Most of us have been baptized, and many of us have been confirmed.
Those baptisms and confirmations were celebrated across the wide range of Christian belief and practice, with each tradition holding nuanced understandings of what baptism and confirmation are all about.
Yet, I think all of us who follow God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit can agree that baptism and confirmation bring the absolute assurance that we belong to God – that God made us in the image of our Creator, that God claims us as God’s own, and that God will never ever let go of that claim.
But with God’s claim on our lives comes some weighty expectations for our relationship with God and our relationships with others whom God also has created and claimed. Our Scripture lesson this morning cuts to the heart of those expectations.
The reading from the Gospel of Mark parachutes us into the middle of a lively and tense exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. They have been peppering Jesus with all kinds of questions about all sorts of things relating to faith. Calmly and deliberately, Jesus answers each of their questions.
And then, one of the scribes rises to ask Jesus a question, and his answer, as it turns out, quickly ends the conversation and cuts to the heart of what it means to be a believer in God and a follower of Christ. With the Spirit’s help, listen with all your senses for the Word of the Lord in chapter 12 of Mark’s Gospel.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself.’ This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. (Mark 12:28-34)
Three boys – Devonte Cafferkey, age 13, Sammy Farah, age 14, and Shawn Young, age 12 – were walking home from school one afternoon in the English city of Cheshunt.
They were doing what boys of that age do best – having fun, poking around, laughing with each other, and taking roundaboutly longer than necessary to get home.
But their schoolboy antics and good-natured shenanigans soon came to an abrupt end when they came upon a heart-pounding sight: a deeply troubled, 21-year-old man sitting on the edge of a freeway overpass with a rope around his neck. The three boys quickly realized that the man was about to take his own life.
Devonte, Sammy and Shawn approached the man slowly and tried to talk him out of jumping from the overpass. As they talked with him, the boys could tell that their efforts to stop the suicidal man weren’t working. He tossed one of boys his cell phone and said, “If it rings, don’t answer it.”
And a split second later, he jumped.
But no sooner did the man leave the edge of the overpass when the three boys reached out, grabbed hold of the man, and held onto him for dear life. As the troubled man dangled above the busy freeway below – his life literally in the hands of three young men, a 47-year-old woman named Joanne Stammers happened to be walking by when she saw the commotion on the overpass.
Despite having a disability that makes her prone to severe bruising and life-threatening blood clots, Joanne – like the boys – didn’t think twice about extending her hands and holding onto the man for what she said “felt like forever,” as the seconds ticked away before emergency responders arrived to finish the rescue – a rescue made possible simply because three teen-age boys and a disabled woman held on tight and refused to let to.
Holding on tight, and refusing to let go, in a moment of life or death.
You can’t help but marvel at the maturity of these boys. You can’t help but be inspired by the compassion and bravery they and that woman passerby shared with a man who wanted to end it all.
To see a man – a neighbor of sorts, but really in fact a stranger – so defeated and ready to do anything to end his suffering and still risk their own lives to help, well, that’s something far beyond admirable.
It even, I believe, starts to unpack what Jesus is talking about when he calls us to love God and love our neighbor. A good many of the things that God has to say in the Bible are laser-focused on looking out for the welfare and well-being of neighbors – a group of people that, by God’s own definition, not only includes the people who live down the block, around the corner, and up the road, but also includes the strangers within our midst, and most anyone else you and I run across anywhere anytime in our daily comings and goings.
What God has to say across the span of Scripture about our relationships with our neighbors isn’t really open for much debate:
“You must share your love for me with all those people you encounter. They are, after all, made in my image as much as you are. And you can’t say you love me and live for Jesus but then turn around and hate all those little images of me swirling around in your orbit.”
To be sure, you and I find all kinds of excuses to skirt God’s expectation that we love our neighbors. That kind of weaseling around the law was an everyday occurrence among the uber-religious crowd of Jesus’ day.
As Jesus puts it on another occasion, those religious types found ways to keep the outside of the cup looking nice, while on the inside the cup was filled with some mighty putrid drink. Real love – as God defines and demands – cannot tolerate such nonsense.
Which is the Lord’s point in our lesson! Jesus means what he says about love being our highest obligation.
But at the same time, Jesus is offering a damning critique of the very nit-pickers who’ve been trying to use questions about the Law to trip him up. The effort by the religious leaders to use the Law as a club to beat up on Jesus reveals their own lack of love for anyone but themselves.
Even so, it’s too easy to see those religious leaders as the black-hat-wearing bad guys in some ancient hiss-and-boo melodrama. What we need to remember is that those folks were — in the eyes of most people back then — actually the good guys in the white hats. Surely they thought of themselves that way, and so did plenty of others.
Today we think of ourselves that way pretty often, too.
That is, most of us who gather in churches each week are pretty sure we have our acts together – near to the Kingdom of God as sure as shootin’. We love God. And we love our neighbors.
Well, most of them, anyway.
We like most of the people we work with, and a whole lot of the kids we go to school with. And the bulk of our own congregation is pretty OK, too, as are most of our neighbors.
Most everyone, but not everyone.
Some folks here, there and everywhere most definitely rub us the wrong way from time to time. So, surely there must be some legal loopholes that free us from our God-given obligation to love those people, right?
Can’t I love the person I refuse to talk to? After all, maybe my not talking to him or her is the most loving thing I could do.
Maybe. Or, maybe not.
There’s a strong cord – a golden thread – that connects God’s every desire for our lives with a fundamental love for both God and neighbor. In our everyday actions, we can either trace what we say and what we do along that thread and so let it lead back to the divine love that’s supposed to infuse our every action and word,.
Or, we find that the thread snaps at some point, and we’re left with just a frayed edge. The bad news is that we rub up against those raw, rough and frayed edges on a pretty regular basis.
But the good news is this: What supports our love is God’s great love.
What supports our love is that, even as God’s great love was able to reach out to us
and hold onto us “while we were yet sinners,” there is more than enough grace in that love to forgive our failures of love now, too.
We don’t rest easily on that grace, nor treat it as “cheap grace” that allows us to share love with some but not with others, knowing that God will forgive us for the “some” but not the “others.”
No, we take comfort that the divine love lying at the heart of everything is always ready to lift us up and prod us forward toward a greater faithfulness in our desire to love God above all and our neighbors as we ourselves would want to be loved.
May it be so, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit poured into us in baptism.
Reach out in love to the God who loved you first.
Reach out in love to friend, neighbor and stranger.
Hold on tight, and never let go.
Let no one dare ask any more questions about it.
For that is none other than the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Scott Hoezee and Pheme Perkins inform the message.