Mark 12:28-31   One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked Jesus, “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.”

 MESSAGE   “Getting Closer”     James R. Renfrew, Teaching Elder

     “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.’  And ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  At Bible Study on Tuesday Jim Moore suggested that this text may be the most important of all the teachings of Jesus, the greatest of his instructions to the faithful.  If even one of us thinks that a particular verse has such a great import, shouldn’t we take a moment to study or ponder it?  Of course!  So we’ll study it right now on Jim’s say-so!  Next Sunday, by the way, we are going to take a look at what I think is the greatest miracle in the Bible, you’ll have to be here next week to hear more about that.

I was at a conference of the Synod of the Northeast on Lake George Friday and Saturday, and Rick Ufford-Chase, a former moderator of the PCUSA General Assembly, even went so far as to say that this teaching is not only the most important teaching of Jesus, but it is also what makes Christianity distinctive among the world’s religions, expressing the core of what it means to be a Christian, the radical command to love inclusively, not leaving anyone out, young old, rich poor, male female, neighbor stranger, friend enemy.  So I agree with Jim and Rick about the primacy of this teaching, but my question is this, how much have we actually absorbed this teaching into who we are and how we live?  Maybe you have learned a lot about Jesus’ different teachings, but which are the ones that actually guide your daily living, the ones that actually inhabit your brain as you make decisions and choices every day?

Let me take Jesus’ words in two parts.  Love the Lord your God.  Let’s get right into it.  Do you love God?  Would anyone here care to answer that question?  Any volunteers?  OK, you love God, but then how do you demonstrate that love?  Let’s compare this to marriage.  I actually spoke to a man with marriage problems and he thought his single expression of love for his wife on his wedding day long ago was more than adequate!  Ouch!  Well, love for God is that same way.  Saying “I love you” to God just once in your life seems incredibly limited, don’t you think?

Jesus even gives you four ways to show that love, using your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength in expressing that love, but how do YOU do it?  How do you demonstrate love for God?  Let’s think of some ways:  in your testimony (like Tammy’s), in music, art, poetry, prayer, jewelry, in your expression, in your aura, or in your being?  How would the people around you know that you love God?  How can they tell?  Does even one person know that you love God?

Another question, WHY should you love God?  Is it enough to say I love God because Jesus said so, or is there more to it?  My son gave me a rare compliment one time.  He heard me invite a girlfriend of his to come to church.  She said was too busy sleeping in on Sunday morning and didn’t have time for it.  “What!”, I said, “you don’t have time for the one who created you, the one who brought you into being?”  Roberto told me later, “Dad, that was a great answer!”  Why love God, because of course God created you, you are made in God’s image.  We’re all here, Tammy reminded us.  God brought you here, God is still bringing you here, and God is going to bring you tomorrow, too.  So maybe the real question for you to answer is not how often you say you love God, but take some serious time to ask yourself WHY you love God.

Now the second part.  Love your neighbor.  How do you demonstrate love toward your neighbor?  Try this, greet your neighbor sitting next to you this morning with a handshake, a hug or a kiss.  Does that cover it?  Of course not; it’s just scratching the surface.  My friend Gary always cut his elderly neighbor’s grass.  She was in tears after he died, because Gary cared like no one she had ever seen.  Or New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who visits all the world’s trouble spots, like the communities in Sudan where the government has been wiping out the people who live there.  Or visiting teen brothels in Southeast Asia.  Or interviewing protesters in Bahrain.  His style of writing is to widen the circle of your neighborhood, not just the people who live next door, but even these people on the other side of the world are your neighbors, too.

But WHY love your neighbor?  Is it enough to say because Jesus says so?  It’s so much more than that.  We need each other.  You have something to give, or you have something to receive.  We’re better together, and something is missing when we’re alone.  I think that, ultimately, love is the only thing that will transform the world.  Some people think that will be accomplished by meanness, force, by guns or bombs, but those techniques lead to more of the same.  I’d rather invest in love.  That’s why my heroes are people who take risks to extend love.

Of course, in the Gospel, when Jesus says “love your neighbor”, the disciples come right back with this serious question, “Who is my neighbor?”  In his Parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus expands the definition of neighbor from someone very much like you to someone who is not like you at all and may be a stranger or an enemy.  And I always like to be thinking that the strangers and enemies in the world are neighbors I haven’t met yet.

I like when Janet called me over to the registration table at the Mobile Pantry on Thursday.  A Spanish-speaking family was there.  Janet knew that it was important to express our welcome in a language that could be understood, to always be looking for ways to widen the circle of neighbors, because being a neighbor is more than welcoming people into our house, it’s welcoming everyone into God’s house, and we’ll use whatever languages we can to express that.  Or think of it this way … you are someone else’s neighbor, and wouldn’t you want the broadest possible definition to include you?

Who is my neighbor?  We should also ask “who is my God?”  God is the one who gathers us together into a loving community, a loving family of faith, a family that cares for you, and gives you many opportunities to care for others.  You’re part of that family, no matter how you got here, whether you’ve been here 80 years or this is your first time.  We’re all here, eager to see what God will do next!

So the scribe approached Jesus to ask his question, and he liked how Jesus responded.  Impressed with him, Jesus said, “You are getting closer to the Kingdom of God”.  I love that idea.  Of course we still have a long way to go.  Our love is imperfect and imperfectly shared, but we are always a work in progress trying to figure out better ways to love God and neighbor.  We’re all here and we’re getting closer to God.

*WHAT WE BELIEVE – It’s not Impossible  We believe that it is impossible and also very easy to love God.  Impossible, if we think that only the most perfect words, art, or songs will meet the highest standards.  Easy, if we trust that God welcomes every loving gesture, no matter how simple or unrefined.  We believe that it is impossible and also very easy to serve the needs of others.  Impossible, because there are so many needs and our resources are so few.  Easy, if we believe that even one small act of love and care can tip the whole world in the direction of justice and peace.  We also believe that what God seeks and what we hope for are more easily accomplished when we come together with a common heart and mind centered on Jesus Christ.  As we pray we are thinking of him.  Amen.