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Saintly Priorities

Krystal Leedy, Kathy Escandell, John Leedy

November 1, 2015
Mark 12:28-34

 

From the Gospel of Mark:

22-great-commandmentOne 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 neighbour 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 neighbour 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.

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?” 

Standing in the midst of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, these teachers, who were berating him, Jesus stood as a presence among them. A quiet, succinct teacher who looked into their eyes each time they asked him a question, Jesus responds to their questions. Our wise teacher just keeps responding to their well-timed political attacks. He does not seem to ruffle. He does not seem to be anxious. Jesus is the candidate that does not exist in our political world right now. On the debate stage, as attacks come, the hopeful Presidential candidates try to take the frontrunner down, the one who is gaining popularity amongst a constituency of people. In the same way, the religious leaders in our story ask loaded questions about what Jesus would like to do with marriage in the afterlife and paying taxes. They are getting caught in the minutia of life, they force these questions on this teacher through this section of Mark’s gospel.

And then one scribe stands up. One scribe speaks not on behalf of his constituency, and truly asks with sincerity, “Can we get back to the heart of the message here?” In the midst of asking Jesus questions about things that stand on the periphery of what is important, this one scribe stands up to all the other religious leaders. The Pharisees and Sadducees seem concerned with how their way is the best way to follow the law and a little less concerned as to why to follow the law in the first place.

As we listen to debates raging around us in the political world, it starts to become noisy and frustrating. I would frankly hope that these political tactics of shooting zingers at one another have not influenced us as much as the calm, caring wisdom of Jesus Christ. After all, the Pharisees and Sadducees were religious leaders. They were the ruling and teaching elders of the first century. So, I would hope that if Christ came into the midst of a session meeting, we would not examine him as though he were a threat. But that one lone voice would stand up and say, “Why are we doing this?” Why are we invested in stewardship season at all? Why are we spending time deliberating over where and how our money is spent? What’s the point?

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.’

The first word of what Jesus identifies as the first commandment is – “Hear.”

Listen up, y’all. Pay attention. This matters.

Hear – that love is to be the defining, comprehensive, central component of your life.

Hear – in the essence of your being – your heart; and in the depth of your identity – your soul; and in the scope of your understanding – your mind; and in the impact of your actions – your strength. Hear that in each of these and all of these you are to love the Lord.

And then, instructed and empowered by that love for God, you are to love your neighbor as yourself.

With this response to the scribe’s question, Jesus quotes familiar scripture. The exhortation to love God is known as the “Shema” – which means “hear” in Hebrew — and is the core of Moses’ final address to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. Loving neighbor as self is required by the holiness code written in the book of Leviticus — that far-reaching set of instructions and prohibitions and principles which kept the Israelites within the boundaries of life as the people of God.

“Hear, O Israel – you shall love.”

These commandments aren’t unique to the time and place of Jesus’ exchange with the scribe; they remain true and vital for all who would be God’s people.

“Hear, O UPC – you shall love.”

How we hear these greatest commandments will be influenced by our reaction to the very notion of commandments.

Do we think of them as rules and strictures and expectations which seek to control and narrow our behavior? If we do, then it’s woefully easy to spend our time taking inventory of acts and omissions; monitoring the scorecard of our obedience; engaging in check-list Christianity where the organizing principle is how to avoid failure in our commandment-keeping. Loving God becomes an obligation, loving neighbor becomes a burden; loving self becomes a challenge.

But — if we understand the commandments to love God, neighbor and self as invitation and encouragement rather than prohibition, then these great commandments usher us into freedom, purpose and joy. Loving God with who we are and how we think and what we do liberates us from anxiety over the state of our salvation to enjoy lives that are full and rich and secure in God’s grace. Loving our neighbor releases us from the narrow self-interest that calculates and analyzes each interaction, and empowers us to reach out to that neighbor with compassion and hospitality. Loving God, neighbor and self opens us to use our hearts and souls and minds and strengths to bear God’s love into the world. As God’s beloved, loving children, we worship and serve, connect and commit.

Hear, O UPC – there is no greater commandment than love.

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.

It’s not often in the Gospel of Mark when someone gets it. Between the bumbling of the disciples and petty arguments of the religious leaders of the day, Jesus was constantly in the practice of correcting, illustrating, and explaining his message over and over again to those who followed him. But whenever someone does get it and sees the life and message of Jesus for what it is, we see in the text a glimmer of the kingdom of God.

The wise scribe affirms the reply of Jesus and with good active listening skills, repeats these greatest commandments back to Christ. But then the scribe goes a step further. As if to foreshadow the coming of the new covenant in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the scribe states that these greatest commandments, these holy priorities, are more important than the theological and religious minutia that tend to bog us down and divide us. The scribe seems to understand that these two great commandments, these priorities in the mind of Christ, are less about the nuts and bolts of following the law, and more about connecting what we believe with how we live. As our stewardship season draws to a close, we receive the words of the scribe as a last great encouragement to connect what we say and believe with what we choose to do with our lives, our energy, and our resources.

Jesus’ reply to the scribe is startling. Sure the scribe made a good point, but when Jesus says “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” it makes us stop and look up from the text for a moment. What is it about the scribe’s words that so moved Jesus to say such a thing? What had the scribe touched on that brought him near to the kingdom of God?

As we reflect upon our priorities as a congregation on this All Saints Day, we find that our priorities as individual followers of Jesus Christ, and our priorities as the community of University Presbyterian Church, are joined with priorities of all those faithful women and men who came before us. We are joined in this very sanctuary by that great cloud of witnesses, those saints of God, who spent their precious days on earth seeking to love the Lord their God with their whole being and to love others as themselves.

And on this day we look beyond our own sanctuary to the great cloud of witnesses from every time and place, of every race and nation, who made dedicating their life’s work and resources to the mission of the Church their utmost priority. All Saints Day is one of those thin moments in time when we are connected not only those who lived before us, but those who will live into this place long after we are gone.

The priorities we claim today chart the course for the faithful generations to come. The holy mystery of this day is how, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are connected to the saints, past and future, by intimate, ethereal bonds of shared commitment to the good news of the Gospel. And as we stand in this thin place, bridging the span between past and future, we look toward the day when all the faithful saints will feast together, at table with our Lord in the new heaven and new earth to come.

Our priorities are what connect us to Christ. Our priorities are what connect us with one another. Our priorities are what connect us with a world that desperately needs to hear the good news. So as we offer of ourselves the gifts of our 2016 stewardship pledges, let us do so joyfully, giving thanks to God for that great cloud of witnesses, joining us and encouraging us in our ministry and mission to the world.

Amen.