First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

First Things First (Dt. 6:4-9; Mic. 6:6-8; Mk. 12:28-34)

“For All the Saints, Who From Their Labours Rest…” today we may think about the Apostles and other like Barnabas, Priscilla and Aquila in the New Testament, the many great names like Polycarp, Irenaeus, Augustine, Francis, Benedict, Hildegard, and so on, up through the Reformation names of Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Bucer, Tyndale, Hubmaier, and others such as the Wesleys, the Judsons, William Carey – the big names, whose stories can be inspirational and moving to us all. Well, since the New Testament calls all of Jesus’ disciples “saints,” on All Saints Day, when many of my most devout colleagues are thinking about or meditating on the great names of the Church – I spend some time thinking about some of the folk I’ve known – some of them scholars, some of them not, all of them simply Christian disciples (and I include you in this list, by the way). It is always a humbling experience when I think of them (and you) in the same moment that I think of myself. We are saints – Holy Ones – together. Our passages today give us insight into characteristics shared, in some ways, by all the saints, “who from their labours rest,” as well as those who haven’t quite come to rest yet.

The Lesson from Deuteronomy comes from a time when people needed to remember the great days of “Saint Moses.” It was during Temple repairs in Jerusalem directed by King Josiah in the interest of removing foreign influences from the Temple that a scroll was found, and on it was probably written at least part of what we call the Book of Deuteronomy. Whoever wrote this work had set it at least 600 years before Josiah’s Temple repairs (in 621 BCE), and imagined it as three sermons of Moses, the great Hebrew law-giver. Deuteronomy puts these sermons just before the Hebrews went across the Jordan River into Canaan. They really are words that were written to encourage folks in a much later times to loyalty and love of God and others, much as in the days of Moses. The Greek (and English) name “Deuteronomy,” “second law,” is really a misfit for this book, for it is really a re-telling and contemporizing of the story of Israel’s bondage and liberation from Egypt, its sojourn at Mt. Sinai where it received God’s instruction for the constitution of a stable society, and of its disobedience that brought it to wander in the wilderness. The Hebrew title of the Book, which is simply “Words,” is more fitting. Today, most of us who study it professionally think that this old story of Moses and his updating of the tradition was put into its present form in Deuteronomy not long before it was “discovered” by Josiah’s workers in the Temple. The story of Moses’ old “words” was designed to be ever new, ever fresh, ever generative of new faithfulness. Indeed, early on in that story the character of Moses says to the Hebrews: “Not with our parents did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are, all of us, here and alive this day” (5:3). In these “words of Moses,” God’s people of every age were to understand that God’s word and God’s way was never meant to be “enshrined” or made into a monument to an unchangeable past, but living. It was never meant to be simply revered as a classic of literature, but was meant to offer contemporary guidance for living through creative thought and reapplication of the old “words” by God’s people. At the core of this old story of Moses, as part of our Old Testament Lesson today, we come to the nub of both Hebrew and Christian faith:

Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one, and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

To make a long story short, at the core is love – which in Hebrew is not an emotion but an action – it means to embrace, show loyalty to God from the deepest core of our personality.
One day, well over 600 years later, Jesus was asked by one called a “scribe” – an ambiguous name for a religious leader – for “the first commandment of all,” and, as we read, Jesus responded by a twin policy of absolute love of the one God and fervent love of the neighbour. The source of the first piece was part of our passage from Deuteronomy 6 and the source of the second was Leviticus 19:18.

At TEE we took a good deal of time to clarify just what that scribe asked Jesus. I can but summarize. He did not ask, what is the first commandment of a number of others? He did not even ask what commandment was first in importance among others? What he asked, very literally, could best be translated as “which commandment is the most basic of all things?” It was “first” in the sense of a “first principle.” What is the first thing that we need to know? Jesus responded that, the reality of the one God was to be the source of one and only one love or loyalty. The unity of God required the unity of our love and service. With many gods (or even two) there cannot be one loyalty, unless we want to make one of the gods angry with exclusive service of another. One God, one undivided loyalty. That is the bedrock of faith in this God. That is getting the first thing first. And Jesus quickly added a corollary to this basic and summative word, this from Leviticus 19: “You shall love (show loyalty and service) to your neighbour with as much intensity and care as you do for yourself (and your family).

How do we love the God who is sovereign and who is one of a kind? I suppose we could say that we love God intensely by our acts of worship. The trouble is no matter how fervent we may be, it’s never really adequate for the Sovereign of the Universe. We must recognize that God doesn’t need our worship. We need it more than God does. Rather we love God by loving our neighbour with the same intensity with which we guard our own self-interests. Of course, we must also recognize that the Sovereign of the Universe really doesn’t need our service either. We need it, and surely our neighbour needs it, more than God does. Nonetheless, we show our love for God by loving/ showing loyalty/serving others. The first command leads us to its corollary. They emphasize two sides of the same coin. And, of course, Jesus told a story about a Good Samaritan that showed that, for him, the neighbour was anyone who needed our help.

There are times we need to be reminded how important it is to show our love for God by simply loving God. But simple mysticism is not enough, at least for me, nor is pouring countless words of praise heavenward, as if God demanded to hear them from me. It isn’t adequate just to “keep in touch with Jesus.” We need to balance our sense of the presence of God with an equal sense of living in the world where we are charged to act as those who represent God as Jesus did, in ways that enact God’s love and mercy to those like us and those not like us. We need to act on behalf of these “others” in the world – for justice and righteousness – as an act of worship as surely as participating in the hymns, prayers, and sermons. As I said, the word “love” in the Bible really means such loyalty and service. My guess is that saints find their common ground in these tandem expressions of this basic policy that underlies the whole of what God wants from human beings on earth.

Our other text, from Micah 6, can help us with a procedure to get from the love of God to the love of others. Micah the Prophet was a rural contemporary of the great Isaiah of Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE. This passage begins with a key human question: “How can mere humans, with all their foibles, come into the presence of God”? This questioner then tries on various options that were already old in Micah’s day, and continue into our own. Let me skip by the ancient world and come to ours. Are we enabled to come before, to love God, to serve God by doing the “right churchy stuff”? How about burnt offerings – or, to paraphrase, how about coming to church, participating in the services, contributing to the offerings? Will that do it? Or, if that won’t, can we ratchet it up a couple of notches? How about taking on all kinds of offices, going to extra services, making over and above contributions to the denominational mission offerings, setting new giving records? How about that? No? Well, if the only slightly unreasonable won’t do it, how about the totally unthinkable? Can I sacrifice my family for the church? Can I spend so much time at the church that my kids become strangers and can’t really stand it? How about that? The implication of this text, is that none of these things qualify one to get into God’s presence. It’s interesting if that’s so, because, if these things won’t do it, many religious communities don’t seem to know it.

Then the text gives those three famous statements, or maybe one statement in three examples. Here’s what God expects saints to be about in their world. To do (rather than just hold meetings to plan) what is just (that which is best for the most people). To love (again, that means to show passionate loyalty to and work tirelessly to foster) that which leads to solidarity for the whole community rather than individual glory for one person or group over another. To make common cause with others. In more biblical terminology these words imply that our job is to “make covenant” with others. Covenants are ways in which we are enabled to treat non-family members as if they were. Both these things are accomplished by walking humbly with God. We often think that this simply means bowing our heads in God’s presence and taking a lower place (which is true as far as it goes). But the word “humbly” really implies more than that. The Hebrew word here implies that, because we know God is greater, higher, more holy and all the rest of it than we, we actually live with our eye on where God is going in the world, and go there, too. And the way God is walking is always in the path of doing justice and loving what makes for community solidarity and covenant. It is up to our God-given creativity as a community to think out and work out ways in which we do this in our time and place. Again, I suspect that, in language and action appropriate to their own days and ways that saints know all this and do it. Saints get first things first.

In 1866 the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier published words that became a hymn (that I sometimes miss singing):

Immortal love, forever full, Forever flowing free,
Forever shared, forever whole, a never ebbing sea…

The letter fails, the systems fall, and every symbol wanes,
The Spirit over-brooding all – Eternal Love remains.

And ancient Moses is still preaching from Deuteronomy:

Keep these words…in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.