by Daniel Harrell
Tensions abound in the Bible: tensions between law and grace, sin and forgiveness, regret and gratitude, suffering and redemption, despair and praise, lament and joy. I get stretched by these tensions, yanked and even torn at times—no more so than standing here in this space in this moment right now. There’s a swirl of emotions too. For many of you this is how you know me—as a preacher, from a distance, once a week or so for twenty-three minutes, give or take. One the one hand we preachers are called to proclaim good news. But on the other hand, another tension, the good news of the gospel is so often ironic and comes shaped as a cross. Many of you generously followed and even accompanied my beloved wife’s horrendous cancer voyage culminating in her death and my grief and your grief. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said. But some days I feel more cursed than blessed, one more tension in the Bible Bible I must abide. The Psalmist bewails, “How long, O Lord, must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” The Psalmist then answers his own question, “I trust in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because you have dealt bountifully with me.” In the lyric of poet Jack Gilbert, “If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. We must admit there will be music despite everything.”
In the Apostles’ Creed we profess “Jesus descended.” Theologian Willie James Jennings likewise observes, “we serve a God made known to us in Jesus Christ who has claimed the spot at the bottom: at the deepest places of anger and shame, of exhaustion and frustration, of despair and abandonment, where there is no possibility of digging a deeper hole or of grasping even more nothingness. Jesus descended to that place, and he will meet us there with the power of God who will not let the descending be the last action. Being there with Jesus is the beginning of our resurrection. This will be the first action of a new life—life eternal. The body will be redone. And even in the depths of despair with him, we can glimpse what is to come.”
As followers of Christ in the way of the cross we do mean to rise. So sure in this Biblical hope that we can live as if it’s already happened—life does go on powerfully and gorgeously and insistently. But as my friend Tim preached last Sunday, life goes on differently now. It is customary when one receives a terminal diagnosis or suffers the loss of a loved one to experience a shift in perspective and a crystallization of priorities. What’s most important surges to the surface when you know you’re going to die. But did you not know this already? Jesus saves us from our sins, but not from our suffering and death. He doesn’t even save himself. This is the way of the cross. How else would we ever see the true and the beautiful and the good with such clarity?
In this morning’s familiar passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus gets asked what matters most. Embroiled in a cauldron of theological ferment over taxes and what happens after we die (death and taxes being the two certainties back then too) Jesus impressed with agile wisdom. An Old Testament law professor, overhearing, interjected his own question: “Of all the commandments given by God, which is most important?” There were over 600 commandments in Old Testament Law, the Torah, addressing practically every aspect of Jewish life. Earnest followers of God wanting to live morally had a hard time keeping track. Distill it down for us, will you? What’s number one?
Typically with law professors, Jesus presumed a trap. Thus he’d answer their questions with questions or tell parables with punchlines to trap them back. This time, however, at least here in Mark, Jesus perceived his inquirer to be a straight shooter. So he answered him plainly: “The most important commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Orient your entire self in worship to the Lord and everything else falls into line. This first command is known among Jews as the shema from the Hebrew word meaning listen. The shema hangs on observant Jewish doorposts, is recited twice every day and is sought to be the last words spoken at one’s death. And not only for Jews, but among Christians too. I knew a sweet saint who sang the shema three times a day with his wife (we’re going to try it ourselves later). He said he sang it so much so as not to forget to do it, since as we all know, loving God is one of those things that if not done deliberately, never happens by itself.
Jesus proceeded to add a second commandment which he equated with the first: “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” What looks like a curveball, naming two commandments when the professor asked for one, is in fact a single imperative with three objects: Love. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself.
Now I know Jesus didn’t explicitly command you to love yourself. Loving yourself doesn’t really need a commandment. Most of us love ourselves without being told, if not out of selfishness or vanity, then certainly out of simple self-concern. This was Jesus’ point of comparison, I think. Just as you make time for yourself, take interest in yourself, want what’s good for yourself and make excuses for yourself―so you should take time for your neighbor, take interest in your neighbor, want what’s good for your neighbor and cut your neighbor slack.
The Old Testament Hebrew word for neighbor mostly means close kin or a relative. In New Testament Greek, the word means anybody nearby. Violet and I hosted a Neighborhood Night Out for our block last month for the folks who live nearby. She designed the invitation and we walked them door-to-door to the third houses on our block. As most of my neighbors are actually strangers to us, I figured few if any would risk crossing the social borders of unfamiliarity and discomfort to make small talk and get bit by mosquitos. We were prepared for nobody to show. We set up a few chairs, made a modest pasta salad, set out drinks and waited. Twenty minutes or so after the Night Out was scheduled to start, we decided we might as well eat. But then a family walked up with food to share and games to play. Then came a few more and a few more after them. We soon had a verifiable party of strangers, all of whom were now neighbors, and some who’ve become friends, one family with a daughter Violet’s age who’s joined Violet each morning to walk to school.
A small step to be sure, especially when you consider the kind of love Jesus calls us to includes radical behaviors like speaking the truth and turning the other cheek, forgiving whatever wrong is committed against you and laying down your life for a friend. We’re tempted to treat Jesus’ teachings as idealistic—a high bar we can never get over so why even try? Better to confess your shortcomings, get your grace and then get on with what you were going to do anyway. Jesus saves us from our sins. Except that salvation from sin is also for the sake of obedience. While we can do nothing to earn our salvation, we must do something to show we’ve received it. “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” Jesus said. There is an imperative link between loving the Lord (who for Christians is Jesus) and loving your neighbor. There is power too. We read in 2 Corinthians how Christ’s love compels us—both our love for Christ and Christ’s love for us. Call us crazy (and plenty of people do call Christians crazy), but chances are if you’ve ever put yourself out there for the sake of love in obedience to the gospel—loving others as yourself, caring for the poor, confronting injustice, forgiving your enemies and all the rest—then you’ve likely experienced that power, that spiritual fire, that joy of obedience that energizes you to put yourself out there even more.
Love matters most. But too often so much else takes priority. I read this past week about a palliative care physician who gave a talk about priorities and asked his audience to each write out three lists: one list of five possessions that make you happy, a second list of five activities that bring you delight, and a final list of the five people you care about most in the world. Imagine what your own lists would look like. The physician then went on to describe a patient, a woman whose days were filled with the usual routines, pleasures and stresses of ordinary life. But after a tumor was found in her body (cross an item off your list), a cascade of medical interventions ensued: first a biopsy (cross off another item), then surgery to insert a port (cross off one more), then ravaging chemotherapy (cross off a few more). After two months, it was clear the treatments weren’t working. (Cross off still more.) Her oncologist, seeing her scan, informed her that comfort was now the only available treatment. Get your affairs in order. Eliminate more items from your lists. The woman entered hospice care and her world gradually shrank to the size of her bedroom.
What’s left on your list? For my wife Dawn, before her pancreas cancer diagnosis, she would have ranked her writing and desire for readership and acclaim as items of greatest importance and desire. As difficult as marketing and selling her stories proved, writing brought her immense joy and deep satisfaction, she considered it her calling. But as soon as she found out she had cancer, she set her writing aside almost as an afterthought. What had been tops on her list evaporated like morning dew. She soon set aside her endearing correspondence too, her political passions and righteous anger, the pleasures of eating and conversation, the bliss of parenting, all that had mattered so much withered like grass, just like the Bible says it will. At the end only love for God and her neighbor remained—me holding one of her hands and Jesus holding the other.
The law professor said, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘God is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love the Lord 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’” (and money and possessions and success and fame and even the pursuit of happiness itself). Jesus replied to the professor how he was not far from the Kingdom of God. How far is not far remained to be seen. “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” Jesus said, and to the extent that we don’t is the measure of our own distance from God’s Kingdom.
We’ve dubbed this as the year of the Good Neighbor for Colonial Church—practice, in a sense, for what God calls us to be our whole lives. There’s a Good Neighbor Fair after worship with ways to be involved in ministry and mission and spiritual growth. Being a good neighbor entails doing good for others. The church is the body of Christ on earth: the hands and arms and heart and mouthpiece of Jesus. Christ in us presses and compels us always toward love. The shema and the neighbor each take a hand.
Neighbor comes from the word meaning nearby. Loving your neighbor means loving the people already near you. But it also can mean going near. As Dawn traversed her awful cancer voyage unto death, you came near and were the best neighbors we could have hoped for, Christ’s hands and arms and heart for us, our life preservers who sustained us, praying and cooking and cleaning and driving and buying and bringing and writing and waiting and crying and wanting and hoping and holding and hugging and suffering alongside. You rode with us all the way to the bottom: in sorrow and despair and exhaustion and loss. You descended with us to that place Jesus comes near as the great neighbor and meets us with the power of God who does not let descent be the last action. Dawn died. We all die. But so in Christ shall all be made alive. We believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. And everlasting life goes on and on and on.
Our hope, this faith, Christ’s love compels us to praise even amidst sorrow. So blessed be those who mourn. Cheers to the tearful. Hail to the heartbroken. Suffering and loss scours us bare to expose the core wounds and core loves that define us, the true belief and true grace that’s not the fruit of our our effort, but the yield of our yielding to Jesus. Such is the strange way of the cross. Love matters most. Love refines us amidst loss and reconnects us and intensifies our longing for that day when there are no more tears and no more death. The hungers of our hearts hunger because a banquet awaits. Our sorrow sets the table for our own everlasting delight. “We must admit there will be music despite everything.” And so amen, let us sing.