March 22, 2020

“Think Like Jesus:  Love God with All”

Mark 12:28-44

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

March 22, 2020



When Jesus was asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” I thought that the teacher of the law was trying to make him say something that would get him into trouble.  It’s easy to think that because throughout chapter 12 of Mark, different groups of religious leaders had gone to Jesus and asked him questions that were traps.  They wanted to catch him saying something that would give them cause to arrest him.


Last week we read the parable of the tenants, which Jesus told to convict the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders (Mark 12:12).  Then the Pharisees and Herodians were sent to try to trap Jesus by asking him whether it was right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar (12:14).  And then the Sadducees were sent to ask him a thorny question about marriage at the resurrection (12:19-23).  This was a pretty amazing group of religious leaders working together against Jesus.  Normally, they would be arguing with each other.  But instead of falling into their traps, Jesus amazed them with his answers.


So when a teacher of the law came by and heard Jesus debating with the Sadducees and others, it is easy to assume that he was doing more of the same.  He jumped in with his own question.  But this teacher was different from all the other groups who had been debating with Jesus because he seemed to really be interested in hearing Jesus’ answer and engaging in conversation with him.  


“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these” (vv. 29-30).


According to Jesus the most important commandment begins with a reminder of who they are worshiping as they obey the commandments.  It is known to Jewish people as the shema‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which reads:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.


While the shema is just the first part, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,”  I think it is a short cut or code to remind them to love this one God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength.  Note that Jesus adds “with all your understanding” or in other words, “with all your mind.”


The passage from Deuteronomy goes on to say: 

 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)


In other words, the commandment to love God was to be a fixed part of their lives:  inscribed on their hearts, shared and discussed with their families, the first thing they thought of when they went to bed and when they woke up.  They were to post signs at their homes, and wear the commandments on their foreheads and hands.  The commandments were supposed to be so present in their lives, so much a part of their consciousness that it would shape who they were as God’s people.


But Jesus added a second commandment:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  He ties together the two commandments, to love God and to love your neighbor.  Loving God means loving your neighbor.  And loving your neighbor is loving God.  You can’t have one without the other.


The teacher of the law liked Jesus’ answer and agreed with him.  It’s interesting to note that he said, “To love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (v. 33).  He said this while they were standing in the temple court, the very place where burnt offerings and sacrifices were made in worship of the Lord.  And it came from someone who was very much a part of the religious leadership.  This teacher was different from all the other religious authorities who had debated with Jesus because he could see the centrality of loving God and neighbor in their faith.  It is very likely that he knew the prophet Hosea’s word from the Lord:  “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).  And for being able to see the main thing in their relationship to God, Jesus commended him and said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34).


This should be of comfort to those of us who are a bit nervous that we can’t come together in worship this morning.  God is not so much concerned with the formal forms of our worship—the gathering, the music, the liturgy.  It’s wonderful to gather when we can; it’s an essential part of our congregational life.  But in these circumstances, God calls us to focus on worshipping and loving God by loving our neighbor.


The commandment to love God and the commandment to love our neighbor are deeply connected.  When we say we love God but we don’t love our neighbor, do we really love God?  Jesus raises this in the latter part of our Scripture reading.  He warns the crowds against the teachers of the law.  These religious authorities know the commandments, and teach the law, but do they really follow them?  “They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.  They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.  These men will be punished most severely” (v. 38-40).


It seems like they are loving themselves more than God, seeking the respect of others and sitting in places of honor.  They put on the face of piety by saying long prayers.  And they don’t just neglect widows, the very ones whom they were supposed to support and protect, they “devour” their houses—the very opposite of loving a neighbor.


To sharpen the point, we see Jesus observing people giving their offerings to the temple treasury.  He saw rich people placing offerings into the collection boxes that they could easily afford to give.  They gave out of their wealth.  Their lives were not put in jeopardy by giving their offerings.  They had plenty of money left to support their rich lifestyles.


Jesus also observed a widow, who gave her last two pennies.  We can wonder whether she was one whose house had been devoured by the teachers of the law.  She was clearly poor.  And because of her devotion to God, she was giving everything she had to live on to the temple treasury.  I do hope the temple in turn had a fund for widows that was providing her with food and a place to live, but we don’t know that.


We often read this story and commend the widow’s trust in God, and rightly so.  But what if Jesus was also criticizing the religious establishment that put her in such dire circumstances? They taught and asked her to give sacrificially to the temple as a way of worshiping God, while disregarding her poverty and gaining from her generosity. Love of God had become a cover for neglecting a neighbor.


Our Scripture reading challenges us to think about what it means to love God with all:  with our hearts—placing God at the center of our lives; with our souls—every aspect of our beings; with our minds—using the intellect that God has given us; and with our strength—our physical bodies and actions.  And what does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially in the midst of the corona virus pandemic?


We made the decision to stop meeting in person to do our part to slow the transmission of the disease in our community.  It’s not only for our own safety, so we don’t get sick.  It’s also in consideration of the others we come into contact with who may be caring for vulnerable people.  It has become quite clear that in spite of the illusion of independence, we are actually very interdependent and interconnected.  The health and well-being of one individual impacts all and is the concern of all.  We can no longer only think of ourselves.


I’ve mentioned before that I listen to a podcast by two Bible scholars:  Amy Robertson and Robert Williamson Jr.  She is a leader in a Jewish synagogue in Atlanta, and he is a college professor and a pastor of a church that is with and for homeless people in Arkansas.  This week Bobby was sharing how his church made the painful decision to cancel worship last week because their members are among the most vulnerable people in the COVID-19 pandemic.  They already lead lives of isolation and are in dire need of community, a place of belonging.  But the current situation makes not worshipping together the most loving thing they could do for their neighbors.  Online worship is not an option for this congregation.  Instead of their usual community dinner and worship, they packed and distributed takeout dinners.  Clearly, loving God and one’s neighbor looks completely different than it did several weeks ago.


It’s interesting to note, as I did earlier, that Jesus included loving God with all our understanding, or our minds, which was not in the Deuteronomy passage.  While the commandment as stated in the Hebrew Scriptures does point to loving God with all of who we are, having the mind specifically included in the gospel challenges us to use all our brain power to love God too.  Jesus wants us to use our understanding or our minds as we follow him.  And as we follow him, we will think like him, and we will have the mind of Christ.


This week, I feel like I’ve been challenged to think about so many things in so many ways that are different than my previous patterns.  And I realized that there are many ways to love God and our neighbor that we have yet to explore.  We don’t only have to show God our love by gathering for worship on Sunday mornings.  Our situation today requires us to use our minds, think creatively and differently to figure out ways we can love God and our neighbor.  How can we continue to be in community with one another when we can’t gather and need to heed calls for social distancing?  Our online worship is only the beginning of the inspiration that I believe the Holy Spirit will be providing to us.


We are also challenged to make sure that in pursuing new ways of showing God our love or even in keeping some of our traditional practices, we don’t cause or deepen the suffering of our neighbor.  What can we do to uplift the needy, the lonely, the hurting neighbors around us?


We’re continuing to organize our church life in this new situation.  We’re planning to organize care groups, so folks will get a call every week or two, and we can be aware of the needs among us.  We are also open to ideas on how to respond to the needs in our wider community.  We are trying to find ways to love God and our neighbors in this new world we find ourselves in.


Friends, know this:  God loves you and is with you.  I love you and the church family loves you.  In the coming days and weeks, maybe months, we will need to put all our minds together to be creative and open to new ways of loving God and our neighbors.  But God is with us, and the Holy Spirit will inspire us, as she has done from the beginning of our church’s life.  So let’s love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves.  Amen.