This week\’s blog is an essay Dr. Hood wrote for Lectionary Homiletics, a professional journal for preachers. The essay was prepared to assist subscribers on this journal in thinking creatively about their own sermon development of the lectionary text for November 1, 2015.
November 1, 2015
Preaching Mark 12: 28-34
To listen to some Christians, it is easy to get the impression that what matters most are the decisions that we make. Faith is reduced to getting everything right; how we dress for church, what we do on Sunday after church, the company we keep during the week or the decisions parents make in how to raise their children. This passage begins with that assumption. A legal expert stands in the shadows eavesdropping on a Q & A between Jesus and the Sadducees. Impressed with how Jesus answers their questions he approaches Jesus for clarity; “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Verse 28) It is the same question asked by many in our churches, asked by people who have condensed the faith to “following the rules.”
The wise preacher will acknowledge that each of us are prone to such an approach to the faith, particularly with local churches and denominations splintering over doctrinal issues and disagreements with how particular scriptures are to be interpreted. Jesus refuses to answer with only one law. Love of God and love of neighbor are held together. With love at the center of this text, we may speak of God’s call to a visionary reunion of heart, soul, mind, and strength. And that a love of neighbor must complete the great commandment. A sermon may have as a title, The Church Divided which asks, “Is the substance of our faith located in following a rulebook?” The result of such a faith is division from others who may hear something different in their own reading of the Bible.
In a passionate spiritual autobiography, Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life, Lauren F. Winner shares that she was raised the child of a Jewish father and a lapsed Southern Baptist mother. The moment came, as it does for all of us, that Winner had to make a faith decision for her own life. She chooses to become an Orthodox Jew with the multitude of rules for living faithfully. Yet, following her faith decision, Winner experiences what she describes as an inescapable courtship by a “very determined carpenter from Nazareth.”[i]She eventually converts to the Christian faith.
One may well question if this was a similar experience by the legal expert who questions Jesus in our text. He not only stands apart physically from the Sadducees who initially questions Jesus, he stands apart from them in spirit, not hostile toward Jesus but inescapably attracted to Jesus. Not only does this story explicitly mention the legal experts’ gracious response to Jesus’ answer, Jesus is equally gracious in saying to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” (Verse 34) This story cautions interpreters of the New Testament from identifying all Jewish religious leaders as hostile to Jesus.
Here in the sermon I would shift to providing examples of how our churches are fractured and hearts are wounded by vitriolic discourse as we demand from others conformity to our insight and understanding of the rules. We have become like many of the religious leaders of scripture – we also want to know if there are some laws that are weightier than others. What Jesus does here is change the conversation. Rather than a life that “gets it right” by perfect obedience to the rule book, Jesus invites people into a relationship; a relationship with God and neighbor that is defined by love. Jesus pries open and expands our thinking about what faithfulness looks like.
I would close the sermon by mentioning a magazine cover of The New Yorker from December 18th, 1948. This cover depicts a snow covered, white church with a front door and a side door, both open wide to the blistery, winter weather. Through the front door enter tired people, bent over with age, all dressed in drab grey, one walking with the assistance of a cane. Exiting the side door are young children, dressed in bright, primary colors, each laughing and carrying a gift. It is, for me, a visual parable. The discouraged, disillusioned and broken seek the shelter of the church. They enter from a penetratingly cold world that has worn them down. In the shelter of God’s grace each are transformed. They reenter the world with laughter, the energy of a child, dressed in vivid colors and carrying a gift.
In this lectionary text from Mark, Jesus receives those who have become burdened – even broken – by the various demands of the law and gifts them with an invitation to experience a whole life transformation that results, not from a focus on the law, but on living into a relationship with God and with one another. God is not satisfied with less than the all of us, “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Verse 30) And God demands, “You will love your neighbor as yourself.” (Verse 31) The church God seeks is less one that is caught-up with which laws matter more but with a community of people who strive to understand – and live into – what it means to love God and one another.
[i] Lauren F. Winner, Girl Meets God: On The Path To A SpiritualLife (New York: Water Brook Press, 2002), 12.