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Sunday, March 11, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.

Lenten Sermon Series: Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

Judith L. Watt
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 89:1–8
Mark 12:28–44

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at my end, and at my departing.

Maria Ware

What’s most important?

This question about what is most important if one wants to live a godly life, a faithful life, is an age-old question. The ancients asked it of the prophet Micah: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” They wondered how much they had to give up. What would be enough to please God? Thousands of rams? Ten thousands of rivers of oil? (Coming to the 8:00 a.m. worship service when it’s really only 7:00 a.m.?) The prophet came back with an answer, seemingly to simplify: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Simple, right?

The rabbis struggled over the centuries with the same question. They determined that because Moses was the one who delivered the commandments, surely each one of those commandments was just as important as the next, but over the years, the debate continued. Which of the commandments was the “heaviest”? The one with most weight. At one time in the history of their midrash, their debating, honoring mother and father was the most important. At another time of great persecution for their people, the rabbis declared that all of the commandments could be broken under threat of death, except those pertaining to sexual immorality, murder, and idolatry. They kept asking and debating. Which commandment is the most important?

And then there’s the story of a certain revered rabbi, Hillel the Elder, who died just twenty years before Jesus’ birth. The story goes that Hillel was challenged by a Gentile who said to him, “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Now for me, if I had been that questioning Gentile, knowing what I know about how long I can stand on one foot and keep my balance, that rabbi would have to talk pretty fast. In other words, “I dare you to get quickly to the essence of what God wants.” Hillel took the challenge and gave this reply: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof. Go and learn it.”

Simple, right?

Jesus is in this situation of being questioned. He was being questioned because the religious leaders were questioning his authority. Was this man really the Messiah? They wanted to see how he answered their questions. He was being tested.

Pastors all know what it’s like to be questioned and tested and even set up. When we fly somewhere, invariably the question comes from the person next to us. What do you do? All of us know that if we reveal what we do, we’re in for a series of questions and stories, often stories about our seatmate’s dissatisfaction with the church, or old hurts and ungodly pastors, or theological questions not unlike today’s story. Once we reveal what we do, we are seen as representatives of the church or God, and then we are subtly put to the test. Nine times out of ten. That’s why when asked the question, many of us reply something vague like “Oh, I’m in the helping professions.” Our level of honesty about what we do is directly related to how we want the rest of our flight to go. We don’t always rise to the challenge, but Jesus does.

I suspect that if you were asked the same question—What do you do?—and if your answer were something like “I serve God” or “I’m an elder in my church” or “I try to be the most faithful disciple I can be,” you might get the same kinds of questions.

We all ask this question about how it is we might please God. We examine ourselves. Measure ourselves against others. Or maybe we just don’t think about it because it’s simply too overwhelming. But we know Jesus’ answer very well. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, (Mark added “mind”; it’s not in the other Gospels in the same way) and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

The whole point of the centuries of debate over the commandments, all the time spent thinking about all the choices there are in how we might please God or live a good and ethical life or a faithful life as a disciple of Jesus, is to try to get to some kind of core. Something we can wrap our arms around and understand. It’s as though we are after a core curriculum.

Our life journeys present test cases over and over again. What to do when our father is dying? How much can we help a friend going through a trauma? What possibly might we do about human beings in poor countries far away? Just exactly what is our responsibility and how far does it extend? Micah’s answer and Jesus’ answer both seem to cut to the chase, cut to the essence, simplify. It sounds so simple, and yet it’s so hard. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.

On any given day, how much of the day is spent loving God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Or loving our neighbors? And what does loving our neighbors mean? Simply saying hi and being civil? Being kind at Coffee Hour? Isn’t it enough to take care of our families in the best way possible? Or must we go the extra mile like the Good Samaritan did when he came across the man lying helpless on the road? For that matter, how much of our day do we spend actually loving ourselves in life-producing ways—in ways that will help us love our neighbors better and focus more intentionally on God? When does loving ourselves cross the line to become self-serving to the exclusion of God and neighbor?

All those questions.

So, I’m here to say that I don’t know the answers and I don’t have it all figured out. But let me share some things that might help.

Preparedness is one. Kind of like being in training. What are you doing to train in order to abide by Jesus’ commandment?

 Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest and theologian who died more than twenty years ago, wrote about a time when he went on sabbatical away from his daily work in order to restore and refresh. He was desperate for time to reestablish his intimacy with God. On the first day at the monastery, a group of students recognized him and asked him to lead them for those few days in their own retreat. He went to the abbot and told the abbot it was the last thing he wanted to do. He didn’t want to give up his retreat and his own time. The abbot was unsympathetic. “You’re going to do it.” And Nouwen protested, “I don’t want to spend my sabbatical preparing a retreat for them.” The abbot responded, “Prepare? You’ve been a Christian for forty years and a priest for twenty and a few high school students want a retreat. Why do you have to prepare? What those boys and girls want is to be part of your life in God for a few days.”

Nouwen writes, “The question, you see, is not to prepare but to live in a state of ongoing preparedness so that, when someone who is drowning in the world comes into your world, you are ready to reach out and help. . . . Let them be part of your life in God—that’s ministering.”

What is your ongoing prep work? A habit of prayer? Or meditation? Time spent relishing nature and God as creator? Taking stock on a regular basis as to how God has blessed your life? Seeking answers to your own spiritual questions? Preparedness.

And then there’s choice. The act of choosing. The choices we make.

C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity writes this: “People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t, I’ll do the other thing.’” Lewis says,

I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven: that is, it is my joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

Preparedness. What are we doing to prepare for those times when someone who is drowning in life walks into our world? Choices? What choices of ours are leading us heavenward? Which choices are leading us toward madness?        

In my work here, I’m privileged to see all sorts of people making Heavenward choices. None of these people would see themselves as saints or as perfect. A line from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” reminds me always of our imperfection and its value: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” So the people I see offering their gifts of love around here aren’t saints, but they are people offering love. Many of them are you. Groups of friends signing up for times to sit with a dying woman around the clock. Deacons crossing their comfort zones to take communion to longtime members who are homebound. Family members struggling to provide the best care possible for their loved one, sometimes even arguing about what to do, but all out of a place of love and care.

Just this week I visited a woman, not known to many of you here, who has been in the hospital since February. She has experienced so many challenges in recent years—a move to a care facility, the sudden death of her only adult child, and now the amputation of part of her leg, the challenge of learning how to walk with only one leg. Enough to overwhelm most of us. When I asked her at the end of our visit what her prayer would be, her answer melted me. “Just gratitude,” she said. “Just gratitude.”

Preparedness. Choice. Gratitude.

May we all continue in our imperfect and human ways to first of all desire to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind, to desire to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. To desire to love ourselves. In the meantime, knowing we have so many things that draw us away from that desire, may we keep intentionally preparing to live with love as our essence. To be mindful of the choices we make. And to develop a heart of gratitude. All of it is training toward the goal of loving the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving one another and loving ourselves. May our training go well.

Alleluia and Amen.