Temple United Methodist Church, San Francisco, Calif.
Reading for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost: Mark 12:28-34
What is the most important commandment?
I ask you that 2,000 year old question. It was asked by a teacher of the Law who should have known the answer. The man was a student of the way human beings and the God of Israel had interacted. It was asked by an expert of the people of God who believed that they were formed and informed by God. Their faith was already 2,000 years old when the question was asked. They knew that they were to be God’s people, in exchange for God being their God, which meant God would give them children, land, and a nation supported and sustained by divine power.
This man was a teacher of the law. But he had watched as events kept jumping outside the scope of the law. The law said, “Thou shall not kill.” But he had seen God give orders for the army of Israel to slaughter entire villages as they moved into the promised land. The law said, “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.” But he had people repair their fences when cattle had broken loose on the Sabbath and damaged the neighbors’ property. The law said not to covet your neighbor’s possessions. But he had seen the kings of Israel take land and people that didn’t belong to them simply because they were kings and had the power to do so.
So he wanted to know the bottom line; what of all of this is most important? “There are so many rules and regulations, just give it to me straight. What’s it really all about?” An honest question!
I started thinking about this sermon last Tuesday when I first awoke. Then, I went out to Louis’ restaurant to read the paper, and the waitress asked me if I really thought the world was going to end in the year 2,000. I’m not sure where the question came from, but she went on to ask, “How could the world’s people die all at once?” Finishing the morning paper, I got to the office where a woman was waiting to talk with me about her alcoholic husband, and the way her marriage of 30 years was coming apart.
By then, people were backed up in the outer office. One of you wanted to talk about the direction our Guidance Team should take, and when that was finished, a person waiting in the wings wanted to know if we should adopt a particular policy about the renting of our facility. Done with that, Amy, our intern, who had been waiting all this time, wanted to discuss the format for our up-coming confirmation class. All this before lunch. And your days are not too different.
We all make decisions, but we usually just bounce from one thing to another, from one activity to another, from one concern to another, with no sense of direction and purpose. Seldom do we put things in perspective and ask, “What’s it all about?”
What’s most important? It’s not just a theoretical question. On what does one base all the decisions that must be made each day in today’s world? What’s the most important commandment?
Jesus went back to the beginning of Judaism to answer the question, back to what made them unique among all people, back to basics. Back to the formula of their faith. It hung on every door post, in every house, in every city-the Shema found in Deuteronomy 6:4. It was to be repeated each morning and every evening. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is One, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Then, Jesus with singular genius, added next week’s theme from the book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love God, huh? Well, that sounds easy. I can do that-some of the time. I can even love you-most of the time. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” ALL?
Some say we use only 10% of our mental capacity at any one time. There are days when 10% feel like a big stretch to me! But is it possible that even on a good day, 90% of my ability to reason, to think, to understand, to love God, goes unused?
My parents used to say, “You don’t have to get all `A’s’, just make the most of your potential.” Potential? Does anyone here live up to his or her potential? Who here uses all their mind or body or spirit? The reality is that my potential, like my decisions, is split into divided loyalties. Most of us never give our whole self to anything! Not our work, not our families, not our health, not even our God. If we did, we’d be labeled a fanatic. Goodness knows, we have no fanatics in this church! We’re liberal!
Measured against our “all”, we all fall short. How can any of us possibly love God with all we’ve got? We’ve got to admit it-what we do, we do partially. But what God does, God does totally.
Somehow, the totality of who we are has to be in God, which means, we have to embody God. Not enough to preach God, not enough to believe in God, not enough to act like God-we’ve got to BE God. Living in the Kingdom of God is to embody that kingdom, letting it shape how we think and what we do.
It’s not so easy now, is it, this loving of God. And who do you know who has ever done it? There have been a few saints, perhaps. Mother Teresa, perhaps. There was a guy once who came close; we call him St. Paul. And he said to “Pray constantly,” (I Thessalonians 5:17) and, “Rejoice always” so that we will “be anxious in nothing.” (Philippians 4:4-7)
In the midst of all the decisions we make in our daily routines, the one thing we all have is anxiety. Those decisions compel us to feel that we must be in control; we have to impose our order on the lives of others, we have to order their lives if ours are to be controllable. So we have layer upon layer of defenses and securities that we have constructed to keep away the unpredictable and unexpected from our carefully ordered lives. And boy, are we anxious! And as such, we can’t possibly be our all for others. And being captive to our need to protect ourselves, we can’t possibly be in a complete relationship to God.
So maybe Paul was on to something about loving God. “Pray constantly; rejoice always.”
“Prayer” seems to be Paul’s term for a deep inner posturing of one’s being toward God, or orienting oneself toward God the same way a compass needle orients itself toward the north. It’s always being aware of God’s presence and purpose in all that I do, until God becomes a habit of the heart.
I was at a lunch counter the other day and heard two men talking. Every other word, it seemed to me, was a swear word. My first reaction was to say to myself, “It’s really too bad they don’t know English well enough to use it.” But my second reaction was to think, “I wonder what would happen to their lives if they really believed in the God whose name they used so frequently.” Then I thought, I wonder what would happen to my life if I were as conscious of God as they were of cussing God.
Now we are getting somewhere. How can I become more conscious of God, that is, to “pray constantly,” until it becomes a habit of the heart?
As I look around my office at all the books and all the paper, I am wondering what reminders I could use to help me keep sight of God? The Hebrews had a great idea with the Shema attached to the places they used most. Maybe I need a helium filled balloon on my ceiling, saying, “In God I trust.” Maybe I need a Walkman repeating over and over in my ear, “Remember Whose you are!” Maybe I need a pneumatic band on my finger that would exert pressure every time I forgot God by pointing my finger at someone else. Maybe I need an “ah-oo-gah” horn to go off every time I go off in a direction away from God.
Get the picture? I need something to remind me-constantly-of that first question, “What’s most important?” I’ve got to learn how to pray constantly, that is, to be always mindful of the presence and purpose of God. And, I’ve got to be mindful of the power of God if I am going to get rid of anxiety. St. Paul says to do that by being thankful. “Thanksgiving is the deep inner posture of joyful release of our life and being to God in absolute trust, without demands, without conditions, without reservations.” (Robert Mulholland, WEAVINGS, September/October, 1990)
How do you develop a sense of thanksgiving to God? How do I rejoice constantly? Here’s a hint: See God as best you can. Use the trinity — traditionally, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. You might want to say it this way: God, whose Word is Creation, whose grace is redemption, and whose companionship is healing. The trinity is simply a reminder of the three ways we see God-in the creation, in others (particularly in Jesus) and in the spirit.
Some of you may be like me, that is, you see God most fully in the creation. I like astronomy; I see God in the billions of billions of stars, and in the trillions and trillions of miles between them, and in the power of exploding galaxies and the sucking of black holes. But to make that more real, I begin my day by the ocean, watching the waves and the sun’s rays illuminating them and the sea gulls playing with both of them. And the scene helps me get in touch with the mystery and majesty that is God. No day is the same as the one before it. No second within that day is like the last one. Every instant is new, like God, always creating, always creative.
The sea renews my awareness of God. It, like God, is great and immense, and impossible for me to know. I have sailed on it-related to it-dived in it, swum in it. But it is unknowable. I know it touches the coast of Korea, it surrounds the Philippines, it washes the shores of Hawaii, erodes the rocks of the Farallon Islands, and as I sit in Louie’s each morning, it crashes on the cliffs below my feet. I can sit beside it and bathe in it and sail over it and dive in it and marvel at it. And it’s near end is at my feet. So it is with God-the very mystery of the universe is right at my feet. The Kingdom of God is at hand!
Now, if I could just hold that thought all day long!
The creation speaks to me of God. Maybe some of you find God more the second person of the trinity, that is, you see God in others. Many of you don’t particularly find God in the cosmos; you find God in relationships, in people, the image of God. One story that was told at my father’s memorial service last month was about his desire to go shopping with my mother. He’d let her look for the things to buy while he’d sit on a bench and watch the people. While she was in the thick of the crowds, he’d watch the crowds, noticing how people behaved and what they said and the way they looked. That was a religious experience for him, for he saw God alive and well in people. How about you? Do you see God in others?
Some of you find God in the Spirit. We as a church are attempting to do this more and more as we form a Guidance team, able, we hope, to discern what God wants for us all by the way they spend time immersed in the Spirit.
Frank Laubach writes:
“Worries have faded away like ugly clouds and my soul rests in the sunshine of perpetual peace. I can lie down anywhere in the universe and be bathed in my own Father’s spirit. The very universe has come to seem so HOMEY! I know only a little more about the universe than before, but that little is enough. It is vibrant with the electric ecstasy of God. … There comes a great sense of the close, warm intimate heart of reality. God simply creeps in and you KNOW he is here in your heart. He has become your friend by working along with you.” (Letters From a Modern Mystic, pp. 36, 46.)
Three hints about how to love God; which suits you the best? -to see God in creation, in others, or in the spirit; or, in all three?
Love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength. And when the teacher of the law heard Jesus give that truth, he gave his approval saying, “You are right in saying that God is one, and that beside him there is no other, and to love him with all your heart and all your understanding, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus replied, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
Not far!? That’s not bad, but it not there. The expert was closing in on it-so close he could reach out and touch it. But he wasn’t there. Did he ever get there? We don’t know. Mark doesn’t say. And we never hear from him again.
It’s as if Mark is leaving the story without a conclusion; as if we have to write it ourselves. Did he ever get there? What do you think? What do you think about yourself? How are YOU doing in your love of God?
A fourth-generation Methodist pastor, Rev. Dr. Paul Sweet retired to Scotland after 40 years of ministry. A native of San Jose, Calif., he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of the Pacific and a graduate degree from Claremont School of Theology.