Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Mike Turgeon “Wholeheartedness” November 1, 2009
All Saint’s Day
“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?" Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.'
The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 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'; 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."
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. Mark 12:28-34
I We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
In 1953 many track and field experts thought that running a four-minute mile was physiologically impossible.
But Roger Bannister had internal resources that kept him from tripping over the evidence; he believed he could break through this perceived barrier. In 1954 Bannister clocked a mile at 3:59.4, breaking much more than just a world record: he also broke through a self-limiting attitude. After he exceeded the four-minute mile, runners throughout the world realized it was possible and the less-than-four-minute mile became a regular accomplishment.
II All Saint’s Day.
Just like athletes, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. One of the many things they do for us is show us the way. It is a fact of life that without parents, grand-parents, mentors and the like, we come nowhere near who we can be as human beings.
You know, sometimes preaching is just that simple, stating the obvious.
It’s kind of what we see here in this exchange between Jesus and the scribe. (When you here scribe, just think Pharisee, or lawyer.) Jesus is stating the obvious according to the religious norms of that time. You’ll notice he is not making up a new commandment, he just re-affirms the oldest one in the book—“Love God first, and love God with your whole heart.”
Now, it may be obvious, but it is not simple, is it? Heck no. Even for those who knew the law best—the Pharisees—practicing is a far cry from professing. Throughout the Gospels we see these gatekeepers of God’s law thinking they must angle for control of access to God rather than total surrender to God.
Why is that? Why is it that with God, we lose sight of the big picture? Why, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “do we do the thing we’d rather not do, but don’t do the thing we know we should do?
Is it because this “love God first” thing is just too hard for us?
Is loving an entity you can’t see or touch, only experience, is that just too much of a stretch for our rational mindset?
Let me offer an observation from someone who will be familiar to some of you, the Rev. Bob Olmstead, retired pastor who many years ago, served this very Windsor church. He said that the search for God makes all the difference in a life. Then he offered this story: A kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children while they drew pictures. She would occasionally walk around to see each child’s artwork. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was.
The girl replied: “I’m drawing God.”
The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.”
Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing the girl replied,
“They will in a minute/.”
Now, that’s assurance. And Jesus said, we must adopt a child-like faith in order to enter the reign of God on earth. But mostly we complicate it.
This morning’s passage is not the usual exchange we hear between Jesus and the lawyers of his time. Often there was an argument, or an implied threat. Here, it seems the scribe and Jesus agree, the first and greatest commandment is love God wholeheartedly and your neighbor as yourself. Okay, we’re clear on the concept. Now what?
Well, always, Jesus has an action plan. This time it’s stated pretty subtly. “You are not far from the Kingdom of God?” As in, now you know the plan, you still have some distance to go.
How far a distance, and how do we get there? Well, I suggest we appeal to the saints in our lives. We need to spend more time in conversation with our saints.
II What is a saint?
What is a saint? And do they always have to go ‘marching in?’ Can they sometimes even limp or crawl in? And some other questions. Do saints have an easier time of loving God with their whole heart than you or I? How about loving their neighbor? Do they get the best neighbors, or do they get the same ones we do? The noisy one, the nosy one, the angry one, the inconsiderate one?
And perhaps the most telling question, “In order to be a saint, do you have to be able to talk with God?
Throughout history there have been those who have heard God, or seen God. Some of the words we use to describe them are ‘prophets,’ or saints. Another word we use for those who hear God or see God is ‘crazy.’ Does one have to be crazy to hear God, or does hearing God make one crazy? Lily Tomlin, the great comedienne stated it well in one of her routines: “If I talk to God, they call it prayer. But if God talks to me they call it schizophrenic.”
If you go through the long history of the church, from Jesus up ‘till today, you’ll find countless examples of those who did just what Jesus said to do in the great Commandment—first love God and with your whole heart. They gave it all away to God; their heart, their mind, their soul. Not all their stories are feel good, and not all their stories have pleasant endings.
Indeed, one of the quotes from St. Therese of Lisieux, a French nun of about a hundred years ago summed it up nicely when she said, speaking to Jesus: “I would be a martyr for you, a doctor of the church. I should like to accomplish the most heroic deeds—the spirit of the crusader burns in me. I long to die on the battlefield in defense of the holy church. I would be a missionary. I would choose to be flayed like St. Bartholomew, plunged into boiling oil like St. John, or like St. Ignatius of Antioch, I would be ground by the teeth of beasts into bread worthy of God. With St. Agnes and St. Cecilia I would offer my neck to the sword of the executioner, and like Joan of Arc, I would murmur the name of Jesus at the stake.”
The reality of the life of this frail, little nun was that she never got to ‘accomplish’ any of those things. She lived sheltered away in a convent and died at the tender age of 24. In her circumstances, she accomplished not great deeds of heroism, only small and un-noticed ones with great love. Her heart was full of love.
Is she lesser or greater than you or I? She is a ‘saint,’ after all.
III The Great Commandment
The truth of the matter is that it is not our place to judge where the saints fall in God’s pecking order. In fact, there is no pecking order, as much as we’d like to have one.
Is it just me or do you also stray far from loving God and loving neighbor? Do you judge others according to strict codes of how people should act around you? Just me, then?
If we’re really honest with ourselves, all this really does is elevate ourselves in our eyes, not God’s. It is ego-driven, pure and simple, not God-driven.
Well, Jesus has a different take. Our job is not to judge others but to first love God and our neighbor as ourselves.
My guess is that Jesus really had in mind just one Commandment—love God. ‘Cause you see, by loving the creation of God, the neighbor of God, you are loving God in reality.
So where does that leave us? What do you think? Is Bob Olmstead right? Does the search for God make all the difference in a life? I think he’s on to something.
IV Who’s your saint?
The reason I opened with the stirring story of Roger Bannister was not just because of a love of sports. There is a pioneer in all our lives. In my case, it’s about another Teresa. This Teresa was my own grandmother, my mother’s mother.
Gramma Teresa was a babushka, I mean, if she had lived in turn of the century Russia or Czeckoslovakia, she would have fit right in. She was short, almost blind by the time I became aware, and always kind of part of the woodwork, as far as I could tell as a young boy, always around. I grew to learn that her life was not so easy, but for me, she was a saint, the one who first lifted my own self limits with love. Not unlike some of the saints that you mentioned this morning.
She lived to the rather ripe old age for her of 81, not an easy task for someone who smoked like a chimney her entire adult life. She divorced her very abusive, alcoholic husband, my maternal grandfather whom I never knew, back in 1940. I still shake my head at what courage that must have taken. I’m sure she would have described it as survival.
From my earliest memory, she lived with Frankie. To this day, my siblings and I aren’t sure what their relationship was. Did she rent to him? Were they an item? Was she trying to save him? He was hopelessly alcoholic as well.
From my perspective, the very reason for being for Gramma Teresa was that she was a source of unconditional love—no strings attached with her. It wasn’t that I could get away with anything with her. It was that I didn’t want to get away with anything with her. She knew her role as grandmother quite well. She spoiled us, and she loved us. When we found it hard to find love and approval elsewhere, we could always count on her.
She didn’t have to be like that, she chose to be like that, at least for me. How precious a commodity is that kind of love, the unconditional kind? How radical it looks in our world today.
Could I go so far as to say she was the Roger Bannister of unconditional love? I better not say that.
Did Gramma love God with all her heart and soul and mind? I don’t know, what would Jesus say?
I like what happens right at the end of this passage—right after he said, you’re not far from the kingdom of heaven. The words are these: “After that no one dared to ask him any question.” Curious, isn’t it?
What other questions do we have, now that Jesus has re-affirmed where the starting line and the finishing lines are. Those lines are one and the same. Love God with all your heart, and you neighbor as yourself.
We want to make it more complicated. We want to argue for our special case. We are not far from the kingdom but we do have some distance to travel. How will we get there?