“Jesus’ Priority: What Matters Most?” – Sermon for February 21, 2016

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Nehemiah in the Liturgy from a book of hours, manuscript illumination, c. 1480

Nehemiah in the Liturgy from a book of hours, manuscript illumination, c. 1480

“Jesus’ Priority: What Matters Most?”

A Sermon on Mark 12:28-34 (with Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-12) for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year C; preached February 21, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister

Part of a Lent preaching series: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?

 

In a scene in the 2009 movie Up in the Air, a young man is having second thoughts about getting married. These second thoughts come, as one can imagine, just moments before the service is supposed to begin.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to do this,” he says.

Having been sent in to talk to this groom, a family member, played by George Clooney, asks “Why would you say that today?”

“Well, last night I was kinda like laying in bed, and I couldn’t get to sleep, so I started thinking about the wedding and the ceremony and about our buying a house, and moving in together, and having a kid, and then having another kid, and then Christmas and Thanksgiving and spring break, and going to football games, and then all of a sudden they are graduated and getting jobs and getting married and, you know, I’m a grandparent, and then I’m retired, and I’m losing my hair, and I’m getting fat, and the next thing I know I’m dead. And it’s like I can’t stop from thinking, what’s the point? I mean, what is the point?”[1]

What is the point? It’s one of those great philosophical, big life questions… perhaps the great question, the one with which we humans have always wrestled and likely always will.

We can see that struggle to discover the point of it all in the story one preacher tells of a couple he knew, Steve and Lisa. They met and fell in love while working on their MBAs at a top university. They were young, talented, motivated, and they shared the common goal of succeeding in business, and earning much money, and living the American dream. By a decade later, they were pulling in huge salaries from major-league financial corporations. They each put in 60 to 80 hours each week, but the money was great: big house in a fashionable part of the city, four cars, a cabin in the mountains, even a boat… they had it all, one could say.

Biological clocks tick even for the wealthy and talented, so as they approached 40, they chose to have a child, a beautiful son named Nathan. Now, you could say, they really had it all.

Except Nathan, you know, pretty much stayed in day care all day and a nanny took care of him in the evenings. Steve and Lisa rarely spent time with one another. And none of them had time for friends or community affairs or church or anything. “Is this all there is to life?” they found themselves asking as Nathan neared his first birthday. “Do we really want to put in endless hours at work in order to make more money and buy more stuff?”

The pastor who tells this story says that “Eventually Steve and Lisa realized that climbing the corporate ladder of success, making boatloads of money, and buying lots of stuff was not a big-enough life.” They ended up both, on the same day, resigning their jobs. One of them took a more-normal full-time job—one that only required 40 hours a week—managing a small business… and making only half-as-much as before. The other went into consulting work, only doing two days a week… and pulling in only 20% of what they had been before. They sold the huge house and moved into a much more moderate place in a much more modest neighborhood. Gone too was the boat, and two of the four cars, and even the get-away cabin in the mountains.

Life obviously was far different. More to the point, they now had time for one another, for Nathan, for friends and community. They even went back to church. “Although they earned substantially less income,” the preacher notes, “[their] life was far richer.”[2]

Steve and Lisa discovered something about what matters in life, you could say, and what matters most. They wrestled with that question of what the point, the main thing, is—for them and for any of us. They found out that what matters most are our relationships—with God and with others.

I can resonate to a degree with Steve and Lisa’s story myself, albeit in a much less intense, much less complete life-turn-around sort of way. Some of you know that my own undergraduate major was in computer science. I think I was reasonably good—at least I had a pretty high grade point average in my classes. But through my own period of crisis and discernment in the fall of my senior year, I came to discover—with a bit of help from the folks at the career counselling center on campus—that there was a whole side of my being that I just wasn’t utilizing with my focus. Along with the intellectual and analytical strengths I had, there was a social-relational aspect and an artistic-creative aspect to myself that was yearning to be free.

Now, that particular discovery had to do with my own specific sets of gifts and talents. But the truth is, each and every one of us is created in and for relationship. Relationship is core to who and what God is, in God’s very being. And as ones created in God’s own image, our fullness likewise comes in relationship, relationship with God and with our neighbor. That’s not simply a discovery on the career assessments of some of us; it’s a discovery in the Creator’s imprint on all of us.

In fact, the reality that relationship matters so much—that relationship is, at the core, the answer to that age old question of what the point of it all is—the importance of this leads God to command it, and to command it as first and foremost above all.

In our passage from Mark this morning, a scribe comes near and poses the question to Jesus. “Which commandment is first of all?” Was this scribe himself wondering, like the young man soon to be married, “what is the pont?” Obviously, we can’t say for sure—we simply don’t know—but we can imagine. Anyway, whatever it was that motivated the question, Jesus answers very forthrightly: “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” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

These answers, let it be said, were not particularly radical or new within Jesus’ Jewish tradition. The bit about loving God with all our heart, and soul, and strength, that was in one of the prayers that observant Jews recited every day in Jesus time, and still do today in our time. And the love of one’s neighbor as one’s self, that too is drawn from the Jewish law, from a passage found in Leviticus and highlighted by the rabbis and scholars down through the ages.[3] According to the Jewish Talmud, Rabbi Hillel was said to have put it this way: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Law (Torah), the rest is commentary.”[4]

This set of commands—love God and love neighbor, and do so fully—it probably sounds like old-hat to many of us who have been around church for any length of time. They probably even have an air of familiarity to most people who haven’t been, to people not in active faith practice. But don’t let that fool us into taking these things for granted. The society around us may think that these sound familiar, but that doesn’t mean that it promotes them. From the voracious drive to consumer consumption, like Steve and Lisa fell victim to, to the climate in our nation’s political discourse right now wherein a not-insignificant portion of this country’s people are tolerant or even outright supportive of agendas built on xenophobia and racism and all sorts of other fear-mongering against our neighbor… no matter who familiar these things sound, let us not presume too easily that we have already arrived.

Even we here in the church sometimes fall into a bit of amnesia, failing to remember that Jesus lifted up both love of God and love of neighbor as the foremost gifts of God’s commandments to us. We on the typically-more-progressive side of things are often fond of looking down on those we presume to be so focused on the loving God part that they lose sight of the loving neighbor part, or get trapped in a too-narrow view of who their neighbor is. But we ourselves, sometimes, we can get so focused on loving our neighbor that we lose sight of the loving God part—forsaking any sense of spirituality or obligation beyond that of our neighbor.

And over the history of Christian thought, there’s been plenty of ink spilled over trying to rank one of these ahead of the other, or whether one fulfills the other, and so froth… Augustine, Calvin, Karl Rahner, I’m sure there are plenty of others. But today, I’m going to stand with Jesus himself, who when the scribe asked him which commandment (singular) was the first of all, answered with two, not one. As an old English monk from the 7th and 8th centuries, a guy know as the Venerable Bede, put it, “Neither of these is capable of being perfect without the other, because God cannot be loved apart from our neighbor, nor our neighbor apart from God.”[5]

At their core, these commandments are all about relationship, relationship with God and relationship with others. They are Jesus’s way of addressing that question of what matters most, of what the point of it all is.

Now, if we are honest, when we hear this core commandment named by Jesus, we should know ourselves both simultaneously judged and gifted. In that way, we are like the Israelites returned from Exile in the reading from Nehemiah, the ones who stood in holy assembly as the Torah, the law, the command of God that called them into being as God’s people, was reintroduced to them. We, like them, might weep for a moment in recognition of how we have fallen short of the commandment—how we have not loved God with our whole heart and not loved our neighbor as ourselves… how we have thereby sinned against God “in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done and what we have left undone.”[6]

Ezra the priest, though, told the people not to weep. That day of hearing anew the commandment of God, it was a day “holy to the Lord.” And indeed, it is a holy thing to be addressed by God. The Word that spoke the worlds into being speaks to us with a word that answers deeply those age old questions, like “what is the point?” In hearing the word of God’s command—especially when spoken by the One who is himself God’s Word, Jesus Christ—we receive a living call to our own fullness. We need not weep because the gift of the command is the gift to still be able to turn, to still be able to repent and renew and reground ourselves in the life that is truly life, the life that calls us into fullness of life. And in hearing that call to fullness, to life, we find ourselves not unlike that scribe who approached Jesus… “not far from the kingdom of God.”

Now if you remember back to our couple Steve and Lisa, the ones who gave up their high-powered jobs and trappings of the so-called ‘good’ life not long after their son Nathan was born… as it happens, a number of years later, when Nathan got up to second grade, his teacher at one point asked each student to write a brief essay and draw a picture depicting their version of a perfect life. After the assignments were graded, Nathan brought it home along with some other worksheets from school, which he left sitting on the kitchen table. Later that night, as Lisa sat down at the table and glanced through the papers, she began to cry—not out of sadness, but out of joy.

Nathan’s drawing, you see, it had three sections: a picture of his family’s modest house with himself, his parents, and their dog, labeled “my home”; a checkerboard with faces in each square, labeled “my friends”; and a building with a steeple, labeled “my church.” The brief essay went like this: “A perfect life for me is the life that I’m in right now. I have a lot of friends, and a good family, too, and a good church. I do not need a perfect life. I already have a perfect life.”[7]

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen

 


 

[1] Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman (Paramount Pictures, 2009); recounted in Martin Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most, 2nd. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 199-200. (Emphasis added).

[2] The story of Steve and Lisa in this and the preceding four paragraphs from Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe, 73-74.

[3] Craig S. Evans, commentary on Mark 12:28-34, in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 270; and William C. Placher, Mark, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 173.

[4] b. Shab. 31a; cited, in part, in Evans, ibid.

[5] Bede, the Venerable, Homilies on the Gospels 2.22, trans. Lawrence T. Martin and David Hurst (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publishing, 1991), 220; cited in Placher, Mark, 178.

[6] Language from a traditional general prayer of confession, derived from John Hunter, Devotional Services for Public Worship (London: Dent, 1901), 52; and further developed in Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Book of Common Worship (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Education, 1946), 39; Joint Liturgical Group of Great Britain; and Episcopal Church in the United States of America, The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing Inc., 1979), 79 et. al.

[7] Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe, 75.

 

 

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