Mark 12: 28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.”32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
I wonder, when that teacher discussed the greatest commandment with Jesus, did he recognize just what a thin place he was standing in? “Thin places” are what the Irish call those moments, events or experiences in which the wall between heaven and earth, time and eternity, Creation and Creator, seem to be as thin as a veil, a tissue. In these “thin places,” one can almost see the invisible, hear the unspoken, and understand the incomprehensible, but at a level deeper than words, when all you can say can be said in a sigh, a smile, a hug, laughter, a catch in the throat, or tears. Or all of the above.
Such thin places might be attending the birth of a baby, or the death of the elderly, or when bride and groom say to each other, “I do.” Maybe we have entered that thin space in worship, when our eighty voices raised in praise to God sounded for a moment like eight hundred. Or was it just one single voice coming from eighty hearts? Prayer is also a thin place, one that we deliberately seek out. So is reconciliation. When Jacob in the Old Testament returned to his estranged brother, Esau, and restored the inheritance that he stole, Jacob said to his former enemy, his twin brother, mind you: “Seeing your face is as seeing the face of God.”
The most common thin place, so common that we don’t often recognize it for the thin place that it is, is love. Not just the feelings of love, which can be like earthquakes and hurricanes combined, but our choices and actions of love, some of which may seem dry, dull, rote and routine. There are only so many times in a row that a parent can get excited about getting up at 2 AM to change a baby’s diapers. Yet that is no less love than the thrill of saying “I do” at the altar. That place is no less thin than a sinner’s first prayer of repentance, “Lord, have mercy on me.”
Whenever we recognize such places, or such moments, for what they are, we experience them as both humbling and hope-giving; they challenge us even as they comfort us. We come away from such thin places changed, with the customary boundaries of our pride, power and purposes broken and dissolved, but open to new and greater possibilities.
Just as often, however, we walk right past those thin places, or stand right in the middle of them, and we don’t even know it. It may just be ignorance or worse, willful indifference. Face to face with a divine breakthrough, we’re like cows watching a train pass. And then there are times when we react to the thin places between heaven and earth with fear, hostility and rejection. Why would we do that? Because in such thin places, we know we are not in charge, that all is gift and grace, not merit, and that the ground is level for everyone. Thin places are also leveling places. Our precious pride, privileges and prejudices can be threatened by such loving, leveling grace.
Where was there ever a place between heaven and earth, now and forever, more thin than the person and the ministry of Jesus? We confess him even as the very meeting place of earth and heaven, time and eternity, the visible and invisible world. Yet look at how some people reacted to him, especially in the last week of his life: “Jesus, what about this coin that Caesar wants from us?–Let’s see you get out of this one!” Or “Jesus, what about the woman who went through seven husbands? Whose wife will she be in the next life?–Ha-ha!” All with the intent to trap, embarrass or destroy him. Like Babylonians battering away at the Temple of God, they’re desecrating a thin place!
So when that scribe discussed the written word of God, with the Living Word of God, was his question,“What is the most important commandment in the law?” serious, clueless, or just another trap, set with malicious intent? Every other question posed to Jesus that week had teeth. So when we discussed this passage at the Tuesday morning sermon round table breakfast, we had trouble trusting this scribe. We didn’t like how he talked to Jesus, as though he were the teacher and Jesus the pupil. And when Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of heaven,” was that a compliment or a call to move further along? Maybe both.
But today a man asks Jesus a straight question and he gets a straight answer. And that tells me that suddenly that scribe was standing in a very thin place. As the Most High said to Moses, “Take off your shoes, for you are now standing on holy ground.” Jesus answers the scribe’s straightforward question with Israel’s most sacred commandment, confession and prayer, Moses’ supreme spiritual testament: “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad.” “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One” (Dt. 6:4). And then comes the command from the next verse in Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength.”
Even before the time of Jesus, Jews recognized this commandment as the greatest of all commandments. This is Judaism 101, what every Jew learned with their mother’s milk, what every child could recite from his first day ofSabbath School. Because if we don’t have that commandment down, the rest doesn’t matter. Why would anyone keep the commandments, especially the ritual, ceremonial ones, if they didn’t love the God who gave the commandments? Keeping the commandments is understood as how one loves God.
For both Jesus and that scribe, this confession was the first part of every devout Jew’s prayers upon rising in the morning and the last one of the day, upon laying down to bed at night. It still is. So, whenever you pray, you do not start with your words to God, but with God’s Word to you: “Sh’ma Israel….” In fact, it has long been called “The Shema,” for that is the Hebrew word for the first word: “Listen.” A devout Jew would want to die with these as his or her last words. All this would Jesus and his interrogator share in common.
But where they might start to diverge would be the second commandment that Jesus joins to the first. Remember, the scholar asked Jesus for THE greatest commandment, singular. But Jesus gave him two, back to back: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,’ and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s from Leviticus 19. From Jesus we get two commandments for the price of one, and “the second is like unto the first,” he said. Love of neighbor is the other side of the coin with loving God. To Jesus, there cannot be one love without the other.
Now, Jewish scholars have long recognized the supreme, singular importance of both of those commandments. But what also set Jesus apart was that the neighbor whom we are to love, in order to truly love God, includes not only the friend, nor just the fellow Jew, but the enemy, the alien, the gentile, as well.
Twenty-one centuries later, I ask us, What is your Shema? What is your supreme commandment and prayer?What is your spiritual North Star, personally speaking? Let’s say, its 4 AM and you’ve just awakened and can’t get back to sleep and already unfinished business from the previous day is coming into your head, while worries about the coming day are piling on. Or you’re rehearsing your guilt and regrets about something you did, or failed to do. Or your rancor and recriminations against someone else for something they did keep running through your head. And then it occurs to you that this is no way to spend the night or start the day.
Where do you go then? What do you do to reorient yourself to something better? Jesus and his fellow Jews would have risen to start the day with, “ Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad.” We could do a lot worse than that.
Sometimes I go for Psalm 23, or The Lord’s Prayer. Or Lamentations 3:22: “It is because of the Lord’s great love that we are not consumed; the steadfast mercies of God never cease, they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness…..” I remember hearing another person say that his favorite Bible verse, in hard times, is found only in the King James Version: “And it came to pass.” It was his favorite verse, his North Star, in times of trouble, because, whatever is happening in his life, he knows that it too shall come to pass. If having a Bible verse as our Shema sounds dry and repetitive, the life-long repetition can actually make it deeper and more meaningful over time.
But those are personal, individual prayers and confessions that we can carry around as our North Star, our compass, or our map. What about as a group? As a church?
I’m so glad you asked. For about a year now, your church council and commissions have been busy discerning God’s guidance for Emmanuel Mennonite Church, hoping to do so in a way that we can put into a few words, into a vision statement that guides us, gives us focus, some kind of spiritual, biblical North Star that helps us discern where not to go and what not to do, as well as what to do and where to go. With this vision statement then, for stretches of one, two and three years, we can prayerfully discern goals, objectives and activities that fit the vision statement. Its a statement of what God calls us to and who we are, of identity and of purpose. The basic ideas for it emerged from last year’s church council retreat, they were sent to Claire DeBerg for some options, arrangements and editing, and then returned to church council for our choice of one version and a final editing. Though its been printed in our newsletter and elsewhere, it is written there in your bulletin today: “AS FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST, EMMANUEL MENNONITE CHURCH COMMITS TO WORSHIPING GOD, CHOOSING PEACE, NURTURING COMMUNITY AND EXTENDING HOSPITALITY.”
If you should wonder why we came up with such a vision statement, just consider Proverbs 29: 18, “Without vision, the people perish.” Modern North American people will perish for wanting and doing everything that is appealing and interesting, and little that is meaningful or valuable. And if you should wonder Why this vision? and Where do the four parts of it come from? I would direct us to the same place that Jesus and the scribe went, the Sh’ma, and to the greatest commandment with the two parts: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind, your soul and your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As you consider this vision statement, ask yourself: Did we miss any part of that one great commandment with the two sides? I don’t think so. It starts with the love of God, as in “worshiping God.” We wanted that first, so as to communicate that God is first, and that everything else we do flows from our relationship with God, all of which, I hope, is worship. This vision statement then is not so much about what we do for God, as for what God does for us, in us and through us, as we open ourselves to him, worshipfully.
The other three parts, “choosing peace, nurturing community and extending hospitality,” relate to how we love our neighbor as ourselves, but again, for the love of God, and through the love of God. Remember, according to Jesus, those two loves cannot be separated.
I intend to spend more time next year unpacking this vision statement in my preaching and teaching, to giving us biblical understanding and biblical underpinning to each part of it. Advent begins next week, so this will be my last message from Mark’s Gospel on the theme of “Come, Follow Me.” But by the grace of God, Jesus’ words today on the One Greatest Commandment serve as a bridge into our vision statement, which begins with, “As followers of Christ…..” And here’s how we follow Christ: by worshiping God, choosing peace, nurturing community and extending hospitality.
Such a vision statement will do at least three things: 1) give us a matrix of four supreme values that give us direction so that 2) it keeps us from running everywhere and, effectively, nowhere; and 3) it names the very places we might either ignore or avoid and orients us toward them: the thin places where God is already present, where heaven is already breaking into the world, especially the place of love, the love of God, love for each other, and the love of our neighbor, even as ourselves. I think of this vision statement as our congregational way of saying the Shema, and of doing the Great Commandment, both parts.