The text for this sermon is Mark 12:28-34
I turned 40 when I got to Messiah and that seemed old to me. Whereas, 20 or 30 somethings rock climb or play sand volleyball, 40, 50 and 60 year olds golf. I figured since I ain’t get any younger, I should learn to golf. And, how hard could it be, right? You just come up next to a little white ball, swing your club back and whack, the ball goes sailing away. And here is the thing, I loved it as soon as I started doing it. I love to golf.
But, it turns out that it is a little tougher than what I thought. I whacked at it a few times and my ball didn’t sail anywhere, it rolled, casually with really no sense of purpose, a few feet that way, or this way. So I asked about twenty different golfers from this church and they all had a suggestion for me. They all had an idea of what was essential for golf. Head down. Knees slightly bent. Feet a little apart. When you come back, don’t bend your arms. Don’t move your feet. Head down. Carry the club to about your head. Don’t swing hard. Let gravity do the work. Head down. Don’t bend your arms. Now, come at the ball, like pendulum. Follow through. Follow through. Get your head up, watch where that ball went.
By the time people were done helping me, I was so focused on the twenty things I was supposed to be paying attention too that I lost track of what I was trying to do, hit that little white ball so it would go sailing like it does on TV. Worse, I was so stressed about keeping my head down, arms stiff, follow through, follow through, that it was maddening when the ball still didn’t sail. So maddening, that it stopped being fun. I was angry and disappointed in myself, wondering why am I golfing anyway?
Funny, huh. Sometimes we work so hard at something we love, that we take all the fun out of loving it. Sometimes, I think it is like that for people of faith. The scribe asks Jesus, what is most important for people of faith to do? Jesus’ answer is wonderfully simple. What matters most is love. Begin by loving the one and true God and that will lead to loving all whom God loves, which is everyone we have ever encountered.
Yet, if that scribe were to ask twenty different Christians today what is most important for people of faith to do, he is likely to get twenty different answers. Maybe it is the inherent problem of people, that we take simple things and make them more complicated. It is definitely true for people in my line of work, religion. We might start with Jesus’ easy answer that what is most essential is loving God and loving God’s world, but we can’t end there. We have to explain what we mean by that.
People have been fussing with exactly how to do something as simple as loving God and God’s world for thousands of years. Jesus’ answer to the scribe is not forging new ground. Central to the Old Testament, the only scripture in Jesus’ day, is a relationship of love between humanity and God. God created us with love to love, in God’s image, and said it is good. The first story in the bible, the first few words of Genesis explain this pretty well.
The ten commandments in the next book of the bible, Exodus, were the first attempt to clarify exactly how to love God. Loving God is honoring God by not misusing God’s name and making time in your life, a Sabbath, to worship God. If we love God, we love what God loves, which is everyone. Loving everyone looks like honoring those relationships closest to you, like mother and father, being truthful to the people around you, not hurting others with violent words or violent actions, not taking from them, not lusting after them or misusing them sexually, not being jealous of their gifts.
Of course, these ten commandments just created more questions, that religious people loved to answer. In the next two books of the bible Deuteronomy and Leviticus there are over 600 clarifications, laws and rules, on how exactly we are to keep the ten commandments, which of course were given to clarify how to love God and loving others. So if we take a Sabbath to do nothing else but contemplate our love for God, are we allowed to eat on that day? Yes. You can eat. How about cook? No, you should cook the day before. How about take care of my livestock? Yes, you can feed your livestock. How about tend the fields during harvest? No, you can’t do that.
And it still goes on today. Churches all the time make laws and rules to help their people love God and love neighbor, that made logical sense probably at one point in time during some argument or crazy thing in their community, but a law or rule has a habit of sticking around. No dancing, no card playing, no drinking, no short hair, no rock n roll, no, no, no, no, no. Lest we feel smug, Lutherans have there own lists of no’s too, that are meant to help us say yes to loving God and loving neighbor. No flags in the sanctuary, no communion before the fifth grade, no clapping in church, no politics in our sermons, no hats on men in the pews, no, no, no, no, no.
It isn’t just laws and rules. Our rituals in worship have only one purpose to help us grasp what is most essential to faith, loving God and loving others. Whether it is sacrificing lambs at the temple in the day of Jesus, or eating the sacrificed lamb of God at the table in our church today, the purpose is the same, helping us to love God. Yet, religions, religious people, priests, pastors we all layer extra stuff on top of it. Only men can bless the wine because Jesus was a man, only unleavened bread can be used, wine can’t be used because it’s alcohol, you have to be one of us to eat with us, we need to kneel, we need to stand, we need the pastor to bless the wine and bread with his back to us, we need the pastor to bless the wine and bread with her face to us, we should look to the ground and hold our hands out solemnly, we should look at the pastor and hold our hands out joyfully. We should do this once a week. We should do only once a month. Enough. Stop. We don’t just take the fun out of this important ritual, even worse, we take the “love” out of it.
Religion, religious people, scribes, priests, pastors like me, we are only trying to help but the more we help the more we talk, the more we talk the more questions you have, the more answers to those questions we give, the further we march from the first question, what is most important to our faith? And, before you know it we get so tripped up in laws, rules and rituals we forget not only the question, but the simple answer. Our life of faith becomes more about following laws, rules and rituals and less and less and less about what is most essential, love. And it stops being fun. We wonder why we ever even started going to church in the first place
This is not to say there are not tough ethical questions out there that we can debate. This is not to discourage anyone from living a reflective life of asking challenging questions. I am definitely not saying there is no role for religion or pastors to help us in our faith journey. I have a career to think about after all. It is just a reminder that all the rules and rituals of religion were created with one hope and one hope only, to bring us closer to God. Rules and rituals are not our God. Our God is love. Our God of love, loves you passionately and longs for you to share that love.
If you ask a golfer what is essential for a good golf game, some might tell you straight arms or head down or follow through or other things to make your swing just right. The wisest though will say simply, that before you can golf well you have to love to golf. Jesus, easily the wisest when it comes to God, is telling us that what is most essential to our life of faith is love. Love of God. Love of others. Amen