Scripture: Mark 12:28-34 ~
Chapters 11 through 13 are Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem; this week’s text concludes a series of challenges Jesus met when he returned to the temple in Jerusalem for a third day.
Jesus had asserted his personal authority by ousting the money changers and animal-sellers from the temple courtyard on his second visit, so it is not surprising that the religious authorities — the Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes — banded together to try to discredit Jesus when he appears at the temple a third time.
The first three of these confrontations (Mark 11:27-33; 12:13-17; 12:18-27) were unquestionably nasty and combative in nature — the establishment authorities were on the attack. But this fourth and final challenge has a different atmosphere. To being with, an individual scribe is singled out, speaking, it would seem, for himself and not as a representative of any group.
The fact that Mark describes this individual as having just “come up” also seems to distinguish him from the previous gathering of Pharisees and scribes. It is not entirely clear from the text whether the “them” this scribe hears arguing consists of Jesus and this group of religious authorities, or the group muttering among itself.
Whatever the case, this scribe is immediately impressed with Jesus’ answers.
Consequently, unlike the baiting, belligerent questions posed by the others to test Jesus, this scribe’s inquiry seems to arise from a sense of respect for Jesus’ opinion and insight.
“Which commandment is the first of all?” he asks (Mark 12:28).
The first half of Jesus’ reply is hardly astonishing. He quickly asserts that the Shema (taken from Deuteronomy 6:4-5), the prayer recited every morning and evening by pious Jews, is “first” among the commandments. The Shema (named for its first word in Hebrew, shema (“hear”) combines a theological statement with an ethical mandate.
First, it confesses that God is one and that God is in a special relationship with Israel.
Second, it demands a profound personal response on the part of each person who would confess this truth — to love this God. The totality of this love extends to all aspects of the human being.
The second half of Jesus’ answer to the scribe’s question comes from Leviticus 19:18. When coupled with the mandates of the Shema, this commandment links personal piety to active ethical behavior. The term plesion, “neighbor,” is an adverb being used as a noun. The context, however, makes it clear that Jesus has in mind the Hebrew re’a or “fellow citizen,” or even more generally, “fellow human.”
Jesus fully intends these “two” commandments to be as one inseparable mandate.
Jesus concludes “there is no other commandment greater than these” — inferring that these commands should be designated as numbers 1 and 1, not 1 and 2.
Jesus’ final words to the scribe also differentiate this exchange from the earlier combative challenges Jesus had faced that day. Mark’s text, which generally has few good things to say about the religious authorities, specifically compliments this scribe (he “answered wisely”). Jesus’ response is also unique. When he announces that this scribe is “not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34).
Pheme Perkins observed that this exchange between Jesus and the scribe becomes itself something of an illustration of the Great Commandment. “Because they join together in the conviction that there is no commandment greater than love of God and neighbor, they are able to treat each other as neighbors” (“The Gospel of Mark,” The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995], 679). They have stepped away from “us versus them” categories, and created an island of reconciliation in a sea of hostility. Their common devotion to God and neighbor silences the debate, and Mark reports, “After that no one dared to ask him any question”
What a good text to consider on All Saints Sunday.
What is a saint, anyway? And how does one go about finding one – or being one?!
Today’s passage from Mark provides a few hints.
Someone asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment, and he responds by citing the Shema — “Hear, O Israel … you shall love the Lord your God” — and adding “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31).
When the questioner affirms Jesus’ response, Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom.”(v.34)
Even though this curious questioner is not a bona fide, official disciple, they are able to grasp and accept the truth of Jesus’ teaching.
If, in Jesus, God is on a saint search, looking for people headed for the kin-dom.
The necessary qualifications appear to be 1. Acknowledgment that God is God, and then acknowledging that love flows in two directions, to God, and to our neighbor.
A saint is not anyone special:
A saint is simply a person who lives out an intense devotion to both God and neighbor.
But can we spot them? Not necessarily, at least not at first glance.
As I shared with the children earlier, Fanny Crosby is one of those persons considered a saint by many because of her devotion to God and neighbor through her gifts of music, composition, and dedication to helping the poor.
Fanny Crosby resisted praise and any attempts to portray her work as anything but ordinary. She saw herself as a simple woman seeking to live the gospel — a person who demonstrated nothing more than an intense devotion to both God and neighbor.
Crosby was “the most prolific of all nineteenth-century American sacred song writers”. By the end of her career she had written almost 9,000 hymns, using scores of noms de plume assigned to her by publishers who wanted to disguise the proliferation of her compositions in their publications.
One of my favorite hymns composed by Fanny Crosby is “Blessed Assurance.”
There are six other of her hymns in our hymnal: “To God be the Glory,” “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” “Close to Thee,” “I Am Thine, O Lord,” and Rescue the Perishing.”
Crosby described her hymn-writing process: ‘It may seem a little old-fashioned, always to begin one’s work with prayer, but I never undertake a hymn without first asking the good Lord to be my inspiration.’ Her capacity for work was incredible and often she would compose six or seven hymns a day.
While Crosby will probably always be best known for her hymns, she wanted to be seen primarily as a rescue mission worker. According to Keith Schwanz, “At the end of her life, Fanny’s concept of her vocation was not that of a celebrated gospel songwriter, but that of a city mission worker.
In an interview that was published in the March 24, 1908, issue of the New Haven Register, Fanny said that her chief occupation was working in missions. Although, according to Schwanz: “Many of Fanny’s hymns emerged from her involvement in the city missions”, including “More Like Jesus” (1867); “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour” (1868); and “Rescue the Perishing” (1869), which became the “theme song of the home missions movement”, and was “perhaps the most popular city mission song”, with its “wedding of personal piety and compassion for humanity”. (love of God and neighbor) Crosby celebrated the rescue mission movement in her 1895 hymn, “The Rescue Band.”
But wait, not everyone’s a saint: in fact, most are far from it.
What about those who are a long way from the kin-dom, or at least on a significant detour?
How did they lose their way? And how can they find their way back?
Some get lost because they never received good directions from parents or other mentors.
Some have never learned how to listen for guidance from God.
Others stray because their judgment is clouded — debilitated by the struggles of daily life.
Still others race after big thrills and big money, risking the loss of heart, soul and mind in the process.
But there is always hope because God is always saint-searching, always reaching out, especially to those who are lost, as Jesus’ life testified, inviting all into the new life of loving God and neighbor.
Author and theologian Kathleen Norris, says salvation begins — in the sudden awareness that a particular path is leading to death, the naming of something as “wrong,” and taking steps to turn away from it.
Salvation is continued in the unexpected and astounding grace of God to continue freeing people from whatever is holding them in bondage or preventing them from continuing to become all they are meant to be in Christ.
The way back to the right path — the kin-dom path — always begins at the very same place:
At the point where God in Christ reaches across miles of missteps and a multitude of failures and frustrations, and wraps healing arms around the shoulders of wayward, seeking souls, guiding them forward on the best path.
This is what God did for Franny Crosby in her life; her hymn compositions, advocacy for the blind, and rescue mission work are expressions of her response.
God is on a saint search, and it is not only perfect people who are going to be found.
There may be some who are born with the natural ability to love God with the totality of heart, soul, mind and strength, 24/7/365 — but for most of us, this passion and power come only after we discover that God has always loved us, and that this love precedes our own.
And all God asks of us, as Jesus said, is that we respond with that same level of passion … loving God in return with all our heart, soul, mind and strength … and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
It does not take great or heroic acts to put love of God and neighbor into practice.
One of my favorite saintly stories:
During the course of earning her master’s degree, [a woman] found it necessary to commute several times a week from Victory [Vermont] to the state university in Burlington, a good hundred miles away. Coming home late at night, she would see an old man sitting by the side of her road. He was always there, in subzero temperatures, in stormy weather, no matter how late she returned. He made no acknowledgment of her passing. The snow settled on his cap and shoulders as if he were merely another gnarled old tree.
She often wondered what brought him to that same spot every evening — what stubborn habit, private grief or mental disorder. I wonder if she didn’t sometimes begin to doubt her senses, or believe in ghosts.
Finally, she asked a neighbor of hers, “Have you ever seen an old man who sits by the road late at night?”
“Oh, yes,” said her neighbor, “many times.”
“Is he … a little touched upstairs? Does he ever go home?”
“He’s no more touched than you or me,” her neighbor laughed. “And he goes home right after you do. You see, he doesn’t like the idea of you driving by yourself out late all alone on these back roads, so every night he walks out to wait for you.
When he sees your taillights disappear around the bend, and he knows you’re okay, he goes home to bed.”
There are many “saints” like this anonymous neighbor, people who are never officially recognized for their love of God and other people.
You have named of the saints of St. Nicholas for me over the last year: Tommeye Reed and Snooky Johnson are two names that come to mind.
Who are some others? Please, leave their names in the comments and say a prayer for each of them.
“What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your kingdom?” (Matthew 20:21). … We have been tempted to replace love with power.”
in Mornings With Henri J.M. Nouwen,
quoted in Christianity Today,
February 8, 1999, 72.
Saints have learned how to resist the temptation to replace love with power.
Like Franny Crosby, and like those beloved saints we name and claim personally in this community, may we learn to resist this temptation as well, inviting Christ to shape us into the unique saints we are created to be.
Every Sunday for nearly three years Walter had a routine. Just before 10:00 a.m. he would open the doors to Epworth and prepare the church for worship. If the weather was cold, he would build a fire in the old wood stove. If it was hot, he would open all the windows and distribute the hand fans with a picture of Jesus on one side and an ad for a local funeral home on the other.
Next, Walter would open the Bible located on top of the wooden pulpit and read the selected Scripture for that week. Then it would be time for prayer. Often there were folks in the community included on Walter’s list. The latest national and world news would be mentioned.
But always, Walter ended every prayer with a plea for God to remember and bless his beloved church.
Every Sunday, Walter had a routine, but what makes this story so unique is that with very few exceptions, Walter began and ended the Sunday morning worship service … alone. Alone? Why?
Many years ago, Epworth church was built on land donated by a neighboring farmer, but if for any reason they stopped meeting regularly, if Walter stopped opening the church doors every Sunday, the property would revert to the original owners … Epworth church would cease to exist.
So what is the big deal? If Walter is the only one bothering to attend, let him go somewhere else or stay at home. Why not face the inevitable and allow Epworth to quietly disappear? What harm would it do? For Walter, it was a big deal. God had a divine purpose for his life and for the church he loved. But for now, Walter must be patient, be faithful … and wait. Wait for what? …
One Sunday morning a young family, new to the area, visited Epworth and after meeting Walter joined him in worship. They found something unique about this little church nestled among the trees and the old man who faithfully opened her doors. On the following Sunday they came back and within a few weeks the children were bringing friends. At year’s end a minister was hired.
Today, Epworth is a small family church situated between several farms and hidden among the trees. Every summer they offer vacation Bible school for the neighborhood and each Christmas is celebrated with a pageant performed by the children. Many of the original family have died and some of the children have moved away, but the miracle of Epworth has never been forgotten.
On the first Sunday of August, people come from across the United States to visit the church of their youth and relive the miracle of the old man who refused to let his beloved church die. The worship service is followed by a picnic on the church grounds. While the children are playing and the adults are eating, you may notice a family wandering over to the nearby cemetery. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a parent telling her child, “Let me tell you a story about Walter …”
–Larry Davies, “Turning Points:
A Church, the Messiah … Wait! Why?”
December 15 & December 22, 1999
Bonus Video: Blessed Assurance by Total Woman Foundation (TOWOF), Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria
Originally delivered November 1, 2015 — All Saints Sunday — by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.
- Fanny Crosby by W. J. Searle, Everett. Massachusetts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons