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

Foundational Commandments (Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Romans 12:14-21; Mark 12:28-34)

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.

According to our Gospel Lesson, one day, in the midst of Jesus’ last week before his death, a Jewish scribe had been so impressed with Jesus’ relevant responses to questions that he came with a sincere question of his own. He was, it seems looking for some common ground between himself and Jesus. Matthew and Luke are more suspicious than Mark here, who gives this guy from another political party the benefit of the doubt. And today is Mark’s turn to tell the story. And Jesus repeated these words from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, not just as some kind of proof texts, but as foundational commandments of God (if you don’t like the word commandment for some reason read “expectation”). Everything depended on this twin policy of complete love (dedication to and affirmation) of Israel’s one God, and dedication to and affirmation of the neighbour as much as and with the same seriousness that we dedicate to our own welfare. To translate it into terms for All Saints Sunday, here is the foundation of living as a saint, literally a holy one of God.

This past week, as folks buried their loved ones who had been slain at worship in Pittsburgh, I was drawn to thoughts of another son of Pittsburgh who I consider a contemporary saint, Fred Rogers. One of the things he was famous for saying was, “Love your neighbour, without exception.” And he would have said that this was part of his affirmation of the one God of Deuteronomy 6. Again, it was not something just to say for Mr. Rogers, it was something that he lived daily. Of course, my mind has also been on the other funerals: in Texas, in Florida (just yesterday), along with the many who have suffered terror by having a bomb delivered to them.

In that distant day, and that distant conversation, the scribe said that Jesus got it right, and Jesus responded that his friend was “not far from the kingdom,” even though he was not a disciple of Jesus or a member of a Jesus-congregation as far as we know (and remember Mark tells this story some 40 years after it happened when there were such things as Jesus-congregations). Jesus recognized in this man a deep reverence for truth, and treated him with respect. For saints, this foundational commandment or expectation of saints, comes in the week of elections in this country. I think we’re generally farther from the kingdom than this ancient scribe, Jesus’ neighbour.

Getting back to our text, it is only Mark’s version of this story that carries the words from Deuteronomy 6:4 about Israel’s need to hear (which, in Hebrew, is equivalent to “obey”), and about the LORD alone being God. By this Mark does two things that Matthew and Luke’s stories do not. First, he grounds a response to God in the nature of God. It is because the Hebrew God alone is sovereign in this world and one of a kind that those of the community of faith are charged to love God with everything in them. Second, by including the address “Hear, O Israel,” Mark recognized, as Deuteronomy did, that it is those who have already experienced God’s grace for whom this God is sovereign, and who are, then, invited to respond by loving God intensely. Someone might command people to “dread God” before they have experienced God’s grace and love. Someone might even command people to “serve God,” but that’s not what the words of Deuteronomy or Jesus expect of us. They expect a response of unconditional love for God. Such a response requires, I should think, a previous experience of God’s almighty, liberating, grace and love by those who are called to love God. The 1st Epistle of John, our call to worship, put it simply, “We love because God first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).

In our story Jesus went on to add Leviticus 19:18b to what he said: “You will love your neighbour as yourself.” To understand this statement, we should ask, “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, our text implies that 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 there’s a sense in which the Sovereign of the Universe really doesn’t need our service or our love either. We need it, and surely our neighbour needs it, more than God does. Nonetheless, we show both that we have a relationship with the Person of God, and our love for this Person, by loving others. The first command leads us to the second. Yet, the two commands from Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 are two different commands. They are not identical. I suspect that, at some times, one or the other will take precedence for most of us. 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. 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, 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 that is, probably, far more profound than anything we do within these four walls.

From what Jesus and his friend the Scribe said to one another, it is clear that they agreed that these two passages of scripture from two different kinds of literature, and two different time periods were the foundation of a way of living. They are also a way of interpreting the rest of the biblical legal material. When we come to these laws, we should ask how each relates to the love or God or the love of others and how we might go about showing that love in specific ways in our context, a completely different world from that in which they were given?

To answer that I would go on with words that follow the commandment in Deuteronomy 6, that Jesus did not quote that day, but we read and would have been well known. These words tell us how important it is to be creative, thoughtful, and diligent to teach a new generation ways to love God intensely through loving neighbour. And a new generation does not only include our children or grandchildren, but is wider than that until it finally means all those who we don’t know, yet.

We find in Deuteronomy 6:6 that these words, literally, “will be on your heart.” To the Hebrew the heart was the place where the integration of intellect, emotion, and action were integrated together. These words about the love of God – and more to that the actual love of God – are to be at the core of all that we are. Moses then said, “Recite them.” This rare word in Hebrew means to teach incisively, to engrave the story of the love of God on the spirits of our children and our community. Teach God’s love formally. But, more than that, we’re to talk about the story of God’s wondrous love in all kinds of everyday life, when little ones say “Grandma, Grandpa, Mom, Dad, what about this?” We can help them to see where their own personal stories intersect with the greater story of the love of God for the world.

One of the symbols of that love is one we engage in at First Baptist once each month when we gather around this table. When we do it, I as clergy come to the same level as you, because there are no levels among God’s people around God’s table. We take simple elements of bread and wine to picture the body and blood of Jesus that were given on our behalf, as a token, not just of Jesus’ love for us, but God’s. As we see that kind of self-giving love, perhaps we will be encouraged to pour out ourselves to love our neighbour with as much intensity as we do ourselves.

Paul explains this a little differently in our Epistle Lesson from Romans 12. When Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans in the mid 50’s of the first century, the followers of Jesus were anything but an important majority that had an influence on society. They were looked at, by many, as oddball Jews who had found their Messiah in a man who had been put to death by collusion between Rome and Jerusalem, and by such means as made him cursed within his own people. How such disciples were to get along in an unsympathetic society is the subject of much of Romans chapter 12.

Paul had dealt with some thorny theological issues in the opening part of the letter, then had passed on to how, if this Jesus-business were true as he argued, it related at all to God’s ancient people. If we had read more carefully, and not been convinced by our culture and the non-biblical teaching that somehow Christianity replaces and erases Judaism, but that the tree trunk, now in process of dividing was joined at the root, we would have done less harm to others and not justified mistreating and killing Jews by the thousands through the centuries.

In any case, as I was saying, when Paul wrote Romans, all that was yet to be and he was trying to speak of how what he had already written worked out in life. Paul counseled humility and genuine embracing of what is good for others – all others – (“let love be genuine”), resolute rejection of that which is harmful to them (“hate what is harmful, evil – note hate is not about wrath, enmity, disgust, all that we tend to mean by “hate,” but resolute rejection of harmful actions, thoughts, and motives, most likely driven by fear). He then speaks in many ways of promoting wholeness in the community – not just the Christian community, but the whole community. This means, among other things, blessing those who curse you, feeding and treating peaceably those considered enemies. In other words, Paul said, “Treat them like neighbours.” Or as Fred Rogers said, “Love your neighbour, without exception.”

At the very end of our reading, there is a phrase that I saw written, perhaps oddly enough, on a monument outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh: “Do not be overcome with evil (harmful behaviour), but overcome evil with good.” That is a summary of much of what Jesus taught, and what saints endeavour, through long lives, to learn.

This coming week, on Tuesday, remember these things. It’s not about who can make you the most afraid. To end with our Call to Worship from 1 John, “Perfect love (mature love) casts out fear.”

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