Rev. Dr. Scott Herr


Please Read: Hebrews 9:11-14 and Mark 12:28-34

There are at least a few interpretive lenses through which we must read today’s text. The first is “SuperStorm” Sandy, the hurricane which wreaked havoc on the northeast coast of the United States. Going into this morning, there were still hundreds of thousands of people without power and adequate provisions. Moody’s analytics estimated the financial damage to total 50 billion dollars[1]… There is also the liturgical calendar which calls today “All Saints Sunday,” a day when we remember that great cloud of witnesses that have gone before, are all around, and who will come after us. And finally, lest you thought I forgot, there is the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday. French news agencies are offering 24 hour coverage. Yeah! On the David Letterman Show I liked Vice President Joe Biden’s top ten list of why you should have voted early. Number one: “Honestly, don't you want this election to be over with already?" J

Not to mention, our gospel text is perhaps one of the best known teachings of Jesus... Here Jesus reveals, if you will, his own campaign slogan, the “number one” and “number two” of his discipleship agenda! As famous as this teaching is, however, there are a number of details that are often overlooked or forgotten completely…

First, the question which is put to Jesus, “Which commandment is first of all?” was asked by a scribe. If you go back in this chapter, you’ll see that Jesus was also debating with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees were the three main groups that made up what was called the Sanhedrin, basically the Jewish Supreme Court of the day.[2] This is to say that Jesus was being judged by the ruling religious and political elite. This Scribe who questions Jesus is in a long line of critics who have been arguing with him about his views. Which brings me to the first point of this lesson: Jesus engaged the diversity of people around him, even his sworn enemies. He was unceasing in his attempts to help them understand the parameters of and the participants in the Kingdom of God.

Secondly, there is something unique about this scribe, in that he seems to be attracted to, even sympathetic with Jesus because Mark notes, “seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked” him his question. In other words, Jesus was attractive, even to his critics, because he had thoughtful answers at the ready. Despite constant attacks, Jesus is able to stay on point. Even leading politicians seem to find this completely impossible! But I sympathize with this scribe: I am attracted to Jesus because he is a leader who can keep the discussion around first order issues. Remember, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!”

The Scribe’s question, “Which commandment is the first of all?” is perhaps a genuine question, perhaps a trick question. Either way, Jesus’ answer is profound. “‘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 you’re your neighbor as yourself.’” The first answer Jesus gives of course begins with the Shema, the most famous verse in the whole of Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy 6:4). It is recited morning and evening by the Orthodox and is part of many corporate prayers…

But then Jesus reveals his unique agenda summary as many other rabbis: “Twenty years before Jesus, Rabbi Hillel summarized the Torah in a negative version of the Golden Rule: ‘What you would not want done to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah, everything else is interpretation.’ A century after Jesus, in A.D. 135, Rabbi Akiba reduced the Torah to Leviticus 19:8, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ A century after Akiba a rabbi quoted Proverbs 3:5-6 as the heart of the law, ‘In all your ways acknowledge God, and he will make your paths straight.’ Later still in A.D. 260, Rabbi Simlai quoted Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous will live by his faith.”[3] Jesus’ answer is simple: love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.

Obviously the first command is that there is only one God, and we are to love God with all that we are and all that we have. This is why we talk about stewardship in the church. We are to live our lives cognizant that there are many other gods and idols fishing for our faithfulness and lobbying for our loyalty, but there is only one true God, and our love for this God is the source of life for us whether emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, or physically. All is repeated four times here for a reason. I think simply because our temptation is to compartmentalize our faith into being relevant in certain areas of life. Jesus makes the claim that God desires our love and commitment completely, not in just fragments or fractions of life…

The paradox is that we need to listen to different perspectives to learn who God really is, and what it means to love God and our neighbors with all that we are… It’s interesting to me that Jesus put himself out there in a diverse crowd, many of whom were critical of his views. Jesus positioned himself as a rabbi who listened to various viewpoints, but was ready to give a brilliantly unique summary of his own ethical vision.

On this All Saints Sunday and on the eve of important elections when partisan rhetoric will be shrill, I want to remind you that the way of faith always seeks a diversity of viewpoints and a broader base for community. This is essential to authentic Christian community!

I was listening to a Ted Talk by Eli Pariser recently.[4] Eli is a political and internet activist who like many of us had dreams for the World Wide Web to give us access to all kinds of new information. But what he noticed about search engines like Google and facebook, is that they are constantly gathering information about our choices and your preferences, and here’s what you need to pay attention to: they are preselecting information that they think you will want to know. In other words, there’s no such thing as an objective search on the web anymore. These are basically powerful marketing tools which use algorithms to personalize your own little internet universe according to your likes and dislikes! Think about that… The irony is that what had the potential to expand our world view in fact is now shrinking our world view, and indeed feeding our own narcissistic tendencies!

But here’s the scary possibility: Is that what we’ve been doing all along in the Christian community? Do we only seek out people who look like us or think like us or have the same religious preferences like us? Is that how we build our communities? I would like to suggest that Jesus calls us - in this well-known “love God and love your neighbor” summary - away from our own spirituality bubbles and into the expansive Kingdom community which connects us with all the saints, women and men, young and old, red and yellow black and white, rich and poor, educated and non-educated, straight and gay, Republican and Democrat, liberals and conservatives around the world; not because they are like us, but because they uniquely reflect the imago dei, the image of God! And if we’re going to love God with all that we are and have, we’re going to have to learn to love those neighbors who are very different from us!

Loving God and loving your neighbor are inextricably linked…Now what most people miss in this text is the comment which follows.  The scribe spoke up that surely this was more important than all of burnt offerings and sacrifices made in the elaborate rituals in the temple.

   Jesus' commandment to love God and one another is a commandment concerning true worship!  Loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves: This is worship that is pleasing to God.  And worship does not always look like a well-choreographed ritual, but sometimes more like carrying a cross. What we do here today helps us to remember what God has done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.  And in remembering, we are drawn into an attitude of humble response, an openness to obey and show the same kind of sacrificial love. 

   Mark Labberton reminded me of the story of Mother Teresa when in 1982 she visited Lebanon during the Civil War. Richard Attenborough made a film about her and captures a powerful scene.[5] Mother Teresa is standing with some U.N. peace-keeping forces and the bombs are falling all around a school in Beirut filled with children. She said we must go to get them right now. The commander looked at Teresa and said but there are bombs dropping all around the school and we can’t go. And she said, “But we must go get them.” And he argued, “But there are bombs dropping.” And she said, “Yes, that’s why we need to go and get them out of there now!” You see, Teresa saw the children’s utter vulnerability and was willing to love them even more than herself. She understood that loving someone else implicitly means denying yourself; risking your own self, your own safety, your own security for another…

You see the first thing about following Jesus is it’s not about you, or even the church. It’s about the Kingdom of God. And even the worship we do here is about orienting our lives more around the Kingdom of God. That’s how Jesus closes today’s lesson. Rather than being judged, he judges the scribe by telling him he is not far from the Kingdom of God! Jesus, and his ethic of loving God and loving our neighbor, is our compass, our pathway to the Kingdom of God.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "The gods we worship write their names on our faces,  be sure of that.  And a man will worship something - have no doubt about that either.  He may think that his tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of his heart - but it will out.  That which dominates will determine his life and character.  Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship,  for what we are worshipping we are becoming..."

Friends, in these days of elections and great needs around the world, I invite you to consider what are the first things in your life, the priorities, the main things to which you are giving yourself?  If you would be a disciple of Jesus, you would do well to remember how God first elected you, chose you, loved you. Come to this table to receive God’s grace, knowing that all are welcome because of what Christ has done for you that you could not do for yourself…

But come to this table also as a commitment to daily worship, obeying Jesus’ call to put God first in your life, and to love all those he has made, however different they may be from you.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

[1] Kate Zernike and Christine Hauser, “Anger flares as shortages bite,” (International Herald Tribune, Saturday-Sunday, November 3-4, 2012), 1.

[2] James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 254.

[3] Ibid., 370-371.

[4], referenced November 3, 2012.