Last Sunday I suggested that we could look at Lent this year through the words of the old folk song: “Take off your old coat and roll up your sleeves. Life is a hard road to travel, I believe.”
As the days get warmer and longer we are called to take off our old coats—to shed old ways of thinking and acting and to get on with the struggles and challenges and opportunities of life. We are called to roll up our sleeves so that we might be better able to engage the struggles and face the challenges, and seize the opportunities.
Oh, but ever sermon is a bit heretical and this morning we listen as Jesus reminds us that old ways of thinking and acting—the religious wisdom of centuries—might still be of great value to us.
Listening to Mark’s story of the last week of Jesus’ life, we find Jesus in the temple, talking with people, arguing with people. And as he does this, a scribe—trained in the Torah—is impressed with what he hears. So the scribe comes up to Jesus and asks: “Which commandment is the first of all?”
You get the sense here that this question is not asked to trick or trap Jesus. It is a sincere question—and the kind of question that was often asked of religious teachers.
Rabbi Hillel, who lived a generation before Jesus, was once asked to state the whole Torah while he stood on one foot—not necessarily an easy task, since the Talmud, the Jewish commentary on the scriptures, tells us that there were 613 commandments given to Moses.
This could take a while.
How good was his balance?
Hillel’s answer? “What you hate for yourself, do not to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary.”
When this scribe questions Jesus, then, he is asking out of good will and seeks to understand what is essential and how best to live.
And when Jesus says: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one; and 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,” he is not saying anything new.
The basic affirmation of Judaism starts with those words from the book of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord.” With this sentence worship in the synagogue began and still begins. These verses were put on the door posts of houses, in obedience to the commandment, to remind the people of God at all times, even as they went between the rooms of their homes.
In the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, as the people hear the words of Jesus and watch what he does, they respond by asking in amazement: “What is this? A new kind of teaching!”
But, now, as his ministry and his life approach the end, Jesus isn’t saying anything new.
Nor is he saying anything controversial. Many religious leaders argued with Jesus when he arrived in Jerusalem. But the questioning scribe can only agree when he speaks like this.
The words that we hear from Jesus this morning are familiar to many in the church. Maybe you learned them in Sunday School. Many know these words so much by heart that we scarcely know them anymore as words spoken to the heart out of a mystery beyond all knowing.
Or maybe you heard them for the first time this morning. Maybe you were as surprised and encouraged as that ancient scribe.
Where are these words trying to take us?
“You shall love . . .”
Not, first, your neighbor—yes, we will, and we do, love our neighbors.
But Jesus puts the love of God first—as did Moses and the prophets. And we are to love God with all that we are and all that we might become—whatever that will be, whatever that involves.
These words are about commitment. Indeed, the difference between philosophy and religion has been described in this way: “Philosophy is ultimate concern. Religion is ultimate commitment and nothing less.”
Think about your own commitments—to your family, to your friends, to your work, to the various organizations and institutions that are a part of your life. What is ultimate? What demands your all?
And where in all of this is your love of God?
Loving God does have its problems, doesn’t it? You’ve probably discovered that over the years. Certainly we have problems loving our neighbors, but they at least can be seen, they can be heard.
How are we to love God who is not seen, not heard? When we look around in faith, seeking God’s presence, God’s comfort, and find only a void, whom or what do we love?
Frederick Buechner describes what happened to him in his fear and distress over his daughter who was hovering on the edge of death. “When the worst finally happens, or almost happens, a kind of peace comes. I had passed beyond grief, beyond terror, all but beyond hope, and it was there that for the first time in my life I caught sight of what it must be like to love God truly. It was only a glimpse, but it was like stumbling on fresh water in the desert. Though God was nowhere to be clearly seen, nowhere to be clearly heard, I had to be near God. I loved God because there was nothing else left. I loved God because God seemed as helpless in might as I was in helplessness. I loved God not so much in spite of there being nothing in it for me but almost because there was nothing in it for me.”
He concludes: “This was not because, God knows, I was some sort of saint or hero. It was not because I suddenly saw the light (there was almost no light at all) or because I hoped that by loving I would persuade God to heal this young woman I loved. I loved God because I couldn’t help myself. I loved God because the one who commands us to love is the one who also empowers us to love, as there in the wilderness of that dark and terrible time I was, through no doing of my own, empowered to love God at least a little. At least enough to survive.”
Perhaps you have known times when it was easy to love God—I hope you have. Maybe you know such times even now.
But just as the limit of our love for our neighbors is found in our love of our enemies, so the edge of our love for God is responding to the words “Hear, O Israel . . . love your God . . .” in times when the light is dim or nowhere to be seen.
At such times the witness of others who have been able to do just that can give us encouragement. Because we do walk in the valley of shadows, we must hear again and again.
“Hear, O Israel…”
Yes, the love of God—our love of God—is filled with problems.
But it also creates new possibilities for our lives.
The love of God can overwhelm and overcome our hearts, so that every heartbeat attempts to keep pace with God’s love for us.
The love of God can inform our minds, making love the mainspring of all our thoughts.
The love of God can fill our souls, making our every prayer a plea not just for ourselves and our own desires, but an offering formed by love.
The love of God can flow through the strength of our bodies, making every step a step toward love in action.
The love of God is our ultimate commitment, with all its problems and possibilities.
Jesus does not stop with the command to love God, however. He continues: “The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Again, there is nothing new in what Jesus says. Indeed, here he quotes the book of Leviticus. Another great Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiba, who died one hundred years after Jesus put it this way: “To love your neighbor as yourself, this is a great general principle of the law.”
Nothing new here.
Love your neighbor as yourself. We’ve heard it before. And there are many times in which we are able to do just that—to show the compassion, understanding, and forbearance toward others that we would like to be shown toward ourselves. To desire above all the well-being of others.
We’ve heard this before.
But we can never be reminded of it too often.
Remember the love that you have been shown.
Remember the love you have received from others.
And continue toward others in that way.
Love your neighbors. You know who they are.
Love your neighbors. You know what that would be like.
I said that there’s nothing new here—but that’s not quite the whole truth. What is new is the way that Jesus connects our love for God with our love for our neighbors.
It becomes clear that our love for our neighbors flows from our love for God. So the great theologian, Augustine, could say, “Love God, and do as you please,” knowing that if we are truly loving God we will be led in the direction of truly loving our neighbors.
We also begin to see, from what Jesus says, that whoever does not love the neighbor, who is seen, cannot love God, who is not seen. If we take this seriously, there is no room left for racial hatred or superiority, for the ostracism of others because of sexual orientation, for spurning refugees, or aggression toward people of other faiths—or no faith.
The second is like the first. That is to say the command to love God and the command to love our neighbor are wrapped up together.
Can we pause for a moment and turn our attention from Jesus? Listen to the scribe, because he is doing the work that each of us must do. He receives the answer of Jesus. And then he interprets those words in his own way. He takes what he is offered and turns it into his own.
“You are right,” he says to Jesus. “You have truly said that ‘God is one, and besides God there is no other’; and “to love God 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.”
The scribe agreeing to this new interpretation of old commands is told, “You are not far from the realm of God.” And this, in a sense, points to the end of these commands. The words “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” ultimately become, as Frederick Buechner put it, “less of a command and more of a promise. And the promise is that on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love God as God has loved us. And loving God, who has known our sorrow, we will come at last to love each other.”
It’s nothing new.
I’m just passing on to you, once more, what you have heard before. Maybe all I’m doing this morning is handing you an old coat and inviting you to try it on and see if it still fits. What will be new—what will change the world, however, is taking these old words to heart and living them in a love-lost and often hateful world.
Love God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
You could preach that entire sermon standing on one foot.