October 31, 2021 - Sermon - Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text

Scripture:  MARK 12:28-34                  


     Years ago, when I was still in seminary studying for the ministry, I served as a student minister in a church in Connecticut. There I led the middle school youth group. One day I asked them who they loved. And they all looked at me as if I had six heads. As I tried to imagine what they were thinking, all I could guess was that they thought I was asking about their dating lives, or their secret crushes. And they weren’t about to share any of that with me or with their youth group peers. No way!

     In their eyes, I suspect, love was about infatuation and fluttery insides and romantic attraction. Who could be surprised? When we hear love talked about in traditional media or in social media, invariably what’s being discussed is hearts melting or dating or marriage. The only way we can conceive of someone saying “I love you” is if they’re smitten by the other person.

     So when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is and he responds by talking about loving God and our neighbors, we kind of have to wrench ourselves out of our common way of thinking and hear the depth and intent of Jesus’ words. We’re not in the midst of a romantic comedy here, or a drama in which star-crossed lovers are finally able to unite as one. When Jesus talks about love, it’s love of a radically different sort. That love includes romantic love. At the same time, though, it’s a much bigger and more all-encompassing love.

   You might think that “love” was an extremely common word in the gospels. Startlingly, though, Jesus, only used the word thirteen times. And the gospel of Mark only mentions the word love four times, and we heard them all in the passage we just read. Only one other place in Mark’s gospel does a version of that word appear, when Jesus is said to have “loved” the person who refuses to sell everything to follow Jesus (10:21). And yet, despite the relative infrequency of the word in the Bible and on the lips of Jesus, love has an outsize importance in the story of our faith.

     As many of you know, we read in worship each week from what’s called a lectionary, a series of Bible readings apportioned over the course of three years, and arranged so that we have the opportunity to hear as much of the Bible as possible in that three-year cycle. As a result, remarkably few passages are repeated each year. The stories of Holy Week, Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost, of course, come up every year. Outside of that, little repeats. Today’s story, though, is a notable exception. Each year we read from one of the first three gospels Jesus’ take on which is the greatest commandment. So each year we hear Matthew, Mark, or Luke tell the story of this encounter. And today, with Mark’s version, we listen for the distinctive tones of that story.

   As Mark tells the story, a scribe, a Jewish religious scholar, approaches to ask Jesus what the first commandment is. In both Matthew and Luke, the scribe asks Jesus this question in order to test Jesus. Not so in Mark. Here, the scribe seems genuinely interested in hearing what this astounding teacher will say. There are nineteen mentions of scribes in Mark’s gospel, and this is the only occasion in which a scribe is painted in a positive light.

     So this scribe and Jesus have an affable and animated conversation about just what it is that’s most crucial in the Torah, the book of the law that is at the heart of Israelite faith. Jesus says it’s love. The scribe enthusiastically agrees. And there we have an epigram for the core of faith. The center of faith is: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength (Mark adds “mind” to the list the others use); and love your neighbor as yourself. No problem: love God, love each other, and all shall be well. Piece of cake. No sweat.

   Except that neither the command to love God nor the command to love others is really as easy as it sounds, is it. Think about how challenging it is to love God. “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” said the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard. And it’s just this willing of one thing that is so damnably difficult for us. We will lots of things, don’t we. We will the return of health when we feel awful. We will reconciliation in a marriage when it’s in a shambles. We will sunshine when the rain seems interminable. We will a Browns win after last night’s Buckeyes win. You know what we will: it’s all sorts of things.

     And maybe all-too-seldom do we will the one thing that’s central: to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength. It’s not that we’re never to think about anything else—to suggest that would be ludicrous. We’re going to think about what to have for dinner today and how we’re going to deal with the challenge at work tomorrow and what might be the best way to respond to our child’s sudden intransigence or cruelty. We’re going to think about our Instagram feed or the latest TikTok video or how many candies to have available for Halloween.

     I suspect what Jesus means here is that our lives are immeasurably enriched by the repeated return to a reminder that we have life by virtue of an incalculably magnificent grace that never lets us go, and that by returning again and again to that nourishing well, we are returned to wholeness, we are being given new life and strength. No other purported god is remotely capable of being an adequate anchor, a sustaining rock, a “guide and stay” in the inevitable thickets of life. Loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength is something we do not to toe the line for a demanding and autocratic god. It’s something we do because it’s what makes us whole and gives us peace. We’re to love God because God is the source of our richest sustenance.

   That’s not all, though, is it. Simply loving God is not quite enough. Jesus was never about a kind of disembodied mysticism. The love of God, for Jesus, was inextricably tied up with the love of actual human bodies and indeed the body of the earth. My love of God would be empty if that love didn’t also wrap in its arms the people I encounter in my daily walk through life—the snotty neighbor, the destitute person on the street corner, the disengaged delivery driver, the troubled housemate, the frustrating relative. Love your neighbor: that’s part of the core of the commandments. It’s sometimes brutally difficult. And Jesus tells us to do it anyway. Because that’s what a full life entails. Love your neighbor.

     And then there’s that odd phrase: “as yourself.” Love your neighbor as yourself. And it’s not really clear what that means. There are two major ways to hear that phrase, after all, and scholars have long been divided as to how to understand it. Some say it means we should love others in the same way we already love ourselves. In other words, in this way of reading the phrase we’re already full of self-love—our whole lives revolve around how things affect us—so we should love others with just that same sort of intensity, just the same sort interest that we bring to our own lives.

     The other perspective on that phrase—and both views are advocated by reputable and brilliant scholars—is that, in addition to loving God and others, we also ought to love ourselves. There’s an implicit assumption in this second perspective that, while we may think about ourselves all the time, and while we are all prone to maybe significant bouts of self-regard and selfishness, and while we may tend to guard our own interests with a particular kind of zeal, it may also be the case that we still don’t really love ourselves, and that, at Jesus’ urging, it would be best if we did.

     I think about my life all the time. Don’t you think about my life all the time? 😊 And I’m not at all immune to a kind of selfishness that wants to hang on to what I have. My guess is most of you fall victim to this sorry state, as well. I could easily get into a high dudgeon—I love that phrase!—if I sensed that I were being deprived of what was rightfully mine.

     And you could argue that that sort of selfishness is just self-love run amok, that I don’t need a single ounce more of self-love because it already consumes me. And maybe that is indeed the case. But maybe my nearly incessant self-regard isn’t really self-love at all. Maybe it’s a grasping that arises instead from my insecurity, my self-doubt, my anxiety about my place in the world. Maybe if I really loved myself, I would be able to let go of my grasping acquisitive self and release more love for others.

     If Jesus is indeed inviting us to love ourselves, it doesn’t mean accumulating every possession I can get my hands on. It doesn’t mean seeking accolades or prestige or power. Love for self means one thing and one thing only: it means receiving the love God offers to you and to me and to everyone. It means basking in the wonder of grace that enfolds me at every moment. It means treasuring the unsurpassed truth that I am adored precisely as I am.

     It seems to me a truer way to convey what Jesus is imploring here is to say that we are made whole by receiving the love God has for us always. It’s not really self-love that’s commanded by Jesus, I suspect. It’s that we’re to receive the love God has for us. It is indeed love for ourselves that is commanded. But it’s not really our own love for ourselves that we’re to enact—I really wonder if that’s even possible. What we’re to put into practice is remembering that it’s God’s love for each of us in which we’re to find our true home.

     The Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a piece this summer that suggests an avenue for us to pursue in honoring this word of Jesus about loving self. Her piece is called “It’s all too much.” Now it’s important to know that Rev. Bolz-Weber is deeply engaged in trying to solve the many disconcerting issues that plague our world. She cares about racism and the destruction of the environment and violence against women, and much of her energy is focused on alleviating the causes of so much suffering. 

     Given that, the theme of her essay is striking. She says that contemporary life has simply become too much. She conceives of her life now as like an apartment building in which she used to live, in which the electrical wiring was extremely sketchy. “My emotional circuit breaker keeps overloading because the hardware was built for an older time,” she says. “I do not think our psyches were developed to hold, feel, and respond to everything coming at them right now; every tragedy, injustice, sorrow, and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet, in real time every minute of every day. The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel, and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow, or natural disaster that was happening IN OUR VILLAGE.”

     “And yet,” she goes on, “when I check social media it feels like there are voices saying ‘if you aren’t talking about, doing something about, performatively posting about _____fill in the blank_____ then you are an irredeemably callous, privileged, bigot who IS PART OF THE PROBLEM’ and when I am someone who does actually care about human suffering and injustice (someone who feels every picture I see, and story I read) it leaves me feeling like absolute [crap].”

     She knows that nothing she does will ever be enough. It is simply not possible to respond to every degradation and unfairness and bias and cruelty the world throws at her. So she asks herself three discernment questions: “What’s MINE to do, and what’s NOT mine to do? What’s MINE to say, and what’s NOT mine to say? And the third one is harder: What’s MINE to care about and what’s NOT mine to care about?” She recognizes that there are countless worthy causes in the world, but that she can’t possibly respond to them all. “It’s OK,” she says, “to do what is YOURS to do. Say what’s yours to say. Care about what’s yours to care about. That’s enough.”

     To be clear: it’s not at all as though Rev. Bolz-Weber doesn’t care about countless issues that tear us apart. It’s just that she knows she can’t respond to them all. She’s incredibly grateful for those who resist racism and fight climate change and welcome immigrants and feed people who are hungry and work to reduce gun violence. “I’m not saying,” she says, “we should put our heads in the sand. I’m saying that if your circuits are overwhelmed there’s a reason and the reason isn’t because you are heartless. It’s because there is not a human heart on this planet that can bear all of what is happening right now” (https://thecorners.substack.com/p/if-you-cant-take-in-anymore-theres). 

     As does Rev. Bolz-Weber, I want to thank all of you for caring for your piece of this often-fractured world, and for loving your neighbor in countless ways in the name of God. They’re all beautiful responses to Jesus’ exhortation to love our neighbor. Together, let’s keep it up.

     At the same time, though, let’s also honor our limits and acknowledge that none of us can do it all. If we can both honor the admonition to love a corner of the world, and remember that God treasures each of us and desires our wholeness, then maybe we will have honored that second great commandment—to love our neighbor as ourselves—with a great and wonderful beauty. And as we do, may we put God first in all things.