Mark 12: 28-34, NRSV
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘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.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Preached Sunday, March 4, 2018 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
Jesus wasn’t telling them anything new—at least not from a scriptural perspective. In fact, when this scribe—a religious expert and teacher, who’s witnessed the dispute that takes up virtually all of chapter 12 in Mark, approaches Jesus, he’s asking an easy question—a litmus test of sorts. “Which commandments is the first of all?” And Jesus answers by quoting from two books the scribe would’ve known best: Deuteronomy and Leviticus. And while there’s little evidence that anyone before Jesus had connected the two, there’s a moment of sweet validation when the scribe nods and says, simply, “You are right, Teacher.” The teacher called Jesus the Teacher. And, according to Mark, that ends the dispute. The gospel tells us that “After that no one dared to ask Jesus any question.”
So what is it Jesus says? What’s his answer? Well, he starts with what’s known as the Shema. The Shema is the closest thing to a creedal statement in Judaism—Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. It’s an affirmation of the singularity of God which, at the time, countered all the other religions in their known world. Jesus continues with more from Deuteronomy: “You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Then, he quotes from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s the root of our golden rule and, truthfully, isn’t that hard—at least not in principle. Cranky neighbors are what make it difficult. And still we try.
But the part that’s always bewildered me is sandwiched between declaring God’s oneness and loving our neighbor. What’s always mystified me is how to love God with all my heart and soul, with all my mind, and with all my strength. I’ve spent the last week thinking about this iconic passage—a few verses vacation bible school children across the world are taught to memorize. It’s no doubt a good and holy endeavor. But the central question is how. How do we love God with all of our heart? What does that mean? How do we, how can we know if we’re going it right or completely? Where do we even start?
So, I started to unpack these verses bit by bit, and here’s where I am.
First, let’s start with loving God with our minds. Now, I’ll confess that loving God with all my mind has always seemed relatively easy to me. Growing up in a family that valued education just about more than anything else made it clear that loving God with all my mind included learning about God’s diverse and wondrous creation. And I think that’s right, I think loving God with all of our mind includes intentionally learning about that which God created with such intentionality.
But here’s the thing about learning: we learn by asking questions and for far too long the Church has surpassed question asking. For far too long, the Church has perceived questions as threats and questioners as adversaries. When really asking questions to uncover, discern, and understand who God is and what we’re doing here is part of who we are created to be. So, if I were to oversimplify it, I think loving God with all our minds means asking questions, particularly asking hard questions of our faith.
Loving God with all of our strength is how we put our love of God into action. It’s how we embody our love for God outwardly. And that’s going to look different for everyone. But let me tell you how I see God’s love embodied here at Westfield, how we’re loving God with all our strength.
One is through a diversity of programing. Last week, I mentioned to our upcoming viewing party for the season premier of RuPaul’s Drag Race. What I didn’t mention it to you is why we’re doing it. As an Open and Affirming congregation—that is a congregation that welcomes everyone and extends a particular welcome to our LGBTQ siblings—we’ve been at the forefront of creative ways of making that welcome known. Our rainbow doors started a national trend, our banners get people talking and our videos promoting our welcome have been viewed more than forty thousand times alone. That’s pretty amazing. And yet we realize that for many queer young people, that welcome can be hard to believe. You see, mostly gay folks who grow up in rural areas like ours leave. They head to the greener pastures of cities which harbor more diversity and perceived open-mindedness.
And so, we have these young people who don’t have that option, who are—in some ways—stuck, uncertain of what it means to be true to themselves, and lacking access to role models of happy, successful people who were in the same boat. So having this ridiculous viewing party is a way these kids know they’re not alone.
Just this week, I had posted on my instagram story (look at me being trendy!) about the event and a local kid who’s gay responded to it, grateful to see something like this happening. That alone proves its worth to me.
So we love God with all our strength by showing up in expected and unexpected ways.
Here’s another way we’re loving God with all of our strength: we are working hard to make our building match our commitment to welcome and hospitality. And one way you’ll see that happen in the coming weeks is by us installing accessible seating in the sanctuary—that is seating that’s not just for wheelchairs or power chairs but for folks who need extra space or assistance getting up or down. I can hear you loving God with all your mind and asking serious question “Don’t we already have space for wheelchairs?” And the answer to that question is yes, we do. But you see there’s a difference between obligatorily making room for someone and being hospitable to them. Yes, we have a place—and it sets folks who often feel like spectacles, front and center. With the addition of seating integrated into our existing pews along the outer aisles, we provide an opportunity for people in a variety of situations to sit with those they love, to not feel singled out by circumstances that already tend to make them feel like outsiders, and to be more fully a part of who we are on their terms—not ours. I think that’s loving God with all our strength.
So we’re left with loving God with all our hearts and souls. Somehow, this seems like the tallest order of them all. How do we measure that? Is it how faithfully we attend worship or how often we pray? What does it look like? Well, here’s the answer: Just kidding. I don’t know—don’t have the slightest clue. But I think Loving God with all our heart and soul means telling the truth. Telling the truth in a world growing increasingly divided—in which we don’t know where to turn—can be a revolutionary act.
Sometimes, people get telling the truth and being frank confused, particularly for our siblings in New England—you know the folks I’m talking about. Being direct and blunt are two different things. One has a kindness present and the other doesn’t. Our call to tell the truth doesn’t give us permission to be jerks. After all, Paul writes to us in Ephesians to “speak the truth in love.” But nonetheless, we are called to tell it.
So here’s the truth: The last four months at Westfield nearly broke me. For the first time since I’ve been here, I thought, “Maybe it’s time for me to go. Maybe I don’t have what they need anymore.” It started in October, right after we celebrated five years of mutual ministry together.
It’s no secret we’re growing and there are such joys associated with that. We can bear witness to God’s beloved community in a way we weren’t able to before, we can care for Killingly and the world in ways we weren’t able to before. And that’s amazing and good. I look out at this scrappy little congregation the could and realize we’re the congregation that did. And I take such pride in that. But with growth—with more people comes more personalities—and that meant learning new ways of being together. It meant figuring out an entirely new reality. And that was hard. That is hard.
Mid-October I faced some personality conflicts that were trying to say the least. The worst part ofmy job is when people need me or expect me to be the referee. I hate it. Because, you see, I love y’all. And I see the good and the pain and the hope and the brokenness in each of you. And I get that hurt people hurt people—that nothing is ever really what it seems. I know all of that. But knowing it in your head and knowing it in your heart are two different things. And it’s exhausting nonetheless.
Then Jimmy left and that was hard on so many levels, particularly in that we were friends. And all of a sudden, I had to put on my head-of-staff hat. It wasn’t my place to go into all of it publicly so I stood up here and told you he’d resigned, that I didn’t want it and wasn’t expecting it, but believed it was the best way forward. And I asked you to trust me. What I didn’t tell you was that I was angry and sad and grieving and less-than-optimistic about what was next.
Then Christmas came. Now you know I LOVE Christmas. I love the joy and the wonder of it all. And we do it up right here at Westfield. But this December, week in and week out, I came up here and did my song and dance and went home. The joy of it was gone. The week before Christmas our sexton quit due to family commitments.
Then, in January, our awesome administrator got a full-time job with benefits we just couldn’t offer, then our killer Christian Ed. Director got a full time job with benefits we just couldn’t offer, and before I knew it, my whole staff had turned over in four months. And it felt like I was the last one standing.
Now listen, I know up here that it isn’t my fault. I get that change happens and that we don’t always get a say as to when or how. I understand that its not uncommon for mass changes like this to occur within organizations like ours, particularly ones evolving so quickly. But in here? In my heart, it’s a different story.
Because, you see, through those months, we’ve had folks calling our congregation hypocritical, saying that we don’t really welcome everyone even though we say that we do. And for a while, I second guessed myself. “Maybe we don’t” I thought. “Maybe we don’t do as good a job as we think.” And yet, I don’t know a congregation that tries harder.
And one morning while I was getting ready for work—I do my best thinking in the shower. It’s also where I win countless imagined arguments. I’m sure you’ve never done the same—it struck me. Something so simple and so obvious, yet paradigm shifting for me: Everyone is welcome does not mean everyone will find a home here. And that’s OK. Because it’s not a zero sum game. We’re not the only church. We’re a church doing the best we can. And I’m a pastor doing the same. And that’s the truth.
Don’t fret, I’m not going anywhere. But part of loving God with all of our heart and soul is telling the truth—and that’s mine. But this is also the truth: this place inspires me in so many more ways than it causes me to struggle. I’m inspired by the way you feed people and the way you paint pews. I’m inspired by your generosity and your commitment to stuffing Easter eggs. I’m inspired by your hope and your passion and your grace. I’m inspired by your patience and your kindness. And I’m inspired by your singing—deep and heartfelt.
Here’s how I see it: God wants us to have life in abundance. But so much can get in the way of that—of living our life fully and completely—and chief among them is our love of things. We think more stuff makes a more abundant life. And really, it’s more love of God. And the way we clear the way to God, the way we make space in our lives to love God more is by asking questions and using the mind God gave you to curiously inquire. We love God more by put God’s love for us into action—by embodying that love with all our strength. And we love God with vulnerable truth-telling that comes from deep within our heart and soul.
It’s one of the iconic passages in all of Christian scripture—and one that’s deceptive in its perceived simplicity. And understanding it is only half our charge. Now, we live it. Together.