The First Commandment
28 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?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 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.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 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’; 33 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.” 34 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.
While reading this passage the past week, I was reminded of a conversation that I had with a fellow pastor who worked for Vida Joven in Nicaragua. We were talking about the concept of doing ministry in a certain way, we had a phrase for this way that probably comes from the business world: “quality of excellence”. This means that we want to do ministry at a high level, we want to do it well, pour in resources, and make it attractive. There is some good to that, but it’s not what they strive for with Young Life in Nicaragua much anymore…they don’t have all the resources that we have in the states, so they strive for something better: “beauty”. It’s beautiful to see teenagers sitting on a hill at a camp sharing life, laughing and crying together. It’s beautiful to see folks believing in each other and giving and receiving grace.
I believe that this beauty is demonstrated in this morning’s scripture passage. Our passage in Mark 12:28-34 finds Jesus in the midst of four debates with Jewish religious leaders. Jesus had been doing well, so the religious leaders were going to try a theological question, “Teacher, what’s the greatest commandment?” This passage is also found in other gospel narratives. They were asking a question with the intent of trapping Jesus, they wanted to put Jesus in some sort of religious box.
This reminds me so much of the debates that happen even today in the church. We go on and on about so many issues. We get so far into these debates, that we often forget why we got into them in the first place, they begin to take priority in our lives over honoring relationships…so much so that the phrase rings true that the church has become more known for what it is seemingly against than what it is for.
Jesus takes this question and gives a beautiful answer in two parts. The first part is this: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 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.’
These words have power and intimacy. We are to love God with all we’ve got, everything. God is not supposed to be number one our list, God is supposed to be everything on our list. All of our lives are interpreted and have meaning through this love for God and God’s love for us. God created us out of love. In God’s very nature of being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…the Trinity, there is deep relationship bonded by love that created us, saved us, and sustains us…this God loves us so much, and the love that God has for us and has placed within creation, believes in us and gives us the capacity to love others and love God.
Jesus also says that the Lord is ONE! That’s powerful. God, three persons, one…and this same God is one with us. We are bonded together into the Trinity!
This love also gives us the ability to love ourselves and to see the beauty within ourselves. We cannot truly love our neighbors until we begin to see how valuable we are within ourselves. God created us good and in his image. Read the first couple of chapters of Genesis, God is pouring himself into his creation, into us. We are works of art. Oftentimes we let circumstances and decisions in life diminish us. As it says in John 10:10, there is a thief who comes to steal and destroy our lives, yet Jesus wants us to have life, abundant life.
Yet, we were created for beauty and when we grow to understand the beauty that is our true selves and that God created and animates our very being, we can then begin to love God and to love our neighbors.
Of course, that begs the question then, who are our neighbors? Well, everyone really. The folks we live next door to, the folks on the other side of town, folks across the world really. We are called to see everyone as being made in the image of God. That can be hard sometimes, folks are different, have different tastes, cultures, personalities, mannerisms. I get that we simply don’t get along with folks at times. We have former friends or even family members who may have wounded us deeply. Yet, God calls us to simply love, which requires a lot of hard work of self-reflection, cultivating our identity with God, and wisdom in how to deal with the persons around us. We become true neighbors when we practice what the good Samaritan did by simply reaching out to those around us and loving them well.
I believe that God calls the church to do this as well as a community of faith. But, it requires an “outside-in” mentality. So many times in churches we start from the inside and create “stuff” for people to come to, then we’re surprised when folks don’t show up. What we should probably do is start from outside the church, talk to people, hear their desires, and let them co-create something with us. This requires a deep sense that churches be rooted in a neighborhood and have a parish mentality. The word parish from the greek means this: πάροικος (paroikos), “dwelling beside, stranger, sojourner”. What a great definition! It means that the church is called to be beside its neighbors, to welcome the stranger, to be a fellow sojourner. We are called to serve and to be alongside, not to issue edicts or to have “I’m better” mindset.
When we practice this, beauty happens! We are able to see God’s Presence in amazing ways as we love our neighbor and experience God’s love and attempt to love God back! God is glorified by us when we simply live in God’s glory for us in relationship with each other and with God!
So, where do we start doing this as a church?
- Know that God has placed you where you are in your neighborhood and church. All that God needs for beautiful things to happen, for community transformation, is present in this room. So often in church we talk in terms of scarcity, not enough money, not enough people, not enough vision, etc. Yet, I believe in a God of abundance! There is a universe of talent present right here in this room right now! You are all beautiful people with so much to share and to learn and to grow! It’s exciting!
- Practice gratitude. Don’t create more programs or committees or look for the latest church growth technique. Just look around, invite folks over for a shared meal, sit on the back porch or deck and share life together. And be thankful for the folks around you.
- Listen to yourself honestly. Don’t be afraid to look into the darkness of your own life. You won’t be alone there, God is present everywhere. Get a spiritual director that will listen to God with you. Find others to hold your hand as you do this. I have a spiritual director and a group of guys that meet regularly. These guys know me and I know them. We love each other well and they hold me up without trying to fix me.
- Listen to your neighborhood. Get involved in the local school, ask local business leaders what they see or need, open the doors of the church to civic groups, meet for coffee with folks from other churches. Don’t have an agenda other than building relationships and being curious about what God may be up to in your community. Then, get behind what God is already doing and get into that sweet spot where God’s Spirit will carry you.
Know that seeing beauty and being a part of the beauty of God’s relational and community work is simple, yet it’s also the hardest thing that we’ll ever do. There is a lot of darkness in this world, we do have a lot of distractions. Yet, God is with us and the time is now to be faithfully present with each other and with God and to be a part of God’s kingdom presence and transformation in our lives and communities.
There is a growing conversation within Cincinnati that is globally connected to see communities transformed in simple, deep, and beautiful ways. I also have to report how excited I am to be a part of this conversation in our Presbytery and with our UCC Association right now as we explore where God is at work in and through the church, not for church growth per se, but for community transformation as I’ve been asked to be a part of a “new worshipping community task force”…part of that work will also be in collaboration with our UCC association in years to come. Fleming Road UCC is in the middle of a sea-change within Cincy and really across the US and world! Really!
So, friends, I’m looking forward to seeing more beauty in our neighborhood and in this church.
My good friend Bart Campolo a few years ago summed up this Mark passage with this phrase: “Love God. Love others. Nothing else matters.” Friends, you are loved and you have loved. May we continue on and grow deeper in our understanding of what it means to see beauty in each other, in ourselves, and in God’s vibe throughout our city.