LEVITICUS 19:1-2, 15-18; PSALM 1; 1 THESSALONIANS 2:1-8; MATTHEW 222:34-46
THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS
The church is to serve as a heart center of the community.
In response to a gospel story that at once is about love of God and disputes over the validity of the church, I have written for you a legend. The story is about a simple tortoise and a simple church. My message is that the Jesus-following congregation is to be the heart center of the community for the congregation gathered and the surrounding geographic community. The validity of the church is fundamentally tested by the truth and integrity of its commitment to profound love and the stewardship of that function.
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Once upon a time Love was born into the world in the form of a tortoise. Like all hatchlings she used her egg tooth to break open her shell. Her mother laid her egg in a hole she dug in the ground and then covered with sand, soil, leaves and twigs to camouflage and protect her. After breaking through her shell, the hatchling tortoise dug her way out of her coverings and began her life’s journey.
The tortoise lived many years in desert lands. From time to time she laid and buried her own eggs, leaving them to hatch and fend for themselves as is the tortoise tradition. After a while she moved on to a swamp land where she would spend many more years. (The oldest tortoise known to humans is said to have lived 225 years.) The tortoise laid more eggs in the swamp and after many more years moved on again. This time she found herself in a city. She walked along gravel paths, sidewalks and curbs until one Sunday morning she made her way into neighborhood church. A slow mover, the tortoise managed to evade notice until a child spotted her in the corner.
The child’s enthusiasm for the creature could not be contained, and without delay many children and adults had gathered around. There was much debate about what to do, but in the end the children’s desire to keep the tortoise prevailed. So, the adults went to work and learning about the diet and habitat needs of the creature.
“We love her. We love her. We must call her Love,” said the children. And Love it was. Love was the name.
Over the years the adults would gather around the tortoise to say their prayers. The children would feed her lettuce and special tortoise food which was purchased from the local zoo. When no one was looking, the priests would consult the tortoise about their concerns and conundrums. Being a reptile, the tortoise could not respond. But the priests always left their consultations with a sense relief and greater clarity.
One day the tortoise went missing. The church was beside itself and implemented a search. They went into every business and restaurant asking for her. They knocked on the doors of every apartment, house, condominium and duplex, inquiring if anyone had seen their tortoise. Eventually she was found beside the dumpster of the nearby grocery, feasting on soggy, discarded produce.
By then word was out about the tortoise, and people started coming to the church to investigate. Some came once. Some came many times. The clergy noticed that young and old alike were now talking to the tortoise about what was heavy on their hearts. The priests always pretended not to see and move along about their day.
For a while the church chained the tortoise to be sure she remined on the inside of the building. But the youth protested her incarceration. After the chains were removed, the tortoise would escape the building many times. Every time a faithful neighbor would bring her back or the congregants would go out knocking until they found her again.
Over the years Love remained, and generations of children grew into adults and then brought their children to the church. Some moved away. Others came.
Eventually the tortoise’s time on earth would come to an end, and the community would grieve. The children cried. The grown-ups held in their despair until no one else was looking. All of them wished and waited for another tortoise to come, but it was a futile expectation. Still every year on the anniversary of the tortoise’s arrival, the children lay lettuce and special tortoise food at the altar as a remembrance of the one who came and went. The grown-ups still pray in a circle formation as if she were still resting at the center. Occasionally the church goes knocking on doors just to keep her memory alive. And it is said that if one looks closely at the walking paths in springtime, mounds of sand, soil, sticks and leaves can be seen. No one dares to bother them.
“To love God with the whole heart is the cause of every other good,” wrote Cyril of Alexandria. “To love God with the whole heart is the cause of every other good.”