by Pastor Cherie Dearth

We are in the middle of our sermon series, Neighbors, we are taking three weeks to look at what loving our neighbor looks like in our daily lives. Last week we focused on the question of “What is love?” This week we are asking “Who do I love?” And next week, just before Thanksgiving, we will be considering “When do I love?”

 

I have to tell you that when I was choosing this sermon series or this Scripture for this date, I did it months ago.  I did not give a thought to the election cycle or what could be going on in our country right now. One thing I am sure of is that God knew, and I think that it is the perfect passage for this day.

 

Our Scripture passage comes out of Mark Chapter 12 starting at verse 28, and prior to this Jesus has made his final entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, and people waving palm branches in his honor. They thought that they were welcoming the messiah they were waiting for, the one that was going to throw out the Romans and usher in the new Jewish Golden Age. He goes and turns over the tables of the money changers, basically stops all the business of the Temple. Naturally, all the authorities and people in power were threatened by him. They start questioning him and challenging him, hoping for an opportunity to arrest him on any kind of charge. We have all these groups that have slices of power in Judea and Galilee, who normally did not get along at all, working together to silence Jesus.

 

We have the chief priests, who were in charge of everything that happened in the Temple, making the sacrifices to God, performing the ritual practices of worship, whose life Jesus just disrupted. We have the teachers of the law, who were supposed to know the law inside and out and teach people how to follow it, but Jesus was giving new interpretations to the old passages, explaining what they really were supposed to mean. We had the Pharisees, who were in the synagogues and were adding special rules to the commands or laws to make sure that no one came close to breaking the law. In their attempt to help, they created a new burden for the people for whom life was already very hard. Then there were the Herodians and the Sadducees. They were the aristocracy as appointed by the Romans and by tradition, respectively. Some called them collaborators with the Romans. They might have simply been trying to keep the peace. After all, the Jews in Roman Palestine had more freedom to practice their “peculiar” religion and not worship the Emperor than most other places in the Roman Empire. They didn’t want to rock the boat, and lose their privileged position, which eventually happened in 68 A.D. Normally, these groups HATED each other, but now they made a common cause to discredit Jesus. He was a threat to all of them.

 

But there is a change in tone in today’s passage. A teacher of the law, or a scribe, approaches Jesus, and the encounter is very different. Let’s read it, Mark 12:28-34.

 

Mark 12:28-34
      28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

     29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.”

     32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

     34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

 

Jesus has received challenge after challenge from teachers of the law and others.  They tried to trick him into saying something that would incriminate him, but he eluded every attempt. Someone new comes, from one of the same groups, but Jesus knows that his question is genuine. Even if it isn’t (Shouldn’t a teacher of the law know the answer to this question? Perhaps they debated among themselves what the MOST important commandment was.), genuine question or not, this is the first question in this section that Jesus answers directly.

 

What I find interesting is that following attack after attack, Jesus treats a person who has been a continual enemy throughout his ministry as a neighbor. Jesus treats this man as he describes as the second most important commandment.  He loves his neighbor.  Jesus is able to embrace a person who supposedly is his enemy, and they find common ground. Isn’t that amazing?

 

In our sermon series of Neighbors, we are asking the question, Who Do I Love? It’s a very important question. Jesus has just told us to love God and to love our neighbor. When the Gospel of Luke relates this event, the teacher of the law asks an additional question. Who is my neighbor? In other words, who do I, who should I love to fulfill this commandment? In Luke, this is where Jesus tells the story we think of as “The Good Samaritan.”

 

Today, we’re going in a different direction.  In his answer, Jesus quotes two different passages from the Hebrew Bible, the first is from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God, the LORD is one [as opposed to many gods]. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” God is talking to the Israelite people as they are wandering in the desert after escaping from Egypt before they got into the promised land. If you remember from a few weeks ago, we talked about how it was set up that they had no human king. God was their king, and the love described here was like the love that a subject would be expected to have for a king.  This is to be a love that is entirely complete, involving every part of a person, of you and me when we enter into a relationship with God.

 

The next part of Jesus’ answer builds on this love. It is found in the second part of Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As this phrase appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we may be fairly familiar with that part, but let me read you the whole verse.  “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” That implies a lot more than skipping around sprinkling fairy dust or candy hearts. It’s a lot harder than merely smiling and being cordial to people you pass on street. Love those people whom you are in conflict with. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If we skip down to verse 34, we find that phrase again.  “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native born…”

 

We hear a lot about how the Israelite people were to be set apart, a light , an example to the nations. They were to keep pure and not worship other gods and adopt the cultures of the groups around them, however, they are commanded. “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” In other words, we are to love those who are not part of our group or tribe. It could mean people who are literally from another country, but it could be someone who has another cultural sensibility, a different point of view. Not just someone who lives near us, but anyone we might encounter. In this electronic age, that could be near or far. With the internet, I literally have friends and acquaintances all over the world. One of my best friends lives in Manchester, England, another lives in Seoul, South Korea.  One lives in Dubai,  and another lives in … I know it will be hard to believe, Odessa  … Texas, and no, it not the one I “imported” [my husband].  He never lived in Odessa. *smile*

 

It is amazing what having friends from so many different places, cultures, and perspectives does. It teaches you two  very important things.  1) Every culture has unique and interesting things and ways to address and solve problems. 2) People are more the same than they are different. They laugh. They cry. They love. They want their children to have a better life. They want to live in a safe environment. They want to prosper. They may define that in many different ways, but they all want it.

 

Love God. Love your neighbor.

 

Then, Jesus says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another,” in John 13:34-35.  I mentioned this one last week. We are to love our fellow disciples, or as they were known before the term “Christian” was coined, Followers of the Way (the ways of Jesus Christ). We are to love the people on their journey with Jesus. Yup, even the people we disagree with, and like we heard last week, even in the venerated Early Church, there was plenty of disagreement going on. That’s not what Jesus wants from us.

 

In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” The sacrifices were important. They were part of the law, too, but the repaired relationship was more important.

 

But why?

 

John tells us so well in his first letter in chapter 4 beginning with verse 19. “We love because [God] first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, who he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And [Jesus] has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:19-21).

 

Why do we do this? Because God first loved us. Like I said, this isn’t an easy love. Like we talked about last week, it isn’t a love of transitory feeling that can change from one day to the next. This is the act of love, the verb, the doing of everyday whether we feel  like it or not. Of course, we’re allowed to like it, and life can be a lot more pleasant when we do. It take a lot of emotional and physical energy to hate, be mad, hold a grudge. It can take effort to love, but it pays such dividends.

 

Love God. Love our neighbor. Love the one that is different from us. Love our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

Those are relatively easy. They might be challenging sometimes, but the next thing that Jesus tells us can be difficult. It can be one of those that we have to pray for God to help us. Last week, while defining love, I mentioned a passage from Matthew [5:44]. This week, I read you a similar passage from Luke 6:27. We ask the questions, Who Are We to Love? Jesus says, “I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies.” Love enemies?! He goes on to say in verse 31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that… 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:31-33, 35-36)

 

Jonah in the Old Testament had trouble with this concept, which really was not new. After all, the teacher of the law agreed with Jesus that love for God and neighbor was more important than burnt offerings, which were so important in the law and Temple worship. However, prophet after prophet shared God’s message that obedience and mercy were more important than animal sacrifices: Samuel, Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah, just to name a few. (cf. 1 Sam 15:22, Isaiah 1:11-15, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:8) Hosea 6:6 says, “For I [God] desire mercy, not sacrifice and an acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.”

 

Jonah was not happy about the fact that God could even love an enemy of Israel. Jonah was a prophet who was commanded by the LORD to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. This was a nation that plagued Israel with conflict and oppression, by any description, an enemy. God told Jonah to warn Nineveh of impending catastrophe, but it could be avoided if they repented.

 

Jonah didn’t like the people of Nineveh. He thought they deserved punishment for the evil they did, and he didn’t want to be a part of their salvation. He knows God is merciful, so if they do repent, he knew that God would spare them. He didn’t think that was fair, so he ran away. This is a silly thing on its face. As God’s Spirit is everywhere, we can’t run away from God.

 

As it says in Psalm 139:7-12, “7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

 

Jonah was brought back in a horrible fashion (that’s a story for a different day), and was tasked again by God to warn Nineveh. This time he complies. Nineveh does repent in the most intense way imaginable through fasting  from food and water and repentant prayer. And God is merciful to them.

 

So, if God can be concerned about a group of people that was Israel’s fierce enemy and oppressor, can we do no less? Love the LORD your God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

Who are we to love? 1) God; 2) Neighbor, and who is our neighbor? a) Our fellow travelers or sojourner in the faith. That can mean the people in this room. It can mean people elsewhere who are followers of Jesus. b) Our brothers and sisters, our relatives; c) People physically near us (i.e. our literal neighbors); Strangers (people unlike us) in our midst (cf. Lev 19:34); d) Our enemies; e) Anyone God cares about.

 

Is there anyone that we’re not supposed to love? I really can’t think of anyone.

 

And remember “love” doesn’t necessarily mean “have tender feelings for” though if we act in a loving way, we may develop some tender feelings, or at least sympathy and understanding, if not agreement.

 

It does mean trying to get to know a person, listening to them, so you can understand their hopes, dreams, worries, and concerns … rather than trying to change them and make them exactly as we are. It’s not, “I love you, so I’m going to ‘fix’ you.” That’s not listening. That is not getting to know someone as a fellow person, finding the areas you are alike and appreciating the ways in which you are different. That is judging them and deciding that they are deficient in some way, and quite frankly, that’s not our job, anymore that it is their job to fix us. No one I know, likes to be treated that way, so it rarely works.

 

Jesus gives some excellent advice on this in Matthew chapter 5. I’ll be reading it out of the NRSV. Being in timber country, it seems much more fitting. Jesus says, “3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Mt 5:3-5) We have our own issues to keep us busy … like figuring out how to love … everybody.

 

Can you imagine if all the people who call themselves Christian or followers of Jesus would just love everybody? It would be on earth as it is in heaven. I would love to see the dawn of that day.

 

There is a story about an old rabbi and his two brightest students. They ask him, “How do we know that the night is over and the dawn is coming?” The rabbi replies, “What do you think?” The first student says, “When it is light enough to tell the difference between a dog and a sheep.” The old rabbi shakes his head, “No.” The second student says, “When you can distinguish between a grape vine and a sycamore tree.” The man shakes his head again. Finally, after they ask him again and again, he says. “It is when you can look into the face of a stranger and see a member of your own family. At that moment, it is the dawn that is coming.”

 

And that is something that we can do only with the light of Christ.

 

Last week, I asked you to write down the names of neighbors that you would pray for this past week.  This week I’m going to ask you to put down three more people. You may not know their names yet, but these are people who are from a different group or social circle. They may have a different political affiliation than you. They may have a different socio-economic status, belief system, or marital status than you. I challenge you to pray that God put these people in your path, so that you can try to develop a genuine friendship with them. One of the reasons that we are so polarized in this country is that we have the capacity to self-select only to be around people who are just like us, so we are less likely to know anyone who look, acts, or thinks differently than we do. And, the ones not in our group become the enemy. The only way that can change is if we acknowledge them as our neighbor and love them.  Let’s try for three people in the coming year. Maybe we’ll only get one, and that’s okay. But let’s ask God to put people in our path and open our eyes, so we can see them. Who do I love? God and Neighbor. That’s what it’s all about.

 

Amen!