Tuesday, 11 December 2018

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Established May 2009, Little Rock, AR

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Understanding the Love Duty

November 4, 2018

UNDERSTANDING THE LOVE DUTY

November 4, 2018 (Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

New Millennium Church

Little Rock, Arkansas

 

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 neighbour 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 neighbour 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.

 

Beloved Companion,
you deal with us kindly in steadfast love,
lifting up those bent low with care
and sustaining the weak and oppressed.
Release us from our anxious fears,
that we, holding fast to your commandments,
may honor you with all that we are and all that we have. Amen.

 

Today we worship God on the final Sunday before Election Day 2018 – Tuesday, November 6, 2018.  The election on Tuesday  will be the first since the 2016 Election.  It is providential that the Gospel lesson for today recounts an exchange between Jesus and an unnamed scholar of the religion of Moses during the last week before Jesus was crucified.  Jesus spent each day of that week in Jerusalem where he had a number of sharp verbal exchanges with religious authorities.  

 

In today’s lesson, Jesus replied to a question about which of the commandments is the most important.  Jesus answered that love of God and love of neighbor are the highest duties in life.  After hearing this answer, the questioner not only agreed with Jesus, but added that love of God and love of neighbor are more important than the elaborate animal sacrifices from which the religious leader earned his living.  In so many words, the questioner said to Jesus, “What you are teaching about how to live toward God is more important than the ritual acts of piety that happen during our religious what seasons.”

 

Don’t get this twisted.  Jesus and the questioner did not put down religious observances and rituals.  Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover.  His questioner was a scholar concerning religious rituals.  They were in Jerusalem to observe Passover because rituals are important.  

 

But Jesus and his questioner agreed that religious rituals, however important they may be to us, are not substitutes for relationships.  Religious rituals, like all rituals, remind us about relationships.  They help us remember relationships.  They help us celebrate relationships.  But however much rituals may serve those purposes, rituals do not replace relationships.  

 

It is important that we observe worship and other religious rituals.  It is good that we assemble to sing, pray, and affirm our common faith together.  It is good to have safe places where we can perform the rituals of faith.  

 

But it is tempting to confuse rituals with realities.  It is tempting to put more emphasis on showing up and performing the rituals of religion than on honoring the relationships we owe God and our neighbors.  Jesus and his questioner agreed that no matter how devout people may be in observing the rituals of religion, the highest duty of religion is to love God – passionately, intelligently, intentionally, and supremely - and love neighbors.  

 

No matter how devout we may be in observing religious rituals – think of the burnt offerings and prayers that would presented during the Passover observance in Jerusalem – God is not honored by unenthusiastic devotion.  None of us takes joy in being part of “ho-hum” relationships.  Loving God requires more than merely showing up and going through the motions of religious rituals, in the same way that loving a spouse, family member, or romantic partner involves a lot more than taking out the trash, paying bills, and turning the lights off when one leaves a room.   Loving God requires passion!

 

No matter how devout we may be in observing religious rituals, God is not honored by aimless and mindless devotion.  No relationship works well for long where the people involved in it don’t think about its purpose and meaning.  God deserves thoughtful love, thoughtful praise, thoughtful prayer, and thoughtful commitment.  We expect thoughtfulness from the people with whom we share significant relationships.  Indeed, we insist on it.  

 

Thoughtfulness is even more important when it comes to our relationship to God.  No matter how devout we may be in observing religious rituals, God is not honored by aimless or mindless devotion.  No relationship works well for long where people don’t care enough about it to think about what it means.     

 

And no matter how devout we may be in observing religious rituals, God is not honored by half-hearted and unsteady devotion.  Faithfulness and loyalty, and unfaithfulness and disloyalty, are consistent themes in the love songs and literature of every culture throughout human history because faithfulness and loyalty – and unfaithfulness and disloyalty – are recognized as the litmus tests for love.  

 

We need to know that the people we love will not abandon us when the going gets tough.  We need to know that the people we love will not take the easy way out rather than love us during hard times.  We need to know that the people we love will defend us when we are under attack.  We need to know that the people we love will not turn against us.  

 

At the same time, God is not honored by our religious rituals when we fail and refuse to love one another as neighbors.  Jesus and his questioner refused to talk about loving God without loving neighbors or loving neighbors without loving God.  The relationships of loving God and loving our neighbors are inseparable because God is our first neighbor!  God has made each of us neighbors to God and one another.  If we claim to love God and do not love our neighbors we are rejecting God!

 

That is why we read these powerful words at 1 John 4:10-21:

 

 

1 John 4:10-21

10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love* because he first loved us. 20Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters,* are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister* whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters* also.  (Emphasis added)

Don’t get this twisted.  Loving neighbors is not an option.  Loving God involves loving neighbors.  Loving neighbors involves loving God.  When Jesus told his questioner that loving neighbors was the commandment closest to loving God he wasn’t making something up.  He was summarizing what had been part of the Mosaic understanding that appears in Leviticus 19: 9-17.  Turn and read it with me:

 

Leviticus 19:9-18

9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

11You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. 

13You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. 

15You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. 

17You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

 

If we claim to love God and don’t act lovingly toward our neighbors we are liars.  Rituals don’t take the place of relationships.  Rituals don’t hide our violations of the duties of love.  We can’t fool God or our neighbors by practicing rituals when our relationships don’t match our rituals.  

Today, the last Sunday before Election Day 2018, people across this nation are gathering will gather carry out rituals of worship.  They will present the equivalent of burnt offerings in song, prayer, money, dance, and sermons.  But what will we do on Election Day?  Will we vote to honor God by the ways we treat our neighbors?  

What will our votes say about the way we view our neighbors from Central America who are walking north to seek asylum from war in the United States?  

What will our votes say about the way we view our neighbors who have pre-existing conditions?

What will our votes say about how we treat our neighbors who are LGBTQ and want to enjoy the same freedom in their family lives as people who are straight?

What will our votes say to God about whether we see our neighbors as extensions of God?

Do we care enough about God and our neighbors to even vote?  Do we care enough about God and our neighbors to vote intelligently?  Do we care enough about God and our neighbors to vote enthusiastically?  Do we care enough about God and our neighbors to vote even when voting means we must sacrifice so our neighbors can be safe, healthy, and treated with dignity?

We will find out on Tuesday.  What we do on Tuesday will speak louder than our songs, prayers, offerings, dance routines, and other worship rituals.  

Amen. 

 

©Wendell Griffen, 2018