Sunday, October 31, 2021
Lectionary 31, Year B
Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you have taught us in your Son that love fulfills the law. Inspire us to love you with all our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength, and teach us how to love our neighbor as ourselves, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Deuteronomy 6:1-9 The blessing of keeping the words of God
Hebrews 9:11-14 Redeemed through the blood of Christ
Mark 12:28-34 Two great commandments: loving God and neighbor
Title: Simply Put
Why do we complicate things so? Do you ever ask yourself that question? What part of our human brain takes the simple things in life and turns them into a jumbled mess? It is certainly a human trait. Other animals don’t engage in such trouble making. A dog learns fast what it must do to get a treat, and it does it. I guessing it doesn’t ask itself how doing the trick might affect its life. Its not pondering: What does this trick mean to its identity, or how does this bring meaning to its life. No, it knows that if it does the trick it will get a treat, so it does the trick.
And what of other animals? There is no deep discernment over who is the enemy and why, over what is the history between their ancestors. There is one consideration. Can it kill me? And if the answer is yes, then getting away safely is the only objective. And for the predator, the question is, will that one help to sustain life by providing nourishment.
But then there is us, the humans, the ones with the bigger, more developed brains. And what do we do with them? We complicate things.
Take those freed Israelites who are being addressed in the first reading. For half a millennium they were enslaved in a foreign land. Now they are returning and God is trying to help them set up their new nation state. “Keep it simple, folks.” God tells them. Love God with your whole self. And loving the Creator means loving the created – all of it, flora and fauna, land and water, neighbor and stranger. However, once in their new land, what happens? You guessed it. Things got complicated. Of course. The people looked around and saw that other nations had kings, so they wanted a king. God said, “You got me.” They said, Well… So, they get a king. First one is mad, the second one is great, but he is an adulterer and a murderer. And so begins a long history of: some kings who are okay and some who are downright tyrants. It just got more and more complicated.
Not only did those folks envy their neighbors rulers, but some even started to envy their neighbors’ gods. Again, God said, You got me. And the people said, Well… And they start experimenting with new religions, new rituals, some even go so far as to practice human sacrifice. (The ultimate in keeping up with the Jones.) And then there were social justice issues. God said: Love. The people said: Can’t I love myself and my stuff just a bit more than my neighbor? And then those who had the most – stuff and power – complicated it further by making complex systems and rules so that their neighbor’s stuff would be added to their stuff. Justifying their actions with complicated theories attempting to build a case that all this was for the betterment of the country. We’ve heard it, trickle down economics. All these complications are nothing new. And for those folks in ancient Israel and Judah, it didn’t end well. Prophets saw it as God’s punishment for not sticking to the original plan. Sociologists could see it as the natural breakdown of a society that complicates itself right into oblivion.
That original, simple, God-ordained plan is certainly what Jesus has in mind when he answers the scribe’s sincere question. This conversation with he scribe follows a very complicated encounter with the Sadducees. Maybe you remember their convoluted, trick question for Jesus. It almost sounds like a bad joke. It’s the one about the seven brothers, each one takes a turn marrying the same woman and each one dies leaving no heir. (Yeah, let’s not get into that today.) But, suffice to say, the scribe sees the complication of the dispute and displays wisdom in the simplicity of his question. What is most important? And Jesus responds in kind: Love – God and neighbor, Creator and creation. Or course, in a different conversation, someone responds with complications by asking – yes but who is my neighbor? And from that we get the simple answer of “everyone” in the story of the Good Samaritan.
The writer of Hebrews is pointing our attention to the ancient and complicated sacrificial practice of the Jews. God not only simplifies it with the gift of the ultimate and most perfect sacrifice – Jesus the Christ – but in Christ there is such completeness, the once for all, the simple truth that all has been done for our salvation. We need not complicate it with questions of: But how does this happen? Or why does this happen? Or what to I have to do to make sure that this happens? It is simple: God is love, Jesus saves, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies all so that we might live and love in return.
Today, as we observe Reformation Day, one of the things we can reflect on is just how complicated Christians have made the simple message of Jesus. For Luther, there had been 1500 years of people complicating things. Jesus’ teachings and lived example showing us the way of forgiveness, mercy, peace, love, grace, sacrifice, community – in a word life, real life, not the complicated jumble of our creation, but the fullness of the creation formed by a God who is love.
It boggles the mind how we got from Jesus’ display of forgiveness to an institutionalized practice that included selling forgiveness for wealth and for works.
From Jesus’ message of God’s mercy to an institutionalized message that had people inflicting bodily injury on themselves and others because they were judged sinful and unworthy.
From Jesus’ promise of God’s peace to an institutionalized system that had people shaking in their boots afraid to live, and afraid to die.
From Jesus’ tender offering of God’s love to an institutionalized power that continuously sought new ways to repress and restrain.
From Jesus’ free offering of God’s grace to an institutionalized marketplace where salvation had a very manditory price tag.
Jesus’ sacrifice was coopted and the community he sought to create was highjacked.
We just couldn’t leave it simple. We had to complicate things. We had to question and doubt just how God could forgive freely. We had to find a role for ourselves thinking that we could create the peace that Jesus had already won for us. We had to hold on to at least some of the power that Christ was inviting us to surrender. After all, there must be something we are suppose to do here. Because it can’t be that simple. Something so big and important must be complicated.
Perhaps these are not only issues that that church of 500 years ago was complicating. Perhaps they are issues that we ourselves, individually and intuitionally are still dealing with, even after 500 years of reformation. After all, we are still human. We are still the species known for how we complicate things. And so we have complicated things and created great complex hierarchies around race and gender, love and sex, abled and privilege.
Simply put – the God who is love beyond understanding, loves us and calls us to love in return, and to love one another. And maybe there is where the complicating begins. God is love beyond understanding. And we don’t like it when we can’t understand things. And so, we complicate it, we try to box it in, we domesticate it, bound it with laws – our laws, limit it with regulations – our regulations. And when we add all this in, the simplicity of our loving God can be hard to find.
Jesus tells the man you are not far from the kingdom of God. For the scribe knows it and can articulate it. The question for him and for us is can we live it? Not so that God will love us like the dog gets a treat as a reward. Even that gets complicated. No, very simply put – we live it because God loves us… first… completely… unconditionally…forever.
The Rev. Mark Erson,