Loving God and One Another

Sermon Given October 31, 2021

Jamie and I spent two weeks in Israel in January of 2020. It was a trip that we didn’t know would be so perfectly timed. I remember the plane trip to Israel. I was dozing in and out of consciousness most of the night. The lights came up a bit in the cabin around 5 am Israel time and about ten men got up, got their hat boxes out of the overhead compartment and took out their phylacteries from under their wide brimmed hats. If you don’t know what these are, phylacteries are small boxes with long cords, which get tied to a person’s head and arms. They are the physical representation of what our passage from Deutoronomy commands. Within these boxes are the command, “Hear o Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” The men wrapped their phylacteries with a little bit of chatter between them, then stepped to the back of the plane for prayer. Even jumping ahead seven hours to Israeli time and sleeping on a plane, which I had always found to be rather restless, these men committed themselves to their morning prayers, something I have to say I did not do that morning. They fulfilled their duties to God, their sacred obligations. 

In all the hotels we stayed in during our trip, there were mezuzahs by each door, each containing a simple slip of paper reading, “Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” If you walk in our front door today, you will find a mezuzah from our trip, reminding us. These words were always close at hand, always seemingly a doorpost away. These words are called the shema, and they are sacred to the Jewish people. They summarize the Jewish identity and command obedience to God. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 

Hearing these words out of Jesus’ mouth isn’t surprising. Mezuzahs and phylacteries are ancient practices. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus even calls people out for making their phylacteries wide and their prayer shawl cords long, overemphasizing their piety for all to see. These words were always on their minds and in their hearts. Of course this was the greatest commandment. It also isn’t surprising that Jesus adds that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. This is a commandment found in Leviticus, something that was also treasured by the Jewish community. Jesus wasn’t the first to put the two commandments together, nor was he the last. It made sense and was natural for him. They are core tenets of Judaism. 

What is surprising about this passage is the context in which this conversation happens. We’ve jumped ahead a bit from last week in the Gospel of Mark. After the healing, Jesus rides on a donkey to shouts of “Hosanna” and enters Jerusalem. He flips the tables of merchants in the temple court, then begins a series of teachings in the temple. Pharisees and Sadducees, thoroughly disgusted with Jesus and wanting him gone, come up and try to trip Jesus up, asking him questions to test him. They don’t actually want to learn from him, they are looking for fodder to help build a case against Jesus. 

In the midst of this testing and trying, this scribe comes up, someone who is thoroughly invested in the status quo, who would lose a lot if the Jesus movement were to try and overthrow Rome, as many thought they would do as a Messiah movement, this scribe comes up and asks Jesus an honest question. He’s not trying to trip Jesus up. He’s seen how Jesus has answered all these other questions and he’s impressed with this teacher. So he asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment, a low ball question. Everyone knew the answer. 

The scribe then affirms what Jesus says and states that he knows love of God and neighbor is worth so much more than any burnt offering or sacrifice. The scribe is telling Jesus that he’s on his side. He’s not caught up in the politics of the temple. He’s caught up in the love of God. He knows why he’s a scribe. It’s not for the status quo, it’s for God to work in and through him. Jesus is impressed. This is a true servant, who puts God first in his life, and Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” 

The scribe took a stand for Jesus in a subtle way. He didn’t go off on those trying to trip up Jesus, but he stepped in, affirmed Jesus, and stopped those around him from asking Jesus any more questions. Jesus is allowed to teach in that space right up to the day of his arrest. The others back off because this scribe endorses Jesus. 

There is a moment of love between the two. Pure love, even across divisions and differences. Jesus isn’t a big fan of the temple authorities. I’d even argue that Jesus isn’t a fan of the temple. He would argue that the temple has become too intermingled with politics and negotiating the Roman occupancy, losing its focus on helping those most in need. The scribe has devoted his life to the temple and sees it as a place God still works through, though it certainly has its flaws. Their opposing viewpoints are not unlike our concerns over the mixing of Christianity and American patriotism today. Some argue that the mixture of Americanism and Christianity isn’t all bad, God still works through it. Others say that it’s time to divorce the two and start over. We fight and bicker over what it means to be a Christian in the United States. We call each other false believers and morally bankrupt if we don’t connect faith and politics in particular ways. And it is true that our beliefs should affect our politics. We shouldn’t separate our values from our votes. We don’t live in a theocracy, our country is here for people of all and no religion, but at the same time, what happens in the White House and the state house deeply affects the real lives of many people, and we can’t ignore that, even when we come together for worship. We bring all of ourselves when we come into this space, politics too. 

But looking specifically at the Christian community, we don’t all have the same set of morals. We don’t need to all agree on a political agenda. We are a people who are called to intentional love. We are to love our God with all our hearts, minds and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is nothing greater than this. All Christians should be able to agree on these core beliefs, right alongside our Jewish siblings in faith. These are the basic building blocks of faith, love of God, who is our God alone, and love of our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to commit ourselves to this love, to strive for it for all people, all our neighbors, in all aspects of our lives. We don’t have to agree, but we have to hold this in common. 

It’s my greatest fear that we’ve turned our common life into a great football game of opposing parties, where we cheer on our team and demonize the other, all for an outcome where no matter who wins, we all lose. Because the truth is, we need balance, we need mutuality in our common life. We need to find that truth at the center of it all and cling to it, even when those around us make us want to scream. Even in the midst of the shouting matches, when we are trying to one up each other, I pray there may always be that scribe, that one who crosses the isles, who reaches out, and affirms truth when they see it. 

May we, as Christians, always seek to love God fully with all of who we are and to truly love our neighbors, working for a more just world that is for all. May we uphold the dignity of each other and respect differences without demonizing. May we find ourselves falling more in love with God and each other every day, reaching out to touch the Kingdom of God that is truly near. Amen.