11/4/18: The Meaning of Love, Mark 12:28-34
The Meaning of Love
First Lesson: Revelation 21:1-6a
Second Lesson: Mark 12:28-34
Rev. Scott Dickison
I remember this week an episode of “StoryCorps” I heard some time ago. StoryCorps, you may know, is a national non-profit that records and conversations—interviews, really— between two people and then archives them in the Library of Congress. You can go to their website and listen to thousands of conversations between ordinary folks, family members, friends, sharing about the tender moments of their lives—its incredible, and maybe just what we need in this current moment.
But this interview was between nine-year old Aiden Sykes and his father Albert, recorded in Jackson, MS. To start the interview, Aiden asked his dad if he remembered what was going through his head when he first saw him? And his dad said, “I remember when the doctor pulled you out, the first thing I thought was that he was being too rough with you,” he laughed. But then the doctor handed little Aiden to him and said “Here’s your baby. ”
He said it was the proudest moment of his life, because “it was like looking at a blank canvas…imagining what you want that painting to look like at the end, but also knowing you can't control the paint strokes.” But there was also some fear, he shared with his son. He told him he’s seen the statistics that tell us “black boys born after the year 2002 have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison.” Aiden and his other two brothers are all black and born after 2002.
Aiden asked his dad why he takes him to protests so much?Alberttold him he wants him “to see what it looks like when people come together, but also that you understand that it's not just about people that are familiar to you. It's about everybody.” He asked his son if he knew the work Martin Luther King was doing was for everybody and not just for black people?
Aiden said that he did. "So that's how you gotta think," his father told him. "If you decide that you wanna be a cab driver, then you gotta be the most impactful cab driver that you can possibly be."
The interview ended with Aiden asking his father what his dreams were for him. "My dream is for you to live out your dreams,” Albert told his son. “There's an old proverb that talks about when children are born, children come out with their fists closed because that's where they keep all their gifts. And as you grow, your hands learn to unfold, because you're learning to release your gifts to the world. And so, for the rest of your life,” he told his son, “I wanna see you live with your hands unfolded."
We know this story of Jesus talking about the “first and greatest commandment” well. It’s at the heart of the Christians tradition and the first line of scripture that our children memorize here at the church. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell it and mostly tell it the same way. Someone from among Jesus’ opponents comes and ask him what is the greatest commandment and Jesus responds by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy a verse that all Jewish children back in the first century all the way up to today would have learned and memorized as soon as they could speak. It’s called the Shema, which means “hear” or “listen,” from the first word of the verse: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God 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.
Jesus gets this right: in Judaism and now in Christianity, this is the first and greatest commandment. And Jesus could have stopped there, but he didn’t. He went on and said, “The second is this,” and quoted again from the Torah—this time the book of Leviticus, chapter 19: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
And maybe especially on this Sunday, just a week removed from the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, we need to say here that Jesus is not in any way stepping outside the Jewish tradition that had been passed down to him, and of which he was a part. For too long the Christian church has denied the essential Jewishness of Jesus and our own spiritual and theological Jewish roots. Jesus was a Jew—a practicing, observant Jew, as were his earliest followers. And here, in talking about the “first and greatest commandment,” Jesus is standing squarely within his Jewish tradition, even in combining these two concerns: to love God and to love our neighbor. A story is told in the Babylonian Talmud about Rabbi Hillel, who lived roughly a generation before Jesus, where he is asked by a Gentile named Shammai if he could teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel responded, “That which hateful to you, do not do to others, the rest is just commentary.”It’s also long been noted that within the 10 Commandments, the first five have to do with how to love God and the second five have to do with how to love our neighbor.
Jesus is not saying anything new here, and we in the church don’t have to act like he is. We can say he was repeating what the people of Israel already knew—what they had learned their whole lives, what had been repeated to them since they were little children, when they were at home and when they were away. Really, Jesus’ whole ministry wasn’t telling people new things. He was reminding them of what they already knew, and helping them understand what it means in new ways. I’ve not come to abolish the law and the prophets, he says at the start of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. I’ve come to fulfill them. Jesus was reminding people of what they already know, and opening these ancient teachings up for them in new ways, redrawing the boundaries but keeping what was at the center very much the same: which is love of God and love of neighbor. And acknowledging this may actually speak to the situation we find ourselves in today as the church.
We know the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all that we have and all that we are—we know this. And we know the second which is like it: that we’re to love our neighbor as ourselves. We know these things.
But isn’t the issue actually knowing what they mean?
Knowing what they mean for us—knowing howto do these things. How, exactly, are we to love God—what does it mean to love God? What does it look like, specifically?
And what does it mean to “love our neighbors as ourselves?” What does that look like on the ground, exactly?
And, of course, this is always the question before us as people of faith: what do these teachings we hold dear actually have to do with us? What are their demands, how should they affect the way we live? What should they cost us? And these are always difficult questions to answer. But they seem especially difficult in this present moment, this present season we’re in as a people.
What does it mean to love God and our neighbors fully and completely when family members can’t talk to each other any more because of political divisions? When we’re bombarded with images and words of anger and fear and suspicion and hatred. What does it mean to love our neighbors in this moment when we’re made to see them as “other”—as not worthy of our love on concern or even our civility should they think differently than us on any number of issues—important issues! Don’t hear me wrong: the conversations about who we are as a people and what binds us together are important. But those aren’t really the conversations we see happening in the news, and when we’re honest, they’re not the conversations we’re having personally with family and friends, with a genuine interest and hope to build bridges and find common ground and craft a way forward—not even a way forward as a people, but just as a family! I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people who say, “I can’t talk to my family any more right now.” And I tell them, “I know what you mean.”
As son and fathers and mothers and daughters—cousins and aunts and uncles. What does it mean to love our neighbors in this current season of life together, when we’re trying so desperately to live only by ourselves and those we identify with, and not really “together?”
And what does it mean to love not simply in this present season of life we’re in, but this present week! What are the demands of living a life of love when we’re coming terms with the depth of hatred and violence that would lead someone to open fire in a synagogue during Shabbat services? Again—the stakes of this current season are high! And this shooting comes amidst a year in which antisemitism is objectively on the rise? What are the demands of people of love in a time when that’s true—specifically, I mean?
What are the demands of love when in that same week another man, this time in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, tried to get into the African American First Baptist Church there, and when the doors were locked, instead walked over to a nearby Kroger and shot to African American senior citizens there, Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones? When confronted in the parking lot he said, “White people don’t shoot white people.”
What does it mean to love when this is true?
What does it mean to love in this weekend before a bitter, bitter election season comes to a close—not just nationally, but here in Georgia? What does this commandment demand of us over these hours?
What does love mean for us in this moment, church? And I’m not just asking rhetorically—I honestly want to know. I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately: what does it mean to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as we do ourselves—or perhaps love our neighbors as we do our own children, our own family—the people dearest to us—especially in this time when we’re not even sure what it means to love them? What does it mean?
And as I was sitting here this past week with this passage from Mark and these words of Jesus before me. Thinking about All Saints Day and remembering those who have gone before, how in different ways they’ve lived their own answers to this question. Thinking about Commitment Sunday and how we would be walking down the aisle again to commit ourselves—in tangible ways—to each other and to the work we feel God has put before us in this place. As I was thinking about these things, this memory of a father’s word to his son emerged from somewhere deep inside me: live with your hands unfolded.
Live with your hands unfolded so that your gifts may be released into the world.
Live with your hands unfolded so that they can’t become a fist.
Live with your hands unfolded, not simply so yourgifts can be released, but so that the gifts of others can be received.
Live with your hands unfolded and your arms open, and your eyes forward, so that you might see the world and the people in front of you.
Friends, neighbors, beloveds, church: I don’t know the specifics, but I do know that if the answers are to be revealed to us, we will only receive them if we can find strength enough to live with our hands unfolded, our arms open, and our eyes forward. Because it’s only when we’re in this position that our hearts are fully exposed.
And yes, that leaves us vulnerable—it absolutely does. And it may offend our closest political allies, to insist on loving in this season of life we’re in. To insist on seeking to understand and care—the loudest voices on all sides of our political apparatus are not interested in hearing this right now. But that may make it all the more necessary for us to ask ourselves again what these words mean for us and what we’re willing to risk in following them.
And can you imagine what it would do! What it would look like, how it would feel, to act out of love right now—I mean really act out of love, in the most costly, most expansive ways we can think of?
I’d be like finding a whole new way of living, a whole new way of seeing the world and our neighbor and ourselves.
It’d almost be like being born again.
”Dad to Son: Live With Hands Unfolded…Release Your Gifts To World,” March 20, 2015, heard on Morning Edition. https://www.npr.org/2015/03/20/394061800/dad-to-son-live-with-hands-unfolded-release-your-gifts-to-world
As found in William C. Placher, Mark, from the Belief series, 173.
“Kroger Shooting Suspect Tried to Enter Black Church Before Killing 2 in Kentucky, Police Say,” Karen Zraick and Matt Stevens, New York Times, Oct. 25, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/us/louisville-kroger-shooting.html
This final line was inspired by an unpublished sermon by Chuck Poole, “Faith Beyond the Boundaries.”