Tag Archives: The Greatest Commandment

FAQ’s of Faith: What’s Most Important?

(a sermon for March 11, 2018, the Fourth Sunday in Lent; fourth in a series, based on Mark 12:28-34)

I have to say that for me one of the great parts of the study of scripture is that no matter how many times and how many ways I return to a particular passage, there’s always something there that manages to surprise me!

Well, such is the case with our text for this morning; for in coming back this week to Mark’s account of how “one of the scribes” came to Jesus asking about which of the commandments is first and greatest of all, I was very surprised to discover that this actually is one of the rare instances in the gospels where Jesus and one of the religious leaders of his time actually… agree on something!

I mean, think about this with me for a moment:  here is Jesus, who long before this had established his overall opposition and basic animus for the practices of the religious establishment of his day; and then there’s this scribe, who’s not only a learned member of that religious establishment, but also part of the group who were intimately involved in the conspiracy to kill Jesus!  Add that to the fact that as we pick up the reading this morning, there had already been some rather intense words exchanged between Jesus and a series of representatives from the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees having to do with things like religious authority, the belief in resurrection and the legality of paying taxes unto Caesar; understanding, of course, that these “questions” had very little to do with theological discussion or debate and everything to do with at the very least undermining Jesus’ popularity amongst the people, or perhaps even trapping Jesus into saying something that could be branded as heresy, which would be most certainly be a punishable offense!  So it’s incredibly surprising that when this one, individual scribe – already, it should be pointed out here, impressed at how Jesus had answered those who had come before – asks this particular “frequently asked question” about the greatest commandment Jesus gives an answer on which they can both agree: simply put, it’s first to love God with your whole heart; and secondly, but just about as importantly, it’s to love your neighbor as yourself.

And that’s it; two simple commandments, dating back to the days of Moses, that would seem to encapsulate all the teachings of faith itself!  One could argue that there was a whole lot more that perhaps could have been said here; or that maybe Jesus should have seized the moment for a teaching about love leading to acts of righteousness or justice, or better yet, about the reality of hypocrisy regarding such matters!  But no, this time it’s just a simple response on Jesus’ part; and moreover, there’s nothing all that radical about what Jesus says here, nothing that any serious student of the Torah wouldn’t have already understood on some level!  But yet, it’s this very basic response that immediately leads to the scribe gushing about the correctness of Jesus’ answer, and it’s why Jesus could look to this scribe – the scribe, of all people (!) – and not only see that “he answered wisely,” but also be able say to this man who represented everything that was wrong with the practice of religion, “’You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”  For you see, whatever else divided them at that moment, where true faith was concerned they could agree on that which was the most important: to love God and to love others.

I must confess that even in my particular line of work, I don’t often get asked pointed questions about which of the commandments I feel to be the greatest.  I do, however, quite “frequently” get asked questions regarding what I think to be most important about faith, particularly among those who have been away from the church for a while, or who maybe are making their very steps toward faith.  Some want to know, for instance, how literally I take the Bible; or how, considering the world as it really is, how “optional” I would consider a few of the ten commandments to be (my answer to that has sometimes been to half-jokingly suggest that there’s a reason they’re not called “the ten suggestions,” but I’m not always sure that message is wholly understood!).

Some people will ask if I believe there’s a heaven and a hell; and more to the point, they want to know if everything they’ve done in the past could ever possibly qualify them for going to heaven when they die. They’re curious about this man Jesus, and they want to find out if he really is everything we Christians always say that he is; and though it’s not usually said in so many words, they truly want to know about salvation and redemption, and about things like confession and repentance; about love and grace (that’s next Sunday, by the way!); and what it means to be forgiven as well as to forgive.  Mostly, though, I have to say that in one way or the other the common thread running through all those questions is of what ends up being the most important facet of living a faithful life: of what it is we can and should do to best honor God; to obey Christ’s teaching in a way that pleases God and serves God by creating an atmosphere of justice, freedom and peace for all; and, ultimately, for each of us to be in this life the persons and the kind of people who we have been created to be from the beginning of our creation!

And I have to tell you – as a pastor, yes, but most especially as a person of faith – isn’t it interesting that the answer to this question of what’s most important turns out to be as simple – and as complicated (!) – as Jesus’ answer to that inquisitive scribe: first, to love God with our whole hearts, and second, to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This is, as the scribe noted, “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” to say nothing of all the countless little rules and regulations, precepts and traditions, limits and boundaries we create for ourselves all for the sake of at least trying to get everything right where faith is concerned!  And I say “trying,” because inevitably such attempts, however well-intentioned, end up falling short of the mark.  To love God, and to love others… that’s what Jesus says, and that’s the most important thing.

Don’t, however, get the idea that this altogether simplifies things where faith is concerned! I love what the Rev. David F. Sellery, pastor and writer from Connecticut, says about this:  “Sure we’ve heard the words over and over,” he writes. “But do we live them over and over?  Is the message fresh and alive in us… shaping our thoughts and actions today… or has familiarity bred neglect… leaving love of God and neighbor as sweet sentiments reserved for Sunday mornings.”

“Love is the total reason for our being,” Sellery goes on to say, “the sole purpose for our Creation and our unique place in it.  Love defines us.  It must be who we are and what we do. If not, we’re just taking up space and wasting time.”

Love God… with heart and soul and mind and strength… and love others… with the same intensity and depth by which God loves us, and after the same manner that we are meant to love ourselves.  As people of faith, it is both our mission in this generation and, might I add, the legacy that we leave for the next.  I’m actually reminded here of something that John Westerhoff wrote about our shared task of Bringing Up Children in the Christian Faith (his book of the same title).  He correctly asserts that we cannot rely on the culture in which we live to impart faith to our children; this, in fact, is a task that belongs to each of us as Christians, and all of us as the church.  Not that we can “give” them faith, per se; faith, writes Westerhoff, “is a gift from God given to both us and our children.  [But,] we are called to live faithfully in childlike ways with our children so that we both might know the gift of faith and live in its grace.”

So it is with the all-important commandments to love God and to love others.  Granted, our love, whatever its shape or form, can only be but a pale reflection of God’s love that, in Christ, “surpasses all knowledge” and understanding (Ephesians 3:19); nonetheless the kind of divine love that’s reflected in us serves as a palpable and lasting way that we give form, substance and meaning to every one of the joys and challenges, the laughter and sorrow, the excitement, the boredom and the utter routine of our daily lives.  Moreover, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, love isn’t always about our being nice!  Quite frankly, some of the worst affronts to love and justice and true “Christian” morality has come about because of a refusal to be anything less than “nice” about the evils around us that we ought to deplore.  Love, as God gives it, intends it and yes, commands it means that we are both accountable for our own behavior and responsible for nurturing one another and our world in ways that are moral, ethical and in keeping with the all-inclusive love of Jesus Christ.

At the end of the day, and at the beginning of each new day, it’s important… most important (!) in everything we do that we love God and love our neighbor. If I might throw in just one more quote, this time from Mother Teresa, “It is not how much we do that is pleasing to God, but how much love we put into the doing.”

That is what’s most important.

Did you hear the story about the wife who wrote a letter to her husband who was in prison for armed robbery?  It was coming on to this time of year, close to springtime, and so in the letter she asked her husband, “I’ve been wondering; what’s the best time to plant potatoes in our garden?”  And the husband immediately wrote back, “Whatever you do, don’t dig in the garden, because that’s where I’ve hidden all of my guns!”  Well, as you might imagine, the mail going in and out of prison was intercepted, and soon as the guards read that particular sentence several men were dispatched to go to the woman’s home and dig up every square foot of her garden plot from one end to the other; but even after all that, they didn’t find a single gun!  When the wife reported this in a letter back to her husband, the husband again quickly wrote back to say, “Alright, then; the garden is now ready for you to go ahead and plant the potatoes!”

Well, it strikes me that just as you can’t throw seeds on hardened ground but rather have to plant them in soil that’s been first tilled and nurtured, it’s also true that for God’s purposes to be fulfilled, our hearts and lives need to be opened up and carefully tended so that real love, divine love transformed into human love can take root there.

The thing is that most of us, I believe, have come here today wanting to be, trying to be and are committed to being faithful by way of loving God and loving others in and through our very lives.  And yes, I’ll admit that these are times when given the world around us and the forces that tempt us to other sorts of responses that commitment to love often becomes difficult and confusing.  But we know what’s important where faith is concerned; we want to do what’s right, we want to live as we ought, and at heart, I believe that each and all of us wants to be the best we can be before God; and what the Gospel tells us this morning is that, as the song goes, “all you need is love.”

But remember, friends,  what makes the difference is love that has source in the one who first loved us, who lived and died for us in the person of Jesus Christ, and who continues even now to bring us closer to him by his Holy Spirit.  This is love made real in his presence and his power; and it’s love that can and will transform us into something brand new; that we might truly love as we have been loved… today, tomorrow and in every day that comes.

Thanks be to God for that love we are given, and that we are challenged to share.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

Leave a comment

Posted by on March 11, 2018 in Faith, Jesus, Lent, Love, Sermon, Sermon Series


Tags: , , ,

Get to the Heart of the Matter!

(a sermon for October 29, 2017, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on  Matthew 22:34-40)

One thing I’ve long found very interesting about the church as a whole is that for all our sincere talk of Christian unity and the fact that we’re still “all God’s children” despite whatever denomination or faith tradition we come from, nonetheless we really do have our share of differences; especially as to how things are done!

Take the sacraments, for example: whereas in our particular tradition communion (generally speaking at least!) is shared by the passing a plate of bread cubes from one to the other in the church pew, there are other churches that frown on such a practice, insisting that those receiving communion actually get up from their seats and approach the altar of God!  And baptism: there are those within the denominational spectrum who would question the very validity of our ever baptizing an infant, saying that to confess Christ as Lord and Savior is wholly a personal decision that can only be made when one is of age (of course, in our tradition, we entrust the child’s parents, family and church to nurture their faith until they are ready to confirm that faith as a young adult and I’d say that’s at least as valid as an adult baptism… but I digress!); and let’s not even talk about whether “sprinkling” or “dunking” is the proper way to go!

In the ways we do worship (is it better to be formal or casual, “high church” or “low church,” to sing traditional hymns or praise songs, to preach from a lofty pulpit, or to stand “on the level” with the congregation?); in the interpretation of scripture and its authority for the church and world; the methods by which we govern ourselves as a congregation; even in the process of how clergy-types like me are to be called and authorized for ministry: trust me,  in all these things and more there are as many ideas in the church as to how these matters are properly handled as there are congregations!

Sometimes the differences have to do with theology or denominational polity; often it will focus on where a church perceives itself to be in the world; or maybe sometimes it’s something much simpler than that.  I remember in a former congregation I was once asked why it was that at the end of each week’s worship service I always gave the benediction from the back of the church; after all, this woman explained, in a tone that suggested no small measure of concern, at that moment you’re offering a blessing to your church and yet the whole congregation has its back to you!  Was there, she asked, some deeper spiritual meaning to this?  Was this what they taught you in seminary, or is this a UCC thing?  Well, I got to thinking about it and I realized that for me there wasn’t any real deep-seeded theological impartment as to doing the benediction that way; it was simply that where I was standing was closer to the door (!); and much easier to get to where to where I needed to be to shake hands with people after church!

Not exactly the stuff of major church schisms, I know (!); but it points up the fact that in the church, there are always going to be differences of opinion, and approach and belief; and moreover there always have been.  Almost from its very inception, church history is filled with instances of debate, conflict and division, all having to do with how the will and Word of God is to be followed and administered!  To wit, this week marks the 500th anniversary of how in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg in protest of what he considered the indulgences of the Roman Catholic Church; the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which not only changed the face of religion and all of western civilization, but also in no small way, is a reason why and how we’re here worshipping in this place today!   You see, as much as we try to avoid it, these kind of differences and the conflicts that ensue because of them, are inevitable; but that’s not always a bad thing!  The difference of whether it ends up a bad or good, divisive or even unifying thing comes in how we “get to the heart of the matter” as regards these questions, and what we discover about faith in the midst of them!

And, as in all things, our example for how this best happens is Jesus.

For you see, even Jesus… that’s right, even Jesus (!) found himself in the midst of such conflict.  The gospels record several instances when Jesus was faced by “concerned religious leaders” (that is, the scribes and Pharisees) who could not, would not accept his teachings about God and the kingdom, and recognized that what Jesus was saying was threatening to them and their own power.  So now, they were doing everything they could to discredit Jesus amongst the people, catch him in uttering some sort of punishable heresy, or both.  Our text for this morning is of one such instance; actually, as Matthew tells the story, it’s the final attempt on the part of the Pharisees to trip Jesus up with a seemingly simple question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Now, the easy answer to this question, the non-confrontational answer to this question, and according to Pharisaic law the legally acceptable answer to this question would have been for Jesus to say, “Every commandment of the Law is great, because all of the Law comes from God.” But that wasn’t the answer the Pharisees were looking for; what they were hoping was that Jesus might randomly pick one from the 613 commandments in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Law (which, by the way, if you’re counting, amounts to 248 “thou shalts” and 365 “thou shalt nots,” one for every day of the year); because if Jesus did that, if Jesus picked just one commandment from all of those, then he’d certainly be guilty of denying or negating countless other commandments, and then the Pharisees could charge him not only as a law-breaker, but a blasphemer as well!  As far as these religious “uprights” were concerned, this was a no-win situation and now they had Jesus right where they wanted him.

But then Jesus does something that none of them were expecting: he takes a complicated, loaded question and gives them a very simple and familiar answer; moreover, with something they themselves would have known since they were children: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.”  The Pharisees certainly knew this; this was from the Shema, words (from Deuteronomy) that are to be prayed by faithful Jews each and every morning and again in the evening.  First, says Jesus, you love God with heart and soul and mind!  Before anything else; before the other nine commandments and all the other laws and statutes and precepts that follow, before establishing any kind of faithful endeavor, first you must love God with heart and soul and mind!

It would have seemed to me that this confession of Jesus would have been more than enough to satisfy (or perhaps more accurately, infuriate) the Pharisees, but you see, Jesus wasn’t done yet. “And a second [commandment] is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And before the Pharisee can even begin to ask what about all the other commandments, Jesus adds one more thought: “’On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”  First you love God, you see, but then you also have to love your neighbor; and that’s everything, because we can’t really love God with our heart, soul, and mind unless and until we love our neighbor as ourselves.  As Kenneth Samuel has written, “the second greatest commandment is not just secondary to the greatest commandment.  It is essential to the greatest commandment, for we cannot love God whom we do not see and despise our neighbors who we see every day.”

In other words, when we get the heart of the matter as regards faith, it’s always going to be about LOVE: the kind of LOVE that puts God at the center of everything we do, and are and can ever hope to be; the kind of LOVE that ever and always reaches out and envelops those in need. To truly love God and to love neighbor: this is the kind of LOVE that makes us who we are; and that not only transcends and triumphs over every kind of difference we may have, it’s what provides the true purpose and the abiding principle for every part of the good work we seek to do as the church of Jesus Christ!

And for those of us 21st century Christians who might feel a little jaded and wonder if such a thing is, at best, kind of “pie in the sky” thinking, it’s helpful to take note of the fact that very soon after Jesus said all this to the scribes and Pharisees, they were gone; daring not to ask him any more questions.   Because at the end of the day, the heart of the matter is LOVE… it’s always LOVE… and how do you argue with LOVE?

Over the past few weeks we’ve talked a lot here about what it takes to live a life of adventuresome faith and to be the kind of disciples (and the kind of church!) we want to be.  We’ve spoken about how we need to be bold enough to “get out of the boat” of our own complacency and fear, so to follow Jesus where he leads; and about how very important it is, most especially in these days of divisive rhetoric and confused situations, for each and all us to “get to work” in this ministry to which we’ve been called, because there is a lot of work to be done!

And that’s why today we humbly and prayerfully ask – and also, we thank you and thank God – for your continued support of this ministry we share in Jesus’ name, and for your commitment to all that we do here at East Church: the work of Christian education and nurture for children and adults alike; the work of caring compassion and community outreach; the work of joy and hope that starts by being shared amongst kindred hearts, and then extended outward.  It’s the work of worship and fellowship and laughter and tears and peace and justice on a blessedly personal level, and it all happens right here with us and through us; and it takes our faithful stewardship, combined with God’s ever present grace, to keep it moving and growing.

But most of all, and never forget this… it also takes LOVE!

Because that’s the heart of the matter! In everything we seek to and to be disciples of Jesus Christ and as the church, we discover that there is and there remains this all-encompassing and faith-defining mandate to LOVE… to first, before anything else, to love God with heart and soul and mind, and then along with this to always love our neighbor as ourselves.  On this, says Jesus, “hangs all the law and the prophets;” and it continues to be, especially today, the pivot point of our lives as persons, as people and as the church.  It’s what makes the difference between truly carving out a life of faith and simply going through the motions; it’s the choice of enduring emptiness, on the one hand, or embracing a life of true abundance, on the other. It’s what gives us purpose, it’s what makes us real, it’s what helps us to grow; and it’s everything.

It’s LOVE, and friends, I pray that none of us will ever be so busy, so distracted, so hurt or confused, so suffering and grieving, so entangled in the minutiae of life that we lose sight of it.  Indeed, as you and I set out on the adventure of discipleship, let LOVE reign supreme: let it guide our thoughts, direct our devotion, set our pathways and help us along the journey.  Let LOVE be at the very heart of each of our lives, and at the heart of our life together at East Church; so that individually and collectively we might personify and manifest God’s love above all else.

After all, what’s that verse of scripture, the one we hear at just about every wedding, the one that Paul wrote to that squabbling, divided church at Corinth?  “For faith, hope and love abides, these three; but the greatest of these is… LOVE.”


So may it be… and thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


Tags: ,

%d bloggers like this: