I don’t often post sermons, but this week is an exception. Our congregation observed All Saints’ Day last Sunday as we were reeling from the news of a shooting a few blocks away at a yoga studio. The victims are known by many in the congregation. That was Friday. Tuesday is Election Day.
The Gospel reading in the Consensus Lectionary for November 4, 2018 is Mark 12:28-34:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question. (New Revised Standard)
The passage I just read from Mark’s Gospel could not have come at a more opportune time in the life of our nation or of this congregation. On this first Sunday of November, the line of people and topics crying out for attention runs from this pulpit, out the door front door, and halfway round the block.
The Stewardship Committee is first in line, anxious to read what is written on the pledge cards you are about to place in the offering plate, and hoping that, in response to this sermon, you will cross out the pledge you had written at home and increase the figure before the plate comes by.
The victims of Hurricane Michael are next, wanting to make sure I mention their plight so that we do not forget them.
The mourners from the Tree of Life synagogue are here, wearing their prayer shawls and kippahs, having come straight from the funerals of eleven of their fellow Jews, wanting to know what we Christians have to say about that massacre in their house of worship. As I was writing this sermon, more mourners – these from Tallahassee – joined the queue.
The candidates for elective office are next, pamphlets and stump speeches at the ready. Some of them have come with appeals to make, and some with buckets of mud to sling before the election on Tuesday.
And, surrounding us on every side are the saints of ages past, the members of the Church Triumphant. This is their day, too, and their presence cries out to be acknowledged and celebrated.
That’s a lot of fish to fry in one sermon, and it all has to be served up in time for the folks who ride the Westminster bus to get home for lunch. It’s just too much, isn’t it? Too much important stuff, too many hurting souls, too many broken hearts, too many voices crying out for a gospel word.
So, as I say, the Gospel reading appointed for today is a Godsend. It puts everything into perspective. It calls to mind the essence of the faith. It puts first things first.
As we come to the twelfth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and is shaking the city to its core. He’s performing miracles of healing, yes, but he’s doing more than that. He’s taking on the religious authorities – the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Herodians – and he’s dazzling them with his knowledge of scripture and his intellectual acuity. His opponents have thrown everything they can at him – every trick question, every horny dilemma, every theological trap laid over the quicksand, and Jesus has met every challenge.
Not only that, he has disrupted business as usual at the temple, driving out the buyers and sellers of sanctioned sacrifices and overturning the tables of the money-changers. Quoting scripture, he has called for the temple to be a house of prayer for the people of all the nations, as God intended. His opponents are now united in their determination to kill him.
That’s the context in which a scribe approaches Jesus and asks him – with sincerity I think – “Which commandment is the first of all?”
Jesus answers as any Jew – of his day or of ours – would answer. He answers with the Shema: Sh’ma Yisraeil, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.
“Hear, O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. . . (and to that Jesus adds “with all your mind.”)
That command comes first, Jesus says, and from it flows everything else. That command directs our response to God’s love for us, which precedes our love for God. “We love,” says John’s epistle, “because God first loved us.” Aware of how much God loves us, we naturally want to love God back with our prayers, our hymns and songs, our sacrifice of praise, and even our checkbooks.
To love God – to love God back – is the first and greatest commandment. But prayers and songs and checks in the offering plate are not enough, are they? Sunday love has to find expression in Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday love, and that calls for us to put our love for God to work.
Therefore, the second commandment, Jesus tells the scribe, is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Teacher,” replies to scribe, “you are right.” To love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself is much more important that everything that happens here in this temple we’re standing in right now. More important that the burnt offerings, more important than the sacrifices, more important than the finer points of the law.
More important, we could add, than the pledge cards. More important than the budget. More important than maintaining this old sanctuary.
To love God with your whole self and your neighbor as yourself – that is the heart of the Jewish law, and also the heart of the Christian ethic.
“When Jesus saw that scribe had answered so wisely,” says Mark, “he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”
Two realities flow from this bedrock teaching of Jesus. The first is, we can’t love God without loving our neighbors. The second is, my neighbor’s welfare is just as important as my welfare.
The love of God for the world puts me and my neighbor on level ground. It makes my neighbor my equal. It tears down what Paul calls in his letter to the Ephesians “the dividing wall of hostility” between me and my neighbor. To love my neighbor as myself is to realize that I cannot love God or self unless I love my neighbor as well.
Beyond our personal and most intimate relationships, love for neighbors must manifest itself in the pursuit of justice for those neighbors. Justice is how love puts its boots on. Without justice, love becomes mere sentimentality or wishful thinking.
Love without justice is lighting a candle at a vigil for the slain in Pittsburgh, without banning the weapon of war the shooter used to carry out his rampage.
Love without justice is praying for the relief of those refugees from Central America headed toward our southern border without calling out those political leaders who lie about who those refugees really are, the leaders who exploit their suffering in order to increase our fear and to garner our votes on Tuesday.
Love without justice is tweeting without acting, offering “thoughts and prayers” without asking why those folks are risking their lives in the first place. Love without justice is venting on Facebook without voting for change.
Taken together, the commands to love God and neighbor form the lens through which you and I are called to view our lives as Christians and as citizens of this nation.
What do you see when you look at those folks from Central America? Do you see invading hordes or neighbors seeking safety just as we sought safety when Hurricane Michael was headed our way?
When you look at those families, do you see terrorists or neighbors fleeing from terror? Do you see brown-skinned invaders, or do you see Joseph and Mary and their newborn child Jesus, crossing from Judea into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous gangs?
The dual command to love God and neighbor puts everything in a different perspective. It prompts us to look through the lens of love which leads to justice, and to reject those other lenses so common today – the lenses of fear, and hate, and division – the lenses that distort reality and obscure our view of God’s kingdom.
After all, the purpose of the church is, to use the old-fashioned language of our Reformed Tradition, to be “a provisional representation of the kingdom of God.” Our job is to draw the world closer to God’s kingdom by loving God and neighbor.
So many of the saints who have gone before us have shown us how to do to that. Today we thank God for their example and their presence with us now, as we are surrounded with that great cloud of witnesses that transcends time and space – saints like Vern, Helen, Bud, Audrey, Bob, Art, and Ray.
They showed us how to point toward the kingdom. They showed us how to love God and neighbor. And they still do.
First things first, beloved. First things first.