Text: Mark 12:28-34
For those of you who have attended church and Bible studies for years, the messages of the next few weeks will not be any “big reveal.” You will find this to be pretty basic, “nuts and bolts of the Bible” stuff. For those who are not so familiar, however — and you may have a number of neighbors and relatives who fall into this category — the teachings that we will examine during these weeks may come as a bit of a surprise. I make this suggestion because it seems that in the mind of the general public, “Christianity” has come to be associated with bigotry, religious war, abuse of power, and close-mindedness. I think this is, at least partly, why, when I and some others from our congregation went out, praying, into our neighborhood on a number of occasions over the past year, we found a few people who shut the door in our faces. Some politely said, “no thank you” or “I’m not interested;” a few said, “I already attend religious services elsewhere;” and a few, according to the notes people wrote down for me, were rather rude.
But there were others who opened the door and talked with us. We asked how we could be in prayer for our neighbors, and we heard tales of pain, requests for healing, and a lot of frustration — frustration about the state of our world these days, how people treat each other, how they treat the earth, and how much stress leaks out into our day-to-day interactions. I believe there is much that faith has to offer these matters, in the way of spiritual practices, a supportive community, and guidance from the scriptures. So here we are, ready to talk for a month about the topic of “getting along.”
I was finishing my seminary education in the spring of 1992, and flew down to the San Diego area for my first job interview with a Lutheran congregation there, when news of erupting violence came to us from Los Angeles. A series of “not guilty” verdicts had been issued from the trials of LAPD officers indicted in what was known then as “the Rodney King incident.” Long brewing tensions along racial and socioeconomic lines burst literally into flame as public shock and anger over the acquittal spilled over into the streets. Six days of looting and violence caused over $1 billion in property damage, and left more than 2,000 people injured, and 63 people dead, including nine shot by police and one by the National Guard. Twenty-three of those homicides went unsolved, and of those, 16 were minorities, primarily black and Latino men. At the time, unemployment among this same segment was high in the neighborhoods where the rioting broke out, and the social conditions that fostered the violence remain a challenge to this day.
On the third day of the riots, Rodney King appeared at a press conference, pleading for public calm. “Can we all get along?” he asked, and his heartfelt cry became iconic, the subject of respect, scorn and parody. King struggled with addiction throughout his life, dying on Father’s Day of 2012 in a drowning accident, just two months after publishing his memoir. He had mellowed and found a degree of peace in his life. The phrase Can We All Get Along, without a question mark, is engraved on his tombstone — and it is a question that still matters.
“What is the greatest commandment?” This was the question asked of Jesus, as he stood among a crowd of disputing religious authorities in Jerusalem not long after his triumphal entry, according to the Gospel of Mark. The encounter with this legal expert was a rather unusual one, in that Jesus’ answer was declared to be completely satisfactory, even “well said.” In fact, as Mark records it, the questioner repeats Jesus’ response, in his own words — a clever way of emphasizing just how important this two-fold answer is, how central it is, both to the tradition from which Jesus comes, and to the new community founded in his name.
I think this is important for us to emphasize, too: Jesus was not out of line with the Jewish tradition. He was not an opponent to the most cherished tenets of Judaism. He was a good Jew.
The greatest commandment, the highest value, the most virtuous endeavor, is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Both Jesus and his questioner recognize the wisdom in one another — and all other disputing comes to an end, as “no one dare[s] to ask [Jesus] any more questions” on that day (Mark 12:34).
The root of our Abrahamic faith, that which we share with Islam and Judaism — and indeed, the root of most religious faiths — is caring for the most vulnerable in our community, loving our neighbors, making sure that there are safety nets, that no one is pushed aside or has their needs ignored.
If only it could always be so simple. How is it that we complicate this so much, by asserting such things as “I love God, but you don’t — at least, you don’t love God the way I think you should — and therefore you must be destroyed” — or, at least, distrusted. Maybe you don’t name God the way I do, or your worship of God looks different from my manner of worship. And that makes me uncomfortable.
So we qualify our obedience to the great commandment — or we let our fear get in the way.
I have a question for you: What is the opposite of love? (pause for responses)
I want you to consider this: The opposite of love is not hate, but fear. The opposite of love is not hate, but fear. Fear is the opposite of love. And the way we get past our fear — in any relationship — is through following that first great commandment: to love God. To love God so completely, with heart and mind and strength, that we can act with courage and do what frightens us, to venture into the unknown, taking a walk in the shoes of a person who isn’t exactly like us. Because no one is exactly like us! And everyone is human. Everyone is imperfect. Everyone has a story of brokenness and pain. Everyone needs somebody else. We are wired for connection. And although making connections can be difficult, the effort is totally worth it in blessing.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught what we (and even people who don’t know that it comes from the Bible) call The Golden Rule — “Treat others as you would like to be treated” (Matthew 7:12). My friend, Pastor Sun-Hee Kim, says, to really build beloved community in this world, to cross the bridges of culture and race, we need to implement “The Platinum Rule: Treat others as they would like to be treated.” And how do we know how others would like to be treated? We have to drop our assumptions, ask questions, and really listen. Such matters as how you communicate respect, how you demonstrate caring for a person in grief, how you express delight in a child, are not universal — they vary from culture to culture. Becoming sensitive to these nuances is not an easy task, and we are likely to make mistakes along the way, but we can be brave enough to tackle this if we go back to that first great commandment, draw close to God, drink deep from God’s Spirit, and walk humbly in the direction God wants us to go — toward our neighbors.
So love God. Love God with all that you are. Let God’s love melt your fear. And turn toward your neighbor — the one who irritates you, or the one who frightens you. Reach out with a heart made strong by God’s love for you. Move in the direction God wants us to go. Practice empathy. Practice listening. Ask questions. Make a real, human connection. Then, practice compassion. You’ll be contributing to God’s kin-dom. You’ll likely be blessed. Know that you are not alone. And together, may we — and our neighbors — help heal the world. Amen.