“SOUL” - Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Luke 10:25-38
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
From Sunday, September 16, 2018
Texts: Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Luke 10:25-38
For many decades, almost 175 years, faithful Richmonders have been gathering in this sacred sanctuary. We come to pray and sing; we come to hear God’s word from sacred texts (Scripture); we come to open our hearts to God’s Spirit. We also come into these pews – some of us the SAME pews each week - to find comfort for our afflictions, which come to all of us in the unfolding of life; and we seek to afflict the comfortable because God needs us and keeps calling forth our love and commitments for spreading hope and light along these city streets and across the world.
Whenever we gather here, we seek to link our lives to the expansive story of God’s love through Jesus Christ that we find in Scripture. Here is what the wonderful Bible story confirms:
- God speaks all of creation into being.
- God brings order out of chaos, even the chaos of storms.
- God lays a foundation for the life of faith through fathers and mothers: Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, and others. These are our ancestors, and just as their lives are linked to God, so are ours.
- God shows us how relatedness to God changes everything and how our lives are to be about loving and serving God.
- God raises up leaders, and keeps raising up leaders, who guide God’s people through the tangled difficulties of life.
- God gives us a Savior who lives and dies and is raised again, that we might have life.
- God calls and forms a church so God’s people can live and serve in the world.
All of this is the impressive, expansive work of God in the world and in our lives.
It may be so impressive and wonderful that we are sometimes not sure where we actually fit into the story. We might wonder - How in the world does that ancient story actually relate to you and me?
We live in 2018 in RVA. We can feel so far removed. We live in a crazy world – it is so hard to even keep up, much less keep faith. And in much of life, we are just trying our best – raise our kids . . . or make it through the next doctor appointment; keep our lives together, . . . or get through the recent loss or newest worry. We are usually focused on doing our thing (going to work, hanging out in certain places, striving to maintain our relationships, dealing with the challenges that come our way). We may NOT ever really think about this Biblical story – too busy with our many pursuits! We might even disqualify ourselves from the great story of God’s love and purposes because of some guilt we carry. We might doubt the wonderful promises of God, given the complexities of our lives and world. We might truly wonder whether we are religious enough to be even part of THAT story.
And then we come upon a specific story – a person has an encounter with Jesus. Listen now to Luke 10:24f. –
24For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Clearly, Jesus pulls out of the lawyer the great words of faith. The lawyer repeats the words that we heard already from the Shema – the great and essential teaching, the primary expectation of all God’s people from generations before. The main thing - love God with everything.
Today, I want to focus on one word in that great teaching – we are to love God with all our SOUL.
There is a tendency to this of SOUL as the intangible part of who we are. We have bodies (tangible), and we have SOULS (intangible). We tend to think of these as separate entities. Our bodies live and die; our SOULS live on. BUT that thinking emerges from the Greeks, NOT from the Bible. SOUL is mentioned 700 times in the Bible, and it never implies that kind of Greek thinking.
In fact, SOUL intends to convey that our core existence, our primary identity, comes from the truth that we are, more than anything else, persons-in-relationship. SOUL teaches us that we find our true selves when we recognize we are related to God and others; we find our true selves in our relationality. Each person in the world is a one-of-a-kind creature made in the “image of God.” Eugene Peterson says it like this: whatever else the word SOUL means, “it conveys a sense of enormous dignity and thorough-going relationality.” SOUL is the most personal term for who we are – what it means to be a human being. The word SOUL reminds us that we are God-created, God-sustained, and God-blessed.
So, SOUL is a barrier against reduction, against human life reduced to biology (we are way more than cells and organs). SOUL is a barrier against human life reduced to culture, ethnicity, and utility (we are way more than citizens or immigrants, white-collar or blue collar, wealthy or poor). SOUL is a barrier against human life reduced to race, gender, or sexuality. When we recognize and affirm the dignity and relationality of one another with the emphasis on SOUL, we will find ourselves living and relating with a lot more faithfulness and love. (see E. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p. 34)
SOUL in the Hebrew language, nephesh, is the same word for “neck.” The neck is the narrow part of the anatomy that connects the head, the site of intelligence and the nervous system, with everything else in the body. The neck literally keeps us “together.” The head is physically, at least when we are standing up, the higher part of the body; so sometimes we speak of these higher functions – thinking, seeing, hearing, and tasting, in contrast to lower functions, moving, digesting, perspiring, and more. But, as we know, these functions of our lives all work together. And the neck is the key connector! The neck contains the narrow passage through which air passes from mouth to lungs and back again, and with speech. Breath, spirit, God-filled life. The neck is the conduit for the entire nervous system stemming from the brain. The neck contains the mighty jugular veins. The neck keeps it all together.
SOUL, nephesh, keeps it all together. Without SOUL, we would be a jumble of disconnected parts. But the Scriptures keep teaching us that we are NOT disconnected – rather, we are CREATED, with a wholeness. SOUL works like a magnet, pulling all the pieces of our lives into a unity, a totality.
So think about SOUL music – it has that name to affirm that the rhythm, the words, the essence of the music, the feelings you get when you hear it, permeate the whole person – unity and totality.
SOUL food. It has that name because it feeds not just the hungers in the stomach, but connects us to heritage, to faith, to ancestors, to a greater realm of existence.
To say someone is SOULFUL – what does that mean? It think is means that person is wholesome, somehow unified. A SOULFUL person has found the way to wisdom and grace, who relates fully and well to all people, whose actions stay lined up with beliefs, who legacy is large because of compassion and concern for others. Not ego-centric, but ex-centric (no longer centered on self). (see J.P. Newell, The Rebirthing of God, p. 18)
SOUL reminds us that the breath that flows through the neck/SOUL is God’s breath. And if God’s breath is gone, the human being is gone. Apart from God, according to the Scriptures, there is nothing to us. We are God-breathed, God-sustained, God-blessed – this applies to all people everywhere.
And if our origins are in God – which they are – our intentions –what we do - are also to be in God. What we do, we are to do for God. How we live, we are to live for God.
What is the chief end in life? The catechism reminds us – to glorify God and enjoy God forever. It is the God-operations that emerge from our lives that make us most what and who we are.
But, . . . . and I hope you have been thinking on this, making these connections as we learn about SOUL, is never automatic. This kind of thinking – about SOUL – seems to be in jeopardy. In fact, so much of life works against these understandings of SOUL. In the current culture, this idea of SOUL has been losing ground. I am not talking about the word, but the essence of the word – the understanding that life is God-created, God-sustained, God-breathed and blessed. So many places we turn, we realize that life is not ex-centric, understood to be God-created, God-sustained, and God-blessed, but ego-centric.
Ginger and I had the privilege this past week to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, at the Smithsonian. This was quite an experience. There is so much to say and learn from this massive museum. And, on the wall through the museum are numerous, gripping quotes. One quote comes from and a 19th-century philosopher and theologian: “Once you label me, you negate me.”
The long and winding hallways that fill that large space depict our history of labeling African Americans as less than others. Human beings – with SOUL – were considered “property” and snatched from other lands and shipped to these lands for labor. Human beings – God-created, God-sustained, God-blessed - used and abused - purely for profit. Human beings – labeled as inferior, oppressed for centuries; this is our painful history that deserves much attention if we are ever to find redemption.
And the pertinence of this word – SOUL – continues to apply to our lives and times. We cannot appreciate the importance of SOUL and also continue a harsh stand against refugees and immigrants. Refugees and immigrants are God-created, God-sustained, and God-blessed too. Their lives have dignity and relationality like ours. They are not just problems – a label used for them - or people with problems; they are beloved of God. How we treat people is always a reflection on us.
We have gone from a nation of welcome and hospitality, a beacon of hope - “give me your tired and poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” - as it says on the Statue of Liberty, to a nation fearful and harsh in our treatment of “the other.”
We cannot appreciate the importance of SOUL and not pay attention to Bryan Stevenson, and his work with our horrible history of lynchings in our nation. He has established a jarring and historic monument in Montgomery, AL that demands that we take our abusive and racist history seriously as the only way to a wholesome life. Stevenson has also spent his life working with young, wrongly convicted African Americans in jails across our nation. These people are God-created, God-sustained, God-blessed just like we are. If you have not read his book, Just Mercy, you should.
We cannot appreciate the importance of SOUL and not pay attention to other issues – gender and sexual identity issues, global warming issues, environmental issues, socio-economic issues that result in poverty and pain for so many in our society. All these relate to the importance of life – and life together. SOUL.
Harold Kushner notes in When All You've Ever Wanted is Not Enough, "Our SOULS are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our SOULS are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through."
All through the Bible we find a wonderful refrain – “Bless the Lord, O my SOUL.” It is a reminder that life is rooted deeply in God. When we know our lives rooted deeply in God, we live with sensitivity and awareness, compassion and concern for others, especially the less fortunate, with intentions that indeed glorify God, not just further our own purposes, or selfishness, or self-interests. We have enough of that. God calls us to love God with all our SOUL, which intends to change everything about us.
See why this is so important? Loving God with SOUL reminds us how all things are tied together; and what we do matters, and how we see other people matters, and how we look toward the future matters.
May we “Bless the Lord, O my SOUL!” all of us, always and forever. AMEN
Prayer of Commitment: Thank you, God. We are indeed created, sustained, blessed, held forever by you. Fill us with your Spirit and new commitments that honor Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on Sunday, September 16, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.