Readings; Psalm 146, Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12: 28-34
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 4 2018
If somebody asked you what was the most important thing in your life, how would you respond? (Asked the congregation for their responses - answers included "Love, God, Family and Friends")
I'm sure you know the account of Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt to a new land of freedom. As the people were beginning a new life together there needed to be some ground rules, some ideas that shaped them and made them who they were. In the Old Testament the Book of Deuteronomy tells us how, before they reached the promised land, Moses gave the people some commands.
Deuteronomy 6: Verses 4 and 5, we read these words... “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”... that became known as the 'Shema'.
The traditions Moses began have been preserved to this day among our Jewish sisters and brothers. On the doorposts of traditional Jewish homes (and many not-so-traditional homes!) you will often find a small case known as a 'Mezuzah' attached to the doorpost. Sometimes those entering the house will pause to touch it and offer a prayer. Inside the 'Mezuzah' is scroll with the words of the 'Shema' written upon it.
In you attended a local synagogue you might notice that when some of the men come to worship they have a leather pouch, known as a 'tefillin' or 'phylactery' strapped to their head or on their arm. In the pouch are the words of the 'shema'... 'Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.'
They take quite literally the command of Moses that these laws were to written on the door frames of their houses and tied on their hands and bound on their foreheads. If every time you go in and out your house, there's the law on the door, then it helped you remember. If you have that law physically attached to you, then it's hard to ignore it. We were asking earlier, 'What's important?” That's how important the command of God is to them.
Our Bible reading from Mark's gospel had a very religious Jewish gentleman, a teacher of the law no less, coming to Jesus with a question. “Which is the most important commandment?” Jesus answers him with the 'shema'. 'Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.'
But then Jesus adds something else. A second command that was just as important as the first one. 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Jesus puts it out there! Loving God and loving our neighbor are the most important things. Jesus saw how even the most religious people could do one and sometimes forget about the other! They were so busy thinking about God that they forgot to think about other people!
That's a reminder for us as a church. Somebody once said, “The church is the only institution in the world whose main reason for existing is the benefit of those who are not its members!” We worship our God in order that we may go out and serve our neighbor. I've been in churches where they say or have printed in their bulletins at the end of the Sunday service something like “The worship is over, now the service begins.” or even, “The service is over, now the worship begins”... because worship is all about service, not just about saying prayers or singing hymns!
The teacher of the law in our account agrees with Jesus. He says to Jesus “You are right! 'Loving God' and 'Loving neighbor' is a whole lot more than “all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” The people in those days would have special offerings that helped them feel forgiven and acceptable to God. But sometimes they left it there. They got themselves right with God but then didn't do a whole lot about helping others to know about God's love!
It's been a strange few weeks. During October I took some time out for study leave and professional development. The first week I was away the ceiling fell down in Hebron House. Thank the Lord we have people here who take care of our property... a shout out to them. But this last week it's like the whole sky was falling.
Political figures receiving bombs in the mail. Jewish sisters and brothers being gunned down by a hate filled maniac as they met to celebrate worship. A couple of people being murdered because their skin wasn't white. People expressing fear over gender rights being taken away from them. A young person in one of our churhes on Facebook asked for prayer because a member of their community had just committed suicide.
There's an immanent mid-term election and all the ponitificating and pointing of fingers of blame that always seems part of the course. If your party or your position, does not come out victorious, then, I will offer you this. Just be thankful that at least you have an opportunity to vote and the freedom to let your voice be heard. Historically, that's a luxury most civilzations have not enjoyed and many across the globe still do not share.
I've also had some amazingly positive experiences over the last few weeks. Heard some truly inspiring life stories. Met some people committed to being the best they can be within their own particular callings to service. Celebrated with a new friend over Facebook that they were just declared cancer free. Heard and seen people in the midst of darkness declaring that the light will still continue shine. Learned of situations where people who are battered, brusied and bewildered have declared that despite what has happened, they are not finished.
And it all brings me back to asking... so what's really important? What really matters? Winning? Losing? Caring? Loving? Scripture reminds me that, as a minster of the gospel, it is my privelige, and my responsibilty, to place before us the words of Jesus Christ and to lift up before us all, what He said was most important. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'… 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
Our calling as Christians is to put God first and make the love of God the most important thing in our lives. Not politics. Not work. Not success or prosperity. Not Church. Not family. Not country. Not self. That's not easy! It takes time and effort and devotion. But it's so well worth it. Because as we focus on God we are reminded of the things God has done for us. God has given us a wonderful world in which to live. God sent Jesus to be our Savior, example and friend. God sends the Holy Spirit to let us know that we are free and forgiven and to give us the strength to love and serve our neighbors.
Worship is important. It reminds us that our lives are not our own and that every moment we spend on this planet is a gift. Like any gift, we choose how we use it. We can seek God's way or go our own way.
This morning is a communion service. We can take bread and wine and invite God to renew our lives so we can be faithful disciples. It is not our practice to write the law on our gateposts or wear pouches with the law on our heads or arms. Yet many of us may have pictures or plaques with bible verses on them in our homes or vehicles. Many of us may well wear a cross somewhere near our heart as a reminder of what we believe.
At the Cross the two things Jesus said were the most important came together. He died to show us that putting God first was most important. It's not meant to be easy. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus pleaded that there may be another way than the way of the Cross, but in the end He said, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” Each of us around the table is invited to engage in that struggle, the struggle to put God first.
Through dying on the Cross Jesus showed us that there were no places in life, however tragic or awful, that God is not prepared to go to that we may understand God's love and forgiveness. Jesus was betrayed, rejected, mocked, tortured and murdered. He faced pain, humiliation, and all this when His only crimes were loving the unlovable, accepting the outcast and blessing those others wanted to curse.
He went to the Cross for us, as Paul explains, 'He died that we may be forgiven.' Though people acted as though Jesus were their enemy, Jesus treated them like a neighbor and invites us to make our neighborhood the Kingdom of God.
As we take bread and wine and remember Him, we declare that God has first place and first claim on our lives. To know we are so loved brings a response of love from us! That's how God wants us to be. To know we are loved so we have the security and strength with which to love our neighbor. If we feel we lack it, then around the table is also the place to find it. We remember that Jesus promised to always be with us and to send to His disciples the Holy Spirit who would empower them to carry on the work of God's Kingdom in every generation and in every nation, until the end of all things!
Communion is important. The commandments are important. Our Scriptures are important. Our church is important. Our families are important. Our communities are important. Our politics is important. Our nations are important. Our friends are important. But what is the most important thing? Love.
Jesus tells us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'… 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
If we take those words to heart, we may also discover, as did the teacher of the law all those years ago, that, as Jesus says in verse 34 "You are not far from the kingdom of God." It is as we do the things Jesus invites us to do, that we realize His love is with us! Right now one of those things is to remember Him through the sharing of bread and wine, through prayer and song, through reflection and seeking renewal. My God help us to always be mindful of the most important things! Amen.
The Reverend. Adrian J. Pratt B.D.