Sermon preached for All Saints’ Sunday at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”
The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.
This week we are returning to the gospel of Mark. We left it temporarily for our detour through stewardship season, but we didn’t miss that much—a few more healings, some more disciple shenanigans, and now we are meeting back up with Jesus as he teaches in the temple at Jerusalem.
These are Jesus’ final days, and he knows it, even if no one else understands. When Jesus gets to the temple in Jerusalem, after three years of ministry, three years of parables and exorcisms and miracles, he knows that time is running out.
It’s time to get down to basics.
To say exactly what needs to be said.
And so he seizes on the chance, when an expert in Jewish law, a devotee of the Torah, sees him arguing with the Sadducees. This scholar is impressed, and he wants to cut to the heart of things with this new rabbi, this Jesus.
“Which commandment is the most important of all?” he asks. Beyond all the rules and regulations, beyond the theological quibbling, beyond the ritual minutia: what is this faith thing all about?
Jesus answers: The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”
These are not new words. Jesus is quoting directly from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, pillars of Jewish sacred scripture. More than that, he’s quoting the Shema, daily ritual Jewish prayers.
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד, it begins. Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord.
Nothing Jesus is saying is new here. All he’s doing is simply redirecting our attention to the point of it all: love God. Love neighbor. Everything—everything—else we do should boil down to these. Even with his enemies closing in around him, even with his own bloody death looming on the horizon, Jesus’ words are words of love.
This is our greatest commandment still. To love. And not just accidentally, not just when convenient, not just those whom it’s easy to love. To love with everything we have and everything we are, whole hearted, full out, radical love.
It would be easier if we only had to love God. After all, God is perfect. God never mooches money or makes fun of our haircut or leaves the cap off the milk.
God never drives drunk or bullies children or wanders America with a semi-automatic.
And our neighbors do.
And we are called to love them as ourselves.
It is the greatest commandment. And it is the hardest.
Like many of you, I grieve the continuous shootings in our country, especially those motivated by bigotry and broad sweeps of hatred. But also like many of you, I have been astonished at the way love rears its head even in the midst of such pain.
I was humbled this week by the words of Ari Mahler, the Jewish nurse who saved the life of Robert Bowers, who murdered eleven Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue last week. In a Facebook post, he wrote:
The fact that I did my job, a job which requires compassion and empathy over everything, is newsworthy to people because I’m Jewish. Even more so because my dad’s a Rabbi.
To be honest, I didn’t see evil when I looked into Robert Bowers’ eyes. All I saw was a clear lack of depth, intelligence, and palpable amounts of confusion. Robert Bowers probably had no friends, was easily influenced by propaganda, and wanted attention on a sociopathic level. He’s the kind of person that is easily manipulated by people with a microphone, a platform, and use fear for motivation. I can’t go into details of our interactions because of HIPPA, but Robert Bowers thanked me for saving him, for showing him kindness, and for treating him the same way I treat every other patient. This was the same Robert Bowers that just committed mass homicide. The Robert Bowers who instilled panic in my heart worrying my parents were two of his 11 victims less than an hour before his arrival.
I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you?
Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what Robert Bowers thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.
Respectfully, Ari Mahler.
Ari considers himself “not that religious.” Yet he clings to the roots of his faith, of our faith, of many faiths around the world. Love. Not when only when it is easy. But when it is devastatingly hard.
There is an old Hasidic tale, shared by writer Parker Palmer, that says a rabbi was asked about the Shema. Deuteronomy commands the Jewish people to write the words of love on their hearts. Someone asks the rabbi why on the heart? Why not inside it?
“It is because as we are,” the rabbi responds,” our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
To be a person of faith is to let the world break your heart because it is so, so messed up. And then to love it, because there’s simply nothing else to do.
Ari Mahler sets a powerful example of loving God by loving neighbor. By using love to make an enemy into a neighbor.
But just imagine what could have happened if love had gotten through to the shooter before. If his heart had been broken by love, so that it wouldn’t have been so crippled by hate.
Imagine what would have happened if he had learned to love his neighbor as himself. Imagine who might be alive today. Love makes a difference.
The Jewish scholar who spoke with Jesus was thrilled to find a kindred soul, someone else who knew the importance of love.
“Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.”
And Jesus is delighted, and responds, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Some days it feels like the kingdom of God is far away. Very nearly a pipe dream. But then someone loves—someone loves beyond what anyone could expect of them—and I see it in vivid Technicolor. The kingdom of God brought near to us by radical, world-changing love.
Today is all Saint’s day, and as I remember the saints in my life, I remember those who knew how to love. They were not all perfect people. In fact, none of them were perfect people. And yet, at the end of the day, they strove to love God with their strength and heart and soul and mind, and to love their neighbors as themselves. At the end of the day, they loved.
And when I think of them, now in the kingdom of God, it doesn’t seem so unattainable after all.
Friends, love is the door to God’s kingdom.
Keep it open wide.