Sunday, March 1, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Tuesday"

Mark 12:28-34

28 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?” 29 Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, 30 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.[d] 31 The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself.[e] No other commandment is greater than these.” 32 The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. 33 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.” 34 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.  (Common English Bible)

“The Last Week: Mark’s Retelling of the Passion,” Week Two

As a kid, a Christmas tradition was my mom getting out my favorite holiday picture book retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  (Does our pastor know what month it is?  Does he need a vacation?)  She would sit me on her lap, open up the picture book, and proceed to tell me how Scrooge was visited late one night and told to share his toys and riches with other people…by one Bob Marley.

Not Jacob Marley.  My mom would mix the two up, and all of the sudden, Scrooge’s late business partner was transformed into a Christian/Rasta king of reggae who died far too young.  But it was only recently that I learned how remarkable some of Marley’s (Bob, not Jacob) work really was—not just the music, but the humanitarian work that Marley (Jacob, not Bob) exhorted Ebenezer Scrooge to lend more of an ear to.

In 1976, two days before being scheduled to perform at a concert to ease tensions between warring factions in Jamaica (and some of you, erm, more senior citizens may remember this), Bob Marley was, along with his wife and his manager, shot in his home.  He still went through with performing at this concert in name of peace and when asked why on earth he would do that so soon after an attempt on his life was made, he said, “The people who are trying to make the world worse aren’t taking a day off.  How can I?”

How can I, indeed.   The highwaymen that beat and robbed the man whom the Good Samaritan found weren’t taking that day off, so how could the Samaritan?  The scribes and temple authorities that eventually framed Jesus Christ and handed Him over to Pontius Pilate weren’t taking the day off, so how could this lone legal expert here in Mark 12 who understood Him?  And when devils of all stripes today, from ISIS to Westboro Baptist Church, aren’t taking personal days, how can we as people of faith and Christians of goodwill?  Because were we to do nothing in the face of evil, we would be failing in every sense at doing the most fundamental thing Christ asks of us, the command that He says upon which any and all other commands are hung: love God, and love each other.

Now that Lent, that 40-day fast in the wilderness alongside Jesus as He is tempted by the devil, has begun, so too does a new sermon series begin for us as well.  And we’ll be stretching out Holy Week—that seven-day span of time from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—by talking about each day in turn, starting with Monday (that way we can discuss Palm Sunday on, you know, Palm Sunday) before wrapping up with Easter Sunday itself on April 5.  For this sermon series, I am using as a template the book “The Last Week,” a commentary on the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, co-written by Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Professor Borg just passed away a few weeks ago, plus this book is one of a precious few on my list of “it truly changed my life” books, so this series has a lot of added meaning for me as well as, I hope, eventually for you too.

Today’s message is centered on Tuesday of Holy Week, and Tuesday is a jam-packed day by Mark’s account, with lots of different stories to tell.  It is the day when Jesus famously pronounces, when asked whether one should pay taxes to the occupying Roman empire, says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s.”  I could have done a really fun message on that one…but then remembered that it is currently tax season, and maybe I can let sleeping dogs lie for now!

So, here instead is an excerpt from what Borg and Crossan have to say about the passage for today, from the Tuesday of Holy Week as documented in Mark’s Gospel, on the greatest commandments:

The twofold great commandment—to love God and love our neighbor—is so familiar to us that it has become a Christian cliché.  But behind the familiarity is their radical meaning as Jesus’s summary of His message.  To love God above all else means giving to God what belongs to God: our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  These belong to God, and (to refer to a previous passage), not to Caesar.  This is radical monotheism: if God is Lord, then the lords of this world—Caesar and his incarnations throughout history—are not.  And to love one’s neighbor as oneself means to refuse to accept the divisions rendered by the normalcy of civilization, those divisions between the respected and the marginalized, righteous and sinners, rich and poor, friends and enemies, Jews and Gentiles.

Now, in fairness, Tuesday is also the day when Jesus similarly famously stated that God is God not of the dead, but of the living, and I *almost* wound up preaching on that…but then, I weighed it compared to this passage here, when Jesus is asked what the most important of the 613 laws in the Old Testament is (or are).  And I had to preach on this one.

Why?  Because in all of those other stories from Tuesday, Jesus is debating—he is either confronting, or being confronted by, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other temple authorities.  This passage, though, isn’t a debate, it’s a conversation, a conversation between, by the by, one of those temple authorities (a “legal expert who had overheard” the previous disputes).  So right off the bat, Jesus proves a willingness to engage his opponents not merely as one-dimensional opponents, but as actual people, and if this sermon were about nothing else, that would be a good enough lesson for us to take home with ourselves.

But in treating this legal expert with respect—just as this unknown lawyer similarly treats Jesus with respect whilst his other temple colleagues patently are not—Jesus is exhibiting that which He says is one of the two most important laws in the Hebrew Bible, Leviticus 19:18: love your neighbor as yourself.  (For, contrary to popular belief, this saying did not originate with Jesus.)

And in case we have forgotten the moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan, our neighbor is not whoever lives on the other side of that white picket fence; no, our neighbor is the one who shows us mercy.  And in offering to Jesus a respite from the hours and hours of public quarrelling, this lawyer is offering Jesus a sort of mercy; he is being the neighbor whom Jesus in turn loves as Himself.

And far more than any of his other dunderheaded colleagues, this guy gets it.  In Matthew’s version of this story, in Matthew 22, Jesus declares that love of God and love of neighbor are the two most important laws and that upon them hang the rest of the laws and the prophets, and that is more or less the end of the story.  In so doing, Matthew omits a key utterance of Jesus’s anonymous conversation partner: that following these two laws is “much more important than all kinds of burned offerings and sacrifices.”

Now…considering what we know from last week’s lesson, on Monday’s cleansing of the temple and its criminal cohort of price-gouging purveyors of sacrificial animals and temple-approved shekels, doesn’t this sound like an encouraging bit of understanding?  Like someone besides Jesus is finally starting to get it?  That’s why it is so important that we followed up Monday with this particular story of all the stories that take place on Tuesday.  It is a natural continuation of the issue at hand.

And that issue, pure and simple, is, are we doing what is right by God and by each other?  Because if we already were, then there is no point in God sending Jesus—after all, if it ain’t broke, right?

But we know that there is something wrong—many somethings, in fact.  But I have to believe that those many somethings, all of the things that are wrong with the world today, ranging from addiction to abuse to violence to poverty, so much of it boils down to our failure to follow these two commands.  Love God, love each other.  I’ve been repeating that on my blog a lot lately: that it isn’t rocket science, we just act like it is.

God has grown to detest the animal sacrifices we have come to offer Him because He knows that unlike the animal sacrifices made by, say, Abel or Noah, that our worship of Him has come with a generous dose of duplicitousness sprinkled on top.  We are not single-minded in our pursuit of God’s love and mercy, we at best treat it as one of several things we chase after, none of which are ever as, or ever will be, as important.  So us making those sacrifices, even today, is not us doing right by God.  God sees through hollow actions, God sees through meaningless words.  God craves our authenticity, for us to be authentically and genuinely interested in being in right relationship with Him and—by extension—with one another.

I imagine all of you probably know this already, that I am not telling you anything particularly new or anything that you did not already realize.  But here is where Jesus’s rejoinder to this legal expert comes in: Jesus sees that this thoughtful person is not far from the kingdom of God.  Which in one sense is encouraging—he has found the fairway.  But he hasn’t sunk the putt yet.  He isn’t there yet.

And so, as is often the case with stories about Jesus in each of the Gospels, the proxy for us, for the audience, is the anonymous person whom Jesus interacts with.  We are the anonymous lawyer who knows deep down what we must do, but who struggles mightily at times to actually do it.  We might chicken out at the eleventh hour, or change our minds at the final instant, or, in Marley’s case, cancel a goodwill unity concert on the day of.

But that isn’t how this week will go for Jesus.  He doesn’t eighty-six his destiny for the cross.  He sees it through to the bitter, painful end.  And because of that, our ends need not be so bitter or so painful.  So what is holding us back?  What is holding you back from living out these two great, simple, profound commandments?

Because this thing we call faith means far more than just knowing the right answers.  One of my favorite and most moving  movies of all time is American History X, and in it Edward Furlong’s character says about his brother (played by Edward Norton), “Derek always says it’s best to end a paper with a quote.  He says that someone else has already said it best, so if you can’t top it, steal from them and go out strong.”

So, to return to Borg and Crossan one last time for today’s message:

To return to the scribe of Mark’s story…he is not far from it because he knows its heart, but he is not in it.  To be in it means more than knowing this.  It means living it.

Amen.  A thousand times, amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 1, 2015

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