturber of the peace, an un-settler of the status quo, so much so that the authorities begin moving against him. Jesus’ protesting in the temple is the trigger that leads to his arrest and eventual execution.
But – and now let’s pose the hard questions, let’s practice ‘loving God with all our minds’ – this is… not quite right. For one thing, the entire temple complex was large enough for between five and ten Fenway Parks to fit inside of it. Up to 400,000 pilgrims might be swarming the place during high holy days such as Passover2. Are we really to accept that Jesus blocked the passage of all of them? Who would have even seen him? What great commotion could one man in one small corner of such a sea of humanity (to say nothing of the tens of thousands of animals being bought and sold) – what great commotion could he have caused? The attention of the temple guards was not aroused. He was not hauled away. Probably a handful of people noticed what was in actuality a non-event. Call it hyperbole then, maybe: Mark exaggerates the scale and the significance of the story. But, so what? Let’s not miss the forest for the trees: Jesus was still against the temple, right? Well, again, I’m not sure. In the other gospels, in Matthew and Luke and John, Jesus goes often to worship at the temple, for the Jewish festivals of Passover, Succoth, and the Feast of Dedication; after his death, resurrection, and ascension, his disciples continue to go to the temple, as we see in the book of Acts. If Jesus was supposed to be against the temple, I think he missed the memo. …But, but, well, no, no: he was against the ritual purity rules of the temple, which were exclusivistic and inegalitarian – that’s it. …You mean the ritual purity rules that elsewhere we see Jesus and his mother and his father and his followers all observing? The ones we see Jesus teaching others they should be observing (and which were neither exclusivistic nor inegalitarian, by the way)? AGH! …Was he against… selling… stuff in the temple then? …Like the unblemished Passover lamb for what will be the Last Supper that, only three chapters later, he sends his disciples to buy from – where else (!) but – the temple?! I know we all want a radical Jesus who is against THE MAN or whatever, but, if we apply what we know of his historical context, if we think critically, if we think even just concretely for heaven’s sake, if we resist the easy – the all too easy – projection of our own concerns and ideologies back into the bible (which we see is distorting and hate when it is those ‘other Christians’ who do it), if we ‘love God with all our minds’, we will have to learn to get by with far fewer of the galvanizing parables of social action we want. And this will be harder for us.
It will be harder in every sense. To understand – to really understand, as an exercise of ‘loving God with all your mind’ – to understand the passage of scripture you heard read, Mark’s story of Jesus in the temple, agitating there, you will have to do some learning – learning of a kind that cannot be accomplished by listening to a ten- or fifteen-minute sermon. (Sorry!) You will have to read up. A good place to start would be the last eight chapters of the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, which is a vision revealing what will happen when God acts newly, finally, definitively, once for all to make things right. (Hint, hint: it involves the whole world wanting to come worship at the temple, which in turn involves building a bigger temple!) That in speaking of a ‘house of prayer for all nations’ Jesus might be invoking Ezekiel, might be invoking that very traditional great Jewish dream of all the earth’s peoples gathering together to unite in worship on a majestically built up temple mount, and so that he was not, Jesus was not against the temple but for it, for it (x infinity!) – well, this seems to me more historically plausible and intellectually honest and, in that, seems to me a more pleasing offering of love, of love for God ‘with our minds’.
Of course, reading a bit of the prophet Ezekiel will be not the end of the story for you, not even then, but only the beginning. After learning about Ezekiel, no doubt, you will want to learn about prophecy in general, about Isaiah’s and about Jeremiah’s and about Amos’ and about Daniel’s great dreams, and learn about how they came to life in Jesus, too. Or maybe you will want to compare Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple to that of the priests who served in the old one and wrote about it in the book of Leviticus. Then you will not be able to stop yourself from reading the book of Hebrews in the New Testament and seeing how the temple was reimagined as itself a metaphor, a grand metaphor for Jesus. And then you will want to read Paul, read his equally imaginatively metaphors and big ideas about Jesus, and then search out Matthew and Mark and Luke and John, and – look – the learning will go on and on and on, and the questioning will go on and on: because that is what loving God with all, with all your mind looks like. A disciplined application of your intellect, a lifetime of focused attentiveness to these stories, a leaning into reading and learning with everything you are, the highest, best mental work you are capable of – this is hard, this asks a lot of you. But this is the kind of narrow-path, if-any-would-come-after-me-they-must-deny-themselves Christianity that we practice – that we rejoice in practicing. The world needs us to go all-in on loving God with our minds. You may have noticed: thinking has fallen out of fashion. But someone has got to do it. The world needs Christians of expansive understanding, Christians who are deep, Christians who are wise, Christians who are devoted to the truth. The world needs Christians who will not settle for the simpler – though more immediately political useful – interpretations, interpretations which fundamentalists in the public square will only poke holes in anyway, and so, which will never have a hearing. We have to be smarter than that. Our worship, our music, our hymns, our holding silence, our stewarding and study of the scriptures, our principles of social witness, our whole life together here is an attempt to provoke a total intellectual reformation. By our patient, rigorous, discerning, demanding practices of concentration, our minds are to be shaped so that God might think through them. May it be so.
1) I owe this insight to my mentor, Rev. David Ruhe.
2) These critiques of the standard Protestant reading of the so-called ‘cleansing of the temple’ reflect my engagement with Paula Fredriksen’s fantastic work in ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and “From Jesus to Christ’, and Jacob Neusner’s discussion of purity laws in ‘The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism.’