The following is Rev. Meeter's sermon for 11/02/03
The Great Commandment
Proper 26, Ruth 1:1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:28-34
Daniel Meeter
Brooklyn, 11/02/03

Our gospel lesson takes place in the temple, the week before Passover, just a few days before Jesus died. The temple was the place of sacrifice and liturgy, but also the forum for teaching and debate, especially on the meaning and mandates of the Law of God. The temple was the capital of the kingdom of God, it was the only place in all the Roman Empire where Israel's God, instead of Caesar, could safely be honored as the king. The temple was the place where the king's commandments could be carried out. That is what the scribe means when he asks what is the greatest commandment, not just the Ten Commandments that we modern Christians mean, but all 613 commandments in the Law of Moses, or as a modern Jew would say, all the mitzvot in the Torah. Several hundred of them could be carried out only in the temple, such as the rules for sacrifice and such. It was a matter of debate which of these rules and rituals had priority. And on this matter, Jesus and the scribe agree.

When Jesus says the scribe is not far from the kingdom of God, that's a bit of a joke, because the scribe would have thought himself inside the kingdom, just by standing in the temple. The scribe accepts the joke, with the compliment implied that he was accurate in his interpretation. But Jesus has mean­ings less obvious as well, meanings for us, the readers. Jesus means You are not far from the kingdom in that you are not far from me, the Messiah, for where I am, the kingdom is, even if you don't see it. And you are not far from the kingdom in a calendar sense, because I can feel they're going to kill me soon, and that is when the kingdom of God will fully be revealed, in a way you don't expect, and the power of God will be displayed as love for all the world.

When Jesus gives the great commandment here, he is not just teaching, he's also making his personal confession. He is confessing the commandments that are compelling him, the laws of love that he takes as God's will for him. To follow such laws fully always puts you out of synch with the rest of the world, the rest of the world that wants to love, yes, to love God, yes, to love your neighbor yes, but within reasonable limits, and certainly not at the cost of your own life. "Jesus, you think that your love of God compels you to follow through on this no matter what the cost, but the other law is valid too, the love of neighbor, and so you have to think about your parents, your family, your friends. If you keep this up, your only neighbors will be the ones in the cemetery next to you."

These arguments Jesus kept hearing in his own head. I'm sure he felt the cost, the heavy cost, of what he was doing, the surrender of so much else he loved, his life, his family, the temple itself, for he had loved the temple since his childhood. He had to feel the heavy cost ordinary sympathy and understanding from the public that used to follow him and looked to him.

This is often what you face as a Christian. That your faith compels you to live your life according to values and standards with which your friends and neighbors are not in sympathy. This discussion takes place as he can feel his doom approach, like Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, like Benigno Aquino in Manila. They knew that if they kept pushing, they could die. It wasn't so much that they had courage as that they felt compelled by what they believed was right. The discussion takes place in the temple. Both these facts remind us of the truth that love requires sacrifice. There is no love without some sacrifice, and sacrifice without love is only loss. ­There is no way anyone can change the world unless someone who loves the world is willing to risk the sacrifice of his own life.

And so, Jesus, even now, could save his life and go back home and live a life at home of loving God and loving his neighbors, a model Jew, a model human being. I mean, after all, he has made his case, and if they haven't accepted it it's not his fault. But if he backs off now, he leaves the world unchanged. The world is never changed without the sacrifice from love, and love re­quired for him the sacrifice of a possible future to which he had every right to enjoy. He had to have believe that his Father would have a future for him anyway. Jesus had to have a lot of faith here, faith and trust and hope to go along with love. The kingdom of God which we believe in is so hard to see, and all of us want to live by its rules and its laws, because we believe they must be wonderful, but how do we know except by faith?

What sacrifice does love require of you? You know that love demands that you make choices. What you choose, you love, ­and what you have not chosen, you could have loved, but you have to give up on it. If you give it up bitterly, it is a loss. If you offer it up in greater love, then it is the kind of sacrifice that makes you stronger in your soul. Sometimes the choice that love requires is between the good and the bad, and then the choice is relatively easy. Some­times the choice is between one good and another good, and then the choice is hard. To choose one good you have to lose the other good, and that's a sacrifice. It can be the sacrifice of a possible relationship, or the sacrifice of a possible future, the sacrifice of one part of yourself that you might have developed, but which you gave up for the sake of love. And who knows, when you are in the midst of making your choice, who can be certain that you are making the better choice? There is risk in this, because how do you know? You can avoid the risk by trying to delay the choice of love, by trying to hold on to both good possibilities, but then you do not love with all your heart and soul and strength, but only each by half, by holding on to both. To love with all your heart and soul and strength requires risk and choice and sacrifice, especially of possible futures, future that you may feel entitled to, and giving those up can feel like death.

And so often the better choice is for what is so unknown. That is the risk in love. Choosing what is unknowable, except to God. That is what Ruth did, and which Orpah did not do. Jesus did what Ruth did. I don't know if you're aware that Ruth was one of Jesus' ancestors, pagan though she was. Her spirit must have lived on through the generations to strengthen Jesus' own.

For 349 years, generation upon generation in this congregation have been making sacrifices of love of which we now enjoy the benefits. It is because they loved God and their neighbors as themselves that we are here today. Look what they have given us, what sacrifices they had made. No matter how weak at times their love might have been, taken all together it has been a powerful force for good in the world. We don't know their names, but they are saints, they are the communion of saints with us, and in the power of the Spirit and Jesus' sacrifice they are present with us at the table of communion. We will remember them today.

I invite you to make a similar sacrifice. It is a very complicated world we live in, and the rules keep changing. How can we know what God's love is if not for a place where we can hear the word of God each week? How can we have the stamina to love like this if not for a community of Jesus to support us, and a house of prayer for when our spirits fail? Most of you belong to several communities, your family, your work, your street, whatever. This particular community is special, it has a special burden and a special task, and to maintain this community requires that you offer yourself, not only to God but to each other. It requires your time and your talent, your treasure and your investment, and most of all, your loyalty and love.

Let me close here with the words my moth­er had us memorize from Ruth, in the old version: Entreat me not to depart from thee, or to stay from following after thee, for whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou stayest, I will stay. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God.