July 8, 2018 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Mark 12:28-34 (CEB)
It was wonderful last Sunday to dwell for a moment in the heart of goodness—the heart of “Tov,” the Hebrew word we translate as “good.” We listened to the song of Creation from Genesis 1 and experienced with God the goodness of all creation…of us…of you and of me. We proclaimed, as we did this morning, that “Good is good! All the Time! And All the Time! God is good!” I hope and pray that we were able to embrace the goodness that we are, each made in the beautiful image of God. I hope and pray that we all were able to dwell in the goodness of God and the goodness of each other…but then we had to walk out the doors of this sanctuary, this safe place, and into a world that for many is not safe. We had to walk into a world that doesn’t prioritize and value goodness, and certainly doesn’t embrace it.
Tensions are so high right now—on the world stage, in our nation, in our denomination, in our communities, and even with our own networks of family and friends. There is so much fear, so much anger, so much defensiveness. The call to embrace goodness—in the light of headlines and hatred and politics and illness and loss—may seem a bit naive. How can goodness hold out in the face of so much darkness?
The people of Israel were asking the same question 2000 years ago when Jesus walked onto the scene. “How can goodness hold out against such darkness? Who can possibly stand up against Rome, the empire? How can anyone hope with so much stacked against them? How can we hope when even the religious establishment declares many to be unworthy? God is good? All the time?” It seems only for those with power and privilege.
Jesus enters into this first century culture with only a few who ‘have’ and a multitude who ‘have not.’ Jesus enters into this society breathing God, radiating the new creation which reflects the beauty and purpose of the first days of creation. Jesus enters into this culture embodying the way of goodness, the way of God, the way of Beloved Community, which he calls the Kingdom. The multitude of ‘have nots’ rejoiced, proclaiming ‘yes!’ And those with power and privilege began to grumble: “He eats with sinners. He heals on the Sabbath, breaking Sabbath Law. He is causing a ruckus.” So they being to plot and to plan his destruction.
Our scripture reading today comes at the close of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The grumbling, plotting, and planning by the powerful and privileged has reached a head. You see, Jesus’ goodness is exposing the waywardness of these religious and political elite. In chapter 11, just one chapter prior to our reading today, Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time…in triumph. He enters in the way that King David entered Jerusalem for his coronation generations before—which certainly got the attention of the religious leaders. Immediately upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus heads directly to the Temple. “You think I caused a ruckus before? You ain’t seen nothing yet!” Jesus flips the tables of the money changers and drives out the dove sellers, effectively shutting down the business of the Temple. The religious, political leaders confront Jesus, challenging his authority. Jesus responds with a harsh parable about wicked tenants of a vineyard that abuse their power and harm those sent by the owner to correct their ways, an allegory hardly lost on the powerful. The verbal battle continues as the religious authorities challenge and test Jesus, seeking to trip him up and expose him in some way.
Abruptly, our reading today rises out of the verbal battle, rises above it. A legal expert, a scribe, part of those grumblers who are plotting Jesus’ destruction, hears Jesus—really HEARS what Jesus is saying and is impressed. He is able to listen beyond the fear and the anger and the defensiveness. He approaches Jesus and asks a question that ends it all. “Which commandment is most important?” This is a perfectly valid question to ask a rabbi. “What is the center of your teaching? What grounds all that you do and say? What is most important?” This scribe cuts through all the testing and challenging and battling. The legal expert cuts to the heart of the matter. “What is most important, Teacher?” “Love!” Jesus replies, “love!”
However, Jesus’ answer has more impact that this powerful four-letter word. Jesus quotes one of the most important scriptures to the Jewish people, a scripture that is prayed twice a day every day by observant Jews and is lifted up in every worship service in synagogue and Temple alike—Deuteronomy 6—The Shema. “Shema” is Hebrew for listen, and Deuteronomy 6 begins with this call to hear or to listen. “Hear-Listen, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God” with all that your are-heart, mind, body and soul. The scribe asks Jesus what is most important and Jesus recites the Shema, and then includes loving neighbor in the same way that we love ourselves. Love of God and love of neighbor—this is what is most important. And the legal expert agrees. The scribe, the ‘enemy, agrees with Jesus’ summation. But that is not all. This legal expert, this scribe, this member of the party of grumblers and plotters, in the hearing of his fellow party members, not only agrees with Jesus but also states clearly that this call to love is more important that the business of the Temple—which Jesus just shut down. In essence, the scribe puts a stamp of approval on Jesus’ behavior which has so outraged the religious political leaders. The call to love God and neighbor rises above the anger and fear and testing and verbal battling—Love, the heart of goodness, the heart of Tov.
That is God’s answer, Jesus’ answer, to the question of how goodness can survive—and even flourish—in the face of darkness—loving God and loving neighbor. “But hear!” God says, “Hear-Shema, O People!” This is not romantic love. It is not some Hollywood romantic-comedy love, some newest pop song love. This is not emotional, warm-fuzzy love. It is not the casual love, that word we toss around in everyday conversation. This is God’s love—Agape love. Ancient Greek had several words for love, to depict different types of relationships. The love Jesus calls us to in today’s reading is Agape love, divine love, the love that is God, the love that Jesus embodies. It is an active love that rises above human definitions and boundaries. This is the love that looked at each piece of creation and declared it good, ‘It is so Tov.’ This is the love that took flesh in Mary’s womb and was laid to rest in a feeding trough. This is the love that ate with sinners and broke Sabbath law and caused a ruckus for the sake of God’s people. This is the love that went to the cross for love’s sake. This is the love Jesus calls us to live.
WE are the goodness that can not only hold out, but can drive out the darkness. We are the goodness. We are the love. US—claiming that innate goodness, choosing each day (each moment) to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor in the same way that we love ourselves. This passage we have before us today, the Church Universal has given a name to this passage. It is a name the Church has agreed upon across the ages, around the world, throughout different denominations and cultures. This teaching of Jesus is entitled “the Great Commandment.” Despite all our theological and ideological differences as Christians, we agree that this is the Great Commandment that Jesus has called his followers to live. But it is false advertising.
It is false advertising as long as the Church is silent and inactive in the face of the suffering of God’s people and God’s creation! It is false advertising as long as the Church excludes some people and calls them somehow unworthy…less than! It is false advertising as long as the Church remains safe within its walls and ignores the darkness outside its doors (and even within its own walls). It is false advertising.
But you, St. Pauls, you have hung a rainbow over your front door. It is a dangerous sign. It is a symbol of inclusivity, or diversity. It is a symbol of that Agape love that knows no boundaries and is without limits. That rainbow declares that ALL are beloved! That rainbow declares that ALL are made in God’s image, all are God breathed. Do you mean it!? Do you mean to include and love and cherish ALL the people that rainbow includes? Do you mean to love and include all our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, questioning, intersex, and heterosexual family? Do you mean to include all the beautiful colors of humanity—from the darkest ebony, through all the shades of brown, and the paler colors? Do you mean to include all gender identities, all those seeking to live into their goodness? Do you mean to include all ages, from the first breath to the last? Do you mean to include all abilities—physical, emotional, social, spiritual? Do you mean to include all socio-economic levels? Do you mean it? (YES)
That is a great first step! It is a wonderful first step in being the goodness, being the love that drives out the darkness! But it is just the first step! We must be willing to march behind that rainbow out into the community of Ithaca, into the denomination of the United Methodist Church, and into the world. We must not stop with a rainbow banner! We must march boldly into the darkness and SHINE!