I was alone in an elevator the other day in midtown, and it had a video screen tuned to a news channel, I guess to entertain passengers during those awkward moments when you are in that confined space with strangers. The report on the screen was about a political ad in the current election campaign that features an illegal Mexican immigrant who murdered two police officers in California. The ad warned that your vote might enable other immigrants to enter and murder our people. I felt my emotions arising as I watched—why must we demonize one another like that?---and then the elevator stopped and I was distracted when another person entered.
The doors closed, and it was just the two of us and the video screen, and I don’t know if it was the woman’s perfume or something else, but I almost immediately sneezed. I tried to contain it, of course—both the noise and the spray---and succeeded. But you know how when you sneeze in front of anyone, even a stranger, you kind of expect the person to say “God Bless you”, or maybe just “Bless you”, or the secular “Gezundheit”? And when they don’t, you kind of think, well, that’s rude? My fellow elevator companion didn’t bless me or wish me good health, and so I kind of felt obligated to apologize—“excuse me”---and I was doubly annoyed because she even then she didn’t respond with a smile or a nod or any acknowledgement to me. It was a weird mix of emotions---and I thought how silly I was to care about being blessed in my sneeze… but darn it, why not?
I got off the elevator on the ground floor, and emerged onto the sidewalk that was filled with people rushing on their way somewhere. I was still digesting my reaction to the political ad and my sneezing encounter in the elevator, and I was kind of put off by everyone’s seeming self-preoccupation on the busy street.
Jesus reminds his disciples and us today of the most important commandments, the ones that effectively include all of the famous 10. First: love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and second: love your neighbor as yourself.
That first one has always puzzled me. How indeed do you love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength at any time, at any day, in the best of worst of health, in or out of election season? How to love a Creator who at times seems as utterly indifferent to your suffering or your joy as a fellow elevator passenger, how to love someone you cannot touch, you cannot hear, someone you cannot smell or taste, or most of all—see? How do you love the spaces between the molecules, the silence between the notes, the calm after the sneeze?
Years ago I stood before a statue of Jesus, out in a field, overlooking a valley in Pennsylvania. It was evening, the dark was cloaking the earth and lights were coming on in the distance. I was ready, readier than I've ever been, for a miracle to happen, for God to give me a sign or a word or something imaginably wonderful to confirm my belief in God's divine presence in the universe. The statue was white, all white, but the setting sun's rays played out upon his face, wavering, and I just stood there, expectant, patiently waiting. Speak out to me, Jesus, here and now, just the two of us alone. Speak out, call my name, simple as that Jim, Jimmy, James—I don't care. DO something, point your finger at me, blink an eye, kick up a foot, spread a sly smile across your stony white face. Do that, and I'll readily believe in you—and the Holy Spirit, and God the Father. Do that, and I'll even LOVE you with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. Just a small sign, please.
I waited, and waited, and waited, I don't know how long I waited, but the stars came out and the cow jumped over the moon, and that statue stood stony still and silent. Nothing.
And then suddenly, a sneeze. Aaaachhhhooooo!
It scared the heck out of me, and I looked at the statue. Could it be? I searched his face for a twitch of the nose or something. Nothing.
And then I heard some gravel move to the right of me. It was an old man, and he was reaching for his handkerchief in his pocket. And then he blew. PHHHHSS. And then he walked away. That was it. And suddenly, a dawning, indescribably delicious sense of joy crept over me, this great lump of something grew large in my throat, an agony of gladness and beauty working deep within me. Just Aaaaccchhhoooo! and PHHHHS, and I thought, praise Him, praise Him. The statue never spoke, not lifted a finger, didn't kick up a leg. Just Aaaachhhooo, and PHHHHS.
The only way I know how to love God as we are commanded is to follow that second command: love God through all the sneezers and wheezers around us, all the voters and the candidates, all our brothers and sisters who make up this great republic and this great world, everyone, especially those who are most unlucky, who suffer greatly, maybe even because they are immigrants.
As I moved through the sidewalk throng after the elevator, I stopped at a sidewalk fruit stand, looking for an apple or something to eat. The vendor smiled at me as I inspected his fruit. He was missing some teeth, and he had one of those kind faces… you know what I mean? You could see it in his eyes, the crinkle of the skin surrounding them.
I picked an apple, and he gestured for me to give it to him. He grabbed a rag and rubbed it until its skin shined a beautiful red in the afternoon sun. When I asked him how much it was, he held up a finger, which I assumed meant a dollar, and I thought, seems like a lot for one apple, but OK. I reached into my wallet and realized that I had no cash in it, so I fished into my pockets and came up with two quarters, a dime and a penny. I shrugged and gave him back the apple, and began to walk away.
He called back to me in a heavy accent, “Mister, mister.” As I turned toward him I saw that he had grabbed a bag, and put the shiny apple into it, followed by three more apples. “No, no,” I protested. He gave me that smile again and he put the bag into my hand. “No, I can’t”, I said, but finally I gave in. I thanked him multiple times, and he thanked me in broken English, and what can I say?
It was like God had broken through to remind me how much I was loved, and how much I should love. Certainly the immigrant who feeds me a bushel of apples, but maybe also the woman who chooses not to acknowledge my sneezing presence, and maybe even the person or people who choose to demonize others with upsetting political ads.
I guess I believe that to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength is precisely...to love one another. Maybe especially during this election week, we need to see the God who walks among us; we need reach out to one another in the Love that sustains all of us; we need to be the face of love—that one—that performs the most important miracles, the miracles of the heart.
We owe it to each other, don’t we? We also owe it to the One who has loved us into life, sustains us in every moment, and welcomes us home again at the very end.