Saturday, November 3, 2012

It's All About Love!

Special thanks to Bruce Epperly of "The Adventurous Lectionary" for his insights, as well as the writing of Micah D. Kiel.

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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I have some wonderful news. In just two more days, we shall all regain a measure of peace and quiet we haven’t enjoyed in a long time. Yes, with Election Day, all those political ads, all that divisive campaign language, all those opinion polls, and all those robocalls will be over!

It’s been vicious, hasn’t it? But it’s nothing new. Mudslinging and accusations back and forth, attack ads and whisper campaigns have been part of the political landscape for at least as long as there have been politicians with offices to run for – I remember the 1986 Alabama Governor’s race, where the fight between Democrats Bill Baxley and Charlie Graddick was so heated, so contentious, and went so far that disgusted Alabama voters, seemingly out of nowhere, picked, as their Governor, Guy Hunt, the first Republican in 113 years to live in the Governor’s Mansion. I remember thinking, “Who?’

The mixing of politics and religion is nothing new, either. Since at least Constantine the Great, political machines have tried their best to co-opt God for their cause. In this election alone, and this is only one example, a very well-known evangelist’s ministry took out a full-page ad supporting a particular candidate’s platform. An historically Christian organization supporting causes on the other side of the political spectrum published an open letter in rebuttal to the evangelist, attacking him on each point the ad made.

And yes, both the ad and the rebuttal used the proper amount of Christian sounding words, quoted the requisite numbers of Scriptures, and struck an appropriately pious tone. But even with all the big words and sanctimonious overtones, it all comes down to schoolkids arguing over who has cooties.

And I am most definitely not saying that Christians shouldn’t have opinions, and shouldn’t use their theological beliefs to guide their hand in the voting booth. What concerns me is the use of Scripture and theology to beat one another down – as if the person we vote for makes us a better or worse Christian! What’s more, when this kind of thing happens, I fear that all the “outside” world sees – that is, people who are not Christians – is religious folk arguing over whose side God is on.

And even among us Christians, I have to wonder: when we become so invested in the idea that God is in favor of one political system or candidate over another, that the only truly Christian thing to do is to vote this way, and anyone who votes that way is in fact voting against the Almighty… well, what happens if the other side wins? What then? Is God absent? Is God playing tricks on us? Or does God really like the other side better?

Now I in no way want to suggest that the issue of who occupies the White House for the next four years is an unimportant issue. What I do want to suggest is that for Christianity – the Body of Christ in the world today, the population of the now-and-coming Kingdom of God – maybe, just maybe, it isn’t all about who is in the White House or the Congress or the Chief Justice’s chair. Maybe Christianity is bigger than partisan politics.

In the verses leading up to our Gospel reading today, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the express purpose of being arrested, tried, beaten, flogged, and nailed to a cross until he is dead. There in the Temple courts on Tuesday of that last week before Golgotha, he has been dealing with attacks from all sides: the chief priests, teachers of the law, the elders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians… each group in turn trying to trip him up, discredit him, bring him down… and of course each time Jesus meets their challenge and decisively overcomes it.

I can imagine voices being raised, challenges flying back and forth, men with red faces and clenched fists… and in the background, plans being laid to arrest this Galilean upstart and have him eliminated.

Then a scribe approaches Jesus. Now, though we very often mention scribes and Pharisees in the same breath, they were two very distinct groups. In first-century Jewish culture, scribes were individuals with knowledge of the law who could draft legal documents like contracts for marriage or divorce, loans, inheritances, mortgages, the sale of land, and so on. Every village had at least one scribe. Jesus had gotten plenty of grief from the scribes in Galilee, so one might imagine Jesus mentally rolling his eyes when this fellow approached… “here we go again!”

But all the scribe asks is, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

I imagine a hush falling over the crowd while the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and all the rest try to puzzle out where this guy was coming from. Where was the twist in logic that would finally expose Jesus for who he really was?

Jesus had a way of knowing when people had it in for him. He could smell hypocrisy a mile away, and had no compunctions about calling people on it. The disciples know this, and they wait for Jesus to deliver a punishing verbal one-two punch like he’d been doing all afternoon.

Over the Temple walls you can hear the noise of the crowd in the streets, and across the courts some priests are singing a psalm as sacrifices are offered on the altar.

But Jesus doesn’t answer with a challenge of his own. No parable, no diatribe, no “gotcha.” Maybe he saw something different in this scribe. Maybe, instead of being in the company of those who were trying to destroy him, this scribe was looking, honestly looking, for insight and understanding.

So Jesus simply gave him the answer. “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.”

If this had been a volleyball game, Jesus would have just returned a gentle serve with an easy, slow ball right into the scribe’s spike zone. No one listening knew where it would come from, but you could feel the excitement build as all ears strained to hear the scribe punch that volleyball right down into Jesus’ face!

But what they heard were three words that no chief priest, teacher of the law, elder, or Pharisee or Sadducee, or Herodian or any other scribe in attendance that day ever expected to say, or to hear said by one of their own, to Jesus of Nazareth!

“You are right…”

Judaism in that day was as divided as our political system is today, and with as many divisions and sects as modern Christianity. The Pharisees, many of them wealthy landowners dedicated to keeping the whole law, were no friend of the Sadducees, who held power in the Temple, and neither of them particularly liked the Herodians, who were heavily influenced by Greek culture and thought.

What had brought them together up until this point was a mutual fear of and hatred for Jesus of Nazareth, this itinerant Rabbi from the middle of nowhere whose words and popularity threatened the very foundations of their power and put the entire province in danger of being crushed under the bootheel of Rome!

If only they had heard it! In that one exchange, the eternal truth that there is something far, far greater than priest or teacher or elder or Pharisee or Sadducee, or Herodian or scribe. There is something far greater than Republican or Democrat or Independent or Tea Party or Green Party. There is something far greater than Presbyterian or Baptist or Methodist or Pentecostal or Episcopalian or Catholic.

There is love.

There’s a reason these two commandments are placed together in Jesus’ answer – in many ways, they are inseparable. Sure, maybe you can love your neighbor without loving God… for awhile, anyway, and as long as your neighbor isn’t too different from you, I suppose. Even AT & T and T-Mobile can work together to provide communications services in the states hit by Hurricane Sandy. We all tend to come together in times of disaster or national tragedy – but notice how quickly we all return to our corners and come out fighting when the crisis is past?

But look at it from the other direction, the first commandment Jesus speaks of: loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. Loving God, in other words, with every fiber of our being, with all that is in us.

That kind of love is not a warm, fuzzy feeling. It is not just a mental affirmation of certain spiritual truths. It is not content to be only another way of thinking or speaking. If we love God with all that we are, it cannot be simply internal, simply cosmetic. It must come out! That love looks like something!

It looks like loving our neighbors. Loving our next door neighbors, and our neighbors across the street, and across town, and around the globe. Loving our neighbors of other denominations and even other faiths or those with no faith at all. Loving our neighbors who vote for different political candidates and support different football teams or who don’t even like football in the first place. Loving our neighbors of different colors and creeds and genders and orientations.

Yes, it is that important.

The Apostle John, in his first epistle, write this: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

The Greatest Commandment, you see, is a holistic one. In loving God, we truly love our neighbors.  In truly loving our neighbors, we love God. What’s more, this interplay of love – our neighbors, ourselves – means that our love of self and neighbor makes a difference to God.

We cannot separate love of God from love of creation and creatures.  In a God-centered kind of love, our lives are our gifts to God, and that love springs forth into the world to all of our neighbors, including what Jesus refers to in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew as “the least of these.”

When Jesus was asked, in Luke’s Gospel, “who is my neighbor?” he answered with a parable in which the hero of the story was a Samaritan, and while that word has come to mean a person who gives assistance to someone in need, to the Jewish people who first heard that parable, a Samaritan was a despised person, someone to be avoided, the focus of disgust and ridicule.

Loving God means there are no outsiders. Loving God means even loving the Samaritan, whatever that means to you.

By Wednesday morning, we will all know which political party holds sway in the White House and in the Congress. We will know which candidate won the seat of Chief Justice, and we will either be elated or disappointed by the results. The yard signs and the billboards and placards in the highway median will, eventually, come down, and we will at last be rid of all those commercials and prerecorded phone calls.

But the question facing us that day and every other day won’t be who won or who lost… but how did we love God, and love our neighbor?

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