“Back to Basics”
Message preached on
October 15, 2017
November a year ago I met for the first time with the team that plans our yearly district conference. “Program and Arrangements,” it’s called. “P&A,” for short. I had been asked to finish someone else’s term last year, then called by district conference this year to a three-year term. We gathered around a big table in the Westminster Church of the Brethren, with this year’s moderator, Brian Bachman, in charge. After evaluating last year’s conference, one of our first tasks was to begin focusing on the theme for this year.
Noting some of the struggles we’re currently having in our denomination (when is there ever a time when the church doesn’t struggle over something?), Brian thought it wise to get us back to the basics of our walk with Jesus. That was the theme he suggested, “Back to Basics.” What he meant by that was to encourage our district this year to focus upon the greatest commandment.
We just listened to Matthew’s version of the “greatest commandment” story. All three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) bear witness to this episode in which Jesus was asked about what is most important in the Torah, the law handed down to Moses. In all three, Jesus is shown being tested by those who have studied this law in depth. In Luke’s gospel, a lawyer (in the religious sense, someone who is trained in the Torah law, which is similar to Sharia law in the Islamic faith); a lawyer asks Jesus the same question asked by the rich man in another Gospel story: “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18, Matthew 19:16, Mark 10:17) In that other story, Jesus answered with the ten commandments, which did not satisfy the rich man. So Jesus invited him to sell everything, give to the poor, and become a disciple. The rich man left with a sad heart, for his possessions possessed him.
In today’s story, as told by Luke, Jesus answers that same question, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” – this time asked with ulterior motives. The lawyer was trying to trip him up in some legal mumbo-jumbo. In good rabbinic fashion, Jesus flips the question on the Lawyer, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (10:26) The lawyer responds with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27, Deuteronomy 6:5). “You have given the right answer;” Jesus then says, “do this, and you will live” (10:28).
In today’s scripture, as told by Matthew, the lawyer’s question is “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (22:36). Here, Jesus does not flip the question. Instead, he answers with the same words as the lawyer did in Luke. Thus, down through the years we have called these words the “Greatest Commandment.” If you want the church to focus on what is most essential, to get back to the basics, it makes sense to start right here.
Now, in the Torah there are over 600 laws, but Jesus rightly identified the most important one, and those who questioned him knew it. This is the heart not only of the New Testament, but of the whole Bible – the Hebrew portion, as well. On the lips of every observant Jews are these words from Deuteronomy, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (6:4-5). Jesus follows that up with a second part, taken from Leviticus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). “On these two commandments,” he adds, according to Matthew, “hang all the law and the prophets.” This is the heart of it all. This is what matters most.
In a sense, the rest of the Bible is a commentary on this “Greatest Commandment.” How we live it out takes a whole lifetime to both comprehend and accomplish – if we are ever really able to fully do so. Most of our efforts seem pretty meagre, witnessed by numerous Bible stories, but also true in our lives today. We fall flat on our faces much of the time as we try to live out this greatest commandment. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should toss out it out, that we should give up trying (with God’s help!).
“The Greatest Commandment,” that’s the theme we decided upon for this year’s conference, held yesterday in Frederick. While we didn’t go with Brian’s “Back to Basics” wording, we did follow his intent. Though I didn’t say so at that November meeting, I starting wondering how I might put this theme to music. That’s one way I seek to approach things that really matter to me. For instance, over the years, as I have pondered the scriptures in sermon preparation, I have put some of them to music. You’ve heard the end results as I have brought them into worship. When I used to co-direct weeks at camp, I often wrote a song to go along with the theme and scriptures, hoping to send children home with a tune that might linger long enough to enter their lives.
I had a dream of writing a song for this year’s district conference. The only problem was – inspiration did not seem to strike. Months passed and the greatest commandment just didn’t seem to sink into my heart, soul, and mind in such a way that a song emerged. It was not for lack of trying, mind you. I made several attempts, but nothing seemed right. Maybe I was trying too hard, or seeking for it to be as great as the commandment itself.
When it comes to loving God, how often do our big dreams come to fruition? The first part of this commandment is so all encompassing that we may think our response has to be huge. It is the “Greatest” Commandment, after all. Our response to it must be “great,” right? We may love with words, letting our minds do the walking, but our heart may not be in it. Our we may love with great passion, but the mind doesn’t give it focus, and it dissipates, scattered too randomly. And if it is not soul deep, if our inner spirit is not awaked by this love and linked to the Holy Spirit, where is our true strength?
Because we can’t fulfill this great law in a way that matches its greatness, we can simply give up trying. Which, to be honest, is crazy. God doesn’t demand from us greatness, at least not greatness as the world defines it. Didn’t Jesus speak of the least being the greatest? Small things are often the most important. The world is changed little by little. So are we. Step by step we daily walk, not leap by leap. We love God with heart, soul, and mind in little ways, day by day. That’s how we live out the great commandment. Grand gestures may work in politics (though I would make the case that even that is not true). It is, however, the small steps that matter most in the realm of our God.
That is true of the other portion of this great commandment, also. We may think something big is required when we love our neighbor, whether that be our next-door neighbor or someone far away from us; whether it be a friend or an enemy, someone who shares our values and politics or someone who is on the other side of what divides us. Of course, deep down we know that friendship is not made from grand gestures. Enemies usually become friends through small actions, step by step. But we get stuck, and fail to step out into the divide, because we may think it requires too much. Or we may fail to love our neighbor because we are struggling to love ourselves, which is how Leviticus, and Jesus, put it. “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” We may be our own best enemy.
Anyway, back to this year’s conference theme. I had a big dream of using my talent to write a grand song for us to sing at conference, something that would tie it all together. I envisioned a chorus to give it a main focus, which would, through repetition, help it to sink deep into our being. And then I’d build verses that would illustrate how this commandment gets lived out. That was my big dream. However, as our monthly meetings rolled by, inspiration never did strike.
It was when I met with Jamie Nykiel from Friendship church that something happened. My other dream for conference was to get our Baltimore section of congregations involved. I’ve long felt that the district pays us little attention. Conference rotates to four locations around our district, but it hasn’t met in our area since 1991. No district facilities are in our geography. We have to travel at least an hour from here for one of them. Little has happened, district-wise, in our section, beyond our own congregational work. For this year’s conference, I sought to bring together a music team made up of persons from all our churches. Wouldn’t that have been great!
Well, even that didn’t happen, though not for lack of trying. Jamie and I did pull together a team from two living congregations, and one that was recently closed. The folks were mainly Friendship church people, which is where we met to practice. Anyway, it was when Jamie and I first met to plan that mentioned my failed dream. And then, as we talked, I came up with a simple tune, telling her than I thought its core should be “something like this.” I added the words of Jesus, but you know, the great commandment does not line up well as a poem. Its two parts are not of the same length, nor is there anything close to a rhyme in it.
Anyway, what emerges was a little, baby step start on that chorus. I refined it later. “Refined,” hey that rhymes with mind. And so, that’s how I put it. Our love for neighbor is not something we do in isolation. We don’t “do it” to someone else. We “do it” with them. Love is a partnership, after all. It is lived out with the other person. Little by little it grows. We refine this love together. There, I had a chorus, which went like this:
You know, after I composed that chorus, I never did get the inspiration to create verses. We used it yesterday at conference, singing it several times. Twice we sang it before and after the district junior high youth acted out stories of Jesus. It worked. But it was no grand song. It was just a simple chorus. I’ve got a theory on why inspiration did not strike, other than the fact that my dream for a song was too big (or, for that matter, too small). I think it was because the verses need to come from all of us. Oh, I don’t mean that we should come up with the music and words to make something down on paper. No, I mean that you will live out the verses this week. You will be the song. So, that is my question and challenge: how might you live out the “Great Commandment” this week? Let me know how you do on that. Maybe a song will emerge.
For the service at District Conference this past Friday in Frederick, Audrey Hollenberg-Duffey (granddaughter of our former pastor, Paul Groff, and wife of the son of another former pastor, Scott Duffey); she wrote a litany to follow the sermon, along with other elements that I got her permission to borrow for our service this morning. She used my chorus in it. Turn to your bulletin insert to find my chorus, which will be our response. Maybe we should practice it before we go further…. (sing thru “The Great Commandment” a few times until folks know it)
With over 600 laws, the Pharisees asked, which commandment is the greatest? Remember the Sabbath? Laws for purity? Laws about divorce? Which commandment is the greatest? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. The greatest commandment is to love.
Love cannot be bought at the Hallmark store.
Love is not pretty pink things with lace. Love is about transforming our hearts so that we turn and face one another. Love is about the dignity of everyone we meet and don’t meet. Love is hard, heartbreaking work. This is why the greatest commandment is to love.
The most important commandment is to love God with our whole being. From Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The second command is not different than the first, but a continuation. We are to love God by loving neighbor. In both of these: the greatest commandment is to love.
Love is the foundation of all things. All the laws and the prophets hang on the embodiment of Christ’s law of love. May all we do be refined by the example of Christ self-sacrificing love, for the greatest commandment is to love.
litany ©2017 Audrey Hollenberg-Duffey
co-pastor of the Hagerstown Church of the Brethren