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Sermon October 31, 2021

Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone

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?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you 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.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘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.” 34When 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.

There’s an ancient rabbinical story that goes something like this: 

A gentile seeking conversion approaches a rabbi from one of the great schools, and says: “I am willing to convert as long as you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” The Rabbi – insulted by the request – pushes him aside and walks away.  But, undeterred, the seeker approaches another Rabbi, this time the sage and scholar Hillel the Elder, and says the same thing: “I am willing to convert if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” And, without blinking an eye, the great first century sage says, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” 

Our gospel passage today made me think of this wonderful story, of course, and the two are very similar in many ways — but there is something different about them too – did you notice? In the Hillel story, loving God comes directly from loving neighbor – not the other way round: Care for your neighbor, Hillel says, and you’ll know the core of the truth about God in the Torah  – quite amazing right? And quite beautiful too, both in its simplicity and its truth, because it highlights so clearly the fact that, however much we might try to separate them – putting God and the things of God somewhere over here, and people and the things of people somewhere over here – it is simply not possible to do right by God without also doing right by our neighbor. 

Because our neighbor is of God. It’s really as simple as that. 

Again: our neighbor – every single one of them, democrats and republicans, well off and homeless, brilliant and slow, charming and rude – every one of them is of God. And so are we. And the simple truth is that whenever we reach out and care for each other, even in the smallest way, that part in us that is of God meets that part in another that is of God and we are changed.  Sometimes we feel this. And sometimes we don’t. And sometimes it is so bright and warm that it becomes visible to many people at the same time – and for me, at least, our celebration last Sunday was – in some small way – an example of this last.  

The care with which the pumpkins and corn and gourds were chosen and then arranged all around the room was – it seemed to me – an expression of love of neighbor – and so love of God; and the gorgeous linens on the altar, so faithfully cared for, was another expression of that same love of neighbor and love of God; and the preparation and performance of music from two choirs brought together into one was an expression of love of neighbor and love of God; and the parking of so many visitors’ cars so others could access the space was an expression of love of neighbor, and love of God; and more than a hundred people spontaneously singing Happy Birthday to a six-year-old girl and a 70-year-old woman in the same place, at the same time, was an expression of love of neighbor and love of God; and the blessing of us all with water made holy by our gathered prayers was too; and the delicious food; and the exchange of gifts; and the sharing of stories; and the laughter — and the tears; and the hugs (despite covid protocols); and the way people leapt up to serve others during lunch; and the clean-up; and — just in general –the so real, incarnate presence of our neighbors here with us…Well, it was all an expression of the way divine love dwells in us all, and then grows when we reach out and share it with others. 

We were, it seems to me at least, one people last Sunday in a very real way, and one church, gathered for one reason and one reason only — to offer ourselves to each other and to God. Halleluiah.

Really – can I say it again: Halleluiah!

Oh— but here’s the truth: it isn’t always so easy. And the path isn’t always so clear. And the multiple ways we are called to reach out to our neighbors is often such a blur that it’s hard to make sense of. And sometimes – just sometime if I’m going to be honest – it would be easier and clearer (and possibly more effective too) if we had a more concrete set of instructions as to exactly how we are called to love our neighbors, and where, and in what way, when.

The story from our Gospel today is all about this of course. It features a scribe – a man who is, at the very least, exceedingly familiar with scripture, who’s come to Jesus to ask for just this kind of clarification. What is the single most important thing of it all – I mean if you had to boil it down? he asks, more or less. What is the one thing I can hold onto in all of holy scripture that will help me sort the rest of it out? To which Jesus instantly answers “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

And for once the religious professional, (that’s what a scribe basically was back then – a person whose whole life is the exercise of religion) for once, he gets it, and instead of bantering back and forth with Jesus, or trying to trick him up, he says, simply, “You are right… to love God with all your heart and with all your understanding and with all your strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself – this is much more important than all…burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

This answer clearly pleases Jesus. And despite the fact that burnt offerings and sacrifices formed the core of his people’s religious practices back then, he said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And …. “After that,” the gospel says, “no one dared ask him any question….”

I know how they feel. 

The truth is that I had a completely different sermon which I hoped to share with you this morning. It was likely not the best sermon I’ve ever written, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the worst either because it’s one of my favorite themes, this business of loving God and loving neighbor as the way into abundant life for us all, right here and right now.  But I’ve had to put that sermon aside – and here’s why. As I was putting the finishing touches to it yesterday morning – sitting at my table in front of a wall of windows in my living room, Thomas Tallis playing softly in the background and a third cup of steaming hot coffee by my side – I received a text from Annalise: “Hi Tina” it said. “Hope you are ok. Pantry is going great this morning!” 

The text made me jump almost out of my skin. I looked at the time. It was 10:48. I had promised Sue I would be at the pantry to help the rest of the team at 9:30. I wasn’t even in the car and I was – already – an hour and fifteen minutes late.  I flew up from the table, grabbed my cross I go nowhere without, and headed straight for the car – “I am so sorry.” I wrote. “On my way…”

Have any of you ever messed up like this? It’s pretty terrible – even from a strictly practical point of view. But this felt worse than a simply practical mistake because – well, think of it! — there I was writing about loving God and loving neighbor while I was actually doing neither because instead I was focused on a sermon – which is to say I was focused on what the scribe in our story called ‘whole burnt offerings and sacrifices…”  

Wow. It’s pretty humbling I have to admit. And while I had – of course – a wonderful time at the pantry when I finally got there, which helped, I couldn’t shake this terrible sense of guilt the whole ride back. How had I become so confused? I wondered. And how had that which so clearly followed the call of the Lord been supplanted by something that only spoke about following that call? How had, in other words, real things – being with people who are hungry and working with others to stem that hunger – become supplanted by theoretical things – writing a sermon about doing things like feeding our neighbors who are hungry and working with others to feed them?

It was a pretty long car ride, safe to say – and a pretty uncomfortable one. When I got home I took a long walk, still drilling down, still trying to try to figure it out. And then I found myself repeating Jesus’ words – but to myself now, instead of to you all, in a sermon:  “Love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” and, slowly, moment by moment, I began to settle and to orient myself again.  

Loving God and loving neighbor as yourself is a big job, an impossible job perhaps  – except with God who alone makes all things are possible. And the truth is that sometimes we get so busy, so caught up in the details and the administration of life that we close ourselves off to this power of God who is love, and when this happens something ultimately has to give — to rupture, or break, or misalign —  in order to make room for God godself to creep back into the picture and become real again. 

And that is what happened to me yesterday —  for which I thank God. Because now I can begin the work of reorienting myself, with God and through God, to the work God has given me to do. 

The fact is, of course, that whoever you are – priest, or scribe, or leper, or teacher, or health-care worker, or home maker, or computer analyst, or builder, or grandmother, or student, or artist, or farmer — God’s command for us all is the same: Love me with your whole heart and love your neighbor as yourself. 

“Love me with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself.”  

Well — I’ve just told you how I’m doing with this today. And now I’d like to ask you: how you are doing with it? What, if anything, is getting in the way of you entering the cycle of love through God to neighbor and through neighbor to God, back and forth and round and round until you feel yourself lose yourself in the process, in a way which feels like life at its truest and its deepest and its best?  

What can you let go of – today, this week, to help clear your path?  And also what can you take on?  What is the way God has given you to love God and neighbor in the real world in this time and this place? And how can we join together to help each other do this ever more fully? 

It’s a crucial question, it seems to me, because if Jesus is to be believed, nothing else really matters. Not comfort, or security, or peace, or what the world sees as success certainly. And not a growing congregation either, or a perfectly tuned liturgy, or a well-crafted sermon even. These things all have their place for sure. And some of them can sometimes be the way we are given to share and show our love to others – as it was, so gloriously last Sunday. But they are not the point. At best they are merely the means to the point – and that point is love, plain and simple — the sometimes muddled, often messy, always time-consuming act of love. The rest doesn’t matter at all. The rest, as Hillel says, is commentary.