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Sunday, May 2, 2010

How to Become Great - Step 2 (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.

Today’s message is the second in a three-part series about how to become great in the kingdom of God. Last week, we looked at Step One, which came to us from the prophet Micah in the teaching that is known as the Great Requirement. We asked the question, “What does the Lord require of us?” and Micah helped us articulate the answer: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Next week, we’ll be in the last chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew to take a look at the Great Commission, but before we get there, today it’s the Gospel according to St. Mark as we examine the Great Commandment. Step one in being great in the kingdom of God was following the Great Requirement. Step two is following the Great Commandment. May we pray.

After seminary, my roommate, Logan, went to work as the Associate Pastor of the American Church in London. In several instances he ended up in gatherings where the Queen was present. She was speaking on one occasion, and someone’s cell phone went off. She folded her hands on the podium, looked at the offender, and said, “You’d better take that – it could be someone important!”

If you believe that doing what Jesus wants you to do is important, please put away your to-do list, your shopping list, your crossword puzzle, your Sudoku puzzle, or whatever else you’re working on that’s not related to worship. Stop the chit-chat with the people behind you, beside you, or in front of you. If someone near you is doing something distracting that is keeping you from participating in worship, you have my permission to ask them kindly, lovingly, in all the Christian charity you can muster, to stop. If you have come to worship God but are planning to work on something else, please feel free to leave now because, to paraphrase the queen, “It must be something important.”

Jesus is about to speak, and he’s going to say something important.

By the 12th Chapter of Mark, Jesus finds himself in the middle of a theological cross-examination free-for-all. Priests, scribes, elders and other defenders of the letter of the law are swarming over him in a frenzy of entrapment.

They have all sorts of questions for Jesus. “By what authority are you doing these things?” In other words – when did the church council approve THIS particular project? Then there’s a question about paying taxes to test his loyalties. And finally, a brainteaser from some out-of-print religious textbooks about seven brothers who each do their brotherly duty by marrying each other’s childless widow, only to find themselves in heaven without a clue as to who gets to claim her as the piece of property known as “wife.” Jesus just rubs his head and says, “Dude, you just don’t get it.”

That’s when this nameless scribe, who has been hanging out on the fringe of crowd, asks the question. He asks the down-to-business, cut-through-the-crap, brass-tacks question. The crowd falls silent as he asks, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

This is a great question. I have a friend who is a college professor, and she talks about the kinds of questions that students ask. There are the questions they ask in class which are utilitarian in nature: “How many absences are we allowed in here?” or “What percentage of our grade is this paper worth?” But then, there are the questions they ask after class, which are invariably philosophical in nature: “So what is your position on the death penalty, anyway?” or “So come on, like, were you a hippie when you were in college?”

On the first day of Early and Medieval Church History at Duke Divinity School – a class every incoming student takes their first semester and is regarded as the unofficial “weed-out” course of the seminary catalogue, Dr. Warren Smith said, “I know you are all intelligent people. I know this because you have all been accepted to a graduate program at Duke University. Early in your education, you were all told something like, ‘There’s no such thing as a stupid question.’ But, you all know that there are stupid questions, and you can probably recognize one when you see it. Questions are always welcome in this class. Stupid questions, however, will be responded to appropriately.”

We all know a stupid question when we hear one. But we can also recognize that the question asked of Jesus by the scribe is, by no means, a stupid question. It’s a genuine, heartfelt question. The scribe is genuinely seeking. Seekers of Jesus come from all walks of life, and sometimes, even religious people seek after Jesus!

The scribe asks Jesus a question that was commonly debated among the rabbis. Which commandment is first? Which commandment is the most important? Which commandment is the greatest? In the tradition, the Law of God had been interpreted into 613 individual laws – commands and regulations that governed every aspect of a Jewish person’s life. There was a law for everything! Obviously, some of those laws were elevated and lowered, and a sort of ranking developed in the interpretation of those laws – certainly some laws were more or less important than others! So, the question on everyone’s mind was this: “Which commandment is the greatest?”

Jesus quotes the scripture in his response. He quotes a verse from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 that would have been well-known to the people of his day. He quotes a prayer that those in his audience would have said three times a day. The prayer was known as the Sh’ma, the Hebrew word for “Hear” because the prayer begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”

Jesus says the first command is to love God with everything we’ve got. All of ourselves, everything we are, completely, wholeheartedly, recklessly. It’s not “Love God a little bit.” It’s not “Love God if you have the time.” It’s not “Love God every now and then.” Jesus is asked about the greatest command, and he commands us to love God with all. Love God with all your heart – with the center of your desires, with your emotions, with your values. Love God with all your soul – with every bit of your spirit and personality. Love God with all your mind – with all the intellectual capacities God has given you, not afraid of new learning and questioning and curiosities, but with their awesome inquisitive fullness, for a shallow mind is a sin against God. Love God with all your strength – with your entire physical being, with your very best. Love God with everything.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He links it with the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, a quotation of Leviticus 18:19 in which God commands the people not to hold a grudge against another or take out vengeance on them. Jesus links these two together in a powerful summary statement of the entirety of God’s law and gives us the teaching we know today as the Great Commandment – to love God and to love neighbor. If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, you will follow this Great Commandment. You will love God, and you will love your neighbor. My friend Betty Jo Hardy summed it up this way: “love of God and neighbor is being able to look in the face of your enemy and see God.”

Let me insert the disclaimer here. Several of you have phoned, emailed, and visited with me this week to ask about the premise of being great. You have rightly wondered, “Is being great something to which we should aspire?” “Didn’t Jesus say that the greatest among us would be servant of all? Didn’t Jesus get after his disciples when they were arguing about who would be greatest in his kingdom and sit at his right hand and at his left? OK, so you caught me. Over and over again, Jesus teaches us that the path to greatness in his kingdom is the path of servanthood. Being truly great is not about being exalted, it’s not about receiving the places of honor, it’s not about having people bow in deference to you when you walk in the room. The greatest in the kingdom of God will be the biggest servant. Those who exalt themselves will be brought low, and those who humble themselves will be elevated in God’s kingdom. The way to true greatness is the kingdom of God is the way of service, and so as we spend these weeks talking about being great in the kingdom of God, I am trying to help you all cultivate the heart of a servant. I am hoping you will all want to live selflessly and sacrificially, and brothers and sisters, that is the true mark of greatness in the kingdom of God.

You already know this truth – that we are created to love God and love our neighbor, because God first loved us. The scriptures tell us and we will hear again in our celebration of Communion that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, and that proves God’s love toward us. What then, is love? Love is being focused outward instead of inward. Love is about bowing our own wills and desires, it is about lowering and humbling ourselves. "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Jesus commands a total commitment in our lives to God, which means that we have no choice but to love those who are created in God’s image. And brothers and sisters, who among the entire precious human family is NOT created in the image of God? The truth is this: all people are created by God, in the image of God, for relationship with God. It is not our job to determine who does and does not get a seat at the banquet, we are called to spread the call far and wide, to love all people unconditionally just as Jesus would love and, indeed, does love them. That is our task. We are commanded to love all people. Before you start rolling your eyes and thinking, “Here he goes again,” I’m just telling you what Jesus said. I’m just the messenger here! If you don’t like it, take it up with Jesus!

In the Gospel of Mark, scribes typically opposed Jesus. In the stories that Mark has placed immediately after this particular text, Jesus is harsh on the scribes, even calling into question the validity of their learning and scholarship. Then, he goes further and warns the people to beware of the scribes, because they do all these outward things so that people will honor them and respect them and defer to them and think they are important, and religious, and holy. But Jesus warns that their hearts are far from what God desires, yet because they have put on such airs of religious self-importance, they will be greatly condemned for putting up a false front when they do not love.

The scribes were sort of like the fig tree Jesus cursed only a few chapters back. The fig tree was leafy but had no fruit. Religious people can sometimes talk a good religious talk, but fail to put their words into action in their daily lives. The tree symbolized people who appeared to be deeply-religious, who appeared to be healthy and leafy, but whose lives did not produce the fruit of love.

Today, the apparently healthy fig tree without fruit symbolizes an apparently healthy Christian life that does not produce the love God wants from us. The tree looks healthy but it is not. A religious life looks healthy but it is not.

So it was with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. We remember that they loved their religious traditions more than they loved God and neighbor. They loved their interpretations of Scripture more than they loved God and neighbor. They loved their money more than they loved God and neighbor. They loved their power more than they loved God and neighbor. They talked a good line, but didn’t live it. They were blind to God, God’s love, God’s Word, God’s truth, and God’s son. Let us not forget that Jesus’ conflict was with the religious people. They were experts in the Scriptures, but they had missed the central truth of the Word of God. And friends, the same can happen to us.

Simply put, empty religion can cause us to miss the very purpose of the Word and our purpose as the people of God.

We can go to church, memorize Scripture, study the Bible, quote Scripture, know a lot about theology, use the right buzzwords, serve on committees, know all about church etiquette and church manners and church programs, and yet we can hold our hearts far away from any real relationship or commitment to God. Our ears may burn when someone utters profanity around us, yet we readily marginalize and degrade other people who are created in the image of God and whom we are commanded to love. It can happen that we are so caught up in doing all the right church things that the real themes of the Gospel completely pass us by. We can love the church more than we love God, and our religion can be nothing more than a lie if the love we claim to have for God is not matched by hearts turned outward.

Now, I want you to love the church. I want you to serve here, I want you to grow here, I want you to belong here. But if any of us here starts to love the church more than we love God, then we’re in major trouble. If we love the church more than we love God, that’s called idolatry! The church is not the same thing as God! Please, I’m begging you – don’t serve the church; serve God! I never want to hear that someone serves the church. Serve through the church, yes, but serve God, not the church! Serving the church is one of the deadliest things any of us can do, for we will serve and worship and love the church itself instead of serving and worshiping and loving God. May it never be said of any of us that we serve the church, for if it is, we are like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who loved their institutions more than they loved God, and like them, we will have missed the point completely.

Have you ever thought about why so many churches call our worship gatherings a “service?” The etymology of this usage fascinates me. In too many places, I think that the word “service” is interpreted as some sort of benefit of membership – as if the church is some sort of religious Costco or Sam’s Club. In this light, the “service” becomes something primarily to keep the existing members comfortable.

But that’s not how the word “service” is intended. The worship service is for people who are already part of the church, but it is not exclusively for us! First, it is for God. We serve God through worship – we adore God because God is worthy of our praise, we confess our failures to be the people God desires for us to be, we give God thanks simply because of who God is, and we ask God to continue to mold us more and more into God’s image. So yes, to the extent that worship makes us more Christlike people, worship is for us. But then, the worship service becomes about loving our neighbor – we are equipped to live as disciples as we offer our praises to God, and then we take our commitments out to love and serve our neighbor. What we do in worship equips us and empowers us for service in the world outside these walls in the name of Jesus. And so we call it a worship service – not because it is some privilege we earned when we joined, but because our worship of God in this place enables our service in the world. Think of it – worship service. Worship – love God. Service – love neighbor.

Love God, love neighbor. These are not two distinct commandments, but two sides of the same coin. Your personal relationship with Jesus Christ doesn’t mean jack if you are not loving toward every other human being with whom you share this planet. Your relationship with Jesus may be personal, but it is not private. If we love God, we are commanded to love all those who are created in the image of God. Lip service and all the churchy things are only hollow worship if they have no bearing on our relationships with others.

The Scripture is clear. If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, you will love God, and you will love your neighbor. It’s a command, it’s the Great Commandment. Step One is following the Great Requirement we studied last week, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Step Two is the Great Commandment – to love God, and to love our neighbor. In this we see that the path to true greatness in God’s kingdom is the path of service.

I was a junior in high school and we ended up with Mrs. Belkota as our social studies teacher. We were the smart class, we were bored, and we didn’t like her, and by October we were very successful in making her life a living hell. We even caused her to have a nervous breakdown, complete with tears and everything, in the classroom.

In the teacher’s lounge, one of the other teachers noticed she was down, and asked her what was wrong. She started to cry all over again, told her which class was the problem, and even named myself and a few others in that class. That was bad enough, but the teacher who asked her what was wrong just happened to be the faculty adviser to a weekly afterschool Bible study that I was part of. She came to get me out of class the next day to ask if what she had heard was true, and of course, it was. It was about the smallest I’ve ever felt.

Jesus gives us the Great Commandment: to love God and our neighbor, and the depth to which we love God will be demonstrated in our relationships with all other people. The world is watching; what do they see?

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